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.
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.
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.
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.
Maturity brings change, right? Not always. Have you ever wondered why some people seem to grow up, get better, do better with age, while others get stuck–doomed to repeat the same patterns of self sabotage and unhealthy choices? As we move through puberty, connections to our frontal brain develop, making us more rational and less egocentric. Yet beyond this, there are still those individuals who seem to get stuck, lacking self reflection and relational growth. I find it especially noticeable during reunions of past friends or family where you realize an individual hasn’t changed much at all and it’s hard to connect and maintain a relationship with them.
Outside of educational opportunities, mental illness, and brain developmental issues, I believe part of the difference comes from how much one learns the skill of self awareness, and that this is a technique can be enhanced through practices such as yoga and mindfulness training. The more we develop our skill to shift out of the default “overactive, thinking” state, (reflexive thoughts encased around personal narration and evaluation of past events and an imagined future), and drop into a present-moment awareness state (becoming the observer of what is happening within the body and outside in the environment in a non-judgemental way), the more we can take a step back and see ourselves for how we really are.
In yoga, we have the opportunity to practice being in this aware state more often than in day to day living. We are drawn into the present moment through our bodies (known as embodied mindfulness), and in this way we can witness the coming and going of our reflexive thoughts and behaviours. It is through the sensation of the postures and breath that we are focused into the state of “now.” In my experience, using the breath and the body together as a way to draw our attention into our aware state, is very effective for beginners because there is more to keep the mind occupied than, for example, traditional sitting meditation which often uses only the breath. Therefore yoga can be a very effective gateway to self awareness.
There is more to it. The nature of some yoga poses, releases blocked or repressed experiences. Our human minds are hardwired for self preservation and protection. Some things are easier to live with when pushed or packed away. The problem is our unconscious selves still know the truth of it all, and it’s been my experience that our physical bodies house this information in cellular memory. So when, we move, stretch, pressure, breathe & release parts of our body (in a non-threatening and safe manner) it can reveal memory and emotion from previous experiences. Once this is brought to the surface, and received from a non-judgemental, aware state, it’s hard to ignore its presence. The more often this happens, the more we get connected to the blind spots and repressed “stuff” we house, and deeper self-knowledge is gained.
So if you combine these two ingredients of embodied mindfulness and transparency into our body’s memory and wisdom, our lives begin to shift and change as a consequence of practicing yoga. It’s like opening the floodgates; its difficult to close once opened. My practice has lead me to a place where I can no longer be in a situation where I know better, and turn a blind eye. My body literally rebels and I am quickly in tune with the knot in my gut telling me I need to do better. This can manifest in all sorts of scenarios such as choosing boundaries for relationships that are toxic to my wellbeing, or saying sorry after I realize my actions (or lack of action to another) is unkind or dismissive. Once self awareness and connection to whole body intelligence has taken root, it is much harder taking a walk down the easy road.
I believe we are all on a journey of self understanding and mastery in our lives. Some will move mountains, others will repeat destructive patterns. We can’t deny the reality that it never works to change another person; it is their life to live, and the only thing we can do is work on ourselves and hopefully become the best version of our self. When we connect to practices such as yoga and mindfulness, it gives us a route to get there.
In Yoga we use many different tools to steady the mind and body. Often in my classes I teach pranayama (breathing exercises) for this purpose and I recently revisited a simple but effective one know as Bhramari Breathing. If you are like me and sometimes have a really hard time settling the mind into a meditation practice, consider this pranayama technique.
The basic Bhramari breath is easy and simple, making it great for the beginner student. You breathe in and out through the nose, and on the exhales you make a low pitched hum sound (from the throat), extending your breath out as long as feels comfortable. Often equated to the sound of a buzzing of a bee, it is sometimes known as bee breath.
What makes this breathing technique so special is how the hum noise effortlessly secures your attention. In addition to the sound, the sensation of the sound vibrations in the body also latch your focus, making it less likely for the mind to dart about in thought. This makes it a very easy meditation technique for people with anxious/busy minds.
In addition the extended exhales activate the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for resting, digesting, and relaxing – essentially it has a calming effect on the nervous system. For more detail on this process have a look at a previous blog I wrote which gets into the physiology of breathing and the nervous system in Learning to Take a Deep Breath.
Here’s some step by step instructions on how to do Bhramari Breath:
Sit in a comfortable position and preferably with eyes closed
Inhale and exhale through the nose, and for the entire length of your exhalation, make a low to medium-pitched humming sound in the throat
Attempt to prolong the buzzing sound on the exhalation as long as you comfortably can
Keep the face, jaw, neck and shoulders relaxed as you practice
Do 6 – 10 rounds of this breathing and pay attention to the sound and the feeling of the vibrations in your body
Once completed, return to normal breathing and notice how you feel
For more information on this technique, have a look at a really good article by Timothy McCall, 5 Ways to Practice Bhramari, which explains variations off the basic Bhramari breath.
I recently read an article asking the question, “How has yoga changed your life? I thought this to be a very good question, here’s some thoughts about what I would say…
Let me start by saying, when I first started doing yoga, I could not have ever imagined how much yoga would change my life. Over the years of practice, yoga became a platform of learning about myself through my body, and from that, all sorts of change took place. Most notably, things in my life that were no longer “serving me” began to fall away. People, things, and habits that weren’t healthy for me have fallen away with a quite a bit of ease. The more I practice the more clear the “next right step” is to me.
The process was gradual and somewhat complex…During yoga, the movements of the body and breath bring us into contact with habitual and unconscious patterns of movement, thought, and feeling. We start to learn about the ways in which the body is conditioned―we can extend our hamstring only so far, the breath is shallow and rapid, the spine is inflexible in certain motions, and so on. Soon after recognizing our physical limits, we also notice how these limits give rise to preferences―we like postures that give us pleasure, we resist postures that cause us difficulty. However, this difficulty is not just a physical limitation but what the mind does with that limitation. For example, when an uncomfortable sensation builds in the body, the mind might become impatient or irritated, thereby affecting the way we are in the posture. We can start to see the patterns arise, the way we interpret and react to the physical experiences, in this way yoga postures become invitations into the psychological and physiological webs that form the matrix of the mindbody.
Many of these conditioned responses that imprint themselves into the mindbody are related to our past experiences and memories, often dating far back into early childhood. Yet more and more, research is showing that our memories can be highly inaccurate. The human mind has an uncanny ability to subjectively filter and interpret what it is that we remember, and our stories about ourselves can become exaggerated or distorted to protect or to fulfil ourselves in some way. Regardless, this is what we weave into our belief systems and characters, despite sometimes leaving us in unproductive or unhealthy patterns of thinking and action. And when such patterns are revealed to us in the physical movements of body and breath, a yoga pose becomes a tool of awareness, a moment to see ourselves outside of conditioned response, and an opportunity for liberation.
Ultimately this process of shedding light into the hidden corners of our embodied psychology, teaches about the way we have built up armor of protection from the stories we have told ourselves to avoid discomfort or to appease others’ opinions. Once known, these patterns begin to shift and change, and sometimes fall away completely. What remains is an undivided and authentic self. Once this door of personal truth gets opened, who you want to be and what’s important to you gets louder and more conditioned. New grooves in mindbody get created and there is really no turning back.
Much of this relates to the concept in yoga known as samskaras (latent impressions of our past actions, forming habit in mind & body). If you want to dive deeper into the concept of samskaras have a look at this article: What are Samskaras and How Do they Affect Us. Breaking free from the negative samskaras cannot happen without self awareness and self-study, and yoga’s holistic processes ripen the opportunity for this to happen.
Downward Facing Dog, or Adho Mukha Svanasana is one of the most commonly practiced and most iconic yoga postures around. We do this pose so often because it has so many health benefits. Below I’ve listed 6 good reasons to keep working on your Downward Dog. Also, I’ve included a free Downward Facing Dog Handout describing alignment details, benefits, and modifications.
1. Downward dog opens the backs of the legs
Most of the activities we do during the day (especially sitting) brings tension to the backs of the legs. This is why so many of us walk around with chronically overly tight hamstrings and calf muscles. Downward Facing Dog is an awesome posture for opening the backs of the legs because the stretch crosses three joint lines, thereby promoting lengthening of the posterior facia connections, and making it a really effective stretch.
2. It elongates the spine
The traction you get from planting your feet and then pushing your hands strongly into your mat is one of the best spinal elongation tools the yoga asana practice has to offer. Opening the spaces between the vertebrate helps to relieve compression on the spine and promotes circulation to the discs.
3. It opens the chest and shoulders
Most of us who sit in a chair all day have chest and shoulder muscles that are overly tight. This comes from the ‘hunched’ position most of us hang out in all day. Downward Facing Dog will help you to re-establish some opening in your chest and stretching of the side body and under arm muscles to increase your shoulder flexion. All of which helps improve your posture.
4. It strengthens the arms and shoulders
This pose is awesome for increasing your arm and shoulder strength. In downward dog we aim to balance the weight between the hands and the feet, and in order to do that, we need to press the hands into the mat and actively engage through the arms. This action shifts the upper body back and encourages a more direct overhead press. This action of pressing overhead strengthens many arm and shoulder muscles, which are often underdeveloped muscles in the body.
5. It wakes you up and boosts circulation
Downward Dog is one of the best poses you can do when you’re fatigued. It engages many muscle groups simultaneously and gets the oxygen and blood flowing to all parts of the body. Downward Facing Dog also offers all the benefits of an inversion without having to fully go upside-down. Inversions are great for returning blood flow to the upper body helping to regulate blood pressure, and in particular bring blood flow to the brain which help brings about clarity and focus.
6. It’s a good check in with your body
Lastly, once you get familiar with your body in Downward Dog, you appreciate how the sensations and effort it requires changes from day to day and moment to moment. Therefore, Downward Dog is a good way to “take inventory” about how you’re feeling. It stretches your arms, shoulders, legs and back all at once, and you can take notice of what you need to work on each day.
Have you ever done a yoga class and somewhere along the way you realize (maybe at the end during savasana) that you feel more calm, connected with your body, and relaxed compared to when you first arrived. You might also notice the busy mind chatter has dulled and there is some distance between you and your reflexive thoughts. If yes, then you’ll understand what I mean when I say yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind, and by this very nature, you’ve experienced entering into a deeper level of awareness through the experience of yoga. One could even say you’ve dropped into a “meditative state”.
There are a couple aspects of yoga that assist in the process of experiencing this calm, more peaceful state. When you move your body and get the muscles warmed, stretched, and the circulation flowing, this eases tension and pain, resulting in less distracting sensations to attend to. It’s also the mindfulness aspect – paying attention to sensation in body and breath, from moment to moment. This keeps the mind anchored to the present moment, which stills the mind chatter.
When we drop into this more meditative-like state in the mind, we are not actually stopping thoughts from occurring. Rather we enter a different state of awareness where the thoughts feel more distant – we are less attached to them and their meaning. A nice parallel is to imagine the reflexive thoughts of the mind to be like waves on the surface of the ocean. When we are swimming on the surface, the waves push us around, lifting us to their peaks and dropping us into their valleys. When we are connected and calm, we can drop into that deeper water space where everything is still and peaceful… And in this place, we are able to see the thoughts for what they are – surface waves.
I have always found the transcendence into this calmer level of awareness easier to access by doing a little yoga first. In fact one could say the very purpose of physical yoga is to ready oneself for meditation. So the next time you are on your mat, soak up the stillness you’ve created within – lay still and linger in this experience. This short few minutes will leave you feeling focused, connected, and calm.
Jump back a couple years ago and this was me doing Ustrasana, camel pose. Due to a long standing neck injury, and subsequent weakness, the neck extension in camel pose was most frightening for me. I was convinced my neck would never be able to extend that way, and if I did try, I would suffer for days with neck pain. So for a very long time I did my modified camel pose with head lifted and neck protected (and that was okay).
But one day I decided to test my neck and extend it backwards a little. Surprisingly it didn’t hurt, and interestingly, it felt freeing and exciting. Within one week of practice I was embracing camel pose in its full form, and I couldn’t get enough. I wondered, “Why did I wait so long?”
This is often the question we ask ourselves once we’ve taken the leap and felt the success… but as they say hindsight is 20/20. The truth is that there is often that unrelenting voice of fear in the background, “What if I fail?”, “What if I’m not good enough?”, or in yoga, “What if I hurt myself?”
The fear of failure is something many of us struggle with. And, sometimes these fears are grounded in good concern, such as when our actions could jeopardize the security, health, and safety of ourselves and others (so, we reason, treading the waters cautiously is a wise choice). However, just as often, our fears are more irrational – based on old, untrue, or unknown beliefs, and it is simply the fear of the unknown that holds us back.
Being on the other side of my camel-pose fear, I’ve become more aware of how time changes things and that what was once true doesn’t mean that it will always be true. I’ve opened my mind (and body) to experimenting with old limitations and beliefs of what I can do physically. I recently created a list of edgy poses I want to work on, and I’m finding the process of challenging my fears getting easier.
I find myself using these successes on the mat as safe ways to stretch my risk-taking muscles and challenge my beliefs about myself, my abilities, and what I can accomplish in life off the mat – each success or failure, a step in building my personal confidence that I am able, that I will be okay, and that I am resilient. I am learning more and more about my conditioned fears based on past experiences and how untrue they can sometimes be for future experiences. I am learning sometimes that I have to push my comfort zone in order to move forward in my personal goals and achievements.
I know this idea of taking risks and pushing past our fears is not a new concept for most of us, but I do marvel in how often we can be aware of this concept, and yet be relatively unaware of that which we are avoiding in our own lives. So if this resonates with you, take a moment and pause to consider, what in your own yoga practice or life scares you a little? What are you avoiding and what stories are you telling yourself about this fear? Is it time to challenge these beliefs… is it time to take the leap?
In my own yoga and meditation practice, mindfulness of my thoughts (becoming aware of my thoughts, as they occur), has been one of the most insightful and beneficial pieces to my personal growth. It has revealed to me habits and patterns in my thinking, such as my tendency for my mind to jump to comparing thoughts, doubting thoughts, and judgemental thoughts, and in times of stress, I noticed obsessive, worrying thoughts of the future. Although I’m not proud to admit that so many negative and worrisome thoughts frequent my mind, I also know I am not the only one with these tendencies, and many of us get conditioned in this way of thinking.
Mindfulness helped me identify the patterns in my thinking, but it wasn’t enough to change the way I was thinking. I like to compare this to being witness to discrimination against another person, and choosing to ignore it. The neutral indifference does nothing for your processing of the situation. So it was with me; there was a missing piece to my processing. I needed to acknowledge the unhealthy patterns in my thinking, but without making it another loop in negative self-judgement. That’s when I learned about self compassion’s relationship to mindfulness practice.
So what is self compassion? In its definition, it is simply the practice of speaking to yourself and treating yourself with kindness, caring, and acceptance. Or, better yet, treating yourself in a way that you would treat a dear friend. This nurturing way of being is often missing from the context of awareness, but in order to gain the benefits from our mindfulness practices, self compassion needs to be included. It is helpful to separate their definitions a little further to better understand this relationship:
Mindfulness asks us, “What are we experiencing in this moment?” Self-compassion asks us, “What do we need now in this moment?”
Mindfulness is about accepting moment to moment experiences… this thought, this feeling, and so forth. Self-compassion is about accepting “the experiencer”.
Mindfulness says “feel your suffering with spacious awareness,” (i.e. can you make room for it, can you be with it?). Self-compassion says be kind to yourself when you suffer.
Thich Nhat Hanh gives an eloquent description of how compassion works alongside mindfulness in his advice for working with negative emotions:
“The function of mindfulness is first, to recognize the suffering and then to take care of the suffering. A mother taking care of a crying baby naturally will take the baby into her arms without supressing, judging it, or ignoring the crying. Mindfulness is like that mother, recognizing and embracing suffering without judgement. So the practice is not to fight or supress the feelings or thoughts, but rather to cradle it with a lot of tenderness. Even if that mother doesn’t understand at first why the child is suffering and she needs some time to find out what the difficulty is, just her act of taking the child into her arms with tenderness can already bring relief. If we can recognize and cradle the suffering while we breathe mindfully, there is relief already.”
By breaking down this relationship between mindfulness and self-compassion, it became apparent to me that when we learn to hold our thoughts, emotions, and our feelings with caring acceptance, we acknowledge the bigger picture. We are saying to ourselves, this thought isn’t healthy but I acknowledge it this way and it is okay to have imperfections. Or, this feeling is uncomfortable, but it is real and it has something to tell me, and I will give myself time. It’s also about being more gentle with ourselves when habits repeat themselves, instead of beating ourselves up about it. For within the space of accepting ourselves with loving kindness, we set the stage for growth to happen, and this can make all the difference.
Locust pose is one of my favourites. You’ll see it a fair amount in my classes because it is a fantastic back strengthener and front-body opener. Often, in our fitness or yoga practices, we focus on strengthening our abdominal muscles, while forgetting to include strengthening of the back muscles. Locust pose is the counter-pose to this tendency, it provides balance in our core strengthening.
It is also great for improving posture because the posture extends the back and opens the chest. For many of us, we suffer from the rounded upper back posture. Salabhasana pose strengthens the muscles that extend and lift the thoracic spine, as well as stretching the front chest and shoulder muscles that comes from prolonged hunching.
Lastly, this posture gives you energy; it will wake you up and bring out some yang on those lethargic days. Give it a try – it is difficult to do this pose and not feel a shift in how you feel. Take time to note the before and after effects of Salabhanasa.
Mary, a previous student of mine, initially started coming out to classes on the recommendation from her doctor to help her with her chronic tension and back pain. She said nothing she tried over the last year was working to help, so she thought she’d give yoga a try.
It didn’t take long to realize where things might be going wrong for Mary. In her first class she armoured and wrestled her way into every pose, holding her breath, clenching her jaw, and tensing her shoulders. Despite my cues and encouragements to practice from a place of slowness, steadiness, and ease (in breath, body, and mind), Mary continued to move through the class as though she were about to take on the offensive line of football team.
I’d love to say Mary stayed with her yoga practice, and she learned to move easier and listen from a place of inner awareness; however, Mary quit before any chance of change could take hold.
Let’s be honest, a lifetime of repeated behaviour or being a certain way with how you do things can become a well-conditioned groove (known as Samskaras in yoga), and this is very difficult thing to change. From watching Mary struggle, though, it became very clear to me that it is not enough to simply attend yoga class, it is more important to focus on the “how” you are doing it.
In order to reap the benefits in yoga it is essential to bring awareness to how you do it. The goal is to connect inwardly – listening to our bodies for optimal and safe edges in postures, and learning to be in a place where we can breathe fully, expanding and opening channels of energy to all corners of the body. When we tense and constrict too tightly around a posture, we run the risk of tensing our bodies (and our minds) further or even injuring ourselves. Not to mention we are repeating learned patterns, of possibly unhealthy ways of breathing and moving, rather than creating new habits that help us for better, healthier relationships with ourselves.
It is the slow, mindful movement in and our of the postures that helps us become aware of how we are holding and tensing our body and breath. Practicing this way gives us the opportunity to respond and adjust, and creates more openness to receiving the healing benefits the poses have to offer. Conversely, If we plow through, moving from a mental construct of how a pose should look or be, we rob ourselves of the physical, mental, and even emotional rewards. So yoga becomes very much a process of learning to inhabit our bodies, and getting out of our heads. The very nature of this shift in awareness is the impetus for change.
Of course like any new skill, learning to “be in our bodies” during yoga takes practice and time to become familiar. The more you practice with this intention of being present to yourself, allowing for space, acceptance and ease in your postures, the more you will begin to feel the true magic of yoga – a gradual shift towards a healthier, more peaceful, and maybe even a pain-free you.
As with many of the standing yoga postures, there is much to study in a single pose. I love and respect Triangle Pose as it demands strength, flexibility, stability, and ease all in a single moment, and it teaches you so much about proprioception (the sense of position of the body in space). The above diagram highlights alignment tips that will help keep your back and knees safe in this posture. There are variations and additions to play with this posture which enhance certain aspects of stretch or strength, but I love this basic form to build your foundation.
Here are some of the physical benefits of Triangle Pose:
It stretches the side waist and lateral hip muscles (gluteus medius, tensor fascia latae).
It strengthens the core
It stretches the hamstring and inner thigh muscles of the front leg
It teaches the skill of stabilizing a joint near the end range of motion
Try these yoga poses to counteract and relieve your over-worked muscles from gardening. Keep in mind, it is not necessary to do this sequence in the order written, and each posture can be done independently from one another.
Modified Eagle Pose (right) focuses on stretching the muscles of the posterior shoulder and neck. Gently draw the bent across the chest with opposite hand and add a chin tuck and forward head lean. Hold this stretch for the length of 3 slow breaths in and out. Repeat a couple times each side.
Wrist and Forearm Stretches (below)
These stretches are a very simple way to relieve any tightness formed in the forearms/wrists after using gardening tools/shovels. Use your opposite hand to flex and extend the wrist as shown, ensuring to keep your elbow straight. Hold the position for 3 slow breaths, and repeat one to two more times each side.
Sphinx Pose (below) is a gentle back extension stretch. It is complimentary after a day of forward bending in the garden. Prop yourself on your elbows as shown, leaving your belly and pelvis on the floor. Focus on dropping lowest ribs towards floor while lengthening upwards through the crown of your head. Work on lengthening out the back of the neck and drawing the shoulders and shoulder blades back and down. Stay in this posture for approximately one minute.
Locust Pose (below) is a back strengthening posture. It is a great pose to counteract the over-stretching and weakening of the back muscles that can happen from gardening. In this variation of the pose the hands are clasped behind the back to add an additional chest/shoulder opener; however, the arms can be extended straight along the side of the body if hands’ clasped position feels too intense. In the lift, the head and chest come off the floor as well as both legs (aiming for space under the knee caps). It is important to reach the legs backwards and the upper body forwards (through the crown of the head), finding length alongside the extension. Make an effort to pull the shoulders and shoulder blades back and down. Whether you arms are straight at your sides or clasped behind the back, Squeeze the shoulder blades together. Hold this pose for 3 – 4 breaths at the top, and repeat one to two more times.
Knee to Chest Over Bolster (below) allows for a gentle stretch of the hip flexor region and gluteals (areas often left tensed after a day of gardening). Using a rolled blanket or round bolster placed under the hips hug one knee to the chest and extend the other leg straight out and towards the floor. Hold this stretch for approximately one minute per side.
Bridge Pose is another back strengthener which also provides the benefit of opening the front of the hips and chest. Again this posture demonstrates the hand-clasped position as an option; however, this part of the pose can be left out by simply keeping the arms resting on the floor at your sides. When entering this posture, ensure that your feet are hip distance apart and you keep your knees directly over the ankles. Lift to the hight that feels safe in your body. If you are adding the hand-clasped position, tuck one shoulder under the body at at time, drawing the shoulder blades together and clasp the hands. Press the pinky side of the hands down into the ground to give yourself the added lift to open across the chest. Hold in this posture for 3 to 4 breaths. Repeat one to two more times.
Recline Bound Angle Pose Over Bolster (below) is a passive back extension stretch, chest opener, and groin/hip opener. It also relieves the rounded back posture that we often do when bending over to garden. Using a round bolster or rolled blanket under the back and neck, and a smaller folded blanket under the hips, lay down such that the lower edge of the bolster curves into the low back. Arms rest out to the sides palms up and for the hip/groin stretch (optional) the knees fall out to the sides with the soles of the feet together. Stay in this posture anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes. Keep in mind you can bring the knees in together, and rest the feet on the floor at any point if there is sensitivity in the hip joints.
Rest or Savasana With Legs Up (below) is a posture to take the pressure off the low back; it is nice to finish with this posture. Before entering this pose, especially if you have done some of the above back extensions, stretch your back by hugging both knees to your chest for a few moments. After this brief stretch, lie on the floor with your legs propped over a small stool or chair. If this feels too high, or uncomfortable for you, just use the rolled blanket or bolster under your knees instead. Rest in this position, focussing on long, smooth breaths in and out of the lower abdomen for 5 to 10 minutes.
For those of you who found this post helpful, I am offering a more detailed workshop on Yoga and Gardening in May. For more details about this event click here.
It’s interesting to me as a yoga teacher to hear the reason why people decide to come out for a yoga class. Lately I’ve had numerous students tell me they realized they needed to start yoga (or get back to yoga) because they can feel they are tightening up and getting sore from their daily life activities. This is good awareness. Often our work or choice of sport or hobby creates repetition of the same movements or postures, and unless we intentionally force our bodies to move in the opposite directions, imbalances can form in the soft tissues and joints and make us feel stiff and sore.
Having worked in the physical rehabilitation industry for years, I learned also how serious this can be. The source of our injuries often becomes the old adage, “The straw that broke the camel’s back.” It’s rarely a single incident/accident that causes an injury, but rather an accumulation, over years, of doing too much of the same thing that weakens the structures to where some very small movement takes us to the breaking point. (Perhaps, we could extend this notion to including our mental health as well).
This is where the practice of yoga can fill a void. In my opinion, yoga has become the preventative medicine of the soft tissue injury world. Personally, I know no better way to restore mobility and introduce new planes of movement in an individual than yoga. I’ve written about this before in a previous blog, Gaining Connectivity Through Yoga and Fascia, which explains how yoga’s postures are so effective because they incorporate the whole body through multi-joint mobilizations, promoting stretch along the myofascial lines. In any given yoga class, you will be given opportunity to stretch along muscle lines opposite to those found in your activities. Yoga is unique in this aspect – the entire body moves and all planes of movement are accessed.
One could ask, why not just some basic stretching on my own? Absolutely do this, it is always helpful! Attending yoga regularly, however, can help you prevent the extreme imbalances from forming, before they become an issue. There is also the more subtle practices of mindfulness and pranayama (breathing techniques) that we learn from yoga which assist us in stress reduction and internal awareness building.This combined with our point above, of its superb ability to access all planes of movement along the myofascial lines, is why a regular yoga class could prove especially effective in balancing out your physical health.
Maybe this is why we are seeing more doctors and other health professionals prescribe yoga as part of a fitness regime and healthy lifestyle. Whether the individual is stiff and sore from the type of work and activities they are doing or other symptoms from being over-stressed, yoga is benefitting all types of individuals as they seek relief in their tight muscles and tensed bodies (and sometimes tensed minds). It’s wonderful to witness those of you finding your path to yoga before the an injury occurs – creating balance in your lives as you commit to your practice week in week out.
What does it mean to get grounded? To me, getting grounded means pulling ourselves out of our “heads” (out of our stories), and into the present moment. To do this we can use our physical body and our senses to anchor into present-time awareness. When we are present to what is happening now, in our bodies and around us, we are no longer obsessing about future or past worries, and in this way we are grounding ourselves.
Whenever you are feeling mentally overstimulated or anxious, try these three short steps to feel more grounded:
Pause and notice your environment. Simply take a look around and look at the details, e.g. see the colour of the walls or weather in the sky, what objects are around you, look at their shape and texture… Look around, what do you see?
Feel you feet on the floor. Whether you are sitting or standing, shoes or no shoes, feel the connection of your feet to the surface below. Really feel that connection. If you are sitting you can also travel your awareness to noticing all the areas of your hips and legs making contact with your sitting surface.
Then bring your focus inwards and feel your breath coming in and out of your body. Notice how your breath feels right now. Where in your body do your feel your breath moving…? Continue to concentrate on the sensations of your breath moving in and out of your body and see if, at the same time, you can return to noticing your feet connecting with the ground and your back body to your seat (if you are sitting). Divide your awareness on both these things for one minute.
Do you believe that our physical bodies hold memory of our past experiences?
I recently worked with a lady who had a painful injury to the left side of her rib cage and every time she leaned towards this area she felt pain. To avoid the pain she would chronically lean away from the pain, and over the course of a year her muscles reset to a new “normal” of her trunk leaning to the right. This makes sense that our bodies shape around physical injuries and most frequent activities.
But what about this notion of storing “issues in our tissues”… can unexpressed emotion, fears, expectations, and our beliefs about ourselves actually be stored in our bodily matrix, shaping our physical form? Take for example, the chronic hiking of your shoulders from years of taking on too much responsibility or the forward rounding of your upper back to shield your front body, the place of your vulnerability and insecurities.
To me it feels very logical that thought, emotion, and memory can affect how we hold ourselves, and over time, how this holding pattern could be memorized through repeated transfer of information from cell to cell. There is a great quote from Ken Dychtwald that considers posture in relationship to the emotional body, “The body begins to form around the feelings that animate it, and the feelings, in turn, become habituated and trapped within the body tissue, itself.”
What I find so interesting about this is how we can go months, years, and sometimes lifetimes being unaware of the storage of memory in the tissues of the body until one day, your attention is called inwards and you experience your body outside the conditioned grooves that day-to-day living assumes. So often is the case for many of us when we first start practicing yoga. As Elisa Cobb writes in her book, The Forgotten Body, “the silence and the moment-to-moment awareness cues in yoga are invitations to finally notice sensations, thoughts, and images that arise, and the physical postures, asanas, knead the body’s cells, moving energetic information and triggering cellular memories. Yoga provides the atmosphere that interrupts our patterned living and provides us with the opportunity to meet ourselves with fresh perspective at the level of bodily experience.”
I find it fascinating that yoga can teach us that a tightly held muscle or rotation in our hip stores valuable information about our past and present selves. A simple stretch or pose becomes an invitation into the psychological and physiological web that form the matrix of the mind-body… a place from which we can let our bodies speak the stories of our past and reveal the ways in which our patterns of conditioning affect us. And with this new awareness of the “issues in our tissues”, it plants a seed for a different relationship with ourselves, the possibility of change, and in some cases a whole new way of standing in the present moment.
Crescent lunge is my go to pose these days. It’s a very similar pose to Warrior I except you don’t rotate the back foot out 45 degrees, instead your back foot remains pointing forward, grounding through the ball of your foot.
You can get so many benefits from doing this pose. Most significantly, the stretch you get through the iliopsoas (hip flexor) muscle of the back leg is greater than the one you get in Warrior I, and when done in a certain way (see infographic below for alignment points), crescent lunge allows for stretch along the whole frontal myofascial line. You also gain stability and strength around the knees, ankles and core, and energetically, this posture lends to generating a sense of power within. This is a great pose to counteract the postural stresses of prolonged sitting.
I love this pose, but it is challenging. For a modification you can do this pose facing a wall: with your front leg position your toes to touch the baseboard and bend your knee to press into the wall ( you can use padding or a block for cushion on the knee). The back leg steps back, in a straight line, pressing through the ball of the foot. Ensure your hips are square to the wall and then concentrate on the alignment points indicated in the picture above.
Ask anyone what they want in life, and surely one of the things they will say is, “to be happy”. But what makes us happy in our lives? That’s the question the producers of the documentary, “Happy” (on Netflix) looked at, and here’s a summary of what they found:
50% of our differences in happiness level is genetic (a baseline if you will), and only 10% of our happiness is related to our circumstances (what job we have, how much money we have, social status, health). This leaves 40% of our differences in happiness unaccounted for, and the theory proposed by the researches in this documentary is this 40% is composed of the actions you choose to do. So here are 6 intentional ways you can create more happiness in your life:
The neurotransmitter dopamine is necessary for feelings of pleasure and happiness in our bodies; therefore seeking out experiences that release more dopamine will increase your happiness. Activities that are best at releasing dopamine are physical exercise, having new experiences, and being involved in community activities involving cooperation with others.
Flow is defined as the experience you get when you are immersed in an activity such as when playing a sport or an instrument. When in flow, all other thoughts about your life are suspended, you feel that nothing else matters, you feel you are in control, you and you forget your problems. The more flow in your life, the more happiness.
Without exception the happiest people in the world all have close family and friends – we are social creatures and community and support are integral to our sense of happiness. Regular social activities increase your happiness.
There are extrinsically motivated individuals (individuals motivated by image, status, wealth), and there are intrinsically motivated individuals (individuals motivated by personal growth, connections with others, sense of community and helpfulness in the world). I’m sure it’s not a surprise to learn intrinsically motivated people are found to be happier than extrinsically motivated people. Interestingly, studies done on random acts of kindness show it to be one of the most significant activities in raising happiness.
Having something bigger to care about other than ourselves generates more happiness. Consider your spiritual connection – for some it is religion, and for others it is more a sense of compassion and caring gratitude that connects them to the universe and other people.
There is lots of new research indicating the benefits of meditation on improving our happiness, in fact some studies show meditation generates more happiness than medication. Specifically highlighted are loving kindness meditations or ones invoking as sense of gratitude for your life where the most helpful in increasing happiness.
What I realized strongly when I watched this documentary are the parallels between what we do in yoga and the activities that help us generate more happiness – flow, meditation, coming together in community, development of the spiritual emotions (gratitude, compassion, caring, love), and exercise. It’s no wonder you feel so good after a yoga class!
I just love the concept of connectivity in the body. If anatomy is defined as breaking things apart, then reversing anatomy the process of putting the pieces back together, and fascia is the connective tissue responsible for this return to whole.
Fascia is a popular topic these days in the therapeutic sciences and yoga – there are numerous blogs and articles describing what it is. Many are based on the work of anatomist Tom Myers, in his books on Anatomy Trains, with his underlying premise that fascia, as a connective tissue, links individual muscles into functional complexes, sometimes referred as myofascial lines or anatomy trains.
Here is an infographic showing groups of muscles being connected through fascia and other connective tissue to form some of the more commonly discussed functional lines:
For this article, it is not my intent to delve into the anatomy of fascia, rather to appreciate its role as a connector in the body, and to consider how yoga is perfectly designed to access its connectivity capabilities.
Consider this scenario: a person gets an injury where they experience swelling and acute pain immediately after. Their natural response is to immobilize the area of injury, and while swelling and pain remain high, the individual’s posture and gait will be altered, e.g leaning away from pain, avoidance of pressure, or limping. Most of the time, the person will gradually restore motion as pain lessens and all is good, but when these splinting or pain avoidance postures get prolonged, the area of injury and the surrounding musculature are negatively impacted as the muscles and connective tissue tighten, loose fluid, and weaken – this has the potential to affect the whole functional system. Consequently, through the connectivity of myofascial lines, a simple ankle injury can work up the chain of tissues causing pain and dysfunction at the knee, hip, back, etc.
Reverse this and consider emotional disturbances in an individual. Imagine what postural changes happen when a person is depressed – their head is usually lowered, shoulders rounded forward, their chest caved in. As Myrthe Wieler writes in her article on Fascia and Yoga, “This postural pattern will start to affect their entire system, including their fascial grid. Think of what part of their fascia is becoming restricted. Their chest cavity is closing in affecting their breathing. It sends a message to the brain … something is happening that is causing the breath to change. Thus the brain chemistry changes. It can start to release stress inducing hormones which further affects mood and stress levels – increasing tension in the body and it’s form.”
So this connectivity through fascia works in both directions… our mind interpreting tension from our body and our body reacting to our mind. Therefore, it stands to reason that if we work with our bodies, releasing and realigning our fascia, it can have a direct effect on our mind, our behavior and our emotions. This is why I find yoga so effective in helping with system/functional disturbances. By design, yoga’s postures are perfectly arranged for global, multi-joint mobilizations, therefore, poses frequently stretch chronic lines of tension along myofascial lines (see picture above for a few examples). Additionally, because yoga encourages all aspects of the individual to be present moment to moment, it affords the opportunity for emotional change as the postures affect our chemistry from the inside out.
However, as a long time practitioner of yoga, what I appreciate most about yoga’s ability to change and affect the body is how we learn to move and stretch in ways that is directed from internal awareness. Having been through countless courses on anatomy and alignment discussing the do’s and don’t of the human body, what becomes more and more apparent is that rules change, and any good rule has exceptions. So when a student of yoga finally learns how they themselves can find safety in movement by listening to their own edges, or when they realize just the slightest movement to the left gives them that just perfect stretch, they are in essence learning how to connect to and heal their own bodies. And because fascia is like a web branching in any given direction; sometimes the line of stretch matches the above listed myofascial lines, or a specific pose alignment, but sometimes it is something quite different and unique to an individual’s body. So in yoga when we learn to explore our sensations from the inside out and to be creative in our postures this can be the most effective source of change.
I often reflect on a what an amazingly complex and intra-connected system the human body is. It is fascinating to study these connective platforms, like fascia, so we can be reminded how health issues in one part the the body don’t happen in a bubble – there is a whole person to consider. And as yogis, it’s nice to know, that as we develop our yoga practice over time, we shape and shift this scaffolding of tissue known as fascia, which inevitably changes our soft-tissue body, internal chemistry, and thoughts/emotions; and sometimes, in just one pose, we gain insight into our who we were, who we are, and who we are yet to become.
I was listening to a group of my girl friends chat the other day, and all of them expressed the frustration of time, or lack of it, to accomplish all their daily tasks and personal projects. One friend commented (with a sigh) that sometimes it’s impossible to find balance in life, and instead it’s more about juggling all the pieces. I’m not sure I totally agree with this. There is some truth that sometimes there really is no end to the demands, and letting go of some things isn’t always possible. But I also know that this juggling act can come to a crashing fall if there are too many items or if the juggler themselves isn’t taken care of.
To me balance means taking care of all the parts in our life that are important to us, and no one can deny the importance of health in our lives. Finding balance in life, and making sure to include those items that give us good health, doesn’t just happen. First it takes keen awareness of our needs from day to day, and from moment to moment, to create it. Sometimes we need to take a purposeful pause from the rushing river of daily living and check inwards to notice what it is that we are in need of, or what it is that is missing in our days/weeks to feel healthy and thriving.
It is also a matter of making the choice to prioritize it somewhere in the schedule. Sometimes this means making difficult choices and letting go of things, since time is limited. For example it is easy to get wrapped up in staying true to social obligations and personal commitments, e.g. a volunteer position or a fitness goal, but maybe we are running our reserves low, perhaps even compromising our immune at the cost of our dedication to the activity. It can be tough to admit that one of our time commitments may not be in our best interests or, for a period of time, we need something different. It takes courage and compassion in our self care to make the decision to pause or let go of something that is not serving us.
What I love about yoga is that not only can the classes draw out our awareness of what it is we need in our lives for better balance, but once you are educated on the styles of yoga and various offerings out there, you’ll find there’s a yoga class that can fill many of your health needs. Here’s a little summary list to get you started on the ways various ways different yoga classes can benefit you:
For the beginner, or a class for initiating mobility and strength, where you may need gentleness and safety to get you on your way:
Therapeutic (Kripalu, Phoenix Rising, Viniyoga are some branches of therapeutic yoga)
Hatha (beginner level)
To calm and relax our systems, or add a little introspection in our day (little to no physicality involved in these styles):
Various meditation classes
For strength, flexibility, and balance:
For an uplift in energy and more vigorous physical exercise:
Hatha (intermediate level)
Hot Yoga (Moksha or Bikrams are a couple branches of hot yoga)
To eliminate tension, when you’re body needs a really good stretch:
(Of course there are many more styles and branches of yoga than the ones I’ve listed, these are just a few of the more common class styles you’ll see offered.)
A class, that is relatively new, that I’ve been doing lately is aerial yoga. I was feeling the need for more more energy, a little fitness, and some good stretching in my day to balance out the mental heaviness and sedentary nature of the work I was doing. I was also craving something new, something exciting. Aerial yoga has been perfect for these needs . It is possible that in a month from now I may may need more relaxation and down time. And letting go of the notion that I have to achieve a certain goal in a specific timeline helps me fill my week with better self care, so I might change to a restorative yoga class or book myself for a yoga therapy session. My “me” time is precious, so I choose to fill it with what serves me best, and I don’t feel guilty for it. This keeps balance in my life. There will be plenty of time to do it all, sometimes just not all at once. Keep your balance by making the right choices for yourself, in the moment.