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.
Whether in yoga or simply standing and waiting, many of us have a habit of locking our knees. This is also referred to as hyperextending the knee joints, which is essentially pushing the knees back so far it reaches the end limit of the joint’s range of motion. Pushing the knee joint to this limit can place strain on the ligaments, tendons, and can also wear down the edges of the cartilage. Yet, when we lock our knees, there isn’t any pain, and in fact it feels effortless. This is because the damage to cause pain happens slowly overtime, and locking a joint actually requires less energy since there is less activation in the muscles than neutral posture – essentially we are riding on the structures of the joint to hold the position.
Locking the knees extends to a bigger picture of negatively affecting the whole body’s posture. When one area of the body is forced to an extreme, somewhere else in the body shifts to compensate to bring the balance back. When a person locks their knees in standing, this often forces the pelvis and spine to shift in posture. The image below shows two postural types that occur with locked knees: sway back posture and hyper-lordosis. Both can cause pain in the back (and neck) and eventually cause stress to the structures of the spine.
Unfortunately, locking the knees and the subsequent postural accommodations don’t just show themselves in standing still, they transfer to all our movements and activities, such as our yoga postures. Some commonly affected yoga postures are Triangle pose (Trikonasana) and the standing balance poses such as Tree (Vrksasana), and Dancer (Natarajasana) – see images below. By locking the knees in these postures, our alignment and safety is affected through the spine.
A Yoga Practice to Bring Awareness to Unlocking the Knees
Yoga provides us with a discipline from which we can learn to correct this habit and improve our posture. To bring more awareness to how we posture our knees start by practicing how you stand in Mountain Pose (Tadasana). In Mountain Pose, create a solid foundation in your feet: posture your feet straight ahead and ground evenly on all four corners of the foot. From your feet bring awareness to the posture of our knees, and if you feel them locked, practice generating a little give, or softness, to the joint (not bending, the legs still remain fairly straight). Then from the neutral knee posture notice how this affects your posture all the way up as you lift and lengthen.
Then choose a standing balance posture from which you can practice holding the knees in good posture, e.g. Tree or Warrior III (image above). As you challenge yourself on one leg you may realize that it’s not enough to feel softness at the knee joint, but also necessary to generate a sense of engagement of the posterior knee muscles to prevent the joint from pressing back.
Then practice Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasa) with the focus on the front leg and the posture of the knee. As you enter the pose, find your base by grounding evenly and firmly through all sides of the front foot and gentle press the big toe mound into the ground. From there, feel the line of activation that travels up the back of the leg to behind the knee. You are aiming to have the front knee straight without locking, and see if you can sense the engagement in the posterior knee muscles at the same time. This pose is especially good because the posterior leg muscles are stretching, but we practice activating them in this lengthened position.
The other day, some participants in class were wondering how they could relieve the soreness and tension that they seem to always have in the area running from their neck to their shoulders, sometimes referred to as the area the “upper traps.” This area is a common area of discomfort; it is known for its tendency to be sore after long durations of working at our computers or during times of stress as we might unconsciously clench or shrug our shoulders. When this area gets over-stressed or tightened up, it can cause neck and upper back pain, headaches, jaw pain, and dysfunctional shoulder motion and impingement. To relieve these symptoms, certain yoga postures can be a great help, but first we have to consider the two main reasons this area is so often problematic: poor posture and over clenching in this area.
The area of the upper traps is just the top portion of the large, diamond shaped muscle known as the trapezius (image below). Each section (upper, middle, and lower) serve different actions/functions. The upper fibers of the muscle help in the shrugging (elevation) action of the shoulders and serves a role in keeping the head and neck in position during our daily activities. The upper traps are often overworked when we stay in a forward flexed/forward head-jutting posture for long periods, such as when we are working at the computer or looking down at our devices for extended periods of time. Consider the basic physics of the matter… your head is like a 10 pound weight at the end of your neck. When it leans forward, those stabilizing muscles in the posterior neck are working much, much harder than when your head rests vertically in relationship to gravity. Common sense tells us to try to sit straighter and limit forward jutting of the head to minimize the discomfort on our upper trap area.
However, posture correction is not as simple as don’t poke your head forward (*). To correct it, we need to consider what’s happening below the neck and check our alignment of the whole spine. I like to think of it as working from base up, and the base is our pelvis. If your pelvis is tilted out of neutral posture, the entire length of the spine accommodates for this alignment. In sitting, it is common to tilt the pelvis posteriorly (see image below) and this takes the lumbar spine (low back region) out of its natural curvature of being slightly arched inwards into a flattened posture. When the low back arch is flattened out, our neck posture has no chance of proper correction.
This is especially significant in yoga since we sit on the ground. Sitting low often causes a posterior tilting in the pelvis because many individuals have tight hip and leg muscles (or hip and knee joint issues) which limit their ability to move their hips in deep flexion and external rotation. With these motions being limited, sitting cross-legged becomes straining, and other areas compensate to manage the posture – namely the pelvis tilts in response to the pull of these forces. This is why yoga teachers encourage placing a lift under your seat to ease the tension through the tight hip/leg muscles pulling at the pelvis. It may not be perfect but adjusting your seat surface a little higher to encourage a more neutral pelvis and low back posturing can be a huge piece in correcting your neck pain.
The thoracic (middle back) segment of the spine can be just as much of a hindrance in supporting our neck posture. Individuals tend to collapse through their mid backs in sitting, often viewed as a rounded or hunched back posture. This posture is so common because it requires very little energy to sit this way – the postural, support muscles get to take a break and the spine slumps in response to gravity. Then the neck posture compensates in response, and the upper traps get overworked to hold the head in place this way. In yoga we regularly cue to lengthen the spine in our poses. Not only is this a really important way to create space between the vertebrae of the spine (which is good to prevent collapsing and compression of the spine in poses), but it is the key to adjusting posture through the mid back. I encourage my students to feel the lift upwards coming from the top of their breast bone (the manubrium), which creates a lengthening in the thoracic spine. This simple action creates a more vertical head/neck alignment. So yes, it takes a bit of effort to sit up straight – but it’s worth it!
Outside of spinal posture, the other main reason for pain and tension in the upper traps is if you have a habit of being an over-shrugger. The upper trapezius is one the main muscles which elevates the shoulders upwards (the other being the levator scapulae). Tensing or shrugging the shoulders is one of those conditioned responses to stress for many people. A certain thought, an uncomfortable situation can result in the shrug and people don’t even realize they are constantly, habitually clenching this area, and eventually this causes stiffness and pain.
To undo the effects of over-shrugging and train yourself out of this unconscious habit, It’s not enough to stretch these muscles. Instead consider doing the opposite motion to release the tension from the shrug. The opposite motion is lowering the shoulders down, known as depression, and this is done by activating the lower fibers of the trapezius muscle, which moves the shoulder blades down the back and lowers the shoulders. Also, activating the lower portion of the trapezius sends a reciprocal signal to the upper traps to release and stretch. (To get a better sense of the muscles involved in elevating and depressing the shoulders, click here for a short video animation).
Returning to posture, in order for this technique of shoulder depression to be effective, it’s really important that our spinal posture is in check. For example if you are sitting slouched and move your shoulders downwards, the shoulders might pull forward by the chest muscles and the lower traps won’t get activated, which is required for the upper traps to release.
The way I describe the correct technique in class is to first sit or stand tall, lift through the top of the breast bone, draw shoulders slightly back, and then lower the shoulders downwards –feeling shoulder blades move slightly together and down the back towards the hips. This will create an open spacious feeling from tops of shoulders to ears. (Note, you don’t have to do this motion with all your might, just a little bit of activation in this direction is sufficient). Then this technique can be applied to more complex motions and postures, such as your yoga poses. Cobra and Warrior II are a couple of my favourites to practice this. With practice your mid back muscles will strengthen, and the new, lowered shoulder posture will become more automatic.
Anytime we are trying to create change in our bodies, it requires awareness of our habits and plenty of practice before the new way sets in. To minimize upper trap pain, take advantage of your yoga classes to learn how to adjust your posture for more lift and neutrality in the spine, and then apply the practice of activating the lower trapezius muscle to release the shoulders down during the poses. In time you will feel your shoulder rest easier and the upper trap pains disappear.
*It is important to remember that your computer and chair set up can be the source of your postural problems. For instance if your monitor is too low, your body will compensate in posture to get an adequate eye line and vision to the screen and in this case no amount of knowledge of the spine will help. It’s equally as important to adjust your workstation.
I often post about how Yoga provides us with a base from which we can explore the connection of the mind and body. When we practice postures, meditation, and pranayama (breathing) techniques we get direct information from the systems of our body and the relationships between these various systems. To better explain these experiences in yoga, ancient yogis devised models to describe what they were experiencing. One of my favourite models is that of the five Koshas, which first appeared in the VedicUpanishads dated around 3000 years ago.
According to the Koshas model, every one of us has five bodies, otherwise known as sheaths or layers, that make up our being. You can visualize these layers like that of an onion, with five progressively subtler bodies moving from the outside in. The onion layer analogy is a good visual of how these bodies are contained within one another; however, it is important to remember that these sheaths are not separate nor isolated. Rather, they are inter-penetrating and interdependent on one another, and in order to live a fully balanced, healthy life, all these layers need to be kept in good condition. If one of them is ignored or unsatisfied, there is a lack of harmony.
Here is a description of each of the five Koshas starting from the most superficial to the deepest layer:
1. The Physical Layer The outermost sheath, called Annamaya Kosha, is the most obvious and easily identified as it is comprised of the physical structures of your body, bones, tendons, muscles, and other dense materials. You can experience this Kosha directly. It’s your body, and you can see and feel it. This layer has structural importance as it houses all the other layers.
2. The Energy Layer The second layer is called Pranamaya Kosha, otherwise known as the energy body, which is comprised of all the physiological processes that sustain life, from breathing to digestion to the circulation of your blood. ‘Prana’, in yoga, is understood as life-force energy, and without it, our physical body layer can’t survive more than a few minutes. Prana, which is the equivalent to Chi in eastern medicine, is that which acupuncture treatment is based. In yoga we connect to this energy layer through perceiving the breath and circulation. Energy is balanced through the breath in relationship to the body and mind.
3. The Mental/Emotional Layer The third layer is called Manomaya Kosha. It is described as the psychological sheath, which includes the mind, feelings, and the processes that organize experience. Through the nervous system, this body processes input from our five senses and responds reflexively to the needs of the mind and body in its environment. Here we begin to truly understand the inter-dependent effects each layer has on then next. Imagine a person in a coma, their first and second sheath are still operating so their heart and lungs continue to function and their physical body is intact, but the person has no awareness of what’s happening and no ability to take action because the activity of Manomaya Kosha has shut down. Without the mental layer we are unaware of the first two.
4. The Higher Intelligence Layer The fourth layer is known as Vijnanamaya Kosha. It is the body of intellect and wisdom, and of conscience and will. This is the layer that is assumed to separate humans and animals. It is a higher level of awareness that underlies all the reflexive mental processes of daily living. In yoga, through mindfulness and meditation, your ability to observe your own thoughts and behaviours gets enhanced and you begin to experience the events in your life from this more objective aspect of awareness. Self study and meditation lead to clarity of judgment, greater intuitive insight, and increased willpower as your Vijnanamaya Kosha grows stronger and more balanced.
5. The Spiritual or Bliss Layer The fifth, and inner most layer is called Anandamaya Kosha. This the most subtle of the five layers which is experienced as deep contentment or bliss. For most people this sheath is underdeveloped and few are even aware that this level of consciousness exists within themselves. It is said the Anandamaya Kosha is the energetic veil bridging ordinary awareness and our higher, spiritual self. The great sages, life-time meditators, and even those who have had near death experiences, have all described this part of being where our true, inborn nature of peace and love reside. It connects us to all of universal existence. You come into this world with it.
Identifying these layers that comprise our being can aid us in learning more about our own personal existence and balance in life. Each of us has moments in our development that can enhance or impede connection to one or more of these layers. Take for example someone who sustains a traumatizing, physical injury. On the surface it affects the physical body, the Annamaya Kosha. Sometimes, the pain or mental suffering, experienced through the psychological layer, can create blocks to the awareness that flows to this physical part of yourself. Overtime the psychological block withers your connection not only to the physical structures, but also the physiological flowing and mental and emotional realization of this part of you. There lies a hole in our body/mind complex that requires reconnection, on multiple layers, to heal. This is one of the explanations for why physical pain can last beyond the healing of an injury.
The opposite can be true as well. Sometimes a newfound awareness into one layer can ignite wholeness and unity onto all the layers. In yoga when we shift into a mindful state, working from that deeper part of our consciousness (the Vijnanamaya Kosha), we can become aware of blocks in our mind-body complex. For example, in working with individuals through yoga therapy, I have witnessed how a gentle touch or stretch to a body part ignites awareness that this part was not registering in their bodily perception due to a past issue, such as an emotional trauma. In essence, experiencing a physical sensation, while being connected to your higher, intelligence layer, re-introduces the person to this part of themselves, and the re-established connection brings healing to all the layers.
There are many of individuals existing in their daily lives with healthy functioning outer sheaths (strong bodies and minds), but who are totally void of awareness to their inner sheaths. When one is disconnected to their Vijnanamaya and Anandamaya Koshas, its like leaving an empty whole in the center of their being… and these people can literally feel uncentered in their lives. When disconnected to the core sheaths, one can feel reactive to life and often feel unfocused and lost when considering their choices and goals. Personal growth and spiritual practices that connect with these deeper parts of ourselves allow us to remain fulfilled, energized and whole.
Being human is complex; as far as we know, we are the only species on earth that can experience ourselves on multidimensional planes. I liken this to the phrase, “Awareness knowing itself”, and it is through practices such as yoga that we can open this world of self study and gain better understanding of these varying layers of consciousness. The five Koshas give us a framework from which we can organize and express all these layers of our being, and in doing so, we are one step closer to enjoying the health and fulfillment of an enlightened life.
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.
Here is a little Question & Answer piece to explain some basics around mindfulness and meditation, and how they relate to yoga.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness simply means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.
When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment.
How are mindfulness and yoga related? Yoga teaches mindfulness each class when we become the observer of what we are noticing in our bodies and minds during a pose or transition. When your yoga teacher cues you to notice sensation, alignment, breath, and thoughts during class, she or he is cultivating the state of mindfulness. This is what makes the practice of yoga different than other physical sports/disciplines – you are learning to move with conscious awareness, and you are learning the skill of shifting your attention away from the unconscious mind-chatter to that of the observer, present to all that is happening in your mind-body from moment to moment.
What is meditation? Look up the definition of meditation and you’ll get a lot of different answers. That is because within the practice of meditation there are many different styles and techniques. Most commonly, meditation means the act of giving your attention to only one thing in order to focus or affect the mind. Generally, a meditation practice follows a specific procedure to produce transformational results in some way, such as the development of concentration, emotional positivity, self-knowledge, calm, or spiritual growth.
Also, among the many forms of meditation, the process varies – some use an object or a sensation to fix the attention to, while others use chants and mantras (sometimes having a religious connection). There are also guided or content-directed meditations with the focus of achieving a certain state of being or emotion, e.g. cultivating a state of loving kindness or relaxation.
One of the most simple forms of meditation, and the one I am choosing to highlight in this blog, is Mindfulness Meditation; it is secular, well-defined, and researched with proven benefits. Mindfulness meditation uses the process of sustained focus, specifically by focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Here are the steps:
Sit in a comfortable seated position with your back straight and eyes closed
Notice the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. Pick a spot where you sense the breath to be most prominent (could be nose, chest, or belly), and focus fully on the sensation of the breath coming in and out.
Your mind is going to wander off in thought constantly, and when you notice you’ve lost your focus on the feeling of the breath, let go of whatever you were thinking and start again, bringing your attention back to the sensation of the breath.
Many people think meditation is about stopping thoughts, but it is not. The mind thinks. That’s its job. The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to help us unhook from our tendency to get caught up in thoughts without any conscious awareness. The first time you meditate, you might notice the instructions are simple but the practice is difficult. You may keep getting lost in thinking about the past or future. The key is to remember that getting caught up in thoughts is normal. Just make note of thinking and return to the breath over and over again.
Why should we practice mindfulness meditation? Because it is yoga for your brain!
During the meditation practice, every time your mind wanders into thought (and you notice this), and you bring your attention back to the breath, you are strengthening your brain. As Dan Harris explains in his YouTube clip, Meditation for Beginners, (link at bottom), “it is like doing a bicep curl for the brain.” This process of letting go of thought and returning to the breath, improves your concentration and focus, builds grey matter in the brain, and creates a shift in cortical processing (for a more in-depth review of the research showing how meditation positively changes the brain see these links: 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain or Harvard Unveils MRI Study Proving Meditation Literally Rebuilds the Brain’s Grey Matter in 8 weeks.
In my opinion, the greatest benefit of practicing mindfulness meditation is the way it helps us become aware of the self talk in our minds, and specifically to gain awareness of the preoccupation of fixations to things we like, and the aversion of things we don’t like. By watching our thoughts we get insight into the frequency of rumination and projection that is constantly going on in the brain, and we learn how we talk to ourselves. Consequently, mindfulness meditation is proving to be extremely helpful for mental health conditions, specifically for individuals with depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as for children as it improves their emotional regulation and focus/concentration.
How often do I need to practice to get benefits? As a yogi, you are likely already learning the skill of mindfulness during your yoga classes. However, if you want to take this a step further, and get the brain strengthening benefits discussed above, start by setting aside 5 – 10 minutes per day for practicing mindfulness meditation. Here is the short YouTube clip to help you get started: Meditation for Beginners.
So, I hope this blog clears up some answers you may have had about mindfulness & meditation. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to comment or email!