Have you ever paused to consider what the phrase ‘center yourself’ really means? I think most of us have a notion that this means to settle excessive mind chatter and to ground ourselves inwards, and I would agree with this. Over the years of practicing yoga I have found it a very valuable skill to drop in and connect that feeling of my internal center. To get started on this process, try the guided meditation below. Do this daily for 1-2 weeks and notice how it can help you feel less scattered, and have better clarity in navigating your day.
Instructions for meditation: Finding Your Center
Come to a comfortable seated position, close your eyes and connect to your body in the way of sensing and feeling—notice the sense of grounding of your body, the weight of your body, the posture, and any other sensations.
Then sense the core of your body from the inside and notice where you would locate the feeling of your body’s center. Take some time to land in just the right spot where you feel your center to be. Try not to get too literal on this one, see if you can connect to your personal “feeling” of center.
Begin to sense the flow of your breath moving in and out of your body and gently direct the breath towards this internal center area. Work with long, smooth breaths, filling and releasing from your center.
Now connect with your center on a feeling level and sense how this part of you holds an energy about it that is knowing and calm. This is a place where all the distractions of busy life fall away and only a personal truth remains. Take a moment to ask your center what it knows to be true at this moment, and see what shows up. Or ask yourself, “What is important in my life today?” Take whatever shows up and let this be information for you on how to move forward in this moment, or on this day.
To be guided in this meditation, play the video below
I’ve been working on a project of creating a self-help PDF on ways to improve your sleep from a yoga perspective. Originally my interest stemmed from the fact that I, like many of you, struggled with episodes of insomnia in my life. It was particularly bad for me in my more anxious youth, before I met yoga, and I would overthink many nights into oblivion. Fast forward to now, with many years of practicing yoga, meditation, and plenty of learning about how to improve my sleep, and I can say my episodes of insomnia are much less and much more manageable.
One of the most influential sources of motivation that brought me to a turning point of taking my sleep health more seriously was hearing an interview with sleep expert and researcher Matthew Walker. You can find many lectures, podcasts, and written work by him, but ultimately his message is loud and clear—you need to prioritize your sleep way more, as the lack of sleep is literally killing you! Until delving into his work, I always assumed I could catch up after a bad night or two, but after perusing Walker’s work, I realized this couldn’t be further from the truth. His research shows anything less than 7 hours of sleep, for most adults, is sleep deprivation, and there are major health consequences when we don’t get this amount of sleep. In fact, there does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep (and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough). So in this blog I want to share some of his more poignant points about why you need to take getting a good night’s sleep more seriously:
-Drowsy driving is the cause of hundreds of thousands of traffic accidents and fatalities each year. Tragically, one person dies in a traffic accident every hour in the United States due to a fatigue-related error, in fact, vehicle accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined.
-Sleep enriches a diversity of memory functions, including our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions and choices. Without the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night, studies show severely reduced capacity in all memory functions.
-Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
-Sleep deprivation degrades cardiovascular health. Shorter sleep was associated with a 45 percent increased risk of developing and/or dying from coronary heart disease. Adults forty-five years or older who sleep fewer than six hours a night are 200 percent more likely to have a heart attack or stroke during their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven to eight hours a night.
-Sleep disruption contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Sleep recalibrates our emotional brain circuits, allowing us to navigate next-day social and psychological challenges.
-Dreams help mollify painful memories and provide a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge, inspiring creativity.
-Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. In the body, sleep restocks the immune system, helping fight malignancy, preventing infection, and warding off colds and flus.
-Sleep deprivation affects hormone balance in both males and females affecting reproductive capability.
-Inadequate sleep—even moderate reductions for just one week—disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic.
-Weight gain is associated with poor sleep. Too little sleep swells concentrations of a hormone that makes you feel hungry while suppressing a companion hormone that otherwise signals food satisfaction.
-Sleep deprivation ages our skin and we literally look less attractive from it.
If you find these points intriguing, I strongly suggest you check out some of Matthew Walker’s work, starting with his very informative TED talk: Sleep is Your Superpower. My hope is to motivate you to prioritize your sleep more, as it has been a huge omission in the public health education for mind and body health—it is just as important as the type of food you eat and the amount of exercise you get, yet regularly under-considered. Don’t doubt all manner of health can be helped with a regular sleep schedule, and if you are ready to get started on improving your nightly zzz’s, I look forward to sharing more information on how to improve your sleep through yoga and other tips in the PDF I have coming out in the fall.
Balance is a learned skill, and we must practice our balance in order to improve it. For many adults, our daily activities do not challenge our balance systems enough and it worsens over time. This is why yoga is so great—many of the poses engage the body in balance and stability giving you the practice you need. With better balance we gain confidence to participate in more challenging activities and it helps us prevent falls. To set you up for success, here are five foundational principles to help you get more out of your standing balance poses:
1.Connect to Your Foundation When we have a mindful connection to our base, we feel more stable and grounded, and in our standing balance poses, our base is our feet. Because yoga is done in bare feet it is especially great for giving us tactile feedback and we can learn more about how we weight bear and align through our feet. With this feedback, there is potential for noticing where we have asymmetrical grounding or deviated alignment (affecting our balance from the base up).
When aiming for good alignment in the feet you should feel connection through all four corners of the foot, which are: the mound of big toe, the mound of pinky toe, the inside edge of the heel, and the outside edge of the heel. You should also be aiming to weight bear evenly from the inside edge to the outside edge of the foot. Also, a lot of our foot stability comes from the toes. For improved balance, work on spreading the toes and when you need extra stability through your foot, and try pressing the big toe mound and little toe mound lightly into the ground and notice how that activates the muscles of the arches of the foot and generates a more stable feel. For more details on this, please watch this helpful video by Doug Keller on the corners of the foot and how to strengthen the arches.
2. Find Your Center of Gravity A good rule in our standing single leg balance poses is to make sure you have shifted your center of gravity over-top the standing foot, and for most of us, our center of gravity is our pelvis. Most of us do this subtle shift unconsciously; however, sometimes this skill gets lost or disinhibited, such as when we have pain or dysfunction on one leg and we avoid complete commitment of our weight on it. This can be a learned response that can persist even after the leg problem has gone away; therefore, it is important to ensure your are shifting your pelvis-center over the standing foot for optimal balance alignment. A common mistake is to lean the torso to the balancing leg while leaving the pelvis behind.
3. Activate the Stabilizers Our stabilizing muscles are responsible for creating the micro-adjustments required for better balance. These smaller muscles create subtle engagement closer to the bone, supporting our joints and enabling us to coordinate different parts of the body to stand or move together. There are stabilizers acting around every joint in the body during balance; however a couple key areas that weaken on people are the stabilizers around the core and hips. The stabilizing core muscles support the connection of the spine to the pelvis and they are the transverse abdominis, multifidi, the iliopsoas, and the quadratus lumborum. For the hip, the gluteus medius muscle (at the lateral hip) is a vital support when standing single-legged as it adjusts the position of the pelvis in relation to the standing leg. All these muscles should be reflexively engaging as we correct and steady in our balance poses, but if you notice weakness (maybe from an old injury or surgery) you may need to consult with a professional to learn focused training of these muscles for their optimal recruitment.
Most importantly, when training the stabilizers of the body, we need to be able to stay in our balance poses long enough to benefit. In yoga, this means choosing options that meet, and gently stretch, our current capability. It’s when we stay somewhere slightly unstable that our muscles and our nervous system learn to compensate, creating inner equilibrium that enables us to handle more challenge next time. If you choose balance poses too difficult to stay in the pose you will not be training the stabilizers.
4. Find Your Drishti Drishti means “focal point.” It refers specifically to where we orient our eyes and, in a broader sense, to where we focus our energy. Our eyes play a large role in balance. Many of the nerve fibers from the eye neural tracts (the neural fibers within the brain that connect to the eye) interact with the vestibular system, the parts of the inner ear and brain that help control balance and eye movements. You can easily get an understanding of importance of vision in balance when trying to stand on one foot with your eyes closed.
In our standing balance poses we have better equilibrium when we take advantage of this eye-vestibular connection by fixing our gaze on an unmoving object, but we also use drishti to take advantage of the way it organizes our energy. By steadying our gaze we are consciously limiting visual distraction giving us more capacity for redirecting this energy towards internal awareness .
5. Regulate Your Breath
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it is said: “When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still…therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” This advice is particularly relevant to stability work, which depends on a delicate balance between effort and ease. It’s not uncommon to hold our breath when struggling to maintain stability; loss of easy breathing is a sign that we are trying too hard, holding too tightly, creating rigidity rather than stability. If we can let go of our attachment to a pose sufficiently to find ease in our breathing, we may begin to find physical and mental equilibrium too.
One of the things we are trying to do in meditation and in yoga is to shift our minds from the ‘thinking state’ into the ‘aware state’. In the thinking state we are lost in our heads, in the future or past—planning, strategizing, ruminating, imagining, creating, and dreaming . While in the aware state, our minds are anchored to the present moment, such as when we connect to our senses, paying attention to what we notice or feel around us or within us, e.g. feeling our breath. A huge step in curbing the over-thinking mind is to practice dropping into the aware state more often.
Much of the day our minds are preoccupied by the thinking state, which is both marvelous and troublesome at the same time. The human mind’s default to the thinking state brings us in touch with imagination, memory, and creativity, and is the source of all the great discoveries, stories, and innovations…. and we really wouldn’t want to lose this. However, too much of one thing can leave us unbalanced, and our minds have a tendency to lapse into over-thinking mode, sometimes putting us in a constant state of worry about future, past, and imagined scenarios (none of which are actually happening now!). When we always live in our heads this way, it can become habitual and damaging to our health since our bodies don’t realize these thoughts aren’t actually real or happening now, and consequently, our physical selves react to the stress of the thoughts like they are actually happening. This can be the source of much of our stress, anxiety, and physical ails (increased body tension, pain, high heart rate/BP, digestive issues).
To manage the over-thinking mind we want to train the brain to recognize and then snap out of the thinking state, and how we do this is to practice the shifting our attention to the aware state. We do this over and over again in yoga—the instructor cues you to sense your breathing, to feel a certain body part, to connect to the ground. We do this repeatedly in meditation—relax a certain area of your body, focus on something, and come back to your breath. The benefit here lies in the repetition. Overtime when you practice yoga and meditation regularly, your brain is literally being trained to do this shift on its own, and we learn to self-regulate. It becomes more automatic to check in, sense, and feel, and you get better at recognizing when you’ve slipped into over-thinking mode, and consequently stop the runaway train.
The hard part for many people is that they get stuck in their heads and lack the ability to recognize when their minds have run away on them and so they need to develop the skill of shifting their attention. Below are some ways to start developing this attention-shift skill.
4 ways to train the mind to recognize and shift out of over-thinking mode:
Regularly attend yoga classes – ones where the teacher regularly provides cues to notice your breathing and body sensations
Practice this simple embodied exercise called What’s Happening Now: Five times a day take a 20 second pause from whatever you are doing and ask yourself theses 3 questions: 1) Is there any tension in my body? 2) How does my breathing feel? 3) What am I thinking about? Repeat this for a whole week and see if you start automatically doing it thereafter.
Take breaks in your day to immerse yourself in your senses—take in the smells, sounds, touch, and sights around you, e.g. really smell the soap as you wash the dishes or feel the warmth of the sun as it touches your skin.
Start a basic breathing meditation practice. Aim for a commitment of 5-10 minutes per day. Here is a video to try a basic Breathing Meditation.
Follow your heart… Open up your heart… The heart knows… We are all familiar with these expressions about the heart. Often, we reference the heart as a part of ourselves we can source for answers outside of the analytical mind; a place from which we can be informed from a body-felt wisdom and emotional truth; a part of ourselves that knows who we are and what we truly want. Do you believe in this heart space?
I do. I believe this heart-felt wisdom is ages old, and the heart is symbolic of our sense of center. Our busy, intellectual minds go astray and we get caught in the story telling, the details, and the analysis of it all. Yet most of us have, at some point, experienced the feeling of being calm, grounded and centered into ourselves. When you are connected to yourself in this way, you are more in tune with your authentic, emotional needs and confident in the choices of the path before you.
I believe this inner guiding truth teller is always there, it just gets buried under the layers of reflexive, conditioned thinking and out of balance from habitual doing. An effective way to reconnect to the wisdom of the heart space is through a physical yoga practice—engage in postures which literally energize around the heart. Don’t think about it so much as finding the perfect pose, but rather movement about this figurative center to bring feeling and connection back to this part of you.
Drop into the metaphor and let your practice bring balance and connection back into the heart space. Feel from the core of the body what is missing—back bends, forward folds, twists, or wherever the movement has been lacking, and dive into the expression of these forms. Bring the breath in to fill the heart space, sense and feel this giving and receiving of energy to this part of you, and at the end of the practice ask nothing of your heart other than for it to speak, and maybe in the quiet moments you will hear what it is that only the heart know to be true for you.
Early on in my career as a Kinesiologist, I thought exercise prescriptions needed to exactly address the type of injury, and I would often get caught up in a textbook model of treatment. Later I realized, what actually helped my clients the most was the regularity of their routine—half the time the particular exercises, and even the intensity, were irrelevant, so long as it was a balanced routine, and they were doing it regularly. The same is true in my yoga studio. The client who comes to me for a private lesson to help with a problem, but loses the discipline to keep up with it, never benefits. While the person attending my yoga classes two to three times a week will claim surprise that they never expected their pain to go away as well.
Movement to the body is crucial to our health and healing, and since the body is an integrated system where all systems connect and relate to one another, when we do yoga and other exercises regularly, every part of us is benefiting. For example, when I am consistent with my yoga and running, not only do I feel my body is stronger and has more stamina, but I also notice my mental health is more stable, my digestion is better, and I sleep more soundly.
We all know this, regular exercise so important to overall health, so why don’t we all do it? I find one of the main issues is people make exercise feel unenjoyable. They choose something too intense for their level or they choose something they really don’t like and demanding too much time in their day. It’s important to choose wisely and start easy… For some, this might look like a 10 minute walk with a couple floor exercises, or five quick yoga poses on your work break. Ask yourself what can you commit to that doesn’t feel like a chore or doesn’t make you pay the next day. If you are unsure how to get started or lack the discipline, find an instructor to assist you, but most importantly, design it for success and make it part of your routine (much like brushing your teeth!). Remember your health is a lifelong project, and what we do on a consistent basis forms the foundation of our health.
Here is a very short check-in meditation you can do to drop into how you are feeling in the moment. This will give you information about what you might need in your day, or the qualities you might like to nurture in your practice.
In yoga, there is a common tendency to think in terms of flexibility, and how that affects our yoga practice. However, the inability to engage a muscle effectively plays an equally important role in our practice, and there needs to be a good balance between the two. Consider the hamstrings, a muscle group often associated with being overly tight—the source of the tightness may not be a lack of stretching, but rather related to the relationship of activation in the gluteal muscles.
The hamstrings and the glutes both work to extend the hip. The glutes are really powerful muscles that are supposed to be used every time we walk when we extend our leg behind us, but if our glutes aren’t working properly, then our hamstrings will be working too much. So you can stretch your hamstrings every day as much as you want, but if every time you walk, you’re overusing the hamstrings, they won’t stretch out, they’re going to get tight.
When thinking about how to most optimally stretch your hamstrings, it’s important to consider this overuse factor. Strengthening the glutes and learning how to use the glutes in asana and yoga practice helps you learn how to use the glutes in your everyday life. That will lessen the overstimulation of the hamstrings, and then you can actually stretch them more effectively.
Try this self-check activity for engaging the glutes: Place your hand on your right gluteal muscle, and take a step forward with the right leg. As you land your weight on that leg and transfer your weight overtop the right foot, purposely engage the gluteal muscle and see if you can feel the contraction of the muscle. Continue through the step, still engaging the glute and see if you can sense the contraction through the push off phase of the step (when the right leg is back). Then do this activity on the left side. If you notice a deficiency of activation, practice this activity until it become automatic.
Also practice engaging the glutes during yoga poses such as Bridge Pose, Warrior I (on the back leg), Locust Pose. These poses are helpful in building the strength in this muscle.
If you find your mind particularly unsettled in meditation, and you are having trouble staying present to your breath, you might like to try a mantra meditation. In a mantra meditation, you select a favorite word, phrase, prayer, or fragment of a poem to repeat and focus on. Ideally, the mantra is short so you can repeat it easily, without getting lost in a long phrase. Choose something meaningful for yourself, or something that encourages strength and positivity in your life.
Examples of short mantras – I have time – Dream big – May I be at peace – I am love – Spread love and kindness – I am enough – I deserve happiness – I am on my own path – Peace and calm – Ease and flow – Let go – Be here now – May I be healed – May (all beings/I) be safe and free from harm – Thank you
How to do the meditation Sit on a chair or the floor and make sure you feel supported, aligned, and in a place where you can remain still and relaxed. Close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths or do some breathing practices for several minutes, then relax your breath completely.
Repeat your mantra slowly and concentrate on its sound as fully as you can. Repeat it in unison with the natural rhythm of your breath. Either split it so you repeat half the mantra when you inhale and the other half when you exhale, or repeat it on both the inhalation and the exhalation.
After about 10 recitations, repeat the mantra silently by moving only your lips (this helps you keep a steady pace). Then, after another 10 repetitions, recite it internally without moving your lips.
As thoughts arise, simply return to the mantra, knowing this is a natural part of the process. Gently bring your attention back again and again, experiencing the internal sound as fully as possible.
Use a timer if you know you want to practice for a certain amount of time.
For those of you joining me for the online classes, especially if you are new to yoga, you’ll notice that I use yoga props in my class. When doing classes at home, especially if you are not sure if you want to invest in your own props, here are a few prop substitute ideas. Keep in mind these are just suggestions; feel free to use something different and get creative with whatever you have around your home!
A few books stacked on top of one another (non-slippery covers)
A shoe box or other similarly sized Tupperware, filled with something so it doesn’t collapse easily
Feeling ill and not fitting into easily diagnosable conditions is frustrating. One ER doctor said it best when he told me,” I can see you are unwell, but the tests we have done don’t give us a hint of what direction to keep searching…” In the worst moments of my illness, I was so breathless and weak I could barely walk from my bedroom to the living room, yet the doctors listening to my lungs would hear clear breaths. Despite this, my symptoms were very real, and the best way I could describe it was like my body forgot how to breathe on its own.
In these last 4 months, living with long-haul Covid symptoms, I began to realize it felt like my body could no longer regulate—it felt hijacked in its ability to slow the heart rate, digest, or to breathe smoothly and relaxed. Current research on the virus still has not determined if the prolonged symptoms of Covid-19 are because the virus remains in the body for an extended period of time attacking different organs/systems, or if its the body’s own immune system creating havoc on the organs in attempt to fight off this very aggressive virus. Either way, much of what I experienced felt neurologically based, and I discovered many other people describing the same experiences on the Slack Body-Politic Covid-19 Support . I also found discussions on the possibility that some of the effects from the virus could be from damaging the autonomic nervous system, and specifically affecting the vagus nerve.
The autonomic nervous system affects functions we don’t consciously think about, such as digestion, breathing, sleep, heart rate and blood pressure, and is primarily controlled through the vagus nerve. When I described feeling, “Like my body forgot how to breathe on its own,” I could see how this could relate to an impairment of autonomic functioning. On the support group, I found a self-help exercise claiming to ‘reset’ the vagus nerve’. It was a simple exercise where you place your hands behind your head and move your eyes to the three o’clock position and wait until you experience a yawn or a swallow (link to exercise video). I was surprised that I actually found it helpful and this got me wanting to understand the functioning of the vagus nerve further.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It starts in the brain as a cranial nerve, descends down through the neck, then wanders around through to the heart, lungs, digestive system, liver, spleen, and pancreas. It is the main nerve controlling the regulation of all these organs through the parasympathetic nervous system (NS), (the rest and digest branch of the NS, opposite the excitatory, sympathetic NS of ‘fight, flight, or freeze’). For example when the heart rate goes up, it’s the vagus nerve which sends the signal to the heart to slow down.
The vagus nerve is also responsible for controlling the amount of inflammation in your body after an injury or illness. A certain amount of inflammation after injury or illness is normal, but an overabundance is linked to many very serious conditions, from sepsis to autoimmune diseases. A study done by a group of researchers in Amsterdam, showed when the vagus nerve is stimulated, inflammation in the body is greatly reduced. Therefore, the chronic inflammation of conditions where the body’s immune system is overactive, such as rheumatoid arthritis, can be reduced when the nerve is stimulated.
In the possible case Covid-19 does damage or affects the vagus nerve in some way, I wanted to learn how to stimulate the vagus nerve naturally. I learned the health and proper functioning of the vagus nerve is measured by its vagal tone, and the tone of the vagus nerve is key to activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Vagal tone is measured by tracking your heart-rate alongside your breathing rate. Your heart-rate speeds up a little when you breathe in, and slows down a little when you breathe out. The bigger the difference between your inhalation heart-rate and your exhalation heart-rate, the higher your vagal tone. Higher vagal tone is associated with better blood sugar regulation, reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, lowered blood pressure, improved digestion, and reduced migraines (not to mention better mood, less anxiety, and better stress resilience). Below are six techniques found to improve vagal tone.
Six ways to improve the vagal tone the vagus nerve:
1. Slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing—Breathing with good movement in your diaphragm, rather than shallowly from the top of the lungs, stimulates and tones the vagus nerve.
2. Humming/chanting/singing—Since the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, humming mechanically stimulates it. You can hum (try Bhramari Breathing), or repeat the sound ‘OM’.
3. Washing your face with cold water—The mechanism here is not known, but cold water on your face stimulates the vagus nerve.
5. Balancing the gut microbiome—The vagus nerve reads the gut microbiome and initiates a response to modulate inflammation based on whether or not it detects pathogenic versus non-pathogenic organisms. In this way, the gut microbiome can have an affect on your mood, stress levels and overall inflammation. Try using probiotics and working on your diet to optimize your gut microbiome (if unsure consult with a dietician or naturopath).
6. Yoga—Its relationship to its slow mindful movements and breathing make it an especially good exercise form to promote vagal tone.
My symptoms and daily functionality are improving, and I felt comfortable practicing these 6 generally safe and simple techniques. So if you are dealing with long-term effects of Covid, or any other chronic auto-immune condition, I hope they can help you too.
Hello everyone, today’s blog is not much of a “yoga blog” but rather an entry to say hello and keep you updated.
For those of you who saw my last newsletter or blog entry you know I have been unwell, and I wish I had good news that I have returned to my old vibrant self, but this is not yet the case. Life has taken me down a journey from which I know I will re-emerge very changed… For now my good news is that I have plateaued in my health – I am no longer getting worse, but also not better, and for now I am happy with that. It was very discouraging to feel worse day after day and wonder when it would end. So a plateau is good, and I still have lots of faith of better days to come.
It’s hard for me to accept that I won’t be teaching yoga anytime soon, but that’s just what’s happening now, and to fight it would use energy I need for healing. I miss you all so much, and I miss yoga so much, but that will come. For now I do daily meditations, breathing exercises, and lots of reading. I thought I would share with you a few of my healing practices that I have found helpful.
Peace & love (in these unsettling, but hopefully positive shifting times) Renee
I miss you all so much, but I have unfortunate news. I have been ill since mid March and my health continues to worsen and I have become very weak and unwell. I am fighting everyday to make it to the next medical appointment so that I can get more answers. For now, I have none. I use the mantra Time, Patience, and Deep Breaths, to help me get through the days, and knowing, at some point, this too shall pass.
I can not begin to guess how long this experience will last for me. I try to take my health one day at a time (with lots of yogic breathing exercises!). And since we are beginning to see restrictions of social distancing lighten and businesses start to reopen, I needed to let you know that I can’t promise a return to teaching anytime soon. Right now I need all my energy to get well again.
I really hope you and your loved ones have been happy and healthy over these last couple months, and continue to stay that way. I hope you have found ways to bring yoga into your days for keeping your health and spirits up.
If you have any questions, I will do my best to return emails when I can.
What does it mean to be embodied? And doesn’t yoga already take care of that? When we take a closer look, the answer might surprise us.
Think of embodiment on a continuum. On one end we have exteroception, in the middle proprioception, and on the far end interoception. Each of these points says something about where we place our attention: outside us, part of the way in, or deeply inward.
Exteroception deals with the question, “What’s happening around me?” When we’re engrossed in the latest Hunger Games film, scanning a crowd for a friend, working out and hear our favorite song, or note the tears pooling in a friend’s eyes—these are examples of exteroception.
Proprioception deals with the inquiry “Where is my body in space?” When we sense where other people or objects are, and know the relative size and movement patterns of our own body, that’s proprioception. It helps us navigate our world without knocking into things or, as often happens, other people. If you’re a weekend warrior, athlete, or yoga practitioner, you need well-developed proprioception; it’s an integral part of good movement.
Interoception addresses the matter of what’s happening inside our body. In the interoceptive space, attention turns inward. Awareness matures and becomes subtler. Interoception can be seen as mindfulness expressed in the body. And in the words of renowned researcher Stephen Porges, it can be thought of as our “sixth sense.”
Interoception has a few requirements. It asks us to:
Let go of any predictions of what we’ll encounter.
Resist becoming “fixed” on a particular sensation.
Turn down our mental chatter or narrative.
When we’re truly practicing interoceptive awareness, we enter the body without expectations. We attend to momentary sensations in the body as they fluctuate from one point in time to the next. And we can move awareness after a few moments and not become immersed in one sensation too long.
What’s the relevance of interoceptive awareness to our health and well-being? It turns out that many illnesses—anxiety, depression, gut disorders, eating disorders, and more—are diseases of disembodiment. In these illnesses, awareness becomes skewed. In chronic pain syndromes, for example, we tend to predict what we’ll encounter, but to remain there ruminating about it. “I think that shoulder pain’s about to start up,” we might say. “Yep, there it is. In five minutes it’s gonna feel sharp, like it always does, and then I’ll get that stabbing pain that lasts for hours.” Then we stay in that same area of the shoulder, refusing to move our attention. Should the pain actually let up, it creates a cognitive dissonance. We feel a disparity between the identity of pain and freedom from pain. The freedom is actually harder to integrate; it’s at odds with our pain-centered self-concept. Our mind cancels out the comfort, and wires the pain response in further.
The Continuum of Embodiment is a framework for understanding several things: First, the extent to which we inhabit our interior. Second, where we place our attentional spotlight, as it’s called in MBSR and mindfulness: outside us, on the outer layer of the body, or deeply inward. Third, the continuum of embodiment refers to the degree to which our awareness is gross or subtle.
Interoception evokes the quality of the relationship between our mind and body. Can the mind move out of its comfort zone? Can it learn to tolerate and even seek out the gentle surrender, the humility required to enter the wilderness of the body? Can it cultivate a sense of neutrality, a kindness toward the pain and suffering it finds inside?
In the end, it’s not all interoception, all the time. It’s the dynamic interchange between the three kinds of attention that benefits us. And we might ask ourselves: as yoga practitioners, teachers, or therapists, are we engaged more with proprioception as beautiful movement or interoception as deep awareness?
Our response is significant. Neuroscientists are beginning to study the effects of interoceptive awareness on our brain, in our immune system, and in our emotional lives. The results are astonishing: Embodiment, as it turns out, is vital to our health and well-being. It may also be a doorway into higher consciousness.
This post was republished with permission from LA YOGA Magazine. You can find the original post here.
When we think of trauma, we often imagine an assault from the outside. But when someone is diagnosed with a serious illness such as cancer, the attacker is on the inside. People often report feeling betrayed by their own bodies.
That sentiment is common to students in Bobbie-Raechelle Ross’s Yoga Nidra class at InspireHealth in Victoria and Vancouver. Attendees come to the centre for physical and emotional support with cancer care beyond medical treatments.
“They don’t feel safe because their body is too unpredictable. Instead of focusing on their capabilities, their view of their body becomes negative,” says Ross, a yoga teacher with 500 hours of training.
This sense of being betrayed by one’s own body is also common to people in recovery from addictions, or who have experienced abuse, says Ross. She witnessed this scenario repeatedly when teaching yoga at a mental health facility and alternative high school in Winnipeg before moving to the West Coast. Hearing positive feedback about the overall effects of yoga on her students inspired her to study the phenomenon more deeply. She embarked on a diploma in yoga therapy (almost complete), and is also working towards qualifying as a registered professional counsellor.
People with cancer or other serious illnesses may numb out, dissociate, or become hyper-vigilant – all symptoms of trauma held in the body. Like abuse or assault, a serious illness threatens personal safety, and may even attack self-perception.
Suddenly, a person becomes a patient, and the illness is in charge.There may be confusing medical tests, long periods of waiting for results, and uncomfortable or painful treatments. A person may feel dependent on doctors for access to information and specialists. Choice and personal agency are compromised.
Because symptoms in cancer patients are similar to those of other trauma survivors, Ross uses trauma-informed techniques when she teaches. For instance, she talks almost continuously throughout the class.
“Silence and stillness can be difficult for people who have experienced significant trauma,” explains Ross, “because they can get caught up in the chatter of the mind.”
To avoid this internal chatter, Ross encourages students to develop interoception – the ability to perceive sensations in your body, including hunger or thirst, muscle tension, butterflies in the stomach, or excitement. Interoception skills are strongly correlated with resilience. In other words, people who are better at paying attention to their bodies are better at bouncing back from adversity.
Where regular yoga classes may begin with a silent meditation, Ross opens with a guided grounding exercise, inviting students to notice their bodies’ contact points with the floor or chair.
During the asana portion of the class, Ross invites her students to ask themselves, “Am I in my body right now? Where am I? What am I noticing in my body right now?”
“When our interoception skills are still growing, we can spend too much time cognitively getting wrapped up in the stories [related to each sensation]. My goal is to provide a somatic experience where students can feel safe to observe their own body, the sensations, or lack of.”
Ross says it can take a few classes for students to warm up to the practice, but the difference is noticeable.
One woman was particularly frightened of CT scans, partly because of the lengthy time she had to spend inside the noisy machine. After taking Ross’s Yoga Nidra class for a month, she had a different experience.
As the scan began, the woman noticed signs of her body becoming hyper-aroused: her heart was racing and she felt sweaty. But then something new happened – she remembered Ross’s voice leading her through an exercise called Rotation of Consciousness. “Right big toe, second toe, third toe….”
“She was able to self-regulate using this coping mechanism,” says Ross. “She had no choice in the scan; it had to be done. But she could choose to tap into this tool and come out less overstimulated.”
Ross has dozens of anecdotes like this, where students share how a sensation-focused yoga class has raised their confidence.
“Having this reminder that you have a body and all that it’s capable of can be a really empowering experience moving through trauma,” says Ross. “Instead of focusing on all the negative, focus on awareness of what your body can do for you.”
In coming weeks, Ross will be taking her awareness to Turning Point Recovery Society. There, the soon-to-be Yoga Therapist will help to launch a yoga program for people building new relationships with themselves after quitting a relationship with substances. As she did with the patients at InspireHealth, Ross will be gifting her new students a safe space for connecting with their bodies.
This month we are looking at Aparigraha, the fifth and the last of the Yamas as we explore the moral and guiding principles of the Yoga Sutras. Aparigraha means “non-grasping” or” non-attachment.” This yama teaches us to practice moderation—taking only what we need, keeping only what serves us in the moment, and letting go if necessary.
Aparigraha is the decision to not hoard or accumulate goods motivated by greed but rather to be truly mindful in your accumulation of material stuff. This can be a tough sell in this consumer culture of ours, but when we take a hard look at why we the feel need to buy certain things, we may start to identify the reasons behind the urges… For example, the fear of not keeping up or fitting in, or, it could be an attempt to fill feelings of some other emotional inadequacy. We can get attached to material goods and find ourselves wanting more and more, and at some level thinking we are what we have. This can be an endless cycle that never really fills the void of wanting and the perpetual accumulation of material goods can become toxic to our minds and our environments. Aparigraha reminds us to practice moderation—to step back and examine the motivations of our “needs” and whether they are actually “wants.”
In our thoughts we can also see Aparigraha at play in our clinging or attachment to wanting things to be a certain way. Often, in yoga, I see students getting caught up in an expectation or comparison mindset of how they should be able to keep up in class—either comparing themselves to others or an ideal version of themselves. Maybe they suffered an injury and their body can no longer do a move they could do before. You can see how there is an easy tendency to cling to that old way of being, but when we get in this comparing mindset we are out of touch with how we are actually feeling and we can then cause harm to ourselves. We must let go of our attachments to who we think we are, and become who we truly are. And while it may be scary, it will also be liberating.
In considering emotions, becoming attached to a positive feeling or a positive experience is completely human—why wouldn’t we want to feel happy for as long as we can? Happiness, joy and peace are important emotions to feel, but so too is sadness, anger and loss. To experience only the good stuff is to experience only part of what life has to offer. The school of life exists to allow us to experience and learn from every aspect of our being, the light and the dark, and to truly live, we must not push away the things we don’t want to feel, but allow them to happen, and know that this too shall pass. When we let the moment be what it is without either trying to cling to it, or to push it away, we can really say we’re living in that moment, allowing things to come and go, without the need to possess any of it.
The Sanskrit word ‘Parinamavada’ is the teaching that ‘everything is in a constant state of flux’. Indeed, change is the only constant thing we can expect in life. Just as the trees drop their leaves in Autumn so that they may grow new buds in Spring, we too go through changes every moment of every day. Material stuff comes and goes, our physical bodies are undergoing change every second with cells regenerating and bones rebuilding, and our thoughts and emotions shift and change continuously. The truth is, clinging to past or present moments will not bring us peace. This is the lesson of Aparigraha. If we are to awaken to the fullness of our being, we must learn to let go. When we practice moderation and non-attachment we are essentially saying we trust the flow of life, and within this, lies true freedom.
This month we look at Brahmacharya, the fourth Yama as we explore the moral and guiding principles of the Yoga Sutras. Originally, Brahmacharya was translated as celibacy, but there is a much broader interpretation of this Yama which is more relatable in this day and age. Brahmacharya can be equated to “energy moderation”. It’s about preventing the squandering on one’s energy through the misuse of the senses so that we are not urge driven.
Overstimulating environments, foods, music, movies, games, and yes, even inappropriate sexual behaviour, can all cause disturbances of the mind and emotions. If we let our senses rule our behaviour and spend too much time in overstimulating activities, it can leave us feeling wasted of energy for living a harmonious and fulfilling life. It’s good to look at your energy reserve like money in the bank—you don’t want to spend it all right away so that you have nothing left. With Brahmacharya in practice, you become a good “energy” manager.
In yoga class, I often reference Brahmacharya when I teach my students to balance their effort in the poses—to learn how to find just the right amount of effort to hold the pose without forcing or over engaging. When holding a pose it’s good to ask yourself, “What would I need to do, or stop doing, to stay in the pose for 10 minutes?” Most of the time you’ll realize you are putting too much energy into places where you don’t need it. Yoga should be replenishing to your energy, not depleting.
This is a great practice that you can apply off the mat as well, especially in tense moments like a job interview or being late in traffic. Practicing letting go of tension and reserving your energy for the moment. With time, you’ll notice that by not giving so much energy to wasteful stimulation, or body tension, you are banking your life force energy and feeling more healthy and at ease in all aspects of your life.
Today I want to offer a little information on what role yoga therapy can play in helping you gain better health and wellness.
Yoga Therapy, as the name implies, uses yoga techniques—postures, breathing exercises, and meditations to assist people towards a whole-person approach to healing. A yoga therapy assessment considers your physical body (posture, movement, injuries, digestion, etc.) alongside your breathing style, emotional/mental health, and personal history and goals.
Thinking about how yoga therapy helps, you might picture the yoga stretches releasing physical tension from your body, or the relaxing postures and meditations reducing mental and emotional stress… this is all true, but what people don’t realize is the biggest benefit yoga therapy gives you is ‘embodied awareness‘.
Embodied awareness, otherwise known as interoception, is simply the practice of being with your own sensations in your physical body. It is learning to being still within yourself and noticing what you feel, and come in touch with where you are in time and space. It gives you the awareness of your own internal experience and the learning of how to be at home in your own body.
Why is embodied awareness or interoception so important for health recovery? Many times even before we have a health diagnosis or condition we are turned off from our own awareness and sensations… we become dis-embodied. Overtime, we become more externally focussed, and as a result we don’t notice what it is that our body is trying to say and we don’t identify what it is that we need so that we can take action to get that need met.
So when we practice embodied awareness we become more at home with our own experiences. We become more accepting to our internal experiences, and we learn to recognize and listen to what our needs are and then take action to getting those needs met. This is how yoga therapy helps. It can literally be the key to understanding what it is you need to move forward in your health recovery.
This month we look at Asteya, the third Yama, as we explore the moral and guiding principles of the Yoga Sutras. Asteya is translated as nonstealing, and the message is clear, for a more peaceful and harmonious life, don’t steal. When we read this, we might conjure up an image of a person stealing goods or money from a person or business, but much like the previous two Yamas, there is more to consider here.
There are lots of things you can steal. You can steal someone’s time when you are late, or when you misuse the time allotted to a project. I remember being assigned a group project in university where the two other group members didn’t take the assignment seriously. Either they wouldn’t show up for group worktime or they didn’t engage in the work when they were there. I ended up doing the whole project on my own, and in the end they stood by and took credit for being a part. This definitely felt like they were stealing my time.
You can also steal someone’s energy, and in some cases, steal their happiness. I think of the many clients I know who work in situations where duties and hours seem to pile up over the years. Bosses or corporate environments with ever-increasing demands and coworkers leaving because of the stress and the remaining employees left to fight for a breath from under the workload. These work environments are stealing their employees energy, and eventually their joy from doing their work.
I also think of marriages or partnerships where one person demands more than the other. In a healthy relationship where both people are of able body and mind, there is a balance—a give and take, a division of duties. However, most of us probably know a relationship where there seems to be an upset of power: one person coming across as the selfless soul doing everything, and the other person acting selfish and lazy… and in some cases controlling.
Asteya also calls for us to consider what you consume. Because everything is interconnectected, whatever you receive is taken from somewhere else. Most of us don’t stop to consider all the different levels of energy involved in what they consume. What comes to mind the most is the resistance for people to pay for quality goods. Consumerism is complex and we are often blind of the background story; however, I always like to consider the craftsman, the local farmer, or small businesses where you have a direct relationship and understanding of where the product comes from. In these instances its good to consider the time and energy this person/business has spent. And ask yourself, “Is this really who you want to “steal” a bargain from?” If you are taking something, you need to consider how to give back the appropriate energy or amount. Energetically and karmically, you create a major imbalance if you take and don’t pay back.
You might ask, why is it that some people allow their power and energy to be stolen by another? In my years of working with individuals with this tendency, it often stems from a history of feeling unworthy, sometimes from negative childhood experiences, which can be very troubling and enduring. When a person takes advantage of someone whom they are meant to take care of and love, stealing their energy and power, it’s very damaging and they will never have the space to heal and grow.
I personally love pondering the depths of this Yama. In considering how we govern our own lives in accordance to Asteya it brings me back to the importance of how a well rooted yoga practice can help us develop the skill of mindfully and objectively looking at ourselves to notice how we think and behave, and sometimes to reveal our dark selves. In all of us there are parts that we are not so proud of—maybe for some of us we have been stealing by taking advantage of someone or over consuming past our needs. When you recognize this within yourself, it is helpful to call upon the previous two Yamas—Ahimsa and Satya, and move forward with an earnest interest of truthfulness and kindness towards yourself, and positive change will occur.
As part of my blog series on the Yamas and Niyamas, today I’m writing about Satya, the second Yama, which translates as truth (or not lying). In its practice it means being honest in our words and actions with ourselves and those around us. Living our lives in accordance with the moral standard of truthfulness is of course a good thing to do, but can be perplexingly difficult. Satya is layered and complex, but well worth the investigation.
We are confronted with Satya hundreds of times a day, and most of us choose to be mostly honest in our daily lives in our relationships, purchases, jobs—abiding by this moral standard to keeps the world civil. However, even the most truthful of us are not unfamiliar with “white lies”. Sometimes these white lies get told because they feel fleeting or insignificant. Some get told under the guise of kindness, such as telling your friend their new dress looks great when, in your opinion, it is unflattering. In some cases we deceive to make ourselves look better, such as “stretching the truth” in a job interview. If you take notice of your thoughts and actions, do you see these seemingly small deviations from the truth and then ask, “is there a cost?” Without needing to have an answer, I simply think we would benefit from taking a closer look at why we lie, and perhaps tell ourselves more… Are we doing it out of kindness, and consider the consequences of our choices beyond the immediate moment.
Truth is not always obvious; it can be concealed by a need for protection and safety, and it is not uncommon to hide the truth from ourselves. I often ask my students in class, while in a more relaxed, restful place, to look within and ask, “What is your truth?” When we slow down and connect with ourselves at a deeper layer, sometimes nuggets of truth come to the surface. In yoga, I’ve had uncomfortable truths be revealed regarding big choices in my life, such as changing careers or ending relationships. These truths were buried deep because recognizing them came with a more turbulent path, and I think it’s human nature to avoid these stresses, at least until the time is right. This tendency to protect ourselves from big upheaval in our lives is understandable, but when hidden truths do come to the surface, it’s best to take note because I’ve found you can’t stuff them back down once they are known.
Once you have named your truth, not acting on it can manifest in a myriad of ways such as digestive issues, stress, anxiety, or a variety of physical and mental ailments. Being truthful with ourselves is best served with a little bit of Ahimsa, the first Yama we explored in last month’s blog, representing kindness. The relationship between the two Yamas is nicely explained in how one might practice yoga. If, for example, you push yourself past a level you are ready for, this is being untruthful. Some people are incapable of doing certain poses due to mental trauma buried deep within and pushing past can lead to physical injury but also reveal deep-seated fears and sources of trauma. Sometimes its hard to be in the moment and be confronted by our truth in class, but when we are confronted with the inability to do a certain pose because of a disability or emotional connection to it, we serve ourselves best by acknowledging our reality honestlyand kindly. There will be many truths about ourselves we don’t like in class or out of class; bringing a little self-compassion alongside the truth helps us move forward with it in a healthy way.
I reflect on how most of us are earnestly working towards betterment within ourselves and trying to live our best lives. However, when you do choose the path of untruthfulness, the dishonesty can come at a cost. You can try to reframe the lie or block it from your thoughts, but your deeper self knows, and bit by bit the body churns and wrestles with that untruth until you are physically and mentally unwell. I suppose the fact that it never goes away, but rather morphs into internal discord, is the karmic energy of it all. It’s been my experience in life that Satya, or living a life of truth, is very much at the core of well-being and peace…
Ahimsa, the first of the Yamas, translates to non-violence or non-harming, and is at first glance, obvious. It isn’t any mystery that in order to live at peace within our own conscience, and in the world, we should restrain from harming or violent behaviours. But there are more subtle layers to this Yama. Consider how we can hurt ourselves by working long hours and not taking care of our health, or how we can be violent onto ourselves in the negative, judgemental thoughts we say to ourselves many times a day. Sometimes it’s our lack of action that can be harming, such as choosing not to recycle or not following through on a promise. When considering Ahimsa in our lives we need to consider the whole picture of our actions and the impact they have both immediately and down the road.
To get started, it is helpful to consider the opposite of Ahimsa—kindness and peacefulness. So in every negative thought, attitude and interaction we have, we can ask ourselves how does this affect peacefulness in myself and others, and is it kind? For example, consider the rude driver who sweeps in and steals the parking space you’ve been patiently waiting for. Do you flip them the bird and shout obscenities? It’s tempting, but the spike in blood pressure, tension in your body, and the lingering feeling of agitation throughout your day, would argue otherwise. When we refrain from harming actions towards someone, it certainly brings benefit to the other person, but it karmically benefits you as well since how you treat others determines how much suffering you experience in the end. Even though the driver wasn’t kind to you, when you mirror the unkindness back, it has a ripple effect, surely to affect more negativity to you and others in your day.
This karmic relationship to Ahimsa can be even more significant when dealing with family or friends when you feel resentment towards them. Pause to consider how resentment develops from a history of negative interactions and how these past experiences are ultimately affecting your peacefulness today. This can be a tough pill to swallow when there is a lot of hurt… harbouring resentment towards another can come from a long history of really harmful behaviours, and it is within everyone’s right to say enough is enough, and I won’t be subjected to this behaviour anymore (that would be practicing Ahimsa onto yourself). However, often it is more subtle, and your feelings of resentment can come from a place of fear or vulnerability within yourself, and so you see each new interaction as a threat in some way, and sometimes it is just a threat to how your ego perceives yourself. So in practicing Ahimsa, whenever we feel that sense of resentment surfacing, we need to examine the situation for what it is in the moment. Are you resenting what is actually happening now or is your reaction based on a history of experiences that compounds the intensity? How do your negative thoughts towards that person affects your own inner peace in the moment? When you stop and examine the situation deeper and further, you can choose actions towards more kindness and peacefulness, by judging the moment for what it is now and not the past, and you are the one that will ultimately benefit in the end.
So whenever you recognize moments that take you out of your own peace and kindness, I encourage you to inquire a little deeper to the thoughts behind your thoughts, and the actions behind your actions. This will guide you on your choices and likely lead you to a more peaceful place of action. Practicing Ahimsa is sure to bring greater good to your relationships with others and all of nature, and ultimately, back around to yourself.
Modern yoga has many influences and interpretations, but in its origins, much of yoga’s wisdom is based off the Sanskrit manual, the Yoga Sutras, written prior to 400 CE by Sage Patanjali. It offers guidelines to have an enhanced and more fulfilled life emotionally, mentally, and physically. It outlines an eightfold path for self-transformation and realization through the practice of classical yoga.
If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while you would be familiar with some aspects of the path outlined in the Sutras such as the yoga postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation. However, you might not know much about the other steps, including the Yamas and Niyamas, which are ethical and core values to live by for a more harmonious and peaceful life (with yourself and in your relationships with others and all of nature).
The Yamas and Niyamas are not so much about strict “must do’s”, but rather a set of guidelines that when practiced encourage a more virtuous, contented, and spiritual life. The Yamas are divided into five categories and are concerned with restraining behaviours which produce suffering and difficulty, and to live more ethically. The Niyamas, also divided into five categories, are lifestyle observances to encourage behaviours that lead to greater happiness and ease.
Brahmacharya (energy moderation)
Tapas (self discipline)
Ishvara Pranidhana (self-surrender)
Online you can find many articles written on the Yamas and Niyamas since there are many ways in which we can interpret and practice these steps. Currently I’m in the process of reviewing them for my own study and I plan on sharing what I learn about each one from a practical point of view (both in class and in blogs). To get started I have a link to my first one: Ahimsa (non-violence/non-harming). If you are curious to learn more about this yoga wisdom please follow along!
As we near spring some of my friends and yoga clients who love bike riding look forward to another season of getting outdoors. Cycling is excellent fitness; it can significantly improve cardiovascular health and develop leg strength. For those of you who ride often and enjoy longer distances, there is the concern, however, of developing tension in the back, hip, and leg muscles from the static forward leaning and hip-flexed posture. I have found yoga to be extremely helpful in bringing the body’s balance back. A routine that focuses on opening the front of the body, and especially the hip flexors, can ease this tension.
YOGA SEQUENCE TO EASE THE TENSION FROM RIDING
As a starting base to warm up the spine, complete a few rounds of Cat (top left) and Cow (top right) Pose. As you alternate between flexing and extending the spine, take note of the balance between these two motions and throughout the various segments of the spine. As you come across any area that feels restricted in the movement feel free to pause and hold the shape to deepen the experience into those areas.
2. Thigh Stretch
Next move to lying on your front (prone lying) and see if you are able to bend one knee and grab your foot to gently draw the heel towards your bum. If it is difficult to reach back and get a hold of your foot, you can use a yoga strap around your ankle to assist. It is important that when you come into the knee bend, the front of the hips don’t lift off the floor—you want to feel grounded through the front of the pelvis, especially on the side you are stretching. If you feel your front hip bones lifting off the floor, back out of the stretch a little and try engaging your abdominal muscles before bending your knee in. If this still doesn’t work, or if you feel any discomfort in your low back, you can do this thigh stretch lying on your side instead. Stay with the stretch for four slow breaths, and depending on the degree of tension you feel, consider doing each leg a second time.
3. Locust Pose
Next give Locust Pose a try. It is a great counteractive pose for riders as it strengthens the back extensor muscles (which may be over lengthened and/or weak from the forward leaning posture), and it opens the front body. In this pose you want to engage the back muscles to get a lift of both the upper and lower body, keeping in mind that the height of the lift is totally up to you based on comfort in the back. Also, as you lift the head and chest, let the arms come off the floor as well and draw the shoulder blades together (without shrugging the tops of the shoulders). The legs are lifting at the same time, aiming to get the knees just off the floor and creating a sense of lengthening in the body by stretching the legs back and reaching forward through the crown of the head. Try holding this pose for 3 – 4 slow breaths. As you develop your endurance for this posture, challenge yourself by staying a little longer and doing more repetitions. (Other back extensions such as cobra pose would be suitable here too).
For a progression from locust pose, you could build up to doing Bow Pose (right), which really opens all aspects of the front body. Keep in mind, this pose may be too aggressive for the individual with restricted range of motion in the hip flexors or anyone with a back condition compromising their spinal extension, e.g. stenosis. You should be able to do the thigh stretch and locust pose easefully before attempting this pose.
4. Puppy Pose
After the locust pose and Bow Pose, it tends to feel balancing to come back to kneeling and briefly stretch the back into the reverse motion. Often in class I’ll suggest doing another cat stretch or child’s pose.
For Puppy Pose (above), start on all four’s and walk the hands out in front for a long reach under the arms (hands shoulder with apart). You want to keep your hips stacked above the knees. Then let the head and chest relax downwards between the arms to feel the stretching under the arms, along the sides of the torso, and across the chest. Stay here for 3 – 4 slow breaths.
5. Kneeling Lunges
Onto the kneeling lunges—probably the most important aspect of this program in order to stretch the hip flexors. The kneeling lunges can be awkward and challenging when you first learn them, but well work the effort for cyclists! Keep in mind it is good to set yourself up for success by adding a little comfort and support in these poses. For instance, you can add padding under the knee on the floor and/or you could do these lunges beside a chair or bench to steady your balance.
First come into a high kneeling posture with one foot forward (image top left), and before you shift your hips forward into lunge, lengthen the low back by tilting the tail bone under (posterior pelvic tilt) and maintain this tilt as you lunge the hips forward (image top right). Make sure the front foot is far enough ahead that the knee lines up with the ankle below.
The second two lunges, from the images above, demonstrate additions to the basic lunge by reaching the outside arm overhead (image bottom left) and then revolving the body with one hand on the hip (image bottom right) to create greater lengthening down the lateral chain of muscles. On the revolved lunge, I rotate my trunk towards the front knee side and place my outside hand on a block. Instead of a block, you could reach your hand to the ground if this is comfortable for you, or for more height under the hand, you can rest your hand on the chair/bench. Stay in these lunge postures again for 3 – 4 slow breaths each.
6. Revolved Kneeling Lunge with Thigh Stretch
This posture is for those of you who are ready for a deeper release into the thigh and hip flexor. It is important that you can competently do the previous lunges before adding this one into your routine. With the revolved kneeling lunge, you reach back with the opposite hand to foot to add the knee bend while holding the lunge. In the image above, I am demonstrating with a block under my hand for some support and to lift in my posture.
7. Supine Hamstring Stretch
Finish on your back to stretch the hamstrings. In this pose I am demonstrating how you can use a yoga strap to assist the drawing in of the leg and use of the strap to dorsiflex the ankle (toes towards shin) for greater stretch into the lower leg (calf) muscles. Stay in the stretch for 3-4 slow breaths and do each leg once or twice depending on the level of tension you notice.
After completing the hamstring stretch, gently draw both knees towards the chest for a little hug, and then extend both legs out, arms at your sides to finish in Savasana, resting on the ground for however long feels good.
I hope this routine brings balance back into your body after those long rides and keeps your cycling pain free!
One of the popular classes I taught when I first opened the studio was Back Care Yoga. It was regularly well attended because back pain is so prevalent within our society—many of us will have troubles with our back at some point in our lives, and for many it can be a long battle with chronic pain and limitations. One of the reasons I took it off the class schedule was because I found myself conflicted knowing that not all back problem should be treated the same. This left me limiting the potential of some of the students (to err on the side of caution for those who’s condition demanded more restriction than others), and this left me feeling like I could do better for each participant.
Back pain can come from many sources. Within the spectrum of back problems causing pain and dysfunction, there are acute conditions and chronic conditions, which need to be managed differently. There are specific diagnoses, such as disc bulges/herniations or stenosis, which require their own understanding of movement limitations and treatment, while less-descript diagnoses may require less restriction and general reconditioning. There can also be a range of mechanical issues stemming from a variety of sources. For example, severe tightness in the surrounding muscles and fascia can impede functional movement and produce pain; or conversely, laxity and hypermobility of an area creates excessive movement, inflammation and pain. In these two conditions the treatment plan can literally be opposite—one needing more stretching the other needing more strengthening respectively.
Regardless of what is happening in your back, one thing is for certain, in all my years of working in the industry of physical therapy with people in pain, no two conditions are exactly the same, and the ‘one size fits all’ approach just doesn’t work. This is why I have decided to offer an educational workshop called Back Care Therapeutics where each participant will come away with a better understanding of their own unique condition so that he or she will better understand what is needed to improve their pain and function, but also have a clearer understanding of what they should avoid in yoga. This workshop will be offered in conjunction with a Back Care Yoga Series, which will allow for individual accommodations and pacing, and offer the participants an opportunity to practice what they have learned.
I am very excited about this new offering. Knowledge is power, and I truly believe, within every individual, she or he has the potential for healing themself, and yoga can an amazing tool to set you on this path.
Have you ever heard a yoga teacher say, “How you show up on your mat is how you show up in your life?” If you think about it, our personality, characteristics, habits and belief systems don’t just disappear when we walk into a yoga class, so likely, the way you are in life, is the way you practice yoga, and depending on what habits and characteristics show up, it can helpful or hindering to your yoga progress. Acknowledging this, and taking a step back to become more aware of how your personality shows up on your mat, is a powerful point of reflection from which you can learn and grow as an individual.
Consider these questions: Are you a very determined or disciplined person? Do you get frustrated and angry very easily? Do you need to do everything perfectly? Are you usually quite hard on yourself and always push yourself – or do you not push yourself at all? Do you avoid challenges or discomfort? Do you prefer activities that are slow moving and low energy? Are you open and expressive or are you withdrawn and quiet?
These are just a few questions to get you thinking about your nature and how these characteristics affect your behaviour, preferences, and choices. Then consider how these tendencies might be showing up in your yoga practice – the style of class you choose, how you engage throughout the class, where you place your mat, and the thoughts that show up during the practice… When you begin to reflect on your patterns, it can lead to insights about how you approach and engage in life and maybe even why.
Consider this example: Sally is a high energy, physically strong person who craves challenges and likes constant stimulation. She gravitates to flow and power yoga classes with lots of movement and distraction. Sally is very motivated by extrinsic goals and competition and strives to perform poses a certain way. The teacher notices she is often over-tensing in her body and holding her breath and begins to offer her cues to provide internal reflection on these tendencies. As Sally begins to notice how her body and breath respond to her strong achieving mindset, she begins to notice connections such as feeling sore after class or over-stimulated rather than calm, and she begins to make connections about how her high-expectation thoughts for her own performance may not always benefit her improvement in yoga and overall health.
When one begins to make these connections about habits and preferences, we can use our yoga practice as a way to bring more balance into our life and begin practicing new ways of being. Because there are so many different styles of yoga and tools we can sample, it may be helpful to try the opposite of your “preferred” or “regular” style. That means slowing down and practicing gentleness if you are a go-go-go person who always pushes. Or, for those of you who are low energy and avoid new challenges, turn up the volume a bit and try crossing some boundaries.
In the case of Sally, she might choose a slow restorative or yin class, and by placing herself outside her norm, and listening to how her body and mind respond, new insights can arise. For example, she might notice feelings of impatience or agitation when staying still in longer poses or during silence. Or she might feel edgy when the poses feel too easy and there is little sensation. There is a good chance that these feelings on the mat can reveal lifelong patterns and beliefs she carries about herself and others, and with revelations such as these, she can then begin to ask herself why or where it came from. Within these questions and answers a whole universe of self-discovery can be possible.
Yoga can be a marvellous discipline from which we can learn about our habits and behaviours, and once we make these connections, and practice in a way that challenges these habits and belief systems, new patterns are eventually created. This inevitably crosses over into our daily life. Sometimes, this process happens slowly and gradually, and in other instances, it happens very quickly. Regardless, by committing to our yoga practice in this self reflective way, the result is that we are forever changed.
The winter solstice marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. It is at this point in the earth’s journey around the sun that our northern hemisphere leans furthest away from the light and the sun is lowest. This year the solstice occurs on Friday December 21st, and I personally feel drawn to reflect on this day, as I can’t help but marvel in the symbolism of it. The word “solstice,” in Latin, means “sun standing still”, and in some disciplines of yoga, the sun symbolizes the soul. So in a sense, we could say the soul stands still on the solstice.
The transition into winter and these darkest days gets me thinking about nature. Nature seems to remember what we humans have forgotten… That it is a natural process to shift into stillness and inactivity when the light is low and days are cold. It is in this rest of the winter season that all life’s energy recycles. The trees and plants retreat inwards to dormancy, animals rest and hibernate, and ponds freeze and suspend in time. All this is necessary for the rebirth of life and action in the spring. It gets me wondering about the consequences of forging through the season without this rest, as we humans seem to do. I wonder if we should take more notice of this phase in nature and let it be a cue from which we also take a break from the constant doing and accomplishing. It may be, that by taking the time to rest and reflect, we gather the energy to regenerate and renew.
Everything in the universe has cycles; when a star dies it produces the material for new stars. When a plant is eaten, the energy it stored from the sun is transferred to the new body. This life and death cycle exists everywhere around and within us. Every action, emotion, cell in our body, and breath we take alternates from coming to going; existing and then not. Without this shift into void and nothingness, where endings reside, the cycle of energy cannot continue. The Winter solstice is a powerful reminder that the universe needs both light and darkness to sustain. It is out of the darkness that flowers eventually emerge, life is born, and ideas are formed and nurtured.
This year, in the days around the solstice, I plan to use it as a time of inner reflection; to look back on my year and acknowledge what I have completed and the insights and understandings I have gained. In this pause from activity, I will take time to grieve my losses and celebrate my triumphs, and contemplate what it is I need new, and what it is I need to let go of. I figure there is so much richness and integration that can be received in this transition phase if we take the time to become still with ourselves and listen. Perhaps you’ll join me in this celebration of night as a time to rest your soul and re-fuel your inner light.
I recently had abdominal surgery and with that the nurses give you a host of recommendations for post op recovery and health. One of those recommendations tweaked my yoga brain. They advised me to regularly take deep breaths and cough after surgery. I found out this advice is given to help prevent individuals from getting pneumonia, a common side effect after general anesthesia and abdominal surgery. (The concern being that the pain from the surgical area prevents people from taking deep breaths and this reduces air flow into the lower lungs, sometimes causing collapsed lung tissue, which is then susceptible to the buildup of bacteria, leading to pneumonia).
I always appreciate preventative health measures, and I think it’s great that this advice is given to the patients (and for the record, I did follow all the nurse’s recommendations). However, the instructions from the nurse to do some deep breathing came without instructions, and as a yoga teacher who studies and teaches breathing, it got me thinking how people could use some extra education on the “how to” part since taking a deep breath is not as straight forward as it sounds.
Over the years of working with people in my classes and private yoga lessons, I’ve realized how many individuals really struggle with taking in a deep breath, at least the way I interpret “deep.” Often, what I notice, is an increase air intake that lands in the upper portion of the chest/lungs, creating a vertical uplift in their posture, with very little to no expansion around the lower ribs and belly. This is how many people breathe—in the upper portion of the lungs only.
More than this, it appears some people have actually lost their ability to take in a breath into the lowest, most voluminous part of the lungs. I say “lost their ability,” because babies and animals naturally take these full, lower lung breaths. That’s how we were born to breathe. But somewhere along the way, often between the ages of 5 and 10, their breathing changes from a lower body breath to an upper body breath.
It can happen because of several things, here are couple… You go to school and you start sitting more, and sitting affects your posture, and posture affects where your breath can travel in the body. Then, somewhere along the way, perhaps you start to “suck in our gut”, maybe because we become self conscious of our stomachs or just because we feel it’s something we should do to look better. Tightening your stomachs is also associated with a bracing stance, preparing for action or for safety during times of vulnerability and stress, and you do this as a response to perceived physical and/or emotional threat. Over time, this action of perpetually tightening your stomach can become unconscious and habitual. If this is the case, and for many of you it is, being advised take a “deep breath” won’t be enough. If you want to access the largest part of your lungs, it may actually require training in how to break this habit.
Breathing down into the lower portion of the lungs is best exercised through a technique called diaphragmatic breathing. (Sometimes known as abdominal or belly breathing). One of the things that helped me truly access this type of breathing was to come back to my anatomy knowledge and create a visual in my mind of the body’s main breathing muscle—the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen. When you breathe in the diaphragm contracts (flattens out), pressing down towards the abdominal organs, and when you breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes back up into its dome shape inside the rib (thoracic) cavity. To visualize this a little further have a look at this quick video demonstrating the action of the diaphragm in breathing. Diaphragm movement video
Coming back to our “sucking in our guts” phenomenon, it makes sense that if you have a tight belly, then the diaphragm has a more difficult time moving downward because it is being resisted by the contracted abdominal muscles. When you relax your belly and allow it to expand as you inhale, your viscera (guts) drop slightly down and out and the diaphragm can more easily contract downward. Then, when exhalation takes place, the diaphragm begins its upward movement of relaxation aided by the natural movement of the belly as it returns toward the spine. So a relaxed abdomen is essential in taking a natural diaphragmatic or abdominal breath. (Below you will find a free handout with step by step instructions on learning to breathe this way).
There is more to this diaphragmatic breathing than just better lung volume. When we breathe with good diaphragmatic movement, the up and down action of the diaphragm stimulates blood vessels and nerves that pass through the diaphragm. One in particular is the vagus nerve, which is the main nerve of the relaxation portion of the nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). When the PNS is stimulated, the body produces chemical messengers and signals blood pressure receptors to promote resting, digestion, and relaxation. Studies are showing there is a feedback loop in the body that with long diaphragmatic breaths, the greater the movement of the diaphragm, which in turn increases stimulation of the PNS. In this way, simple diaphragmatic breathing is an effective tool in helping to calm and ease stress, improve digestion, and immune functioning.
The opposite is also true. When a person is stuck in the habit of shallow, upper chest breathing, with minimal diaphragmatic movement, the body perceives this as being in a state of emergency or threat and activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). This results in a cascade of events such as elevated heart rate, sleeplessness, impaired digestion and impaired immune functioning. A simple change in your breathing is a gateway to better physiological and emotional health.
So if you are ever given the advice to “take a deep breath,” know that it is not just trying to get more air into your lungs. Adding diaphragmatic movement to your breathing can have all sorts of health benefits. It just takes a little practice.
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.
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