If You Know Better, You Do Better – Right?

Maturity brings change, right? Not always. Have you ever wondered why some people seem to grow up, get better, do better with age, while others get stuck–doomed to repeat the same patterns of self sabotage and unhealthy choices? As we move through puberty, connections to our frontal brain develop, making us more rational and less egocentric. Yet beyond this, there are still those individuals who seem to get stuck, lacking self reflection and relational growth. I find it especially noticeable during reunions of past friends or family where you realize an individual hasn’t changed much at all and it’s hard to connect and maintain a relationship with them.

Outside of educational opportunities, mental illness, and brain developmental issues, I believe part of the difference comes from how much one learns the skill of self awareness, and that this is a technique can be enhanced through practices such as yoga and mindfulness training. The more we develop our skill to shift out of the default “overactive, thinking” state, (reflexive thoughts encased around personal narration and evaluation of past events and an imagined future), and drop into a present-moment awareness state (becoming the observer of what is happening within the body and outside in the environment in a non-judgemental way), the more we can take a step back and see ourselves for how we really are.

In yoga, we have the opportunity to practice being in this aware state more often than in day to day living. We are drawn into the present moment through our bodies (known as embodied mindfulness), and in this way we can witness the coming and going of our reflexive thoughts and behaviours. It is through the sensation of the postures and breath that we are focused into the state of “now.” In my experience, using the breath and the body together as a way to draw our attention into our aware state, is very effective for beginners because there is more to keep the mind occupied than, for example, traditional sitting meditation which often uses only the breath. Therefore yoga can be a very effective gateway to self awareness.

There is more to it. The nature of some yoga poses, releases blocked or repressed experiences. Our human minds are hardwired for self preservation and protection. Some things are easier to live with when pushed or packed away. The problem is our unconscious selves still know the truth of it all, and it’s been my experience that our physical bodies house this information in cellular memory. So when, we move, stretch, pressure, breathe & release  parts of our body (in a non-threatening and safe manner) it can reveal memory and emotion from previous experiences. Once this is brought to the surface, and received from a non-judgemental, aware state, it’s hard to ignore its presence. The more often this happens, the more we get connected to the blind spots and repressed “stuff” we house, and deeper self-knowledge is gained.

So if you combine these two ingredients of embodied mindfulness and transparency into our body’s memory and wisdom, our lives begin to shift and change as a consequence of practicing yoga. It’s like opening the floodgates; its difficult to close once opened. My practice has lead me to a place where I can no longer be in a situation where I know better, and turn a blind eye. My body literally rebels and I am quickly in tune with the knot in my gut telling me I need to do better. This can manifest in all sorts of scenarios such as choosing boundaries for relationships that are toxic to my wellbeing, or saying sorry after I realize my actions (or lack of action to another) is unkind or dismissive. Once self awareness and connection to whole body intelligence has taken root, it is much harder taking a walk down the easy road.

I believe we are all on a journey of self understanding and mastery in our lives. Some will move mountains, others will repeat destructive patterns. We can’t deny the reality that it never works to change another person; it is their life to live, and the only thing we can do is work on ourselves and hopefully become the best version of our self. When we connect to practices such as yoga and mindfulness, it gives us a route to get there.

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Taking Care of Your Wrists & Hands in Yoga

I was teaching a class the other day and one of the participants asked if there was a way to protect her sore wrists in class. Let me start by saying that this is not a new question, not only do I frequently address this question in class, but you’ll find numerous articles and posts on this topic. Since in yoga, there are a number of postures where we weight bear on our hands/wrists, it’s important to strategize how we should proceed.

There are a few things you can do to support yourself through the process of conditioning the wrists and hands to tolerate the weighted extension posture on them. Notice that I used the word “conditioning”… It has been my experience that the wrists will slowly build in their tolerance for the weight bearing postures with practice, so long as it is done gradually and mindfully over time.

To begin with, if you are one of those people who have tightness in your wrists, doing a few gentle range of motion ROM exercises before the weight bearing postures is a good idea. Warm up the wrists by doing some basic circles a few times in each direction, and then try these light wrist stretches:

Using your opposite hand, lightly pull the fingers back and then press them down as shown (holding briefly for 5 – 10 sec a couple times each hand). Then try bringing your palms together at the front of your chest attempting to bring the heel of the hands together as you move your hands downwards (holding in this stretch for 3 breaths).

Next, you want to think of your hands as being similar to your feet. Our feet have arches which distribute the load of pressure and shock absorb; so too can your hands. When weight bearing on them you want to feel the perimeter of the palm and the heel of the wrist connecting to the ground with a small air space under the center of the palm. Maintaining this little “arch” in your hand activates the muscles of the wrists and hands and gives some integrity of support to the structures. The fingers should also be spread wide with even pressure into each in order to distribute and balance the forces placed on the hand.

Finally, it’s good to remember to listen to your body in class. For me, when I’m doing a class where there is a fair amount of weight bearing on my hands, I do a couple downward dogs and then rest the wrists with some gentle circles in between, or I’ll go into child’s pose turning the palms up to relax the hand/wrist muscles. Also, during the class, when you feel your wrists have had enough, know that it is time to stop the weight bearing – find an alternate way to be, for example drop to your elbows during table top or down dog, or just find an alternate pose off the hands.

Give these tips a try. If you build gradually over time and pace yourself in class then your tolerance should improve with time. If you have a pre-existing wrist/hand condition you may need more specific advice and tips for using props to support your hands, and a consult with a yoga therapist would be advised.

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Yoga for Long Days at the Computer

When we spend long hours at the computer or on our other devices, we tend to sit with our heads leaned forward and our shoulders and upper backs rounded. Too much time in this posture inevitably leads to tension and sometimes soreness around the neck and upper back. If we do this day after day, structural changes in the joints and muscles can eventually develop that leave us with imbalances and even chronic pain issues such as headaches or nerve root pain from the neck.

Getting out to a class at least once a week can make a world of difference to the build up effect of tension in the upper body. Yoga is especially good because it mobilizes the spine in all directions and promotes balance and circulation in the muscles and joints. In addition, the mindfulness aspect of yoga gives us insight about our habits, such as postural tendencies or how we might chronically tense certain body parts. It really is worth the effort to make it a part of your weekly routine.

Outside of classes, we need to take care to break up our sitting posture throughout the day. I recently read a fun quote, “Your body needs movement snacks just as much as it needs food snacks.” Take these words to heart! Whether you take a walk around the block or do a few favourite stretches, these short bouts of movement can really help break up your day at the computer.

Below I’ve included a video where I lead you through a chair yoga sequence that you can do whenever you feel tension develop in the upper body. I find this short sequence really helps to generate circulation and balance in the upper body after “computering” for too long.

*If you want to skip the introduction (described in the paragraph above), go to the 45 second mark in the video.*

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Learning to Take a Deep Breath

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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.
diaphragm-breathing-500x313The 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.

Diaphragmatic (Belly) Breathing Handout

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Six Benefits of Downward Facing Dog

161017-029xDownward Facing Dog, or Adho Mukha Svanasana is one of the most commonly practiced and most iconic yoga postures around. We do this pose so often because it has so many health benefits. Below I’ve listed 6 good reasons to keep working on your Downward Dog. Also, I’ve included a free Downward Facing Dog Handout describing alignment details, benefits, and modifications.

1. Downward dog opens the backs of the legs

Most of the activities we do during the day (especially sitting) brings tension to the backs of the legs. This is why so many of us walk around with chronically overly tight hamstrings and calf muscles. Downward Facing Dog is an awesome posture for opening the backs of the legs because the stretch crosses three joint lines, thereby promoting lengthening of the posterior facia connections, and making it a really effective stretch.

2. It elongates the spine

The traction you get from planting your feet and then pushing your hands strongly into your mat is one of the best spinal elongation tools the yoga asana practice has to offer. Opening the spaces between the vertebrate helps to relieve compression on the spine and promotes circulation to the discs.

3. It opens the chest and shoulders 

Most of us who sit in a chair all day have chest and shoulder muscles that are overly tight. This comes from the ‘hunched’ position most of us hang out in all day. Downward Facing Dog will help you to re-establish some opening in your chest and stretching of the side body and under arm muscles to increase your shoulder flexion. All of which helps improve your posture.

4. It strengthens the arms and shoulders

This pose is awesome for increasing your arm and shoulder strength. In downward dog we aim to balance the weight between the hands and the feet, and in order to do that, we need to press the hands into the mat and actively engage through the arms. This action shifts the upper body back and encourages a more direct overhead press. This action of pressing overhead strengthens many arm and shoulder muscles, which are often underdeveloped muscles in the body.

5. It wakes you up and boosts circulation

Downward Dog is one of the best poses you can do when you’re fatigued. It engages many muscle groups simultaneously and gets the oxygen and blood flowing to all parts of the body. Downward Facing Dog also offers all the benefits of an inversion without having to fully go upside-down. Inversions are great for returning blood flow to the upper body helping to regulate blood pressure, and in particular bring blood flow to the brain which help brings about clarity and focus.

6. It’s a good check in with your body

Lastly, once you get familiar with your body in Downward Dog, you appreciate how the sensations and effort it requires changes from day to day and moment to moment. Therefore, Downward Dog is a good way to “take inventory” about how you’re feeling. It stretches your arms, shoulders, legs and back all at once, and you can take notice of what you need to work on each day.

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Don’t Leave Your Pelvis Behind in Seated Forward Bends!

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Injuries to the low back are common, and we want to make sure our yoga classes don’t become part of the problem. For this blog we will look particularly at seated forward bends and how to move the pelvis in a way that promotes healthy alignment.

Regardless of which seated forward bend your are doing in yoga, the common theme is that our seat is anchored on the ground so it becomes very easy to move our bodies forward without bringing the pelvis with us. (This is especially true for people with tight posterior leg and hip muscles). When the pelvis gets stuck in the posterior tilt and we lean forward, it can place strain on the ligamentous tissues around the sacroiliac joint (often referred to as the SI joint), and can cause excessive rounding through the spine, which is potentially dangerous to the discs of the low back.

So a very important skill to learn is how to tilt the pelvis forward (anterior rotation) with the spine in our bends. Here are some tips to learn how to do this:

First test yourself in Staff Pose (Dandasana)…

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Are you able to sit in a tall spinal position with your legs outstretched (top left)? Or does your pelvis tip backwards and body lean as shown in the picture on the right? If the tightness through your leg muscles prevents you from sitting tall, then sitting directly on the ground with your legs straight will end up making your forward bends look like the image below. Below we see the pelvis fixed in posterior rotation and the spine having to compensate into a really rounded posture to make the bend happen.

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To avoid this potentially straining posture, we utilize props to assist in the tilting of our pelvis in the anterior direction.  Below, I am demonstrating Head-to-knee pose, or Janu Sirasana, (where one leg is outstretched and the other knee is bent). I modify by placing a folded blanket underneath my seat to reduce the pull on the hamstrings (note more than one blanket can be used depending on the level of tightness in the legs). Also, a rolled towel is placed underneath the knee to fill the space and reduce posterior knee strain. You can see how this has changed the posture of my low back.

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In the next image, I am demonstrating a modification for Paschimottanasana (where both legs are outstretched) by using a bolster to support a good amount of knee bend. This  bent-knee posture minimizes the pull from the hamstrings on the pelvis, allowing me to tilt my pelvis forward and lengthen my back. You can do this even without a bolster and just keep the knees bent without support.

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In addition to the use of props, there is a specific technique to learn to help un-anchor the pelvis and this comes from freeing the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) from the ground. A small lift and wiggle of your seat from the ground and re-situating your hips back a little will help you orient the pelvis forward. You may also need to actively engage muscles to initiate the forward tilting of the pelvis – visualize your pelvis like a bowl as if to pour contents out forward. You will know you have it correct when you are feeling like you are situated on the front edge of your sitting bones.

Outside of the propping and intentional shift of the pelvis forward, the safety for our backs also lies in the depth we try to take forward bends. You’ll notice in the last two images my head is nowhere near my knees! Don’t get caught up in making the pose look a certain way. For the sake of safety, a good reminder is sometimes less is more. As you are progress in your seated forward bends, take your time and listen to your body.

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Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind…

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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An Essay on Acceptance

WELCOME TO-2I recently taught a class with with a theme of acceptance. This is not a new theme to me (nor the yoga industry), but one I like to revisit because I’ve always found the topic to be quite transformative. Acceptance is a precondition for growth and healing and thanks to a lovely student of mine I have had a couple of new realizations on this topic.

You never know what will show up during a mindful yoga practice, and sometimes you will come across difficult realizations. Deep in a pose, you suddenly realize something about yourself, or something about your life that you do not like. It could be an imperfection in the way you move and feel, an awareness of a strained relationship, an internal unrest about something in your life, or the surfacing of deep and painful emotion. Contemplating acceptance around such difficult realizations, doesn’t mean we have to like or agree with it, and it is not the same as surrender or sacrifice (nor is it about resignation or giving up). Rather, it’s about acknowledging reality as it is right now. Acceptance is an allowing, not about shutting things out, and our yoga becomes a practice of seeing things as they are difficult or not.

To fully embody this understanding, consider the opposite. When we don’t accept difficult realizations that bubble up, then we avoid, we tense, we resist, we force – essentially we don’t see clearly, and therefore delude reality. A deluded reality eventually catches up with us, prolonging the inevitable of what we must face. A deluded reality is also not a solid foundation from which to work from. How can we ever truly change without a solid base? Like points on a map, when a destination is known, how can you find your way without knowing where you are right now?

That student of mine that brought this all forward for me had come to the realization during one of my classes that she had a toxic relationship in her life and years of not accepting it was taking a toll on her on well being.  Realizing and accepting the nature of this relationship meant she could move forward and change the nature of it.  Without this acknowledgment it would be impossible to set the boundaries and expectations necessary for positive change.

Applying the practice of acceptance in relation to growth and healing is palatable with those things in our life where there is possibility of change, but what about those things in our life which hold no possibility of change, those things outside our control? There are times when the awareness itself is unacceptable… the untimely loss of a loved one comes to mind. In these moments, sometimes all we can do is accept the unacceptable. Within these moments, acknowledgement of “what is” allows a new way of being to emerge – not necessarily unscarred or liberated, but just new.

“Grieve. so that you can be free to feel something else”.  (Nayyira Waheed)

Whether it is on or off our mats, when we are bearing our authentic selves, our heaviest emotions, and acknowledging our messy, imperfect bits, it can be hard, but no one said this would be an essay on easy. The question becomes, with whatever is showing up for you, can you greet it with eyes wide open and with no expectation to be liked? Within this lies the difference to true healing and change: that solid foundation of seeing clearly and all that it has to offer.

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On the Other Side of Fear

170121-026-2Jump back a couple years ago and this was me doing Ustrasana, camel pose. Due to a long standing neck injury, and subsequent weakness, the neck extension in camel pose was most frightening for me. I was convinced my neck would never be able to extend that way, and if I did try, I would suffer for days with neck pain. So for a very long time I did my modified camel pose with head lifted and neck protected (and that was okay).

But one day I decided to test my neck and extend it backwards a little. Surprisingly it didn’t hurt, and interestingly, it felt freeing and exciting. Within one week of practice I was embracing camel pose in its full form, and I couldn’t get enough. I wondered, “Why did I wait so long?”170121-033-2

This is often the question we ask ourselves once we’ve taken the leap and felt the success… but as they say hindsight is 20/20. The truth is that there is often that unrelenting voice of fear in the background, “What if I fail?”, “What if I’m not good enough?”, or in yoga, “What if I hurt myself?”

The fear of failure is something many of us struggle with. And, sometimes these fears are grounded in good concern, such as when our actions could jeopardize the security, health, and safety of ourselves and others (so, we reason, treading the waters cautiously is a wise choice). However, just as often, our fears are more irrational – based on old, untrue, or unknown beliefs, and it is simply the fear of the unknown that holds us back.

Being on the other side of my camel-pose fear, I’ve become more aware of how time changes things and that what was once true doesn’t mean that it will always be true. I’ve opened my mind (and body) to experimenting with old limitations and beliefs of what I can do physically. I recently created a list of edgy poses I want to work on, and I’m finding the process of challenging my fears getting easier.

I find myself using these successes on the mat as safe ways to stretch my risk-taking muscles and challenge my beliefs about myself, my abilities, and what I can accomplish in life off the mat – each success or failure, a step in building my personal confidence that I am able, that I will be okay, and that I am resilient. I am learning more and more about my conditioned fears based on past experiences and how untrue they can sometimes be for future experiences. I am learning sometimes that I have to push my comfort zone in order to move forward in my personal goals and achievements.

I know this idea of taking risks and pushing past our fears is not a new concept for most of us, but I do marvel in how often we can be aware of this concept, and yet be relatively unaware of that which we are avoiding in our own lives. So if this resonates with you, take a moment and pause to consider, what in your own yoga practice or life scares you a little? What are you avoiding and what stories are you telling yourself about this fear? Is it time to challenge these beliefs… is it time to take the leap?

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Gratitude Project to Improve your Health & Wellbeing

This holiday season I welcome you to join me on a quick and easy Gratitude Project for yourself. It only takes a few minutes of your day and research shows it is one of the easiest ways to improve your physical and psychological health.

A study done by Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading gratitude researchers, found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits including: stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, better sleep, higher levels of positive emotions such as optimism and happiness; they become more helpful, generous, and compassionate, and they experience less feelings of loneliness.

You might be wondering, how can something so simple be so effective? What the researchers found is that when we search for things to be grateful for, it activates the part of our brain that releases the feel-good hormone, dopamine, and it can also boost serotonin production, which helps to combat the effects of depression.

Also, gratitude can change our thinking habits. When we regularly spot the good things in our life, it makes it more likely that (even when we’re not looking for them) we see more positives. And, gratitude can help us feel more connected to others, which in turn can improve our well-being.

So if you are curious about giving this a try, here’s how you get started… For 10 days, near the end of your day, take 10 minutes to look back and reflect on all that you remember in your day and see if there is anything you feel grateful for; not what you think you “should” be grateful for, but what you really “feel” gratitude for. It can be small and simple things like the food you ate, conversations you had, or simply noticing something beautiful in your environment. List one to three things that stood out for you.

By the end of the 10 days, I’m betting you will notice it will spark something within you. You will likely be more aware during your day of making note of what is happening around you that you are grateful for… you will start to see things you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. It can shift how you look at the world and the moments in your day. And, at some point, you may begin to realize that it is within these moments that you will experience a lifetime of benefits.

Enjoy the journey and let me know how it goes!

P.S. Get you kids involved!

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Yoga for Foot and Calf Tightness

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This blog is for the person with tight calves, achilles tendons, and/or plantar fascia. If you suffer from pain, tension, or cramps in these areas this blog will provide you with some yoga moves to restore mobility and reduce your symptoms.

Start by rolling the feet (1 – 2 min/side). Press down into the ball and roll into all the tender areas. The spiky massage ball in the image below works great, but you can use any kind of firm, small ball, e.g. a tennis or lacrosse ball.

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Next take Warrior I pose. Step back into a lunge with the back foot turned out 45 degrees and the feet spaced hip distance apart. Firm the back leg to straighten the knee and press the back heel down. The front knee bends and both arms reaching overhead. Ensure that your pelvis is square to the front of your mat. Stay here for 4 breaths and repeat 2 times each side.

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161017-034Next take Downward Facing Dog. From an all four’s position, step your hands slightly forward from the line of your shoulders, spacing your hands shoulder distance apart and the fingers spread widely. Tuck your toes under and begin to lift your knees up sending your hips upwards. Then, slowly work towards straightening the legs and pressing your heels down towards the ground. Note that our focus is to feel a stretch for the lower leg, so it isn’t necessary to have the heels all the way down to the ground, only as low as it takes to feel the right amount of stretch. Once you are in a settled in position, stay for 4 or 5 breaths.

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Take a rest before this next one… Then return to down dog position and this time hook one foot behind the other ankle such that you are taking the weight through one leg, with the intention to press the one heel down towards for the floor for a deeper stretch. Pause here and breath for another 4 breaths each leg.

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Return to a kneeling position, tuck your toes under and sit upright. Here you will be resting your weight over your toes stretching the underside of the foot. Keep in mind this posture can be intense (and sometimes not possible if there is restriction in the knees), so build your tolerance gradually.

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Return to standing, for chair pose. Situate your feet hip distance apart and sit your hips back as if sitting down into an imaginary chair (watch that your knees do not bend forward past the front line of your toes). As you sit back keep your chest lifted, extend your arms forward (or overhead for a more advanced variation shown in picture 2) and then check in with your lower body. The aim is to feel grounded through all four corners of the feet and to keep the heels pressing down to the ground. Note the degree of knee bend will depend on how tight the lower leg is so work with keeping the heels down as priority over achieving a certain depth of bend. Try this pose a couple times for a length of 4 breaths.

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Lastly don’t forget to stretch your hamstrings! I’ve chosen head to knee pose in the image below since it addresses a stretch for the entire posterior kinetic chain. Although, if you suffer from any back injuries an alternative could be to lie on your back and extend a leg straight up. Enjoy a nice long stretch, a minute per side, breathing deeply and relaxing into the posture. studio-interior-2

Give this a try and let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear your comments or questions!

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Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)

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As with many of the standing yoga postures, there is much to study in a single pose. I love and respect Triangle Pose as it demands strength, flexibility, stability, and ease all in a single moment, and it teaches you so much about proprioception (the sense of position of the body in space). The above diagram highlights alignment tips that will help keep your back and knees safe in this posture. There are variations and additions to play with this posture which enhance certain aspects of stretch or strength, but I love this basic form to build your foundation.

Here are some of the physical benefits of Triangle Pose:

  • It stretches the side waist and lateral hip muscles (gluteus medius, tensor fascia latae).
  • It strengthens the core
  • It stretches the hamstring and inner thigh muscles of the front leg
  • It teaches the skill of stabilizing a joint near the end range of motion
  • strengthens external rotators of back leg
  • improves proprioception and balance
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Yoga As Preventative Medicine

Untitled design-5It’s interesting to me as a yoga teacher to hear the reason why people decide to come out for a yoga class. Lately I’ve had numerous students tell me they realized they needed to start yoga (or get back to yoga) because they can feel they are tightening up and getting sore from their daily life activities. This is good awareness. Often our work or choice of sport or hobby creates repetition of the same movements or postures, and unless we intentionally force our bodies to move in the opposite directions, imbalances can form in the soft tissues and joints and make us feel stiff and sore.

Having worked in the physical rehabilitation industry for years, I learned also how serious this can be. The source of our injuries often becomes the old adage, “The straw that broke the camel’s back.” It’s rarely a single incident/accident that causes an injury, but rather an accumulation, over years, of doing too much of the same thing that weakens the structures to where some very small movement takes us to the breaking point. (Perhaps, we could extend this notion to including our mental health as well).

This is where the practice of yoga can fill a void. In my opinion, yoga has become the preventative medicine of the soft tissue injury world. Personally, I know no better way to restore mobility and introduce new planes of movement in an individual than yoga. I’ve written about this before in a previous blog, Gaining Connectivity Through Yoga and Fascia, which explains how yoga’s postures are so effective because they incorporate the whole body through multi-joint mobilizations, promoting stretch along the myofascial lines. In any given yoga class, you will be given opportunity to stretch along muscle lines opposite to those found in your activities. Yoga is unique in this aspect – the entire body moves and all planes of movement are accessed.

One could ask, why not just some basic stretching on my own? Absolutely do this, it is always helpful! Attending yoga regularly, however, can help you prevent the extreme imbalances from forming, before they become an issue. There is also the more subtle practices of mindfulness and pranayama (breathing techniques) that we learn from yoga which assist us in stress reduction and internal awareness building.This combined with our point above, of its superb ability to access all planes of movement along the myofascial lines, is why a regular yoga class could prove especially effective in balancing out your physical health.

Maybe this is why we are seeing more doctors and other health professionals prescribe yoga as part of a fitness regime and healthy lifestyle. Whether the individual is stiff and sore from the type of work and activities they are doing or other symptoms from being over-stressed, yoga is benefitting all types of individuals as they seek relief in their tight muscles and tensed bodies (and sometimes tensed minds). It’s wonderful to witness those of you finding your path to yoga before the an injury occurs – creating balance in your lives as you commit to your practice week in week out.

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How Do You Move?

110203-154“Don’t move the way fear makes you move. Move the way love makes you move. Move the way joy makes you move.” -Osho

When I read this quote I thought about yoga, and the beauty I see when I watch a confident, expressive student move from one pose to another. Her body language seems to speak, “I am open, I am free, I radiate love and confidence.” Picture it: tall posture, open arms, open chest, and fluid, easeful movements – these are the postures of someone moving with joy and love.

Now imagine what it looks like to move from a place of fear. I picture staccato, hesitant, restricted, and closed movements. When you are afraid or doubt yourself, movement appears small or and sometimes even frozen.

It’s not just in our movements, when we move through life from a place of fear, we live carefully and avoid risks. We are afraid to fail so we don’t take the risk for the new job and stay put somewhere that makes us unhappy. We are afraid we won’t be good at something, so we never try that one sport or activity we have a curiosity about. So we stay complacent, comfortable, and never push ourselves to try new things. Essentially, we live our lives small.

What if we practiced moving from a place of love and joy, using the safety of our yoga mat to explore bigger more expressive movements? The next time you do yoga, try opening a little more and softening into your pose a little deeper into your poses. Don’t self limit – explore your boundaries and step outside your comfort zone. Imagine yourself emanating love for yourself and deep gratitude for the body you have. Don’t worry about how you look, just give it a try and notice how it makes you feel.

My guess is it that if you try this, even though it may make you feel a little awkward at first, you’ll get a sense of freedom, space and uplifting energy by pushing yourself to do this…And perhaps you’ll have a little awakening of realization that you can bring more love and joy to your movement.

Then consider, how could you move this way off the mat?

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Chronic Stress & Adrenal Fatigue

151110-007-2Many people have not heard of Adrenal Fatigue, but understanding this condition is important because some experts suggest that 80% of the Western world will be affected by it at some point in their lives.

The adrenal glands are located above the kidneys and are responsible for secreting more than 50 different hormones that are essential for life. Among these are adrenaline, cortisol, progesterone and testosterone. Because they regulate so many important hormones, their proper function is critical for many functions essential to life such as producing energy, balancing electrolytes and storing fat.

These glands also help you deal with stress. When you are under stress, the adrenal glands engage many different responses in your body to make it easier for you to handle that stress.

But during periods of intense, prolonged stress or chronic illness, the adrenal glands begin functioning below the level needed to maintain health and well-being in the body. They still function but at less than optimal levels. The result is adrenal fatigue.

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue:

  • Feeling tired for no reason
  • Craving salty or sweet snacks
  • Morning fatigue
  • Mid-afternoon sleepiness
  • Increased energy in the late afternoon
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Mild Depression
  • Weight gain, especially around the waist
  • Forgetfulness
  • Low body temperature

Treatment: Treatment for adrenal fatigue should take a multi-faceted approach with whole-body wellness in mind.

Stress: One of the first things you should do is reduce the stress in your life. This may mean clearing your schedule, reworking some relationships or learning time management skills. In order for your adrenal glands to heal, the demands placed on them should be lightened.

Sleep: Sufficient sleep is also important. The main repair work on your adrenal glands takes place between 10 pm and 1 am. If you are prone to late nights, consider training your body to go to bed earlier. It is also a good idea to reduce or eliminate caffeine from your diet in order to help you sleep more soundly.

Exercise: Adrenal fatigue can also be helped by exercise. Exercise regulates cortisol, relieves depression and increases blood flow. Each of these benefits will contribute to your recovery. Try to exercise at least 20 to 30 minutes each day. Yoga is especially helpful in this manner since it teaches breathing and relaxation techniques as well as the physical exercise.

Nutrition: Finally, by decreasing ‘junk’ food as much as possible and eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet, you can improve your nutrient intake. Sometimes adding supplements to your diet can speed healing of adrenal fatigue, check with your doctor, naturopath, or dietician for advice on this matter.

Emotional Hygiene: We seem to be good at recognizing our physical ailments and seeking treatment, but we tend to ignore or minimize our mental health ailments. However, it is just as important to take care of your emotional health as it is your physical health. Improve your emotional hygiene by truthfully acknowledging your emotional status and, when necessary, seek the support your need.

Remember the first step to any change is awareness. If you think you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue, consider these lifestyle tips as part of your self-care plan in conjunction with working with your health professionals.

*For some helpful information on using yoga to reset the body’s nervous system and decrease stress hormones click here.

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Yoga Flow Video for the Upper Body

Here is a short flow sequence I use to warm-up the upper body at beginning of classes. It gently stretches the upper back, shoulders, neck and chest. It also helps to draw energy and circulation into these area, and brings focus into the body and breath.

If you find yourself sitting at a computer for long periods, this sequence is great as a tension reliever for the upper body during your workday. Simply sit at the edge of a stable chair, and move through the sequence 5 to 8 cycles.

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Diving Board

A few months ago I read this:

divingboardshelsilverstein-1024x845You’ve been up on that diving board. Making sure that it’s nice and straight. You’ve made sure that it’s not too slick. You’ve made sure it can stand the weight. You’ve made sure that the spring is tight. You’ve made sure that the cloth won’t slip. You’ve made sure that it bounces right, And that your toes can get a grip—And you’ve been up there since half past five. Doin’ everything… but DIVE.              – Shel Silverstein

After reading this I thought, this poem pretty much sums up how I feel about my yoga career, at least, at this moment in time. For years I have been planning, training, preparing, teaching, waiting, saving, and constructing… such that when I finally got nearer to officially opening my own yoga studio, it seemed to me, well…there is only one last thing to do.

Perhaps you can relate. Have you ever done a big career change, or perhaps something else like move to a new country, quit work and travel, leave a relationship, etc.? Big life changes like these have a way of making you feel vulnerable as you leave the familiar, the safe, and the secure, and sometimes it takes a lot of nerve and planning to finally getting to the point to overcome our fears and obstacles to take the big leap.

For me, it was a slow and steady climb towards my goal. There was no running and jumping – I had bills to pay and kids to raise, so I chose a part-time path. This required more time and patience than I imagined, but I kept at it, and for this I give myself a pat on the back. Ultimately, this journey has brought me to this point, at the peak of my total career change, and now I can finally say, my studio is open for business.

So if you are facing a big change in your life and you’re wondering should I or shouldn’t I? Just remember it doesn’t matter how you do it or how long it takes, it only matters that you don’t stand still. I can honestly say, being at this pivotal point, it does make me feel nervous, but I know in my heart, no matter what is to happen in the time to come, it’s true that it would have been worse to not have tried at all.

We must walk consciously only part of the way toward our goal, and then leap into the dark of our success. -Henry David Thoreau

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What Does the Evidence Say?

What does the evidence say?

With nearly 22 million North Americans practicing yoga, there’s a lot of buzz these days about what the benefits, and harms, are of yoga. You will hear and read anything from yoga cures migraines, menstrual cramps, tight hips, insomnia, rid the body of toxins, backache, anxiety to my personal favourites – yoga to flatten the abs and tighten the booty… Needless to say, one can get a little wary and mockingly ask, “What can’t yoga do?”

As much as I love yoga and do believe it provides us with many health benefits, I still appreciate everything has it’s limits, and let’s face it, yoga is a business – so a little scepticism goes a long way. Yoga is also very difficult to define due to its ever-evolving westernization of techniques and myriad of styles, making it tricky to qualify in research. However, plenty of studies have been done, and many more are underway. I recently came across this article,“I read more than 50 scientific studies about yoga. And here’s what I learned” by Julia Belluz’s, which nicely summarizes what the evidence for us. Here’s what it said:

What we know:

  • Yoga is probably just as good for your health as many other forms of exercise, but it seems particularly promising for improving lower back pain
  • Yoga helps reduce inflammation in the body, which can actually help stave off disease.
  • Yoga enhances “body awareness,” or people’s sense of what’s going on inside themselves
  • There is evidence showing that yoga helps with stress, anxiety, and other mood disorders, although, the studies thus far are limited in design and inconclusive in what aspect of yoga is actually helping

What we don’t know:

  • Whether some forms of yoga are better than others
  • Whether yoga should be prescribed to people for various health conditions
  • How yoga compares with other forms of exercise for a good many specific health outcomes
  • Whether yoga is safe in the long term. The cumulative research so far shows yoga is as safe as any other exercise, but much is still to be learned about long term safety when considering different styles and specific poses.
  • There is no good evidence yet behind many of the supposed health benefits of yoga, like flushing out toxins and stimulating digestion

My take on all this:

I always feel great in my body and mind after a good yoga class, and that’s what keeps me practicing. I’m sure the millions of other yogi’s would agree, and for this reason, I think yoga is here to stay. But with its increasing presence in mainstream society, more questions will be asked and the natural progression is for more research to be done, helping us better understand more about the what aspects of yoga are giving us the benefits, and possibly harms. This will indefinitely lead to refinement of techniques and styles and tighter regulations of credentials. Personally, I’m excited about the next chapter of yoga; no doubt there’s much to discover.

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6 Ways to More Happiness

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Ask anyone what they want in life, and surely one of the things they will say is, “to be happy”. But what makes us happy in our lives? That’s the question the producers of the documentary, “Happy” (on Netflix) looked at, and here’s a summary of what they found:Happiness pie chart

50% of our differences in happiness level is genetic (a baseline if you will), and only 10% of our happiness is related to our circumstances (what job we have, how much money we have, social status, health). This leaves 40% of our differences in happiness unaccounted for, and the theory proposed by the researches in this documentary is this 40% is composed of the actions you choose to do. So here are 6 intentional ways you can create more happiness in your life:

  1. The neurotransmitter dopamine is necessary for feelings of pleasure and happiness in our bodies; therefore seeking out experiences that release more dopamine will increase your happiness. Activities that are best at releasing dopamine are physical exercise, having new experiences, and being involved in community activities involving cooperation with others.

  1. Flow is defined as the experience you get when you are immersed in an activity such as when playing a sport or an instrument. When in flow, all other thoughts about your life are suspended, you feel that nothing else matters, you feel you are in control, you and you forget your problems. The more flow in your life, the more happiness.

  1. Without exception the happiest people in the world all have close family and friends – we are social creatures and community and support are integral to our sense of happiness. Regular social activities increase your happiness.

  1. There are extrinsically motivated individuals (individuals motivated by image, status, wealth), and there are intrinsically motivated individuals (individuals motivated by personal growth, connections with others, sense of community and helpfulness in the world). I’m sure it’s not a surprise to learn intrinsically motivated people are found to be happier than extrinsically motivated people. Interestingly, studies done on random acts of kindness show it to be one of the most significant activities in raising happiness.

  1. Having something bigger to care about other than ourselves generates more happiness. Consider your spiritual connection – for some it is religion, and for others it is more a sense of compassion and caring gratitude that connects them to the universe and other people.

  2. There is lots of new research indicating the benefits of meditation on improving our happiness, in fact some studies show meditation generates more happiness than medication. Specifically highlighted are loving kindness meditations or ones invoking as sense of gratitude for your life where the most helpful in increasing happiness.

What I realized strongly when I watched this documentary are the parallels between what we do in yoga and the activities that help us generate more happiness –  flow, meditation, coming together in community, development of the spiritual emotions (gratitude, compassion, caring, love), and exercise. It’s no wonder you feel so good after a yoga class!

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Work Stress?… Take 5 Minutes to Relax and Restore

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Can’t keep up? Getting sucked under? How does one fit 24 hours of work to fit into an 8 hour workday?

Many of my coworkers and friends have been expressing how the demands of their workday are so voluminous, there is no longer a feeling of completion at the end of their day. As we run out of time to “complete” our tasks and projects, things are left hanging, and as they carry over into the next day, the pile gets higher…and no one likes this feeling.

I’ve discussed in a previous blog, Overloaded and Overwhelmed, how high stress, sustained over a long period of time, can negatively affect our physical health. We need strategies and healthy habits to be resilient; we want to break through this “pile” and come through thriving on the other side. For most of us, this requires a break or a step back from the work pile in some way. Even short breaks can give us a sense of renewed energy, a shift in perspective, and better mental clarity.

Today, there is plenty of research indicating a regular mediation practice can be an effective strategy in creating this emotional/physical balance and resiliency in a complex and busy world. There are many types and various lengths of meditations to try. If you want to give it a try, but are unsure where to start, below you will find a very simple and quick (5 minute) relaxation meditation that is great to relax and restore – perfect for a workday refresher.

I hope you’ll find a few moments to plug in and take a listen. Sometimes even 5 minutes can help you be more relaxed and productive in your day.

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Choose Your Yoga for Better Balance

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I was listening to a group of my girl friends chat the other day, and all of them expressed the frustration of time, or lack of it, to accomplish all their daily tasks and personal projects. One friend commented (with a sigh) that sometimes it’s impossible to find balance in life, and instead it’s more about juggling all the pieces. I’m not sure I totally agree with this. There is some truth that sometimes there really is no end to the demands, and letting go of some things isn’t always possible. But I also know that this juggling act can come to a crashing fall if there are too many items or if the juggler themselves isn’t taken care of.

To me balance means taking care of all the parts in our life that are important to us, and no one can deny the importance of health in our lives. Finding balance in life, and making sure to include those items that give us good health, doesn’t just happen. First it takes keen awareness of our needs from day to day, and from moment to moment, to create it. Sometimes we need to take a purposeful pause from the rushing river of daily living and check inwards to notice what it is that we are in need of, or what it is that is missing in our days/weeks to feel healthy and thriving.

It is also a matter of making the choice to prioritize it somewhere in the schedule. Sometimes this means making difficult choices and letting go of things, since time is limited. For example it is easy to get wrapped up in staying true to social obligations and personal commitments, e.g. a volunteer position or a fitness goal, but maybe we are running our reserves low, perhaps even compromising our immune at the cost of our dedication to the activity. It can be tough to admit that one of our time commitments may not be in our best interests or, for a period of time, we need something different. It takes courage and compassion in our self care to make the decision to pause or let go of something that is not serving us.

What I love about yoga is that not only can the classes draw out our awareness of what it is we need in our lives for better balance, but once you are educated on the styles of yoga and various offerings out there, you’ll find there’s a yoga class that can fill many of your health needs. Here’s a little summary list to get you started on the ways various ways different yoga classes can benefit you:

  • For the beginner, or a class for initiating mobility and strength, where you may need gentleness and safety to get you on your way:

    • Therapeutic (Kripalu, Phoenix Rising, Viniyoga are some branches of therapeutic yoga)

    • Hatha (beginner level)

    • Chair yoga

  • To calm and relax our systems, or add a little introspection in our day (little to no physicality involved in these styles):

    • Restorative

    • Yoga Nidra

    • Various meditation classes

    • Therapeutic yoga

  • For strength, flexibility, and balance:

    • Hatha

    • Iyengar

    • Flow (Vinyasa)

  • For an uplift in energy and more vigorous physical exercise:

    • Flow/Vinyasa

    • Hatha (intermediate level)

    • Hot Yoga (Moksha or Bikrams are a couple branches of hot yoga)

    • Power

    • Ashtanga

    • Aerial

    • Kundalini

  • To eliminate tension, when you’re body needs a really good stretch:

    • Yin yoga

    • Hot yoga

    • Aerial yoga

(Of course there are many more styles and branches of yoga than the ones I’ve listed, these are just a few of the more common class styles you’ll see offered.)

 A class, that is relatively new, that I’ve been doing lately is aerial yoga. I was feeling the need for more more energy, a little fitness, and some good stretching in my day to balance out the mental heaviness and sedentary nature of the work I was doing. I was also craving something new, something exciting. Aerial yoga has been perfect for these needs . It is possible that in a month from now I may may need more relaxation and down time. And letting go of the notion that I have to achieve a certain goal in a specific timeline helps me fill my week with better self care, so I might change to a restorative yoga class or book myself for a yoga therapy session. My “me” time is precious, so I choose to fill it with what serves me best, and I don’t feel guilty for it. This keeps balance in my life. There will be plenty of time to do it all, sometimes just not all at once. Keep your balance by making the right choices for yourself, in the moment.

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Why isn’t yoga just a stretch class?

iStock_000003388488XSmallThe other day at work I had a client ask me why we (yoga instructors) don’t just call yoga “stretching” or “gymnastics”. Fortunately, I didn’t have to answer this question since one of my other clients spoke up for me (we will get to that part later). I work in a physiotherapy clinic where there are a lot of injured clients who have had very little experience doing physical exercise, let alone any yoga experience. In this clinic, I teach gentle yoga classes and relaxation meditations. Although, sometimes it takes a little convincing to get the clients to try the classes because they hold an assumption that they need to be some bendy, twisty super yogi to keep up; or, for the meditations, that there is some religious or “new-agey” spiritual practices associated with it. As a result,  I often advertise the classes by explaining the focus or intention of each class.  One might be a class designed to “help relax” or  another might be designed for “pain reduction,” and this usually gets a few individuals through the door.

It’s understandable that there are these assumptions and stigmas out there about yoga and meditation. We see ultra-fit and bendy individuals in the media’s portrayal of yoga and we see these Zen like poses with hands “just so” illustrating meditation. Even though yoga can be like this, it isn’t always, and doesn’t need to be. So when a newcomer to yoga asks me the question, “What is this thing called yoga?”, I tell them it is a lot of things, and that there are many styles and intensity levels out there to choose from, but one of the more important intentions behind most yoga in today’s culture is self-awareness building. That’s right, it’s not just about the physical benefits of stretching, strengthening, and breath (Pranayama) – although, all things being equal, yoga rocks in this department. It provides us with an opportunity to take a step back and be an impartial witness to ourselves.

Here is the secret that I and many other yoga instructors, and practitioners of yoga know. We teach classes intended to take you on a journey inwards. For an hour or so of your day, you are finally getting a break from your mind’s busyness of all your “to do’s,” future, and past thoughts, and instead you are transported into state where you notice your body and your breath, and are focused on the present moment. Whether you are moving or not in the class (in guided meditation you may not move at all), you are spending time experiencing what’s going on with different parts of yourself. You are discovering how you are positioned, where you are tensing your body, how you breathe, what it feels like to move or sit in a certain way, and where your mind goes as you do all this. In essence you are getting in touch with what’s going on inside – you are building awareness to your internal self and your patterns. In a yoga class, the opportunity is there for all parts of you to speak up because there is finally the space and break from the busy chatter of your mind to let them be heard. As a consequence you begin to learn about patterns of holding, and thought, which in turn can lead to a shift in perspective and how you approach the moments of your day.

So it was the best compliment ever when this client of mine spoke up for me when I was asked the question why we don’t you just call yoga “stretching” or “gymnastics”. This is what he shared: He had never done yoga before, nor had he even thought to do so, but was amazed at how it affected him. He explained how during the class his attention was drawn out of his thoughts and into noticing how he frequently tensed his shoulders and jaw in a certain way, and through the guided instructions to breathe and release he could relax these areas, which lowered his internal stress feeling. He told me how these awarenesses lingered with him well after the class was finished. Later that night, he was cooking his dinner on a grill and forgot about it, burning it. Normally he would tense up and get angry, but after the class he felt he could step outside himself a little more, notice the tension that was forming in his jaw, and by taking a couple deep breaths he released the stress of the situation rather than letting it escalate.

What this client explained so eloquently was how he exercised the use of his new awareness. This is what we do in yoga and meditation. We are teaching you, experientially, how to get in touch with your internal self, and then give you some skills of how to manage yourself in a healthier way to deal with whatever it is that you are noticing moment to moment. In yoga and meditation you learn how to pause and step outside of yourself and learn from the language of your body and breath. This is the yoga I know and love.

 

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Comparison is the thief of joy

6921-7a9d-3b36-b84fI was on Facebook the other day and a friend of mine posted a video of a swing championship dance, and let’s just say the male partner didn’t have the “typical” body composition of most well established dancers. Watching this man triumphantly and joyfully show off his moves was fun to watch. I was totally inspired by his confidence, and as my friend said in her post, “This man appears to have a lot of self-love.” Of course we can never really know this for sure, but this guy certainly did seem unabashedly immersed in his art – even if he hadn’t been a really skilled dancer, his energy would have been captivating. (To view video: Phoenix 2008 Swing Dance Champions).

When it comes to our hobbies, activities, and aspired careers, it can be daunting in this day and age to stand confidently in the sea of so much talent – truth is there will probably always be someone better at what you do than you are, and yes, they will probably appear fitter, sexier, smarter, and richer than you as well. But does this matter? Should that steal your right to just try or steal your enjoyment of self expression? I know this answer seems obvious, but countless people every day hold back the best of themselves out of fear of not being good enough. This is why I love this quote by Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy”. It provides such a great reminder of how we can let our insecurities hold us back from joyful living. Wouldn’t it be blissful to confidently act and do things out of genuine interest and passion, freeing yourself from the weight of the standard you compare yourself to?

Of course this falls under the category of “easier said than done” for many of us, and I recognize the complexity of such a task, but consider that whatever it is that is holding you back can rob you of opportunities and being present to enjoy all the precious moments of your life. It makes sense to me that this is a quest worth pursuing. Life can pass us by so quickly. It is important to figure out ways to remind ourselves that we are unique individuals made up of many parts and although there are things we might like to change or strive towards, you are still a whole being right now, and you are enough just as you are. In essence when we give ourselves permission to engage and live as our genuine selves, imperfect and learning along the way, we give ourselves room to grow, and eventually, we dance like champions.

For Your Practice

If this resonates with you, here’s something you can do to start in a small way. Take a short break in your day; just 5 minutes (you can use a timer). Sit quietly, breathe in deeply, and truly feel your breath moving in and out of your body. Just for short time, give yourself permission to lay it all aside the striving, the comparing, the self-imposed conditions and just be. Feel your body, your, breath, your aliveness from the inside out. For a moment in your day, let go of that whatever flaws, imperfections, and lack you think you have, and just breathe. Repeat these words to yourself, “I am enough, I am worthy.” Do this every day.

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Working with Mental and Emotional Burdens

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What would it be like to put it down

the regrets, the anger, the guilt

the time lost and deeds undone,

the wishing things to be different.

For there is no controlling what is done or cannot be changed.

Unwind yourself from this judgment, this fate,

and let it be independent from all that you are.

It need not define or tether your every move.

Breathe in deep and let it out,

Let your heart beat its song of wholeness,

and step lighter into this moment.

I recently wrote a blog for Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy about how we can learn to work with mental and emotional burdens (persistent thoughts of past regret, trauma, or future angst that permeate our daily presence and interfere with how we live).  To read this post visit http://pryt.com/2014/05/become-a-yoga-therapist/putting-load/

Also, I’ve included a short focus meditation to go along with this blog post. You might find this meditation useful in helping to identify and process recurring thoughts which carry the weight of burden. Link below to give it a try.

Putting down the load meditation May 2014

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Overloaded & Overwhelmed

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There seems to be so much to do. Getting it all done is a bit like conquering the beast. But is all this busyness of the 21st century lifestyle actually harmful to us? My answer to this question is it can be. Some would argue, that so long as the busyness is framed in a way of choice and personal interest than the stress is good for us to keep us fulfilled. There is also research showing us that the way we mentally frame the stress in our lives can reduce the negative impact it has on our health. (For an inspiring presentation on a new way to reframe stress in our lives check out Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk). Often though, I find, busyness and the consequent stress in our lives can be insidious and stemming from “things” in our life not so pleasant. Whether it is self-induced or outside of our control, it can leave us feeling overloaded and overwhelmed. When we feel this way, there is tendency to push aside our personal health practices (good rest, good diet, exercise, fun, etc). Left long enough, our physical bodies suffer, and eventually the body has a way of expressing itself on the matter to get our attention.

Consider chronic pain as an example. A course I attended not too long ago reviewed the anatomy and physiology of our nervous system when we are in pain (instructor, Neil Pearson offers many invaluable resources about pain on his site Life is Now). Essentially, the purpose of pain is protection, and it’s the brain’s job to determine if tissue damage or some other experience to the body is dangerous. If the brain decides that it is dangerous, it sends out protection signals that come in the way of pain, muscles spasms, weakened muscles, and a release of hormones. But the nerve signals originating from the area of injury or area of pain are not the only source of input that the brain relies on to decide on whether or not to “protect.” Factors such as our thoughts, emotions, memory of past pain experiences, the amount of stress hormones in our body, and level of fear can all add input to the brain’s assessment of the degree of protection needed, and can therefore affect how much pain we feel. So in the face of persistent pain, keeping our worrisome thoughts, negative emotions, and stress levels in check can help mitigate the urgency and intensity of the pain protection system, and being mindful that keeping these things “in check” is nearly impossible when we are constantly busy, rushed, and overwhelmed.

Add to all of this that when one system of the body is highly active, such as the nervous system when we are in pain, this affects other systems as well. The field of psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology (PNI – if there was ever a word that needed an acronym..) studies the interrelated functions of the brain, nervous system, immune organs/cells, and endocrine (hormone) glands. We know now that there is a unifying network of nerve fibres that wire together the various components of the PNI system, and that there is also constant biochemical cross talk among them. Research shows stressful events trigger cognitive and physiological responses which, in turn, induce nervous system, and hormone changes, and these can impair immune function, rendering us more vulnerable to becoming ill. Things do not happen in isolation in the human body, changes in one system affects other systems, and this can be cyclical and cumulative!

So this is what I’m learning. Adding to a plate that is already full can result in the body protesting, and that persistent pain in your abdomen or the panic attacks you recently developed don’t always seem related to that small thing you said yes to doing last week, but they can be. I like to use the analogy of the human body as being like a large container or vessel filled with various objects representing all the things we do in our lives. When your vessel is already full, it is not such a good idea to keep adding things to the to do list – adding more can result in a full vessel eruption. If there is no room for “you” in the container, some aspect of your health will protest.

Our containers can only hold so much and we can imagine that some items in our lives take up more space than others. A simple acknowledging of what’s in our containers at any given time is beneficial. Sometimes life gives us really big items that take up a lot of space in our containers. For example, the care of an ailing family member takes up a lot of space (logistically and emotionally), and we may not be able to handle as much in our container during this time. When life gives us big-ticket item such as this, it’s wise to let go of some items and ask for help. At other times we may notice we’ve filled our containers with so many small items, we’ve left no room for the more important, substance items such as our health or time with family and friends. Restructuring how we load our containers by placing foundation items as a first priority will free up space and can give us extra energy for the smaller items in our lives. When we delete excess, prioritize, and re-structure what’s inside we can take advantage of our full capacities.

So the next time you find yourself feeling overloaded and overwhelmed, let it be an amber light indicating your body has reached capacity. Any more, and your body may signal red, and your guess is as good as mine as to how this red light will manifest in your body. Maintaining a healthy balance is doable when we respect that our containers have limits, and our limits can vary at different phases of our lives. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed–it doesn’t mean you’re weak or there is something wrong with you. Think of it as being part of a sophisticated protection system, the body’s way to get you to pay attention to take a step back, slow down, and look what’s in your container and how it’s prioritized. Listen, acknowledge the signs your body is telling you, and allow for enough space that you’re enjoying the items and moments that make up your container of life.

 

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Therapeutic Edge

120905-240xI’ve always loved hiking. There’s something so fulfilling about accomplishing a long trek, especially when the destination lands you standing on a cliff edge or mountain peak; reaching that point where you can step no further and submit to doing nothing more than being present to the expanse before you. Perhaps this is why I was drawn to yoga, it’s similar in that I can take my body to places where I can explore an edge. Entering a pose, there is a point where my body naturally stops, where it meets some initial resistance, which I call the first edge. Gradually, with time, my body will settle and I will be able to move into a deeper sensation for a slightly stronger edge. Finally, to move to a point where I am at my full edge – any more and it might be painful or unsafe, and my ability to stay present to the sensation and breathe fully would be hampered.

The edge, however, is not always a well-defined line, and sometimes we underplay or overplay the edge. Our unique anatomies, personalities, egos, and histories all play a part in how we arrive at the edge, and yoga is great for revealing these patterns to us. Some of us hold back and approach hesitantly, stopping ourselves before we reach the full edge. While others, might move so quickly or aggressively that we miss the boundary and land ourselves on the other side of the edge into potentially unsafe zones. Only by moving slowly and paying attention moment to moment, can we arrive at just the right amount of edge to optimally stretch our limbs and limits, and reasonably challenge ourselves.

For those of you who have received a Phoenix Rising yoga therapy session, you will likely be familiar with how, in addition to a physical edge, there is sometimes also an emotional edge that we need to learn to navigate. I remember the first time I received a session after having my first baby. I’d been running on adrenaline with sleepless nights, and I carried overwhelming concern that this new little being wasn’t being fully attended to. As a new mom it was easy to forgo thinking about myself, but when I closed my eyes and the practitioner had me notice my body, my breath, my thoughts, my emotions… I realized how distant my mind had been to my own needs, and how strongly my body had been calling for some self-care. Feeling lost within myself, I had a strong sadness envelop me, a grieving of separation of self, which caused my eyes to well up with tears. Within this moment I recognized there was potential for the dam to break, my body yearning to sob, but I also recognized I was at my edge, my emotional edge… I was not comfortable with a full break down sob in my yoga therapy session. And so I chose to take a deep breath and pause, simply absorbing where I was without moving deeper into the exploration.

Afterwards I wondered about my hesitancy to let go fully into my postpartum sadness and I realized much of what held me back was the fear of being so vulnerable in front of another person, a stranger nonetheless. I know I’m not alone on this one – being vulnerable is scary, and in some cultures, taboo. Many of us have carried, from previous generations, the belief that holding “it” in and not burdening our woes onto another is the strong thing to do. (Which, intellectually, I find humorous, because in actuality, the real strength lies in bearing our real, raw selves.) And the paradox here is that I, as a practitioner of yoga therapy(where I have seen many tears shed), have never felt burdened by witnessing another’s emotional release. In fact, I welcome it and feel honoured in the space. But this doesn’t change the fact that I too have an emotional edge to maneuver and I’m working through this process myself. No right or wrong, good or bad… just awareness and learning.

Learning to navigate our edges takes some practice. But with time and exposure it becomes the climbing ground of possibility. We learn how the edge is a place that is neither comfortable nor painful – it is somewhere in between. For some of us, learning where our physical edge lies is new and challenging, and for others it’s the emotional edge that proves more elusive and daunting. It’s all okay. It’s that one step closer to the unfamiliar, that can be scary at first; but as long as we step mindfully, and we take care of ourselves as we near the edge we will land at just the right spot,allowing us to view new heights and perspectives. This is how we grow and stretch physically, mentally and emotionally, and maybe even, how we learn the freedom and empowerment that can come from expressing our fears and vulnerability.

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Five Life Lessons I Learned from Yoga Therapy Training

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To say my experience in Yoga Therapy training was pivotal in how I live my life would be an understatement. Here’s a few of the “ah ha moments” I took away from my journey of becoming a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy (PRYT) practitioner.

1. Words matter. Like a mirror reflecting back your deepest secrets, what and how you say reveals much about your inner beliefs about yourself. There is a technique in PRYT were the practitioner feeds back your words to you, which is done in the training as well. I started to notice trends of word usage that identified lack of confidence in myself and a tendency to soften the message. For example, “If you don’t mind, have a seat”. Rather than saying, “Please have a seat.” It’s subtle, but profound. Taking a moment to reflect on our word choices can lead to great insight.

2. Trust that you know what’s best for you. Despite what anyone else may tell you, you are your best coach. No one knows you better than you do. Sometimes the wisdom is buried a little, but it’s there. There is a Chinese parable that speaks of a man who was going to buy a new pair of shoes but forgot to bring the measurements so he went home to get them. Upon returning he found the store closed and did not get the shoes. Someone asked why he didn’t just try the shoes on, and he replied, “I would rather trust the measurements than trust myself.” This parable speaks to how often we trust some external indication of what may be right rather than trust what internally feels right. In PRYT you are encouraged to take time to connect with your inner knowing and search for answers from within, and in my experience, the more you do this, the more you trust that you do have the answers.

3. Direct experience is always best. It’s easy to fall into the trap of, “I’ve seen that before so I know all about it.” Well, no – unless you’ve directly experienced something for yourself, you don’t really know. For example, as yoga instructors we can learn that certain poses affect certain areas of our body. Camel pose, we learn, arches the back, stretches the front body, and is a great chest opener. This can all be very true, but until you are in this pose for yourself, you can never know how it exactly feels, and what it is doing to you. Each individual is unique in mind, body, and life experience, and because each moment is new, our experience in a yoga pose is truly unique and different each time. And so it is with the training to become a practitioner. Through the process of experiencing PRYT for ourselves, we learn the value of direct experience and the uniqueness of our individual experiences. Effectively, we learn not to impose direction or to assume what is best for our clients; rather, we learn to be open to the possibility of any experience, as it organically arises in the individual.

4. Much of what I was doing (or not doing) was based in fear. In PRYT we are given the opportunity to explore whatever is showing up in the session – thoughts, statements, body sensations, memories, images, etc. Staying in the space of an experience and taking the time to reflect on it can reveal new insights. Here’s an example from one of my earlier sessions. I was lying on my stomach and the practitioner took a hold of my hands, gently pulling me back to lift my chest off the ground. She asked me to tell her when I reached a spot that felt like my edge. Soon into the lift I told her to stop, but as I settled into the experience I realized I’d asked her stop well before my physical limit – I could have gone way further. This realization sparked an insight into a tendency I have in life to limit myself. And underneath this was the realization of the fear of not being enough (or in some cases, a fear of being more than enough). Taking time to experience what we notice in our bodies/minds, and pausing to sit with it, can peel back the layers of armor to reveal an inner truth.

5. It is possible to release deeply held habits and patterns. Sometimes life gives you the opportunity to get a glimpse outside yourself to learn about a pesky habit or way of being that you’ve developed. For example, in one of my yoga therapy sessions it was revealed to me that I hesitate to state my needs directly out of concern of burdening another. Not surprisingly, I started to notice this tendency showing up all over the place in my life and I wondered, “Am I ever going to stop doing this?” Fast forward a couple years and I was able to recognize this “self-imposing” issue sooner (as it was happening) and challenge myself to speak up for my needs. The more often I recognized it occurring the more I could pause, reflect and choose a different way to be. There is no shortcut to this kind of change, but PRYT sessions provide a base and an opportunity to check in as you explore and grow.

Whether you choose to receive the therapy or take it a step further into the training of becoming a practitioner, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy is, hands down, the best method of self-discovery out there.

 

 

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A Letter of Invitation

photoxHere is a new link that takes you to all the articles I’ve written for Phoenix Rising:  http://pryt.com/author/renee-reusz/

Here’s my most recent:

A Letter of Invitation

As practitioners of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy (PYRT) we are always playing with just the “right words” to describe what it is we do to capture interest. Anyone who has experienced a session knows how truly unique and powerful PRYT can be. As I was completing the training I was so excited about diving into the work and sharing it with the world, but I soon realized that trying to explain to potential clients with words an experiential process would take some careful thought. I think this is why I’ve chosen to blog about it. Today I offer you a letter of invitation. An invitation to get you curious, and hopefully peak your interest to give it a try:

Dear Reader,

It seems as though yoga’s popularity continues to grow as many of us recognize our need to slow down and connect inwards. I write to you with an offer to try something truly unique that takes this “journey within” a step further. I offer one-on-one yoga therapy, but let me clarify that the “therapy” I am referring to does not mean fixing or healing some ailment. Rather, what I do promotes self-discovery, empowerment and clarification in your life. Combining hands on assisting of yoga postures and active listening, it offers people the opportunity to explore and heal their minds and bodies as one.

Picture a large comfortable mat that sits on the ground in a quiet, private setting. The appointment begins with the practitioner guiding you through a verbal check-in to bring your focus inwards, away from the distractions of daily life. Then, very gently, you will be moved and supported through stretches and yoga postures on the mat. Simple verbal cues will be given to you to help you remain present to your experiences and clarify what you are noticing in your body. The practitioners’ role is to be 100% present to you; we carry no agenda or formula. Each session is unique in its flow as it is directed purely by listening to what your body and words are saying from moment to moment. The intent is to give you the opportunity to connect inwards and gain insight from your body, and then relate this back to daily life. For many, the experience of being physically supported through movement and remaining present to their inner selves can be a very cathartic and relaxing.

 The notion that we can’t change what we are not aware of applies here. In this therapy, it is believed that our bodies store memory and information that our busy minds sometimes prevent us from accessing. Consider a situation where you’ve been carrying a lot of stress and your body has been reacting to the stress, but mentally you need to push through. In the yoga therapy session your attention will be guided into your body, into the present moment, and your awareness will land on what’s calling your attention. Perhaps you notice a tension pain in your shoulders and a knot in your belly. From this awareness, you make the connection that you have not had a chance to stretch or take a deep breath for weeks and you realize your pain is directly related to the way your body adapts to stress. It points out how, just because your mind didn’t register the pain in your shoulders (or you choose to suppress this signal), it didn’t mean it wasn’t happening in your body. And this embodiment of experience can range from the relatively benign, like in this example, to the more serious. Only through connecting with our inner selves can we gain this insight and help ourselves.

If you have ever felt that sense of running on overdrive, being stuck in rut, or you simply need some quiet time to defrag and relax, these are signals from your body that a detour from the 21st Century lifestyle would be good for you. Whatever the call of health your body is using to signal internal discord, the clarity gained from a yoga therapy session can facilitate the awareness of your body and connect it to your life for more productive and fulfilling living. It’s called Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. Would you be interested in giving it a try?

Gratitude ~ Renee

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The Story in Your Form

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Here’s the link to my latest post for Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. This month’s topic is on the ways our body take shape and form from our life experiences. Like the way the  a tree becomes weathered on the side facing the shoreline and it’s branches and leaves grow in the direction of the stability and nourishment. Our form becomes a physical representation of our life’s story – a complex interplay of physiology and psychology weaving and webbing to form the shape our our beings.

Taking Shape in the Light of Yoga Therapy

Tell me the story you have not told anyone, the tale braided into your skull and tied with a string.

-Naomi Shihab Nye

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