Follow your heart… Open up your heart… The heart knows… We are all familiar with these expressions about the heart. Often, we reference the heart as a part of ourselves we can source for answers outside of the analytical mind; a place from which we can be informed from a body-felt wisdom and emotional truth; a part of ourselves that knows who we are and what we truly want. Do you believe in this heart space?
I do. I believe this heart-felt wisdom is ages old, and the heart is symbolic of our sense of center. Our busy, intellectual minds go astray and we get caught in the story telling, the details, and the analysis of it all. Yet most of us have, at some point, experienced the feeling of being calm, grounded and centered into ourselves. When you are connected to yourself in this way, you are more in tune with your authentic, emotional needs and confident in the choices of the path before you.
I believe this inner guiding truth teller is always there, it just gets buried under the layers of reflexive, conditioned thinking and out of balance from habitual doing. An effective way to reconnect to the wisdom of the heart space is through a physical yoga practice—engage in postures which literally energize around the heart. Don’t think about it so much as finding the perfect pose, but rather movement about this figurative center to bring feeling and connection back to this part of you.
Drop into the metaphor and let your practice bring balance and connection back into the heart space. Feel from the core of the body what is missing—back bends, forward folds, twists, or wherever the movement has been lacking, and dive into the expression of these forms. Bring the breath in to fill the heart space, sense and feel this giving and receiving of energy to this part of you, and at the end of the practice ask nothing of your heart other than for it to speak, and maybe in the quiet moments you will hear what it is that only the heart know to be true for you.
As part of my blog series on the Yamas and Niyamas, today I’m writing about Satya, the second Yama, which translates as truth (or not lying). In its practice it means being honest in our words and actions with ourselves and those around us. Living our lives in accordance with the moral standard of truthfulness is of course a good thing to do, but can be perplexingly difficult. Satya is layered and complex, but well worth the investigation.
We are confronted with Satya hundreds of times a day, and most of us choose to be mostly honest in our daily lives in our relationships, purchases, jobs—abiding by this moral standard to keeps the world civil. However, even the most truthful of us are not unfamiliar with “white lies”. Sometimes these white lies get told because they feel fleeting or insignificant. Some get told under the guise of kindness, such as telling your friend their new dress looks great when, in your opinion, it is unflattering. In some cases we deceive to make ourselves look better, such as “stretching the truth” in a job interview. If you take notice of your thoughts and actions, do you see these seemingly small deviations from the truth and then ask, “is there a cost?” Without needing to have an answer, I simply think we would benefit from taking a closer look at why we lie, and perhaps tell ourselves more… Are we doing it out of kindness, and consider the consequences of our choices beyond the immediate moment.
Truth is not always obvious; it can be concealed by a need for protection and safety, and it is not uncommon to hide the truth from ourselves. I often ask my students in class, while in a more relaxed, restful place, to look within and ask, “What is your truth?” When we slow down and connect with ourselves at a deeper layer, sometimes nuggets of truth come to the surface. In yoga, I’ve had uncomfortable truths be revealed regarding big choices in my life, such as changing careers or ending relationships. These truths were buried deep because recognizing them came with a more turbulent path, and I think it’s human nature to avoid these stresses, at least until the time is right. This tendency to protect ourselves from big upheaval in our lives is understandable, but when hidden truths do come to the surface, it’s best to take note because I’ve found you can’t stuff them back down once they are known.
Once you have named your truth, not acting on it can manifest in a myriad of ways such as digestive issues, stress, anxiety, or a variety of physical and mental ailments. Being truthful with ourselves is best served with a little bit of Ahimsa, the first Yama we explored in last month’s blog, representing kindness. The relationship between the two Yamas is nicely explained in how one might practice yoga. If, for example, you push yourself past a level you are ready for, this is being untruthful. Some people are incapable of doing certain poses due to mental trauma buried deep within and pushing past can lead to physical injury but also reveal deep-seated fears and sources of trauma. Sometimes its hard to be in the moment and be confronted by our truth in class, but when we are confronted with the inability to do a certain pose because of a disability or emotional connection to it, we serve ourselves best by acknowledging our reality honestlyand kindly. There will be many truths about ourselves we don’t like in class or out of class; bringing a little self-compassion alongside the truth helps us move forward with it in a healthy way.
I reflect on how most of us are earnestly working towards betterment within ourselves and trying to live our best lives. However, when you do choose the path of untruthfulness, the dishonesty can come at a cost. You can try to reframe the lie or block it from your thoughts, but your deeper self knows, and bit by bit the body churns and wrestles with that untruth until you are physically and mentally unwell. I suppose the fact that it never goes away, but rather morphs into internal discord, is the karmic energy of it all. It’s been my experience in life that Satya, or living a life of truth, is very much at the core of well-being and peace…
Whether in yoga or simply standing and waiting, many of us have a habit of locking our knees. This is also referred to as hyperextending the knee joints, which is essentially pushing the knees back so far it reaches the end limit of the joint’s range of motion. Pushing the knee joint to this limit can place strain on the ligaments, tendons, and can also wear down the edges of the cartilage. Yet, when we lock our knees, there isn’t any pain, and in fact it feels effortless. This is because the damage to cause pain happens slowly overtime, and locking a joint actually requires less energy since there is less activation in the muscles than neutral posture – essentially we are riding on the structures of the joint to hold the position.
Locking the knees extends to a bigger picture of negatively affecting the whole body’s posture. When one area of the body is forced to an extreme, somewhere else in the body shifts to compensate to bring the balance back. When a person locks their knees in standing, this often forces the pelvis and spine to shift in posture. The image below shows two postural types that occur with locked knees: sway back posture and hyper-lordosis. Both can cause pain in the back (and neck) and eventually cause stress to the structures of the spine.
Unfortunately, locking the knees and the subsequent postural accommodations don’t just show themselves in standing still, they transfer to all our movements and activities, such as our yoga postures. Some commonly affected yoga postures are Triangle pose (Trikonasana) and the standing balance poses such as Tree (Vrksasana), and Dancer (Natarajasana) – see images below. By locking the knees in these postures, our alignment and safety is affected through the spine.
A Yoga Practice to Bring Awareness to Unlocking the Knees
Yoga provides us with a discipline from which we can learn to correct this habit and improve our posture. To bring more awareness to how we posture our knees start by practicing how you stand in Mountain Pose (Tadasana). In Mountain Pose, create a solid foundation in your feet: posture your feet straight ahead and ground evenly on all four corners of the foot. From your feet bring awareness to the posture of our knees, and if you feel them locked, practice generating a little give, or softness, to the joint (not bending, the legs still remain fairly straight). Then from the neutral knee posture notice how this affects your posture all the way up as you lift and lengthen.
Then choose a standing balance posture from which you can practice holding the knees in good posture, e.g. Tree or Warrior III (image above). As you challenge yourself on one leg you may realize that it’s not enough to feel softness at the knee joint, but also necessary to generate a sense of engagement of the posterior knee muscles to prevent the joint from pressing back.
Then practice Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasa) with the focus on the front leg and the posture of the knee. As you enter the pose, find your base by grounding evenly and firmly through all sides of the front foot and gentle press the big toe mound into the ground. From there, feel the line of activation that travels up the back of the leg to behind the knee. You are aiming to have the front knee straight without locking, and see if you can sense the engagement in the posterior knee muscles at the same time. This pose is especially good because the posterior leg muscles are stretching, but we practice activating them in this lengthened position.
As we near spring some of my friends and yoga clients who love bike riding look forward to another season of getting outdoors. Cycling is excellent fitness; it can significantly improve cardiovascular health and develop leg strength. For those of you who ride often and enjoy longer distances, there is the concern, however, of developing tension in the back, hip, and leg muscles from the static forward leaning and hip-flexed posture. I have found yoga to be extremely helpful in bringing the body’s balance back. A routine that focuses on opening the front of the body, and especially the hip flexors, can ease this tension.
YOGA SEQUENCE TO EASE THE TENSION FROM RIDING
As a starting base to warm up the spine, complete a few rounds of Cat (top left) and Cow (top right) Pose. As you alternate between flexing and extending the spine, take note of the balance between these two motions and throughout the various segments of the spine. As you come across any area that feels restricted in the movement feel free to pause and hold the shape to deepen the experience into those areas.
2. Thigh Stretch
Next move to lying on your front (prone lying) and see if you are able to bend one knee and grab your foot to gently draw the heel towards your bum. If it is difficult to reach back and get a hold of your foot, you can use a yoga strap around your ankle to assist. It is important that when you come into the knee bend, the front of the hips don’t lift off the floor—you want to feel grounded through the front of the pelvis, especially on the side you are stretching. If you feel your front hip bones lifting off the floor, back out of the stretch a little and try engaging your abdominal muscles before bending your knee in. If this still doesn’t work, or if you feel any discomfort in your low back, you can do this thigh stretch lying on your side instead. Stay with the stretch for four slow breaths, and depending on the degree of tension you feel, consider doing each leg a second time.
3. Locust Pose
Next give Locust Pose a try. It is a great counteractive pose for riders as it strengthens the back extensor muscles (which may be over lengthened and/or weak from the forward leaning posture), and it opens the front body. In this pose you want to engage the back muscles to get a lift of both the upper and lower body, keeping in mind that the height of the lift is totally up to you based on comfort in the back. Also, as you lift the head and chest, let the arms come off the floor as well and draw the shoulder blades together (without shrugging the tops of the shoulders). The legs are lifting at the same time, aiming to get the knees just off the floor and creating a sense of lengthening in the body by stretching the legs back and reaching forward through the crown of the head. Try holding this pose for 3 – 4 slow breaths. As you develop your endurance for this posture, challenge yourself by staying a little longer and doing more repetitions. (Other back extensions such as cobra pose would be suitable here too).
For a progression from locust pose, you could build up to doing Bow Pose (right), which really opens all aspects of the front body. Keep in mind, this pose may be too aggressive for the individual with restricted range of motion in the hip flexors or anyone with a back condition compromising their spinal extension, e.g. stenosis. You should be able to do the thigh stretch and locust pose easefully before attempting this pose.
4. Puppy Pose
After the locust pose and Bow Pose, it tends to feel balancing to come back to kneeling and briefly stretch the back into the reverse motion. Often in class I’ll suggest doing another cat stretch or child’s pose.
For Puppy Pose (above), start on all four’s and walk the hands out in front for a long reach under the arms (hands shoulder with apart). You want to keep your hips stacked above the knees. Then let the head and chest relax downwards between the arms to feel the stretching under the arms, along the sides of the torso, and across the chest. Stay here for 3 – 4 slow breaths.
5. Kneeling Lunges
Onto the kneeling lunges—probably the most important aspect of this program in order to stretch the hip flexors. The kneeling lunges can be awkward and challenging when you first learn them, but well work the effort for cyclists! Keep in mind it is good to set yourself up for success by adding a little comfort and support in these poses. For instance, you can add padding under the knee on the floor and/or you could do these lunges beside a chair or bench to steady your balance.
First come into a high kneeling posture with one foot forward (image top left), and before you shift your hips forward into lunge, lengthen the low back by tilting the tail bone under (posterior pelvic tilt) and maintain this tilt as you lunge the hips forward (image top right). Make sure the front foot is far enough ahead that the knee lines up with the ankle below.
The second two lunges, from the images above, demonstrate additions to the basic lunge by reaching the outside arm overhead (image bottom left) and then revolving the body with one hand on the hip (image bottom right) to create greater lengthening down the lateral chain of muscles. On the revolved lunge, I rotate my trunk towards the front knee side and place my outside hand on a block. Instead of a block, you could reach your hand to the ground if this is comfortable for you, or for more height under the hand, you can rest your hand on the chair/bench. Stay in these lunge postures again for 3 – 4 slow breaths each.
6. Revolved Kneeling Lunge with Thigh Stretch
This posture is for those of you who are ready for a deeper release into the thigh and hip flexor. It is important that you can competently do the previous lunges before adding this one into your routine. With the revolved kneeling lunge, you reach back with the opposite hand to foot to add the knee bend while holding the lunge. In the image above, I am demonstrating with a block under my hand for some support and to lift in my posture.
7. Supine Hamstring Stretch
Finish on your back to stretch the hamstrings. In this pose I am demonstrating how you can use a yoga strap to assist the drawing in of the leg and use of the strap to dorsiflex the ankle (toes towards shin) for greater stretch into the lower leg (calf) muscles. Stay in the stretch for 3-4 slow breaths and do each leg once or twice depending on the level of tension you notice.
After completing the hamstring stretch, gently draw both knees towards the chest for a little hug, and then extend both legs out, arms at your sides to finish in Savasana, resting on the ground for however long feels good.
I hope this routine brings balance back into your body after those long rides and keeps your cycling pain free!
Have you ever heard a yoga teacher say, “How you show up on your mat is how you show up in your life?” If you think about it, our personality, characteristics, habits and belief systems don’t just disappear when we walk into a yoga class, so likely, the way you are in life, is the way you practice yoga, and depending on what habits and characteristics show up, it can helpful or hindering to your yoga progress. Acknowledging this, and taking a step back to become more aware of how your personality shows up on your mat, is a powerful point of reflection from which you can learn and grow as an individual.
Consider these questions: Are you a very determined or disciplined person? Do you get frustrated and angry very easily? Do you need to do everything perfectly? Are you usually quite hard on yourself and always push yourself – or do you not push yourself at all? Do you avoid challenges or discomfort? Do you prefer activities that are slow moving and low energy? Are you open and expressive or are you withdrawn and quiet?
These are just a few questions to get you thinking about your nature and how these characteristics affect your behaviour, preferences, and choices. Then consider how these tendencies might be showing up in your yoga practice – the style of class you choose, how you engage throughout the class, where you place your mat, and the thoughts that show up during the practice… When you begin to reflect on your patterns, it can lead to insights about how you approach and engage in life and maybe even why.
Consider this example: Sally is a high energy, physically strong person who craves challenges and likes constant stimulation. She gravitates to flow and power yoga classes with lots of movement and distraction. Sally is very motivated by extrinsic goals and competition and strives to perform poses a certain way. The teacher notices she is often over-tensing in her body and holding her breath and begins to offer her cues to provide internal reflection on these tendencies. As Sally begins to notice how her body and breath respond to her strong achieving mindset, she begins to notice connections such as feeling sore after class or over-stimulated rather than calm, and she begins to make connections about how her high-expectation thoughts for her own performance may not always benefit her improvement in yoga and overall health.
When one begins to make these connections about habits and preferences, we can use our yoga practice as a way to bring more balance into our life and begin practicing new ways of being. Because there are so many different styles of yoga and tools we can sample, it may be helpful to try the opposite of your “preferred” or “regular” style. That means slowing down and practicing gentleness if you are a go-go-go person who always pushes. Or, for those of you who are low energy and avoid new challenges, turn up the volume a bit and try crossing some boundaries.
In the case of Sally, she might choose a slow restorative or yin class, and by placing herself outside her norm, and listening to how her body and mind respond, new insights can arise. For example, she might notice feelings of impatience or agitation when staying still in longer poses or during silence. Or she might feel edgy when the poses feel too easy and there is little sensation. There is a good chance that these feelings on the mat can reveal lifelong patterns and beliefs she carries about herself and others, and with revelations such as these, she can then begin to ask herself why or where it came from. Within these questions and answers a whole universe of self-discovery can be possible.
Yoga can be a marvellous discipline from which we can learn about our habits and behaviours, and once we make these connections, and practice in a way that challenges these habits and belief systems, new patterns are eventually created. This inevitably crosses over into our daily life. Sometimes, this process happens slowly and gradually, and in other instances, it happens very quickly. Regardless, by committing to our yoga practice in this self reflective way, the result is that we are forever changed.
The other day, some participants in class were wondering how they could relieve the soreness and tension that they seem to always have in the area running from their neck to their shoulders, sometimes referred to as the area the “upper traps.” This area is a common area of discomfort; it is known for its tendency to be sore after long durations of working at our computers or during times of stress as we might unconsciously clench or shrug our shoulders. When this area gets over-stressed or tightened up, it can cause neck and upper back pain, headaches, jaw pain, and dysfunctional shoulder motion and impingement. To relieve these symptoms, certain yoga postures can be a great help, but first we have to consider the two main reasons this area is so often problematic: poor posture and over clenching in this area.
The area of the upper traps is just the top portion of the large, diamond shaped muscle known as the trapezius (image below). Each section (upper, middle, and lower) serve different actions/functions. The upper fibers of the muscle help in the shrugging (elevation) action of the shoulders and serves a role in keeping the head and neck in position during our daily activities. The upper traps are often overworked when we stay in a forward flexed/forward head-jutting posture for long periods, such as when we are working at the computer or looking down at our devices for extended periods of time. Consider the basic physics of the matter… your head is like a 10 pound weight at the end of your neck. When it leans forward, those stabilizing muscles in the posterior neck are working much, much harder than when your head rests vertically in relationship to gravity. Common sense tells us to try to sit straighter and limit forward jutting of the head to minimize the discomfort on our upper trap area.
However, posture correction is not as simple as don’t poke your head forward (*). To correct it, we need to consider what’s happening below the neck and check our alignment of the whole spine. I like to think of it as working from base up, and the base is our pelvis. If your pelvis is tilted out of neutral posture, the entire length of the spine accommodates for this alignment. In sitting, it is common to tilt the pelvis posteriorly (see image below) and this takes the lumbar spine (low back region) out of its natural curvature of being slightly arched inwards into a flattened posture. When the low back arch is flattened out, our neck posture has no chance of proper correction.
This is especially significant in yoga since we sit on the ground. Sitting low often causes a posterior tilting in the pelvis because many individuals have tight hip and leg muscles (or hip and knee joint issues) which limit their ability to move their hips in deep flexion and external rotation. With these motions being limited, sitting cross-legged becomes straining, and other areas compensate to manage the posture – namely the pelvis tilts in response to the pull of these forces. This is why yoga teachers encourage placing a lift under your seat to ease the tension through the tight hip/leg muscles pulling at the pelvis. It may not be perfect but adjusting your seat surface a little higher to encourage a more neutral pelvis and low back posturing can be a huge piece in correcting your neck pain.
The thoracic (middle back) segment of the spine can be just as much of a hindrance in supporting our neck posture. Individuals tend to collapse through their mid backs in sitting, often viewed as a rounded or hunched back posture. This posture is so common because it requires very little energy to sit this way – the postural, support muscles get to take a break and the spine slumps in response to gravity. Then the neck posture compensates in response, and the upper traps get overworked to hold the head in place this way. In yoga we regularly cue to lengthen the spine in our poses. Not only is this a really important way to create space between the vertebrae of the spine (which is good to prevent collapsing and compression of the spine in poses), but it is the key to adjusting posture through the mid back. I encourage my students to feel the lift upwards coming from the top of their breast bone (the manubrium), which creates a lengthening in the thoracic spine. This simple action creates a more vertical head/neck alignment. So yes, it takes a bit of effort to sit up straight – but it’s worth it!
Outside of spinal posture, the other main reason for pain and tension in the upper traps is if you have a habit of being an over-shrugger. The upper trapezius is one the main muscles which elevates the shoulders upwards (the other being the levator scapulae). Tensing or shrugging the shoulders is one of those conditioned responses to stress for many people. A certain thought, an uncomfortable situation can result in the shrug and people don’t even realize they are constantly, habitually clenching this area, and eventually this causes stiffness and pain.
To undo the effects of over-shrugging and train yourself out of this unconscious habit, It’s not enough to stretch these muscles. Instead consider doing the opposite motion to release the tension from the shrug. The opposite motion is lowering the shoulders down, known as depression, and this is done by activating the lower fibers of the trapezius muscle, which moves the shoulder blades down the back and lowers the shoulders. Also, activating the lower portion of the trapezius sends a reciprocal signal to the upper traps to release and stretch. (To get a better sense of the muscles involved in elevating and depressing the shoulders, click here for a short video animation).
Returning to posture, in order for this technique of shoulder depression to be effective, it’s really important that our spinal posture is in check. For example if you are sitting slouched and move your shoulders downwards, the shoulders might pull forward by the chest muscles and the lower traps won’t get activated, which is required for the upper traps to release.
The way I describe the correct technique in class is to first sit or stand tall, lift through the top of the breast bone, draw shoulders slightly back, and then lower the shoulders downwards –feeling shoulder blades move slightly together and down the back towards the hips. This will create an open spacious feeling from tops of shoulders to ears. (Note, you don’t have to do this motion with all your might, just a little bit of activation in this direction is sufficient). Then this technique can be applied to more complex motions and postures, such as your yoga poses. Cobra and Warrior II are a couple of my favourites to practice this. With practice your mid back muscles will strengthen, and the new, lowered shoulder posture will become more automatic.
Anytime we are trying to create change in our bodies, it requires awareness of our habits and plenty of practice before the new way sets in. To minimize upper trap pain, take advantage of your yoga classes to learn how to adjust your posture for more lift and neutrality in the spine, and then apply the practice of activating the lower trapezius muscle to release the shoulders down during the poses. In time you will feel your shoulder rest easier and the upper trap pains disappear.
*It is important to remember that your computer and chair set up can be the source of your postural problems. For instance if your monitor is too low, your body will compensate in posture to get an adequate eye line and vision to the screen and in this case no amount of knowledge of the spine will help. It’s equally as important to adjust your workstation.
Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. – Lao Tzu
Lately in class, the idea of doing small acts repeatedly as a way getting us where we want, has kept popping up. In yoga, and in many aspects of our lives, we lack patience and want immediate results ⸺“We want it all, we want it now.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started on a project (healthy eating being a great example) and felt really motivated for a short period of time in the beginning only to lose my enthusiasm very soon thereafter, and I know many others struggle with this too. The truth of the matter is, success lies in consistency over time; the commitment to regular practice day in and day out. I also know, however, that sometimes I’m not able to, or want to, show up with full effort, and I’m starting to realize how the process of achievement can be more subtle and gentle, and not always linear. Much like the cycles in nature, progression in yoga and other aspects of our lives can unfold gradually with peaks and valleys depending on our internal and external rhythms.
When you think about nature and how things typically progress and come into maturation, there are natural stages. The baby doesn’t just walk, it first spends time learning to roll, then rock, then crawl, then stand⸺all building blocks of the final destination of walking. Yet as adults we expect to we should be able to jump to the end stage, and we want results fast. We seem to be programmed to rush and hurry, and when things don’t happen fast, our minds become impatient and restless. However this way of thinking and being sets us up for failure. Mirroring the natural process, we are more apt to be successful when we proceed with smaller chunks and achieve competency in stages. I have seen some of the greatest transformations in yoga from the students who chose only two or three poses that they practiced, as opposed to big routines with complexity. These smaller elements, done regularly, often add up to much bigger results.
We can also reframe how we think progress should look. Progression in nature is rarely linear, and progress is not without rest or pause in the seasons and cycles. In some forests, natural disturbances, such as forest fires, are good example of natural breaks in the path of progression. In the boreal forests for example, forest fires release valuable nutrients stored in debris on the forest floor for new growth and allow some tree species to reproduce by opening the cones to free the seeds. This pause in the growth of the forest is essential for it’s health and balance as it matures. Looking back on my progression with yoga, it was much the same. There wasn’t intense effort all the way along. Sometimes I had strong commitment and energy for my practice, and I got a lot done during these phases. Then there were slow phases, and even breaks in the practice. Sometimes the breaks were by choice, and sometimes not – illness, injury, maternity – regardless, I always returned to my practice. I realized that when I came back, I hadn’t lost everything ⸺ things came back quicker, and I progressed past where I was before. In reflection I noticed, sometimes after a break, there was a fierceness of practice that wouldn’t have happened without the time away.
There are natural cycles that happen within our own physiology, unique to each of us, that we would all benefit from understanding more. Mindfulness becomes our ally in navigating this internal rhythm. As I have mentioned in many previous blogs (Walk Slowly, If You Know Better, You Do Better, Yoga for the Brain), meditation and yoga help you develop the skill of shifting your perspective to become the observer of your own thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the body. When one adopts this shift in perspective you become more attuned to what is naturally unfolding within, and you can pick up on the cycles and patterns that come and go with your motivations, energy, and moods, throughout the day, months and years. You can learn for instance that when energy wanes and things slow down, it doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. Things are constantly changing, and coming and going. Sometimes when you are down and apathy takes a foothold on you, it’s hard to remember what it was like to be up and energized, and it’s easy to get caught in thinking these feelings and low energy will last forever. But this is never true. These thoughts, these emotions, they pass through us; they are not us. There are season and cycles within us to acknowledge and embrace as well.
I think it’s time we learn to be a bit more gentle with ourselves and remember that hurrying and putting heavy pressure on ourselves rarely works out in the long run, instead it sets us up for a crash. So I encourage you to stop feeling guilty for the lulls and the pauses. Pace yourself kindly, and welcome the irregularities of progress ⸺ both high and low. If you keep taking those small steps forward in harmony with seasons and cycles of your life, both inside and out, you are sure to see the reward.
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)…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Feeling stressed or anxious? Here’s something to try
Breath work (known as pranayama in yoga) is a very effective way to reduce stress and anxiety, and calm a turbulent mind. Conscious breathing works by stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), and by helping your sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight) to become more flexible. This flexibility is essential to turning off the stress response when it’s not needed.
Here’s a simple, effective practice to get these results:
Lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor (or put a pillow under your knees). Rest your hands on your belly, just beneath your front ribs. As you breathe in and out through your nose (lips together but jaw relaxed) attempt to fill your belly into your hands and then gently relax your belly down as you exhale. As you practice this belly-filling breath, count how many seconds it takes for your inhale and how many seconds for your exhale. After a few breaths, see if you can get your exhales to last a little bit longer than your inhales… the hope is to gradually slow your breath, with extra emphasis on slowing the exhales.
Set a timer for 5 minutes to start, or just breath for as long as you need, in order to feel more calm and peaceful. The more often you practice, the more results you’ll feel. Remember to also practice patience and be gentle and kind with yourself. One conscious breath at a time.
I 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.
In my own yoga and meditation practice, mindfulness of my thoughts (becoming aware of my thoughts, as they occur), has been one of the most insightful and beneficial pieces to my personal growth. It has revealed to me habits and patterns in my thinking, such as my tendency for my mind to jump to comparing thoughts, doubting thoughts, and judgemental thoughts, and in times of stress, I noticed obsessive, worrying thoughts of the future. Although I’m not proud to admit that so many negative and worrisome thoughts frequent my mind, I also know I am not the only one with these tendencies, and many of us get conditioned in this way of thinking.
Mindfulness helped me identify the patterns in my thinking, but it wasn’t enough to change the way I was thinking. I like to compare this to being witness to discrimination against another person, and choosing to ignore it. The neutral indifference does nothing for your processing of the situation. So it was with me; there was a missing piece to my processing. I needed to acknowledge the unhealthy patterns in my thinking, but without making it another loop in negative self-judgement. That’s when I learned about self compassion’s relationship to mindfulness practice.
So what is self compassion? In its definition, it is simply the practice of speaking to yourself and treating yourself with kindness, caring, and acceptance. Or, better yet, treating yourself in a way that you would treat a dear friend. This nurturing way of being is often missing from the context of awareness, but in order to gain the benefits from our mindfulness practices, self compassion needs to be included. It is helpful to separate their definitions a little further to better understand this relationship:
Mindfulness asks us, “What are we experiencing in this moment?” Self-compassion asks us, “What do we need now in this moment?”
Mindfulness is about accepting moment to moment experiences… this thought, this feeling, and so forth. Self-compassion is about accepting “the experiencer”.
Mindfulness says “feel your suffering with spacious awareness,” (i.e. can you make room for it, can you be with it?). Self-compassion says be kind to yourself when you suffer.
Thich Nhat Hanh gives an eloquent description of how compassion works alongside mindfulness in his advice for working with negative emotions:
“The function of mindfulness is first, to recognize the suffering and then to take care of the suffering. A mother taking care of a crying baby naturally will take the baby into her arms without supressing, judging it, or ignoring the crying. Mindfulness is like that mother, recognizing and embracing suffering without judgement. So the practice is not to fight or supress the feelings or thoughts, but rather to cradle it with a lot of tenderness. Even if that mother doesn’t understand at first why the child is suffering and she needs some time to find out what the difficulty is, just her act of taking the child into her arms with tenderness can already bring relief. If we can recognize and cradle the suffering while we breathe mindfully, there is relief already.”
By breaking down this relationship between mindfulness and self-compassion, it became apparent to me that when we learn to hold our thoughts, emotions, and our feelings with caring acceptance, we acknowledge the bigger picture. We are saying to ourselves, this thought isn’t healthy but I acknowledge it this way and it is okay to have imperfections. Or, this feeling is uncomfortable, but it is real and it has something to tell me, and I will give myself time. It’s also about being more gentle with ourselves when habits repeat themselves, instead of beating ourselves up about it. For within the space of accepting ourselves with loving kindness, we set the stage for growth to happen, and this can make all the difference.
Here is a little Question & Answer piece to explain some basics around mindfulness and meditation, and how they relate to yoga.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness simply means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.
When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment.
How are mindfulness and yoga related? Yoga teaches mindfulness each class when we become the observer of what we are noticing in our bodies and minds during a pose or transition. When your yoga teacher cues you to notice sensation, alignment, breath, and thoughts during class, she or he is cultivating the state of mindfulness. This is what makes the practice of yoga different than other physical sports/disciplines – you are learning to move with conscious awareness, and you are learning the skill of shifting your attention away from the unconscious mind-chatter to that of the observer, present to all that is happening in your mind-body from moment to moment.
What is meditation? Look up the definition of meditation and you’ll get a lot of different answers. That is because within the practice of meditation there are many different styles and techniques. Most commonly, meditation means the act of giving your attention to only one thing in order to focus or affect the mind. Generally, a meditation practice follows a specific procedure to produce transformational results in some way, such as the development of concentration, emotional positivity, self-knowledge, calm, or spiritual growth.
Also, among the many forms of meditation, the process varies – some use an object or a sensation to fix the attention to, while others use chants and mantras (sometimes having a religious connection). There are also guided or content-directed meditations with the focus of achieving a certain state of being or emotion, e.g. cultivating a state of loving kindness or relaxation.
One of the most simple forms of meditation, and the one I am choosing to highlight in this blog, is Mindfulness Meditation; it is secular, well-defined, and researched with proven benefits. Mindfulness meditation uses the process of sustained focus, specifically by focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Here are the steps:
Sit in a comfortable seated position with your back straight and eyes closed
Notice the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. Pick a spot where you sense the breath to be most prominent (could be nose, chest, or belly), and focus fully on the sensation of the breath coming in and out.
Your mind is going to wander off in thought constantly, and when you notice you’ve lost your focus on the feeling of the breath, let go of whatever you were thinking and start again, bringing your attention back to the sensation of the breath.
Many people think meditation is about stopping thoughts, but it is not. The mind thinks. That’s its job. The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to help us unhook from our tendency to get caught up in thoughts without any conscious awareness. The first time you meditate, you might notice the instructions are simple but the practice is difficult. You may keep getting lost in thinking about the past or future. The key is to remember that getting caught up in thoughts is normal. Just make note of thinking and return to the breath over and over again.
Why should we practice mindfulness meditation? Because it is yoga for your brain!
During the meditation practice, every time your mind wanders into thought (and you notice this), and you bring your attention back to the breath, you are strengthening your brain. As Dan Harris explains in his YouTube clip, Meditation for Beginners, (link at bottom), “it is like doing a bicep curl for the brain.” This process of letting go of thought and returning to the breath, improves your concentration and focus, builds grey matter in the brain, and creates a shift in cortical processing (for a more in-depth review of the research showing how meditation positively changes the brain see these links: 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain or Harvard Unveils MRI Study Proving Meditation Literally Rebuilds the Brain’s Grey Matter in 8 weeks.
In my opinion, the greatest benefit of practicing mindfulness meditation is the way it helps us become aware of the self talk in our minds, and specifically to gain awareness of the preoccupation of fixations to things we like, and the aversion of things we don’t like. By watching our thoughts we get insight into the frequency of rumination and projection that is constantly going on in the brain, and we learn how we talk to ourselves. Consequently, mindfulness meditation is proving to be extremely helpful for mental health conditions, specifically for individuals with depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as for children as it improves their emotional regulation and focus/concentration.
How often do I need to practice to get benefits? As a yogi, you are likely already learning the skill of mindfulness during your yoga classes. However, if you want to take this a step further, and get the brain strengthening benefits discussed above, start by setting aside 5 – 10 minutes per day for practicing mindfulness meditation. Here is the short YouTube clip to help you get started: Meditation for Beginners.
So, I hope this blog clears up some answers you may have had about mindfulness & meditation. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to comment or email!
The 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.