Heart Opener: an antidote to long hours at the computer

This is a simple exercise that can be performed seated or standing. I'll describe the seated variation first, since you are probably sitting at your computer right now. It is a great antidote to the aches and pains in your upper back and neck accrued while spending long hours at your computer.

Come to sit a little forward in your chair. You'll want to have your pelvis clearly on the seat of your chair but not be leaning into the chair back. Close your eyes and sit up tall. In your mind's eye see the side of your body: hip points, shoulder socket and ears in one long vertical line. Gently engage your pelvic floor muscles (drawing pubic bone to tail bone and sitting bones toward one another) and lift from your pelvic floor through the crown of your head. Your abdominal muscles will gently draw up and under your rib cage.

Lift your arms and take your fingertips to rest on the back of your head behind your ears. Keeping your fingertips on your head, stretch your elbows in opposite directions, like you were trying to touch the walls on either side of the room. Now slide your head straight back into your finger tips, just like sliding a drawer backward onto its shelf. Depending on the mobility of your neck, your head might move anywhere from half an inch to 2 inches. Keep lifting your pelvic floor and your belly up and under your ribs and hold the stretch for 4 to 8 breaths, then release and relax. Repeat the stretch 2 or 3 times. To release your back during long days of computer work, repeat this exercise once every hour or two.

You can use this upper body position as a variation in warrior poses, triangle poses and parsvokonasana (forward facing triangle). In addition to opening up the chest and shoulders it will build abdominal strength and balance as a variation in standing poses.



Finding your Hip Flexors

For this first exercise it will be best if your feet are not on the sticky mat, but rather on the floor itself. So, rotate your body such that your feet are on the floor and your spine is still well aligned. Begin with your knees bent, your feet flat on the floor, you shoulders and hips on the mat.

Notice the shape of your lower back: is your back arched or flat? Notice the sensory presence of your lower back: pleasure, pain, neutral?

Now slowly let your legs slide out to full extension, legs lying flat on the floor. Return to a sense of your lower back: : is your back arched or flat? Is there pain, pleasure, any sensation in the low back? What is the position of the legs and thighs? Are the thighs pressed to the floor or lifted and higher than the hips. There is no right or wrong here, the intention is to notice what your body does. Slowly switch back and forth between legs extended and knees bent. Watch the movement of your low back as you move, stay aware of the sensations of the hips, pelvis and thighs, and perhaps farther a field as well.

After repeating the cycle 5 to 6 times rest in whichever position, legs extended or knees bent, is more comfortable for you.

Your psoas and illiacus muscles are the primary hip flexors. They attach to the front of your thigh bone, extend up into the pelvis, lay behind the pelvic organs and attach to the lower spine (psoas) and the back crest of the pelvis (illiacus). When you are lying on your back they are at their longest and they therefore pull forward on the low back and top of the pelvis. The result is forward tilt of the pelvis. If your hip flexors are short and your weak abdominal and back muscles the constant tilting forward of the low back increases your risk of back injury and pain. We want to work toward length and strength in all of these muscles sets: hip flexors, back muscles and abdominals. We want strength and length to be balanced.


Pelvic Awareness Exercise II: Rolling like a ball

Purpose and Caveats: Rolling like a ball requires us to hold the pelvis in a stable position through an ‘unstable’ motion. It requires keen attention to the details of the movement. You're likely to have an asymmetric roll in the beginning. This will shift as you practice and learn to hold the form with stability. Do not roll if you have osteoporosis or a neck injury, just come into the initial pose and practice holding it for 30 seconds to a minute. (For long time yogis: avoid the tendency to come up to a straight back when you arrive in the balancing position. The focus is different than in navasana: maintain a rounded spine throughout. You'll want to disengage the power centers in the hamstrings and and hip flexors and work from the abs and back instead.)

Focus: Keep your awareness in the sensations of the back of your body as you do this exercise. As the front of the body is curled into itself, let the back of the body be vibrant and awake.

Rolling like a Ball: Come to a seated posture, with your feet on the floor, legs parallel, knees bent, feet on the floor. Catch your hands behind your knees, rock back, lift the feet from the floor and balance on the fleshy area right behind your sitting bones. Tilt your head forward such that your chin is a few inches from your sternum and your gaze is down the front of your body. Engage our abdominal muscles strongly so that your pelvis tilts toward the back of your body, your lower back is rounded and your shoulder blades rotate out to the sides of your body. Tilting your pelvis toward the back of your body will create “the ball” shape you are looking for. Keeping this shape intact throughout the exercise is your goal.

Once you have found your balanced ball-shape it will only take a slight shift in your center of gravity to cause you to roll backwards. Initiate this movement with an exhalation and a deeper tightening of your abs. Roll backward along your spine to your shoulders and then forwards again to come to balance. You should be rocking backing and forth from pelvis to upper back while maintaining the ball shape continuously. Keeping your gaze down the front of your body will help you maintain a healthy and safe neck position throughout the exercise.

Continue to roll 4 to 5 times with your eyes open, then close your eyes and continue for another 4 to 5 rolls with eyes closed. Turn your attention to the back of your body, again and again and again. As you begin to feel confident in your ability to hold the form and stay aligned throughout the exercise try shifting the breathing pattern: inhaling back, exhaling up.


Pelvic Awareness Exercise I: Cat/Cow with a Sandbag

The last post was about the mechanics of the pelvis. This is the first in a series of exercises to bring you into deeper awareness of your pelvis and its mechanics.

Cat/Cow with a sand bag: Come onto a hands and knees position on your mat. Then sit back on your knees, hold a sand bag (or other soft lightly weighted object) on your low back with one hand and then tilt forward onto hands and knees again. You should be positioned with the weight of the sand bag primarily on your pelvis and lower back.

Look for neutral spine: neither flexing upward toward the ceiling nor drooping downward toward the floor. Without moving the pelvis, clearly engage your abdominals muscles to help support the weight of the sandbag.

Once you’ve found the support of your abdominal muscles you can begin to work through spinal flexion (cat) and extension (cow) in time with your breath. With your exhalation lift the sand bag up toward the ceiling by tilting your pelvis backward and arching the lower back upward. On the inhale, keeping your abdominal muscles engaged the whole time, come through neutral spine and gentle tilt the top of your pelvis toward the floor while lifting your head to look forward. Cycle through these two positions in time with your breath for a total of 10 to 20 cycles.

When you’ve finished this exploration come into child’s pose with the sand bag still resting on your low back. To come into child’s pose: bring your big toes to touching and your knees a little wider than hips distance apart. Sit back on your heals and rest your forehead on the floor. You arms may extend out over your head or rest alongside you.

As you continue moving into other yoga poses or even just walking around the house you'll have the ghost of the sandbag on your low back. Use this information to keep awareness there alive. You want to look for standing, sitting, working and living postures that support a graceful neutral spine position: a gentle tilt forward of the top of the pelvis such that the forward lumbar curve is alive, neither drooping toward your belly nor flattened toward your back.

Yoga Anatomy: The Pelvis

Pelvis derives from the Latin word for basin or container. You can imagine your pelvis as basin holding sacred contents sitting atop the twin pillars of your legs. The front of the basin is open and we rely upon our lower abdominal muscles to hold the contents in there. The bottom of the basin is also open. Your pelvic floor muscles support the pelvic contents from below. The pelvic floor muscles functions as a springy support floor rather like a trampoline.

You can also envision the pelvis as a fulcrum between the legs and the torso. It can be pulled and tilted from either side by the muscles of the torso and legs. Working from the bottom of the pelvis: your hamstrings and buttocks muscles pull the basin backward, your hip flexors (psoas, illiacus, and quadraceps) tilt the basin forward. Working from the top of the basin: your stomach shorten to tilt the basin backwards and the back muscles shorten to tilt the basin forward. Additionally you can tilt the basin side to side using the muscles at the sides of the waist and legs.

When your pelvis is aligned well, you will stand your tallest, with strong support for spine and upper body and your weight will be balanced such that your feet, legs and hips are at ease. To find this alignment, the muscles that move your pelvis need to be balanced, long, flexible, strong, and supple. Because many of us spend many hours of the day with our pelvis in a static position, either sitting or standing, we do not equally work and stretch these supporting muscles. The result is accumulated strain, and eventually pain or injury in our low back, hips or even farther afield.

Yoga and Pilates work together to build support and strength across the pelvic fulcrum. In yoga, all of the standing poses challenge the muscles across the pelvis by changing the symmetry and angles of the structure while weight bearing. Both strength and flexibility are increased by working through a full range of standing poses. Seated and prone poses work more passively toward flexibility in this structure. Alternatively, Pilates exercises work torso (core) strength by asking the abdominal and back muscles to hold the pelvis stable while the movement of the limbs create weight bearing challenges to the static hold.

I started by suggesting that the pelvis was a basin holding sacred contents. In the yogic system the pelvis is the seat of the Muladhara Chakra, our root Chakra. This Chakra is our metaphoric ground or tether. It keeps us stable in times of turmoil and stress. It is the pathway by which earth energy is founded in our bodies. Without a healthy secure root chakra we are like a boat adrift in the ocean, bandied about by the currents and waves. A good strong root helps stay clear on our life path.

I'll be continuing this exploration of the pelvis in classes and writings this month. Check back in from time to time for specific pelvic exercises.


The Sensory World of Yoga: Pleasure and Pain

I’ve spent a couple weeks on vacation. Although I did yoga, danced, walked and moved my body upon returning to my mat I’m feeling sore. I feel the aches and pains of a good work out. That doesn’t happen to me very often. My consistent and regular yoga practice keeps my sensation levels in the pleasurable realm. What I am feeling right now would be better called pleasant soreness, but clearly soreness. Muscles responding to movement and work, the results of labor reflected in the flesh the next day.

The English language has insufficient words for the varying nature of sensation. Pleasure and pain are not enough. I’d like more words to describe the myriad feelings in our bodies. For example, a student came in recently complaining about pain in the back of her legs. She stroked her hamstrings and told me “it hurts here.” As we worked together, it became clear to me her hamstrings were strong, flexible, and feeling pretty good as they moved. I inquired further about the pain and learned that she was experiencing something more akin to sciatica than tight hamstrings. With that awareness I had a whole different approach to her problem. A clearer vocabulary of sensation would have pointed me to the cause of the pain more directly. So here is some discussion of sensation, pain and pleasure, and the various qualities thereof.

Good sensation/good pain: is the sensation of stretch deep in the belly of a muscle. It is a rich long sensation that may radiate into surrounding connective tissue. Stretching pain usually fades as one stays in a stretch with time: as the muscle fibers lengthen the sensation diminishes. For example, when I stretch my pectoral muscles (by rotating my upper arm bone behind me) I feel the locus of stretch in the front of my arm pit and into my upper arm. If I listen more deeply I can feel the stretch through my elbow, forearm and all the way out to my fingertips. It is a gently tugging, a pull, it is not a sharp sensation. The same sensations extend up along my collarbone, along the side of my throat and to my jaw. These are satisfying sensations and I want to linger in them, I want to repeat them by pushing into the stretch when the sensations ease. Another example, when I twist my spine I come up against a structural barrier that feels like pushing on a wall. The twist goes only so far as the small muscles along my spine are working at their full capacity to twist. I can feel the length and pull in my abdominal oblique muscles as well a warm sensation of pull in my shoulders, ribs and hips. If I wait and relax into the twist the sensation subsides. I am then able to deepen the twist a little farther and find new areas of sensation in my spine.

Here is another place to listen for good stretch pain and the cascade of stretch with movement: we’ll do a Pilates Roll Down. Stand upright, tall and strong from your core. Drop your head forward to look down your body while keeping the torso muscles engaged and tall. Now slowly, very slowly, allow one vertebra at a time to roll off the spine and join the relaxed stretch of the head and neck. Everything that is in the forward bend is a rag doll, completely released, All the parts of your body that are still upright are strong and steady. Listen as you go, slowly rolling down the spine. You’ll come up against different parts of your spine where the tightness varies, where the sensations are higher. You can linger in these places allowing them to slowly release, or you can push quickly past them and move onto the next area of your spine. You’ll have the most effective lengthening of your back, the most opportunity to improve your flexibility and posture, if you linger in the areas of stretch until they naturally give way, rather pushing forward and through to the next zone of stretch. Reverse your actions to come out of the stretch, using your abdominal strength to slowly and sequentially lift the vertebrae back into place.

Bad sensation/bad pain is like coming up against a stop sign: your joints or muscles say STOP don’t go any farther, back up, yield, move out of this position. Bad pain can often be sharp, harsh, or sudden but it can also come on more gradually. As I sit here cross-legged there is pain in my knee where I had surgery last year. It is a deep ache in the joint not a sensation of stretch or pull. It tells me to rearrange my posture if I want to stand and walk easily after writing. If I don’t listen to this pain it gets louder and increases with time rather than subsiding. If I slump while I’m sitting here my back gradually begins to ache. Again, this sensation is telling me something: Sit up! It is a dull achy groan in my lumbar spine (lower back). Another clear sign of bad pain is nausea: if I push too extremely into an injury I’ll become nauseous. This is a clear warning sign of that I am causing damage to my body. Come out of what you are doing if you become nauseous.

We don’t want to irritate nerves with our exercise either. Nerve pain can be sensations of tingles, sparks, pin and needles or even numbness. These sensations should be avoided. Nerves like to be stretched but they don’t like to be pinched. Pinching the nerves yields these negative sensations. If you feel nerve sensations radiating through your limbs or body it is a sign to back off and realign your joints and muscles so that the nerve is no longer pinched. Repeated nerve pinching can do damage to the nerves themselves.

There is a pain in hard work that can be bad or good depending on the situation. For example when you are doing push ups or chataranga dandasana, your pectoral muscles might start to ache, even scream. Listen to them. You can push a into work for a while, but stop before the muscles scream or fail. When you are working at the edge of muscle failure you are much more vulnerable to injury, particularly if the muscle is bearing weight in a precarious position (eg. arm balances, inversions, chataranga, or one legged balance postures).

Joint popping is generally a neutral sensation, neither good or bad unless it is painful. I have noisy joints and most of them don’t cause me any problems. But if my jaw pops repeatedly, perhaps from eating a large crisp apple, then the pain lingers and is severe. You should avoid any joint popping that causes pain. The same is true for the sensations of ligaments or tendons ‘thunking’ as they cross joints. If the thunk sensation is neutral you are unlikely to be causing any damage. However, you can often realign a joint to avoid the thunking sensation, that is generally a better alignment and healthier for the joint.

Finally, I’d like to address post exercise pain. Normal post exercise pain will peak about 24 hours after you have worked the muscles and resolve completely within 48 hours. Ice, anti-inflammatory medicines, and Epsom salt baths can all be used to treat post exercise pain. Professional athletes routinely ice their muscles and joints after working out to prevent post exercise soreness and reduce the accumulated strain of repeatedly working the same muscles. If you have pushed yourself particularly hard, you can use ice before pain sets in and you might avoid it all together. If post exercise pain does not resolve within a few days, you may have injured yourself. Take a break and rest those muscles for a few more days, if the pain does not resolve it may be time to see a health care provider.

My students sometimes laugh when I refer to sensation rather than pain. I don’t want to avoid the reality of what they are feeling. I do want you to look closely at the sensations you are having. If you listen closely to your body during yoga you are very unlikely to injure yourself. Most injuries occur because we push too hard against our body’s wisdom. But don’t avoid the sensations that yield good change, the pull of a stretch, the work of a muscle. Those sensations will yield longer and stronger muscles as well as deeper awareness in the body.


karma yoga

Karma: seems I’ve heard this word bandied about most of my life. Good karma, bad karma: your life reflects your actions, you are what you eat, you reap what you sew. The word also carries the implication that the results of our actions can carry over from life to life. I don’t know anything about that particular detail. I do know that how I choose to act in this moment has clear repercussions in the day-to-day quality of my life. My contentment is a reflection of how I act. In the 12-step tradition there is a phrase “acting as if” that reminds us that action transforms us faster than thought.: we become our actions. What do we want to become?

Our yoga may begin on our mats. We show up in yoga class, breath, stretch, strengthen, and become aware of ourselves as incarnate being. We have bodies. Paying attention to the sensation of the body our spirit can change. For me, paying attention and practicing yoga not only reduced the pain that brought me to my mat, it calmed something deep in my center. It calmed my heart and my spirit in a way that nothing else had. I stopped seeking self-fulfillment through external sources, be that objects or external approval and gratification. I started to realize that being of service in the world was my personal path to contentment and freedom.

My personal path of service is teaching. I teach my public yoga classes that many of you attend. And I regularly teach in a service setting. Currently I’m teaching at an alcohol and drug recovery center for mothers with young children. I’ve taught in middle school alternative classrooms and to low income teenagers. While I’m bringing what I know to these classes, I learn an incredible amount there. Sometimes these classes don’t feel like a traditional yoga class at all. No one can settle down or everyone just wants to sleep. We listen to their rooms being searched while we practice or there is a fire alarm. Someone is in crisis as the court threatens to remove a child from the home or or the student herself has been removed from her home. Now we really practice yoga although it may look nothing like the yoga in the videos. We find an asana, a spiritual seat, at the center of the storm. And we look to find ourselves amidst the crisis. We seek a voice and the action that knows how to proceed in times of trouble.

This is yoga: the yoking of the self to a greater self. Yes, yoga is physical exercise, but not only the physical exercise. It is giving oneself to the greater good. It is making the world a more peaceful place by being a more peaceful person. It is about standing up and getting angry when that is the only appropriate response. It is about listening to each cell in your body and acting from that deep inherent knowledge. It is about listening to the people and the world around you. It is about being a right sized being on this beautiful planet. It is about acting without the expectation of a reward.



My turn, I'm off for vacation much of this next month. I'll be practicing yoga and dance in the high Sierra and on a dusty lakebed. See you in September,


Rest Stop Yoga: Sleep

You've been traveling for hours. You unfold your body from the cramped car and walk to the motel reception desk. You wiggle and stretch while you wait for help. Pour your weight from leg to leg. Lift up on your toes. Shake. Then head to your room and unpack. You lie down exhausted but unable to rest. Here are some tips for getting the rest you need:

1) Don't drink too much caffeine. Obvious but true. You probably already know your personal limit. Stick with it. Use asana (yoga postures) as a pick-me-up instead.

2) Eat well. Yes, let yourself have a treat. Enjoy the local offerings. But make sure you get your vegies, fruit, and fiber.

3) Take a nice long walk before you settle in at that motel. Move the big muscles of your legs. Do some big arm circles. Get a bit of real movement back into your muscles, fibers and bones.

4) Get outdoors during midday daylight. Wear shorts and get sunlight on your legs and the back of your knees. Your bodies clock will more easily shut down at night when it clear what day is.

When it is time to settle in to sleep turn off the TV and reduce visual and auditory stimulation as much as possible. Listen to your breath and your heartbeat. Do a body scan ~ tuning into each muscle, each bone, each limb, all of you. Wiggle and stretch then tense and relax. Repeat the body scan an the tense/release cycles until you feel tension dissolve.

Focused Relaxation of the nervous system: Alternate Nostril Breath
This is fabulous way to relax and calm the nervous system quickly. Begin in a comfortable seated or prone position. Rest the first and middle finger of your non-dominant hand on your forehead. Bring your thumb and ring finger to rest on either side of the nose near the transition from nasal cartilage to nasal bone (about mid way along the length of the nose). Take a few long smooth breaths. At the end of an exhalation gently close the right nostril with the pressure of your finger or thumb and inhale through your left nostril. Then close the left nostril and exhale through the right nostril. Inhale through the right then close it and exhale through the left. Inhale left, close, exhale right. Inhale right, close, exhale left. Continue the pattern exhaling and inhaling on one side, then switching to the other nostril.

After a few minutes you may find that you can do the alternate nostril breath without using your hands. Your intention will guide the breath from one side to the other. If you can find the focus and sensation of this you may lay back and continue and not even notice you have fallen asleep.

About five minutes of alternate nostril breath will soothe and balance your nervous system. You can use this as often as you like. I find it particularly effective in the middle of the night to calm the incessant chatter of an anxious mind and get me back to sleep readily.



Road Stop Yoga: Utthita Pandangustasana

Time to unfurl your body from that seat again. Open up the front of your body to make more room for breath, life and possibility. Take a nice long yoga break before you get back in the car!

Utthita Pandangustasana I:

You'll want a park bench, planter, or even your bumper as a prop for this exercise.

Stand alongside the bench and lift your foot up and out onto the bench surface. The leg will be extended to the side about 45 degrees. Turn your toes and your knee toward the sky. If your hamstrings are tight you'll want your lifted knee more bent than mine is in the photo. Lift and engage from your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles. Then spread your arms broad and open your upper chest. Take a few deep breaths. You can turn your head gently from side to side.

Add a Backbend:

Same pose, lacing your fingers together behind your back. Extend your arms and lift them away from your back. Lift your heart and upper chest. This is the 'chest expander' variation ~ so take some big full breaths and stretch out the front of your rib cage.

Keep the back of your neck long and comfortable if you choose to turn your gaze upward.

A deeper leg stretch:

Lift the leg onto a higher surface to increase the stretch in your hamstring muscles. Continue to keep the toes and the knee facing skyward, the hips level, the abdominal muscles and pelvic floor engaged. You can twist your chest away from the lifted leg and lace an arm behind your back with the hand resting on your lifted thigh.

Hold the pose for 4 to 8 breath cycles as you like.

Parsva Utthita Pandangustasana:

To add a side stretch rreach your arm down your lifted leg. You can catch the hand wherever it reaches while maintaining good alignment: knee, shin, ankle or foot. Keep turning your chest away from your lifted leg. Try to keep both the left and right sides of your spine equally long as you bend to the side. Use your drishti, steady gaze, to help your balance.

Unlace the hand from behind your back and lift your arm overhead. Feel this stretch all the way up the open side of your body. Breathe into your extended waist and rib cage. Enjoy the pose for 4 to 8 breath cycles.

As a final spine stretch you can arc the spine over the lifted leg (not shown). If the chest turns down toward the leg you'll enhance your hamstring stretch; if you continue to turn the chest upward (as if you were to lay your spine onto your lifted leg) You'll stretch the sides of the spine in the deep low back.

Once you've completed the poses on one side of your body, repeat them on the opposite side. If you have time, do each side twice through. Then keep this energy of the opening of the front of your body when it's time to return to traveling.



Rest Stop Yoga: Hips and Shoulders!

We're futher along in the journey, the stiffness has deepened and we needs some deeper stretches. Oh, and the only prop at this roadside stand is a pole. So here's a way to stretch:


Take your arms up the pole over your head. Step back and let your head rest between your arms. Lift your sitting bones up and allow a gentle arch in the low back. Bend and extend the knees softly. Let your head and neck undulate moving from side to side. Rock your low back. Let the kinks flow out of the body. Switch your arm position so that each hand has a chance to rest on top of the other.

Engage your lower abdominal muscles and pelvic floor, then bend your knees and step toward the pole to come out of the pose.

Knee and Quad Stretch

Stand beside the pole and hold the pole to help with balance. Bend a knee and catch your ankle with your hand. Lift your heal toward your outer hip or buttock to stretch your knee deeply. Keep the lift of your belly, chest and heart. Holding a steady gaze will further support your balance.

Now press your foot into your hand and rotate your thigh bone backward in the hip socket to extend at the hip. Keep engaging your abdominal muscles so that you belly button reaches toward your spine and you resist the tendency to rotate your hips forward.

The stretch will move from your knee into your Quadracep (front thigh) and Hip flexor muscles. The deeper you are able to work your abs the more you will be able to extend the stretch into those hip flexors. Hip flexors get both lax and shortened by extended periods of sitting. Stretching them out will go along way toward having a healthy and happy low back.

Repeat the knee and hip flexor stretch on both sides a few times.

Pectorals and Upper Back:

Reach one arm up the pole. Ground through your feet and reach through your arm. Then slowly turn your body away from the pole and your arm. You'll be stretching from the sternum up through the shoulder and armpit and all along the underside of the arm. You can slowly turn your head right and left to enhance the stretch in your neck muscles as well.

Walk your hand slowly down the pole as you turn your body away. As you move the arm through its rotation from over head to by your side, the stretch will move through various bands of muscle and connective tissue. Linger where the stretch feels especially good.

When you've finished one side stand tall in tadasana. Let your arms hang free and close your eyes. Relish the sense of openness in your shoulder. Then turn and stretch the other side.


Rest Stop Yoga: Twists

You've put a few more miles in, but perhaps you haven't gotten to your destination yet. You need some quick relief before you head back into the car. Twists are a great quick relief for your back, your spine, your belly, and your neck.

Pavritta Trikonasana: Revolving Triangle

Stand facing the back of a bench and take a wide stride with right foot back. Your left foot will face the bench and your right foot will be slightly turned out. Place your left hand on your left hip and reach for the back of the bench with your right forearm. Engage your deep abdominal muscles and lift your pelvic floor muscles as you slowly revolve your spine to the left, over the front leg. Keep your upper chest broad and don't over twist your neck. If it feels good you can gently turn your head left and right as you remain in the pose.

Hold the position for 3 to 10 breaths and repeat on both sides two or three times.

Pavritta Utthita Anjanyasana: Revolved Standing Lunge

Stand behind the bench about two or three feet and lift your right foot up onto the bench back. Your lifted knee is bent to hip height, or higher. Your standing knees is soft and open, not locked.

Take your right hand to your right hip and your left forearm across to the outside of the lifted right knee. Gently press the right forearm into the outer knee as you revolve your chest to the right over the lifted leg. You can use as much strength as feels appropriate in the arm to bring the twist up into your rib cage. Feel how your breath opens up the ribs and the upper spine and allows you to deepen the twist with each inhalation.

As above, keep your neck mobile and easy and your core muscles gently engaged. Repeat the twist on both sides, as many times as you like. You can hold the twist for a few breaths or slowly move into and out of the twist with the flow of your breath.

If you feel ready for a little deeper twist, hook your opposite elbow onto the lifted knee. The work of the upper arm pressing into the lifted knee will allow you to deepen the stretch in both the lower back and in the ribs and upper spine. Keep broadening your chest as you twist. You can brings your hands together into Anjali Mudra (prayer hands) and turn your sternum toward your thumbs.

If lifting the leg to the bench back feels too high, you can do these same twists with the lifted leg on the seat of the bench instead.

Happy trails!


Rest Stop Yoga: Pigeon Stretches

You unfold your body from the cramped car seat. You wiggle and stretch and walk a bit but still your low back is aching. Here are three versions of a classic stretch to ease low back pain. I consider all of these variations of Pigeon Pose: Kapotasana. In Pigeon Pose the upper leg bone is externally rotated and the knee is bent. Most people feel this stretch in the outer hip and deep hip rotators (between the sacrum and hip) Experiment and see which variation works best for your body. And don't save this stretch for travel. It is just as effective in your office in the middle of a long work day!

Seated Pigeon: Sit upright on a bench or chair. Feet flat on the floor and parallel. Then bring one ankle to the opposite knee, ideally your lifted foot rests outside the knee rather than on the thigh. While you are sitting up tall encourage the knee of the lifted leg to gently drop away from your chest, thus increasing the external rotation of the thigh and opening up the groins. Do not force the knee, if you feel knee pain you've gone too far.

If you have the flexiblity, gently fold at the hips to take your heart toward your shin. Keep some engagement in your deep abdominals.

Repeat on both sides, as many times as feels good.

Feel ready for a bigger stretch? Try the next variation:

Leaning Pigeon: Stand a foot or two away from a bench. Bending one knee toward your chest, turn the thigh outward and bring the outside of the lifted foot to the bench in front of your standing thigh. Continue to rotate the lifted thigh outward gently letting your knee fall toward the bench seat. Lean forward and place your hands on the bench back and form a plank with your body: ankles, hips and shoulders in a line. You'll want to continue to engage your deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles and lengthen the sides of your waist and your spine.

In this variation you may get a deeper hip stretch than in the seated variation, along with a stretch of the Achilles Tendon in the standing leg and some strengthening in the core torso muscles.

Standing Pigeon: The hip stretch becomes even deeper if you bring the shin onto a surface at hip height.

All the same cues apply: outwardly rotate at the hip; don't force the knee down; use the lift of your pelvic floor muscles and deep abdominals to lengthen your spine. Breathe.

You might practice this variation with your leg on a picnic table or planter, your hotel room bed, or any surface. Try different heights to find where you can maximize your body's response.

To take the stretch even further, take your hands on either side of the lifted foot and knee onto the surface your shin is resting upon, lean gently forward taking your heart toward your shin. You'll find the limit of your flexibility, don't push toward the very edge. Stay where the stretch feels optimal.

Once you've completed whatever version of pigeon is right for your body, walk around some, then move onto the bench variations of dog pose found in the last post.



Yoga for Traveling

You've been driving for an hour or two or three. You pull off at the rest area, use the facilities, and then walk around a bit. Find a bench and do some stretching. It'll do your body wonders.

First pose: bench dog
Ardha Adho Muhka

Start standing close to the back of the bench. Reach out and place your palms on the bench back and then step back, stretching through your shoulders and bending at the hips. Knees can be softly bent to allow a slight curve in the your low back. Stretch and wiggle like a puppy dog waking up in the morning. Alternately stretch each
side of your low back, stretch into each armpit, arch and flex your spine, gently rotate the head, and then slowly come into a long deep stretch.

If you have more hamstring and low back flexibility you can do the same pose with your hands on the seat of the bench rather than the bench back. This position brings you closer to classic Adho Mukha Svanasana.

Second Pose: Rotated bench dog
Pavritta Adho Mukha Svanasana

This variation will work better if you are in the deeper variation of bench dog. From the bench dog above you reach your left hand to your outer right calf, knee or thigh. Then rotate your chest to look out from under you right shoulder. Your hips stay level and your spine rotates. Spend some time on each side, continuously lengthening and twisting your spine, opening your shoulder and stabilizing your hips.

This is the first installment. Try these out anytime, at the rest stop, your neighborhood park, in your garden.


This Paradise: A meditation

It is easy this time of year to remember that we live in paradise. Corvallis is warm, blooming abundant. I look out my window at the green, purple, orange, red, pink, yellow, blossoms and new growth of the earth. I listen to the chatter of life: birds and squirrels and bugs and humans. Wednesday I walked up the hill to a friend’s home. Two yearling bucks walked right up to me in the middle of the road. We all stood very still, watching and smelling one another. Then they lazily walked into someone’s front yard and proceeded to have their lunch. Later that day I walked out my front door and flushed a moth from the side of the house. As the moth flew away from me, one of the resident house sparrows swooped right in front of my face and caught the moth. She landed on the top of the fence and ate her snack. Every afternoon the neighbor’s house cat perches herself over the vole’s hole in my yard, sitting perfectly still calling the vole out. In the mornings the young squirrels practice flying as they leap from the fir tree onto the roof of the studio and wake us up from savasana.

Yes, we do live in paradise, every single one of us. No matter where you are, no matter the time of the year. Paradise is not just Corvallis, it is this amazing world we inhabit. Listen to it. Slow down and listen. Paradise is all around you, just waiting for you to notice. Paradise is available in this moment. In spite of the burden and pain and suffering and wounds that each of us carry, paradise is here waiting for you notice.

You can begin to find paradise by simply listening. Listen to the sounds of the world around you:

Begin by hearing the sounds of the room your sitting in,
then slowly open your listening
to the space outside your room,
to the building you are in,
to the world beyond your building
soften to find your far distant hearing,
so that you may hear the distant sounds of
ocean, mountain, desert or plains
then return to the sounds of your own body
the sound of your breath
the sound of your digestion
the sound of your heart beat

Rest with gratitude for this moment and for being alive. You are another blossom on the flowering earth. Let yourself be astounded by that amazing fact.


Where is the Pelvic Floor?

Dear Yogini: What is this pelvic floor you keep referring to? ~ Confused

Dear Confused:
I’m glad you asked. You’re not alone in your confusion. The pelvic floor muscles are important structural core muscles that are largely hidden from view. Many of us have no idea how to find them or why we would want to. What follows is a short primer, if you’d like more information my favorite description of the pelvic floor muscles can be found in the book Body3 by Thomas Myers. (for an image check out: http://lucy.stanford.edu/img/ImageCA_562_2.jpg )

The pelvic floor muscles lie in the floor of the pelvis. Take your awareness to this area of your body, note the position of your sitting bones, your pubic bone and your tailbone. These four bony landmarks bound an area shaped like a diamond. The pelvic floor muscles are a sheath of muscles spanning this diamond. The fibers in the muscles span all directions in the diamond: front to back, side to side, and figure-eights through the space. The area can be thought of as a diaphragm or even a trampoline. To function optimally these muscles need to be taut, resilient, pliable, strong, and able to relax completely.

If we think evolutionarily, these muscles evolved in a vertical position in our four-legged ancestors. In most mammals the pelvic floor is a door through which mating, birthing and waste release occurs. The area needs to be able to open and close, but doesn’t need to bear weight. When humans became upright walking creatures the pelvic floor rotated into its current horizontal position. In this position it bears most of the weight of the abdomen. Pressure changes within the abdomen (breathing, sneezing, jumping, and running) stress the pelvic floor musculature. For women the pelvic floor is particularly stressed during pregnancy and childbirth. Strengthening these muscles has many benefits, from preventing incontinence and hemorrhoids to increased sexual pleasure in men and women.

Western medicine generally teaches these exercises with the name “Kegel” Exercises after the MD who first introduced them to us. The exercises have long been part of yoga practice. The common yogic term for working the pelvic floor muscles is Mula Bandha or the ‘root lock.’ Mula Bandha is variously used to refer to subtle energetic work in the pelvic floor as well as to the engagement of very specific subsets of the pelvic floor musculature. For my purposes, I use the term to generically refer to engaging all the muscles of the pelvic floor.

Kegels are introduced by encouraging the student to stop and start the flow of urine. This particular exercise focuses on the urinary sphincter part of the pelvic floor. It is a good beginning. You can also isolate the muscles that contract the anal sphincter and the genital sphincter as you become more familiar with the area. Practice and explore to find the various parts of this region of your body.

For yoga, I encourage students to engage the entire area. If you come back to imagining that diamond shape underneath you, my first cue is to ‘narrow the diamond,’ to make it smaller by drawing front-and-back and side-to-side together. Do this 5 to 10 times. Then relax. As with any exercise the rest phase is as important as the work phase. Needless to say, you do not want these muscles to go into spasm or hyper contraction.

Once you’ve got the first exercise down you can begin to lift the diamond. Imagine the area lifting like an elevator one floor at a time. You might be able to lift 3 or 4 separate floors, stopping for just a second or two on each floor and then reversing the process and resting on the ground floor. Repeat this process 5 to 10 times as well.

In yoga class we engage the pelvic floor and attempt to hold a gentle engagement throughout our practice. We don’t want to clench the muscles but we do want to keep them lifted and taut. This is “Mula Bandha” – the support provided by the pelvic floor lift. You might also notice that when you contract the pelvic floor muscles that the muscles of the lower abdomen also engage. They are hard wired together and provide important support for the low back and spine.

For general health you should do something on the order of 3 sets of 10 Kegels each day. I have known some women who said they practiced every time they waited for a red light, or anytime they were standing in line waiting. You don’t want to make the habit of doing the exercise in the middle of urination because you can prevent your bladder from fully emptying and thus cause bladder infections. Use that technique only to identify the muscle sets and then establish another time and place where you can remember to do this exercise daily ~ maybe while brushing your teeth. I call it the secret exercise as you can practice anywhere, any time. Just make a practice of repeating daily.


Yoga for Grief: Backbends

Dear Yogini: What are supportive postures for grief and broken hearts? from: A Grieving Soul

Dear Beautiful Shimmering Grieving Soul:
When we open our hearts to life our hearts inevitably will be broken by life. Our hearts will be broken for lost love, for friends and loved ones who die, for children who grow up and leave home, for flowers that wilt, for cultures, places and critters lost from the planet, for the violence perpetrated by one human on another, and for the hope that lives on in spite of loss. Life is wrought with heartbreak. We keep opening our hearts so that we can experience love and joy knowing that everything passes in time.

Heart opening postures support the body through the process of grief. They help us feel safe when we are exposed. They let us know that we can care for ourselves in vulnerable situations. When we practice heart openers we experience the physical sensation of an open heart without breaking. Difficult emotions may arise in these postures. Breathe through the emotions. Let them in and don't grasp onto them. Always breathe and let them pass through you.

Backbends can be done standing, seated or lying on the floor. There are belly down and belly up variations. Begin simply. Try sprinkling the seated and standing variations pictured above throughout your day. Invite your heart to lead and your gaze to turn gently up. These poses will counter the habitual forward bending we do in our lives. You'll feel better at the end of your days as a result.

Lisa in Bridge Pose

Bridge pose is a larger heart opener that is accessible to most bodies. It is contraindicated for those with neck injuries. Seek help from a qualified teacher if this pose causes you any neck pain.

To begin: Lie on your back on the floor with your arms along side you, your knees bent and your feet parallel. Notice the presence or absence of a lumbar curve, the space between your low back and the floor. Beginners may choose to practice low bridge and pelvic tilting: alternately press your low back into the floor with your exhale and let the low back rise with your inhale. Keep your sitting bones on the floor for this variation. The core all back bends is the arching of the spine towards the front of the body and the lifting of the heart into the front of the awareness.

After practicing pelvic tilts find 'low bridge:' the position where your buttocks and shoulders remain on the floor while the back is arched toward the ceiling. Engage your abdominal and back muscles here to support your lumbar spine as you press your feet into the floor and lift your pelvis upward into bridge posture. Continue to open the front of your spine, lift your heart toward the front of your body and maintain strength and support in your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles. You can work with the arms alongside you or clasp your hands together on the floor under your pelvis. In either case press the arms bones firmly into the floor for additional support. Hold the pose for three to five long smooth breaths. You'll want to repeat the posture about three times.

There are two common ways to come down from bridge posture. You may reengage your supporting muscles and lower your back to the floor while you maintain the arch of the low back thus bringing the sitting bones to the floor before the low back. This method improves low back and abdominal strength. Alternately, you may slowly drop one vertebrae at a time to the floor from your upper back to your tail bone. This method improves spinal articulation and mobility. Both are good.

Jay in Supported Backbend

For times of deeper grief or when you need restorative rest choose a supported variation of bridge posture. Lie face up on the floor with knees bent and place yoga blocks, folded blankets or a firm pillow under your pelvis. The basic form of the pose is the same and you can release the work of the pose and relax into gravity. If it is comfortable on your shoulders you can let your arms rest in 'cactus' alongside the head and place an eye bag on your eyes and forehead. Remain in supported bridge for five to ten minutes or as long as your low back is comfortable.

The goal of heart openers is not to avoid grief. Rather, to be present for grief, to accept grief, and to weep. Then to wipe your tears away, stand up and embrace life knowing that the more deeply we fall in love the more opportunities we will have to grieve. And the more fully we grieve our losses the more deeply we can fall in love.


Asana and Yoga

A couple weeks ago my neighbor helped to host the Mac Forest Trail Run, a 50k forest race. Many exceedingly fit people come and go from the neighborhood helping prepare for the race. One of these folks dropped by to ask me about the studio. He practices yoga and wanted to talk. He said he needs ‘efficient yoga.’ He quoted his teacher saying: “get real folks, this is exercise.” He likes to be pushed hard. He uses yoga as a tool to keep him running. He doesn’t want philosophy or the meditation. He wanted to tell me about his practice. He was looking for affirmation. I replied: “If it working for you that’s great.” And I told him that I’ll be here practicing for the rest of my life. When he is ready to move deeper into his yoga practice to come give my studio a try.

As I thought about the conversation afterward, it occurred to me this man is studying Asana. Asana, the yoga postures, is one of the eight limbs of yoga. Studying Asana improves health and well being. It makes you stronger, more flexible and improves your balance. It is the door through which we enter Yoga. It is a great beginning and we are always beginners. Yet is only the beginning. Yoga is so much bigger than Asana.

The yogic view sees the self as being comprised of 5 primary sheaths or layers. The outer most layer is Anna Maya Kosha: the physical body. Anna Maya Kosha is the sheath we have most ready access too. We can touch it, see it, taste it, smell it, hear it, and measure it. We can directly observe how Asana changes the Anna Maya Kosha. We feel the pleasure and progress of a good Asana practice in this sheath. We develop kinesthetic delight here and it keeps us coming back.

Asana also improves our proprioception. Proprioception is the awareness of where our bodies are in space. We all have this sixth sense but we are less conscious of it than we are of sight or touch. Proprioception is important for our health and safety and it is tangibly missed when it goes awry. If you have ever had a dizzy spell or become spatially disoriented under water you know what lack of proprioception feels like. Proprioception is controlled in the deeper parts of the brain along with our heartbeat, our organ functions and other physical processes we don’t consciously attend to. But when our yoga teacher asks us to balance on one leg, to negotiate a difficult twisting posture or turn our bodies upside down we begin to discover challenges to our proprioception. This challenge opens the connection between the conscious body and the subconscious body.

Developing proprioceptive awareness is one of the pathways that awakens conscious connection with deeper layers of the self, between Anna Maya Kosha and Prana Maya Kosha. We begin to make the connections between our physical body, our energetic body and our emotional body. The yogis call these three the gross bodies. These are the layers we can learn to touch, perhaps not figuratively, but in a very real sense we feel these sheaths.

As we proceed down the yogic path Asana is an essential part of the process, an important habit like brushing our teeth, but yoga lies in making deeper connections with the self. Touching into the subtle body (the wisdom and bliss body) is not a matter of performing lotus posture while in headstand. Touching into the subtle body is a result of time, patience, deep listening, and practice. Yoga is union of the gross body and the subtle body. Asana is a tool in the yogic tool box, just one of the eight limbs of yoga.


Yoga for Gardening

It’s spring in the Northwest. Time to plant, till, weed, and dig. Time to haul barrows full of compost to the garden. Time to wake up with back pain and shoulders aches and neck cricks of unknown origin.

Gardening is hard work. Even this body that gets daily yoga and Pilates gets sore from digging and hauling compost. Monday’s classes relieved most of the back pain that landscaping the front yard induced, so now I’m ready to do it again… Here’s some yoga tips for gardeners to help avert the aches and pains:

1) Don’t work too long uninterrupted. Ideally, spread your gardening tasks through the week. Work for an hour a day or so. Weed in small increments. I know, most of our lives don’t allow this pace. So when you do your long weekend gardening binges, make sure you get up and walk around every 30 minutes or so. Those extended periods of time spent bent over weeding are nearly guaranteed to give you a backache. Stretch often. Change your position frequently. Move about.

2) Backbend and side bend to counter stretch your spine. We do almost all our garden tasks in flexion: forward bending the spine. When you come up from your work, stand up very tall. Take you hands behind your back and lace your fingers together. Extend the arms and lift them away from your back while letting your heart rise and stretching the front of your spine. Then sweep your arms overhead, again interlace your fingers and turn your palms to face the sky while extending your arms. Arch side-to-side stretching from your hips through your shoulders.

3) Keep engaging your core muscles: transverse abdominus and pelvic floor. To engage transverse abdominus narrow your middle by taking your belly button toward your spine. Lift your pelvic floor muscles by first narrowing the diamond shaped region between the sitting bones, tailbone, and pubic bone and then lifting this diamond up to support the abdominal organs. Engage these two sets of muscles as often as you remember.

4) Half Dog Pose: Come to stand in front of a bench or garden chair. Sweep your arms up along side your ears, engage your core muscles and then fold forward to place your hands on the chair seat. Step back to find a position where your both arms and legs are extended, your back is easy, your spine near horizontal and your head is in line with your arms. Slightly bend your knees and rotate your pelvis forward and back to find ‘neutral.’ Engage your deep abdominal muscles to support the low back. Keep pressing your hands into the bench and shift your weight back into your feet to stretch your armpits and shoulders. Breath deeply. You can gently bend one knee at a time ‘walking’ the legs in place to enhance the stretch in the hamstrings. You can also rotate the pelvis left and right to stretch the sides of the low back. To come out of this pose bend your knees, take your hands to your knees, extend your spine lead with your heart to rise.

5) Last but not least: Roll down. Stand up very tall. Engage your core muscles. Drop your head to look at your feet. SLOWLY allow one vertebrae at a time to roll forward off the spine, strongly work your core muscles to keep the rest of the body aligned as the spine slowly releases forward. Roll forward into your full forward bend and rest in a long stretch, with passive arms and head, breathing all the while. To come up, first reengage the pelvic floor muscles and feel your tail bone curl underneath the pelvis. Then on an exhale engage transverse abdominus and begin to unfurl the spine, one vertebrae at a time, all the way back up to standing. Repeat roll down a few times.


meditation chorus

Many of you have heard the four little miniature pinchers that live next door to the studio. When they get disturbed it is an incredible falsetto agitato chorus: “yip, yip, yip, yip, yip, yip, yip, yip….” Then my neighbor’s calm adagio baritone solo pitches in: “Quiet down, be still, enough.” The dogs eventually settle down. And the world becomes quiet again.

I listened to this short opera on Monday afternoon as I meditated. I heard my own brain reflected in the constant high pitched chatter and the calm slow reassurance. "Ahhh," I thought," this is me." Each moment in my meditation I have the possibility of both voices awakening within me: agitation and stillness. I took a deep breath and returned to observing my own mind. I’ll keep cultivating the stillness. One breath at a time.

My dear neighbor Don Ungher died unexpectedly on May 23rd, 2008, less than a month after I originally posted this blog. I will miss his presence in the neighborhood. I will miss his stoic wisdom. I will miss hearing the dogs yip. Blessings Don and Geoffrey and family.


Yoga for Special Conditions

Dear Yogini: I have two medical conditions, Arnold Chiari Syndrome, and the associated Syringomyelia. What these have caused is a loss of sensory input from my peripheral nerves (can't feel much in my hands and feet) which affects my balance. And more importantly, syringomyelia has caused extreme scoliosis. I stand tilted extremely to the right from the waist up and walk slouched to the front and right. The crooked, unbalanced gait is causing damage to my left hip joint. I've tried yoga (with you, actually), but the poor balance and posture made it seem futile from the start.

Is there a level of yoga practice which can give me the benefit of limbered joints, better muscle tone, improved balance, decreased pain levels, etc.? I guess part of it is my "look good". Trying to practice in a room full of lithe young bodies makes me feel older and more physically broken than before I came to class!

Dear Friend:

I hadn’t heard of Arnold Chiari Syndrome before your letter. I did a little research and it piqued both my curiosity and my empathy. While my condition is nowhere as severe as yours, you might want to know that I too suffer from peripheral neuropathy related to spondylolisthesis. Yoga has been the best medicine ever. All of the side effects are good. Yoga keeps me active and happy in my body.

I believe that Yoga can give you the benefits that you seek: limbered joints, better muscle tone, improved balance and decreased pain. And you are correct, yoga won’t transform you into one of the lithe young bodies on the cover of yoga journal. That isn’t your path. Yoga can make experiencing life in the body you have a more pleasant journey. (See the next post for some research on the impact of yoga for improved balance, height and strength in seniors.)

It is important that you find a class and a teacher who resonate for you. You will want to look for gentle yoga, therapeutic yoga, or perhaps a class for seniors. In an appropriate yoga class the teacher will give modifications of the yoga poses and use props to make the yoga poses accessible to you and others. If you find the right class you’ll meet others who are also working with and through physical limitations. Having a sense of belonging helps all of us be motivated to practice regularly. Try different classes and different teachers until you find the class that fits your body, your temperament, and your life.

One of my favorite books of the last year is Waking, by Matthew Sanford. Matthew is a paraplegic and a yoga teacher. He describes how yoga reawakened awareness in his body after many years of disconnection. His sensation has not returned. His mobility has not returned. But his sense of prana, of life force, in his immobile body has returned. He is happier and at ease in the body that he does have. Each of us can find this. We can tap and sense our pranic bodies (prana maya kosha) and have live healthier from this awareness. Sensing the prana maya kosha may even be easier as we age and the rush of sensation accompanying youth dissipates. We can become aware of the slower and deeper rhythms of our bodies. We can find peace and joy in the body we have, in this moment.


Yoga makes you taller

This week a student came to class telling me that she had read that yoga would make you taller. She had read a news article about research that showed that 100% of the participants in a study got taller doing yoga. I found that astounding. Could it really be true? 100% of the participants got taller? I went in search of the data. And she was right.

Dr. Jinsup Song conducted the research at a Temple University. He studied 24 women over 65 years old who had not been active before the study. He introduced an Iyengar Yoga routine to the group. They worked on a set of poses that Mr. Iyengar prescribed specifically for this study. Dr. Song describes the practice as a ‘very basic regimen” and contrasts it with more active yoga practices in other studies. The women were observed over the course of 9 weeks. At the end of the 9 weeks all of the women were one cm or more taller than they had been at the beginning of the study Dr. Song believes that postural improvements account for their increased height in the participants.

They also showed significant improvements in gait, posture, flexibility, and strength. They carried their weight more effectively on their feet. They had a faster stride with fewer falls and stumbles. This later improvement is considered one of the most valuable outcomes of the study as falling can be a significant cause of loss of independence for seniors. The participants enjoyed the program and were motivated to continue as they had a better outlook on their day-to-day lives, found the classes engaging and missed it when they couldn’t attend.

I mentioned the study to my students this week. And they all shook their heads in agreement. They started telling me their stories of improved health. Here are some reports of the benefits my yoga students have found from their practice:
“Yes, I am taller now.”
“My doctor measured my breathing, and I have more breath volume than I did before I started practicing.”
“I have less pain and I just feel better when I attend.”
“I don’t need to go to the chiropractor anymore, I can take care of my own back now.”
“My neck pain is gone.”

Yep, it’s good for us. Yep, it makes you feel better in your body. Yep, you’ll age more gracefully. Yep, you’ll be more comfortable on your feet.

I’ve written to Dr. Song to find out the specific routine he used. I’ll report more soon.


Asana 101: Take a comfortable seat

One of the things I love most about yoga studios is that they are large rooms with no furniture. We have to create our own support, our own seats. How do we get comfortable on the floor? Do you remember how you sat on the floor in preschool? Most of us were more flexible then, both physically and mentally. Now we sit in chairs all day. Chair posture makes our hip flexors short and weak; our low backs concave, our hamstrings short. One result of sitting in chairs all our lives is back pain. Another result is a separation from gravity and the direct support of the earth. In most yoga classes we get down on the floor. Here’s how:

Begin with a simple cross-legged seated posture, Sukhasana: Easy Pose. Or, as Asana is more correctly translated seat, “Easy Seat.” In spite of its name, this is not an easy seat for everybody.

To make Sukhasana comfortable, grab a couple firm blankets and a couple foam blocks and come to your yoga mat. Fold the blankets carefully, to form a rectangle large enough to sit on. Set the blankets on the floor so that the clean folded edges are stacked directly on top of each other facing the front of the room. Sit down on the blankets and cross your legs in front of you with your feet on the floor under your thighs. You want the blanket stack high enough that your ankles are comfortable and your knees near the height of your hips. If your knees are much higher than your hips, then add some more blankets to your stack so that you can begin to bring them level. Use the foam blocks (or additional blankets) to provide support under your knees. Your inner thigh muscles will be more willing to release and lengthen if there is something for them to release into. Thin blankets can also be used as additional cushion under your ankles. You can practice without props if you can comfortably maintain a neutral spine without pain in knees, hips or low back.

Let your upper arm bones fall straight down from your shoulders. Bend your elbows and rest your hands on your thighs. Now close your eyes and notice how you feel. Make any small adjustments you need to find comfort and ease. Notice if your weight is balanced equally right and left on your sitting bones. I like to wobble around on my sitting bones and then find center again to bring my pelvis into alignment. Once you feel clearly centered begin to notice your spine. As you inhale, make space in your spine, realign, grow taller. As you exhale reconnect to the earth directly through the sitting bones but don’t slump. You want to allow the natural curves of the spine while creating as much height as possible.

Sukhasana is a great pose for breathing exercises and sitting meditation. You can add a forward bend to Sukhasana and you’ll get a great outer hip stretch and hip rotator stretch. You can take your fingertips to the floor behind you and add an upper back backbend and heart opener. And finally, you can turn this pose into Parvatasana by interlacing the fingers and extending the arms alongside the ears toward the ceiling thereby stretching your shoulders.

As the pose becomes familiar and your inner thigh and hip flexors lengthen and become at ease, you can graduate to Half Lotus, Ardha Padmasana. Begin in Sukhasana. Slip the outer shin forward and lift it up and over the other shin. Rest the foot of the lifted leg onto the opposite thigh and then rest both your knees back toward the floor. Your half way to lotus pose!


Taking Yoga off the Mat

Dear Yogini: I feel great when I’m in class, but I can’t seem to take my yoga with me out to my life. How do I make that shift? ~~ A Friend

Dear Friend: In the second chapter of the yoga sutras Patanjali tells us that the tools of yogic awareness are: discipline, self study and devotion. Our commitment to these tools may be easy when we step onto our yoga mat. We arrive on the mat for a purpose. We set aside our concerns and our worries. We move through asana practice. We breathe. We have discipline, self study and devotion together in a tidy package during yoga class.

Life is messier. Our worries, concerns and challenges have to be dealt with. My child has a fever, it snows on the new plants, an employee doesn’t show up for work and I get cutoff in traffic. The pressure builds and I lose my calm abiding center. I swear and yell and don’t feel like a Yogini at all. I judge myself for my actions.

Maybe in this moment I have no discipline and no devotion to draw upon, but I can begin to practice self study. I can invite my witness, my observing self, into the moment rather than my self critic and judge. I see that I am stressed. There is too much going on right now. That simple observation will let off some of the pressure. I remember to breath. I focus on my exhalation, letting go of all the air in my lungs and then take a long slow full breath of fresh air.

That full breath is a natural place for devotion to arise. I say a short prayer: ‘help’ or ‘thanks’ will do. I continue to breath. When I get out of the car I take a moment to stretch or walk, I practice some form of simple asana, appropriate to the place. No one else needs to know what I am doing. As I become aware of what my needs are in the moment then discipline can arise and I can practice yoga in the moment. My calm abiding center begins to return.

I create a short portable yoga practices: breathe, a simple movement, a prayer. I reflect on what is happening that pushes me to the edge and then I see if I can find balance even there. I have been practicing challenging balance poses in class, but the balance we need to find in life can be much more difficult.

Sometimes I fail magnificently. I cry or laugh or scream. Then I brush off the emotional crumbs, make a apology, and try again. Yoga is a practice after all. We will never perfect Yoga. We just keep practicing.



Yoga for Walkers

Dear Yogini: Aside from my long walk to work during the NYC transit strike and a really great birth, I've never sustained an athletic endeavor in my life. However, a mama I met in pre-natal yoga class has gotten me signed up for walking the Eugene half marathon with her. I did nearly 15 miles on foot yesterday. With the ongoing training I know I'll be a tight and sore. What poses and stretches would you suggest to support the long walks (knowing that several miles at a crack I'm lugging a 21-lb baby in an Ergo or pushing said child and her gear in a jogger)? ~~ Hot-footing Mama

Dear Mama: Congratulations! You are making great choices. And you couldn’t ask for better training weather ~ hope your out taking advantage of the 70 degree sunshine!

To take care of those walking muscles you’ll want to stretch both before and after your walks. Stretching before you walk will help muscles to warm up and prevent injuries. Stretching after your walks will help your body flush the toxins that cause soreness and prevent muscles from becoming stiff. And finally, sustained hard exercise in a single sport can result in muscle imbalances. Adding Yoga to your routine will keep you limber, balanced, and going for the long distance.

First, I’d like to address the issue of carrying your beautiful baby on your walks. You’ve probably discovered that this changes your center of gravity. Pushing the baby jogger causes you to lean forward of your center of gravity while walking. Although the geometry is different, you are probably also leaning forward when you have her on your back in the Ergo. Both of these positions will cantilever your spine relative to gravity. To support your spine, you need to build and maintain abdominal and back strength while you are training. A few simple core-strength exercises practiced regularly are essential. Here are three good ones:

Prone Core: Lie on your belly, bring your elbows to the ground under your shoulders and lace your fingers together under your face to create a triangular shaped support. Engage your abdominal and back muscles to narrow your middle. Tuck your toes under and raise your body from the floor, keeping the shoulders, hips and knees in one plane. If you are not strong enough to hold the plank position on your toes, then leave your knees on the floor (half plank). Hold this position for 1 to 2 minutes. Release and repeat.
Swimming: Lying on your belly engage the your belly and back muscles to narrow the middle of your torso. Extend one arm alongside your ear and then lift that arm and the opposite leg from the floor. Hold the lift for a breath or two and then switch sides. Repeat back and forth lifting arms and legs in opposition at least 10 times each.
100s: Lie on your back and lift your shins to bring your knees above your hips. Legs can be extended straight (harder) or you can keep your shins parallel to the floor (easier). Press your low back firmly into the mat and then lift your heart and head toward your thighs reaching your arms parallel to the floor alongside your body. Hold this position steady and imagine you have a small beach ball under each hand. Gently press the imaginary ball toward the floor for five quick counts while you inhale, then five quick presses while you exhale, continue inhaling five counts, exhaling five counts for 10 sets of 10 breaths. The abdominal work here is holding the form of the torso and legs while moving the arms from deep in the back.
Now for some stretches that work both the lower and upper body:

Downward-Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Savasana): begin on hands and knees. Engage your abdominal muscles. Tuck your toes and lift your sitting bones up and back while you straighten your legs and shoulders. Take your weight back into your legs as far as possible, opening and stretching the hamstrings and low back. Then walk your legs in place, slighting bending one knee at a time to enhance the stretch. Press down the entire circumference of your palm, especially the mounds of the thumbs and first fingers. Then roll the shoulders so that the outer edges of your arms rotate toward the floor while the inner edges (adjacent to your ears) roll toward the ceiling.
Forward Facing Triangle (Parsvotonasana): Take a nice long stride with the back foot turned out about 30 degrees and the front foot facing directly forward. Turn your hips forward. Reach your arms upward, alongside your ears, then bend your elbows and grab each elbow with the opposite hand. Engage you abs and lift your heart to stretch the front of your spine. Continuously return to the intention of supporting your lumbar spine (low back) with your belly muscles while opening your heart toward the front of your chest. Keep your neck long and comfortable. Release your arms and take your hands to your hips. Begin to slowly bend forward at the hips. Stop before you round your upper back and hover with an extended spine for a few breaths. Then continue to fold forward and bow toward the front leg. Rest your hands on the front leg or the floor. Hold the forward bend for 5 to 6 breaths (or up to 2 minutes). You can add a twist that will stretch the gluteus muscles by turning your chest over the front leg (i.e. if the right leg is in front, turn the chest to the right lifting the right arm toward the ceiling). To come out of the pose, firmly reengage your abdominal muscles and inhale as you rise to standing. Repeat on the other side.
Lunge (Anjanyasana): Take another long stride and keep the feet parallel, this will mean that the back heel is off the ground. Bend the front knee directly over the front ankle and check that your knee, foot and hips all face directly forward. You can take your hands to the floor on either side of the front foot. Keep reaching into the back heel and lifting the back thigh toward the sky. Bring your hands to your knees and lift the chest over the pelvis. Then straighten your leg to rise and change sides.
Dancer’s Pose (Nataranjasana): Standing near a wall for balance, bend one knee and catch the other foot with the same side hand or a strap. Soften your standing knee just a little. Keep your abs engaged as you press the lifted foot into your hand. Your goal is to rotate your thigh bone backward in the socket. Resist the urge to fold over the front leg until you have fully extended the quad and hip flexors of the leg you are holding.

A great resource with photos for anyone walking or running for fitness is: The Runner’s Yoga Book by Jean Couch (1990).

p.s. ask that lovely husband of yours to massage your feet and legs occasionally as well :)

Good luck!



Dear Yogini: I am 50 year old woman with Fibromyalgia. Will yoga help or hurt me? ~~ Recovering

Dear Recovering: If you have been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia your primary symptom is muscular and tactile pain. You may also have trouble sleeping and a host of other associated symptoms. Current medical understanding of Fibromyalgia is poor at best and sufferers often find more relief in alternative medicine than allopathic medicine. The symptoms indicative of Fibromyalgia may have more than a single cause and it may be more than one disease. Additionally, there is positive feedback between symptoms; for example, loss of sleep exacerbates pain which causes further difficulty sleeping.

The first goal of your yoga practice should be pain reduction and relaxation. You will want to create a calming practice that soothes your irritated nerve fibers. As such, extremely vigorous practices like Ashtanga and Bikram Yoga are often contraindicated for Fibromyalgia. Begin with a restorative yoga practice, and work with heightened mindfulness as you follow your body. This will be the key to sustaining a practice that improves your health. Practice Ahimsa (non-violence) with yourself, follow your body’s lead and treat yourself with compassion.

In Yoga as Medicine, Sam Dworkis states that supported Savasana is the most important yoga pose for Fibromyalgia. Use as many props as you need to find full release in the pose. Then, remaining in Savasana, add small movements, fingers, hands, arms, toes, feet, legs and become attuned to the range of movement that doesn’t cause pain. As you become attuned and sensitive you can include more vigorous poses while remaining in the pain-free zone. Dworkis states your the primary yoga practice for Fibromyalgia is tuning into the body, doing more when the body feels strong and less when pain levels are high. Working this way will sustain your health and prevent you from exacerbating your condition.

I would suggest learning a few short yoga sequences to sprinkle through your day. You might want to work with a yoga teacher to develop and memorize some set sequences. Three or four ten minute practices are more likely to support you and be sustained then an occasional long practice that leaves you depleted. Early in the day start with eyes-closed standing mountain posture, then warrior poses, and half dog pose at the wall. Midday practice standing twists, tree pose, and a standing back bend to rejuvenate your energy. Before bed practice forward bends, staff pose, wide angle pose and legs up the wall to prepare the nervous system for sleep.


Returning to Practice

Dear Yogini: I’ve gotten into the practice of not practicing. How do I return? ~ Not Moving Enough

Dear Not Moving Enough: Good observation: Yoga is a practice that requires repetition. We never complete it. We never perfect it. We just practice. You are wise to realize that when you are not practicing asana, you are choosing a different practice. Is your body longing to return to yoga? Begin by listening to your body: the aches, the strains, and the desire to move.

Witness the voices that get in the way of your returning. Personally, my inner judge often stands in my way. I shame myself for not following through on an obligation or commitment and then I never begin the work. Yoga invites you to witness your mind in action. Acknowledge your mental obstacles, greet them, love them. And then lovingly ask them to be quiet. Proceed with compassion for your inner choir: judge, victim, jury, yogi... If we judge the judge, if we judge ourselves for shaming ourselves, we compound the problem. We become lost in the cycle of monkey mind. Breathe.

So begin easily. Add a few poses to your morning break. Stretch and take a deep breath. Try this simple desk Sun Salute:
Seated Tadasana: Sit up very straight, at the front of your chair and reach your arms toward the ceiling alongside your ears.
Seated Back Bend: gently arch your upper back and let your heart reach forward and upward. Turn your gaze upward but don’t strain your neck.
Seated forward bend: Sweep your arms to the side, fold at your hips, rest your belly on your thighs, your hands alongside your feet and let your head dangle.
Seated half Dog Pose: Place your hands, palms facing down, on your desk, extend your spine to lift your head between your arms, gazing down, and roll your chair backward to stretch the armpits, shoulders and upper spine.
Tadasana: Engage your abdominal muscles and extend your spine to return to a simple seated posture.
Seated Crescent Pose: drop the right hand toward the floor, arch the spine toward the right and reach the left arm alongside the head. Change sides.
Seated Twist: take the right hand to your chair back and the left hand to your right outer knee. Slowly twist the spine to the right. Change sides.
Repeat regularly. When ready, do the same sequence standing.

Invite yourself back to class. As your body’s desire to move resurfaces, follow that longing and look for a time in your week that you can make yoga a habit. Yoga is the practice of returning, again and again and again. Breathe.


Why Yoga?

You've doubtless heard various renderings of the onion analogy: the experience of life as an unpeeling of layers that reveal deeper and deeper truths of the self. The yogi's refer to these layers as koshas: the layers of being. The outermost layer of the onion is the physical body, in Sanscrit the Anna Maya Kosha. Our physical body and our physical discomfort may be the driving force that bring us to yoga. Personally, my physical distress brings me to my yoga mat every single day. After 18 years of practice my body yearns for for movement and Asana (yoga postures). I feel better when I practice.

As we continue to practice we experience deeper layers of the self: the Prana Maya Kosha (breath/energy body); the Mano Maya Kosha (mental and emotional body); and the Vijna Maya Kosha (wisdom body). Each layer takes us to a deeper awareness of our essential self. Until we finally find our deepest layer, our causal self: Ananda Maya Kosha, the bliss body.

Each kosha, each layer, is grounded in maya, the pain of life. As I struggle through my physical hurdles (originally a broken vertebral joint, currently a torn meniscus), my emotional hurdles (an alcoholic dysfunctional family of origin), my wisdom hurdles (an insatiable longing for meaning and purpose), I find the core of my being. It is my bliss body, grounded in this life experience, that sustains me and keeps me coming back to the work of living.

The yoga journey takes us inside, over and over again. Starting with the physical body, we learn to sit still. We learn to pay attention to ourselves. We learn to do one thing at a time. Somewhere in that journey we stumble upon our own bliss. We begin to find our calling and our purpose. We get up happy with our lives. Inevitably, living in maya, we stumble again, stand up, brush off our knees, willing and excited to begin the process all over again.