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Yoga Practice

What Does it Really Mean to Let Go? (plus yoga teaching tips!)

By Yoga Philosophy, Yoga Poses, Yoga Practice, Yoga TeachersNo Comments

In my early days of practicing yoga, I found myself curious about what seemed to be a very common yoga theme – letting go. I’d hear it at the studio, I’d see it on social media, and in blog posts, but I didn’t quite understand what it meant. When in a yoga pose, let go seemed to be a cue to relax where possible. In terms of yogic philosophy, I took letting go to mean loosening my grip on the things I couldn’t control. In a sense, both are true, but as I dove into the nitty gritty of yoga, I discovered more.

Letting go is a simple phrase, but the instruction isn’t. Even for the most seasoned yoga practitioners, relinquishing control, detaching from sense distractions, and demonstrating faith is a constant, daily practice that can ebb and flow between graceful diligence and downright frustration. The following paragraphs offer another perspective of letting go, plus suggestions for teaching this topic in a yoga class.

Detachment isn’t enough – we must seek out something higher.

Like letting go, the concept of detachment or dispassion – called vairāgya in Sanskrit – suggests a release of something. But what are we letting go of and what fills the gap left behind? Vairāgya – the necessary counterpart to abhyāsa, or practice – is more than severing our attachments to the shiny objects of our sense world; it also entails repositioning our energy towards what really matters – our souls. And the texts speak to this. Translators of the Bhagavad Gītā agree that detaching from material desires is not enough; we must also engage in something greater than ourselves 1,2. Yoga Sūtra commentators mirror this understanding of vairāgya, explaining that detachment means pursuing the soul3,4.

Letting go is a choice to focus on the deeper essence of who we are, and this perspective is a powerful lesson to weave through a dharma talk, or the spiritual message of a yoga class. I’ve met this moment again and again, of realizing that a job, a relationship, or routine distracted me from Spirit, and from knowing myself. At those times, I’ve had to practice quieting my mind in order to refocus inwards. It’s really impactful to share this type of experiential knowledge with our students, backed by yogic teachings, because relating these concepts to modern life makes them more understandable and transformative.

It all comes back to calming our fluctuating thoughts.

So how does this all translate to an āsana practice? Yogic postures are tools for shifting our awareness from the actions of our bodies to the energetic levels of our souls. The reason why the postures should be steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukha) is so we can maintain them for meditation5. It all comes back to quieting our minds. In order to turn our attention within, we need to bring our minds under control so we can untangle ourselves from material lures.

To help students experience āsana as a mental discipline, pair movement with breathwork (prāṇāyāma). Focusing on our breathing gives our minds something to do, rather than fixate on our fleeting thoughts. Regulating the pace of an āsana sequence is also important. If we tire out our bodies a bit with steady to fast-paced vinyāsa before holding stationary poses, our minds have a better chance of slowing down. This might look something like multiple Sun Salutation (Sūrya Namaskar) variations to start, followed by 10 breaths in Warrior II (Vīrabhadrāsana II), several counts in Chair Pose (Utkaṭāsana), Fierce Angle Pose (Utkaṭā Koṇāsana), and Garland.

Pose (Mālāsana), and so on and so forth. This approach combines physical endurance with mental focus – the two dynamic components of āsana.

When it comes to letting go, presenting this deeper meaning opens doors for our students to connect, in even small ways, to something bigger than themselves. Letting go of the things we can’t control is part of it, as is releasing tension and giving up expectations of ourselves for our practice. But, in truth, letting go is more than a single moment; it’s a lifelong process of connecting to what’s most important, of devoting our hearts to the eternal, divine truth knitting us all together.

1. Prabhupāda, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, translator. Bhagavad Gītā, As It Is. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983, p. 288.

2. Goswami, H.D. A Comprehensive Guide to Bhagavad Gītā, with Literal Translation. Krishna West, Inc. 2015, p. 95.

3. Iyengar, B.K.S., translator. Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Thorsons, 2002, p 62.

4. Bryant, Edwin F., translator. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. North Point Press, 2009, p. 53.

5. Bryant, Edwin F., translator. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. North Point Press, 2009, p. 284.

The Teaching, the Lesson, and the Breath

By Yoga Practice, Yoga TeachersNo Comments

Within the practice of yoga there is a natural give and return. This principle is at its most obvious in the breath. We can breathe consciously. We can breathe unaware. We breathe, and we breathe, and we breathe, until we breathe no more. The efficacy of yoga lies in becoming aware of the breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. When we practice ujjayi breath, we hear the inhale as it passes though the airway, and into the lungs. We feel the inhale as it moves deeper, depressing the diagram, causing the abdomen to expand. When we exhale the breath, we feel the abdominals contract inward. We hear the exhalation in the inner ear as it passes through the throat and nostrils. Muscular engagement and release occur in tandem with the breath. In virabhadrasana I, for instance, we can tighten and relax muscles in coordination with the alternating breath cycle. On inhalation, we can create foundation, strength, and stability in the pose by tightening our back quad, and planting the back heel down firmly while straightening the knee joint. In exhalation, we can create openness and flexibility by allowing the hips to get weighty as the bend in the frontward leg is deepened. The principle of give and return can be found throughout the entirety of yoga, not only in asana, but in its philosophy, codes of conduct, and in the subtle practices of yogis that are direct descendants of its ancient lineages.

In the beginning, there is the breath. Until the end, there is the breath. The underlying principle of yoga is the awareness of breath, an awareness that is practiced in the now. Compiled over 2000 years ago by the sage Patanjali, Raja Yoga, also known as the Yoga Sutras, lays out the entirety of yoga in short, succinct, seed words. The first of 126 sutras states, “atha yoganusasanam,” translated, “Now, the practice of yoga is explained.” The very first thing Patanjali teaches us of yoga is that it is a practice of the NOW. NOW explains the practice of yoga. This teaching is both simple and profound. NOW. NOW, we breathe. Awareness of the breath brings us into the now. Yoga teachers begin and end each asana within the breath because the poses are interchangeable, secondary to the primary practice of breathing. The lesson of breath is a life-long teaching. Through the breath, it does not matter what tradition is practiced, where it’s practiced, or with who. It is the breath alone that links the movement of the moment to the NOW.

Contemporary yoga lineages in non-Eastern countries are diverse, convergent, and ever evolving. In this era of globalization, technology makes it possible for practitioners of an array of disciplines and cultures to come together in collaboration, inspiring one another by sharing their practices. While some modern yoga styles may be unidentifiable to the sadhus and yogis of traditional Vedic lines, there is an undeniable unifying link between them: the giving of teaching, and the practice of learning the lesson. Just as the breath brings life-nourishing prana into the body, is must it be released after completion in order for a new cycle to begin. The role of teacher is bestowed only after the role of student has been fulfilled. Then the new teacher teaches, and another student begins their lessons.

An authentic teacher gives lessons from experience. A lesson is a scope of inward examination. Life lessons, and the teachings that deliver them, can only be received in an open vessel. In other words, true lessons are learned in an open mind, an open heart, and a humble soul. Lessons take place through honest introspection, a focus into the recesses of the self. We all have those parts of ourselves that are uncomfortable, tense, agitating… those restricted places usually left “off-limits” in day-to-day thoughts, but linger on as proverbial skeletons in the closet. Effective teaching gets to the point, and aims to the heart of the matter. A lesson learned releases arrant and excessive elements of the psyche, tight aspects of the self that have been withheld from view. The key to mastering any lesson, any teaching, lies in humility and acceptance. In the NOW, all things are present at once, both the beauty and the beast. The breath teaches us this. In virabhadrasana I, flexibility and tightness are linked simultaneously in our consciousness through the breath. At once, strength and weakness are experienced NOW, within the breath. NOW is the teaching. NOW is the lesson.

In concession, exploring the deep nature of the NOW, and the cycle of give and return, is at its easiest within the practice of yoga asana. The body is tangible, accessible, and immediate. For most newcomers to yoga, the body is the easiest aspect of the self to connect with. We feel the breath in the body. We have aches and pains in the body. We get the body to class, move the body, sweat the body, and feel the effects of effects of asana in the body. With practice, and moderate advancement on the mat, a novice yogi usually becomes attracted to the philosophy and subtle elements of yoga. In these deeper studies, the student encounters dualities that will challenge the notions of the self that lie beyond the body. With the guidance of a teacher, the workings of the mind and ego will be revealed in a continual process of teaching and lessoning. And all the while, the presence of the breath is established as the connection to the NOW. A teaching with every inhale, a lesson in every exhale, breathe by breath, guided by the inner-eye of awareness.

 

By Holly Beck

​A Home Yoga Flow for Balance and Soothing

By Yoga Poses, Yoga PracticeNo Comments
 

There are countless yoga videos available to download or stream, and unsurprisingly many of them are focused on stress relief. These challenging, unprecedented times have yogis scrambling for a “quick fix” or a way to infuse their practice with more stress-busting approaches. However, there’s no getting around the fact that screen time alone can sometimes increase anxiety and stress. Since so many of us are working from home and staring at screens more than ever before, it’s worthwhile to dedicate at least one yoga flow a week to zero screens.

If you’ve been practicing for a while, have been thinking about pursuing your yoga teacher training certification, or are even in the middle of training, it’s especially important to learn how to create and adapt various flows of your own. For those who haven’t taught before, here’s a secret: there are a lot of yoga teachers out there (very good ones, too!) that don’t memorize and map out every single asana before every class. Intuition is a big part of being a good teacher—even when you’re your only student.

My home practice evolves around a daily flow that I create the day before. These are asanas that I especially want to focus on the next day, but they are by no means written in stone. It’s also a way to ensure that I don’t overlook some particular asanas for too long of a stretch. Left to our own devices, it’s very common to seek out the path of least resistance. Most of us like poses that we’re good at (as if there is such a thing) or that feel the best. We might not seek out the poses we find more challenging or uncomfortable if we don’t write down key asanas in advance. (Bear in mind, there’s a big difference between pain and discomfort.)

 

Creating Your Unique Flow

There is no perfect flow for balance and soothing. However, incorporating some restorative asanas into your usual flow and carving out time strictly for meditation post-savasana is a good start. Restorative yoga is often known for having ample props, but there’s no need to head straight to your favorite online yoga retailer to stock up. Props like bolsters and straps can easily be created through makeshift items in your home.

When soothing balance is the kind of flow you want to focus on, slow down. If you’re used to the uber-popular Vinyasa-style in the west, it might be time to incorporate more Iyengar-style yoga into your practice and hold poses longer.

Here’s a sample flow that I’ve practiced myself. When lockdown came into place, I transitioned to holding poses for one minute each (which means this flow will probably look a lot shorter than you imagine):

• Child: Transition from resting forearms to hands extended with fingers spread wide. Roll the forehead along the mat as you finger-walk from the left to the right, holding each side for one minute. As you stay in Child, take time to explore with your breath. You deepen your inhales and exhales as you surrender further into this pose.

• Table Top To Cat/Cow Flow: This is a great flow to warm up your spine. Feel free to explore barrel rolls, move side to side, or anything else that feels good in these two poses.

• Thread The Needle: Be sure to do both sides for this pose. You have the option to keep your free arm on the mat for support or in a half-bind behind the back. Stay in this pose for as long as you feel you need to.

• Downward Facing Dog: When doing this pose, try to pedal your heels towards the ground slowly to stretch your hamstrings. You can experiment with this pose further by bending your knees or perhaps bending one knee at a time. Find what works best for you in your own body as you explore this pose.

• Extended Leg To Big Toe: We already don’t extend our toes in our regular lives or really pay much attention to them. Our toes take a huge burden every day by helping to carry our body weight and balance us as we walk.  I incorporate this pose into every practice every day.

• Downward Facing Dog: If you’ve taken up running as a means to get outside (while still keeping your six-feet distance), experiment with extending one sole flat to the mat with the opposite knee bent as much as necessary for one minute, then switch. Tight muscles in the legs are notorious for runners and yoga can help counteract that.

• Forward Fold To Mountain: Any modifications in this transition are welcome, such as ragdoll.

• Warrior 1 to Warrior 2: Option of elevating arms or not (depending on energy levels). The first couplet in the warrior series has become synonymous with yoga for many westerners, and incorporating it into your practice can be a welcome familiarity for those new to a home practice.

• Tree: Modifications are welcome, including slow blinks or prayer hands behind the back.

• Chaturanga Dandasana: Similar to the warrior series, this vinyasa flow can help provide comfort if you’re missing your usual studio practice. Take it slower for now, and practice one long breath per movement. Opt for full belly resting on the floor instead of hovering in a tricep pushup. Cobra breaths (rise with an inhale, lower with an exhale) can take the place of up-dog to downward facing dog.

• Legs Up The Wall: You can do this pose for a minimum of two minutes or longer depending on how you need it.

• Meditation: Follow with ten minutes of meditation of your choice. You could choose a simple breathing meditation, mindfulness meditation, gratitude meditation, or guided meditation! There’s no right or wrong way to meditate to feel free to modify, tweak, or expand as you like. Remember to always listen to your body during the flow as well. Even if you’re the one who writes the flow, that doesn’t mean you have to follow it to the letter—or at all. Some days you might find you have less energy than others and that’s totally fine. Just be sure to tune into your body and listen to what’s it is saying to you.

 

Jessica Mehta is an E-RYT500® and RCYT® certified yoga instructor. She received her initial 200-hour training at Peak Beings Yoga while she was living in Costa Rica followed by her 300-hour training at The Bhakti shop in Portland, Oregon and her children’s yoga teacher training at The Lotus Seed also in Portland. Jessica is the founder of Get it Ohm!, a karmic, mobile yoga series that offer complimentary classes to individuals and groups who don’t have access to traditional yoga studios and/or don’t feel comfortable in such environments.

 

 

 

​Relaxation in One Yoga Pose: A Step-by-Step Guide

By Yoga Poses, Yoga PracticeNo Comments

A few summers ago, I suffered from terrible anxiety. To cope, I’d often sit outside under the trees noticing the light pouring through the branches and listening to the sound of my breath mingling with the tune of fluttering leaves. It would bring me tranquility and it was time just for me. I had faith in this practice to restore me, if I gave the trees my full attention. Yoga requires a similar faith. If we practice with sincere effort, equanimity and trust, over time the process of yoga will bring us back to ourselves. And like the shelter of the trees, one pose can also be a place of refuge. The āsanas are not simply things we do. They are places we go.

The current global health crisis is a moment of emotional, physical, and spiritual depletion. We may not have the time or energy for lengthy āsana practices or extended meditations right now. But if we’re tired and anxious there are simple, time-efficient ways to restore with yoga.

Reclining Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Koṇāsana), accompanied by breath-work and focused awareness, can be a complete practice for deep relaxation. Do the best you can to find a quiet space to do this exercise. If it feels impossible to calm down, don’t be dissuaded. Regardless of how long you have available to rest in this posture, it will benefit your mind and body. Proceed without attachment to the outcomes, but with willingness and curiosity.

Step 1: Reclining Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Koṇāsana)

Start in Corpse Pose (Śavāsana) and take a few breaths there. With each exhale loosen the muscles of your back, melting into the support of the floor. Bring the soles of your feet together at a comfortable distance from your pelvis, opening your knees wide. Place a block, cushion or rolled up towel under each knee. Allow these supports to bear the full weight of your legs, facilitating a release in your hips. Draw your tailbone down the mat, rolling your pelvis up towards your navel, creating space in your lower back. Tuck the chin slightly to lengthen the back of your neck and adjust as needed to ensure your spine is not compressed. Lay your head on a pillow and drape a blanket over your body. Close your eyes or soften your gaze, relax the muscles of your face, and position the hands in any way that feels best to you. Breathe naturally for several minutes. Remain in this posture for the duration of the practice, or for as long as it feels comfortable.

Step 2: Three Part Breath (Dīrgha Pranāyāma)

Place one hand on your abdomen and the other on your heart. Prop up your elbows with rolled towels if desired. Inhale from the space below your navel and send the breath seamlessly through your rib cage, extending the sides of your body, and then up into your chest until your lungs are full. Draw your shoulders towards the mat as your heart space opens. Exhale completely and with control. Allow your chest to fall, your ribs to reform and your navel to gently drop back towards the spine. With each breath cycle use the placement of your hands to feel the breath dance in your body.

Step 3: Withdraw the Senses (Pratyāhāra)

Disengage your senses from the world beyond your mat. Focus on your inward experience, rather than ambient noise, anxious thoughts, or unrelenting laundry lists. When your mind starts to wander, refocus on your breathing. If the thoughts persist, don’t be discouraged. Use your breath awareness as a shield from material distractions, as well as a guide for exploring the stillness and stability of your inner self. Pay attention to your breathing, but abandon all effort in your body. Be at ease in the unknown, the mystery of the self, an uncharted holy place.

May this practice bring you solace and peace, quell worry and fear, and serve as a place of refuge protected by the unassuming presence of your own breath. May it reveal the subtle complexities of your body, the transformative power of the āsanas, and the grace of praṇa. Above all, may it revitalize your spirit in times of great uncertainty.

 

 

Claire Papell is a writer and yoga teacher (RYT-500) committed to revealing and honoring the hard truths of being human. Her yoga education included extensive study of the rich tradition of bhakti-yoga – the yoga of devotional service. Through the reading of sacred texts, yogic philosophy and kirtan, she developed a deep and persistent wonderment about Spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

​A Home Yoga Practice for Respiratory Wellness

By Pranayama, Yoga PracticeNo Comments

A holistic health practitioner once told me: “The body is designed to heal.” I found her words very comforting. In yogic terms, the body’s dharma, or purpose, is to repair itself so it can remain a healthy vehicle for the soul. We may feel particularly vulnerable right now due to widespread illness, but we can support the body’s healing abilities with yoga. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, here is a home practice that promotes respiratory wellness by exercising the lungs, opening the chest, and improving posture.

1. Three Part Breath and Alternate Nostril Breathing

With repeated practice Three Part Breath (Dīrgha Prāṇāyāma) teaches us to use our full lung capacity. Sit in Easy Pose (Sukhāsana) with your hips elevated on a block or blanket. Place one hand on your abdomen and one on your heart to feel the rhythm of your breath. Inhale deeply from your belly, send the breath up through your rib cage, and then into your chest until your lungs are full. Exhale from your chest, deflate your ribs, and draw your navel back towards your spine to completely empty your lungs.

Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nāḍī Śodhana Prāṇāyāma) purifies the nāḍīs, which are channels for energy flow in the body, and it’s very calming. Place the pointer and middle fingers of your dominant hand on the bridge of your nose or curled into your palm. Inhale fully through both nostrils. If you’re right handed, press your right nostril closed with your thumb and exhale through your left nostril. With your right nostril blocked, inhale fully through your left. Close your left nostril with your ring finger. Then release your thumb and exhale out your right nostril. With your left nostril blocked, inhale fully through your right. Close your right nostril and then exhale out your left. If breathing through the nose is difficult due to sinus congestion, practice Three Part Breath through the mouth and avoid Alternate Nostril Breathing until the airways clear. Take long, full breaths for the remainder of the practice.

2. Bound Angle Pose

Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Koṇāsana) opens the abdomen for deep breathing. Sit upright and bring the soles of your feet together in front of you with your knees wide. Place a prop under each knee for support. Inhale from below your navel and fill your lungs completely. Take several rounds of deep breaths in this posture.

3. Locust Pose

Locust Pose (Śalabhāsana) improves our posture which promotes lung efficiency. Lay face down and interlace your hands behind your back, drawing them towards your feet. Bring your feet together, and on an inhale, lift your feet and chest off the mat. Press your hips down as you stretch from your waist, opening your chest from below your shoulder blades, rather than bending at your lumbar spine. Incorporate this pose into a few rounds of Classical Sun Salutations (Classical Sūrya Namaskar). Practice it in place of Cobra Pose (Bhujaṅgāsana). Classical Sun Salutations prepare the body for other āsanas by loosening the shoulders and hips.

4. Cow Face Pose

Cow Face Pose (Gomukhāsana) opens the chest and shoulders. Start on your hands and knees. Cross your left shin over your right calf behind you. Sit upright so your right knee stacks on top of your left and your feet land by your sides. Alternatively, practice the upper body portion of this pose in a comfortable seated position. Reach your right arm out to the side and bring your right hand to your low back, palm facing out. Extend your left hand to the ceiling, bend the elbow and reach your left hand down your back. Gently move your hands towards each other along your spine until your fingers clasp. If your hands don’t meet, don’t force it. Hold the ends of a towel or piece of clothing to bridge the gap between your hands. Repeat on the opposite side.

5. Bridge Pose

Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhāsana) opens the chest while strengthening the lower back and legs. In a reclined position, lift your hips off the mat, position your feet under your knees, and relax your arms by your sides. For support, position a block under your sacrum (triangular bone at the base of your spine). Send nourishing prāṇa into the heart-space with Three Part Breath.

6. Corpse Pose

Conclude in Corpse Pose (Śavāsana) or in another restful posture like supported Reclining Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Koṇāsana). Cease breath control and relax the body. Withdraw your senses from the external world and focus on the natural rhythm of your inhales and exhales. Meditate on an affirmation like The body is designed to heal or My body is the home of my spirit. Your own inner wisdom may surface during this relaxation period

 

 

Claire Papell is a writer and yoga teacher (RYT-500) committed to revealing and honoring the hard truths of being human. Her yoga education included extensive study of the rich tradition of bhakti-yoga – the yoga of devotional service. Through the reading of sacred texts, yogic philosophy and kirtan, she developed a deep and persistent wonderment about Spirit.Claire believes the yoga tradition offers powerful tools for healing. She draws from personal experiences and her spiritual contemplations to present unique perspectives on grief, loss, and trauma. Through vivid language and a poetic voice, she hopes to connect closely to her readers. When leading a yoga class, Claire relates to her students with similar intention. Her personal yoga practice and teaching style emphasize thoughtful sequencing, steady pacing and unwavering emphasis on the breath. She designs each class to reveal what she values most about yoga, which is its remarkable ability to stretch our hearts – wonder-drenched and mystical places – so pain and joy, gratitude and grief can all exist, side by side.

 

 

​Re-Visiting the “Basics” of Vinyasa: Chaturanga and Breath

By Yoga Poses, Yoga PracticeNo Comments

Re-Visiting the “Basics” of Vinyasa: Chaturanga and Breath

Chaturanga Dandasana is a staple of Vinyasa and many other types of yoga, but a lot of practitioners make little mistakes. And once you start doing something in a not so great way, that tends to stick. Hopefully, you’ve had teachers that stop and break down Chaturanga. It’s not something that’s easy to “get” just like that. Many people who have been practicing for years can benefit from a little tune up from time to time.

Chaturanga begins in plank pose. However, you can train your body and mind to shift into Chaturanga from plank simply by moving forward about one inch. Your wrists should be directly under your shoulders while in plank, but prep for Chaturanga requires you to be slightly forward.

It’s probably been drilled into your head that your elbows need to be in when you lower halfway. Make sure you can feel your elbows brush against your ribs.

The biggest issue many people have is their definition of “half-way.” This is where a mirror can come in very handy. Some people don’t go far enough, and others are making things harder on themselves (and their joints) by just barely hovering above their mat. Many people droop in the middle at this point, which gives your back zero support.

It’s often helpful to exaggerate your hips when learning (or re-learning) Chaturanga. It might feel like your hips are way up in the air, but if you check int he mirror, they’re actually right where they should be. And yes, this will require more work from your muscles. Simply holding at the half-way point, properly, is enough for many people.

Even after practicing for several years, I prefer to start out my Chaturangas with a baby cobra. It stretches in a different way than the full Upward Facing Dog. It also helps my body get into the Chaturanga rhythm.

I encourage my students to mix and match baby cobra with Cobra and Upward Facing Dog. Listen to your body. Feel what these different poses can give you. Remember that yoga isn’t about getting to the next crazy looking asana, but about exploring your body and getting the full benefits from every breath and pose.

Yoga Breathing for Pain Management

Any woman who’s given birth can tell you that breath makes a huge difference in pain management. What you might not realize is that the breathing you learn in yoga can help you in many facets of your life. Some people faithfully go to their class of choice and wait impatiently to “get into things.” They’re there for the strengthening and flexibility that the asanas offer, and that’s fine for them. However, these types of practitioners are missing out on a very important half of yoga.

Linking breath with movement is one definition of yoga. It’s not just “movement.” If you’re not practicing the breathing half of things, you’re only doing half of yoga.

Yogic breathing has helped me in every complementary facet of my life from my years as an amateur boxer to marathon running and my HIIT training. It’s a critical training aspect of every sport, whether you’re in an intramural league or a professional. However, it’s also a crucial part of other, less active parts of my life. Recently, I had a fairly large cover up tattoo done on my spine. Notoriously a painful part of the body for ink work, I was 12 years overdue to cover up two tattoos that I got on a whim.

Even as a practicing yogi, I was surprised by how quickly I naturally went to my breathing to manage the pain. It gave me something to focus on. Breathing out the pain helped move me from dealing with the pain, to managing the pain, to finally accepting the pain so much that I managed to drift in and out of sleep during the last two hours in the chair.

This is just one example of how your practice might positively influence other aspects of your life. It’s often said the biggest challenge is just getting to the mat. But what are you going to use with what you’ve learned there?

 

 

 

 

​Inspiring Students to Breathe Deeply with Ujjāyi Prāṇāyāma

By Pranayama, Yoga Practice, Yoga TeachersNo Comments

Several years ago, I spent a summer in Ireland. For part of that time I lived alone in a cottage on the west coast of Connemara, right off the Atlantic ocean. Rolling peaks draped over the countryside behind me while the expansive, bare coastline made those rough waters feel even closer than they already were. The small house endured whatever weather the ocean delivered since there were no trees or hillsides to block the elements from rushing inland. I would often lay quietly, listening to the sound of the wind whipping around the house. It was rhythmic and calming. It had a tempo of filling up and letting go.

The late poet Mary Oliver offered this, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” In terms of yoga, learning to focus on our breathing is foundational to nurturing a much deeper relationship with ourselves. When I started practicing yoga the most noteworthy change I experienced was my ability to pay attention to my breathing and to breathe deeply through a prāṇāyāma technique called Ujjāyi. When I returned home from Ireland and heard my breath sounds in the quiet yoga studio, my inhales and exhales sounded familiar in a new way. I realized that the pulse of those Atlantic gusts on the walls of the cottage sounded just like my Ujjāyi breath. Even more, I began to understand that the magnificent power of the wind off the ocean was the same elemental energy that existed within me.

The word prāṇa means vital breath, wind, energy and strength, and prāṇāyāma is the work of expanding and controlling the breath in order to sync our individual prāṇa with a universal one. One of the most impactful gifts we can offer our yoga students is the invitation to breathe deeply through Ujjāyi prāṇāyāma. The word Ujjāyi contains many meanings including expansion, victory and triumph. This powerful technique involves slightly constricting the muscles at the back of the throat while inhaling and exhaling through the nose. The air travels across the roof of the mouth creating audible, whisper-like breath sounds, similar to wind or waves. The idea is to create smooth, rhythmic cycles of breath by steadily transitioning between full inhales and exhales while pausing briefly in between each. It’s movement in the body, and you can hear it and feel it. Here are some tips and considerations for teaching Ujjāyi breath:

1. Breathe with your students.

Taking the breaths we prompt our students to take not only helps us remain calm and focused while teaching, but also supports a well-paced class so our students have time to practice linking their breath with their movements. Breathing audibly can feel vulnerable to students regardless of how long they’ve been practicing yoga. By joining them in the breath-work we’re modeling what we’re teaching and offering them companionship at the same time, which fosters fellowship and trust.

2. Teach Ujjāyi with exhalation through the mouth.

If our students have never practiced Ujjāyi prāṇāyāma, understanding the sounds they’re striving for may take time. A helpful way to introduce students to Ujjāyi breath sounds is by leading them through a few rounds with exhalation through the mouth. After instructing them to inhale deeply through the nose, cue them to exhale through a wide, open mouth as if they were trying to see their breath or warm their hands on a cold day, which creates a “ha” sound. Then direct them to continue breathing deeply and audibly but now inhaling and exhaling only through the nose.

3. Reminding students to breathe is enough.

In some cases it may take time for your students to become comfortable engaging Ujjāyi breath in class. If so, don’t worry. Keep teaching it and exploring different language to support them. A breath-focused dharma talk is very powerful. I often remind my students that the most important thing they’ll do in class is breathe. The act of focusing on our inhales and exhales is the essential first step to breathing deeply and still offers enormous benefit.

By learning to quiet my thoughts through focused breathing, I fostered a connection to something greater than myself. Whether it’s the wind at my doorstep or the breath in my body, these experiences of prāṇa nurture in me a state of unparalleled quiet that is deeply reverent, full of wonder and even prayerful. Inspiring our students to take full, deep breaths invites them to move beyond attention and towards relationship. It can encourage thoughtful self-reflection and, quite possibly, a sincere curiosity about the nature of Spirit.

Yoga For Anxiety And Depression: 4 Yoga Poses To Uplift You

By Yoga Poses, Yoga PracticeNo Comments

It’s not unusual for someone who suffers from anxiety to also suffer from depression, and vice versa. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the United States for ages 15 to 44, affecting 6.7% of American adults 18 and older. On the other hand, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) affects 3.1% of the US population and often co-occurs with major depression.

Yoga has been widely recognized as a way to manage symptoms of anxiety and depression, reportedly helping some practitioners adopt a more positive attitude toward life. Practicing yoga and moving the body has many physical benefits and there are also various benefits that yoga can have when it comes to mental health.

According to a Harvard University publication, yoga has been proven helpful in reducing anxiety and depression by helping regulate a person’s stress response system. With the ability to lower blood pressure and improve the quality of the breath, certain yoga poses in particular may help provide you with the means to cope with and alleviate anxiety and depression.

Here are some fundamental poses that help regulate the stress response system:

1. Child Pose

 


This basic posture helps relieve tension in the hips and lower back. By resting the forehead down on the ground or on a prop, the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated, producing a relaxation response.

Find a child’s pose by starting in a table top position, on all fours. Bring your big toes together and your knees apart. Sit the hips back on the heels and rest the torso in between the knees and thighs. Reach your arms out in front of you and take 5-10 deep breaths. With each breath, try to expand the ribcage in every direction, sending the breath to your sides and to your back as well as the belly and the chest.

2. Downward Facing Dog

 


This is another foundational pose that lengthens the spine, strengthens the arms and shoulders and stretches the hamstrings. This pose is considered an inversion, helping blood circulate to the brain. This inversion of your blood flow is instantly energizing, and counters symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Start on the hands and knees. Tuck your toes under and lift the hips back and up, so your body is making an upside down ‘V’ shape. The feet should be hips-width distance apart but don’t worry if your heels don’t touch the floor. You can even bend your knees if you have tight hamstrings. Suck the belly in, firmly press the floor away and relax the neck and shoulders away from the ears. To warm up, peddle out the feet and bend one knee at a time. Then hold steady for 5 deep breaths.

3. Bridge Pose


This backbend and chest opener help open the front line of the body. In bridge pose, the back of the neck, where we naturally hold a lot of tension, is stretched. Holding this pose can relieve that tension and ease symptoms of depression.

Start laying on your back. Bend the knees and place the feet flat on the ground hips-width apart. Reach your hands toward your heels. On an inhale, press into your feet and lift the hips up off the ground. Strengthen the thighs and tuck your shoulders underneath to help you press up higher. The hands can interlace behind your back, reach for the heels, or press into the ground. Hold for five breaths.

4. Standing Forward Fold


Dropping the head below the heart has a calming effect on the mind and body. In a standing forward fold, the body can quickly relax and get a stretch of the entire back line: from the hamstrings all the way up to the back of the neck. The pose may also help ease headaches and chronic fatigue.

Start standing with your feet hips-width apart and your hands on your hips. Bend your knees, hinge at the hips, and fold forward. Drop your hands onto the floor or grab opposite elbows and let your head and neck hang heavy. You can sway the torso from side to side, and try to stay inverted for about one minute.

In summary…

Research suggests that the practice of yoga modulates the body’s stress response and can be helpful for both anxiety and depression. The scientific study of yoga indicates that mental and physical health are not only closely related, but are essentially two sides of the same coin. In addition, the holistic approach and low-risk involved in practicing yoga makes it an appealing option to manage anxiety and depression.

 

 

 

 

 

Cozy At Home Yoga Sequence

By Yoga, Yoga PracticeNo Comments

While staying at home, it can be easy to feel lazy, unmotivated to exercise, eager to eat more than usual or even overwhelmed and stressed about current events. In addition to stress, the weather is cold which lures you into your warm bed, often unwilling to physically challenge yourself in your practice. What if I told you that you can incorporate a slow-paced, restorative yoga sequence into your daily routine which will leave you relaxed and refreshed instead of sore and tired? Restorative yoga sequences usually consist of only a few asanas that are held for a minimum of 5 minutes in order to supply the full benefits of each asana. The following sequence provides a wonderful way to wind down during stressful times and treat your body without feeling exhausted.

1. Child’s Pose


Begin in Child’s Pose, sitting back on your heels with your knees spread apart. Extend your arms in front of you and allow your forehead to rest on the mat. Take a deep inhale and with every exhale, stretch your fingertips even further and let your hips sink down toward the mat. This asana is ideal to practice at the beginning and end of a restorative sequence as it provides a gentle stretch in the lower body while relaxing the upper body and releasing tension. After a few minutes of holding this asana, feel free to try variations. For instance, you can stretch your arms to either side or thread one arm under your torso toward the other side with the other arm extended forward for a deep shoulder stretch.

2. Happy Baby Pose


After you’ve relaxed in Child’s Pose for several minutes, slowly transition to Happy Baby Pose. To do this, walk your fingers toward your torso as you lift your upper body from the mat. Then, untuck your feet from beneath your sit bones and lie flat on your back with your knees bent. Bring your knees into your chest and grip the outsides of your feet or your big tones with your hands. Gently pull your feet outwards so that your knees open wide and you feel a deep stretch in your hips. You can choose to rock side to side for an even deeper release in the groin area or simply find stillness in this asana for a few minutes. With every exhale, allow your knees to drop closer towards the mat and focus on letting go of stress and tensions as you continue to breathe through this deep stretch.

3. Reclining Bound Angle Pose


From the previous asana, release your legs onto the mat with your knees still bent and opened outwards to each side. Make sure to position your feet close to your pelvis Bring the soles of your feet to touch. Remain lying down and allow your arms to rest by your side or on your abdomen. Close your eyes and focus on taking deep breaths for up to 5 minutes in this classic, restorative asana. The benefits include stimulation of the abdominal organs, circulation, and heart as well as a gentle stretch of the thighs and knees.

4. Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose

Transitioning from Reclining Bound Angle Pose, position yourself close to a wall and facing the wall, extend your legs up against it. Your back should remain straight and horizontal with your arms resting wherever they are comfortable. In this asana, your sit bones should be either touching the wall or close to it while supporting your legs and your body should be creating a 90 degree angle. Remain in this position for at least 5 minutes as you continue to breathe deeply and steadily. The benefits of this asana include increased circulation, a deep stretch in the lower back and hamstrings, stress relief, and relaxation of the pelvic floor. To exit this pose, slowly bend your knees and shift them to one side as you come to a seated position.

Step 5. Seated Forward Fold

Begin by sitting on the mat with a straight back and your legs extended in front of you. Feel free to sit on a folded blanket or a bolster for additional support. As you inhale, reach your arms up towards the sky and with a deep exhale, fold your body from your hips as you attempt to reach your knees, feet, or even toes. A key thing to remember is that the goal is not to force your fingertips to your toes; instead, focus on bringing your chest to your thighs, nose to your knees, and forehead to your legs during this stretch. With every exhale, allow tension to be released from your body and surrender even further in this asana. Some benefits of Seated Forward Fold include stress relief, a deep stretch in the shoulders and spine, and improve digestion.

Step 6. Corpse or Savasana Pose

Let’s end this sequence with a mindful asana to eliminate any meaningless thoughts and ground yourself. Keep your legs extended in front of you on the mat with your arms resting by your sides with your palms facing up. Make sure that your back is straight and there is no arch in your lower back as you lie flat on the mat. Close your eyes and feel your body sink as it becomes heavier with every breath. Corpse Pose is a favorite asana for many people due to its restorative nature. Corpse Pose is a pose of total relaxation which requires remaining in a neutral position, often a challenging task. The purpose of corpse pose is to consciously calm the mind which in turn, calms the nervous system and lowers blood pressure resulting in a state of ultimate serenity. The duration of this asana depends on your preference, however 10-20 minutes are recommended.

Don’t let the stress or being at home hinder your yoga practice and instead, let it nourish it! There’s nothing wrong with leaving hatha and ashtanga yoga aside during this time and focusing on restorative poses to feel relaxed, rejuvenated, and at peace.

 

​5 Common Yoga Injuries And How To Avoid Them

By Yoga PracticeNo Comments

5 Common Injuries and How To Avoid Them

Over 30 million people worldwide practice yoga regularly. According to estimates, 14 million of those people include Americans who have been prescribed by a physician or other therapist because of yoga. Although the practice of yoga has earned a good reputation for promoting well-being, practitioners should be aware that a number of commonly taught yoga poses (or asanas, as they are referred to in class) can also be risky if done incorrectly. This calls to attention the importance of an experienced teacher, who is educated in the contraindications of each pose and the ability to communicate that information clearly to the practitioners. At the end of the day, that is as far as a yoga teacher can go to protect their students from injury. So are the therapeutic benefits of yoga worth the risk? (Yes, of course they are!)

1. Wrists

Often already aggravated by overuse of computer work and texting, the wrists are vulnerable small joints. Especially if arm balances and inversions are within your scope of practice, the wrists can be at risk for strain or injury if they are not properly prepared or overused.

A proper warm-up and the gradual increment of pressure on the wrists before putting your full body weight on them is important to prevent muscular or structural damage. More specifically, you can help prevent injury by avoiding cupping the palms and turning the fingers inward. Yoga wedges, or a rolled up mat/towel, can help take extra pressure off the wrists and are great props. In addition, placing the knees on the ground to modify poses can help alleviate excessive pressure, as you work toward building strength in the wrists and shoulders.

2. Lower Back

Lower back pain is the most common complaint in the yoga community, due to rounding through the spine in poses like downward dog, forward folds, or keeping the legs too straight when getting into a pose. Rounding causes the spine to do the opposite of what it’s supposed to. Overstretching the major muscle groups in your back can lead to an unstable vertebra and poor intra abdominal pressure, a recipe for lower back discomfort.

In addition, the sacroiliac joint (SIJ), which contributes to spinal stability and connects the sacrum to the bones of the pelvis, may be aggravated by improper alignment.

The key to preventing lower back strain is slightly bending the knees in forward folds to allow the lower back to decompress. Keeping a micro-bend in the knees throughout the practice as needed is key. Make sure to slow down during twists and go in and out of them mindfully. Engaging the lower abdominals is also important because core strength and stability protect the spine.

3. Shoulders

One of the main reasons why shoulder injuries are common in yoga is because of the chaturanga- the transition from high to low push up that is often added to classes to make the experience more of a workout. Many students should be should be modifying or skipping chaturangas, but many of those people are looking to get the workout factor from the class.

As a rule of thumb, before the transition you should always keep the four Immaculate Dissection cues in tact: neck long, chin tucked, chest wide, ribs down. Then, shift your weight forward on the toes, bringing the shoulders right over the wrists, and transition to the low push up to a comfortable proximity to the ground, which will vary from person to person.

4. Knees

Tight hips or preexisting injuries can cause knee pain or discomfort around the knee. The common instructions to maintain proper alignment in poses that involve bending the knees are to track the kneecaps over the second middle toe, but that is something that can vary from person to person, depending on their circumstances and goals of their practice.

In many poses you can protect the knees by flexing the foot (like in pigeon pose or figure 4). You can also strengthen the quads and engage them throughout standing postures to avoid hyperextension of the knees. Prolonged hyperextension can lead to injury or chronic pain.

5. Neck

Neck issues often occur as a result of compression, which can lead to issues in the cervical vertebrae. This type of injury is highly intimidating because of the lengthy healing time necessary if they are to happen. Advanced postures like headstand and shoulder stand put a lot of pressure on the neck, especially if done misaligned.

It’s important to only attempt these postures after building the necessary strength to hold them for a few breaths and to go at your own pace, especially if you’re a beginner. It’s also important to warm up and always do a counterpose after advanced postures. A child’s pose after headstand is relieving and fish pose after shoulder stand is important.

A 2012 study conducted in Australia found that 20% of all yoga practitioners claim to have experienced a yoga-related injury at some point throughout their time practicing. Additionally, a 2016 study discussed how yoga-related injuries have nearly doubled from 2001 to 2014. When practicing yoga, it’s important to find a knowledgeable teacher but more importantly, a mindful approach of your own can protect you from injury and pain. Modify your practice as needed, go at your own pace, and take calculated risks when attempting new postures. Take care of your body, and it will take care of you.