Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Inner Strength

It is said in yoga that a long spine leads to a long life and many of the asanas (or poses) that we practice on a daily basis stretch, bend, twist and strengthen the spine in order to maintain its length, strength and flexibility.  But the health of the spine is not only about length and strength--it is also about the maintenance of its natural curves and for this we rely on the stomach.  In yoga we say the stomach and spine work like flip sides of a coin.  For one to be strong and supple so it must be for the other.  Today in our 6-pack obsessed culture the ideal stomach is hard, rippling and totally fat free.  But the six-pack is developed by working the most external and visible of the stomach muscles – the rectus abdonimus, and these are not the muscles that support the natural curve of the lumbar spine.  To really support the spine you have to work at a deeper level.  

To understand this a little anatomy is important.  When we say “stomach muscles” we are actually referring to three different groups of muscles.  The most external of these is the rectus abdonimus and this is the group of muscles that we exercise by “crunching” at the gym.  Beneath that are the obliques, both external and internal, and beneath that again is the abdonimus traverse.  All of them are important in allowing the back full range of movement but as the rectus abdonimus is best at the crunch motion overwork of this group of muscles can actually result in a loss of the lumbar curve. 

Yoga provides many exercises and awareness practices to help support and maintain the curve of the lower spine through working with the internal stomach muscles.  The simplest of these is to breathe out and squeeze the belly button into the spine while sitting up straight.  With this action we feel the abdonimus traverse contract.  A common reaction here is to flare the ribs out so to counteract this we use the obliques to hold the ribs in.  We breathe into the back allowing the floating ribs to expand.  This simple exercise can be practiced at a desk or in your car.  In our asana practice we try to hold this abdominal sensation for the duration of our practice and it does more for our inner stomach and our lower back then hundreds of crunches ever could. 

A more subtle aspect of this practice is the development of the core.  It is not for nothing that the belly has been identified by traditions across the world as our center of power and vitality.  The belly provides us with our center of balance and our center of movement.  It connects with the muscles of the lower back to stabilize our torso, it supports our lower back which in turn allows us to stand upright and think.  It creates a wall around our crucial digestive and reproductive organs.   So give up the idea of the six pack.  What you really should strive for is a strong fluid belly that supports from the inside out.  If you’ve got that you and your spine are in great shape. 

(Previously published in Women Today)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Twist and Cleanse

One of the most important survival skills you need in Doha is the ability to twist, sometimes suddenly, to the left to check for that land cruiser that inevitably comes out of nowhere threatening to wipe you off the road. But as important as this skill is to your survival on the roads of Doha there are other benefits to twisting as well.  In fact the benefits of twists are so myriad that twisting is considered one of the major groups of yoga poses. 

Mostly twists are thought of as cleansing and detoxifying poses. Done properly they can take us deep into the spine rotating, twisting, squeezing and releasing all the tissue that lie along the midline of the body. Imagine a wet rag.  If you want to rid this rag of its load of dirty water the most effective way is not to fold it but to wring it out by twisting it from end to end.  This is exactly what a twisting yoga pose does for your body.  The wringing out rids the body of “dirty water;” it cleanses and detoxifies.  The spiraling and compression that is part of twists also releases enormous amounts of tension and massages the internal organs.  Twists can release pain in the neck, shoulders and lower back but best of all when the twist is finished and the muscles relax again the area that you have just twisted becomes flooded with nutrients and freshly oxygenated blood.  This feeling of release and cleanse provides perhaps the best “ahhh”  moment of yoga. 

So how do you practice your twists outside of the drivers seat.   Of all yoga poses they can be done most easily throughout your day by just taking a moment to sit up straight in your chair then rotate slowly to the side.  It is important that you lengthen and lift the spine as you twist and that you start from the base of the spine and move vertebrae by vertebrae.  The lengthening creates space between the vertebrae which makes for safer deeper twisting and the slow careful movement ensures that you do not over rotate in the more flexible areas.  It is also important to try to coordinate the action with the breath.  Exhale as you move into the twist, inhale to lengthen and lift the spine, exhale to deepen the spiraling action a little more, then release with an inhalation.  After a few normal breaths do it on the other side.

So start simply with a twist a day in your office chair or car seat and watch the body refresh, cleanse and detoxify.  But be careful – it may feel so good that you’ll want to twist and cleanse all over again.


(Previously published in Women Today.)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Queen of Poses

In yoga we say that the mother and queen of all poses is the shoulderstand.  Like with our mothers there are many reasons to appreciate it.  Done correctly the shoulderstand stimulates and rejuvenates your entire body. As an inversion it increases the blood circulation in the neck, chest, and back and due to the positioning of the neck against the chest it also stimultates the thyroid and parathyroid glands which in turn helps to regulate the hormones and weight glands. We call it the queen of poses (as opposed to the King which we reserve for Headstand) because shoulderstand helps to develop the feminine qualities of patience and emotional stability.  It cools or neutralizes the body and sedates the nervous system while releasing the muscles of the neck and shoulders.  The importance of this pose for someone with an advanced or intermediate yogi practice can not be overstated but for the beginner we must take extreme care.  Like any matriarch the pose can be extremely dangerous. 
Evidence of the care we need to take can be seen in popular yoga sequences such as the hot yoga sequence.  This sequence was designed by a master yogi for western beginners and does not include either the headstand or the shoulderstand.  In other traditions we are “given” poses when deemed ready or we are made to wait for years before inversions become part of our practice.  Alternatively we begin the pose with many props.   The shoulderstand can be particularly dangerous for the westernized yoga beginner because we tend to hold all of our tension in the neck and shoulders and this is just where we need to be open and relaxed in order to practice the pose effectively.  Another reason shoulderstand is especially dangerous for us is because more often then not we approach yoga as another performance sport and the desire to do a difficult and dangerous pose like shoulderstand will over ride every word of caution offered by your teacher.
But for those of you who are eager to practice the shoulderstand regardless here are some pointers to think about.
There are two ways to do shoulderstand.  The “proper” way is to create a vertical inverted line.  This is a very beautiful pose but depends on a couple of things.  First – in this approach we depend on the skeleton to help us support the weight of the body so that it is not thrust into the neck.  If you do not get into this totally straight line you are putting yourself at risk.  To get there you need neck flexibility, open shoulders, an open chest and a strong core.
The second way to do shoulderstand is more properly called viparita karini.  In this version the weight is on the back of the shoulders and on the hands so your neck and lower back is protected.  You look more like a sideways V rather than a candle.  This pose can also be practiced at the wall.
To determine which of these poses you should begin with first assess how flexible your neck is.  Can you press your chin to your chest without curling your upper back?   Also look at the openness of your shoulders – can you clasp your hands behind you and bring them halfway up your back?  If these are available to you and you have a strong core then you can begin to slowly work on this inversion.  If not I recommend that you focus on a standing yoga practice and on opening and releasing your shoulders.   A slow and steady approach will open all doors and eventually you will practice the queen of yoga in such a way that she bestows intense pleasure.
Namaste --

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Moon and Me

Another of my articles for Women Today

The Moon and Me
Human beings are about 60 to 70% water and in yoga we believe that this connects us to the cycles of nature, especially to the moon.  As largely liquid beings we respond to the wax and the wan of the moon just like the tides of the ocean with energies rising and lowering at the different times of the month.  This tidal nature of ours affects us in many different ways.   Throughout recorded history lunacy or acting crazy has been associated with the full moon.  Our energies run extremely high at this time of month and it is for this reason that in most yoga traditions, especially those that emphasize a physically challenging practice, that we are told to rest and not to practice when the moon is full.  Like swimming in a king tide or surfing on a tsunami it is foolhardy to try to bring patience and intelligence to unwieldy forces and we put ourselves at risk of injury when we try.    
Likewise yoga recommends quiet and reflection for the new moon.  The new moon is a time of rebirth and renewal. The gravitational forces working on us tend to make us feel more calm and stable but at the same time we may feel physically weaker and not inclined to physical activity.   According to the Farmers Almanac the new moon is the time to plant and so we see it as a time of setting new intentions.  We also equate the new moon with the end of the exhalation, the pause before we start to inhale, and as such it is that moment of emptiness after we have expelled what is old and before we process what is new.  This in itself is a moment to reflect on and so we traditionally spend more time with breathing and observation exercises at this time of month.
For women our tidal being is even more accentuated by our monthly cycle.  Again in yoga we treat this as an opportunity to reflect on and respect our connection to nature and to stay quiet with our practices.  In Ayurvedic medicine they say, let what must come out come out so we recommend a gentle practice of long supported poses that can help to alleviate cramps, ease lower back discomfort and open the hips and abdomen.
Living in a modern world it is easy to feel disconnected from the cycles of nature but yoga and the reflection it invites can start to get you connected again.  Intelligent rest, necessary withdrawal, gentle openings – the moon can invite them all – if only we listen and respond

Salute to the Sun Salutations

This is another article I wrote recently for the gerneral readership of Women Today, a Doha lifestyle magazine.  But reading over it I hope my students get to read it....
Salute to the Sun Salutations
I was 23 when I took my first yoga class and my teacher was in her 80s.  She was lean and supple and had a long silver plait hanging over her right shoulder.  What she taught me in the week I spent with her has stayed with me to this day, most importantly her approach to the sun salutations.   She said if you only ever practice one yoga pose make it the sun salutation; if you don’t know what to practice, practice the sun salutation; if you are feeling down practice the sun salutations, oh – and as you get older make sure your daily practice includes one salutation for each of your years.   She was adamant that if you just did the sun salutations and stayed with the sun salutations it was a practice enough in itself.  Time and more knowledge and understanding of the body have only proved her more correct.
The yoga sun salutations are a graceful sequence of ten to twelve yoga poses linked by a continuous flowing motion and accompanied by a steady flow of inhalations and exhalations.   These poses are ordered so that they alternately stretch the spine backwards and forwards and so that each position counteracts the one before.   In modern terms the sun salutation combines both resistance (weight lifting) and cardiovascular (cardio) training and has the added advantage of being a meditation practice as well.  This results in innumerable benefits.  A regular practice of sun salutes can increase blood oxygenation, stretch and tone just about every muscle group, clean elimination channels and help rid the body of toxins.  It can also stimulate the Endocrine system, tone abdominal muscles, and increase spinal health and range of movement.   As a meditation practice that uses the breath as a focusing technique the sun salute practice can increase concentration, reduce depression and stress and basically contribute to well being and mental ease.
To start a sun salute practice it is always best to work with a teacher, even just once or twice, but if time does not allow this then there are  innumerable step by step descriptions on the web or on Utube.   There are various variations to explore as well.  Some salutations include a step back and are done on first one side and then the other whereas others emphasize a more vigorous approach and use a jump to link certain poses.  Whatever you decide be sure to start your practice slowly with three to five rounds, gradually building up to 10 or 15, then perhaps to your age and finally to the traditional number of 108.  But like my very first teacher said if you can’t do this then just do one.  The 30 to 40 seconds you spend on a morning salute to the sun will really make a difference.

Monday, November 15, 2010

My Morning Practice

One of the intents of this blog was to resurface some of my old writings on yoga.  Here is one on a morning practice and why it has to be in the morning.

My morning practice.

Most of us know that if we are going to integrate a yoga practice into our lives we are going to have to eventually establish a morning practice.  All of us who have ever tried to do this know that establishing a home practice can be perhaps the most difficult, challenging and heart wrenching aspect of yoga.  So the question often arises – why mornings, why at home?  Why isn’t going to class in the evenings once or twice a week in the evenings enough?

One answer is of course tradition.  By tradition we face the east as the sun rises and salute it as it begins its ascent.  This salute to the sun as it rises in the morning is so ingrained into the tradition of yoga that the front of the body is called the east side of the body (purva) and the back of the body is called the west side of the body and poses such as paschimottasana (seated forward bend) actually translate to mean extreme western stretch.   But the tradition of rising at dawn and saluting a sun god that we are not a hundred per cent sure is going to feel like rising that day is far removed from most of us practicing yoga today so why does the emphasis on a morning practice continue.

From experience I can cite hundreds of reasons – but three really matter.  One is that a morning practice is like preventive medicine.  An evening practice, while often wonderful, fun and dynamic, is more like a treatment plan for the stresses of your day whereas a morning practice sets you up in such a way that those stresses are minimized before they even happen.  The second reason to practice in the mornings is that the mind, like the day and life around you is quieter and clearer and more at peace.   In the seemingly hopeless battle to control the negative chatter of the mind starting with a clearer plate just helps.  And the third major reason is that a morning practice will be your own practice.  By practicing in the morning at home by yourself you claim ownership of your practice and mark the maturity of your yoga.  So tradition aside it is time to start.  Just take five minutes in the morning to salute to the sun and then let it all grow from there.