Yoga + Mindfulness Tools for Conscious Eating & Embodied Well-Being

“When we start to pay attention in an intentional and nonjudgmental way, as we do when we cultivate mindfulness, and thus bring ourselves back into the present moment, we are tapping into very deep natural resources of strength, creativity, balance and yes, wisdom – interior resources that me may never have realized we even possess. Nothing has to change. We don’t have to be different or “better.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn in the Foreward to ‘Mindful Eating’ by Jan Chozen Bays, MD


Are You Ready For A New Relationship to Food, Eating and Exercise?

Are you ready to inhabit your body from the inside out? Are you ready to listen to your internal cues for what nourishes you? Have you had enough of scales, diets and external sources of control? Yoga and the mindfulness tools that are part of this ancient science can re-orient us to our own inner wisdom about what makes us feel well.

How Yoga Helps Conscious Eating

Yoga has a vast set of tools that can be helpful for cultivating conscious eating and emotional well-being around food, eating, exercise and body image. Here are a few ways that yoga and mindfulness can help:

  • Breath-centered yoga postures done slowly and mindfully can create a feeling of groundedness and rootedness for inhabiting the body we have
  • Yoga posture practice and breathing practices help cultivate stability and strength in body, thoughts and emotions
  • Yoga postures, breathing practices and meditation help manage stress, a saboteur of a positive and healthy relationship to food, eating, body image and enjoyable forms of movement
  • Breathing, meditation and awareness exercises often improve our internal sense of hunger, fullness, thoughts and emotions that ultimately drive behaviors
  • A well-rounded yoga practice helps us continually dig into the well of our own deep wisdom around what helps our energy level, sleep, physical comfort, and emotional well-being

We live in a time where they are so many “shoulds” and “don’t’s” around food, weight and exercise.  The tools of yoga and mindfulness offer an intuitive, conscious and inner wisdom-based approach to food, eating, movement and relationship to oneself.

A Mindful Eating Exercise

As we move through this time of celebrations and resolutions, you might ask yourself, “What is it I really hunger for and how am I hungry for it?” Here are 6 questions to guide you in your mindfulness around eating:

  1. Are my eyes hungry for this because of its beauty?
  2. Am I hungry for the smell of this food?
  3. Is my stomach feeling hunger or thirst for this food?
  4. Do I have a deep craving for this food at a cellular level and how is my body responding to this food that I craved?
  5. Is my mind running a script about this food, telling me the “shoulds” or “don’ts”?
  6. Is my heart craving this food because it’s soothing or nourishing to me, and what is the story about this food that attracts me to it?

Access Deep Inner Wisdom Through Holistic Yoga Practice

Slowing down the art of eating with simple mindfulness tools can help re-establish a deep inner connection to food and eating. Moving, breathing, grounding, and reflecting through a holistic approach to yoga practice can help cultivate a sense of inhabiting the body. By accessing deep inner wisdom, we become more fully aware of what helps us feel well at all levels of the Koshas – physical body, physiology, mind, intuition and heart.

Learn More in the Yoga + Mindfulness for Conscious Eating and Embodied Well-Being Webinar Series

Mary Hilliker, RDN, E-RYT 500, CYT is a Certified Viniyoga Teacher and Yoga Therapist and Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist with 5 Koshas Yoga and Wellness Center and River Flow Yoga Teacher Training School in Wausau WI. Mary offers individualized Yoga Therapy and nutrition counseling. She teaches therapeutic and wellness yoga classes, mini-retreats, workshops, webinars and yoga teacher training

Grounding During Grief: Yoga Practice Tools

“The body keeps the score.” Bessel A van der Kolk

Grief is a unique combination of sadness, memories, fog, strong emotions, bodily experiences and occasional moments of peace and clarity. This simple quote reveals so much about what we are just beginning to understand about the science of chronic stress and the effects of grief. Dr. van der Kolk, a researcher who studies the effect of yoga on stress and trauma, is reminding us that the body stores up life’s most difficult moments and stresses.

Our senses (what we hear, see, smell, and feel) provide input to the brain through sensory pathways or nerves. All that we perceive is processed through the brain. The brain is then involved in little or large reactions that are physical, physiological, mental and emotional.

Our day-to-day life stresses may not create a very big reaction because we build up experience and resilience. “Been there, done that, got it!” Grief is different. The physical, physiological, mental and emotional reactions are larger and often unrelenting for a longer period of time.

It is a difficult journey. It’s hard to discharge and unwind. The body runs on “reaction overdrive.” You might experience body tension and pain, headaches, sleeplessness, fatigue, mental fog, increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety, depression, anger and overwhelming sadness. There are a few key tools that may help you.

Yoga or any type of gentle movement or exercise can ease some of the symptoms. It provides a discharge for what builds up and gets lodged in the tissues. It can help you feel as if you are present in your body and a little more grounded.

Breath practices may help soothe and tune the nervous system and help you feel grounded, stable and a little more peaceful and calm. Breathing is also a mood stabilizer. It’s invisible and can be used anywhere and at any time.

Creating space for meditation, reflection, inquiry or prayer can be helpful. Most people need more solitude for a period of time. I have adapted a meditation that I learned from one of my mentors. The inquiry is simple: What has been lost? What remains? What is changing as a result of this loss? This inquiry changes over time and provides a way to measure how you are processing all that is a part of this journey.

Sound or music or chanting can be calming to the nervous system. It also settles the mind. Use something that speaks deeply to you. It might be relaxing music, a spiritual song, or a chant.

Every grief journey is different. No two people will experience and process grief in the same way. It’s an important time to take it on your terms. Watch for increasing moments of clarity and peace. That will be a sure sign that you are finding your way.

Preparing to Study in a Yoga Teacher Training

As with many decisions in life, our decision-making and preparation starts long before we make that a final commitment to embark on a new journey or course of study. Things are aligning and small steps toward the goal or decision are often happening, some conscious and some not so conscious. There may be a drive from a very inner place that propels us forward in our study of yoga.

How do you prepare to enter a yoga teacher training program? This is a common question that I hear from interested students. I have a few tips to offer based on my years as a practitioner, teacher who was once in training and mentor to teachers.

Try to Establish or Refresh Your Personal Practice
Your personal practice forms the foundation for your studies. It’s a learning laboratory for establishing a relationship to your breath, body and mind. It’s a place to understand how your spine and major joints move in postures. It’s a platform for understanding how different practices feel in terms of your body, mind, mood and nervous system.
Even a short practice of 10 – 15 minutes can yield fruitful results in terms of understanding the effect of a home practice. Often a short practice done consistently is more important than sporadic longer practices.

I recommend using Yoga for Wellness by Gary Kraftsow or Yoga for Transformation by Gary Kraftsow as a guide in personal practice and to familiarize yourself with a range of practices. In addition, Gary Kraftsow’s DVDs are also excellent guides for studying Viniyoga, including: Viniyoga Therapy for Low Back, Sacrum and Hips; Viniyoga Therapy for Upper Back, Neck and Shoulders; Viniyoga Therapy for Anxiety (also great for stress reduction!) and Viniyoga Therapy for Depression (also great for the winter blues!).

Attend a Weekly Class or Participate In a Workshop
You can enrich your home practice through a weekly class or by gaining new knowledge in a workshop.  It’s preferable if you can attend a class with a teacher or faculty member who will be teaching in the program you are considering. That gives you more experience in the lineage teachings and supplements studies you might be doing at home.

Good teachers inspire us to keep practicing at home. They don’t form dependencies but want us to be independent in our ability to practice and adapt for ourselves.

Pick Up a Translation/Commentary on the Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali
The Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali are the foundational yoga philosophy text for most yoga teacher training programs. These short phrase-like threads of wisdom teach us about the mind and our relationship to ourselves, others and the journey of life. Here are a few recommendations for possible translation/commentaries:

  • Liberating Isolation by Frans Moors (available at 5 Koshas Yoga & Wellness)
  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri S. Satchidananda
  • Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: With Great Respect and Love by Mukunda Stiles
  • The Path of the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga by Nicolai Bachman
  • The Yoga Sutras: An Essential Guide to the Heart of Yoga Philosophy by Nicolai Bachman, spiral bound
  • Inside the Yoga Sutras by Reverend Jaganath Carrera.

Familiarize Yourself with Anatomy Applied to Yoga Practice
It’s helpful to begin to learn the major bones, muscles and joints impacted by yoga postures or asanas. I find that one of the most helpful references is Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews. It covers the most important and foundational yoga asanas  with life-like illustrations, tables and commentary. The authors excel in presenting breathing anatomy, anatomical terms and concepts, and the joint action and major muscle action in common yoga postures.

Learn the Sanskrit Words for Common Yoga Postures
Gary Kraftsow’s Yoga for Wellness has excellent reference tables for beginning to understand the Sanskrit prefixes that make up the names of yoga asanas. One of the hardest things for new teachers in training is understanding which posture the teacher may be talking about. Rest assured that lead teachers and faculty members are aware of this difficulty and will help with translation until you get more comfortable with the terms!

If you are planning to enroll in a teacher training program, talk to the lead teacher about recommended resources to begin your studies.  Happy practicing and studying!

Grass and sun

The Radiance of Inner Light

We are light.  Within us is a light, very much like the Sun, that is unchanging and brilliant.  This is one of the fundamental teachings in yoga philosophy.  The darkness of the winter creates an inward movement of our attention that creates opportunities to experience our inner life and radiance.

As we move into this time of the return of the Sun, here are 5 different ways to awaken the light within your heart:

  1. Move – Stand with your feet hip distance apart. Sweep your arms wide and up on INHALE in a sun-like movement.  Lower your arms in a sun-like movement on EXHALE.  Repeat 6 times.
  1. Breathe – Close your eyes. Sense the center space of the chest.  As you INHALE, try to feel an expansiveness in the chest.  As you EXHALE, hug the navel inward.  Do 12 full deep breaths.
  2. Use Sound – Use the seed mantra of the 4th or heart cakra (energetic center), YAM. Focus on the center of the chest.  Inhale, then sound the word, YAM, on Exhale. This sound creates vibration in the center of the chest. Repeat 6 times.
  3. Visualize – Focus your attention on the center of the chest, the cave of the heart. Visualize light, perhaps a beautiful sunrise, the light of a flickering candle, a lighted star atop a Christmas tree, sunset, or the light of the full moon that we’ll see this Christmas Day.  Spend 5 minutes focused on that light.  Feel as if the light grows more expansive within and around you.  If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to visualization of light.
Yogas mats and cushions

Yoga, Multiple Sclerosis & Neurological Conditions

Yoga can be a helpful practice of self-care for people with multiple sclerosis (MS) and other neurological conditions (such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, Lyme’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease). Yoga practices such as gentle postures, seated breathing practices, hand movements, guided relaxation, sound, and meditation can be adapted to help people with neurological conditions manage symptoms and maintain function.

Benefits of Yoga for MS and Neurological Conditions

  • Strengthen major muscles in lower and upper body
  • Maintain fine motor movement (fingers, hands, toes, feet)
  • Improve balance
  • Strengthen breathing
  • Increase energy
  • Improve mental alertness and focus
  • Improve sleep
  • Manage stress and anxiety
  • Manage difficult emotions and lift mood

Yoga Practice Tips
People with MS or other neurological conditions should have a yoga practice tailored to their unique symptoms, needs and interests. Individualized yoga therapy or group therapeutic, gentle, beginner, foundations or chair classes are often more suited to people with MS than general or advanced yoga classes.

Classes that incorporate chairs, wheelchairs, walls, counters or other props are especially useful for people with mobility, balance or vision problems. Find a teacher or Yoga Therapist who can adapt and individualize yoga practice for your needs and interests.

Following are a few practice tips for MS and other neurological conditions:

  • Progressively strengthen upper & lower body over time. Don’t overexert.
  • Practice balance postures with the support of a chair, counter or wall if needed.
  • Do slow movements coordinated with the breath as you move in & out of postures.
  • Be gentle with stretching as you stay in a posture, especially if you have trouble sensing what is happening in your muscles. Breath smoothly as you stay in a posture!
  • Do posture adaptations that mobilize fingers, hands, feet & toes.
  • Learn breathing practices (pranayama)
  • Choose and adapt postures to unwind upper body tension if you use a cane or walker.
  • Avoid “hot” yoga or physically aggressive yoga practice if you have MS.
  • Avoid quickly-paced yoga practice if you have vision or balance issues or MS.

Breathing Practice for Energizing – Segmented Inhale

  1. Sit in comfortable position with your back slightly forward from the chair seat. Sit up straight and relax your shoulders and jaws. Close your mouth and breathe through your nose.
  2. Establish a smooth flow in your breath through the inhale and exhale. Gradually increase the length of both inhale and exhale, keeping your inhale and exhale equal in length, for at least 6 breaths.
  3. The next step is to divide your inhale into two parts with a slight pause in between the two segments of inhale. Here’s a possible way to do it:
    1. Do ½ of your inhale in 3 seconds, focusing on expanding in the chest area.
    2. Pause for 2 – 3 seconds.
    3. Do the second part of your inhale in 3 seconds, focusing on expanding in the belly area.
    4. Smoothly exhale.
    5. Do the segmented inhale for 6 to 12 breaths.
  4. Finish by gradually reducing the length of your inhale and exhale for 4 – 6 breaths. Notice the effect of the practice for energy, mood, and mental alertness.

The Yoga of Heart: A Simple Practice

We all exist within our own unique expression of physical structure, physiology, mind, personality and heart. These layers of our being, also known as the koshas or sheaths or layers of being, provide a passageway into our deep center, the cave of our heart.

This innermost layer of being informs and guides our attitudes and behaviors, prompts our actions and gives us a sense of meaning and purpose. This dimension is where our passions, longings and potential for happiness and joy reside.

Tending to the heart is as important, if not more important, than stretching and strengthening our muscles.

The tools of yoga can gradually prepare the body and mind for deep inner reflection and a daily cultivation of joy.

  • The postures prepare for breathing practices.
  • Breathing practices soothe agitation and quiet the mind.
  • Meditation (mastering attention) helps us stay present for reflection.

Staying present in the space of the heart for just a few minutes every day is an opportunity to revisit our highest values and aspirations, orient our lives in that direction and open to the connection we have with ourselves and others. Try the following simple practice to do yoga of the heart. Adapt the practice as you want to make it a meaningful practice for you.

Cave of the Heart Meditation
Sit comfortably.  Sitting bones anchored/grounded/connected but the spine long and gently lifting. Hands rest comfortably on your legs.

  • Bring attention to the heart region – the center of the chest –8 finger widths or so down from the u-shaped bone at the neck.
  • Feel the breath gently flowing in and out through this heart space.
  • As the breath flows smoothly on inhale, let the gentle expansive quality create space in this cave of the heart.
  • As the breath flows out on Exhale, let it carry away any thoughts or worries that arise.
  • Let each breath softly loosen and carry away any cobwebs, restrictions, barriers to feeling an expansion and softening in this space.
  • Stay with the breath as it flows gently in and out, continuing to focus on the cave of the heart. With each breath, feel your heart space softening and expansive.
  • Take a few moments to remind yourself of what gives you deep meaning in your life.
  • Acknowledge the people, other sentient beings, places, opportunities, projects and spiritual connections that give you deep meaning. Take a moment for gratitude.
  • Acknowledge the challenges that often occur in relationships in life and how you want to approach all of your relationships.
  • Take a moment to mentally light a candle in this space in your heart with the intention to take this inner light into your day.

Sweet Slumber: Yoga for Better Sleep

When sleep escapes you and fatigue is your daytime companion, it’s time to evaluate what action you can take to improve sleep. Your yoga toolbox has many tools but you need to know which ones to apply to your situation.

The roots of sleeplessness may be related to age, stress, hormonal changes, pain, digestive distress, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, other health issues, treatments, medications, exercise (lack of or timing), diet, or lifestyle. Yoga is especially helpful for reducing symptoms of fatigue, stress, anxiety, depression, digestive distress and menopause, and creating awareness around the impact of lifestyle choices on the body’s natural rhythms of wakefulness and sleepiness.

The tools of yoga are skillfully applied based on the characteristics of sleeplessness. Some people have trouble falling asleep. Others wake in the middle of the night. The early risers may wake at 4 am even though the alarm is set for 6 am. And some individuals sleep for 8 hours yet never feel rested and refreshed.

Yoga tools that may be used for sleeplessness include yoga postures, breath adaptation in the postures, breathing practices, guided relaxation, meditation, or sound. Talk to a certified Yoga Therapist about how to apply the tools for your particular pattern of sleeplessness. A Yoga Therapist can help you with:

■ Setting the stage for better sleep with lifestyle and yoga techniques
■ Yoga techniques for falling asleep
■ What to do when you wake during the night
■ How to approach waking early
■ Quick and easy techniques for dealing with daytime fatigue
■ Changing your relationship with your sleeplessness.

One of the most common experiences of sleeplessness is not being able to fall asleep because of stress and repetitive negative or worrisome thoughts. Yoga tools that may be applied in this situation include lifestyle changes, and a short evening yoga practice of simple postures with breath adaptation, a short breathing practice that promotes calmness, and guided relaxation or meditation.

Whether you need better sleep, more sleep, or better energy during the day, your yoga toolbox has options for skillful action. You can learn how to use those tools for sweet dreams at night and vitality and clear thinking during the day.

Water Flowing Over Rocks

Renew Again Every Day

Yoga is a daily renewal, a practice of stopping, slowing down, breathing and moving consciously, witnessing thoughts, and setting or renewing intentions. This daily renewal might be just 5 minutes of conscious breathing, 10 minutes of meditation, or a 20 minute yoga posture practice that helps you prepare for or unwind from your day. Whatever you commit to practice will often have de-stressing effects that stay with you for 24 hours and help you strengthen will and change habits.

Adopting a new healthy lifestyle habit or changing a less-than-desirable habit is not easy. The road to a new habit is often paved with forgotten promises, temporary setbacks and re-lapses.

What does it take to strengthen will and make a change? We need good health in the form of energy and vitality. We need a fairly steady emotional state so that we’re not derailed by temporary dramas. We need a clear and discerning mind to recognize what helps us and what may hurt our attempts for change. And we need ways to link to our goals. Yoga has many tools to help.

• Yoga postures (asanas) build physical vitality and extend the breath.
• Breath practices improve physiological vitality (good digestion, better sleep, consistent energy through the day), stabilize emotions, and cultivate a clear and discerning mind.
• Meditation provides the opportunity to witness and transform thought patterns that may sabotage healthy habits.
• Intention-setting or renewing our commitment to ourselves on a daily basis strengthens will and helps us remember a goal that we are orienting toward.

Starting a yoga practice may weaken a less-than-healthy habit or give you more energy to take on a new healthy habit such as exercising. People often have a hard time pinpointing exactly how yoga helps. They just know that they feel more energy, sleep better and feel more even-tempered. And those changes in vitality and temperament can pave the path to change.

It’s often best to start with one small change that you can sustain for at least 6 weeks before adding any more complexity to what you expect of yourself.

Renew your commitment to yourself every day by taking a few minutes at the end of your practice to remember your goal or intention and how you are manifesting it through the day. As you work with that change and it becomes integrated into your routine, you’ll feel stronger for taking on another small step.

Business yoga

Breathe Your Way to Vitality & Stress Reduction

I’m a skeptic.  I’m not into the latest diet craze, exercise routine, electronic device or trendy clothing designer.  I don’t own a purse that costs more than the monthly home mortgage.  But I am into science and I love what research continues to teach us about our experiences as human beings.  I was skeptical but intrigued when a master level yoga teacher challenged a group of us to take 5 minutes each day to breathe deeply to see if it changed our lives.

The intrigue led me to try it…5 minutes/day of deep breathing for a year.  Can’t be that hard, right?  Establishing any new habit takes a few starts and stops but eventually I was on my way to doing it.  Not only was I skeptical breather, it felt as if my body was a reluctant breather.  The first order of business was trying to make my breath smooth using what’s called “ujjayi” breathing (it’s like saying the word “ha” as you inhale and exhale but with your lips closed).  I built up slowly to an inhale of 10 seconds and an exhale of 10 seconds.  I added a brief pause of 1 second in between the inhale and exhale.  I was on my way.

When I did the breathing challenge in the morning, I noticed that my energy level felt steadier through a busy and hectic workday.  This was powerful for me because it gave me the strength to kick my afternoon diet Coke habit.  It also helped me cut down on “fatigue-snacking”.  I also felt more productive and focused at work.

I also felt calmer in the midst of the typical workday stresses.  While impatience is one of my defining qualities, I was able to be more patient in all areas of my life.

I noticed that when people were pushing my buttons, I was able to be more present with it without reacting to it.  I was able to choose my words and subsequent actions more carefully.

If I had a particularly stressful day at work, I would do another 5 minutes of breathing in the early evening to reduce some of the mental chatter and agitation.  The ability to de-stress toward the end of the day was important for overall better sleep.

The breathing challenge yielded important things for me – more energy, greater focus, higher productivity, less stress, better health habits, more patience, speech that was less likely to create more problems and better sleep.   Imagine if we could put these results in a pill and sell it over the counter?

The person who provoked me into this breathing challenge became my teacher (Gary Kraftsow) and I continue to learn from him how breath practice can be refined for a variety of health conditions.  My work with people for one-on-one therapeutic yoga also continues to refine my understanding of how individualized approaches often yield the best results.   Breath practices are particularly helpful for physiological health issues, stress, anxiety, and depression.

I’ve stayed steady with a breathing practice for a long time.  I appreciate being provoked into trying it.  Are you ready for your own breathing challenge?  If you try the 5 minutes/day breathing challenge, I’d love to hear from you about the challenges and the results.

Breathe on!

Yoga for EmBODIED Awareness: Conscious Eating, Active Living, Habit Change

Yoga for Conscious Eating, Active Living and Habit Change

Can the tools of yoga help us change our habits?  Yoga is a powerful practice for transformation and change.  The tools of yoga can be applied in specific ways to help us strengthen will and change habits around food, exercise and body image.

The process of using yoga to change habits begins with recognizing a pattern of being that no longer serves us.  We have to develop self-awareness as a first step toward developing stronger will.  We have a multitude of choices that can either support or sabotage us and it’s important to understand those choices.

We have to consciously mobilize resources to make changes.  Those resources may come in the form of specific yoga tools including:

  • Asana and postures to build strength and flexibility, to increase awareness of hunger, satiety and digestion, and to help you begin to work with your breath.
  • Breath practice to help manage stress, develop awareness of your physiology (fatigue, energy, digestion, nervous system) and cultivate emotional equanimity.
  • Meditation practice to cultivate self-understanding and observe thoughts, feelings, and mental static that sabotage our best intentions.

Changing habits also requires understanding what we are moving toward and continuing to cultivate a daily awareness of that intention.  A daily ritual that reminds us of your journey of change can be helpful.  It might be a simple few moments of remembrance in our yoga practice, a symbol placed on our desk or in our yoga practice space, or daily journaling that keeps us aware of the intention and our progress in that journey.  Symbols and rituals are powerful tools to help us begin again every day.

Cultivating Contentment



the state of being happy and satisfied : the state of being content


We all want happiness and contentment.  My teacher, Gary Kraftsow, says that santosha, the Sanskrit word for contentment, is “the way you take experience.”  It’s an internal state of mind and attitude that permeates your internal being, words and actions.

Contentment is one of the niyamas (internal observances) discussed in the Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali.  It’s not something we seek, it’s something we cultivate through the practice of gratitude and not grasping.

Contentment is the quality of taking in experience without seeking or avoiding. Cultivating contentment helps us to gracefully move through changes, not clinging to the past or grasping for the future.  It’s living the life you have with grace.

Swami Rama, the great Himalayan yogi master, said that “contentment is falling in love with your life as it is.”  It is a way of being that continually calls us to remember what we are grateful for.

Cultivating contentment requires self-study and a discerning observation of our thoughts, words and deeds.  Through self-study and observation, we can root out suffering that often comes in the form of petty jealousies, grasping for things that we haven’t earned, worrying about the future and our lack of seeing the extraordinary in the very ordinary of our relationships and possessions.

How do you start to cultivate contentment?  It might be as simple as a ritual of “taking stock” every day of what you are truly grateful for.  It might be taking a few minutes to observe your own patterns of clinging to what you like and running from what’s hard.  Awareness and gratitude are the first steps toward falling in love with your life, even through the most difficult moments.

Yoga for Upper Back Pain

The skeleton is an amazing chassis, the support structure for movement and a protector of our internal organs and glands.  Just like a car chassis, we may start out with our own unique skeletal attributes and over the years add wear and tear.  Upper back pain can occur due to our work or lifestyle, our structural/skeletal uniqueness, a medical condition, or trauma/injury.

Upper back pain is often felt around the shoulder blades or in or around the upper part of the spine.  Sometimes the pain relates to muscle tightness and tension caused by poor posture, work habits or hobbies.  For some individuals upper back pain is a daily part of their life, especially when it relates to scoliosis, osteoporosis or significant trauma or injury.

Yoga may be a helpful way to eliminate, reduce or manage upper back pain.  Yoga postures, guided by breath, improve posture by improving strength and flexibility in the muscles that support the upper back, neck, shoulders and chest.  Yoga practice can also help create healthier patterns of movement and increase awareness of how you are using your body.

The best yoga approaches for upper back pain use a combination of: 1) repetition in and out of postures guided by breath, 2) staying in some postures to create a deeper effect once the body is warmed up, 3) specific sequencing of postures and 4) adaptation of the postures to address the practitioner’s specific needs.

Try a few simple yoga postures (or the posture below) with awareness of your breath as you move in and out of postures.  Then relax, put your feet up, and make your breath smooth and long while you feel the wave-like movement of your spine as you breathe deeply.  Ease the effect of gravity on the spine and allow muscles to relax deeply.

Breathing exercises are also important for improving upper back pain.  Sit in a chair and spend several minutes breathing with an awareness of lengthening your spine with each inhalation and maintaining that length in the spine as you exhale.  See if you can feel an awareness of growing taller and creating space between the vertebral bodies!

Check with your health care provider about any movement restrictions that are recommended for your specific condition.  Osteopenia (low bone mass), osteoporosis and scoliosis require special caution.  It’s best to work with a certified yoga therapist to determine how yoga practice should be modified for these conditions.

Dvi Pada Pitham (Bridge Pose)

Benefits:  Helps strengthen leg, hip and back muscles.  Stretches the front of the belly and thighs and chest.  Promotes flexibility in the spine and often relieves stiffness in the upper back.

How to Do the Posture:  Lie on your back with your arms at your side and your feet about 6 inches apart and comfortably close to buttocks.  On INHALE, press feet into the floor and raise hips while you press arms into the floor and keep chin slightly tucked.  On EXHALE, slowly lower the spine and hips back to the floor.  Repeat at least 6 times.  You can either lower the spine on exhale in a wave-like, vertebra by vertebra motion, or like a board, depending on what feels better for your back.  When you are done, bring your knees to your chest and take several deep breaths.


Yoga for Gardening – Preparing the Soil

The promise of delicious, sweet heirloom tomatoes, the delight of a rich palette of coneflowers, and the smell of baked squash…it’s within reach now that the days are longer, the nights milder and the temperatures are rising.  To the gardener, it’s a mixture of science, weather, prayers and hard work that leads to that beautiful bouquet, summer salad or harvest meal.  And no gardener wants a sore back, cranky knees or aching shoulder to stop them.  Here’s where yoga can save the day (or the season!) for any gardener.

Not only does yoga infuse your character with the patience, calmness and perseverance necessary for gardening, it also prepares your body for the task.  Let’s begin with how to prepare for gardening.

Keep the muscles that support your spine and major joints (elbows, wrists, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles) strong, stable and flexible so that you have more optimal alignment in the spine and joints (which means less nerve impingement and pain).

Pre-Gardening Yoga Program

  1. Sun Circles – From a standing position, on INHALE, make a large sun-like movement with your arms out to the side and up overhead while “whirl gigging” your hands (wrist circles).  On EXHALE, repeat the movement back down, bringing your hands/arms back to your sides.  Repeat 4 – 6 times, progressively making your breath longer, deeper and smoother.
  2. The Garden Flow (See photos) – From a standing position (posture 1); INHALE your arms wide to the side and up and overhead (like a big sun-like movement – posture 2).  On EXHALE, sweep your arms wide to the side, pulling the belly inward as you bend your knees deeply (as if you were sitting back into an imaginary chair) and allow your hands to rest alongside your feet (posture 3).  On INHALE, keep the knees bent and lift the chest bringing hands in front of you as if you were holding onto a big rubber ball (posture 4a).  On EXHALE, go back down taking your hands to the floor/ground (posture 3).  On INHALE, sweep your arms wide to the side and up overhead as you slowly lift the chest and progressively straighten your legs (posture 2).  On EXHALE, bring your arms back down to your side (posture 1).  Repeat 4 – 6 times.  You can also substitute posture 4b for 4a.
  3. Shoulder Circles – Lift shoulders up and back and down and away from the ears and back up from the front side.  Do at least 6 times.  Then repeat in the opposite direction 6 times.  Then come back and do the first variation 6 times.

This pre-gardening program will mobilize your spine and major joints as well as help you develop strength in the muscles that support your spine, hips and knees.

Gut Health, Yoga & Conscious Eating

In an earlier article, I covered the basics of yoga and healthy eating for better digestion.  The ancients in India understood the connection between digestion and health and elucidated it through the science of Ayurveda.  Modern scientific studies have shown the connection between gut health and overall wellness.  A nutritious diet that’s appropriate for your body along with a healthy gut means more energy and a stronger immune system.

Yoga can be a powerful self-care practice for better digestion and health.  The choice of yoga asanas and how they are practiced can soothe the gut or, if needed, get things moving.

Pranayama (breath practice) is one of the most useful yogic practices for digestion.  Specific breathing techniques or ratios between the different parts of the breath can be used to create specific effects.  For example, focusing on lengthening the exhale portion of the breath, while gently engaging the abdominal muscles, may help get things moving when your system is sluggish, or decrease stress that may wreak havoc on your gut.

Perhaps the most important idea that I can share is that yoga cultivates awareness of the connection between the body, breath and mind.  In Viniyoga asana (postures), we coordinate the movement of the body with the flow of the breath.  This heightened mind-body-breath connection trains awareness.  We can then use this heightened awareness and apply it to conscious eating.  Through awareness and conscious eating, we can often make choices that support gut health.

You can cultivate awareness through your yoga practice in ways that support gut health.  Once you recognize patterns of eating and digestion, you can begin to explore small shifts that help.  Here are a few questions to contemplate:

  • What is the amount of food that my body can digest at any one time?
  • How much of any particular food is ok for me?
  • How often can I eat foods that tend to be harder for my body to digest (indigestion) or assimilate (food allergies)?
  • Cooked or raw – which can my body handle?
  • What food combinations seem to be ok for my body?
  • How does the time of day or season impact my digestion?
  • Does my gut health change when I travel?
  • Am I eating the most diverse and nutritious diet possible respecting any unique health conditions?
  • How is stress affecting my eating and my ability to digest, absorb and assimilate food?

A yoga practice tailored to your individual needs and interests and adapted to your specific health issues, along with conscious eating can impact digestion and overall energy and vitality.   A Yoga Therapist is trained in applying the tools of yoga for health and healing and can assist you with adaptation of yoga for digestive issues.  Your yoga practice can then cultivate awareness for conscious eating and better digestion.

Jathara Parivrtti:  Supine Twist

Benefits:  Gently twists and compresses the belly, bringing circulation to the digestive organs.

How to Do the Posture:  Move into the posture on an exhalation.  Come out of the posture on inhale.  Repeat the movement in and out of the posture for 6 repetitions, and then stay for 6 breaths, focusing on a steady and long exhalation.

Urdhva Prasarita Padasana

Yoga for Healthy Aging – Body, Mind and Mood

Are you interested in better balance, improved reaction time, sound memory, and emotional calmness?   Through body-mind practices such as yoga, we strengthen all of these aspects of a healthy aging brain.

The physical practice of yoga, known as asana, helps strengthen muscles that are weak (remember, we lose muscle mass as we age so we have to use it or lose it!) and improves flexibility.  Even more powerful is how we practice yoga postures.   Combining the flow of the breath with movement strengthens the connection between the body and mind, trains attention and improves mental focus, all of these key to better balance.

Yoga “lights up” the brain.   Studies done at UW-Madison on meditating monks provided some of the initial evidence that these ancient practices activate and change the brain.   There is a lot of interest in the research community about how yoga may improve cognitive functions in seniors such as improving reaction time and short-term memory.  In my experience with teaching seniors, some of the most helpful aspects of yoga include adaptations of the physical practice and breathing techniques to utilize the right and left hemispheres of the brain, use of sound to train memory, and breathing and meditative practices to promote mental focus.

Emotional intelligence and calmness tend to improve with age.  We can stabilize mood and lift spirits with yoga.  A variety of yoga techniques typically provide the best results for improving mood, including yoga postures combined with breath adaptation, seated breathing practices, sound, and meditation.

One of the most powerful practices for mood is what is called “right association or relationship”.  This includes the people you associate with, the activities you engage in and how you live the values that are most important to you. 

While many people often come to yoga initially for the exercise, they often leave with a stronger body-mind connection, better balance, a “sharper” brain and improved mood.  Yoga is a powerful practice for healthy aging!

Mid-Day Yoga Break – Engage Your Brain 

Urdhva Prasarita Padasana Adaptation in a Chair

Sit in a chair forward of the back of the chair.  Rest hands on your thighs.  Take a few deep breaths, cultivating a smooth flow to your inhalation and exhalation. 

As you inhale, move your left arm/hand forward and up and spread your fingers on the left hand as you simultaneously straighten your right leg and press through the right heel and spread the toes on the right foot.  On exhale, slowly lower the left hand/arm and right leg/foot.

On your next inhale, do the opposite side – right arm/hand and left leg/foot.  Exhale and lower slowly back to the starting position.

Continue to do this for 5 more rounds (10 breaths total).  Rest and take a few more minutes to breath smoothly and deeply, making your inhale and exhale equal in length.