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.

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.

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.

Gardening

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.

Awakening To Awareness

Many people who have practiced other styles of yoga say that Viniyoga is different. You have to pay attention. You have to be aware. It’s not the same sequence of postures every time or one size fits all yoga. There is active participation of attention in the process of awakening to who you are.

First and foremost through attention, Viniyoga awakens the practitioner to the breath, and then through the flow of the breath to the movement of the spine, and then to the movement of the spine in postures. (We gratefully acknowledge our teacher, Gary Kraftsow, MA, E-RYT 500, for this paraphrased sutra about this relationship between attention, awareness, the breath and the spine.)

The postures are not the goal. The postures provide tools for understanding what’s happening in your body. Where do you hold tension? What’s tight? What’s weak? Where is there pain or dysfunction in a joint?

It’s by using movement in and out of postures that we can become aware of the condition of the major joints and muscles. It’s by movement in and out of postures that we can begin to release tightly contracted muscles, improve movement patterns, and create stability. The beauty of the Viniyoga approach to asana practice is that it can be individualized for your unique challenges.

The practice can be adapted to help create specific effects for a variety of interests or needs including to: impact a challenging condition, increase strength, achieve a more difficult posture in time (such as shoulderstand or headstand), create an energetic effect, prepare for a breath practice or meditation, or compensate or prepare for other activities (such as a golf game or bike ride).

Whether you’re practicing Viniyoga in one of our classes or through private work with us, we’re interested in having the practice help you awaken to awareness. No auto pilot…just pure awareness.

Candle

Yoga & Winter Seasonal Changes

“This season of the year grinds the very soul out of me.  My nerves lose their tone, my teeth ache, and my courage falls to the bottomless bottom of infinitude.”

– Henry Adams in a letter to Charles Milnes Gaskell, 1869

Are there days, weeks or months that you feel like Henry Adams?  We are fortunate to have well-insulated homes, snow plows, running water and indoor plumbing but the dark days of winter can still “grind the very soul” out of us.   Most people who live in northern latitudes experience some seasonal changes.  Winter blues and seasonal affective disorder are terms used to describe the spectrum of more problematic and serious symptoms experienced as the days grow shorter.

Seasonal changes may include difficulty concentrating and processing information, overwhelm, irritability, anxiety or a depressive mood.  Pain, an achy flu-like feeling, exacerbation of fibromyalgia symptoms, fatigue,  disturbed sleep (either too much or too little or poor quality), sweet cravings, lowered sex drive and less desire to socialize are all part of the change in brain chemicals that can occur with changing light.

One of the most powerful tools that yoga has to offer to deal with seasonal change symptoms is breath-centered movement and breathing practices.   The breath can be manipulated in different ways to energize, focus, and lift mood.

Try this experiment:  From a seated or standing position, inhale as you simultaneously take your arms out to the side and up and overhead.  Exhale as you bring the arms back down.   Then progressively lengthen your inhale every repetition over the course of six repetitions.  An early morning yoga posture practice that emphasizes lengthening inhalation can help change symptoms of low energy, lack of focus and depressed mood.

Are anxieties and sleep issues a problem for you during the winter?  A practice later in the day that emphasizes gentle, soothing postures and a focus on lengthening exhale may soothe irritability, anxiety and stress.  When I work with clients who have seasonal changes, a variety of short practices to help manage different symptoms are often the most helpful.

Exercise, preferably earlier in the day in natural light, a strong cup of coffee in the morning, a diet that is rich in omega 3 fatty acids (flaxseed oil, salmon, sardines, etc.) and limits simple carbohydrates, stress management, good habits around sleep (no late night electronics!) and social outings with friends can also help manage seasonal changes.

It’s important to work with your health care provider if symptoms progress beyond what feels manageable.   If you have trouble functioning at work, home or in your volunteer work, your personal relationships suffer and you have significant feelings of depression, including suicidal thoughts, it’s time to talk with your doctor.  Light therapy, medication and therapy may be recommended to help you get through the winter.

If you can relate to Henry Adams, it’s good to get into a preventative routine of natural sunlight, exercise, yoga or other stress management practices, a healthy diet, fun social outings and a morning cup of coffee.  Prevent symptoms if you can, manage symptoms that come up and seek the advice of your doctor if symptoms get overwhelming and you can’t escape to a sunny location.

Transitions and Transformation

Change in our life comes in many different ways.  Sometimes we plan for the change.  A retirement, career change or getting married are examples of things that we often consciously choose.  And then some changes blow in like a strong wind taking with it any sense of order and stability.

There are many teachings in the ancient tradition of yoga for transforming through life’s inevitable changes.   Some of the most profound and useful teachings on change come from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  The teachings most helpful center on our relationship to attachment and aversion, understanding what causes suffering, how to free ourselves from suffering and staying centered in regular practice that is suitable for us as individuals.

Yoga can be profoundly useful in helping us build our prana shakti or vitality so that we are strong and stable in body, physiology (especially our immune system) and mind.  We build prana shakti through postures and breath practice (pranayama).  We can then use our vitality to work with the more difficult aspects of change including thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors that create suffering around the inevitable changes that life brings our way.

Want to learn more about using yoga to navigate change?

August 20 – Cultivating Discriminative Awareness & Inspiration

6:30 – 8:15 pm

Sport & Spine Physical Therapy, Rib Mountain (in Bone & Joint Clinic Building)

Fee:  $20/retreat

Explore yoga tools for navigating the journey of change including:

  • Using your voice to manifest a new path
  • Understanding change and its relationship to suffering or freedom
  • Opening to grace as you navigate through transitions.