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.
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.

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.

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.

Staying flexible

Feel Your Best with Yoga: Cancer Treatment and Recovery

Life changes in an instant with a diagnosis of cancer.  It’s like a big wave crashing through the house rearranging everything.  How do you manage the big wave?  The ancient science of yoga provides useful tools for coping with the diagnosis and treatments and supporting optimal health in recovery.

How Yoga Helps

Yoga therapy (the therapeutic application of the tools of yoga) can help increase energy, reduce fatigue, reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep, manage pain, and improve psychological health, including depression.

One of the most important self-care strategies for cancer is caring for your immune system.  A tailored yoga practice does this by reducing stress, improving sleep and promoting better digestion.  Yoga, along with nutritious food, adequate sleep, regular exercise, social support and other therapies, promotes the optimal functioning of your immune system during and after treatment.

Yoga Adapted for Your Needs

A yoga practice for cancer treatment and recovery is adapted to the person to help with their unique and very individual experience.  Yoga practice might include yoga postures, breathing practices, guided relaxation, sound, meditation or other practices.  The tools used are always tailored to the person’s interests and needs. There is no “one-size-fits-all” yoga approach when it comes to the type of cancer, the treatments or the recovery.

Short, Simple and Practical

My clients often find that short, simple practice tools tailored for their specific needs are the most beneficial.  Many people with cancer find that simple breathing practices are extremely helpful in managing nausea, stress, fatigue and sleep.  Yoga breath practice (pranayama) can be tailored for managing specific symptoms.

One of my yoga therapy clients, a woman with breast cancer, found that her yoga practice helped her throughout her day.  She did a short breathing practice in bed in the morning to increase her energy, a short mid-day practice of 4 gentle postures to help manage stress and pain, and a walk outside before dinner to connect with nature, something that brought great meaning to her life and helped her feel better.  She was also equipped with other yoga tools to use as needed to manage fatigue and improve sleep.  Through our work together, she was able to better understand the relationship between stress, anxiety and pain and how she could control stress and anxiety through her breath, rest, movement, and other yoga tools.

If you are interested in yoga as a tool for managing cancer treatment and recovery, seek out the services of a Yoga Therapist or a yoga teacher with specialized training in cancer.  It’s usually best to work one-on-one, especially while undergoing any treatments, so that the practice is adapted to your needs.

A Yoga Tool:  The Calming Breath

Sit upright in a chair with your feet firmly placed on the floor.   Begin to notice the flow of your breath and make your breath smooth through the inhale and exhale.  Control the flow of your breath through the throat area so that you can hear your own breath.  Then progressively make your inhale and exhale longer, keeping your inhale and exhale equal in length.  Do this for 6 breaths.  Then make your exhale 2 – 3 seconds longer than your inhale.  Do this for 12 breaths.  Then gradually allow your breath to soften back to a normal.  Notice the effects of the breath practice for you.

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.