Yoga on the wild frontier of perimenopause

My body is changing and my yoga practice is like exploring an unknown roadWhat if you woke up one morning and found yourself in a different body, like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis? That’s how perimenopause feels to me.

My body is changing so quickly I don’t know the body I’m in anymore. In some ways it is like puberty, but with the frightening self-awareness of age and experience.

I have been practicing yoga for more than twenty years. There have always been times when I felt like a beginner; those times were usually when I was exploring something more advanced or new to me. But now I feel like I am discovering what my body can – and cannot – do as if I have never done yoga before.

Achy joints

At the end of the day, whether my practice was restorative or vinyasa, I feel it in my joints. Often it is my hips doing the complaining, but it might be my shoulders, or my knees. On some days it is my hands or feet. I have a hard time getting comfortable enough to go to sleep. The feeling is less satisfying than the soreness that accompanied stretching and strengthening muscles in new ways when I was first learning asanas. I feel restless and frustrated by these aches.

Hand, meet wall

Balance poses, like tree and half moon, used to be my favorites. I would spend hours putting together long sequences of poses, moving from one to the other while balanced on one foot. Then, one day, I started losing my balance. To practice these asanas now means falling out often, or using the wall as a prop.

Two drishtis

Those who see me in person know that I started wearing glasses everywhere two years ago. My eyes have always had difficulty working together, but now I have developed severe double vision that cannot be corrected by contact lenses. Even with my glasses, if my eyes are tired or relax too much (which never happens in a yoga class, right?) I see two of everything. Focusing on one point is especially challenging, because I’m never sure which of the things thing I’m looking at is “real,” and which is the double.

Brain fog

I have the attention span of a goldfish. When I…

 

What was I saying?

And so on

I’ve been a bit grumpy about all of this, but I am finally moving towards acceptance. After all, what is my yoga practice for if not to feel deeply into my body as it is now? I am moving into new territory, and it is up to me to draw the map.

That means that my practice is, again, that of a beginner. I must see what helps and what hurts. I need to discover my new edge and let go of what now takes me past it. Even with two decades of experience, I don’t have the answers. If your body is changing – due to menopause, pregnancy, injury, a joint replacement, diet – neither you nor I know how your practice needs to be. But you are welcome to join me on the wild frontier to find out through experience.

Celebrating Earth-based Spirituality on Pagan Pride Day

“A wee child toddling in a wonder world,
I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens
where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds,
the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. 
If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.”

Zitkala-Sa

secondbestcircleToday I am in Syracuse, New York, to lead “Elemental Yoga” at the annual Central New York Pagan Pride Day festival. My workshop is from 10:00 to 10:45 a.m. Afterwards I get to spend the remainder of the day connecting with and learning from others who, like me, look to nature for their spiritual inspiration.

Pagans are an eclectic group; their diversity makes them interesting and fun. Their practices may be formal and structured or spontaneous and casual. There are numerous subsets under the Pagan umbrella. Pagans may worship deities from classical or tribal mythology, practice shamanism or magick, view futurology, community or ecology as religion, focus on the Divine Feminine, or simply venerate natural phenomena. Most chose their spiritual paths, rather than following the religions of their families.

At today’s festival we’ll be celebrating the upcoming autumn equinox, as well as doing lots of networking and community building. My husband will be manning the Adirondack Earth Lore booth to showcase his amazing woodturning, and I’ll be hanging out there discussing yoga and healthy living with anyone who will listen. We’ll do some drumming. I’ll watch bellydancers. And I’ll be showing folks how to connect with the energies of Earth, Air, Fire and Water with yoga.

In the area? Come on over to Onondaga Lake Park and join the fun!

Keep these 3 things in mind when you try yoga with weights

Arm rotations in tree pose require extra focus.

Arm rotations in tree pose require extra focus.

When I decided to combine my yoga teacher training and personal trainer certification and teach a yoga with weights class, I looked around at the programs out there and couldn’t find one that satisfied me. Instead of taking a training that did not offer everything I was looking for, I created my own. My Earth & Fire: Vinyasa Flow Yoga with Weights classes are structured to be safe and designed to stabilize the core in every pose or movement. I borrowed from yoga, pilates and weight training and built all the moves into a flow.

Unless you live in the eastern Adirondacks in New York, you will need to find a yoga with weights class near you if you want to try it. (Or ask me about doing a session on Skype.) When you take that class, keep these things in mind:

  1. Keep it light. Yes, you should keep your attitude light, but what you really need to do is choose light hand weights. If you’ve never worked with weights before, 1 or 2 pound weights are enough. If you have, pick a weight that is less than you usually lift. When you are holding your arms out with a weight in each hand in Warrior II, you don’t want to be slowly tearing your rotator cuff. Since you’ll have to focus on holding a pose as well as what is going on in your arms, it’s safer to downsize your weights. The weights I offer my classes max out at 5 pounds.
  2. Engage your whole body. As you are pressing weights overhead in Warrior I, is your alignment degrading? The weights are just one part of what’s going on. Ground through your legs and feet and always, always, always use your core muscles. Maintain a neutral pelvis and support the low back by drawing the lower abdominals in and up and tucking your tailbone. Keep the shoulder blades down unless you are targeting their movement. Bring your chin down until your ears are directly above your shoulders and keep the neck as soft as possible. The true challenge of practicing yoga with weights is not the number of reps, but doing those reps without sacrificing your alignment.
  3. Breathe. I know I shouldn’t have to say this, but I have learned from my own practice and observing my students that whenever something new is introduced or the going gets rough, we forget to breathe. When I teach Earth & Fire, all the movements are timed to the breath. That might mean those movements are slow, and that’s okay. First and foremost, keep breathing throughout the practice, and fire up your Ujjayi breath.

I love my yoga with weights practice. The strength training has supported my regular practice by building the muscles that allow me to have fun in inversions and all sorts of balance poses. It’s also great cross-training for the running and hiking I do, and the yoga and weights give me a double-dose of bone density maintenance. Keeping those three things in mind, give a yoga with weights class a try.

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Come for the Restorative Yoga, Stay for the Cat

Cats give great adjustments.

Cats give great adjustments.

Restorative yoga is lovely and deeply relaxing. I enjoying teaching restorative classes and workshops, and one of my favorites is a workshop I created where participants learn how to prop restorative poses with just one folded blanket. This gives them the opportunity to recreate the practice at home without having to invest in bolsters, blocks and straps.

I thought I would share a short one-blanket restorative sequence with you. I particularly like this sequence because the transitions are smooth and easy. You’ll go around in a circle as you move from pose to pose. Rather than write it out, I set up my camera in the backyard to record a video of the sequence for you.

It was a good idea. It was a gorgeous, sunny day. However, our cat was outside enjoying the weather, too. If the cat knows there’s yoga happening, she has to get in on the action. I’ve nicknamed her “the 4-pawed Reiki master” because she loves to give paws-on, energy-laden adjustments.  Needless to say, I didn’t get to record the video without the cat.

If you’d like to try the restorative poses, ignore the cat, who shows up just past the 3-minute mark, and listen to my voice. If you like cats, then enjoy watching her climb on me, rub my face with her head, and get in the way during transitions.

Either way, thanks for watching.

 

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Yoga for Cyclists: 4 poses to stretch and strengthen your ankles

During the years I trained for triathlons, I spent many hours on my bike. I wish I knew then what I know now. Last year I explored cycling and yoga as part of a continuing education program and have put together a series of workshops for cyclists. The first workshop addresses the pain and strain that can develop in a cyclist’s ankles and feet.

Repetitive pedaling creates stress and muscle shortening around the ankle complex. Tightness in the calf muscles can contribute to poor foot alignment, plantar fasciitis (pain on the bottom of the heel) and increased stress on the Achilles tendon. In addition, pulling up on the pedals with bike shoes can strain the anterior shin area. Regular strengthening and stretching of the ankles and feet can help correct these problems. These four yoga poses are great for the ankles:

downloadTrikonasana (Triangle) By bringing your focus to your feet and ankles, you can enjoy some lovely lengthening in your calves and ankles. Root down through the ball of the forward foot and the outer edge of the back foot. Draw your inner ankles up and your thighs toward each other. Keep your lower body engaged as you lengthen your spine.

straddle-forward-bend_-_step_2.max.v1Prasarita Padottanasana (Standing Straddle Fold) Stretch the outside of your ankles and your calves while strengthening your inner ankles. Stack your hips over your heels and press the outsides of your feet into the floor as you lift your arches. Tip your tailbone up. Deepen further by contracting the quadriceps (muscles in the front of the thighs), which pulls your kneecaps up toward your hips.

Upward Facing DogUrdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog) Point your toes back and press the tops of your feet into the floor. As your hips move forward into the backbend, your shins and the front of your ankles lengthen.

airplaneAirplane to Hip Flexion Balance Flow Any time you balance on one foot, you are strengthening the entire ankle complex. Moving between two balance poses adds another layer of challenge. Begin in the Airplane variation of Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III) with the arms extended back like wings. Lifting the upper body, draw the knee of the extended leg forward and up towards your chest, then transition back to Airplane. Move slowly back and forth, matching your breath.

A regular yoga practice is wonderful cross-training for any of the endurance sports. Make a daily date with your mat.

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What you really need to know before your first yoga class (hint: it’s not what to wear)

What's so great about yoga? You have to keep practicing to find out.

What’s so great about yoga? You have to keep practicing to find out.

From what I’ve observed during my six years of teaching yoga, it’s not hard to get someone to try yoga for the first time. It’s getting him or her back for the second round that’s the challenge. Because most yoga teachers, myself included, can’t take the time during a multi-level class to fully explain to newcomers what to expect, here is what you really need to know before your first yoga class.

The first time you try yoga, it will most likely feel very awkward. Just standing with bare feet on a sticky mat feels weird. Getting your body into the same shape as the instructor’s will seem impossible. You might feel uncoordinated, unbalanced, ungraceful and totally inflexible. The next day, you might be sore in places you didn’t know you had muscles. And, if you can’t set all those feelings aside, you might never try yoga again.

Yoga is not an instant cure-all. A yoga practice can make your body stronger, more flexible and healthier, but it won’t happen overnight. One time is never enough. The only way yoga can work is if you keep practicing.

The trick is to get through that first class without letting your critical ego get in the way. Your body is going to think yoga is great and that it wants to do more. The muscles, although they might be sore, will have really enjoyed the stretching. It’s your mind that will shut down your desire for more yoga. Your mind likes to carry on about anything it can, so it will chatter away, telling you that you didn’t look good in the poses, that you aren’t flexible enough to do these kinds of things, or that you need to lose 25 pounds before you try again.

The problem with the mind is that it always wants to be the center of attention. It looks for things to think about so it never has to be quiet. Yoga takes your attention away from the mind and directs it to the body. The mind fights back by dragging you outside yourself. It worries about what other people think and tries to convince you it knows what’s going on in other people’s heads. Once it does, you feel self-conscious and inadequate, because you can never live up to the expectations you have imagined other people have for you.

The truth is nobody else in your yoga class, besides the teacher whose job it is to make sure you are doing the poses safely, cares what you look like on your mat. Other beginners are suffering the same insecurities you are, and more experienced practitioners are usually thrilled when someone new tries this practice that they love. Once the class is underway, all those with experience are focusing on their own bodies and probably won’t even look at you. Many go through their practice with their eyes closed. They are not watching you to see if you mess up.

While laughter is certainly not off-limits in yoga class, and is, in fact, a welcome release when the class is getting too intense, nobody will laugh at you for being a beginner. Yoga students sometimes laugh at themselves when they struggle to balance in tree pose or mess up their rights and lefts and end up facing the wrong way. Laughter is a wonderful, heart-opening practice when it comes from love and camaraderie. Yoga students may laugh together, but they don’t laugh at each other, despite what your ego may tell you.

Practicing yoga is also an exercise in humility. Unlike sports, you are not going to get much recognition for doing yoga, no matter how well you do it. You can practice yoga for 20 years and you will never get a trophy, or even a ribbon. You are unlikely to have your journey to yoga greatness documented by a gaggle of photographers. On your mat, it’s just you against……you. Nobody wins. No sports page coverage.

Putting all the ego stuff aside is what makes yoga different than just stretching exercises and, in the end, is what brings people back to the mat. When you learn to ignore all the stuff the mind is going on about, it shuts up. You get to have a few moments of quiet and you discover what yoga really is.

Yogascittavrittinirodhah

Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.

That’s what it comes down to. The whole time you’re on your mat, struggling awkwardly into poses, fighting off critical thoughts – while toning and strengthening your body, of course – all you’re trying to do is have a moment of silence.

Once you discover the silence, you’ll keep coming back to your mat. The next time you practice, you can be pretty sure you’ll be right back to struggling with your ego, trying to find the silence again. But over time the poses will feel a little less awkward. You may be a bit more balanced. You may feel a touch more coordinated. You will begin to move with grace. And you may discover that you are more flexible than you thought.

All because you didn’t let the first class be the last class.

Spin and twist in my “Maypole Vinyasa” yoga flow

Ribbons wrapping around a Maypole

Ribbons wrapping around a Maypole

Happy May Day!

May Day, or Beltane, has a long history. It started as a Celtic fire festival celebrated on or around May 1, and included bonfires, Maypoles, dancing, and plenty of sexual energy. May Day marked the end of winter’s precarious, barren months and the passage into the summer growing season, when flowers bloom and the trees are green. Because the crops were still very young and tender, and susceptible to frost and blight, people did everything in their power to encourage their growth. The celebration and rituals were meant to insure that the warmth of the sun’s masculine energy would promote the fertility of the feminine earth.

My favorite May Day tradition is the Maypole dance. A tall wooden pole was erected with a number of long ribbons attached to the top. Dancers, often young men and women, would each hold the end of a ribbon. Circling the Maypole, men going in one direction and women in the other, the dancers would weave in and out and, as a result, weave the ribbons around the Maypole.

This afternoon I laid my yoga mat out in the space between our fire pit, vegetable beds and the “field” (the empty piece of property that borders ours). To emulate the circular Maypole dance, I created this fun vinyasa flow sequence which blends the masculine energy of Surya Namaskar with the feminine fluidity of Chandra Namaskar. I mixed in an oblique twist in Chatarunga Dandasana and Vasisthasana (side plank) to flow like those ribbons wrapping around the Maypole.

 

Sorry for the shaky video. It turns out ten-year-old boys do not make good tripods.

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A fun balance pose yoga sequence for your vinyasa practice

Playing in Ardha Chandrasana during a recent trip to Florida. I love balance poses!

Playing in Ardha Chandrasana during a recent trip to Florida. I love balance poses!

How has this week of the Grand Cross been for you? I’ve been feeling balanced and energized. I’m getting stuff done – stuff like creating sequences for my vinyasa flow yoga classes. I love balance poses, and since I’ve been enjoying so much balance in my life I decided to share a balance flow that I like to play with. Give it a try. The worst that can happen is some  less-than-graceful transitions.

Start in Mountain (Tadasana). Inhale your arms overhead, then bend your knees for…

Chair (Utkatasana). Drop your arms to shoulder height, wrap your arms with the left arm on top, wrap your right leg around the left leg and make your way into…

Eagle (Garudasana), balancing on the left foot. Keep your weight in your left leg as you straighten your left knee, bring the right foot to your left inner calf or thigh and lift your arms overhead into…

Tree (Vrkshasana). Drop your right hand, lift your right foot behind you and grab your toes with your right hand. Press your foot into your hand to come to…

Dancer (Natarajasana). Release your foot, reach your right hand overhead and reach your right leg behind you, finding yourself in…

Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III). Keep reaching back with your right foot as you bend your left leg, put your right toes down and lift your torso for…

Crescent Lunge (High Lunge Variation). Spin your right heel down, open your torso to the right and drop your arms into…

Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II). Straighten the left leg and move to…

Triangle (Trikonasana). Shift the weight into the left leg, take a chance and reach for the floor in front of your left toes as you lift your right leg for…

Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasana). Rotate your torso until you’re looking at the floor and bring your arms to your sides like airplane wings. You’re in…

Airplane (Virabhadrasana III, variation). Bend your left knee while crossing the right leg behind the left and come down to a seated position, right leg bent on the floor, left knee lifted, left foot outside the right thigh. You are ready to twist to the left into…

Half Lord of the Fishes (Ardha Matsyendrasana). Without using your hands, see if you can stand up on your left leg into Airplane again. Reach your hands to the floor, bend your left knee and put your right toes down into a…

High Runner’s Lunge. Press the right heel down as you swing the left leg back and up into…

Downward Dog Split. Open the hips more by bending the left knee and lifting it towards the sky as the left foot drops towards the right hip. Then square your hips to the floor and swing your left knee under your chest to set it down behind your left hand in…

Pigeon (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana). Fold forward first, then lift your heart into the full Pigeon pose. You can bend your right knee and reach back for your toes with your right hand to add a quad stretch. Release Pigeon, make your way to your hands and knees, then drop your chest and chin and flow into…

Cobra (Bhujangasana). Press back to…

Downward-facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana). Step your right foot between your hands, spin your left heel down and lift your arms overhead for…

Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I). Drop your arms behind your back, interlace your fingers and, keeping your feet grounded, fold from your hip to lower your torso over your right thigh. Drop your head towards your right instep. Come up with a flat back and return to Warrior I. Then reach for the floor and step the left foot forward into a…

Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana). Lift to standing, reach your arms overhead and bring your hands to your heart to end in…

Mountain (Tadasana).

That’s it! After you do the whole sequence once, don’t forget to do the other side by balancing on your right foot in Eagle. And always give yourself a few minutes in Savasana at the end of your practice.

Enjoy! And if you’re not feeling balanced, don’t worry. The astrological craziness should calm down after the solar eclipse on April 29th.

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Free your inner chaos and flow through Dancing Star

“One must still have chaos in oneself to
be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

 

Dancing star in my art journal.

Dancing star in my art journal.

Do you pay attention to the folks who pay attention to the stars? If you do, you know that we’re in the thick of it right now. There’s a planetary alignment called a Grand Cross going on and it’s stirring up all kinds of stuff. (There’s a great post here about what to expect this week.)

I created this vinyasa yoga flow sequence, which I call Dancing Star, in 2011, but it seems appropriate to share this week.

The circular pattern of the flow fills the whole mat, and the ever-changing focal points give you a nice sense of the cosmic chaos. The movements flow through five-pointed star and dance in and out of triangle pose on the way around the mat.

Roll out your mat, free your inner chaos and be a dancing star.

stand in tadasana
reach overhead and fill your lungs with a big inhale
as you exhale, fold into uttanasana
lift halfway up, hands to shins, and extend your spine
jump (or step) back and lower yourself to chaturanga dandasana
lift to urdhva mukha shavanasana
reach back into adha mukha svanasana
lift your right leg behind you into a down dog standing split
step your right foot forward between your hands into
runners stretch
spin your left heel down, reach your left arm forward
then up, lifting you into
virabhadrasana II
straighten your right leg and bend to the right
into trikonasana
lift your torso upright
turn your right toes toward the side of your mat and feel
five-pointed star
drop your arms down
sweep your hands together in front of your heart, then
press your hands overhead
open your arms back to shoulder height
turn your left toes toward the back of your mat
and bend left into trikonasana
lift out of triangle, bend your left knee and take
virabhadrasana II
windmill your arms to the floor framing your left foot
in high lunge
step back to plank and take the vinyasa to down dog
lift your right leg behind you
step your right foot forward between your hands
and flow from lunge to virabhadrasana II to
trikonasana to five-pointed star
(you should be facing the other side of your mat this time)
bring your hands together at your heart then press them overhead
turn your left toes to the front of the mat
and flow to triangle then warrior II and back to lunge
step back to plank and vinyasa back to down dog
now you’ve circled all the way around your mat
you’re facing front again
repeat the flow, beginning with your left leg this time
you’ll circle around in the other direction
when you flow back to down dog facing the front of your mat
hop (or step) forward
lift halfway up
fold deep and let go
come up to standing, reaching your arms overhead
return to tadasana
smile
you’ll make it through
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3 post-run yoga stretches your body will thank you for

Just as the mental calm created by a regular yoga practice permeates the rest of my day, my asana practice tends to show up in my other physical activities, especially running. In addition to being aware of my breath, I also adjust my posture to Tadasana (mountain pose) as I run – lifting the front of my pelvis, engaging my core, relaxing my shoulders back and down. And Uddiyana Bandha has gotten me up more than one tough hill.

Post Run Pigeon

No surprise that when I need to stretch after a run I turn to the asanas. If you’re looking for a few good post-run stretches, here are my favorites:

Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon pose) is my go-to pose after every run. Folding forward into what I affectionately call “lazy pigeon” opens the piriformis on the front leg side (nasty little muscle that thinks nothing of pinching your sciatic nerve if it’s tight) and stretches the hamstrings and glutes. The hip flexors of the extended back leg get a nice stretch, too, and they deserve some pampering after a run, especially if you’ve been on hills. The key in pigeon is to keep the hips squared and level, rather than collapsing to one side. Keep drawing the hip of the back leg forward and breath through that juicy stretch in the other hip.

Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog pose) opens the backs of the legs and, with a few minor adjustments after you’ve settled in, opens the low back. As your heels sink toward the floor you’re lengthening your hamstrings, gastrocnemius and soleus (those well-defined calf muscles that let everyone know you’re a runner) and glutes. With a reach back through your tailbone you can lengthen the sides of your waist and decompress the lumbar spine a bit, which is nice after it’s been your shock absorber for a few miles. The diaphragm and intercostals also get a stretch. Know what they’ve been doing? Working really hard helping you suck in oxygen.

Janu Sirsasana (head-to-knee pose, or half forward fold) gets to all our favorite muscles down the back of the extended leg – hamstrings, gastrocnemius, soleus, piriformis and glutes. Up in the torso you’re opening lats and obliques. You’re also hitting the hip adductors in the bent leg. Since deepening in this pose requires some help from the breath, you’ll feel your heart rate come down as you focus on breathing deep.

Take five minutes in some yoga poses after your next run. Your body will thank you. And who knows? Maybe yoga will start sneaking into the rest of your life.

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