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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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Watch out for creeping shoulders in these 7 yoga poses

Keep space under the ears in Paripurna Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist).

Keep space under the ears in Paripurna Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist).

If you’re an alignment junkie like me, you need to check out Katy Bowman’s blog “Alignment Matters!” In one particularly good post she reminded me why I need to be so careful in my yoga practice not to let my shoulders creep up my neck towards my ears. Yoga asanas provide an opportunity to correct some of the muscular imbalances I’ve created as I go through my activities of daily living, but only if I don’t bring those same movement patterns onto my mat. Stop reading this post for a moment and notice where your shoulders are. Have they crept up your neck? If you have creeping shoulders, here’s seven asanas where you’ll need to stay aware of them:

 

  1. Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I) Bring your arms over your head, shoulder width apart, palms facing each other. Could you get your arms up there without your shoulders climbing towards your ears? Drop the tops of your shoulders down so your shoulder blades move onto the back of your ribcage and feel the tension melt out of your neck and jaw.
  2. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II) I see shoulder creep in Vira II all the time in my classes, as well as in my own practice. Float your arms out to the sides until they are shoulder height and hold them there. Notice where you start to feel the “burn” of the isometric contraction that’s keeping your arms in place. Is it in the tops of your shoulders and the sides of your neck? That’s the result of shoulder creep. Drop those babies down and feel the muscles in the tops of the arms take over.
  3. Paripurna Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist) You’ve got one hand on your knee, the other on the floor behind your back and you’ve just twisted to the side. Before you even think about turning your head to look over your shoulder, check out where that shoulder is. Are you trying to keep your spine long by lifting up with your shoulders? Untwist, drop the shoulders down and, instead, lift the bottom of your ribcage away from your hips. Now make the twist with your shoulders relaxed and lots of length in your lumbar spine.
  4. Bhugangasana (Cobra) You want your heart to move forward through your arms in Cobra, but if you’ve got a bad case of shoulder creep you may find yourself dragging your heart up by your shoulders then squeezing your shoulder blades together to push the heart through. Not only is that building tension in your neck, but you’re limiting the ability of the thoracic spine to lengthen into a beautiful backbend. As you lift into your next Cobra, slide your heart forward as you lift, keep your elbows hugging your sides and let your shoulder blades slide down without moving them towards the spine. Lift your ears away from your shoulders and lift the top of your sternum towards your throat and feel your heart open.
  5. Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold) What? My shoulders just have to hang there. How can they be creeping up my neck? Watch somebody new to yoga, especially someone who is tight in the hamstrings or in the low back, try to get deeper into a forward fold. The knees lock, the low back rounds and the shoulders pull the upper back towards the legs, tightening around the neck with every breath. Yes, it happens. I’ve seen it. Worse, I’ve done it. (Hey, I was a yoga newbie once too.)
  6. Trikonasana (Triangle) Sitting right where you are, lift your shoulders up and in towards your ears. Now turn your head to one side. Feel that pinch where your neck meets the top of your shoulder? Bring your head back to center, drop your shoulders back into the relaxed position they were in before I told you to lift them and try the head turn again. Better? Next time you try to look up at your hand in Triangle, remember that.
  7. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge) If you can’t get your hips very high in Bridge, it might be that shoulder creep again, only this time it’s the neck crunching down into the shoulders that’s causing the problem. Before you lift your hips, relax your shoulders and drop your chin towards your throat so the bottom of the back of your skull is resting on the floor. You’ll feel the back of your neck lengthen out of your shoulders. Once you’ve lifted, keep your chin tucked and move your shoulders towards your hips as you draw them behind your back. Now the heart can lift too, allowing the hips to lift higher.

 

Katy’s post shows what shoulder creep does to Downward-facing Dog. Next time you’re on your mat, notice where else your shoulders start climbing your neck. In which poses do you need to correct shoulder creep?

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Yoga is good for your bones

Bones

Yoga is good for your bones. (Photo credit: Theen …)

My favorite yoga students are those who are “aging with gusto,” because most of them truly appreciate what their bodies can still do. Many have overcome serious illnesses or injuries and are happy to be going strong. They know how much of a difference yoga makes in their lives. It is a joy to watch their practices.

I have fond memories of one of my first yoga students. She was 68 years old at the time and had osteopenia, or low bone density, a precursor to osteoporosis.

Because I was teaching an all-level class, I would try to do some challenging asanas each week to keep the practice interesting for the younger people. I also liked to throw in some core work; a strong core helps all the asanas. My 68-year-old with her thin bones tried every asana, and said “yes” when I asked if they wanted one more round of core-strengthing exercises. She’d told me she knew how important it was to stay strong, and that’s why she gave it her all each week. If she didn’t, her bones would get weaker and she wouldn’t be able to run around with her grandchildren.

For most people, bone mineral density is highest when they turn 30. From then on, existing bone cells are reabsorbed by the body faster than new bone cells are made, and the bones lose mass. Exercise helps to build bone mass, so people who were active in their youths will have a higher bone density when they hit the 30 year mark, and will therefore have more to spare as they age. For those of us who weren’t high school jocks, we can still stimulate bone growth with exercise to prevent or slow osteopenia. Exercises which cause muscle to pull on bone, such as walking, running, cycling and yoga, help the bones to retain, or even rebuild, bone mass.

Many of yoga’s asanas are weight bearing and oppose one muscle group against another, which can help reinforce the bones. Yoga also offers some additional benefits as we age. Yoga promotes balance and coordination, which helps prevent the falls which can lead to broken bones. The deep, relaxed breathing reduces tension and toxicity, slowing the overall aging process. Since yoga is accessible to everyone, regardless of current fitness level, it’s never to late to start.

If you are suffering from osteopenia or osteoporosis, it is important to tell your yoga teacher. Brittle bones can break if forced into very deep twists or folds. Your teacher can help you adjust poses to avoid injury.

No matter how old you are, it’s important to stay active. So get out there and walk or run, ride your bike, and, of course, do some yoga. It’s for your bones.

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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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Close your eyes and salute the sun within

Saluting the sun with my eyes closed during a recent trip to Florida.

Saluting the sun with my eyes closed during a recent trip to Florida.

I’ve tried to estimate the number of sun salutations I’ve done in my lifetime, but my brain gets stuck at something more than one hundred. The number must be somewhere in the thousands. Yet I never tire of practicing sun salutations. Each round is different. The practice is like walking the same path every day and seeing the subtle changes in the natural world. If you’re mindful, there is always something new to notice.

Yes, repetition can get boring, but there are ways to create variety in the practice: changing where you put your mat or taking it outside, focusing on the movement of one body part one day, another the next, or, as I did this morning, practicing with your eyes closed.

My body knows how to do a sun salutation, no question. I don’t need to think about the sequence of movements; I simply do them. Sometimes my body ends up on automatic pilot and my mind goes off pursuing its own agenda. By closing my eyes I am roping in the wayward thoughts and bringing the focus back to what my body is doing. Without being able to see where I’m going, I need to be very aware of where my body is in space. Proprioception, usually automatic, becomes a conscious process. And my mind is wrapped up in lifting my foot off the floor here and setting it down there and way too busy for silly thoughts.

This is what it means to be present.

And there is an added bonus – when your eyes are closed, the only way your mind can decide you’ve gone far enough into a pose is to feel it. During my practice today I surprised myself with a huge standing backbend. At least it felt huge, and that’s really all that matters.

The next time you are on your mat flowing through sun salutations, close your eyes and open up to a whole new practice within.

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