Yoga for the Homeless

Since I’ve been practicing yoga for 30+ years and teaching off and on for something like 25, it seemed only fitting that my first participation in the We Are the World Blogfest should share a positive and uplifting piece about yoga.  I love the idea of offering yoga to homeless people.  Knowing the power of yoga practice to balance your energy and move you into a stronger more centered space, I imagine these programs (this isn’t the only one out there) are having an important impact.

The five co-hosts for this month’s event are:

  1. Belinda Witzenhausen
  2. Lynn Hallbrooks
  3. Simon Falk
  4. Sylvia McGrath
  5. Damyanti Biswas

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My variation on the trauma exercises

After I worked with the trauma exercises a few times exactly as they’re described in Berceli’s Trauma Release Process (see previous post) I wasn’t too keen on the warm-up exercises.  The first six exercises are basically to fatigue the muscles so that it’s easier to get them to release.  They’re also pretty tough on the quads and REALLY hard on the knees.  Initially I thought I’d just give the same instructions I’d give my students for modifying those.

But I’ve been working with muscles and movement for nearly three decades so I know there are other ways to get muscles ready to release.  I started experimenting with a couple of different lead-ins to the release exercise itself.  First I tried a series of yoga poses that I do regularly that deeply stretch a lot of muscles in the thighs and groin as well as fatigue the quads.  When I shifted to Berceli’s seventh exercise–the release piece–I had a huge release on the first two inch lift where the previous times I only experienced some quivering in the first two levels.

Next I tried doing the hip release work from my Robert Masters-based movement work and then some yoga and psoas stretches.  Again, enormous release right from the beginning of the release process.  Instructions for these releases are in my booklet, Restoring Fluidity and Freedom of Movement.

I thought I’d give you two different yoga series to use as warm-ups for the release.  If anyone really wants my modifications to the original series I’ll provide them in another post.  Various poses are known by more than one name in different traditions and over time I’ve just made up names for some so don’t worry if you recognize some of these as having a different name.   Instructions for the release itself are below the two sets of yoga poses.

First Series

Modified Chair Pose

I don’t recommend this if you have knee issues.  Stand with your legs and feet together.  On an inhale, bend your knees and lift your arms straight out from your shoulders with your wrists bent so that your palms are facing outward and your fingertips point to the ceiling.  Don’t bend your legs any farther than your place of comfort.  While you hold continue deep breathing.  Start with just a few breaths and try to work up to holding 20-25 long deep breaths.  Take as much time as you need to increase the hold — months if necessary.  If you feel any pulling or discomfort in your knees discontinue.

Downward Dog variation

Get on the floor on hands and knees.  Plant your hands firmly and make sure that the pressure on your palms is extending to the top of the palms (just below the fingers).  Once you get into the pose keep checking the pressure — if you rest on the base of your palms you’ll overextend your wrists.  Once your palms are set, inhale and then on an exhalation lift your hips toward the ceiling.  Make sure that your back is straight and long.

English: downward dog posture I took this pict...

English: downward dog posture I took this picture for use in the Anahata Yoga instruction manual. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do not lift your shoulders toward your ears — keep them down so that your neck is long and free.  Bring your heels as close to the floor as you comfortably can without forcing and then lift your right foot and wrap it around your left calf/ankle.  Continue long deep breathing.  Start with about four deep breaths and over time work up to 20-25.  After four breaths bring the right foot down and lift the left foot and wrap around right calf/ankle.  Hold four breaths (working up to 20-25).

Prayer to Cobra

When you complete the second side on downward dog, come down into prayer/extended child’s pose.  Your bottom should be on your heels. Bend forward from the hips and bring your head as close to the floor as you comfortably can.  If your hamstrings or low back are tight, try folding a blanket or getting a bolster to place behind your knees so that you can rest instead of tightening your legs to hold the pose.  Stretch your arms out on the floor in front of you, extending as far as you can.  Take a couple of breaths in this pose.  Then on an inhalation slide your nose forward along the floor and push up into cobra pose when your head is between your hands.  When you exhale bring your nose back down to the floor and slide back into prayer pose.  If you’re using a bolster and it moves, just don’t go all the way into prayer pose.  Start out doing just three or four.  If you can, work up to 12-15. If you’re not familiar with these poses or the movement isn’t comfortable, do just a cobra or a camel pose as your backbend.

Side Umbrella Pose

Stand with your feet about three feet apart.  Turn your left foot so your toes are pointing out to the side.  Angle your right foot toward your left at about a 45 degree angle.  The heel of your left foot should be pointing toward the arch of your right foot.  Turn your torso to face the left leg.  Clasp your hands behind your back.  Inhale and stretch upward so your back is nice and long.  As you exhale bend forward from the hips.  Keep your back straight for as long as you can.  The ultimate aim is to bring your face down to your knee/lower thigh (and your back won’t be as straight) but do NOT go any farther over than you can go with comfort.  When you’ve bent as far as you comfortably can hold for a second and check your balance.  If you feel secure, lift your clasped hands and try to bring your arms up and over your head.  For many people it takes a long time to get anywhere near the full pose.  It’s worth practicing because it is a fabulous stretch for the low back, hamstrings and pecs.  However far you can go into it to begin with you WILL be getting some stretch and that’s what will help the muscles open.  Hold for 4-12 breaths (start low, work up).  On an inhale feel as if a pulley from the ceiling is lifting your hands and let your whole body glide up.  Turn your feet to face front and then change to the other side and repeat all.

Wide-leg Table Pose

When you complete the Umbrella, turn your feet back to face front and walk them out, heel, toe, heel, toe as far as you comfortably can and/or until you have a good stretch on your inner thigh.  Inhale to a straight back and exhale, bending forward from the hips.  Place your hands on the floor so that your back is flat and parallel to the floor and your arms are like the legs of a table.  Start out holding for about 4 deep breaths.  Over time try to extend until you can hold for 15-20 long, deep breaths.  Do not stretch beyond your comfort zone and do not hold too long.  To come out, walk your feet in, heels, toes, heels, toes until you can comfortably bend your knees and roll up.

Standing/Moving Forward Bend

Stand with your feet a few inches apart.  Make sure you’re well balanced on your feet.  Inhale and straighten, stretching your spine long.  Exhale and bend forward from the hips, keeping your back straight.  There are several levels at which you may do this one, depending on your flexibility.  For the most flexible, bend all the way down and grab your big toes; keep your legs straight.  On the next inhalation, straighten your arms while still holding your toes and lift your head.  On the exhale, grab behind your ankles and pull your chest as close to your thighs as possible, head down.  When you inhale, grab your toes and lift your head again.  Continue this movement pattern with the breath.  Begin doing four and work up to do 15 reps.  If you’re less flexible, you may have your hands on your shins or on your knees instead of holding your toes.  If necessary have your knees bent (but try to keep legs straight).  When you inhale keep your hands on your knees or shins and straighten your arms and lift your head.  When you exhale, grab behind your knees or shins and pull yourself down as far as you can go with comfort.  Continue this movement pattern with the breath.  Begin doing four and work up to do 15 reps.

Second Series

This group of poses have been my saving grace for tight, out-of-balance hips and psoas. I know they open that whole area so I wasn’t surprised when they turned out to be great triggers for the release.

Cobbler’s Pose

Sit on the floor with the soles of your feet together, your hands holding your feet together and the outsides of your thighs facing or on the floor.  Push your knees down as close to the floor as you comfortably can.  If your inner thighs are already screaming, lift your knees a little higher.  Make sure your spine stays straight and if that means you need to lift your knees a bit more, lift them — always take care of that spine.  If this position is as much as you can take, just sit like this and breathe deep.  If you can take a bit more, bend forward from the hips keeping a straight back and place your elbows on your inner shins, adding a little pressure to stretch the inner thigh a bit more.  If that’s as much as you can take, stay there and breathe deeply.  If you have a lot of flexibility keep the pressure from your elbows and continue bending forward to bring your head as close to the floor as you comfortably can.  Wherever your stop, take long deep breaths and hold for at least four.  Over time work up to hold for 10-12 breaths.

Eye of the Needle (for hips)

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.  Raise your right leg and place your lower leg sideways across your left thigh just above the left knee.  You should now have a big triangular hole between your legs.  Put your right hand through that hole and grab behind your left knee.  Put your left arm around the outside of your left thigh and grab behind the left knee.  If your hips are really tight you might need to just stay here.  If you can, lift your left foot off the floor and bring your legs a little closer to your chest.  At the same time press outward with your right elbow on the inside of your right leg.  If that’s as much as you can take, stay there.  If you can go farther, lift your shoulders and head and with your hands pull the left leg closer to your chest.  Wherever you need to stop, hold and breathe deeply.  Start with four breaths.  Work up over time to doing 8-10.  Switch sides, left lower leg across right thigh, left hand through the hole to grab behind right knee, etc.

Log Pose

This one is a little more demanding for the hips.  If they’re really tight, stick with the previous pose until you’ve loosened up.  Sit on the floor as if you were going to sit cross-legged and stack your lower legs so that your right lower leg is directly on top of your left lower leg.  If necessary let the knee of the top leg lift but if you can, keep your knees down.  If this position is already stretching your hips as much as you can take, stay like this.  If you can do a little more, inhale to a straight spine and exhale bending slightly forward from your hips.  Place your hands in front of you on the floor.  Stay there if that’s your maximum stretch.  If not, continue bending forward to bring your head toward the floor.  If you can go all the way over, rest your head on your hands on the floor in front of your shins.  Where ever you stop, breathe deeply.  On each exhalation try to stretch a little more.  Hold for 4-6 breaths.  Over time try to extend the hold for 8-12 breaths.  Inhale back up.  Switch legs so that your left lower leg is on top.  One side will usually be tighter than the other so don’t be surprised if you can go more deeply into this on one side than the other.

Reclining Lotus

Unless you have pretty flexible hips and pretty good knees, either skip this one or do the easier variation below.  Sit on the floor and place your right foot as high up on your left thigh as you can get it.  Then put your left foot as high up on your right thigh as you can get it.  Place your arms behind you and slowly start to lie back.  Then bend your arms and rest on your elbows. If that’s as far back as you can go, stay there.  Otherwise, continue back until you are lying all the way down with your legs still in lotus pose.  Hold for four breaths.  As you practice, expand to 15-20 breaths.  Inhale as you use your arms to assist you in sitting back up.  Switch the legs so your right leg is now cross on top of your left and repeat all.  To modify, bend your right leg and place on the floor as if you’re about to sit cross-legged– outer thigh facing down, right foot on the floor, aiming toward the general vicinity of your left hip.  Bend your left leg and place the foot on your right thigh as high up as you comfortably can.  Go through the same slow process of lying back in stages.  Check in at each stage to see if you need to just stop.  If you can, lie back on the floor.  Same breathing instructions.  Inhale slowly up with an assist from your arms.  Change sides and repeat.

I also generally add a lunge pose variation that’s much like what I learned as Half Cobra only without raising the arms.  I also do a pigeon pose series that has about four different positions.  I don’t want to try to explain it with only words and I don’t have pictures, so do these if you know them, don’t worry about it otherwise.

The Release

I recommend that you buy Berceli’s book and use his photos to assist in doing this piece.

When you complete the warm-ups (one or the other or both of the series above), sit on the floor in the opening position of cobbler’s pose (see above) and then lie back in a reclining cobbler’s pose (you can do a search and easily find pictures of what this one looks like).  Hold for a few breaths and let the muscles relax.  Your arms can be wherever they’re comfortable; resting on your stomach, over your head or at your sides.  Then lift your pelvis about two inches off the floor and hold in that position (soles of feet still together, knees still open to the sides) for a minute.  Then lower back down and lie in reclining cobbler’s pose for another minute.  Sometimes I stay here a bit longer as it really helps some of those muscles release.  Your legs may begin to quiver.  Let them.

Next, raise your knees about two inches and hold in that position for two minutes.  This is the point at which I start getting some big releases when I do the yoga poses first instead of his warm-ups.  With his warm-ups there’s more quivering at this stage.

Bring your knees another two inches higher.   Hold.  Let any quivering, shaking, etc. keep going.  If there are any releases let it continue.  When the release stops or after two minutes of quivering, bring your knees two inches higher.  Stay there and allow the quivering, shaking, etc. to go on as long as you can.  If you need to, stretch your legs out on the floor to rest before continuing or at any point when you feel tired.

Place the soles of your feet flat on the floor and have your knees somewhat apart.  The quivering should begin again pretty quickly.  Let the shaking move on up into your pelvis, low back, shoulders, etc.  Sometimes my head and arms also start moving around.  Allow this to continue as long as you can; even 15 minutes or beyond.  If you’re body is feeling fatigued, stop at any point.  With the warm-ups I’ve been doing, I actually have releases in other areas of my body starting with the first two inch raise of my knees.

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Collective Prayer Sundays and Yoga Tip

Peace symbol for CPS

 

I’m having a draggy weekend so I’m late, but here’s the post on which you can leave comments if you have something to say about your experience in praying for peace.  Some of us have been doing this for a while so I’m interested to hear if any of you have thoughts on what’s it’s been like to participate regularly in chanting for peace.

I’m loving the discipline of doing this weekly and it has been fueling a return to more meditation practice than I’ve managed in years.  I’ve undertake one meditation challenge after another since this began and I can feel the impact of bringing the practice back into my life.

In case you’re new, we’re finding 10 minutes at a minimum to pray or chant or meditate (or???) for peace every Sunday.  Details are on the CPS page.For comments:  you can comment here or on that page or you can go to the Facebook page.

Yoga Tip

During the 40 days of doing the ego eradicator I reflected a lot on the position you hold, with arms in the air.  Three minutes doesn’t sound like a lot but I found that it was a challenge to hold that position–even though I’ve been doing a lot of kundalini yoga that has strengthened my arms–that long.  I soon realized that my tendency was to push my shoulders up and tense the arms muscles and the odd position of the fingers contributed to tightening my arms.  As soon as I saw it I concentrated on keeping my shoulders down and relaxing the muscles in my arms, particularly the biceps.  It also helps to keep your fingers loose–if you tense your fingers in that position it almost automatically causes you to tense your arm muscles.  All this makes an amazing difference in your ability to hold the position.   So keep a little focus on position so you can make sure your shoulders stay down and that you’re not tensing your arms.

Ego Eradicator–Halfway Through

I’ve now completed the first 20 days of my ego eradicator challenge.  I must admit that I missed one day altogether and another day I got in the ego busting/mindfulness piece but didn’t have time to do the chant I added.  Otherwise I’ve stuck with it faithfully and that in itself for me in recent years is a milestone.

At this point I feel much much more energy and strength than I’ve felt in a long time. All that breath of fire tends to push enough energy into the muscles in my face that the unwinding has been almost violent at times.  The more my head opens up from feeling like a vice grip pressed in all around the more positive my thinking becomes.

I always have to chuckle when I try to evaluate what has created a change because I’ve used so many practices and practitioners over the 28 years I’ve been on this path.  In this case, some examples:  27 years of yoga, 15 years of acupuncture, 4 years of cranio-sacral, 3 years of bodypatterning, lots of Eight Key Breaths and Tibetan Rites practice, creating my own movement series to open my body…

And then, most recently the Break the Ancestor’s Spell Ceremony.  I think the spell started a big opening process and that the Meditation to Bust Through Blocks showed up on its heels to help complete the process but I also think all the previous years and the many layers previously removed were necessary precursors to arriving here.

So I feel the ego eradicator is quite powerful and definitely having an impact but I don’t know how much credit to give when I feel so many things have contributed to hitting this stride where I feel confident that I’ve got my health back (even though there are a few threads to tie off) and positive about what’s unfolding.

I know a few people were going to start using the eradicator — I’d love to hear what you’re experiencing.  Or if any others among you have done this at some point, what is your experience?

Healing Journey Monday: Learn your body!

First, a side note:  My colleague, Kreig Cremeans (of Bodypatterning fame in previous posts) and I will be offering our 3-day workshop, Intro to Bodypatterning and Restoring Fluidity and Freedom of Movement in Corte Madera, CA  (San Francisco area) April 29-May 1.  The class has 21 CE hours (NCBTMB).  If you have body worker friends in the area I’d so appreciate it if you’d let them know.  Details on Kreig’s website.

My greatest struggle as a movement teacher has arisen from trying to make sure that students move within their limits.  I used to think I was doing a pretty good job because I demonstrate postures and movements at more than one level and repeat often that everyone should make sure they’re moving within their limits.  Over time I’ve had a number of students who wound up complaining of pain and  I worked with them on “making it smaller” with movements and postures so they were able to continue without having more issues.

But I had to realize that I somehow kept failing at communication if students continued to go too far into postures or made the triggers of release movements too large for their abilities.  What I finally came to understand is that many people are so numb to their bodies that just saying “stay within your limits” doesn’t really help them understand (and trust me that was where I started out–I was just young enough to get away with being that unconscious).  We’re kind of a society of “suck it up”, “soldier on through”, etc.  So many of my students missed noting any limit that didn’t involve something breaking or tearing, accompanied by unbearable pain.

I’ve been working on a longer list of  “signs that you’ve moved too far or made a movement too large”.  Some of these came from Kreig and I’m interested to hear whether any of you yoga teachers and students who read my posts have any more to suggest:

1.  If it hurts at all you’ve gone too far or made the movement too big (fill this in on the rest)

2.  If anything feels like it’s pulling …

3.  If the movement or pose goes from easy to uncomfortable….

4.  If you can’t breathe (because of discomfort)…

5.  If  you feel like you’re forcing your body to the position it’s in or to make a bigger movement …

In the end, as I tell all my students, I can tell you over and over to stay in your limits but only you can feel when you reach them.  There’s no way that I (or any teacher) can tell by watching if you bent too far forward in a forward bend or took your knees too far toward the floor in the triggers of release for hips.  If you’re not used to noting and honoring the signals your body gives you this can be the most challenging part of yoga (or any movement practice) but if you stay in your limits you can progress safely and without pain until you can do more and more.  Yoga–at least the way I teach it–is meant to help you find greater health and balance.  It’s not about proving that you can fight through pain and/or discomfort and wind up in a lot of pain the next day.  Learn your body, let the practice flow.  Easy does it really can get you there.

Let me know those suggestions!

Related articles

Learning Yourself Through Yoga

My long-time yoga teacher, Bill Hunt, taught me so many things that I’ve remembered and that have helped me, not just in yoga, but in life.  A lesson that has had a big impact on me related to paying attention to how you practice yoga and learning about yourself as you do it.

Each major category of postures relates to a stance you take in life or a way you deal with life.  If you pay attention to which postures are hard for you to do, which postures are easy to do, which you don’t like, which you love you can see a lot about how you are in the world.

Forward bends relate to inwardness or being introverted.  If forward bends are hard for you to do or you don’t like them (regardless of whether they seem easy or hard)  there’s a good chance that you have trouble looking inward or delving deep into your psyche or that you’re extroverted.  If you easily do forward bends or favor doing them you’re probably introverted or inclined to look inward.

Back bends relate to openness or letting yourself be out there and/or seen in the world.  If you struggle to do them or just don’t like them you probably have a hard time putting yourself out there or tend to be introverted.  If you love them and do them easily it’s likely that you’re extroverted and/or have no trouble being out in front of people.

Strength postures literally relate to strength.  If they’re hard for you to do that says something about whether you show strength in life or a firm ability to hold your place.  If they’re easy and you like to do them you probably face the world from a place of strength.  If your muscles are so strong that you are held rigid there’s a good chance that you have issues of rigidity or inflexibility in life as well.

Balance postures (mainly the standing balances) reflect something about whether your life is balanced–emotionally, mentally, and/or spiritually.  A flexible spine reflects your ability to be flexible in life and a spine that doesn’t move well reflects rigidity or inability to bend.

Way back when I took yoga classes from him (1986-1991) I quickly realized back bends were a major issue for me.  I could barely get an inch off the floor in, say, cobra pose and since I was about as introverted as could be and virtually incapable of speaking in public I could see how my inability to bend backwards reflected the state of my being.

I began to work at back bend postures — slowly and lazily.  Over the course of some years my ability to do them improved (still an upward curve for me).  When they’d gotten to be pretty good I looked at my life and realized I’d been taking on leadership roles and teaching and feeling at ease in front of people for a while.  I worked on lots of other stuff over those years so I can’t claim it was only the change in my ability to do back bends but I think it played a big part.  Or perhaps the decision to work on a certain kind of postures reflects some internal decision to make a change.

Strength postures weren’t easy for  me either and, although I could do them, I really didn’t like them.  For some reason that didn’t bother me as much as the back bend issue so it’s just been in the last six or seven years that I’ve really worked at developing my ability to do postures like chair pose or my ability to hold downward dog for 50 breaths.  The results are more subtle, but I can feel myself holding a stronger inward space, holding my own center with strength.

I find it fun and interesting to check in periodically to see where I am in my practice and what it’s telling me about my life.  Check it out, you might learn something new about yourself or help yourself make a change by focusing on postures that support the direction in which you want to go.

See also:

Yoga and the Story of Balance

 

Learning Your Body

Microsoft Office Clipart MH900382999.jpg

Western medical thinking seems to mostly by-pass muscles unless they’re prescribing a muscle relaxant or repairing a serious injury. I’m not sure if that’s why most people have so little understanding about their muscles or if it’s just the general lack of holistic health education. I didn’t understand so much either until I embarked on this long healing journey. Two main pieces I’ve been paying attention to lately are the way patterns set in and spread if there’s an injury and nothing is done to restore and re-balance the muscles and the way those patterns start interconnecting with other unaddressed patterns to create complex patterns of tightness and pain.

I’ve noticed that when a student comes to me because of pain in a hip I often have trouble convincing that student that we need to address the whole body and that there will be other areas that impact the part that hurts. All the massage therapists I know tell me they have the same trouble with clients who don’t want them to work anywhere but on the exact place where they feel pain.

The whole muscular system is interconnected so if you injure a muscle in one area and don’t do anything about it the twist or knots in that area will slowly start pulling on the other muscles around it and when those twist they start pulling on other muscles and so on. Then if you injure a muscle in another area another pattern moves out. Sometimes several patterns wind up intersecting in one place and it’s likely that that’s where you’ll feel pain but a practitioner has to work on all the patterns and they often have to work more at the source of each pattern.

I find when I work with people on my triggers of release stuff they’ll often have results in their shoulders, for instance, not only from working on the shoulders but also from the hands, wrists, elbows, hips, low back, neck, knees, ankles and feet. Which other areas have the most impact will vary depending on each person’s patterns.. Once people work with the movements and check in to before and after results they start seeing how much one area can impact another.

Dr. Janet Travell expanded on the earlier work of Dr. Dudley Morton to develop a body of work on myofascial pain and trigger points that was later used to create Myofascial Therapy and since then a number of therapies have developed that work with these theories. John Upledger in writing about his Craniosacral Therapy discussed how one fall, if no treatment to restore the muscles was done, could lead to pain and problems in many other areas years later. The best advice is that any time you fall or have a painful injury you should visit a skilled massage therapist (I highly recommend Cremeans’ Bodypatterning but it’s available only in limited places at the moment) or craniosacral therapist and also practice some movements like the triggers of release developed by Feldenkrais and Robert Masters (my Kindle book, Restoring Fluidity and Freedom of Movement, combines these movements with yoga).

If you’ve rarely or never had bodywork to get your muscles back to health and, especially, if you’ve had falls and accidents where treatment ignored your muscles, then it may take a long time to restore your muscles to good health. This is not a go to the doctor and get a shot or pill to end the symptoms kind of thing. You can take pills to get rid of the pain but they won’t address the actual problem. Getting your muscles back to health is a commitment of time and energy. If you do something like my movement work in between appointments it will go much faster but you need to start down the path to restoring your body with a willingness to be patient and count success in small increments.

In relation to a spiritual journey, all those knots and twists in your muscles are blocking the nadis, which are the channels through which prana and kundalini flow. Besides balancing the chakras, the main point of yoga is keeping those channels open on the theory that it isn’t possible to reach enlightenment if the energy can’t flow freely through your body.

Please, if you’re in a car accident or fall on the ice or get knocked down by a falling shelf (etc.) take care of your muscles! If you haven’t ever done much to get your muscles unwound and aligned properly, start!

Submitted for Jenny Matlock’s AlphabeThursday, which is “L” this week.

Teaching yoga… what do you think?

Woman on the ground doing yoga

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I have conversations every now and then about teaching classes that leave me reflecting about how I lead my classes. Recently I’ve noted that I’ve built in a couple of philosophies that I didn’t consciously realize I had. And since it turns out not everyone agrees, I’m interested in hearing what people think.

The first piece is one that I think is present in movement classes in a way that it’s not in, say, a meditation class. I feel most people have some type of discomfort about their bodies—varying degrees and sorts but still discomfort. And it always seems to me that a lot of people feel a bit self-conscious about coming into a movement class and having other people not only seeing their bodies but moving their bodies around in unfamiliar ways and wondering if they’re “doing it right” or looking dumb. Those who take lots of exercise or yoga classes reach some place where they’re used to it but still I often feel that I’m holding something delicate in my hands and that, even though nothing is said, I can see an anxiety to be seen kindly, to not be pointed out or made to feel foolish.

So I try very hard to correct via instructions to the group rather than aiming corrections to a particular person, to make little adjustments to a majority if I move around the class rather than correcting one and always to be encouraging to the whole group about how pleased I am that they’re doing well and keeping the movements within their comfort ranges. I don’t know if it helps, but I feel like people breathe a little easier by the time they’ve had a couple of classes because I work hard at letting everyone move without feeling I’m going to direct the entire attention of the class at them or belittle their efforts. Most of my teaching friends work on a similar basis but I have run into some who feel that correcting and challenging is part of the job and call out to people by name or single one person out to adjust.

The other piece is about making hands-on corrections. Until a recent conversation left me perplexed about it I hadn’t looked at ethical standards about it since yoga teacher training in 1988. I’ve always had a policy to tell my group on the first day of class that I sometimes make hands-on corrections but that if anyone doesn’t want to be touched they can just tell me as I go around that they don’t want me to. There are also a couple of corrections I learned from my teacher that I consider to be potentially sensitive so I tell them the first time I do those what I’m about to do and that if anyone is uncomfortable I’ll skip that person. For me, if I’ve asked a student whether she wants to be touched and she’s said no that’s the end no matter how deeply I feel that she could really use the correction. Sometimes I can tell that a student is not that happy about being touched even if they haven’t said “no” and I generally try to keep it to a minimum after that.

After another (non-movement) teaching friend recently seemed surprised that touching isn’t just assumed to be part of the deal in yoga I look around at some ethics codes to see if I just remembered wrong in thinking you’re not just supposed to go around putting your hands on people.  I found that the advice is variable but seems to always include that at the least you should inform your class that you sometimes touch and give people the chance to opt out. Some feel you should even have them sign a waiver form. Some teachers avoid touch altogether rather than face any legal questions about inappropriate touch.

I know a lot of my regular blog readers practice yoga or some other exercise and some of you are even teachers so I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on these teaching questions and how you prefer to be treated. 

 

Let it flow

http://www.flickr.com/photos/medaugh/14978376/ grace in winter 2] * Uploaded by Ekabhishek

I know, I know, I kind of harp about fluidity and flow. I’ve understood its importance for a long time, but as these last corded muscles slowly open and I feel blood flow where I could not before that understanding is deepening. If you have painfully knotted muscles or tight muscle patterns your blood isn’t circulating everywhere it should go and the vital nutrients that are carried from your breath into your blood stream are failing to reach many places that need the nutrients.

In other words, if your muscles aren’t healthy, relaxed and in proper alignment you won’t just feel pain or tension or have trouble moving, you will not be as healthy as you could be. It takes a lot of effort for your body to hold all those tight patterns and at the same time your body isn’t receiving oxygen and other crucial nutrients so at the least you lack energy. Deep level muscles can also squeeze organs and glands so that they don’t function properly so you can also have more serious impacts. Allopathic medicine largely doesn’t acknowledge muscles as being affected by accidents or injuries nor that untreated muscles issues can impact much more than whether it hurts to move.

Not only do those knots and twists block the flow of blood and breath but the nadis, or energy channels, through which prana (chi or vital force energy) flows are also blocked. Many, if not most, spiritual traditions have practices to assist in keeping the flow of prana open and full because higher consciousness requires the free and balanced flow of energy.

I feel like my long and—at times—tortuous journey through chronic fatigue and twisted, painful muscles has been in part so that I could learn all this and help other people to understand. In the US we have become so separated from our bodies (I’d guess it’s true in general of western civilization but I’ll just claim it based on what I actually know here) that I’m constantly taken aback by how unconscious most people are of their bodies and how lacking in awareness of how every part connects to and impacts every other part.

I’ll keep coming back to this, trying to say it in different ways so it makes sense to different people. Please, take care of keeping your muscles flexible and strong and healthy.

See also: Connections and Your Muscles, Emotions and Your Muscles, Helping the Bodywork Progress, Healing is a Participatory Activity, Sway with Me–Flowing As You Age

Healing Journey Monday: The final stretch

RFM Book Cover1

My journey the last month or so has been mostly a hibernation that included lots of sleepless nights from the unwinding head saga and a flu that went several rounds. The amazing upside is that the huge lump of bone in the roof of my mouth has flattened considerably during this time and as the big constricted lump in my head has loosened my energy and outlook have changed noticeably.

I also managed to complete the instruction book for my movement classes (cover above) and it will be available on Kindle within the next couple of days ($2.99). For 90 days it’s available in the lending library if you have Amazon Prime so check it out for free while you can. I even have an author page!

Another big piece of the change-in-progress was a ceremony some friends and I performed a couple of weeks ago to heal all our ancestors – I’m working on a post about that that will be up soon. Let’s just say it was an amazing afternoon.

The last few days, after several days of sleeping and sleeping, I’ve actually felt motivated and positive and I’ve been slowly checking off “to-do’s” that have been hanging over my head for quite a while. This is an aspect of who I used to be that I’ve missed and I have to say I’m glad to have her back!

Healing Journey Monday: Healthy aging

 

Kat Atkin dancing in Philly

 

I’ll come back to another post or two on muscles and relaxation, but a few days ago I hit the one month from 60 mark and my recent thoughts have often been about how we think about aging and how different I think it can be.

I’ve noted since I was quite young that most people have an expectation that age means becoming ever more slow and stiff and infirm and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve also observed that people who exercise—particularly those who do yoga or something similar that helps keep the muscles stretched—and/or eat well are often active and lively and full of pep well into their 80’s or even 90’s. That’s not to say that they aren’t moving slower than they did in their 20’s or that they don’t suffer more ailments than they did when they were younger. But that sense of age inevitably leading to infirmity and immobility seems to be mostly a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At this stage, theory would have it that I should be starting the downward slope. But after 26 years of yoga and 15 or so years of practicing the Psychophysical Method and my own re-creation of it into triggers of release combined with yoga, I’m in far better shape than I was at 20 or 30. My father is 87 and until emphysema got in the way a year ago he played tennis every other day and did vigorous calisthenics on the days in between. His doctor has wanted to take him around as a shining example of the great condition you can be in with exercise. Personally I think more stretching would have eased some aches and pains from the tennis, but basically he’s part of my example group of elders who have stayed healthy and vigorous by working at it.

Some people are going to experience a debilitating issue regardless of exercise and some people will have some ailment that prevents the exercise but I really believe that the majority of people could experience old age in far greater health, with far more energy and far more mobility if they would take care of their bodies as if they planned to stay healthy.

See earlier posts:

Sway with me

Practices for Flow

 

 

Healing Journey Monday: yoga and form

I’ve noticed over the years that in every type of exercise I know form is very important, whether it’s yoga, weight machines, calisthenics or something else. And I’ve also noticed that a lot of people have trouble understanding why form is important. I’m going to speak of it in yoga terms, but when I belonged to a gym for some years I used to watch the trainers trying to correct people who looked bewildered by being told they needed to use proper form and would just keep on doing what they had been doing, so I think it applies whether you’re doing aerobics or weight training or something else.

Some of my students get a little impatient with my attention to form but I do think it matters. Part of what seems to be puzzling to some people is that doing it doesn’t immediately break a bone or tear a ligament or cause some dramatic injury and thus it doesn’t seem that form matters. Although a more dramatic injury can occur it’s not the main issue. There are two ways in which form makes a big difference: (1) if you don’t use the proper form you’re often not going to affect the muscle or muscle group that the exercise is designed to address; (2) doing a pose incorrectly over time can put stresses and strains on your muscles and/or bones so that somewhere down the road you’re suffering from a stiff neck or pain in your hip or back or some other structural injury. That realization of injury may occur years after you started doing the wrong form and you may not know what caused it.

Since I’ve suffered a lot of issues with my muscles and my structure and have done a lot of exercise and movement work for it I have a pretty refined sense of the feeling when I do a pose wrong and how it changes when I do it properly. If you don’t have a lot of body awareness you may not realize that something is off. I think it really helps if you can find a teacher who does pay attention to details and keeps class sizes small enough to pay individual attention to what students are doing.

My teacher made a lot of hands on corrections for us and he’d always ask us to note how we were feeling before he corrected and how we felt after he adjusted the pose. That’s been a great help to me as my body has kept changing with all the body work because I know when a pose feels right.  If my body has re-balanced I can feel the need to shift the pose to regain the proper balance.

If you’re fairly new to yoga or haven’t ever taken from a teacher who really pays attention to teaching form I highly recommend (1) that you avoid taking classes where they allow more than 10 students because a teacher really can’t keep an eye on what individual students are doing that well if there are more than 10 in a class. (2) Search for a straight hatha yoga class (the Kriya tradition is pretty traditional as far as the poses but not the only one) to learn proper form one pose at a time before you take classes that use vinyasas or move quickly through poses. It’s much harder to keep track of form when you’re moving quickly from one pose to another. If you don’t really know the correct form before you start it’s almost impossible to do vinyasas correctly.  Wait till you know the basics before you move on to one of the moving forms. (3) Do some research about teachers. If you don’t know someone who can vouch for a teacher giving careful instructions then look for studios or teachers that offer one free or reduced price class for people who are interested so that you can experience it for yourself. A good instructor should give lots of pointers on getting the poses right and also should be able to suggest modifications if you have some physical reason why you can’t do a pose all the way.

I’ve had quite a few people come to me after being injured in other yoga classes or after feeling uncomfortable and hopeless because of the lack of direction and the expectation that every student should do everything without regard to their own limits. Anyone should be able to have success at yoga if you find classes in which you are getting good instructions about how to do the poses correctly and within your capabilities. [Note:  if you live in the Chicago area, my teacher, Bill Hunt, now has the Yoga Centre in Oak Park]

Healing Journey Monday: yoga and protecting your neck

When I learned poses like plow, bridge and shoulder stand, my teacher, Bill Hunt, emphasized the need for caution in those poses. A lot of weight can wind up pressing on the cervical spine and it’s not good for your neck to bear that kind of weight. So he taught us a number of precautions and a prop for doing those poses while protecting the cervical spine.

It took me a long time but after I did the poses according to his instructions long enough I became able to do them without a prop and knowing exactly what it feels like to have my shoulders and neck in the proper position. Over the years I’ve been a little shocked that I never see recordings or books about yoga that offer those suggestions for entering poses like plow with maximum safety to the cervical spine.

If you’re new to those poses or you have tight shoulders, it’s best to use a blanket for the pose. With a thick blanket, just fold it into a square; for my classes I have some thin throws and I fold two for each student and pile them directly on top of one another. The trick is getting into position on the blanket. You want to have your back on the blanket with the top edge of your shoulders about one inch inside the top edge of the blanket (or consider it that between the top edge of the blanket and the top of your shoulders there’s an inch of blanket).  In that position your neck will be at the edge of the blanket and hanging into the space between the blanket and the floor. I think every beginner should use the blanket. If you have really tight shoulders you should keep using the blanket.

The next steps I do whether I do or don’t use a blanket. Lift your hips a little and clasp your hands underneath you. Shift as needed to bring your shoulders blades in as close to one another as you can. If you’re on a blanket make sure that you’re keeping your position with your neck just above the edge of the blanket, maintaining that space. If your shoulders are really tight it may be hard to feel whether you’ve moved the blades but do the best you can. When they move in toward one another you create a space along the upper spine so that you’re not going to put weight on it.

After bringing the shoulder blades toward one another pull your clasped hands toward your feet so that you come up higher on your shoulders. Make sure that you keep your shoulder blades pressed as close as you can. If you’re up on your shoulders and you’ve created that hollow space then the weight of your body will be on your shoulders instead of your neck.

Move your hands back out and lower your hips while keeping the position of your shoulders and shoulder blades and then move into whichever posture you wish to do. If you take these precautions you should be able to practice these poses for years without having problems with your neck.

Shifts and Adjustments and Growing Pains

Collage of varius Gray's muscle pictures by Mi...

Collage of varius Gray’s muscle pictures by Mikael Häggström (User:Mikael Häggström) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a recent post I talked about pain as part of a spiritual journey, particularly as to facing inner pain. There’s another big way that pain comes up: from the shifts and transitions that arise when practice or exercise or release, etc. changes you and the many systems with which you are entwined have to accommodate.

It’s probably easiest to understand when it’s physical. I’ve experienced it in a couple of ways. In the early days of getting body work I’d been doing yoga for several years already so my practice was well established and I felt very comfortable in the poses I knew. As the massage therapist unlocked some of the major muscles I found that it completely altered my balance in a lot of poses—it was like re-learning my practice. Every time some of my muscles opened, other muscles had to readjust and while it didn’t hurt, it was the first time I understood that my body really is a system and when one part changes other parts have to accommodate.

More recently I’ve seen the physical shifts in connection with the Bodypatterning work combined with my triggers of release practice. For instance, every time my left hip lets go and moves closer to proper alignment there are shifts across my low back and in my right hip and sometimes in one or both shoulders and sometimes the new placement is painful. It’s generally not too bad and it’s always been easy to work out, but when parts of your body are reorganizing not every arrangement they hit is comfortable.

When you follow a spiritual path there are many ways in which you are likely to change from relaxing to detaching from old issues to developing more compassion and more. Similar to the physical situation, your family relationships and friendships become systems that are organized around all the personality traits and behavioral patterns of their members.

When one member begins to change behaviors and let go of aspects of personality, the shift forces everyone else to readjust. Sometimes other people won’t accommodate you as readily as your right hip accommodates your left. Worst case, a friend of mine wound up divorced and estranged from her children, who thought her new path was crazy. I’ve also seen people who met their authentic selves and became happier and threw it all away in order to keep the status quo with family. More often a long period of discomfort, misunderstandings and shifting behaviors ensues until some new–and usually MUCH better–pattern sets in.

Your own internal equilibrium can also be thrown off as you work through emotions or release a lot of the past. When I went through the Fischer Hoffman process I really threw myself into it, combed through my life and beliefs, did vast amounts of release work, etc. By the end I’d let go of so much I really wasn’t sure who I was any more. The facilitator called this “the void” and advised me to just sit with it and not try to grab onto an identity because I’d probably just reconstruct some part of the past

Over the years some sense of self has emerged but I’ve kept working and letting go and there are some ways in which I’m still wondering who the authentic me is. I’m not sure why, but it doesn’t make me all that uncomfortable. I know some people seem to find it intolerable to be without that strong sense of self but I’ve been okay with it and enjoy watching the process of becoming. Sometimes shifts just mean going through emotional ups and downs or manifest in some other way.

On every level and in every aspect of your life transformation creates miracles but most often it also requires many phases of readjustment that aren’t necessarily easy nor comfortable and sometimes they hurt. When you sign on for the journey you take on the probability that you will experience growing pains like these. Are you ready? Do you have your own stories of readjustment or abandoning growth to avoid the change?

Healing Journey Monday: starting an easy yoga practice 2

Continuing from last week’s post, I’m going to give you some ideas and instructions for starting a yoga practice. Based on some conversations with older friends and some of the comments I received about my Sway with Me post, I am orienting this toward people who have not exercised in a long time and who may have difficulties getting up and down from the floor but these have benefits even if you already have a practice .

My first recommendation is a DVD by Ravi Singh and Ana Brett called Kundalini Yoga for Beginners and Beyond (be careful because there is another one with a similar title; this one has a set called Rise and Spine and a set with the Five Tibetan Rites). I have caveats and instructions to add however as I don’t feel the DVD is good for beginners as far as instructions. For a beginner, stick with the Rise and Spine. The Tibetan Rites are much tougher so get into better shape first.

I recommend these because they are done in a seated position and their main function is to give you flexibility of the spine. In order to have good balance a flexible spine is key so I think this is a good place to start. The movements isolate different sections of the spine quite nicely so as you practice you really are learning to move all the parts of your spine and gaining flexibility. I’ve also found they help a lot of problems with tight muscles in the back and shoulders and, to a lesser extent, in the hips.

All of these movements are accompanied by a slow breath of fire on the DVD but I actually recommend you start off just learning the movements. Breath of fire as I learned it (instructions for this and these movements are at the bottom of this post) works the abdominal muscles a bit more than their version but either way it’s hard to coordinate both the breath and the movements until you’ve learned both really well. With my students I work on the breath and the movements separately; how long varies with the students. Generally I don’t have them add the breath until I feel they are able to separate each area of the spine successfully. The added bonus of these movements when you add the breath is that you get quite a workout sitting in the chair.

Ana demonstrates the Rise and Spine segment seated on the floor. Somewhere along the way they toss off a suggestion that you could do it sitting on a couch. I find for both myself and even more for my students that most people are not flexible enough to sit cross-legged on the floor and do these successfully. Because of the discomfort of the position or the discomfort when you start moving in the position most of us reduce the actual movements to a much smaller range which means not getting the full benefit of the movement. I do these as the opening to all my classes and we are always seated on folding chairs. A sturdier dining room chair without arms if you’re doing it at home is better.

At the bottom of the post I am pasting in some quite specific instructions to go with these movements as there’s not a lot of instruction on the DVD.

My second recommendations are made with some reservations. I like Lilias Folan‘s tapes for beginners but mine are old and the specific ones I know haven’t been updated (by her) to DVD so I haven’t seen her current work for beginners. However, generally she gives simple postures with good instructions–but she does a lot of work on the floor so if you have trouble getting up and down these may not be for you. Susan Winter Ward has one called Yoga for the Young at Heart that has pretty easy postures and a lot done in chairs but it’s quite long if you haven’t exercised so I’d recommend taking it in sections. She also has one I haven’t seen that is all seated (chair) yoga called Sitting Fit Anytime.  Personally I would start with the Rise and Spine work and when you feel you’ve gained some flexibility and stamina move on to one or all of these.

The instructions to go with the Ravi Singh DVD:

The Grind: circular movement is from hips. Imagine that you are making a circle with your navel; inhale as you push lower abdomen forward, point navel toward one knee, do half circle to front until navel points at other knee (if you can’t make that big a circle aim for some place inside your knees), exhale as you continue in half circle to the back. Make sure you’re NOT circling your waist or ribs instead of hips. Start with 10 circles in one direction and then 10 in the other. Work up to 30 or 40 circles in each direction.

Low spine: sit forward on chair with legs wide apart, feet flat. Place hands on thighs, near knees. Begin forward and back motion with pelvis; feel that you’re pushing your pelvis forward and then folding back. Movement is from waist down to hips and motion is wavelike, tilting pelvis forward and back. Inhale as you push stomach forward, exhale as you move back. Begin with 20, moving slowly. Work up to 70. When you’re comfortable with the movement speed up to do it with slow breath of fire (instructions below).

Mid-spine: On floor, sit in hero’s pose (legs bent, butt on heels, knees together) hands on thighs; in chair place legs together, feet flat, hands on thighs. Push diaphragm/solar plexus forward on inhale so you bend backward, then  bend middle of back forward on exhale; feel ribs expand to maximum in front and back as you move. Begin with 20, moving slowly. Work up to 70. When you’re comfortable with the movement, speed up to do it with slow breath of fire. This is the only one where the floor movement, IF you can do it, gets you a bit more movement than the chair version.

Washing machine: Sit on front of chair, with legs wide and feet flat. Place hands on shoulders, fingers in front, thumbs in back. On inhale, turn shoulders to left, turning head left at same time; on exhale, turn shoulder and head to right. The turn is at the level of the sternum; cervical spine also turns with head. Hips and waist are held straight—movement is at sternum and in the neck; try not to rotate rib cage or waist.  Since it’s all connected there will be some movement but if you allow too much rotation of the rib cage, the movement at sternum will become smaller. Begin with 20, moving slowly. Work up to 70. When you’re comfortable with the movement, speed up to do it with slow breath of fire.

Upper back: Sit on edge of chair, legs apart, hands on knees, elbows straight. Tighten the quads and gluts slightly to protect low back. Lean back from hips, keeping back straight, without touching back of chair. On inhale, push chest out. On exhale, bend upper back forward with slight shoulder hunch. Elbows stay straight throughout and make sure you keep the lean. Begin with 20, moving slowly. Work up to 70. When you’re comfortable with the movement, speed up to do it with slow breath of fire.

Propeller: raise arms and bend so hands are in front of sternum, left palm faces out, away from sternum, right palm faces left palm. Curl fingers and interlock, pulling arms taut. On inhale bring left elbow up, right elbow down. On exhale raise right elbow and lower left elbow. Make sure you keep your hands at sternum level and watch that you don’t twist or turn your wrists; twisting your wrists is a protection that keeps you from making the full movement where you’re supposed to. Begin with 20, moving slowly. Work up to 70. When you’re comfortable with the movement, speed up to do it with slow breath of fire.

Breath of fire: breath is through the nose, using abdomen muscles to push stomach out forcefully with inhale and forcefully push in with exhale. Usually it’s done very quickly, but for these exercises it needs to be a slow breath of fire. Trick on the movements where you fold backwards and forwards is to remember to also push the abs in and out at the same time.