Three years–wowie zowie

By Tayunea on Wikimedia

Since I’m still not back in the world all the way I’m a little behind on things.  So it slipped by me the other day when WordPress told me I’ve been blogging for three years.  Doesn’t seem possible.

I’m ever more grateful for this lovely community and the fact that I’m always meeting new wonderful people.  I love the connection with all of you but I want to give a special shout to those who’ve been part of my blogging journey since somewhere near the beginning.  It’s amazing to me that we’ve been in one another’s lives for three years.  Whether you’re a new friend or a long-time blogging buddy, I’m so grateful we found one another here!  I’m so thankful for the many lessons and insights I’ve received from all your thoughtful, heart-felt posts.  Thanks everybody!

Yoga tip:  Lots of yoga postures for abs involve lying on your back on the floor and raising your head or head and shoulders.   Lots of students complain that it hurts their necks.  As with so many things, form makes all the difference.  Most of us don’t really use our necks properly.  It’s easy to use your shoulders to do some of the neck’s job and in these postures I find most people tend to both hunch their shoulders slightly forward and lift their shoulders up toward their ears and then tighten them.  That position is all wrong for your neck and the wrong position is quite painful.  Make sure your shoulders are back slightly and pulled down from your ears.   Since the neck muscles are often underused and/or overly taut, the muscles that are supposed to hold your head in this position will probably be sore at first, so some pain may still be present but it should feel different when you’re just pushing some muscles beyond what they’re used to rather than scrunching your neck unnaturally.  If you’re holding an abs move with your head up for a while keep checking your form to make sure your shoulders are staying in proper position–down and back.

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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!

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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

 

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.

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.