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.

Yoga and the story of balance

Yoga postures Urdva_Dhanurasana

The most fundamental principle of hatha yoga for me is balance. Ha and tha are the sun and moon channels that crisscross down the spine creating the circles of energy we call chakras. The word yoga means yoke or balance. So hatha yoga is balancing (or yoking) the sun and moon channels. In a well-designed practice, all the chakras are brought into a greater state of balance.  But yoga addresses balance in many ways.

I organize my hatha classes to begin at the root chakra and work upward, addressing all the chakras in every class. Beyond chakra energy, the need for balance is also physical and a good practice addresses strength and flexibility, forward and backward bends, inversion, and balance postures, so I also design my classes to provide a mix of those (depending on the abilities of students).

If you observe your reactions to the various elements of practice, according to my teacher, you can learn about yourself and what’s out of balance. Forward bends and stretches reflect ability to look within and flexibility, Backward bends tell the story of openness in the world or being extroverted. Strength postures literally reflect inner strength. Balance poses, inner balance and so on. Ask yourself as you practice which postures do you like to do and which do you dread or avoid? Which postures are easy for you to do and which are hard? You’ll find clues to your inner map.

When I started yoga I was very introverted and incredibly shy (make that pathologically); so lacking in confidence that I was weak emotionally and also already struggling with chronic fatigue so that I was physically weak as well. I excelled at doing forward bends and many stretches. I could do strength postures well enough but I rarely put them in my own practice and I didn’t like them. In back bends such as cobra I could barely lift an inch off the floor. Balance poses have always been variable for me, both how often and how well I do them. I like inverted poses.

I addressed the back bend issue first. It took years to work up to pretty good back bends. I still can’t get my foot to the back of my head (I tell my students that’s for next lifetime) but I can turn out a good camel or bow pose. Over the years of increasing my ability to open into these poses I have been increasing my openness in the world. Inner work and body work have contributed but I think the progression from shy and tongue-tied to outgoing and glib has a lot to do with the decision to practice back bends.

In recent years I turned to the strength postures as part of the process of improving health. I’ve found it helpful to keep videos around that contain practice segments with emphasis on postures I tend not to do on my own. It gives me some variety that keeps me from getting stuck in the same routine and helps me work on my weak areas.

Awareness of your relationship with the different aspects of yoga and your willingness to do a well-balanced practice can give y ou valuable insight into the state of balance of your being. If you practice yoga, do you know how to deal with forward bends, backward bends, strength postures, etc.? In life do you know what you embrace and what you avoid, what you do with ease and what challenges you? Do you know what it is within you that drives those attractions and aversions?

When you know the state of balance within among the elements of yoga or of life you can do what is needed to restore balance or equanimity.

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When everything aligns… magic

Yoga by luv2vault on Photobucket

When I decided to try yoga in 1986 I was living in Chicago. Although there were a number of studios there wasn’t the plethora that now exists and I quickly realized that the long travel times to many studios would lead to skipping lots of classes. As soon as I decided I wanted to find someplace closer I parked across the alley from my apartment building and when I stepped up on the curb I found myself staring at a sign on the door in front of me: “Hatha Yoga, Tuesdays 6:30 p.m.”

Well, that was close enough! I didn’t know enough about yoga to know that there are different styles (less then than now) or how to distinguish whether one might suit me more than another and it didn’t occur to me to research the teacher (for you young ones, I couldn’t have googled it, most people didn’t even have a computer then and the internet barely existed).  It just felt right and I showed up the next Tuesday and began my love affair with yoga.

The teacher was Bill Hunt, who’d practiced for about a dozen years at the time and taught on the side from another job. He was studying with Goswami Kriyananda (Temple of Kriya Yoga) and became a swami while I studied with him.  I’ve taken other classes—including a then-famous Yoga Journal teacher (my least favorite ever)–and followed various TV teachers like Lilias and picked up many tapes and DVDs. Bill Hunt has remained the best yoga teacher I ever encountered.

I attended his classes faithfully for five years, even twice a week whenever he offered a second class, including through the nine months of teacher training at the Temple of Kriya Yoga (he taught some of that too).  If I hadn’t moved away I’d still be taking his classes. Bill is now the director of Oak Park Yoga in Oak Park, IL.

I feel the universe sent me the perfect teacher at the perfect time and place and it changed my life.  My instinct, when I saw that sign on the door was that I’d found the right class.  If I’d second-guessed myself and searched for more classes or hesitated I might have turned off to yoga or have never started.  When instinct and all the elements come together, magic happens if you pay attention and say yes.

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