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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Muscles: 4 Steps Forward, 2 Steps Back… Forever?

Helen yoga

Helen yoga (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Trying to post the last couple of weeks has been an interesting process.  In this time of transition I have SO many ideas swirling through my head, so many realizations arising; much of it is interconnected.  Right now I’m struggling to sort my way through it all and my mind doesn’t seem to have its usual organizational abilities to sort through it all and create posts.  Not to mention that much of it is still in process…

I will get back to J2P Monday again, but right now the one arena where I seem to have some coherent thoughts is about muscles.

Last time, I talked about how muscles intertwine, squeeze off energy and can take a long time unwinding.  This time the exploration moves to the up and down process of healing muscles.

You see, no matter how much body work you get or how many muscle-healing exercises you’re doing, life is still going on.  You sit with your head twisted to the side watching television and that’s twisting the muscles in your neck.  You hit your head on a cupboard door and tighten a bunch of muscles in your jaw, neck and shoulders.  Your boss goes on a rampage and you tighten your whole body.  If you have really tight muscles, the tight ones are pulling the healed pieces back into tightness.

For a long time I found that at every massage appointment the first half — at least — was spent getting out the kinks that settled back in between appointments.  Increasingly I tried to make sure to do yoga and/or soak in a hot bath before an appointment so I could work some of the kinks out on my own.

When I created my movement work, it was just for me and I practiced numerous times in between appointments, often achieving more releases.  Sometimes my practitioners said I came back in even better shape than I’d been in at the end of the last appointment.

At this point I generally make appointments at a time when I can spend at least an hour-and-a-half beforehand on doing the release movements and yoga and then soaking at least 20 minutes in a hot bath.  Very little time is wasted in my appointments on retrieving lost ground and the fact that I’m looser and in balance makes it easier to achieve some deep releases.

Even with these efforts, there were times when I fell or slept in an awkward position and lost some ground.  With TMJ, even though the muscles in my face and jaw were unwinding, I clenched in the night and tightened it back up.  Sometimes I had stellar spells when the movement seemed only forward.  But most of the time the process of healing my muscles moved more like four steps forward, two steps back.  Always getting better, but an up and down process…

The healing moved much more quickly when I developed the exercise sets that so deeply trigger releases in the muscles but still it has been kind of four steps forward, one step back.  Always up and down.

When I say I’m almost done, I’m referring to the patterns of muscles currently in my head.  There are still a few other places that haven’t let go.  And I’m always aware, body work and doing my exercises is a life-time commitment because as long as I’m alive my muscles will ever be subject to sitting “funny”, bumping into things, tension, etc.

There is no such thing as DONE with muscles.  If you want muscles that are relaxed, strong and healthy, it’s a lifetime commitment to taking care of them.  Even when you’ve solved any specific issues you may have, you still have to work at keeping them healthy.

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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Trauma release exercises

 

English: Thai massage Polski: Wykonywanie masa...

English: Thai massage Polski: Wykonywanie masażu tajskiego (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

Earlier in the week I experienced my first Thai massage (see post).  Marilyn, the masseuse, loaned me a book about releasing trauma from muscles:  The Revolutionary Trauma Release Process by David Berceli, PhD.  I read a little and then looked at the final section where there are instructions with pictures for doing the exercises to release trauma.  The book itself wasn’t grabbing me but the exercises sure did.

So today for my peaceful Sunday I decided that letting go of some of the deep stuff that keeps hanging on would be my choice for being peace.  As I often do, I have a few complaints about lack of instructions for beginners and lack of some kind of slow build.  I do yoga postures often that cover most of the muscles being worked on and these exercises were tough for me.  I know many of my students would need a much slower process of working up to all the reps and the long holds.  There are also a couple of places where the picture shows, say, one foot lifted in the air, but nowhere do the instructions tell you to lift a foot.

That said, the final piece–in which you hold a reclined cobbler’s pose and keep moving your knees up–where you allow your muscles to quiver and shake to release trauma was amazing.  I’ll have to do this for a while to complete the process but just on day one I can feel a difference, particularly in my pelvis and low back.  It also unleashed a dramatic burst of energy throughout my body.  I love any technique that helps people to take care of their own issues; bodywork can get to be very expensive if you have a long-lasting problem so anything that moves it along faster or allows you to deal with the problem yourself is okay by me.

Once I’ve done that a bit more I’ll write up a set of instructions that include a more step-by-step approach to building the ability to do them and suggested modifications.

 

 

 

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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.

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.

Healing Journey: Going backwards?

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wheel_pose.jpg

Wheel Pose photo by Satheesan on Wikimedia

My ongoing ordeal with my psoas muscle has led to some deep thinking–I wound up being pretty much house bound and unable to do more than some very light yoga and as little walking as possible so I had lots of time for thinking!–and noticing and learning.  As I’ve slowly worked my way back to exercises I’ve had to readjust a lot of my yoga poses.

In an earlier post I mentioned that in the years of bodywork that have accompanied my yoga practice I’ve often had to readjust my balance in a lot of poses to accommodate the change in my body.  There are also a few poses, like the wheel, above, that I loved and lost the ability to do as issues with my wrists worsened over time.

Well, the sudden giant openings in my psoas have not only forced a large portion of that muscle to say hello to the world but also a lot of small muscles in that area that have been hanging out in a stupor while the steely cable of twisted up psoas held all the strength for the area.  The repercussions have been moving through my entire left hip and low left back area and down into my left ankle and foot.  When I practice yoga now I can’t go nearly as far into many poses as I once did with ease.  I have to pay close attention as I perform asanas and make sure that I’m stopping at my new (and regularly changing) normal.

Some big lessons have been blinking at me through all this:

  • Be careful what you wish for–or maybe learn patience better?

I’ve been chafing at the slow progress of all this body stuff and in recent months I’ve not only begged the universe to help this move along faster, I also upped some yoga practices that focus on the psoas big time.  So I asked for it and I got it–a big giant release of a whole lot at once.  My guides have told me in meditation many times that there’s reason to the slowness given the severity of the problems with every muscle in my body and this result is the kind of thing they’ve warned me about.  But did I listen?  No, I begged for more and faster and whoa boy did I get it!

Now obviously there’s an up side in all these lessons, etc. plus the joy of feeling the openness in the psoas where once there was a steely lump but I also get the lesson that I could have had it without the horrible pain and the two weeks of being mostly house bound and lying down…

  • Stay in the moment

I think of myself as being mindful when I practice but when forced to slow down and pay close attention I realized that I’m often not as mindful as I should be.  For instance, I had to return to an easy version of locust pose in which you alternate lifting each leg up and down.  I’ve been aware that I often move faster than my dvd on that one.  During this time of a slower, more careful version of me I realized that I’ve been staying clenched at the end of each one in preparation for the next instead of releasing all the way as I exhale.  That one small shift made a big difference in the feel of the movement and suddenly I was a little slower than Ana (Brett who demonstrates)…

When I forge ahead with speed and impatience I don’t pay as much attention to those little details.  Besides the fact that they enhance the practice of yoga, the practice of slowing down and staying mindful helps maintain that calm, serene centered place.  And, well, it helps me to become more mindful.

  • Remember to be a beginner

Some Buddhist teachings make a point of the importance of maintaining “beginner’s mind”.  In others words don’t let years of experience make you feel so cocky that you think you have nothing left to learn.  I try to stay open to the possibility of learning something new and I periodically learn a new form of yoga or make a point of picking out a new posture to learn from something like Yoga Journal.   But my struggles in recent weeks with doing postures I “mastered” long ago have been humbling.

I can remember enough about my early days in Bill Hunt’s classes that I was very aware that I couldn’t go into some postures as well as I could when I started in July of 1986 and that in many more I fell years behind where I had been.  The good news is that 27 years of yoga has given my muscles pretty good memory so now that the psoas is allowing me to do more each day I’m already moving back to where I was.  Still the change in my muscles is requiring some re-calibration yet again in how I balance.

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Transformation tends to sound always like a great thing and there often seems to be an assumption that any move you’re making toward better health or greater spiritual harmony is going to be an easy thing.  Sometimes it is, but often change means that parts of your body or parts of your life — like people who may not want to readjust to the new you– have to shift to accommodate the new you and sometimes there’s pain and struggle before the easy place arrives.  I don’t think that gets mentioned enough.

I keep having to learn that Divine Time is often not the same as My Time and that patience thing crops up often for me.  I’ve gotten kind of used to having to sway with the winds of change as I’ve been transforming my life for 28 years now but I don’t always enjoy the pain…