Healing Journey Monday: Helping the Body Work Progress

Years ago when I was living in the Bay Area, I’d been practicing yoga for six or seven years but it still didn’t occur to me to do some yoga before I went to a massage appointment. Early in my years out there someone I knew introduced me to Kabuki Springs, the Japanese baths, and I became a regular for the rest of my time in the area.

One week I happened to have a massage appointment for a time slot shortly after my regular time to go soak and steam, etc. at Kabuki.  So I arrived at the appointment having spent an hour in the sauna, steam room, and hot tub and the massage therapist exclaimed over how much easier it was to get into my muscles. When I told her I went regularly to the Kabuki we arranged my massage schedule from then on to follow my sessions in Japantown. You’d think I’d have figured out more but somehow it didn’t sink in.

After I moved to Kentucky I couldn’t afford as much bodywork as I’d previously been getting so I made quite an effort to be practicing yoga and doing the Robert Masters work in between appointments to try to keep the releases they achieved. But it wasn’t until some years after that that I was down to an every other week appointment for Bodypatterning and, determined to get every advantage from those appointments, I not only created the work I’m doing now that combines yoga with the Robert Masters movements but I started making sure that I did stretches, movements and energy work right before every appointment (with a soak in a hot bath in between). For the first time ever not only did the releases from one appointment often hold until the next but sometimes I arrived having released even more than where we were when I left.

In more of those chats with body workers I’ve been gathering that I’m unusual for the amount of effort I put in, especially as to making sure that I’m as stretched out and balanced as I can be before I start an appointment. Without doing the work, usually in those appointments the first half to three-quarters of the session is spent on just getting out the kinks that have appeared or reappeared in between appointments. So only a small amount of time can be spent on moving further in the process.  When I get to an appointment they can usually move very quickly to the point of taking up where they left off instead of taking so much time just do undo what has gone off.  If you participate in the work to keep your body open and balanced, you can speed the healing journey tremendously.

For me, the combination has been the thing that finally broke through the muscle patterns that no one had been able to release. Now, Kreig’s Bodypatterning is brilliant so I have to give a big nod to his work. But I also know (and we’ve discussed this) that without the effort I have made we probably wouldn’t be nearly as far along. I wonder if the ultimate releases at the core level that I’m experiencing now would ever have been reached without all that added effort on my part.

I mention all this because I knew a lot about how the body works and yet I didn’t put it together that I could seriously help the process. I’ve been regular at practicing yoga for the entire 26+ years I’ve been doing it but I never made a point of doing a practice right before an appointment. So I thought I’d make a big point of mentioning this—in addition to the last post about participating. If you’re getting therapeutic bodywork, practice something like yoga or Feldenkreis and make sure you take some time before an appointment to stretch and re-balance and, if possible, get a soak in a hot bath before you go. The more you’ve worked out the kinks before you arrive, the more the practitioner can get done in your appointment. If you seriously want to release painful holding patterns, help the body work along by keeping your body in tune.

Added note: I did some of the Masters work as an adjunct to massage, etc. but also didn’t use that work right before appointments. The triggers work from Masters and Feldenkrais is powerful stuff and it has been particularly useful at getting deeper into holding patterns and creating new, healthier patterns. If there’s someone in your area who teaches Feldenkrais, Somatics or Masters’ Psychophysical Method, I highly recommend that you look into it. I’ll have a text-only manual up on Kindle soon if you want some instructions for practicing on your own.

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.

When is pain gain?

Pain that’s not gain…

Lately some of the final tight places in my head, neck and shoulders have been opening. There’s so much shifting in my neck and head that I’ve been hovering at the edge of nausea, dizziness and shakiness every time I do exercises that affect that area. Yesterday I had a Bodypatterning treatment in which Kreig was able to get into some places in my shoulders and neck that no one has been able to reach before and some of the releases he achieved also affected my abdomen. Later I had a terrible stomach ache and indigestion – and I normally have no problems ever with my stomach.

All this got me thinking about progress and pain and how often one follows from the other. In the physical realm, some side effects can be purely physical and some signal emotional issues. The emotional issues show up also in a lot of spiritual practice. To me the moments of angst or pain or dizziness that result from really shifting something are great. I know I’ve gotten somewhere and that when the pain or nausea or whatever passes I will feel much better than I did before.

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of people back away as soon as there was pain or crying or any unpleasant feeling. Often they’ll express that the practice or the treatment is obviously not for them or they wouldn’t feel this way. I think the practice or treatment is exactly for you if it creates that discomfort because that means it’s reaching into you and releasing whatever holds you. The assumption that you should never feel pain or discomfort from any bodywork or spiritual pursuit will keep you from progress.

The tricky part is knowing the difference between the pain that’s telling you you’ve opened a muscle or released an issue and the pain or other discomfort that means you’ve overdone an exercise or been given a bad treatment by a practitioner. Most of the time if you’re doing some sort of spiritual practice or exercise and you feel emotional or hurt you can guess you’ve just touched on some buried issue. With the more physical side there are differences but they’re going to be your own and you have to get to know yourself well enough to know what pain is okay and what pain means something is wrong.

In yoga, deep stretching postures often reach places where you’re holding onto emotional memories or issues. Most of us have an impulse to back off and come out of the posture when it gets close to tapping in. If you keep holding though, you have a chance to release something. I occasionally hold a posture and start to feel teary or feel really anxious and I just try to stay with it and let go.  Note:  When it comes to yoga I have given more advice in another post.

If you have a lot of issues with tight muscles in your neck and up into the back of your head, anything you do that starts opening that up is likely to produce some dizziness or possibly a little nausea. It isn’t a bad thing, it just means you’ve changed your equilibrium a little by shifting that holding pattern. If the symptoms are severe there may be something wrong.

Those are just a couple of examples but I’ve encountered so many different ways that progress has a phase of pain or discomfort that I have to say anything you do to heal your body or emotions or spirit is likely to have pain on the way to gain. Just get to know yourself well enough to distinguish the good pain from the bad. I’ve even reached the point where I’m happy to get the pain or other symptoms. I’m ecstatic at the dizziness and nausea because they are part of opening the seemingly impenetrable muscles issues in my head and neck and I know all the years of work are about to pay off. Pain is part of the journey so I say, embrace it.  

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.

Healing Journey Monday: Starting an Easy Yoga Practice

Continuing the idea of bringing yourself back to fluidity* I thought I’d try to present a beginner’s plan. In the past I’ve advised people who ask me about yoga tapes or DVD’s to find a good teacher. But now I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about bad yoga teachers and I’ve found a few recordings that I’m willing to recommend– with caveats and some extra instructions. This is my first attempt to create yoga instruction for students who aren’t in front of me.

This is going to be a two-part post and today is just an introduction. My big problem with the recorded yoga classes I’ve seen is that even when they’re supposedly for beginners there’s virtually no introductory material, there’s rarely any effort to suggest different levels at which poses can be done nor any cautions given about contraindications and no suggestions about how to build up to the practice that’s on the tape. In post two I’ll recommend a few recordings and provide some added instructions. The following material applies to all efforts to practice yoga (or really any movement practice).

My first rule for yoga is: Yoga is not a competitive sport. Do it to your own level. The key element of a safe and injury-free yoga practice is that you listen to your body and never force it beyond its limits. If you’re pretty unconscious of your body this is one of the hardest parts of practice: you have to be listening to your body. It’s a huge lesson that will serve you well in life so it’s worth putting the effort in to learning to be mindful of your body. Do postures with long, slow breaths so you move slowly and as you move into any posture if it starts to pull uncomfortably or to feel painful, back off and stop at a place where it feels okay. Even if the person next to you—or in my classes, the old broad at the front of the room—can put her forehead on her knee, that doesn’t mean you need to get closer than two or three feet from your knee if that’s as far as you can comfortably go. Stay tuned in and learn what your body can and can’t do.

My corollary for working with recordings is make the practice yours. Just because they recorded it and the instructions are always the same doesn’t mean you have to do it exactly as they do. There may be a posture you just don’t feel your body can do so repeat the one before or do another one that you like. If you know enough, make the substitute one that works on the same area of the body. Don’t worry about it if you don’t. If you’ve taken yoga with a different tradition do the posture the way you know it – I work with recordings quite a bit and there are some where I do half the postures differently than the way they do. I also have some where I substitute an entire sequence I prefer. I realize 26 years of experience gives me more confidence about switching it up than you probably have as a beginner but if you don’t have a teacher to ask about how to change things it’s up to you to figure it out.

In making it yours as a beginner you may also need to start off doing only the first 10 minutes or to only do some of the reps on each exercise (kundalini yoga, for instance, has a lot of things where they do 80 reps—you might want to start with 15 or 20). On average don’t try to do the entire recording on the first time out. It’s a good idea to watch a recording before you try anything so that you can see the full posture or movement before you get into a position where you can’t watch. If you watch first you can get an idea of whether there are long holds or lots of repetitions and make a decision as to how much you want to do (use the display feature and you can time segments and make a plan for how much time into a segment you’ll do—i.e. if one exercise lasts two minutes you might start off doing 30 seconds or if one posture is held for a minute you might start off holding for 20 seconds). Even recordings for beginners are often too much for someone who’s completely new to yoga or who hasn’t exercised in a long time so be careful to stay within your limits.

Next Monday I’ll give you a few recordings you might try and some specific instructions to go with one whole set on a DVD.

*See two previous posts:  Sway with me and Practices that flow work on many levels

Healing Journey Monday: Practices for flow create many levels of healing

Last week I wrote about some movement practices that are good for balance and fluidity of movement: yoga, The Five Tibetan Rites, Flying Crane Chi Gung, tai chi. What I love about those practices is that they do so much more, physically, mentally and spiritually.

According to yoga philosophy a system of channels called nadis runs throughout our bodies. It corresponds roughly with the nervous system and it is these channels that carry prana (or chi, vital force energy) through the body. When muscles are tight or knotted up the nadis are blocked and prana can’t flow. That vital force energy is key to good health as it flows through. When you do practices that stretch the muscles or open the joints you help to open the nadis. When you do practices that build chi you help to keep that vital force strong and flowing through the channels.

When chi is balanced and flowing well it also has a big affect on your mental and emotional state. It’s hard for me to describe but when I’ve practiced yoga or chi gung or pranayama or the Tibetan Rites I’m calm and clear. If I start the practice with any sadness or anxiety or anger it is dissipated when I finish. I’m careful not to use practices to enable denial but you can use them to help maintain balance of mind and emotion.

Connection with the divine requires the free flow of prana through the nadis and the more prana you have the better. These practices do the balancing and building that you need. It’s one of the things I love about the ancient practices and especially the movement practices is the brilliant way in which they heal on every level. Whatever practice(s) you choose to help you with keeping good physical balance and fluidity, you will help yourself so much beyond those benefits.