Practicing Safer Salutations, Part II, Gazing Up

28 Jun

There are at least two instances when we raise the gaze during a typical sun salute: (1) we look up at the hands as we lift them overhead, and (2) we look up again during the back-bending part of the sequence, whether we take cobra or upward facing dog. While there’s something lovely about raising our sights, and looking up optimistically, we can be tempted, in a moment of inattention, to also toss the head back with reckless abandon.

Now, you don’t need me to tell you that tossing the head around with reckless abandon is a bad idea. If you haven’t been following the debate sparked by the “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” article published in January of this year, all you need to do is Google “neck + hyperextension” to understand the contours of the issue. The delicate structures of the neck demand respect. Enough said.

So how to respect the neck while saluting the sun? Here are some tips for keeping the head and neck integrated and aligned with the rest of the spine:

Avoid the kinky stuff. Imagine the neck originates down low around the heart region; as you look up, create a graceful arc from heart to crown of head so the neck doesn’t kink.

Make space. Imagine you have an eye at the base of your skull; when you look up, keep that eye open by lifting the base of the skull away from the top of the neck.

Look down your nose at neck pain. If all else fails, try shifting your gaze down the nose towards the ground as you lift into cobra and upward facing dog. Once you establish a new normal in the body, you can lift the eyes again.

Additionally, try the YTU Quick Fix for Neck videos to reestablish balance and stability to this important set of structures.

This article originally appeared on the Yoga Tune-Up Blog.

Practicing Safer Salutations, Part I: Reaching Arms Overhead

24 Jun

Every morning, millions of North Americans step onto their yoga mats to salute the sun. The sun salutation, in all of its many forms, is a gorgeous moving ritual that effectively warms the body, lubricates and strengthens the joints, lengthens muscles, and fills the body with breath. Yet, despite its many benefits, most if not all sun salutation sequences are fraught with potential pitfalls for both new and experienced yogis alike.

The issues stem from the simple fact that sun salutations are done relatively fast and frequently. The impeccable alignment of breath and movement during each sun salutation (known as vinyasa in yoga circles) means we rarely linger in its individual poses. We inhale, sweep arms overhead; exhale, swan dive over to fold; inhale, come to flat back; and so on—and that doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for detailed alignment instructions or careful proprioception. Add to this the fact that the same sequence is repeated over and over again and you have the perfect conditions for practicing on autopilot. In fact, experienced practitioners may be even more prone to chronic injury from habitual movements and deeply entrenched body blind spots.

Although the first movement of most sun salutation sequences—the reach of arms overhead to a pose called urdhva hastasana—may seem simple enough, it can spell trouble for your shoulders if done without awareness. Called yogi’s shoulder, painful arc syndrome, impingement syndrome, or just a rotator cuff injury, the symptoms can include shoulder aches, pain when raising the arm out to the side or in front of the body, discomfort when lying on the affected shoulder and a sharp pain when reaching into your back pocket.

The four rotator cuff muscles work to support the shoulder joint by stabilizing the head of the upper arm bone in the shoulder socket as the arm moves through space. The position of one of these muscles, the supraspinatus, and its tendon is particularly important because it is sandwiched between two bones (the edge of the scapula and the head of the upper arm bone) and is quite easily pinched when the arm is lifted a certain way. Do this enough and the tendon becomes irritated, inflamed and possibly even frayed or torn.

The good news is this can all be avoided by simply: (a) pulling down the upper arm bones down to sit more squarely in their sockets; and (b) rotating them externally before sweeping the arms overhead. The palms will turn gracefully skyward as you lead the way upwards with your pinky fingers.

Note that external rotation of the upper arm bones looks different when the arms are down by your sides and when your arms are reaching overhead. To train external rotation with arms down, try Pin the Arms on the Yogi. To train external rotation with the arms overhead, try Holy Cow at Trough. By strengthening your rotator cuff muscles, these Yoga Tune Up® exercises will protect your shoulders and bring longevity to your practice.

This article originally appeared on the Yoga Tune-Up Blog.

Spirituality and Psychosis

20 Jun

Karmageddon, the spiritual documentary by Jeff Brown about his relationship with the ever controversial Bhagavan Das, is now available for download. It’s a timely film that deals head-on with the issues of spiritual power and accountability, seekers’ responsibility and whether the disillusioned should “throw out the holy man with the bath water.”

The movie was filmed in part at the now defunct Jivamukti Yoga studio in Toronto, and many friends, past and present, walk through its frames. Seeing the studio I helped to build in this light raised some interesting questions for me about what we as yoga teachers and studio owners choose to put before our students.

A question I posed to Bhagavan Das over dinner one night made it into the film: “what is the relationship between spirituality and psychosis?” Bhagavan Das replied without a moment’s hesitation, “it’s a fine line between madness and illumination.”  My teacher Sharon Gannon often jokes that yogis are not “normal people.” Do you agree that attaining higher states of consciousness implies a rejection of social norms? If so, to what degree?

Breathing Easy

20 Apr

The owners of a yoga studio I work at recently circulated a memo to their teachers about the disruptive breathing issue. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s the wheezing, sighing, moaning, groaning, gasping, panting and sputtering that comes up from time-to-time in every yoga studio environment. It’s the commotion that makes other students roll their eyes and wonder why they didn’t stay at home with a good yoga DVD. Now, I like to hear a steady flow of breath in the room when I practice (it’s one of the things that makes group practice so sweet) but I agree it shouldn’t sound like the Dark Lord has taken up residence on the mat next door. Here are my two cents on the issue for both students and teachers.

I feel the breath is very much the sacred heart of our practice. Attention to the breath and the subtleties of the energetic body is what transforms what we do from calisthenics into something so much more.

Yogic breath typically flows in and out through the nose. Why? Because when you breathe through the nose, the air is warmed, moistened and filtered. That’s a good thing. Also, mouth breathing tends to be a less conscious way of sucking oxygen. When we are overly exerted, we automatically hunch over, open our mouths, and come into something called clavicular breathing (also known as panic breath). You regularly encounter this kind of breathing on the basketball court and at the ends of races. When we breathe consciously, on the other hand, we shift the control of the breath from the brain stem and the autonomic nervous system up to the frontal lobes, which are responsible for higher level reasoning.

Ujjayi breath is a special technique used during certain yoga asana practices. The basic technique involves bringing a slight engagement to the glottis so the air current is regulated as it flows through the throat. It’s an effective way to work with the breath’s duration and texture, and it makes the breath both a fluid guide for movement and an object of meditation. As beginners, we turn the volume up on the breath so we don’t forget it’s there, but as advanced practitioners, we breathe a more subtle and refined kind of ujjayi.

Some students groan and vocalize as they breathe due to simple inattention. In these cases, teachers can remind the whole room to “keep the voice out of the breath.” It’s a quick and easy instruction that everyone can benefit from.

Other students seem to go out of their way to make the breath noisy due to a misunderstanding of what a yogic breath should sound like. A little talk on making the ujjayi sound more subtle and sophisticated may do the trick. And if students don’t respond to the idea that a refined ujjayi is actually more advanced than a thunderous one, teachers can underscore the fact that excessive contraction of the glottis in a forced ujjayi breath can cause harm to the structures of the throat and strain the voice in the long-term.

Last but not least, the sound of the breath in the room is an important guide for us teachers. If the whole room is doing lamaze breathing, it might be a sign that we’re pushing the group too hard and fast under the circumstances. The temperature in the room, the day of the week, the time of the day, the barometric pressure, the level of studentship and a myriad of other factors determine what is appropriate for a given class. As teachers who aspire to be sensitive and responsive we need to remain open what comes up in the room. Sometimes the correct action is to depart from the game plan and slow things down rather than asking students to keep it quiet.

Springing Forward

27 Mar

The frogs have recently returned to the big pond out back and they’ve got me thinking about the intricacies of hopping forward from downward facing dog to a flat-backed stance at the top of the mat. It’s an action we undertake over and over again during our sun salutations when practicing vinyasa styles of yoga, like Ashtanga, Jivamukti, and Power Flow, but many of us are half-hearted hoppers at best.

I’m charmed by the fact that frogs seem to leap without any of the doubt or hesitation that often plagues us on and off the mat. They don’t play small, no siree Bob; they use what their mamas gave them to propel themselves from one place to another, confident that they’ll figure out how to catch themselves when necessary.

Here are some practice tips compliments of our froggy friends:

  1. transform your downward facing dog into a downward facing frog by lifting high onto the tippy toes, bending the knees, bringing them down close to the ground, and sitting the hips way back towards the heels. The arms are straight and the gaze is lifted.
  2. Now imagine a large, cheerful frog sitting on the mat below your belly button. Your job is to hop your feet over him or her on the way up to the top of your mat. Think ahimsa, non-harming and make your jump a labour of love. This is a surefire way to overcome fear, uncertainty and doubt. Then, make your green friend proud by hopping your feet up, up and over.
  3. As you approach the top of the mat, be prepared to catch yourself with your hands. Push the ground away as you land to make your arrival extra buoyant and soften your knees a little upon touch-down to keep things springy.

Chances are you’ll surprise yourself with your own strength and come further forward than you’re used to coming, so please move any obstacles out of the way and don’t jump directly into a wall. It won’t be long before you learn how to control and refine those mad hopping skills.

Spring Cleaning Inside and Out

16 Mar

 

Back in the day when I used to own a television, I loved watching those reality shows about cleaning house. The formula was simple: take one shopaholic packrat, add a professional organizer with a mission to de-clutter, blend in a little backstory, and the result is some pretty engaging television. Engaging, I suppose, because we can all use a little help getting our lives in order.

In my own life, I’ve noticed that it’s easier to keep things tidy on the outside when I’m feeling clean and clear on the inside. On the other hand, when life gets busy and my practice starts to slip and I feel I have no choice but to turn to fast, convenient calories in disposable containers, things tend to get messy on all fronts.

So, to prepare for the first day of Spring, I asked the amazing Malcolm Saunders of the Light Cellar in Calgary, Alberta for a yummy, detoxifying drink recipe for yogis on-the-go and here’s what he came back with:

Super Green Juice

Green Vegetable juice is the best way to re-hydrate, re-alkalinize, re-mineralize, cleanse, and energize. Consume in place of one or all of your meals. This drink allows for easy assimilation and integration of living enzymes and healing phyto-nutrients and helps cleanse the body of old waste materials.

1 cucumber
5-10 celery sticks
1-2 apples or pears
½ bunch green lettuce
3-4 stalks kale

Lemon and ginger juices, as well as powdered herbs can also be included for their cleansing and tonic properties.

Place chopped cucumber in your blender first. Blend lightly to create a watery base.  Add apple or pear and lightly blend again. Add remaining ingredients, blend well, strain through ‘nut-mylk bag’ and enjoy!

As one of my teachers likes to say, once you’ve purified the environment inside, it just doesn’t feel right to trash the outer environment, to disrespect Mother Nature. Perhaps Stephen Harper and the other champions of the Alberta tar sands could benefit from a yoga and raw food regime? I’d make a point of watching that show.

Stay tuned as Malcolm has promised to send us some of his unbelievable superfood trail mix. It’s the best I’ve ever had and I can’t wait to share with you.

The Reluctant Migration

7 Mar

I’ve been noticing more and more migratory birds hanging around the frozen shores of our lake these past winters. It’s early March now and a number Canada Geese and Mallard Ducks, both species well-known for their v-formation flights down south, just didn’t get off the ground this year.

I can’t say I blame them. It’s been an unusually mild winter up here and I understand the journey is not an easy one. I suspect strong winds, hydro wires and predators are guaranteed while reliable nourishment is not. At the same time, I feel funny about the shift in ancient patterns. I wonder how much of this new behaviour is attributable to us, either directly (due to well-meaning humans putting out bird seed) or indirectly (due to our role in the climate crisis) and I wonder about the long-term implications for our feathered friends.

I suppose migration’s been on my mind today because, after months of dragging my heels, I’ve finally made the move to a new platform for my blog and podcast. I cringe a little as I write this because my old software had to die an ignominious death and my web hosting service had to go the way of the Dodo before I took the necessary steps forward. Change is rarely easy, it seems.