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.

Group Health Insurance for Yoga Teachers

10 Jan

I have a yoga teacher friend who recently had to choose between paying her rent and fixing a chipped tooth. It’s simply shocking to me how many of us yoga teachers live a hand-to-mouth existence (no pun intended), without the benefit of paid sick leave, vacation days, health insurance or any guarantee that our classes will stay on studio schedules during lean times.

You see, we are considered independent contractors, not employees, and we are not afforded many of the legal rights that come along with full-time employment. Minimum employment standards just don’t apply to us and, to make things worse, many of us work without having negotiated contracts. I know you don’t like to think about legal mumbo jumbo and I know you’re young, vibrant and healthy today, but all it takes is an injury or illness to take us away from our livelihoods in a scary way.

So, I’ve been in discussions with a number of health insurance providers and I’ve finally negotiated a group health insurance plan I’m happy with. It includes extended health care, dental coverage, life insurance, and short- and long-term disability. The monthly cost starts at $103.78 CAD (plus tax) for someone under 35 without any dependants and it runs to over $200 CAD (plus tax) for someone in their 50s who needs family coverage.

Here’s the bottom line: this plan is significantly better than anything I could negotiate as an individual or even as a small business owner, but you may be able to do better if you have a partner or parents with benefits through a large corporation or the government.

You’ll see that we are defined as an association but I don’t propose to formalize this association just for the purposes of gaining insurance coverage and I will not be collecting any kind of fees or dues—this is not a for-profit venture for me in any way and the only people taking a cut are the insurance broker and the insurance company. Robertson Insurance has agreed to manage the plan on our behalf and they will take care of the associated administrative work.

I’m signing up as we speak.

If you are interested, please contact Durant D’Intino directly at DDintino@robertsonhall.com. His phone is 1-800-640-0933. Please send him (1) your name, (2) your email address, (3) your date of birth, and (4) whether you need single of family coverage so he can send you the enrolment forms and provide a quote. Please note that there are medical questions involved and they will not insure you at this price if you are currently on disability leave or have a major illness.

Please feel free to pass along the info. The plan is open to any certified yoga teacher in the province of Ontario who teaches 20 or more hours a week (this can include class prep time and travel to and from classes). As our group grows, I will be in a position to re-negotiate the terms and also to negotiate a good price on liability insurance. If you live outside of Ontario, take the plan details to your local insurance broker and ask them to create something comparable for the yoga teachers in your area.

Please remember that you are important and what you do is important. Take good care of yourselves so you can serve your students they way you are meant to.

Learn to Love Your Lats

21 Oct

Though often overlooked in yoga circles, the latissimus dorsi is celebrated poolside and in gyms everywhere as the muscle that gives the back body its attractive v-taper. The fan-shaped latissimus muscles (the “lats”) are the broadest muscles in the body (assuming their connective tissue is included) and they are hands-down the most powerful muscles of the back. Capable of lifting the body off the ground (as in a chin-up), they are used extensively when swimming, rowing and throwing a baseball. As important as they are, overly developed, tight lats may pose an issue for your yoga practice as they can wreak havoc with your downward dog, handstand and urdhva danurasana.

Tight lats can prohibit shoulder range of motion for those deeper poses. The lats span the distance from the lower back to the armpits. They cover the entire surface of the lower back, a large portion of the middle back and side body. You can easily feel their upper-middle portion at the outer edge of the armpit by sticking your thumb into the opposite armpit and squeezing the outer wall with the fingers. The lats originate on the posterior iliac crest; sacrum; thoraco-lumbar fascia; the spinous processes of sacral vertebrae 1-5, lumbar vertebrae 1-5, thoracic vertebrae 7-12; the lower three ribs; and the inferior angle of scapula. They insert on the inside of the upper humerus (the floor of the bicipital groove to be exact) but not before they do a fancy 180-degree twist.

The lats are sometimes called handcuff muscles because they extend, adduct and internally rotate the shoulder—hence the 180 degree twist, which adds torque to this action. If you were “reaching for the sky,” the lats would draw the arms down and inwards towards the centerline of the body before spinning them towards each other to take the backs of the hands into the small of your back. When the humerus is fixed, as in upward dog, the lats blossom the chest forward through the arms. They also work with one of their synergists (pectoralis major) to move the body from downward dog to plank. Because they raise the lower ribs on the inhale, the lats are considered breathing muscles too.

Tight lats prevent both the necessary external rotation and shoulder flexion necessary for poses such as urdhva hastasana and warrior 1 and, as such, distortions in the spine become evident, along with a less than 180-degree armpit-chest angle. Bear weight on the arms in poses such as downward dog, headstand, pincha mayurasana, and urdhva danurasana and the issue becomes more pronounced with splaying elbows (read: internally rotating shoulders). Poses requiring extreme shoulder flexion and external rotation, such as ekapada rajakapotasana will be all but inaccessible to those with tight lats. Raising the arms with tight lats can result in rotator cuff impingement.

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

The Daily Dozen

11 Oct

The yoga teachers I admire most are also among the busiest people I know. They travel extensively, they write, they manage businesses, they’re socially and politically engaged and, in additional to all that, they somehow manage to maintain a daily practice that fuels their endeavours.

I’ve often wondered what their practices look like on their craziest days, when their schedules are erratic and jam packed from morning to night. What are the poses they do without fail? Inquiring minds want to know…

Enter Sharon Gannon’s Magic 10. This is a nifty 10 minute sequence of yoga asanas narrated by the co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga herself. I like the notion that one’s yoga practice can be distilled down to its essential elements like this—that I can be a devoted yogini without dragging my sleep deprived self out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to get in a 90 minute yoga practice before heading out for a day of go-go-go.

My own list of must-do practices is not much longer—let’s call it the Daily Dozen. It includes the following asanas, self-massage and cleansing techniques:

1. Sinus irrigation with my trusty neti pot, tongue scraping, and dry body brushing. These yogic detoxification techniques get the breath flowing, sweeten the breath and help out with lymphatic drainage, which is good for the immune system and overall health.

2. Kapalabhati. I always do this in the shower right after using the neti pot. This is a breath-based cleansing technique that clears the airways, stimulates mind and body, and tones the belly.

3. Uddiyana Bandha, Agni Saura and Nauli. Isolate the muscles of the core, kick-start the metabolism and overcome sluggish digestion and elimination with these practices. They also make for good parlour tricks!

4. Self-Massage with Yoga Tune-Up® Therapy Balls. I’m talking about deep tissue massage and myofascial release all in the comfort of your own home. This is a game changer, folks.

5. Reclining Twist Sequence: apanasana, twist (a.k.a. leg stretch #3), and a shoulder/chest opener. I’ll do a special podcast dedicated to this little gem. It’s the best way I know to restore mobility to the back, chest and shoulders. And it feels so good first thing in the morning.

6. Downward Facing Dog. Woof!

7. Bending Tree. A classic Jivamukti pose that improves your balance and offers a deep lateral stretch. Breathe deeply while doing this one and learn something profound about cultivating generosity and ease during unstable times.

8. Prasarita Padottanasana C. I like to do this one with a block between my hands at its widest width. Imagine you’re pulling the brick apart with the hands for an extra juicy shoulder opener.

9. Shalabhasana. A safe way to warm and strengthen the back. A shalabhasana a day keeps back pain at bay. You can quote me on that one.

10. Urdhva Danurasana. A big, bold backbend that’s akin to a shot of expresso for my nervous system when I’m feeling sleepy. Opens shoulders and hip flexors like nothing else. Don’t forget to dedicate this heart opener to someone you love.

11. Malasana Twist with Bind. This multi-tasking pose works the hips, ankles, spine and shoulders all at once.

12. Shoulderstand, Plow and Fish or Legs up the Wall. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says you can defeat aging and death if you practice these inversions regularly. I’m determined to experience this for myself.

As always, I’d love to hear from you about the poses you do without fail.