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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.

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.

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.