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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.

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.