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.

The Yoga of Deep Dreamless Sleep

14 Aug

Sleep is a precious commodity these days. So much so that eight hours of uninterrupted rest seems like a luxury reserved for holidays and the odd weekend. And it’s not just the new moms, students, professionals, and workaholics I’m talking about; everyone I know seems to be running at full tilt—even the yoga teachers and artists.

The truth is we cannot survive without sleep. When we lack quality sleep, we quickly become irritable, fuzzy-headed, and depressed. Our stress hormone levels increase, reaction times and accuracy decrease, and everything just plain hurts. Studies have also linked sleep deprivation to serious diseases such as fibromyalgia, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even psychosis.

Interestingly, not all sleep is created equal. There are two basic sleep states, the dream state (called swapna in yoga circles and REM Sleep by scientists) and the state of deep, dreamless sleep (called sushupti by yogis and Slow Wave Sleep by scientists). Dreamless sleep is of particular interest to us because it is during this state that our bodies heal themselves and our minds come fully to rest. Theosophists refer to deep sleep as a spiritual reservoir where the soul receives profound nourishment by connecting to its source.

As a former insomniac and someone who cherishes her rest, I now treat sleep as both a physical and spiritual practice, and I’m admittedly a little superstitious about my nightly ritual. Before settling in for the night, I use Lotus Wei’s Quiet Mind line to clear the space and set the mood, then I establish my intention to sleep deeply and connect to Source for the benefit of all beings, consciously relax the body, down-regulate the nervous system and settle the mind. Sleep experts would call this establishing good sleep hygiene; I call it snooze-asana.

When sleep is occasionally elusive and I find myself running on empty, I make a concerted effort to make up for the lost rest by taking the advice of a teacher and nourishing myself on other levels. This includes eating and drinking as virtuously as possible, breathing lots, meditating, practicing yoga nidra and cultivating an attitude of hope.

Bliss in a Blender

19 Jun

This time last year, I was hanging out in Thailand with my main squeeze. It’s a magical place, Thailand. The people are gracious, the landscape is lush and the cuisine is vibrant, nourishing and utterly fresh. Think mangos and coconuts still warm from the sun; think aromatic ginger, lemongrass and lime leaves; think potent green chilies that whirl up your inner fire. It was pure paradise for a yogini seeking to recharge and renew.

Recently, I asked raw, vegan chef Matthew Kenney for a post-yoga smoothie recommendation and—to my absolute delight— this is the recipe he sent along:

Thai Green

2 cup Frozen Mango
1 cup Young Thai Coconut Meat
1 Date
handful of Spinach
1 teaspoon Spirullina
2 tablespoon Agave
1 tablespoon Lime Juice
1/2 Thai Green Chili (seedless)
pinch salt
1/2 cup Thai Coconut Water
1/2 cup Raw Almond Milk

Blend well, at least 1 minute, until smooth.

I might add, sip slowly while contemplating your next, big adventure!

Pick up one of Matthew’s amazing raw cookbooks online or at your local bookstore. Your body with love you for it.

Ain’t That a Kick in the Head

8 Jun

Getting kicked in the head is one of the occupational hazards that come along with teaching yoga. Yup, it happens all the time. Just ask anyone who instructs headstand, handstand or forearm stand on a regular basis and they’ll tell you. Although I exercise a reasonable degree of caution when assisting students in topsy turvy poses, I’ve certainly had my share of knocks to the noggin.

Turn the human body upside down when it’s not accustomed to being there and the usual response is fear, panic and flailing legs. Master Patanjali calls this knee-jerk reaction abhinivesha, or fear of death, and he states that this brand of fear is one of the five main obstacles to our practice of living lives that are happy and free (see Yoga Sutra II.3).

Because it can trigger abhinivesha, the yoga asana practice is one way we can bring our deeply seated patterns to light. As my teachers like to say, it shows us where we are tight and where we are uptight. And so we deliberately work on the mat with poses that push our buttons to reveal the hidden contours of our suffering.

The amazing thing about getting kicked in the head during a yoga class is that, while it can stun and smart, it doesn’t trigger an emotional response the way the same action would in another context. Many times, in fact, the incident barely registers at all and I have to remind myself of what happened when my husband asks about the shiner.

I wonder if this is what Master Patanjali means when he says, “the practitioner will cease to encounter hostility from others by practicing kindness and non-harming (Yoga Sutra II.35). Sure, a hoof to the head is still a hoof to the head but the key is that it’s not perceived as hostile. It’s nothing more than an accident and it’s the very same thing I did to my teachers who repaid me by holding me extra tight and turning the other cheek.

By the way, you can purchase the vegan shoes shown above at MooShoes.com

Samskaras and the Road Less Travelled

21 Oct

This time last year I was on an extended road trip that took me through four time zones, eight cities, three national parks and countless truck stops. Truck stops are fascinating places, worlds unto themselves, really. They’re populated by road warriors who congregate there to refuel, eat, wash-up, and relax between long stints behind the wheel. The interesting thing is if you look carefully, you will see at most truck stops a video game room, and in that room you will see racing games, and at those games you will see glassy-eyed drivers seeking to alleviate the pressures of the road by getting behind a toy wheel and swearing a blue streak as they burn virtual rubber.

Strange as that may seem, I know I’ve repeatedly done the same sort of thing in my own life. Years ago when I was a junior lawyer, for example, I would relax after a tough day in court with takeout in front of the TV, and my shows of choice were, you guessed it, Ally McBeal and Law & Order. More recently, I’ve had days where I’ve practiced yoga before heading out to teach yoga and then, at the end of the day, responded to the question, “what do you want to do tonight?” with the word “yoga!” And what about this one: have you ever caught yourself taking a break from that document on your computer screen by clicking over to Facebook or pulling out your iPhone? Yeah, me too.

So what’s up with this compulsive, repetitive behavior? According to yogic philosophy we create subtle impressions, called samskaras, with each thought, word and action. These samskaras are not unlike the grooves our feet make on the earth when we walk the same path over and over again. Habitual behaviors continually reinforce our samskaras until the ruts becomes so deep and well-worn that we forget what it’s like not to be in them. The result is we become totally conditioned to continue along the same trajectory we’ve always traveled, even when the path is self-destructive or a waste of our time.

Each time we step onto the mat, we bring with us all of our samskaras, good and bad, liberating and binding. Some of us bring our perfectionist tendencies along for the ride and scrutinize each breath and movement under the microscope of self-criticism. Others push themselves to the extreme, striving to go faster, harder, better as they seek to conquer the next spectacular inversion, hand balance or backbend. Others yet hang back in their avoidance of all discomfort and physical exertion, convinced their cool disengagement is safer than actually putting themselves out there and risking failure.

Now, because our samskaras are etched into our bodies and minds, we can approach our time on the mat as an opportunity to see and work with the deeply ingrained habits and patterns of our lives— patterns that are often hidden in plain sight. This is good news for those of us who are willing to trade comfort and complacency for happiness and freedom.

In my experience, good yoga teachers do more than call poses, count breaths and give alignment cues: good yoga teachers also teach us in ways that alert us to our samskaras. They are willing to ask us to go against the grain. They might ask one student to ease up while asking another to get the lead out. Consequently, the best yoga teachers tend not to coddle their students and they may not win any popularity contests either. As my teachers like to say, the yoga practice shows us where we are tight and also where we are being uptight. This means the resistance that shows itself within the microcosm of our mats is not something to be suppressed or negated. I dare say it’s the very point of our practice.

Don’t forget that “the path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs.” (John Dewey)

Photo by Alex Lin