Sunday, February 22, 2015

A different kind of flow

If every yoga class you walked into started with the same breathing chants, same movements, same flow, same timing, same pattern from start to finish, would you be bored, or would you embrace the routine? Would the routine become dogmatic movements or could you, would you, keep refining and exploring your breath, your postures, your movements so that they were seamless and graceful, fluid and strong? Would you be able to vary your effort and modify the poses based on how you felt that day, or would you keep trying to "perform" the same every single day?

Sometimes, you just have to change things up completely to break the ritual to prevent it from becoming habitual. No where that I have studied has it said that you MUST do Surya Namaskar A exactly as in a textbook. No teacher that has imparted their wisdom has faulted me for exploring different ways to express my movements. In order to make yoga mine (or, yours), it must fit what you need, integrate your essences and help you grow your understanding of yourself.

So, why not move a little differently? 

Create your own flow that focuses on subtle graceful movements, and focused muscular engagement rather than pure momentum and power to get you thru a sequence. Refine from the ground out, from the inside out, rather than just taking the form of the pose and then trying to force the body to a static hold.

Try circling the arms and lifting one knee up, balacing on one foot not just at the ankle, but inside the foot, up the calf, around the front and back of the thigh, deeply into the hip, reaching the spine up up up the arms up up up, shoulder strongly rooted on the back and the drshti soft in front of you. Hold the lifted leg with integrity, rather than like a dead weight. Breathe fully into the thoracic cavity, then as your sweep the arms with control back down, bring the lifted leg down. 

With minimal transition of weight to the other side, repeat with the other leg. Continue a few cycles, left up, right up, engaging the low belly, strong upright posture and healthy spinal curves, with minimal extra movements - don't let the energy "leak out" through inactive limbs (limp ankles or wrists) or be drained away by extra movement made with momentum (aka "flinging body parts"). Like strong cables wrapped around a healthy framework move seamlessly through the sequence, not really pausing but transitioning very slowly, guided by the breath. Placing the foot down is a silent and easy process - noiseless and gentle.

Add on to this movement, take the leg back, side, twisting the body, straightening the leg, even bowing forward. All this work in the core, all this control with the raised arms, all this lengthening of of the body and intentional placement of limbs creating a harmonious, integrated yet unconventional flow that just may take you deeper into a practice of mindfulness.

You can intensify by adding stepping forward (or back, or sideways) to lunges or straddles but doing so place the limbs quietly, shifting your center of gravity and really call the muscles into action. I like to conjure images of a dancer in my mind, each movement strong without being forceful, controlled without being rigid, energy stored and released in just the right way to make the entire being vibrate with light. 

Or you can intensify by taking deeper and long inhales and exhales, and slowing down your movements even more, practicing balancing along each increment of body positions, feeling the heart rate calm and noticing subtle shifts in energy as the heart beats and the internal seems to move more quickly than the external!

Just a few suggestions  - let me know what works for you!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Diagnosis and Treatment of Injuries, Pains and Aches

I am not a doctor. Nor physical therapist. Nor any kind of licensed health worker. I am a certified yoga instructor. I am a science-curious, anatomy-fascinated, yoga practitioner who studied so that she could share information about yoga with other people in a safe, productive, interesting and functional way. I am learning about how the body works (or doesn't work) through my own practice, and self-study, and hope to inspire other people to do the same.

That being said, I MAY have had an experience or studied about an experience that MAY be able to help you improve your practice AND prevent injury during it. I MAY, however, not be able to.

Some yoga instructors in fact ARE PTs or MDs or PhDs in the health profession and may be able to not only diagnose a problem but also offer a route to wellness.

So, if you have a condition/problem/ache/pain that has been bugging you for more than, oh, say, two weeks and hurts MORE when you practice yoga (or when you are still), PLEASE go see a qualified medical professional to diagnose the problem and hopefully send you down the path of healing that may include a yoga practice.

Some modalities of self care and healing may be more obvious.

1 - If it hurts when you engage the muscle, it's possible you have injured the muscle, the tendon, or fascia. Stretching may NOT be the smartest option. You just may need to REST it. Take an Epsom salt bath, drink a lot of water, do the anti inflammatory meds thing if you are so inclined. Exercise in a way that doesn't exacerbate the discomfort. Seems obvious, but I can identify two stories just this week where someone had pain when using a muscle, told me it had gone on for years, yet they continue to overwork the area of discomfort instead of letting it heal/rest.

2 - If you have a lump, a bump, a bruise that won't go away, or a sharp pain when you move, PLEASE see a doctor. Growths that cause pain, things that don't heal, and sharp pains MAY be indicative of something that may not be fixable with a lunge pose or just a deep breath. They may be nothing, but seriously, if your child or best friend winced in pain when you touched something on their body, wouldn't you recommend they go to see a specialist versus try to just "asana it out?" It may be a tumor, it may not be. But you won't know unless you check it out.

3 - If you take a pose and you feel like it's your bones that just won't let you move more deeply in a pose, it may very well be that you have an anatomical structure that disallows that variation of a pose. Few folks have hip joints that allow opening the legs to 180 degrees, and as few have shoulders that rotate fully with arms parallel. Sacral joints are ones of stability, not flexibility (quote from Judith Lassiter). Destabilizing a joint without proper support (and instruction in a practice like Yin yoga) can, yes, lead to injury, so, be okay with where your body is (and is not).

4 - If you get really dizzy when standing up quickly or moving from standing to bending forward or vice versa, you may have a blood pressure issue (If you get nauseated this could mean something more dire - see a doctor asap). Make sure when you stand up from a forward fold or squat that you move on the inhales, to help counteract drops in blood pressure. If you typically have low blood pressure, don't expect your body to "fix" this - enjoy your sought-after systolic/diastolic status and stand up SLOWLY to minimize the chance you'll end up back on the ground without warning.

5 - Drink a lot of water, even during your practice. Yes, some practices of yoga dictate when you can drink water and when to take breaks, so if you like that dogmatic style then fine. But even if you are participating in those practices, if you feel faint, dizzy, weak, or sick, then DRINK, for heaven's sake.

6 - Let any injury heal, and know that it may change your practice drastically once you do, or it may not change it at all. But you have to be open to observing how that injury affects even the small movements, and be willing to start slow and be patient. The bigger the injury, the more acceptance you may have to do. Hamstring tears take months (or longer) just to heal, and overstretching or overworking them too soon will just re-injure.

7 - Contrary to popular tee shirts, pain is NOT weakness leaving the body. Pain is the sign something is amiss. It may be small or large, but you need to go within to figure out if it's physical discomfort, emotional discomfort, small ache, or real pain. Be honest with yourself, try not to react but rather observe, whatever the scenario, Be open to solutions that your intuition offers and try not to second guess yourself. Ask for a professional opinion, Don't judge yourself for taking care of yourself. And don't suffer. PLEASE.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

On Practice and Achieving

"Yoga has always been hard for me - I get SO frustrated in some classes."
"I hate that I can't touch my toes."
"So, how long do I have to practice before I'll be able to (do some posture)?"
"What level is this class because I have been taking beginner classes for a while and I want to make sure that I'm improving so I want to get to more advanced classes."

Any of those sound like you? Or someone close to you? Or overheard in class? Yeah, probably. The thing is, we may just be "condemned" to wanting to constantly improve, hone, and perfect things we do. You may call that ego, but in some cases (like, running from predators or enhancing job skills for better wages) it may just be a function of biology, or financial survival (sociological impacts).

Regardless, trying to turn that off can be difficult, even seemingly impossible. We are raised on superlatives (big-bigger-biggest, bendy-bendier-bendiest) and comparisons (grade point averages, SAT scores, sports team stats, MPG) so it seems almost unnatural to decouple "working hard" from "working harder than I did before or someone else so I can be better and then be the best." How can you put in effort but not make it a fight? How can you be focused but not obsessed, and balance intensity with compassion?

In Yoga this is called the balance between Sukha/Sthira - effort and ease. No easy task, and it has many parallels in asana and in meditation, In poses we ground down (into the earth through whatever is making contact) while reaching up and creating space in the body. We engage agonist muscles but relax antagonist muscles. In medtiation we focus and clear the mind at the same time. We work hard but still allow the body to tell us when we need to pull back. We breathe deeply, but softly; we have thought but try not to judge or label them as they pass through our conscious mind.

We are taught to (try to) use the breath to help us do these things. Inhales call our nervous systems to action, exhales calm them down. Each breath cycle is a chance to find balance. Inhale too much and exhale too little, you are taking in too much (energy) and not releasing/relaxing enough. Inhale too shallow and exhale too much and you may be giving away to much energy, lose your stamina (and also get a little lightheaded).

A yogi friend said today "Yoga always frustrated me. But you help remind me of how to focus on what's important and I really start to enjoy my practice." The thing is, yoga frustrates me too when I practice, and a reminder from the teacher that this is not DOGMATIC practice, with information on how to change the position of my body, to help teach me how to not get frustrated and enjoy trying to find the balance of effort and ease...THAT is what makes me continue to do yoga (and revisit that teacher).

Every student is told "remember it's not about perfecting a pose." But, honestly, teachers and students alike.... do we really buy into that or do we just say it? Because (as a teachers), if it's just lip service, people know. What information do we give them to help them truly live that mantra? Do we instruct on use of props, detailed body alignment, personalized hands-on adjustments, and/or hold back from offering the hardest version, to help students unlearn the "overachieving" instinct? Do we all practice what we preach?

Do we - all of us yoga practitioners - all allow ourselves to experience a practice rather than trying to "get better" at a posture? Do we remember to breathe and integrate the breathe with your movements? Do we remember the subtleties of those fundamental poses, breathing techniques, and meditative styles that are the foundation of an honest yoga practice?

Some yogis and yoga styles are so focused on physical improvements in asana that not pushing to the limits can seem like underachieving. But consider that just showing up to the mat is an achievement of large magnitude in and of itself. Consider that staying in the room for a whole class that you didn't like to be a profound achievement in patience, respect and integrity (plus you don't have to go back). Consider not pushing yourself to fainting in a hot yoga class, and taking water and cool air breaks to be achievements in being in touch with your body. Consider just trying (and quite possibly failing) to do a difficult pose (and laughing about) it an achievement. Consider resisting the temptation to overpractice when injured an achievement. You can't achieve if you've pushed yourself to the point of dysfunction, because pushing is different from encouraging. The former creates stress. The latter comes from a place of compassion.

We all react to stress differently. Some grit their teeth and dig in. Some cry. Some get angry. Some give up. The sympathetic nervous system and one of its well known agents adrenalin create different responses in every one of us, but "less functional" responses don't make a person weak. If anything those responses are an opportunity to learn about how to engage yourself more productively, so to speak. If your practice overstimulates your sympathetic nervous system, then consider that you need to scale back to truly "get better." If your practice doesn't engage you (enough), then consider that you may need to change how and/or what you practice (or even what) to get better.

Be careful to not judge yourself or anyone else by the depth of their postures or the ease with which they performs (any asana or even meditation). Some have a natural affinity for strength, or flexibility or deep contemplation. But that doesn't make those of us who have to hone our practice more in any one area "less than" or "worse" than others. We are just different, and all practicing. Try not to perpetuate the myth that improvement is in the performance, not in the honest experience of being on the mat.

So, taking this full circle, when I practice yoga, I try very hard to be patient. To scale back a posture so that I can breathe and NOT kick my nervous system into overdrive. To remind myself that only way I can allow things to happen is if I make space for them. To (try to ) be calm, and focused, and breathing, to move intentionally and with body awareness, and not to push myself (or allow someone elses's teaching or practice to push me to). If I practice these things, then I am balancing effort and ease, and gain by letting go. In short, achieving yoga. And that is a damn good practice.