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Ana Forrest on Clearing Psychic Smog: Learning to Walk in Beauty

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Ana Forrest - Walk in Beauty

In this interview, Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D., Co-Founder of Yoga U Online, speaks with Ana Forrest, an internationally recognized pioneer in yoga and emotional healing about how to tap into the deep heart and spirit yearning inside to heal the body and ignite the spirit within.

Ana Forrest is the author of Fierce Medicine—Breakthrough Practices to Heal the Body and Ignite the Spirit, as well as the creator of Forrest Yoga—a unique fusion of traditional yoga, new poses and sequences created by the author, Eastern wisdom, and Native American medicine.

Q. In your book, you show us how, indeed, life sometimes serves up some fierce medicine! But ultimately your book—and your path in life—seems to be about teaching others to reconnect with our bodies, cultivate greater balance and start living in harmony with our spirit. That’s a wonderful message! Of course, spirit means different things to different people. Talk a little about what, to you, is soul or spirit.

Ana Forrest. I consider spirit to be the sacred essence within each person. And yet, there are people who have lost contact with their spirit.

Forrest Yoga ultimately is about trying to teach people how to embody their spirit. This is crucially different than most of our religious teachings. What I teach is how to get back to a visceral feeling sense, a visceral sense of embodying your spirit.

What does it feel like when your spirit is in your body? And how do you spread it through your whole body? Through your fingertips, down into your genitals, up into your brain. Your brain absolutely needs to have spirit in there because it’s a little bit like the insane dictator up in its ivory tower. It must connect with the rest of you so it’s not so nutty.

Q. How did this focus of cultivating your connection with spirit become a central theme for you?

Ana Forrest. When I first started yoga, I had no clue how to connect with my spirit. And as I actually began to think about that, I couldn’t find my spirit anywhere in my body because it wasn’t in my body. It had fled. It took a whole lot of work to generate enough care for myself to do this work.

I had to learn to be aware of when I would be doing things or thinking in a way that would drive my spirit out. When I would be thinking in a way that I was spewing smog internally, in my own internal wilderness, my spirit would leave. And I didn’t know that.

I didn’t have anybody really teaching me about spirit. I didn’t know that once I connected to my spirit, it wasn’t permanent. Just like any other relationship, it’s one that needs attention and love and cultivation, and study. If you attract someone to you in a loving way, if you then ignore them, you lose them. It’s the same in building relationship with your spirit. It’s a part of you to interact with every day. It will make every aspect of your life so much richer. Will it solve all of your problems? No. But going through your problems, embodying spirit, and having that brilliance and that wisdom and that sacred energy is part of your resources for solving the challenges in your life. That makes a huge difference.

I had to do the work to clear the backlog of painful past experiences, at least somewhat, to make some room for my spirit. I needed to put out a really deep heartfelt call over and over again. It’s almost like putting out a light to guide your spirit home.

Q. And in your experience what drives away that sense of connection with spirit?

Ana Forrest. You have to be really be mindful of not creating filth internally which would drive my spirit back out. So each time, I would have to catch it, like, “Wait, I’ve lost touch with my spirit and all I’m doing is I’ve been raging for days and days and days.” I’m very comfortable in rage because at least that makes me feel strong which is much better than feeling a victim. I would much rather default to rage than feeling my pain or helplessness. But what I noticed is that when I have that sort of diversionary tactic going on, if I indulge that for too long, I lose touch with my spirit.

You also have to make a warriors choice. As soon as I can recognize that I’m doing that, to go, “Whoa, let me take a breath and reset. This is stuff so important to me that I will let it drive my spirit out in order to indulge it,” because I’m basically having a tantrum inside.

I had this experience once, where I basically realized that I was creating psychic smog all around me. This happened at a time when I had my yoga center in California, on Montana Avenue. I was walking from my yoga center down to the health food store to go get something to eat. And I’m walking down this sunny, pretty street. Inside, I’m totally raging. And I’m having a fight with my business manager. I’ve concluded that fight to my satisfaction. Of course, I won because it was inside of my own head! And then I just went right on to the next person I was pissed with, basically shooting everybody I was annoyed with.

As I was doing this, this really amazing thing happened. I was having a vision in the middle of this whole crazy thing. And there’s a part of me that stepped about forty-five feet back from this woman in boots and yoga clothes stomping down the street.

I could see myself walking down the street but I could see the energy that I was generating. And it was absolutely filthy.

It was very shocking to see because it’s like, my spirit pledge is everything to me. I had made this pledge to bring mending to the hoop of the people. But instead, what I see myself actually giving to the world at that moment is filth!

That’s when I realized, “This is something I can responsible for right now. I can stop spewing this filth into the world.” Instead of beating myself up about it, which perpetuated the anguish, I finally just recognized it, and stopped it.

Ultimately, you hurt yourself the most, because when I am doing my psychic smog thing, I am running filth through my blood stream. I am hurting my organs by the way that I think.

Does that mean, if you get angry once in a while, that you’re hurting yourself? No. But if you are a perpetually raging, then yes. If you’re always in fear, yes. You are hurting yourself because you are running your adrenal glands into exhaustion. We’re sending all this other stuff into your brain and into the way you respond to your world.

So it’s very important to begin to honor that the way that you think and the patterns that you think, it’s worth hunting them. And I call that tracking and hunting. It’s worth really studying them because it’s fascinating. What we do and how we use our thinking are filters for perceiving the truth in the world because our thinking is seldom connected to the truth. But it is very much connected to our life experiences and our decisions we made about them. And so, to choose to perceive more of the truth, even when we are triggered, is quite a warrior stance.

Q. You have this beautiful principle, which is almost the opposite of creating psychic smog: Learning to “walk in beauty.” How can we learn to “walk in beauty?”

Ana Forrest. I learned to “walk in beauty” from the Navajo people, and it comes from a ceremony called the “Beauty Way.” It helps the person that’s in the ceremony to re-establish the balance in their life when they’re ill or depleted or sad.

It doesn’t negate that there is tragedy, unfairness, illness, sadness and there is craziness. But to walk in beauty is connecting to your breath and then finding something during your day to connect to that beauty. You deliberately allow it to dance in your heart. So it could be playing with kittens. It could be doing your yoga in a way that your heart dances. It could be choosing to have an interaction with a friend.Ana Forrest, Forrest Yoga

One of the assignments I give to my teacher trainees is to gather beauty reports. In other words, as you go out and do whatever you’re doing in life, look for beauty. When you go to Whole Foods to buy lunch, can you have something that you connect to in a beauty way?

It could be tasting freshly-squeezed carrot juice, like having that fresh, wonderful, nutritious flavors that’s exploding on your tongue and feeling how your cells just go, “Ooh, that’s really good. I really need that.” That could be your experience.

Or to see a flower and drop your feeling and your numbness and your blasé attitude in the face of the wonder that flower truly is. Or to maybe look in the mirror and actually see the person that you are, to see the truth of all of who you are, if only for three seconds.

Creating beauty is the exact opposite of the spiritual smog experience. And ultimately, it’s a wonderful way to connect with spirit

This is an excerpt from a longer talk Ana gave as part of Yoga U Online's Sadhana Sundays Series. For more information and to register to join Ana for a free Q&A as part of Sadhana Sunday on March 30, see here:

Sadhana Sundays Registration

 

Ana T. Forrest is an internationally recognized pioneer in yoga and emotional healing. The creator of Forrest Yoga—a unique fusion of traditional yoga, new poses and sequences created by the author, Eastern wisdom, and Native American medicine. Ana teaches worldwide at yoga conferences, workshops, retreats, and teacher trainings. 

 

Changing the Energetic Experience of the Body-- A Yogic Approach to Healing Chronic Pain

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Can changing our perception of the energetic dimension of the body help relieve chronic pain conditions?

In this interview, yoga therapist and physical therapist Marlysa Sullivan discusses the interface between new discoveries into the neuroplasticity of pain, and the ancient science of Tantra Hatha Yoga. The focus of Tantra Hatha Yoga lies in creating change and transformation by changing the energetics of the body. Marlysa shows how teaching students to interact with, rather than react to, the flow of energy and sensation in the body can open the gateway to greater freedom and relief from pain.

Q. Marlysa, you are trained as a physical therapist, but have now dedicated yourself 100 percent to working as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist. What inspired that journey?

Marlysa Sullivan: Well, as a physical therapist, I was always really interested in more complicated patients, particularly those with chronic pain, like chronic lower back pain, headaches or fibromyalgia. But even though I took a lot of physical therapy continuing education and was trained by a lot of wonderful physical therapists, I always felt like I was really missing a significant piece of the puzzle to be able to really help this group of people.

So I started to explore yoga, but it wasn’t until I met Yoganand (Michael Carroll), of Pranakriya Yoga that I felt I had found what I had been missing. Through studying with him,I learned the psychological and emotional energetics of what happens to us in pain. When we can understand this multidimensional approach to who we are, we can have more of a transformational healing.

That was my inspiration. I began to experience and understand that there was a level of change that we could access from somewhere else deep inside. I learned that there was a connection between the mind and the body, but also in the energy underneath. He talks a lot about creating change by changing the energy. This is an internal experience of change which then allows for a change in our thoughts, our emotions, and our whole physical being. And it was really an integrative, meditative practice of asana and Pranayama.

Q. Yoganand comes from the Kripalu Yoga tradition. But he has created his own system of yoga.

Marlysa SullivanYes, he calls his style of teaching Pranakriya yoga, which is based on his interpretation and experiences of Swami Kripalu’s work and teaching.He really emphasizes that we have to create a strong discipline, a strong witness, a strong container. Once we’ve created a strong enough container in the mind and body, then we can dive in and understand our experiences and let them change. When you watch what arises inside, then you can allow whatever arises to arise. I can change the way I’m re-acting, so that I can change the way I’m interacting with physical, mental, emotional stimulus.

Q. Since you have integrated this this into your work, are you still practicing as a physical therapist, or you completely focused on yoga therapy?

Marlysa SullivanOne hundred percent yoga therapy now. At the same time, one of my really strong passions is integrating this into more current biomedical work and sciences. So when we look at the field of chronic pain, we’re looking at what happens in the body and the nervous system. We integrate with what is being done with psychology and trauma, Tantra Hatha Yoga is this amazing model that we can use to treat more chronic conditions. We can use the language of the nervous system together with the language of psychology to help people understand what the ancient yogis were teaching us.”

Q. You talk about the integration of Tantra, Hatha Yoga, and the previous scientific findings about chronic pain. So how do we create that bridge, at least for Western minds, between the gap of Tantra Hatha Yoga and chronic pain?

Marlysa SullivanIf we look at the field of physical therapy and pain science, there are changes that happen in the nervous system in chronic pain. And they create common patterns of musculoskeletal imbalances. So we can look at the language of the nervous system as far as the sensitization that happens in chronic pain and the creation of musculoskeletal imbalances.

Then, we can also use the language of psychology, talking about understanding what happens in trauma, what happens to the nervous system, looking at the windows of tolerance to sensations, nervous system variability and resilience. If we tie those two fields together, the philosophy of Tantra Hatha Yoga helps to really integrate those two. We can use practices in Tantra Hatha Yoga to focus more on that physical aspect of sensitization through asana. We can use practices of meditation and Pranayama to focus more on the psychological aspect. But then, we can also look at this underlying dimension of energy, and how that plays a role in what we feel and how we perceive bodily sensations.

Q. As I understand it, there’s a changing understanding in the medical field of chronic pain and what causes it. In particular, there’s some interesting work being done on the nature of pain as it relates to neuroplasticity. Could you tell us about that?

Marlysa Sullivan: Yes, it’s very interesting. Researchers are finding that the nervous system gets sensitized in chronic pain, which means that the nerves and pathways are activated more easily. There’s less inhibition of information, so people perceive more pain and they experience more pain.

Over time, there’s even changes in our perception and our ability to be aware of parts of our body, to know where they are in space. There’s actual changes that happen in chronic pain in the brain and nervous system, which result in greater nervous system sensitization, and lower tolerance to sensation, so people get more easily overloaded.

So part of what we do through asana and pranayama is begin to work with increasing the windows to tolerance to sensation, which is going to change that sensitization of the nervous system. And because Tantra Hatha Yoga focuses on helping people develop more of a witness awareness in how they perceive and react to physical and emotional sensations, it can be a very powerful tool for people with chronic pain.

Q. Are you applying this in working with people with a wide range of pain conditions?

Marlysa Sullivan: Yes, I see patients with fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, chronic lower back pain, disc herniation, migraines and chronic neck pain. Usually, the people I see have those conditions and they also have some anxiety or depression that they’re working with.

Q. Could you give an example of how you’d use this approach to teaching yoga to work with someone with back pain?

Marlysa Sullivan:Thephysical, the musculoskeletal assessment and the physical piece of their lower back pain of course is always the place to start. That really determines and drives which asana I have them do. But then, the way that I have them do the asana and Pranayama techniques and meditation techniques is more directed towards the energetics. So for example, I might want a person to do a bridge pose. But depending on what their underlying energy is, you can have them do different variations of bridge posture: you can have them do a rolling bridge or you could have them hold bridge pose with a lot of stability. Or you could have them stay in bridge pose with a focus on the breath. For example, if you have someone who tends to tighten too much and guard in response to strengthening, instead of focusing on muscular engagement, you can have them focus on the breath and learning to let go and release.

Q: Interesting. So do you just watch your students to see what is needed as they go through the practice? Or do you have a dialogue going to see what’s happening with them?

Marlysa Sullivan:  I usually have a dialogue, because there’s only so much that you can tell from looking at someone. To understand the internal experience of the person and how they’re reacting and responding makes a big difference. So I ask simple questions like “what are you noticing,” “how are you noticing that,” “can you be with that?” This helps create a meditation around it the sensations in the body, and you can then go the next step and ask people, “can you be with whatever sensation you’re feeling and add breath?” or “can you add a visualization, a word, an image?”… So you’re adding a lot of the meditative and pranayama techniques within the asana to change the energetic experience of the asana.

Q. What are some of the results that you are observing?

Marlysa Sullivan: With my patients with lower back pain and neck pain and headaches, I’ve definitely seen progress. I’ve seen people who were very scared of doing even standing postures really get in tuned to their strength to the point where they’re able to go vacations and do a lot of things in their life that they couldn’t do before.

I’ve also seen people begin to really develop more of a witness to the sensations in their mind and body and learn to control their anxiety through that. Many people also begin to recognize how their musculoskeletal imbalances are perpetrated by their thoughts. So they notice, “Oh, every time I’m at work and this happens, I feel this in my psoas,” or, “I feel this in my jaw,” or, “I feel this here.” And once they reach that realization, they can begin to change the mental-emotional patterns that’s causing the physical tightness and pain.

Marlysa Sullivan, P.T. runs a private yoga therapy practice in Atlanta, GA. Her works as a yoga therapist is guided by her strong passion for bringing together the deeper aspects of yoga and anatomy and integrating that with scientific teachings about body and mind. She directs the Pranakriya Yoga Therapy program with Yoganand Michael Carroll and teaches this program at studios across the country. Sullivan also teaches the integration of yoga into physical therapy at Mercer University and Georgia State University as well as the psychology of yoga at the graduate level at West Georgia University.

Q & A With Doug Keller: Just Breathe: Cultivating Healthy Breathing Patterns


Breathing seems simple—you breathe in and you breathe out. But there are patterns to our breathing that are of our own creation. These patterns are often artificial strategies for dealing with events in our lives. Many people coming to yoga classes have limited, or even unhealthy breathing patterns, and need basic breath training before moving on to more advanced yogic breathing practices.

In this interview, Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D., Co-Founder of Yoga U Online speaks with yoga therapist Doug Keller to explore the basics of healthy breathing. He shares best practices for helping students develop more healthy breathing patterns and how to deepen the breath in a natural, non-forced way.

Q. We all know how important the breath is to our health and well-being, especially since we can live without water or food for some time. But when it comes to the breath, we maybe have three to five minutes before we die from lack of oxygen. What impact does breathing – properly and not - have on our well-being?

A. A broad spectrum of health problems are connected to problems with how we breathe. Many diseases, like asthma, are often tied to bad breathing habits. Hyperventilation is one of those breathing problems that impacts six to 10 percent of the population and is a disorder that leads to a lot of diseases.

Simple Pranayama practices can play a significant role in correcting breathing problems. These simple breathing techniques that tend to extend the exhalation and also create comfort with pauses in the breath or small Kumbhakas, are proven by the scientific community to help and can be beneficial for a wide range of health problems.

I have been practicing and teaching Pranayama as a way to recalibrate people’s breath. The healthier, deeper and longer breath helps people to overcome a lot of problems, including both emotional and mental stresses, as well as physical diseases and symptoms of physical diseases. Pranayama both retrains the breath to make the breath more appropriate to the activity that you’re doing  and, at the same time, it puts you in much more conscious contact with exactly how you’re breathing. This helps you catch yourself in the moments in which your breath doesn’t really fit what you’re doing.

Q. Are you saying that a lot of people come to yoga with preexisting breathing imbalances?

A. It’s basically a pattern people develop. As I mentioned one of the most common problems is hyperventilation (over breathing), which has become a habit for many people. This typically happens when you’re doing something active like jogging or doing asana practice. Your breathing rate and depth is going to be different from when you’re doing something else like sitting and meditating or doing a quieter activity.

Stress patterns and habits like sitting at the computer also create improper breathing patterns and we get disconnected from our breath. We don’t realize how much stress we cause for the body and even how many problems we cause for the mind in terms of dizziness or foggy brain syndrome, asthmatic breathing patterns.

Q. What are the challenges of teaching Pranayama breathing?

A. Pranayama is meant to bring people back in touch with their breath and then start to remove the limitations upon the breath that come from that habit. The idea is not to impose new limitations on the breath and force people to do that because the first reaction you get is you don’t feel relaxed. You don’t feel centered. And that’s usually a sign that there’s something going wrong in terms of what you’re doing.  Instructors need to and you need to find a way to introduce this kind of breathing in a way that makes the breath more productive, centering and relaxing.

The challenge with Pranayama breathing in yoga is basically people try too hard.  One of the translations you can give of Pranayama actually means expansion of the experience of the breath. Ayama means to expand or extend or to widen. And so, the purpose of Pranayama is not so much to control the breath but rather to expand your experience of it.

Q. One of the first things we do when teaching a new student is to try to introduce diaphragmatic breathing or three-part yogic breath. How do you work with that when you teach your students?

A. I think Pranayama always starts with first an element of kind relaxation where you move from an active mind to a receptive or perceptive mind.  The difference is in an asana class, you’re following instructions. You’re very active and telling the body to do thing. The mind is in of a command mode. The shift to Pranayama is to move from that command mode to a receptive mode. Instead of trying to tell people what to do with the breath from the start, which often gets in the way, you have them start to feel exactly how they’re experiencing the breath as it is without putting any conditions on it or directions or rules.

Once they start to tune in to that experience, you can  bring people’s attention to the diaphragm, what it feels like to breathe into that part, what you feel happening in the body.

Q. What effect does breath have on our sleep?

A. I find it kind of humorous question that I get more often than anything else is form people on how to sleep well or what kind of pillow to use. Working with the breath practice particularly before going to sleep at night does more than anything else to help you have a deep and restful sleep and to get to sleep quickly. So there are a lot of benefits to doing it.

Q. Can you give us an overview of what you will be covering in “The Art of Yogic Breathing?”

A. It will cover the basics of the breath and a step-by-step guide through natural and diaphragmatic breath in three parts: 1) Improving breath patterns. 2) Tips for calming down and going to sleep. 3) Centering yourself emotionally. 


For more information on Doug's course, see here:
Yoga, Breath, and Health—An Introduction to Yogic Breathing

 

 

The Adductors and Alignment in Yoga Postures: Interview with Julie Gudmestad

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Most yoga teachers are aware of the alignment issues that tight hamstrings cause in yoga postures. However, the adductors of the inner thighs create their own problems, if they are either too tight or too weak, says Iyengar yoga teacher Julie Gudmestad. In this interview, she highlights some of the critical points all yoga teachers need to know about this important, but much overlooked, muscle group.

Q: The adductors don’t often get mentioned in presentations on yoga anatomy. But you say we should be paying more attention to this muscle group?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, the muscles of the inner thighs are important stabilizers. If they’re tight, they limit our ability to do many of the standing poses and forward bends. In fact, they are important in a large variety of different yoga poses, including inversions, arm balances, and many of the standing poses. For best results in our yoga practice, the adductors need to be both strong and flexible.

Q: Can you give an example of a standing pose that would be limited by tight adductors?

Julie Gudmestad: Trikonasana is the one that I think of first because it’s an often-taught and often-practiced pose. Tight adductors can contribute to people not being able to open the pose up, so they end up with their chest – their front body – facing the floor. When they try to turn their head to look up, they feel a lot of strain in their neck. Tight adductors will cause people to face the floor instead of being able to roll the pose open.

Q: How would tightness in the inner thighs limit the ability for the torso to roll open and contribute to neck strain?

Julie Gudmestad: It is kind of counterintuitive. What happens is the tight adductors limit your ability to open the pelvis. So your pelvis, navel, and pubic bone want to face the floor rather than the wall in front of you. If you can’t get the back of the pelvis to open, then you limit how much you can rotate through your spine and torso to face the wall in front of you.

Q: Many older students over fifty are often unable to actually open their legs into what a wide stance.

Julie Gudmestad: That, of course, is due in large part to the adductors and maybe other muscles that are part of the equation. Think about how people use their bodies in normal American living – we stand, we walk, we sit in chairs. We rarely do things where we take our feet wide apart.

If you don’t take those wide-legged stances, then you lose the flexibility to go there. Not only does that impact our yoga poses but it can also impact, as we get older, our ability to balance in a variety of positions that we might use in activities of daily living. If you can’t separate your feet apart, then sometimes you might put more stress on your back when you’re trying to move something or lift something. Sometimes you might fall because you get into an awkward position and you can’t separate your feet. The mobility of the adductors is important both in yoga and in daily living.

Q: The average American sedentary person, for the most part, has lost the ability to balance. I presume a sedentary lifestyle is bad news for the adductors, too?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, and it’s having the same impact on all the leg and hip muscles. While there has been a lot of discussion about a sedentary lifestyle weakening the core, it’s also bad for the hips and legs. Some therapists and rehab specialists now feel that the core muscle strength might actually be less important than the strength in the muscles in your legs and hips. I’m inclined to think that it’s not one or the other; I think we need both core strength and hip and leg strength.

Q: Clearly, the adductors are important for standing postures and balancing postures. Do they also play a significant role in other groups of yoga postures?

Julie Gudmestad: Arm balances where you have to squeeze your legs onto your arms and inversions where we hold the legs together rather than letting them go apart. Weak adductors make it hard to stay in an inversion because people can’t hold their legs together for a long time. The adductors start getting tired. 

Those are the main yoga poses where strength is an issue. But the adductors also play a role in many of the forward bends where you spread your legs apart, whether the feet are together or the feet are apart.

Q: How can yoga teachers help students with tight or weak adductors make progress?

Julie Gudmestad: It’s important to know the anatomy of the muscles, where they are, what they do when they contract, why are they important, how do they stretch, what position to put them in to get them to stretch, and how to strengthen them.

With whatever muscle group we’re talking about (in this case, the adductors), the muscles need to be both strong and flexible. We have problems if a muscle is strong but it’s lost its mobility and we also have problems if the muscle is very flexible but not strong. Sometimes that’s the problem with long-time yoga practitioners who have done a lot of stretching. They have fabulous flexibility, but the muscle is not strong. Then it’s vulnerable to tearing and gives instability around the joints that it works on. In this case, that’s the sacroiliac joint, the low back, and the knees. Those are the joints that could be impacted by hypermobile, weak adductors.

Q: In your own teaching experience, how realistic is it to have students make progress to a degree where they can actually participate in a standard yoga class without major alignment issues, even if they first come to class with tight or weak adductors?

Julie Gudmestad: Unfortunately, once a week, it’s hard to make progress with either strengthening or stretching. So the person has to be willing to work at it hopefully two or three times a week. If somebody has really tight adductors, a little bit of stretching may not counterbalance the amount of strength work that they’ve done.

But having said that, I’ve seen some amazing things that people have done, if they’re willing to put in the time. The human body has an amazing ability to evolve, even in the later years of a lifetime. There have been a lot of studies that have shown that people can get stronger and more flexible, no matter what their age.

For information on Julie's course on the adductors, see here:
Romancing the Cinderella Muscles: The Adductors and Keys to Proper Alignment in Yoga Postures

Julie Gudmestad is the founder of Gudmestad Yoga in Portland, Oregon. For almost a decade, she wrote the Anatomy of a Yogi column for Yoga Journal. Julie is widely regarded for her unique insights into anatomy as it relates to alignment in yoga postures, and for her ability to share this knowledge in an interesting way. She has been teaching yoga since 1970 and became a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher in 1988. In addition to teaching yoga, Julie is also a practicing licensed physical therapist specializing in orthopedic problems, chronic pain issues, and stress-related problems.

Cleansing for Health: User-Friendly Yoga Techniques for Detoxification

In this interview, Kristine Kaoverii Weber, founder of Subtle yoga and author of Self-Healing Massage, discusses the yogic approach to detoxification and ways to open the subtle channels in the body to facilittate the flow of Prana, or life force.

YogaUOnline:
Many of us think detoxification as something you do when you’re sick and you may go on a lengthy fast. But you seem to have a different idea of what detoxification is and why it’s necessary. Could you talk a bit about that?

Kaoverii Weber: Well, yoga, as well as the numerous Ayurvedic cleansing practices, focus on cleansing the Nadis, or rather, removing the sediments and toxins from the Nadis. The Nadis is the Sanskrit term for all the channels that run through our body. This includes all the well-known passage ways of the body – the intestines, the veins, the arteries and nerves. But it also includes all the subtle energy flows in the body.

Cleansing is considered important in the yogic tradition, because the ancient yogis understood that if the body is toxic, it’s difficult to meditate, it’s difficult to do deep practices, it’s difficult to achieve self-realization. So, cleansing and detoxification sometimes precedes some of the deeper meditation practices. But it’s an important step for everybody.

In the West, when we think of yoga and detoxification, we tend to think of a hot, sweaty, power Vinyasa practice. And yes, anything that makes you sweat, without a doubt, is useful for detoxifying. However, the yoga tradition has also provided us with very specific practices that help to detoxify the digestive organs and to cleanse and stimulate the organs of digestion in many, many other ways. There are other practices you can do that are really helpful, and which are not so time-consuming.

It’s also important to distinguish between cleansing and detoxification. Longer fasting detoxification practices are very powerful and very useful, when you’re dealing with a specific illness or you’re dealing with a long history of inappropriate eating, or even substance abuse. But there are many practices that are more applicable for all of us in daily life, which facilitates daily cleansing, without the hardship of long fasts and more intense detoxification. Such daily cleansing practices are important, because they can keep us feeling well, feeling healthy, and able to live with greater energy, more happiness, and a greater feeling of aliveness.

YogaUOnline: Most of us think of detoxification as something that’s needed because in modern society, we’re exposed to so many environmental toxins. However, that was not the case for the ancient yogis. Why would the ancient yogis think that including cleansing procedures as part of your daily routine was important?

Kaoverii Weber: Well, the body is aging. As we age, the system starts to break down, and we increasingly need practices that help us to retain some of our vitality, so that we can age gracefully, retain energy, and still enjoy life!

According to the ancient yogis, if impurities or sediments are allowed to accumulate in the Nadis, our health gradually deteriorates. And it’s not just about cleansing on the level of the body.  Even if we only ate high quality, nutritious, organic food, if the mind has any kind of heaviness or stress, our mental state also produces toxins.

That is often overlooked in our Western culture. We think, “If we can only find that magic bullet, if we can only find that perfect food, then we would be completely healthy. But you can eat completely healthy foods and still be toxic, because the mind is converting the foods and anything else in your experience into toxicity.

So this is a really important piece. How do we shift what’s going on in the mind, so that whatever we take in is converted into nourishment as opposed to into toxicity?  Eating healthy foods is not enough, we need to also take time to self-nurture, do meditation practices, the things that help that food then to be converted into essence, into vital nutrition as opposed to into toxicity.

YogaUOnline: Yes. It sounds like what you’re talking about is the Ayurvedic concept of Ama. Ayurveda describes Ama as a sticky, metabolic residue, and it doesn’t just result from the digestion of foods, but from mental and emotional stress or, for lack of a better term,  ‘stuck-ness.

Kaoverii Weber: Yes, exactly. If we’re not vigilant about our state of mind, it doesn’t matter how many wonderful vitamins and nutrients we take in. The mind is going to convert that stuff into toxicity. That piece has offered me so much solace over the years, just the understanding that I don’t have to be perfect. My diet doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be good and it should be good. But what’s just as important is my state of mind.

If we are hyper-focused on what we eat and drink, we’re not necessarily looking in the right direction. The yogic model tells us to look up into who you are instead of just looking down to the ground for your answers, that it’s not just about nutrition, vitamins and minerals. Instead, the yoga tradition prompts you to look up into who you are and find your source of strength from that direction. Then your life will not necessarily have to be so measured out and so careful.

Ultimately, all the yogic cleaning practices are important and useful, but the most important way to cleanse the body, from a yoga perspective, is to look into our spiritual source, look to what fills us with light, what fills us with happiness, what fills us with contentment and peacefulness. Then what we take into our body is much more likely to be converted into healthful nutrition, as opposed to toxins.

YogaUOnline: What are some of the symptoms of toxicity that might indicate that you have too much Ama, too many toxins in your body—whether it be mental toxins or just metabolic residue of incomplete digestion?

Kaoverii Weber: Well, fatigue, lack of energy or zest for live is one typical sign. Incomplete digestion is another big sign that something isn’t right, either constipation, loose stools, or undigested food or mucus in the stool. Also, skin issues are a sign that detoxification would be a good idea. Headaches often are another indication.

These are early warning signs that the body’s internal balance is disturbed. But before it gets to the point of disease, we can work with cleansing practices that can help us bring the body back to balance. And with this, there are things we can do that are very manageable and gentle, and don’t involve intense detoxification.

But it’s important to pay attention to the signs we’re getting from our bodies, and to work with the cleansing practices a little more strongly, if we need to in order to help prevent later stages of disease.

YogaUOnline: When we think of cleansing and detoxification, we think about preventing disease and pave the way for healthy aging. However, for the ancient yogis, keeping the Nadis open and clear was really a matter of facilitating the flow of vital energy, or Prana. So, from that perspective, cleansing practices are really a preparation for spiritual deepening and spiritual experience. Could you talk about the Nadi system and how that relates to spiritual efforts? I think, according to the Indian tradition, there is said to be seventy-two thousand Nadis in the body.

Kaoverii Weber: Yes, it’s fascinating, isn’t it? When we in the West think about detoxification, we think about the gross organs, the liver, the kidneys, the digestive tract. But clearly, there is a flow through the entire body, and that gets stuck on other levels as well.

Certainly, that’s how acupuncture works, the idea is to release blocks in the subtle energy flow. That principle is common in all the oriental, the Asian medicines: If  we can unblock the flow of energy in the subtle body, it will affect the gross body in a deeper way, than if we were to go in the other direction.

This is exactly what I was talking about with toxicity, or mental and emotional ama, being on the level of both the mind and the body. There are the deep Samskara patterns that all of us have and all of us need to work with. If we can release energy from the blockages of the mind, it can then flow into the gross body. And the gross body will benefit greatly from shifts that we make in the way that we think.

So it’s a two-way street. The body fixes the mind, the mind fixes the body. In our culture, we tend to overemphasize the body. We tend to think that if we fix everything with the body, everything else will be alright, the mind will be alright. That comes from a materialistic reductionist worldview that we have long embraced in the West.

The yogic system gives us a much bigger picture and offers a different perspective on how we can influence the body and the mind. It offers a bigger perspective, that there are other ways we can do this.

Also check out Kaoverii's course on Yoga U Online:
Yoga Detox Practices for Long -Term Health

Kristine Kaoverii Weber is is the director of the Subtle Yoga Teacher Training and Personal Transformation Program, which offers a 200-hr. teacher training for social workers. She is also the author of Self-Healing Massage. Kaoverii has been teaching yoga since 1996, and has a background in Viniyoga, Iyengar, and Anusara Yoga. In her yoga teaching, her focus is to assist students in discovering optimal alignment and flow of Prana in their practice as well as to help students experience their yoga practice as a vehicle for self-transformation.

A Sanctuary of Healing: Yoga Therapy Gives New Hope

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By Christie Hall - 

Within a room in Los Angeles, two senior Iyengar yoga teachers and their assistants create a sanctuary for healing. The students who come each Tuesday evening often come after despairing of further help from doctors.

“You can return to this quiet place anytime that you want, anywhere you want,” said Lisa Walford, during savasana, corpse pose, at the end of class she led on June 17. 

Prospective students apply to attend the Yoga Therapeutics classes on Tuesday evenings at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles. Each week one or two students are allowed to join the class. Lead teachers Lisa Walford and Marla Apt limit the numbers because each student will receive an intricate sequence designed for his or her problem.

Before the first session, teachers meet with the new arrival to get an in-person understanding of why the student has chosen this route.

One new student on June 17 answered Lisa’s question this way: “I’m here because no one else can help me. No one has any answers. The doctors don’t have any answers.”

“We hear that a lot,” Lisa responded.

At work within the sanctuary

The room as a whole is a sanctuary, and within it students create their own spaces for practice and healing. These spaces are private, even within the context of a studio, and confidentiality is constantly maintained. (For this reason, the student quoted for this article is not named.)

Many of the sequences include intricate use of props or weights or straps. In one corner, a person uses the wall ropes for a pose. In another area, a person uses a chair to assist poses.

In the center of the room, a device called a trestler, which looks something like a balance beam, supports practitioners in assorted standing poses.

Students receive a written list of poses with some guidance on specific modifications. On the first session, Lisa and Marla give further instructions on specific work or alignment guidance to the practitioners and the teachers assisting them.

The assistants are all certified Iyengar teachers and include Lori McIntosh, Introductory 2, Allen Mulch, Intermediate Junior 1, and Aida Amirkhanian, Intermediate Junior 3. Lisa and Marla are both Intermediate Senior 1.

Gradually students take increasing charge of their own sequences. The assisting and lead teachers remain available for questions and for adjusting the sequences. Typically, a student attends for eight weeks and is permitted to apply for an additional four weeks.

Hope for change

The once-a-week sessions, however, are meant only as a foundation for a consistent home practice.

The student who started on June 17 was there for what doctors considered a neurological problem, although they had no explanation of a cause. They had diagnosed two strong drugs which had eliminated most of the pain. By June 25, with a daily practice and two sessions under her belt, the woman, who is in her 30s, had ceased needing one of the two drugs and had cut the dosage of the other by two-thirds.

The woman says she keeps thinking about a story told by another of her teachers, Manouso Manos, about the story of Pandora. He notes that most stories tell about Pandora opening the box and releasing all the plagues of humankind, but they do not mention the postscript. After Pandora closes the box, she opens it one more time, and the last thing to come out is hope.

 

Christie Hall began studying yoga in 1995 to cope with crippling back pain. Her home practice started with the book, Yoga: The Iyengar Way. She started teaching in 1997 after studying with Iyengar teacher Karin O'Bannon and she has studied as student and as teacher exclusively with Iyengar teachers, including BKS Iyengar in Colorado in 2005 and Geeta Iyengar in 2007. More of her writings can be found on her blog: www.pratipaksha.com. Her Web site is www.christieyoga.com.

Yoga Practice: The Wisdom of Krama

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By Amy Wheeler -

The Sanskrit word “krama” means to go step-by-step. This is true for life, as well as for our yoga practice.

In life, all great journeys are just a sequence of many small steps over time, until the destination finally is reached. Similarly, during our daily yoga practice, many small steps are taken on the way to the goal of the practice. If we move too fast and rush, push or strain, it can be counterproductive.

The ultimate goal of a daily yoga practice, as stated by Patanjali is in chaper 3, verse 9 of the Yoga Sutras, is to reach nirodhaha samskara. This is to experience that place deep inside, beyond the fluctuations of the mind, where one feels calm, alert, balanced and connected to Self. Nirodhaha samskara can be achieved by working at about 70% of maximum capacity.  It is the result of practicing with attention, ease and with appropriate krama towards the goal of the practice.

The consequences of not using krama in one’s yoga practice results in what is called vyuthanna samskara, also defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, chapter 3 verse 9. Vyuthanna samskara describes a state when the body, breath, mind, personality or emotions are in a state of agitation. The prana is said to be disturbed and may even result in prana prakopa, or angry prana. Angry prana can be felt in the physical body, the breath, the mental state, personality and emotions. Angry prana can be a result of pushing the body, mind and spirit too quickly towards a goal without proper preparation and awareness.

The aim of the principle of krama, or step-by-step approach to practice is to prepare for a challenging peak pose without injury and without creating angry prana. For example, the peak pose for the day might be halasana (or Plow Pose). For this, the initial stages of the practice might include both preparatory poses and test poses. This will ensure that the neck, low back and spinal flexibility are ready for Plow Pose, which is an intense forward bend and inversion simultaneously.

Preparatory poses might include a Revolved Triangle Pose with eyes gazing towards the sky, as a way to prepare spinal and neck flexibility. Another preparatory pose could include Uttanasana, or Standing Forward Bend for preparation of the low back and hips.

Additionally, test poses will also be worked into the warm-up phase of the practice. Test poses might include shoulder stand and seated forward bend. If the student can master these two poses individually, then the student is ready to move towards Plow Pose, which is basically doing both poses simultaneously.

It follows that if all the ‘test poses’ can be easily performed, and the appropriate preparation poses are practiced during the warm-up phase, the student will be ready for the peak pose of the practice, Halasana. But more importantly, the student will experience the nirodhaha (balanced, calm, alert and connected to Self) state of mind and body during the practice.

The appropriate krama of the practice will allow for the nirodhaha response to happen naturally. There will be no prana prakopa, or angry prana, during or following the practice. The appropriate postures and breathing patterns of the cool-down or counterpose phase of the practice will also help to promote the nirodhaha response.

There are many other step-by-step practices in yoga, and this is just one example of how krama is used in asana practice. But the basic principle is to move step-by-step in any asana practice and create a gradual opening to prepare the body for growing levels of challenge, while never pushing further than the body is ready to

Similarly, a pranayama practice done with a focus on the principle of krama would start with a gentle breath ratio and move towards a more challenging goal ratio, and then move back towards the baseline ratio. In meditation the same phenomenon is experienced as the practitioner often begins in superficial states of mind during the opening rituals. At the peak of the meditation practice, the practitioner might experience a deep and refined state of mind. Then at the end of the practice he or she moves back to superficial mind and re-links to the outside world.

 

 

Amy Wheeler, Ph.D. is a Professor of Kinesiology at California State University, San Bernardino for 16 years.  She teaches Yoga Therapy at the Loyola Marymount Yoga Rx Program.  She is currently involved in several Yoga Therapy research projects pertaining to: Metabolic Syndrome, Kidney Dialysis, Colon and Rectal Cancer, and Ovarian and Uterine Cancer with researchers at Vanderbilt University.  Amy is helping to set standards for Yoga Therapist in organizations such as NAMA (National Ayurvedic Medical Association). Amy is a Co-Founder and Co-Director of YATNA (Yoga as Therapy, North America).  Amy recently joined the Board of Directors for the International Association of Yoga Therapist (IAYT).

The Pelvic Floor in Yoga Asanas

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By Cheryl Fenner Brown, PYT, RYT-500 -

The pelvic floor is an important and often overlooked part of the body that holds the abdominal organs in place. Often times the pelvic floor can be chronically tight and as we age, these muscles may lose their elasticity (especially if they are held in chronic contraction for many years on end). A host of pelvic issues may result, including incontinence.

 
In this yoga practice, you will learn to access the pelvic floor from the lower belly and begin to feel how the movement of the pelvic floor mirrors another muscular wall in the body, the diaphragm. 
 
Chant UUU 
Sit comfortably with the legs crossed. Begin to breathe into the lowest belly, way down to the area behind the pubic bone. As you exhale chant UUU in a low pitch to activate the pelvic floor, repeat for 1 minute.

Elevator Breath
Begin watching the breath and imagining that the breath is like an elevator car. Where it comes into the nose is the penthouse and the pelvic floor is the basement of our imaginary building.

As you inhale, feel the breath move down the elevator shaft in the center of the body from the penthouse (nose) to the basement (pelvic floor). As you exhale feel the breath move up the elevator shaft from the pelvic floor back up and out through the nose.
Repeat this for a few rounds until it becomes comfortable. Then begin to add a slight lower abdominal contraction on the exhale only and notice if there is a corresponding lift to the pelvic floor.
 
When you inhale, make sure to completely relax the belly. The pelvic floor muscles should mirror the movement of the diaphragm. When you inhale, the pelvic floor and diaphragm both dome downward, and when you exhale they both gently lift toward the crown of the head.
 
Reclining Vinyasa I
Begin lying on the back with the legs straight and arms extended over the head, take an inhale to prepare.

Exhale and draw the right knee into the chest, holding it with the right hand. 

Inhale and draw the right knee out to the right side with the right hand, left hand in cactus on the floor. 

Exhale and cross the right knee over to the left side of the body with the left hand, right hand in cactus on the floor. 

Inhale back to the center and extend the right leg up toward the ceiling, holding behind the thigh with the clasped hands. 

Exhale, draw the right knee to the chest. 

Inhale, extend the leg to the floor and the arms overhead. 

Exhale, and repeat the entire sequence with left leg.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Spider Walk
Lie on the back with a folded blanket under the sacrum. Draw the wide knees into the chest and hold behind the knees, keeping the ankles flexed. Inhale and straighten one leg out to the side, exhale and bend that leg. Repeat alternating sides for about a minute.
 
Cat/Cow Tilts:
Cow: Begin on the hands and knees, toes pointed. Inhale and lift the sternum forward and drop the pubic bone back between the legs to arch the spine. Feel how the pelvic floor opens in this position.
Cat: Exhale and round the back and drop the head and tail bone towards the floor. Feel how the pelvic floor tightens in this position. Repeat with your breath 10 times.
 
Sphinx
Lie on the belly with legs together and toes pointed back. Bring your forearms to the floor with the elbows aligned under shoulders and forearms parallel to each other, palms facing down. Lift the sternum forward and up through the crown of head. If your lower back feels vulnerable, engage the belly away from the floor.
 
Do not contract the pelvic floor. Instead, see if you can return to the sensation of the pelvic floor moving down in inhale and up on exhale. Hold 5-10 breaths and release chest to floor with hands under forehead.
 
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)
Begin on all fours with hands slightly forward of shoulders. Turn toes under and lift knees off the floor. Keep the shoulders wide and palms flat, press thighs and sit bones back, scooping the belly in.
 
Feel how the four bones of the pelvic base, the two sit bones, the pubic bone and the tail bone all reach up toward the ceiling. Hold 1-3 minutes, then release onto the hands and knees.
 
Airplane
Begin standing with feet wide apart. Inhale and raise arms out to sides of body.
 
Exhale and bring your left hand down to floor, block or chair as you twist the torso to the right, grounding the left sit bone back.
 
Inhale, return to standing with arms out to the sides of body.
 
Exhale, and bring right hand down to floor, block or chair as you twist the torso to the left, grounding the right sit bone back. Repeat 5 times.
 
 
 
Squat
Bring feet hip width apart and bend knees dropping hips down towards heels.
 
If your heels are not able to come to the floor, you can use a folded blanket under the heels. You may also sit on a block for added stability. Place palms together at the heart in Anjali Mudra.
 
Lift the chest and relax the tailbone, feel the opening of the entire pelvic floor. Hold for 5-10 breaths.
 
 
 
 Ardha Navasana (Half Boat)
Sit on the floor with a block behind you on the mat. Lean back on the edge of the block and bring the feet onto the floor in front of your pelvis. Hold behind the knees and lift the feet off the floor by engaging the belly strongly.
 
Stay here or extend one leg straight, then the other leg, then both legs. Keep lifting chest and drawing the belly up and in. Hold for 3-5 breaths.

Setu Bandha (Bridge Pose)
Lie on the back with knees bent and feet hip width apart. Inhale and lift hips away from floor, rolling onto upper back. 

 
Place a block under the pelvis and rest the sacrum on the block. Turn toes slightly in and rest arms on floor with palms up.  Hold 5-15 breaths and release.
 
 
 
 
Legs up the Wall
Sit beside the wall. Swing the legs up the wall as you lay back on the mat. Rest hands on the lap or belly, or place arms out to sides with palms facing up. 
 
Rest at least 10-15 minutes, then roll over to release. The back should be relatively flat on the floor and the legs can be slightly bent, especially if the hamstrings are tight. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Cheryl found yoga in 2001 as a way to ease chronic back pain and became instantly enchanted by the subtle connections between the breath, body, mind, and emotions. She has trained with master teachers from Piedmont Yoga Studio and the Integrative Yoga therapy schools and she blends both traditional Hatha teachings and alignment principles with subtle energy work and healing. As a Yoga Therapist, Cheryl sees clients privately and has taught over 2500 public classes and workshops in studios and cancer centers around the Bay Area. She serves on the faculty of the Niroga Institute's Yoga Therapy teacher training program, offers workshops and retreats for cancer survivors. She also conducts research on the benefits of yoga for reducing side effects of cancer.

Julie Gudmestad: Principles of Safe Hip Opening in Yoga Postures

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Like tight hamstrings, tight hips can affect alignment in numerous yoga postures and even predispose you towards injury. It’s easy to spot students with tight hips, says Iyengar yoga teacher and physical therapist Julie Gudmestad in this interview. In seated cross-legged pose, their knees will be way up in the air, and the low back often rounded. In this interview, Julie offers insight into the muscles involved, and the princples for a safe hip opening practice.

Q: Most yoga teachers marvel at one point or other about the difference in alignment that you can observe within a group of students doing the same pose. Particularly in seated poses on the floor, some yoga students sit comfortably, while others end up with their knees high up towards their ears. What’s going on here?

Julie Gudmestad: Well, one of the muscle groups that often is involved in tight hips is the external rotators, i.e. a group of six muscles deep in the back of the hip, including the piriformis, which is the largest of these muscles. There can be other muscles involved as well, of course. For some people, it’s more the back of the buttocks; the adductors can be part of it and tensor fascia latae can be part of that equation as well. But the piriformis is often a key player.

Q: Other than in seated poses, how does a tight piriformis impact alignment in yoga postures?

Julie Gudmestad: The external rotators are powerful muscles, so if they’re short, they can pull the leg into permanent external rotation. So a tight piriformis can cause the whole leg to be turned out in standing postures. This is easiest to observe in the foot, but you have to look at the whole femur—the external rotation starts up in the hip, so it’s not something students can just correct by readjusting the position of their foot. It also impacts alignment in backbends and, counterintuitively, in forward bends as well. In people with tight external rotators, you can observe how the legs tend to turn out in seated forward bends like e.g. Paschimottanasana.

Q: The piriformis can also get very painful when it’s tight?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, when the piriformis gets very tight, it can put pressure on the sciatic nerve causing shooting pain, which can be quite debilitating. This condition is also often referred to as piriformis syndrome. So keeping the piriformis flexible and stretched out isn’t just important for alignment in yoga postures, it is also essential for long-term health.

Q: If people have a tight piriformis, which yoga postures are helpful to help stretch it?

Julie Gudmestad: Yoga has several wonderful poses and positions to work on flexibility of piriformis and friends. Unfortunately, many of the hip opening poses commonly used may be too intense for people with tight hips. One example is Fire Log Pose where you’re sitting and you stack your shins right on top of each other. This isn’t a traditional yoga pose but I think a lot of people do it, trying to get the hips more flexible to be able to do Padmasana, Lotus Pose, for example. So, oftentimes students with tight hips will try to get into that pose in class, and they will end up with their knees are way up in the air, and if they force, there can definitely be risk of injury.

So, it’s a tricky situation, because if you have tight muscles, you definitely will benefit from regular stretching. My basic rule has always been that if something is hard for you to do, then you need to practice it. You don’t necessarily even need to analyze which muscles are involved, but you just need to start doing it regularly.

But one of my concerns is that some of the poses that people think of as hip openers actually are a bit wild. For someone with really tight hips trying to do the Pigeon prep, for example, is just way too extreme. Similarly, a pose like Gomukhasana, or Cow Face Pose, can be a wonderful stretch for the piriformis, but for people with a tight piriformis, this is not a pose they can typically get into and be comfortable. So it can be a Catch-22.

People need to have milder versions that they can do regularly, e.g. after every time they go for a run or practice some standing poses. They can do some of these hip openers, like Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose), and milder, accessible versions of Pigeon prep for the people that are really stiff. If you start with the mild ones, you can see real quickly if somebody is struggling with even the mild ones or they’re not flexible in the mild one, you will know that they better not go on to the standard Pigeon prep, for example.

Q: It’s interesting because Pigeon prep is a fairly commonly used pose in classes. And it’s not uncommon for people to try to push deeper into this pose than they perhaps should.

Julie Gudmestad: Yes. Teachers can encourage students to do the milder variations, but you do run into students who don’t want to acknowledge that for whatever reason. They want to push on into the full challenge and then sometimes there’s a price to pay for that kind of inappropriate aggressiveness. I’ve seen too many people with X, Y, and Z injury because of this kind of attitude.

Trying to force oneself into some of the seated hip openers like Fire Log before the hips are open enough can cause significant knee problems. And I’ve actually known of a few people that actually tore one of the hip rotators. And believe me, after you do that, you’re not doing anything for a while. Nothing.

It’s the American way to work hard and push on and try to get the job done quickly. But some of these muscles, more than others, are just very slow to change and become more flexible. You won’t make your hamstrings flexible in two weeks of pushing hard either, so take your time. I’ve just seen too many people with torn muscles from aggressive stretching.

So my basic rule for stretching is to put yourself in a position where you’re not in pain and just kind of hang out, relax for 60 seconds or longer. Give it time, and allow the opening to be the gradual process that it needs to be.

Q: Unfortunately, the modifications most yoga teachers learn for e.g. poses like Pigeon Pose may not even be enough for people with very tight muscles.

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, it’s important to have a whole repertoire of early postures that can help people open up slowly and gradually. It’s just nice to have more graduated positions for people who are less able. And of course, that’s my stated long-term goal: To make yoga accessible to even people who are weak or extremely tight or recovering from illness or injury. So you need to have a range of options to pull out for people that are less able.

Q: Julie, you will be discussing safe hip opening in your course on Piriformis and Friends. Tell us more about what you will be addressing.

Julie Gudmestad: We’ll be looking at the anatomy of this muscle group, of course, and what its action is when it’s healthy and contracts normally. We’ll take a look at piriformis syndrome and how you can prevent falling victim to that kind of excruciating back pain. It’s caused by everything from lack of stretching all the way up to tightness that’s related to injury.

We’ll go over some very gentle, easy-to-control stretches you can start students out with if they have very tight hips. We will also look at some of the more challenging or advanced stretches, particularly what you need to be careful of so you don’t overstretch or put strain on the knee joints up and down the line. Up the line from the hip is the low back and the SI joint, and down the line from the hip is the knee and the ankle. So whenever one joint can’t give enough flexibility, then your body is likely to move to the next available joint in line. So that’s the low back (going up the line) and the knee (going down the line).

We’ll also look at what happens when the external rotators are weak. I’ll have some pictures to really illustrate what a pose will look like if it’s weak. We’ll look at a common muscle imbalance in which the adductors are tight and short and the deep hip rotators weak, and what that looks like in a pose. I'm also going to throw in one of my favorite adductor stretches as just a nice preparation for standing poses. We’ll also look at ways to work on strengthening the deep hip rotators in standing poses, including key cues and images to try to get students to engage the muscles, which is not easy for most people if these muscles are not used to doing their job.

This interview is an excerpt from a longer interview with Julie Gudmestad, entitled Getting Hip on the External Rotators. Go here to download the full interview.

Healthy Foundations: The Feet in Yoga Asanas

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Feet
By Cheryl Fenner Brown, PYT, RYT-500 - 

Our feet are amazingly strong and provide support for us for most of our lives. This week we will work to widen the balls of the feet and learn how to use the structures of our feet to keep our balance.

 
Foot Massage
Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position so that you can reach the soles of your feet. Start by massaging the pads of each toe, then the ball of the foot, then the arches of the feet, then the heels. Note any areas of pain or tenderness. Then thread the fingers of the opposite hand through the toes with the palm and sole facing each other. Spread the fingers apart so that the bones that make up the ball of the foot are also spread apart. Then use the hand to rotate the ball of the foot while holding the ankle steady. 
  
Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose)
Lie on the back with the legs straight and the feet against the wall (wall not shown). Draw your right knee into your chest and lengthen the left leg onto the floor. 
Variation I:  Wrap a strap around the ball of your right foot and extend the leg into the air. Reach the hands up the strap until the elbows are straight but the shoulders are still grounded. Feel the stretch in the calf, if there is pain a the back of the knee, create a micro-bend of the knee. Hold for about a minute.
Variation II:  Place strap across the arch of the foot. Feel the stretch in the lower hamstring. Hold for about a minute.
Variation III: Place strap across the heel. Feel the stretch in the upper hamstring. Hold for about a minute.
Release and repeat with the other leg.
 
Vrasana (Hero Pose)
Sit on block or blanket between heels. Ground front of feet and shins, thighs and sit bones into earth. Lift up through belly, heart and crown of head. 
For Ankle Pain - Kneel on folded blanket with crease of ankles at edge of blanket).
For Knee Pain - Sit higher so knees do not have to bend all the way.
 
 
 
 
 
Talasana (Palm Tree Pose)
Stand in Tadasana with the arms at the sides. Inhale lift up onto balls of the feet keeping hands on hips or raising arms forward and up over the head. Make sure that the balls of the big toes stay in contact with the floor.
Exhale release weight back into heels as you release the arms to sides. 
Repeat 3-5 times with the breath.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Stand with feet hips-width apart. Engage legs and bear weight on left leg only. Draw right foot onto calf or inner thigh (do not press on side of knee). Press foot against leg and leg against foot. Draw belly in and release tail bone towards floor. Inhale and draw arms overhead without gripping shoulders. Hold as long as you can balance with comfort, release and change sides. You can also either lean the back against the wall for support or press the knee into the wall for support.
 
 
 
Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I)
Begin standing in Tadasana. Step left leg back about three feet keeping feet hips width apart. Keep right toes turned forward and left foot turned slightly out. Turn hips gently towards front foot and balance weight on both feet. Inhale arms overhead. Exhale and bend right knee. Draw belly up and release tail bone towards floor. Hold 5-10 breaths then release and change sides.
 
 
 
 
  
Setu Bandha (Bridge Pose)
Lie on back with knees bent and feet hips with apart. Inhale and lift hips away from floor, rolling onto upper back. Press arms back into floor and lengthen tail bone towards backs of knees. 
Hold 5-15 breaths and release.
 
 
Viparita Karani (Inverse Seal Pose)
Sit beside wall. Swing legs up wall as you lay back on mat. Place either a bolster or long-folded blanket under the lumbar curve, the buttocks should not be on floor. Lay arms out to sides with palms facing up. Can also place a sandbag across the soles of the feet. Rest at least 10-15 minutes, then roll over to release. 
 
 
 
 
 
  
Cheryl found yoga in 2001 as a way to ease chronic back pain and became instantly enchanted by the subtle connections between the breath, body, mind, and emotions. She has trained with master teachers from Piedmont Yoga Studio and the Integrative Yoga therapy schools and she blends both traditional Hatha teachings and alignment principles with subtle energy work and healing. As a Yoga Therapist, Cheryl sees clients privately and has taught over 2500 public classes and workshops in studios and cancer centers around the Bay Area. She serves on the faculty of the Niroga Institute's Yoga Therapy teacher training program, offers workshops and retreats for cancer survivors. She also conducts research on the benefits of yoga for reducing side effects of cancer.
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