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Truths About Stretching and Flexibility in Yoga

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yoga for flexibility

By Kreg Weiss - 

Yoga can help to increase flexibility, stability and range of motion, particularly as we age, but sometimes the tendency to push toward greater flexibility can come at a cost. Which are the best ways to avoid injury by pushing too hard? Here are some tips to understand when and how to stretch to make the fastest progress in your practice without risk of injury.

Knowing Your Elastic Edge

Muscles, tendons, and ligaments have an ‘elastic edge’; a range in which they can stretch to a certain length under force and then return to a resting state. Overall, the elastic edge is set for all of these tissues.  

Muscles have a much longer edge than tendons and ligaments.  Once this edge has been passed, tearing and damage can occur.  

As we become more flexible, we increase the muscular edge, or degree of muscular flexibility. However, this places excessive force on connective tissues, which have shorter edges (or ranges). The result can be connective tissue tears, impingement, tendonitis, bursitis, and so on.  

Tendons and ligaments take a longer time to increase their elastic edges. So while it is easy to see significant gains in flexibility of muscle tissue with regular yoga practice, it is important to remember to never force your movements!

It is also important to remember that as our flexibility and range of motion increase, we experience decreased sensitivity to our true elastic edge because of altered reflex sensitivity in muscle’s stretch receptors.  This is why those new to yoga usually feel a sense of stiffness and ‘resistance’ sooner than those who have practiced for extended periods of time.  

This is part of the protection mechanisms in muscle and connective tissue.  With practice, we can override these mechanisms, which allows us to ease into our edges with less sensitivity.  The downside is, we lose the warning signs that tell us when to stop. Consequently, we become more susceptible to passing elastic edges and causing injury.

Flexibility and Age

As we age, we tend to lose overall muscle length, which leads to increased stiffness.  We also experience changes in the collagen structure of our connective tissue, which also makes tendons and ligaments less flexible.  

The good news is that stretching programs can reduce or slow the onset of these age-related tissue changes. Progressive stretching in particular has shown to be less stressful on muscle tissue.  You get the best results by starting with slow and gradual warming of tissues that mimic the movements to be performed, and easing joints through their range of motion.  It is also important not to overstretch the muscles that are going to be engaging in load-bearing exercise. So, if you plan to do yoga and weights in the same day, begin with weight training, and then move to your yoga practice.

How to Stretch to Gain Flexibility

Despite much research, there is still insufficient evidence regarding the best way to stretch to develop flexibility.  Many factors come into play, including age, gender, predisposition to muscle fiber types, types of stretching, length of time, and goal specific training among others. Consequently, researchers are far from offering any concrete prescriptions.  

The benefits of stretching are well understood, however, and researchers agree that it is important to explore methods that suit your specific needs.  This pretty much resonates with the overall intention of yoga practice - discover and embrace your uniqueness.

Consistency Is Key

Doing a single yoga practice can create the sensation of tension release, but because muscles and connective tissues have elastic properties, these tissues return to their original resting length within minutes. A single practice here and there will not increase overall flexibility and muscle length.  Therefore, to really increase your flexibility and range of motion, it is essential to practice frequently and consistently.

Remember there is a fine balance between flexibility and stability, and both are necessary for a healthy body.

 

Kreg Weiss, BHKin, is a certified hatha yoga teacher, international presenter and kinesiologist (exercise science).  All of his classes integrate a purposeful, meditative quality to allow for an experience of connection and reflection while the body explores expansion and renewal. With a background as a fitness trainer and athlete, Kreg has been teaching yoga since 2002 and complements his teaching practice with additional studies in Kinesiology and Health Sciences at the University of British Columbia. Through integrity-driven classes, Kreg aims to provide students with the tools to pursue a unique, confident practice where asanas, pranayama, and meditation interact collectively to rejuvenate and heal the body and mind.

Early Onset Osteoporosis Is a Concern for Millions

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Most people think osteoporosis mainly affects older women. However, increasingly, younger people with chronic medical conditions are being afflicated by the bone loss associated with osteoporosis.

Researchers are calling it “secondary osteoporosis” and have identified an increasing number of medical factors that contribute to the early onset of osteoporosis. These contributing factors include chronic diseases such as cancer, celiac disease, and inflammatory bowel disease. Early onset osteoporosis if in part caused by the powerful drugs used to treat these conditions, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The findings are important because there are no symptoms as bone weakens and osteoporosis isn’t diagnosed until a patient suffers a fractured bone. Osteoporosis causes an estimated 1.5 million bone fractures every year; it is one of the most widespread chronic conditions in the Western hemisphere, affecting 44 million Americans.

As a result of these new findings, researchers are calling on healthcare professionals to employ greater efforts to identify patients earlier who are at risk for secondary osteoporosis, before their bones become more fragile and further raise their risk of injury and disability.

Secondary osteoporosis does not fit the usual profile of people with osteoporosis, older women, but rather affects men and those under 50 as well. People at risk for secondary osteoporosis should have regular bone density scans, researchers recommend, regardless of age or gender.


 

"When I find a younger patient with osteoporosis, there is likely to be a secondary cause, and if that cause isn't treated, they will continue to lose bone even if they are on osteoporosis medications," Pauline M. Camacho, an endocrinologist at Loyola and co-author of the study said to the WSJ. “Our primary image of osteoporosis is a grandma hunched over, but we’re spotting it in younger patients and men.”

Secondary osteoporosis is often caused by medications. Anyone taking corticosteroids, such as prednisone, is at risk, according to the American College of Rheumatology. The drugs, prescribed to suppress inflammation in a wide range of illnesses and to prevent organ rejection after transplants, have a direct negative effect on bone cells and can interfere with the body's handling of calcium.

Other medications also interfere with how the body naturally breaks down and rebuilds bone tissue, and how well it absorbs bone-building nutrients like calcium and Vitamin D. People at increased risk for secondary osteoporosis include people taking blood thinners, depression medications, reflux drugs, people undergoing bariatric surgery or receiving hormonal treatments to prevent breast or prostate cancer.

In addition to medications, certain lifestyle factors contribute to a higher risk for early onset osteoporosis. These include smoking, drinking and lack of exercise.

Most people think osteoporosis mainly affects older women. However, increasingly, younger people with chronic medical conditions are being afflicted by the bone loss associated with osteoporosis.

Malasana: Grounding Through Center - A New Approach to the Classic Squat

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Malasana: Grounding Through Center - A New Approach to the Classic Squat

by Kreg Weiss - 

Our feet connect us to the earth for most of our lives. This is one of the main reasons why “rooting” and “grounding” are foundational ideas in yoga. As our feet connect with the earth we experience stability and integrity. Sometimes the positioning of our knees, feet and ankles can interfere with this experience. A few subtle modifications to your stance may make all the difference.

Aside from the philosophical significance, “rooting” and “grounding” also refer to the process of translation throughout the kinetic chain – from feet up through the knees, hips, and spine. How does this chain work, and what does this mean for your yoga practice?

“Rooting” and “grounding” have fundamental anatomical and biomechanical functions.  It can be helpful to examine these functions in terms of a particular movement. In this case, we will use the Malasana – the classic bent-legged squat.

Common functional limitations for a full squat

Although many view the squat as bad for the knees and low back, humans are biomechanically designed to perform a full squat safely. Unfortunately, our sedentary lifestyles characterized by chronic sitting in chairs and vehicles, have generated functional limitations in the kinetic chain of the body involved in the squatting position.  

These functional limitations commonly appear in the ankles, where limited dorsiflexion requires people to lift their heels in order to get down into a deep squat position.  This break in the natural kinetic chain causes improper shifts in the center of gravity, resulting in the tendency to shift the grounding and force loads forward into the toe mounds. This creates displacement of the hips and spine.

The debate about knee and foot placement in squats

Some experts propose that sheer force in the knees increases dramatically when the knees travel forward toward, over, or past the toes when the knees are in loaded flexion during a squat.  The energy in the belly of the thigh muscles transmits into the connective tissue of the knees and poses a risk for chronic injury.

A common cue in the fitness and yoga communities for squat-like poses is to align the knees above the heels, shifting weight back. Some kinesiology experts propose that this creates problematic postural instability due to improper kinesthetic development of balance.  

Others suggest that the center of gravity shifts out of the natural line when the knees are above the heels. For some, this can disrupt their functional balancing principles, placing them at risk for developing a pattern of rolling back off their heels and falling.

A new approach to grounding

The squat—and for that matter, most standing poses—require sustaining the functional center of gravity to optimize the inherently natural, biomechanical position of the body and limbs. Knowing this, how should the knees and feet be placed?

A new approach to the classic squat first considers the center of gravity. When standing in mountain pose, this center flows down through the tibia bones (shins), transmits through the talus bone (ankle), and ends just forward of the heel.  

When squatting, we should permit the knees to move slightly ahead of the heel allowing for dorsiflexion of the ankle while keeping the heels on the ground.  As the knees and hips flex, the spinal curvatures should remain neutral by engaging the core muscles, while encouraging the spine flow forward and follow the same angle of shin. We can then broaden the base of the feet from toe mounds to heel while focusing grounding pressure just ahead of heel.

Transferring to standing poses

In rooting through the forward edge rather than the center of the heel, we can experience a new depth of grounding in other standing poses as well. We can explore shifting the grounding pressure through the heel by adjusting the position of the knee relative to the heel, and aligning the angle of the spine with the tibia.  In bringing the energy into the front of the heel, the knees tend to come into appropriate alignment to facilitate stable grounding.

It is important to note that it is not wise to allow the knees to track forward beyond the heel in warrior poses or high lunges. If you are used to positioning your knee above the heel so that the force load works through the center heel, try moving the energy of the heel a little bit forward, and see how this transmits energy into the leg muscles and knee collectively.

Key points to remember

All postures need to support the body’s inherent movement patterns throughout the kinetic chain, and account for the gravitational and energetic balancing patterns that maintain joint integrity.  When we overload joints and take them out of their inherent biomechanical movement patterns, we risk chronic injury.  Understanding where force loads and gravitational lines flow throughout all stages of a pose can greater enhance your ability to align, root, and ground in order to optimize the benefits of your practice.  

If it feels as though your knee placement prevents you from feeling rooted, try these few suggestions. You may feel more grounded in your practice than ever before. 

 

Kreg Weiss, BHKin, is a certified hatha yoga teacher, international presenter and kinesiologist (exercise science).  All of his classes integrate a purposeful, meditative quality to allow for an experience of connection and reflection while the body explores expansion and renewal. With a background as a fitness trainer and athlete, Kreg has been teaching yoga since 2002 and complements his teaching practice with additional studies in Kinesiology and Health Sciences at the University of British Columbia. Through integrity-driven classes, Kreg aims to provide students with the tools to pursue a unique, confident practice where asanas, pranayama, and meditation interact collectively to rejuvenate and heal the body and mind.

The Key to Staying Fit? Experts Say It’s All About Fascial Fitness

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fascial fitness

By Mary Beth Sammons - 

Exercise scientists have long touted the benefits of training muscle strength and flexibility to achieve maximum fitness. Now yoga experts and practitioners are learning the important role of fascia in maintaining fitness and overall health.

For yogis wanting to boost muscular strength and fitness, this means focusing on elongating and releasing the body’s connective tissues such as fascia, according to an article in the Telegraph UK.

Fascia is a broad term for the extracellular matrix of fibers, "glue" and water surrounding all your cells. Think of it as a seran wrap, wrapping around muscle fibers, muscles, organs, bones, blood vessels and nerves -- and finally as a second skin around your entire body.

Experts are beginning to recognize that most injuries involve the fascia, and that knowing how to work with this connective tissue is one important key to preventing injuries. Fascial fitness may just be the new wave of training for yogis and athletes of all kinds.

Some yoga studios are launching facial releasing classes in response to the growing demand of yoga practitioners who seek a greater understanding of the body on a cellular level. A leader in this trend is London’s Virgin Active and Twenty-Two Training, which now offers classes focusing specifically on fascial release.

George Ashwell of Twenty-Two Training explains, "Release the fascial tissue and you'll boost muscle tissue hydration, enable a full range or muscle motion, prevent restriction during training, recover better after exercise and decrease your risk of injury. It also means a better flow of blood and nutrients to you muscles." So fascia is an important part of the fitness equation.

Ashwell and the team of physiotherapists and sports therapists at Twenty-Two have developed fascial release massages, designed to help with chronic injury and sports performance.

"A unique deep tissue massage can really help change the structure and flexibility of our muscles”, explains Twenty-Two's founder Dalton Wong. “We are the only place in the UK with this specific technique," he says.

Interestingly, Twenty-Two Training has also developed a facial treatment to relax and release thickened and restricted fascial tissue. Having spoken to someone who's recently tried and tested the treatment, she told me that experienced noticeable signs of relief, particularly in areas of tension around the jaw.

In the U.S., Equinox studios have launched the new RX Series in which they use the 3 M’s: massage, mobilization and maximizing performance to revitalize the body. A completely new concept for the US-born fitness company, these classes are based on self-myofascial massage only, 'to recharge and prep the body for higher performances,' they say.

Also of Interest: Check out Tom Myers’ course on YogaUOnline: Fascial Fitness - An Emerging Revolution in Movement Science. For information on the course, click here.

 

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

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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 on how to get the recordings of Ana's talk and other talks in the series, go here: Sadhana Sundays Series. 

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: The physical, 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.

The Africa Yoga Project: Inspiring Social Change with Yoga

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Africa yoga project

The language of yoga, with its beautiful, poetic expressions of the body is universal. But images of an African man doing yoga in a field with zebras, orphans in Nairobi demonstrating downward dog poses, or inmates at the Langata Women's Prison combining dancing and yoga without a doubt are among the most inspiring and heart melting expressions of yoga.

From Africa to the Middle East and even war-torn countries, yoga is becoming an instrument of inspiring social change. A leading non-profit organization in this trend is the Africa Yoga Project, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

While images from inner cities in Africa often depict terrible suffering, the tranquility and celebration of human beings reaching their full potential comes to life in a powerful way through the Africa Yoga Project.

Yoga Africa Project

The Africa Yoga Project is a non-profit organization established in 2007 with a mission to use the transformative power of yoga to empower communities and change lives.

According to an article in Conscious Life, the program got its start when former Wall Street Journal consultant Paige Elenson was on safari with her family in Kenya and spotted some locals practicing acrobatics in a rural area. A keen yoga enthusiast, she joined them and began to teach them some yoga moves. That’s where the idea to bring yoga into the neighborhoods and informal settlements of Nairobi was born. Elenson teamed up with yoga guru Baron Baptiste, and the Africa Yoga Project was born.  


Today over 6,000 Kenyans participate in more than 350 weekly community yoga classes in 80 locations, including community centers, orphanages, prisons and schools. In addition to teaching yoga, the program provides educational scholarships, job training, food stipends, temporary housing and health services to people in need. More than 72 teachers are employed, giving them an opportunity to take care of themselves and their families.

For Eliam Sandra Wanjiku, one of the young women trained to teach yoga, the project has been transformative.

“[M]y life was a mess. I was a rude girl who would fight with anyone. I used to live in a mud house with no water or toilet. I thought yoga was a cult for the rich,” Wanjiku says of her life before she became involved with the Africa Yoga Project. The first time she tried yoga, however, she felt a tremendous shift.  “During my first yoga class, I felt like a big burden had been lifted from my back and I suddenly felt like a new, full person.

For Wanjiku, that first class became the beginning of a new life. “The Africa Project has changed my life in many ways;” she says. “I am now a responsible mother. I’m more polite, and I live in a good house with water and plumbing.”

Her story speaks volumes about the impact of the Africa Yoga Project and its impact throughout Kenya.

The nucleus of the project is housed in the Shrine Center in the heart of Nairobi. There, hundreds of young people come to be trained as yoga instructors. It’s also where yogis from throughout the world come to volunteer through the organization’s various charities. Scholarship participants from Ethopia, South Africa, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Israel and Palestine also took part in a 200-your training course, with the hope that they will bring Africa Yoga Project back to their communities, reports Elenson in the Conscious Life article.

Join the Africa Yoga Project’s Seva Safari 

Are you looking for an opportunity to serve? The Africa Yoga Project’s Seva Safari, July 17 through 26, 2014, is an opportunity for families and friends to travel together, to experience a new culture and connect as a family on a Kenyan adventure that you will share forever. 

Through the Seva Safari, families will participate in yoga practice, meditation, self-exploration through inquiry, performing arts as a vehicle for empowerment, health education (HIV/AIDS), relationship building, and community activism. The programs are designed to increase physical, emotional and mental wellbeing on the individual level while also building healthy and empowered communities. 

This adventure will be led by Dana Robinson, a registered yoga teacher, registered children’s yoga teacher, and mother to three, who has spent eight years teaching yoga to families and young children. She and her husband served as Africa Yoga Project Ambassadors last June, and now they are leading the adventure next summer. 

Robinson will be co-facilitating with Billy Sadia, Development Director for Africa Yoga Project, a certified Baptiste Teacher and father. Together they have created a heartfelt itinerary designed for families to connect deeply to the environment, to new Kenyan friends and to one another.

Families will work side by side with other Africa Yoga Project families to build lasting friendships, all while opening the door to new cultures, people and ideas. The trip will include a visit to the Abedare Mountains to work with the Flying Kites Orphanage. For more information, see The Seva Safari.

Photos used with permission from Robert Sturman

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

 

 

Yoga for the Heart: 5 Tips for Nurturing Yourself

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By Dr. Jennifer L. Weinberg, MD, MPH, MBE - 

Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate love for significant others, our friends, families, neighbors and special someone. But what about showing some love for yourself?

When we send loving thoughts to ourselves and care for ourselves, it is like practicing yoga for our mental-emotional heart. When we learn to lovingly embrace our strengths and our weaknesses and to have compassion for who we are as we strive to find deeper meaning and fulfilment in our lives, we are supporting our physical, emotional and spiritual growth and well-being.

To practice yoga for the heart, it is important that we turn inward and shift from the self-judgment and negativity to compassion and a positive focus.  Self-love is about feeling good, and it has been proven to impact both our bodies and our minds.

As we celebrate this week of love, here are 5 tips for practicing yoga for the heart and nurturing your body, mind and soul:

  1. Be Still. Being connected to what you feel, think and want allows you to remain mindful of who you are and act on this knowledge. Slow down and begin to notice what you are saying to yourself and the thoughts which you are having. Reflect on how these are impacting your mood, health and behavior. When you become mindful of who you truly are, you are more likely act on this wisdom rather than on what you perceive others want from you.
  2. Nurture Yourself. Practice self-care: nourish yourself through healthy activities like balanced nutrition, exercise, getting enough sleep and healthy social interactions. When you show yourself love through these types of actions, you will continue to take better care of your basic needs. This sets the foundation for growth and living an authentic life.
  3. Be Kind to Yourself. While it is important to own and take responsibility for our actions, it is also important to learn and grow from our mistakes. Forgive yourself instead of punishing yourself. We are humans and therefore not perfect. Practice self-compassion when you make a mistake. Reframe mistakes as lessons, and embrace them as chances to learn and grow.
  4. Set Boundaries. Being able to set limits or say no to activities, interactions and work that depletes or harms you physically, emotionally or spiritually shows self-love and compassion.
  5. Live With Intention. When you live with purpose and meaning, you will make decisions that support your intentions. This makes you feel great about yourself when you accomplish your true purpose. If you set your intention to live in a healthy and meaningful way, you will take actions that support this intention.

Choose one way to start caring for yourself today. As you work on beginning to accept and love yourself more, you will start to notice that you naturally learning to take these actions to love yourself.  This will allow and inspire others around you to express themselves in the same way. You can only love another person as much as you love yourself. As you begin to treat yourself with love and compassion, you will start to attract people and circumstances that support your well-being.

How will you celebrate learning to cherish yourself more? Share your favorite self-nurturing strategies in the comments.

 

Dr. Jennifer Weinberg, MD, MPH, MBE is a preventive and lifestyle medicine physician and the Founder of the 
Simple|Pure|WholeTM Wellness Method. She offers innovative online wellness and education programs for individuals looking for sustainable optimal health and non-toxic living as well as health care providers seeking to embrace a transformative approach to health care and corporations wanting to integrate a holistic approach to corporate wellness. She also provides a comprehensive All-Natural virtual Recharge Experience for those ready to rejuvenate and build a strong foundation for sustainable life-long wellness! For more information vist her webpage JenniferWeinbergMD.com and connect with her on her Facebook page.

 

Improving Posture: Don’t Get Trapped in Internal Rotator Dominance

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improving our posture

By Kreg Weiss - 

In our computer-dominated society, poor posture is increasingly common. And while the usual recommendation is to simply ‘stand straight,’ changing posture habits is just not that easy.

Poor posture typically results from a combination of cascading, dysfunctional elements acting on our musculoskeletal system. This dysfunction is often exacerbated by the fact we have a strong tendency towards a dominance of our internal rotators of the humerus (upper arm bone).

As muscle tension imbalances set in across the shoulders and upper arms, the dominance of internal rotation from the upper arm and shoulder transmits an undesirable 'pulling' force onto the shoulder blades. This ultimately draws the shoulder blades forward, leading to inhibition and weakening of the musculature needed to counter dominant internal shoulder rotation. 

To improve posture and increase structural balance, it’s useful to get to know the various internal rotators to gain a better sense of these tension imbalances.

Pectoralis major – this powerhouse chest muscle runs from the collar bone, chest bone, and ribs to connect into the top, front aspect of the upper arm bone (humerus).  Besides pulling the arm bone into the body (adduction), the pectoralis major has a significant internal rotation action on the humerus.

Anterior deltoid – traveling from the collarbone and partly from the shoulder blade (acromion process), the anterior deltoid is responsible for flexing the shoulder (lifting the arm bone forward) and abduction (IF the arm bone is externally rotated). It also has a strong internal rotation component.

Latissimus dorsi (and teres major) – another powerhouse muscle running from the hip crest, spinous processes of the vertebra, and ribs, this large back muscle comes from inside the arm to attach on the front, inside aspect of the upper arm (similar location to the pectoralis major). The teres major comes just off the shoulder blade and attaches very close to the same insertion as the latissimus dorsi (at the upper arm). Both of these muscles play a major role in extending the shoulder (or bringing the arm bone back down into anatomical position from a flexed state). Because of their line of insertion at the upper arm, these muscles also contribute to internal rotation of the humerus.

Subscapularis – one of our four rotator cuff muscles responsible for stabilizing and supporting the head of the arm bone in the shoulder socket, the subscapularis runs from the inside of the shoulder blade and connects onto the front of the arm bone. Besides shoulder socket stabilization, the line of pull from its contraction facilitates adduction of the arm bone and internal rotation.

Our body has a set of external rotators of the humerus: posterior deltoid, infraspinatus, teres minor. When we compare the internal rotators to the external rotators, it appears that the external rotators are at a disadvantage in creating a balanced muscle tension relationship against the internal rotators. 

Compound this structural disadvantage with postural imbalances from work, home, physical activity, health, and injuries, and we clearly see how the internal rotators can overwhelm the external rotators. How much of our day is chronically spent with the arms forward (shoulder flexion), arm bones internally rotating, and shoulder blades being drawn forward?

With simple changes and additions to our work and home life, we can prevent our bodies from having poor posture. By acknowledging these tendencies towards tension imbalances and structural disadvantages, we can slowly change our habits and tendencies, making it possible to ‘stand straight’ with ease.

Reprinted with permission from www.kregweiss.ca

 

Kreg Weiss, BHKin, is a certified hatha yoga teacher, international presenter and kinesiologist (exercise science).  All of his classes integrate a purposeful, meditative quality to allow for an experience of connection and reflection while the body explores expansion and renewal. With a background as a fitness trainer and athlete, Kreg has been teaching yoga since 2002 and complements his teaching practice with additional studies in Kinesiology and Health Sciences at the University of British Columbia. Through integrity-driven classes, Kreg aims to provide students with the tools to pursue a unique, confident practice where asanas, pranayama, and meditation interact collectively to rejuvenate and heal the body and mind.

 

 

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