Passing Fancies & Becoming a Super Yogi

Unknown-2My life is filled with passing fancies.

When I wrote about my client Margaret and her experiences piloting military aircraft in World War II, I immersed myself so deeply in the history of the Women Airforce Service Pilots that I took my acrophobic self on a twenty minute flight in an open cockpit Stearman biplane. I remember waking up pre-dawn to write a fictional account of her story. I did that until I reached 180,000 words (give or take a few) and then moved on. Her story remains in a box under my bookshelf.

When I wanted to know everything I could know about anatomy for the yogi I took the journey all the way to Gil Hedley’s cadaver lab. I was cocky enough to consider myself more informed than the average yoga teacher on all things regarding attachments, insertions and bony prominences. I was wrong.

I’m telling you this because then I met Louis Jackson. Louis is a senior teacher at Samyama Yoga Center. He also is an integral part of our Dharma Path Teacher Training and co-teaches with John Berg our landmark course in beginning yoga, Building the Temple. When Louis found yoga, it wasn’t a passing fancy. That’s true for most teachers, of course, but Louis’s yogic path has risen so high and so far that he has become one of a handful of gifted and genuine master teachers I’ve met in thirty years of practice. I feel sometimes that while I skim the surface, Louis dives deep.

He would disagree, of course, but in my mind humility is the touchstone that keeps us learning and growing. Louis is a powerful and humble teacher.

This video is proof. Shot by the gifted Devin Begley, Louis takes two minutes to describe the beauty of the breath and gorgeousness of that marvelous dome of muscle we call the diaphragm.

Want to learn something new today?


My Aura Embraces Your Aura

Head wrap and ear plugs at the ready!

Head wrap and ear plugs at the ready!

I’m anxious. Fidgety, clutched and giggly. In a tizzy.

This is not the state-of-mind one would associate with a yoga teacher. Yet it happens.

Anxiety happens. Because anything could happen. And isn’t it the fear and anticipation of the unknown that trips us up? Starts the spiral and spins the story? But the unknown is just that – unknown. So what’s the problem? It’s all good. As my grandmother may have joked, “Isch ga bibble!”

Yet if I had fingernails, they’d be chewed to the quick. Because my life is going to change this year.

That’s the one thing we can count on. Change. Change is constant. Each moment is new. Some moments of change, however, are more profound than others. And the anxiety and anticipation I’m experiencing is a mix of fear, joy and impending adventure.

It’s as if I’m an audience of one, waiting for the curtain to be drawn back (and hoping that I overcome my aversion to hugs and sharing circles).

On Tuesday I begin two years of study at Sofia University. In March I begin teaching at Samyama Yoga Center. Yes, I’ve mentioned my admission to Sofia and the building of Samyama in previous posts. They are small things in the course of human events. Very big things in the course of this small life.

So how am I handling the anxiety? How do you think?

Yoga. Yoga. Yoga. Breathing. Yoga. Meditating. Yoga. With a few sandbags and head wraps thrown in for good measure.

More specifically:

  • A strong Yang practice featuring plenty of Flying Dragons to burn off the fidgets.
  • A soft Yin practice to open and release.
  • Restorative work featuring the placement of a sandbag on my forehead (yes, seriously).
  • Meditation featuring head wraps and earplugs (yes, seriously).

And finally, embracing this time of deep change and new beginnings with a living, ‘off-the-mat, into-the-world’ daily practice – a practice that will melt rigid trepidation.  A practice that will encourage blissful surrender to the unfamiliar journey I’m beginning.

As for my aversion to hugs and sharing circles? Well, that’s something for me to work on. In the meantime, Samyama’s owner John Berg offered this advice at our last staff meeting, “If someone goes in for the hug, just tell them ‘my aura is embracing your aura’. Works every time.”

And it does.

 


Let’s Talk About Yin. Yes, again.

English: Tension lines of the human skin. They...

English: Tension lines of the human skin. They follow the main fibres of the connective tissue of skin.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about anatomy, too. And whether or not a yoga teacher needs to study anatomy and physiology…

I was having coffee last week with Anirudh Shastri and John Berg. Both are much admired and deeply loved teachers in the Bay Area. In January John’s dream will be a reality when Samyama opens its doors in Midtown Palo Alto. I am so proud John found me and asked me to teach at Samyama. I’m proud to be part of a faculty that includes – besides John and Shastri – Louis Jackson, Annika Williams, Hilary Easom, Amy Rogg, Clive Beavis and Lindsey Amrein. We are not only a team of teachers but a family. We meet regularly and support each others’ practice and teachings as strongly as we hold our vision of Samyama. We all chose different paths and somehow still managed to arrive at the same place. How wonderful is that? Eight individuals. Amazing journeys. Same vision. Different stories.

Here’s my story about why I believe the study of anatomy is important for any yoga teacher:

I didn’t go to medical school. I attended massage school. It was a good school and the anatomy was fast, furious and hard taught. I learned the names of the muscles and the names of the bones. I learned the origins and attachments. I looked at fake plastic skeletons and the living limbs of my bodywork clients and my yoga students. But until I saw these photographs I didn’t know. Until I studied with this couple and then this man I didn’t know. I didn’t know that for fifteen years I was teaching an alignment-focused style of yoga and assumed my students’ inability to move deeply into any particular posture was the fault of a ‘tight’ muscle. I never considered the important contribution bones and connective tissue make toward how we move and how we feel. How we experience asana.

It seems obvious. It feels like it is something I should have known all along. But I didn’t. It’s my continued study of anatomy that has provided an insight I didn’t have when I began teaching.

One of my responsibilities as a yoga teacher – particularly a teacher who loves introducing beginning students to the profound joy of an asana practice – is to keep you safe. Knowing the difference between a femur and a tibia helps me do that. Describing the sacroiliac joint and understanding fascia helps me do that. No, my classes are not a lesson in human anatomy. But sometimes it’s more efficient – more precise – to name a muscle in the body rather than indicate an area on the body.

In-depth study of anatomy has changed my teaching. I will agree – it’s not for everyone. But it turned me from an alignment-centric cookie cutter teacher into one who focuses less on the aesthetics of alignment and more on helping each student have their own, ever-changing, safe, unique life-affirming asana experience.

Shastri was about halfway through his coffee and John had probably finished his tea when the discussion turned to Yin and connective tissue.

Yin – like any style of yoga – can provide something different depending on what time of the day you practice and what your intention is for your practice.

Yin Yoga shifts our awareness away from yang’s contracting strength and power to soft and melting expansion. Contraction and expansion are neither positive nor negative. They are states our body experiences as we move through life. Yin Yoga restores but should not be considered the style of yoga we call Restorative. Yin Yoga is challenging but many of the challenges differ from the ones we find in classic Hatha Yoga.

Physiologically, Yin Yoga stresses connective tissue. These tissues include fascia, tendon, ligament and bone. Because we hold yin poses for time, the practice also offers a deep release to the nervous system. It feels intuitively wrong to consider stressing our joints, but done with right intention the practice results in greater stability and fluid flexibility. Consider this – we don’t correct crooked teeth (yin tissue) with a blow from a hammer. We use orthodontia – a long, slow and sometimes uncomfortable technique that realigns and corrects. That is Yin Yoga in a nutshell.

When I take yin in the morning my muscles are cool. They’ve not woken up. They’re at their shortest. This is the time when my yin focus is less on the benefits to the nervous system and more on the gifts to the connective tissue. My cold muscles won’t “steal” the stretch away from the connective tissue. The stretch/stress is not diluted by muscles that are warm enough to accept a deep fold or twist. The practice is more challenging to me in the morning because my body is cool and my ego is bruised. In the morning I cannot sink into the same deep and calming positions I can explore with an evening yin practice. The morning yin practice is sometimes frustrating but teaches acceptance and mindfulness. And it reminds us not only to be humble in our practice but to have a sense of humor.

But Yin Yoga is not all about the connective tissue.

When I practice Yin Yoga in the evening my intention shifts from the effects on the body to those on the spirit. In the evening our muscles, warm from a day full of movement and work, will absorb some of the effort saved for the connective tissue in the morning. But experiencing yin’s long-held poses in the evening calms the mind and prepares the body for sleep. Many of my students have told me the evenings they attend class are the evenings they know they’ll have the week’s best nights sleep.

Yin is a style of yoga that nurtures balance. For the yogi whose practice emphasizes power, strength and endurance Yin Yoga may feel too slow or too easy. With time and an open mind, however, even the most ardent Bikram devotee’ will recognize the grace, challenge and benefits of Yin’s quiet beauty.

As for me, I need both. I love a strong, contracting Yang practice just as deeply as I love a cool, quiet and expansive evening of Yin. That’s what balance is all about.


Core Balance for the Lumbar Spine: A Workshop with Narelle Carter-Quinlan

In anatomy, lumbar is an adjective that means ...

California Yoga Center offers fine workshops throughout the year but I am particularly excited about this one.

I met Narelle, who’s from Australia, two years ago when we attended Gil Hedley’s Anatomy Workshop in San Francisco.  Her soft-spoken nature belies an intense devotion to her work.

This workshop is going to be of interest to anyone with a fragile lumbar spine, but should be of special interest to yoga and body movement teachers.  It will be of tremendous benefit to new teachers who would like to improve their understanding of the structure of the spine.

I highly recommend it!  You can register online by clicking here.

Core Balance: Stabilizing Lumbar Spine & Sacrum with Narelle Carter-Quinlan

Sunday, August 5 from 1:30-4:30 pm in Mountain View

Through a clear and richly detailed slide presentation illuminating the contribution of deep postural muscles and application of this information to asana practice, Narelle Carter-Quinlan will help us come to an embodied and functional understanding of lumbar spine and sacrum stability.

This workshop is open to anyone with at least one year of yoga experience. The material is of particular relevance to those working with, or supporting, students with general low back pain.

Narelle Carter-Quinlan has been passionately engaged with yoga, dance and embodied movement practices for over 45 years.  Since 2007. Narelle has presented her scholarly and movement research in Yoga and Scoliosis International Conferences, including the World Congress for Low Back and Pelvic pain in Los Angeles, November 2010. For more on Narelle, go to her web site.

Fee is $65 in advance and $75 on the day of the event.


Reflexology – A Treat for the Feet

Português:

I’ve been an ITEC Certified Reflexologist for ten years.  The modality is a treat for anyone but especially perfect if you are in recovery from illness or surgery or simply have difficulty navigating the climb onto a massage table.  Reflexology can be done in your home from the comfort of your favorite chair.  A version of this article was published in Yoga Living Magazine in 2010.  Over the past few weeks I’ve been delighted to accept new Reflexology clients and for them I happily re-post this article.

My Feet Are Killing Me!

Really?  Maybe it’s the other way around.  Let’s face it.  Our feet are underappreciated.  They carry the weight of our bodies with nary a complaint.  We smoosh them into poorly fitted shoes that force our little phalanges into unnatural shapes. And then we stand on them for hours. We depend on our feet to keep us moving from home to work and then, at the end of the day, we increase the massive force of each footfall by slipping on a pair of running shoes and going for a jog on hard concrete.

And what thanks do they get?

Nada.

If they’re lucky we’ll give our toes a wee wiggle before bed.  Our feet deserve more.  Pedicures are pretty, but I’m talking about deep healing.  I’m talking about maintaining the health of our feet while supporting health and healing throughout the entire body.  I’m talking Reflexology.

Reflexology to the Rescue

Reflexology is a massage and pressure point technique applied to the sole of the foot similar in theory to acupressure massage and acupuncture.

I know – I bet you think you’re too ticklish. Who hasn’t suffered under the hands of an older sibling who, at some point during our childhood, took cruel delight in torturing us by tickling our toes, home to thousands of nerve endings?

But stimulating these nerve endings – with a firm and not ticklish touch – sends messages to corresponding areas of the body.  Reflexology calms the nervous system and supports our body in a way that restores equilibrium by stimulating sluggish energetic pathways while settling pathways that are overactive, thus providing an opportunity for the body to begin the healing process. Reflexology builds and sustains our reserves and enables us to cope with day-to-day stress triggers.  Regular reflexology treatments may also shorten our recovery time from major life upsets or illness.

A Brief History

Eastern cultures noticed the link between the health of our feet and general wellness thousands of years ago.  They didn’t call their work reflexology, and they hadn’t mapped out the foot reflexes, but they knew that regular massage and an appreciation for the feet supported overall vitality.

Reflexology as we know it today arrived more recently in the West – during the early part of the twentieth century – when Eunice Ingham developed the reflex ‘maps’ therapists are familiar with today.

The popularity of reflexology is on the rise as therapists and clients discover the intense effects working on the soles of the feet have on the rest of the body.  Reflexology is a gentle way for clients who are not comfortable disrobing for a full-body massage to receive the stress relieving benefits of touch therapy.

In the Zone

Reflexology divides the foot into ten vertical zones and three horizontal zones.  The zones act like a guide for the reflexologist – a ‘foot map’ of sorts.  In theory a blockage in one part of a zone correlates to a particular organ but also influences everything else in that zone.  Working the appropriate and specific foot reflex within the zone will stimulate subtle muscular contraction or release throughout the zone.

The zones of the feet are similar to the meridians used in acupuncture and acupressure.

As with acupuncture and acupressure, reflexology is a therapy that demonstrates the interrelationship between the different physiological systems as well as the mind, body and spirit.

Tell Me More…

A reflexology treatment lasts between forty-five minutes and an hour.  Unlike a full-body massage you’ll remain – except for your feet of course – fully clothed.  The therapist will begin by ‘greeting’ both feet, looking for any abnormalities, calluses or injuries.  It’s better to skip the toenail polish on the day of your treatment – your therapist will want to note any discoloration in the nail bed.  Finally, she’ll take a whiff.  An odor coming from the feet may point to a kidney or liver imbalance – but remember, reflexology is not a diagnostic tool.  An imbalance could indicate a temporary increase in life stress, an immune response to a virus or bacterium, or even a simple lack of attention to the diet.

So Far So Good – Then What Happens?

After several minutes of warming up, when you’re therapist has you floating in that wonderful place between sleep and bliss the real work begins.

Most reflexologists work one foot at a time, beginning with the right, although techniques will vary.  Some therapists have a light touch; others work more deeply. Both techniques are effective.

The reflexologist divides the foot into regions and systematically ‘thumb walks’ over each section.   The technique, where the outer edge of the thumb pad presses on the surface of the foot, allows the therapist to feel one small area at a time. The therapist can be very specific with her touch, stimulating reflex points with precision.

During this time she may feel a change in texture.  Sometimes areas that need work are indicated by small nodules beneath the skin that feel a little bit like grains of sand.  These are not harbingers of doom – they simply reflect a possible weakness. Your therapist will note these areas and either work on them immediately or go back to them toward the end of the treatment.

For example, if your immune system is compromised – if you’re coming down with a cold – your spleen reflex may feel a bit spongy or rough. She may work the area with more pressure or press additional ‘helper’ reflexes in order to soften or break up the nodule before moving on to another area of the foot.  She might also suggest aftercare – possibly including yoga asana – to strengthen a depleted immune system.

What Does it Feel Like?

The opening sequence of a treatment will feel very much like a typical foot massage. Your therapist may incorporate a few gentle stretches and joint manipulations that are beneficial to the circulatory system and conducive to relaxation. When the more specific aspects of the reflexology treatment begin you’ll feel the light pressure of thumb walking along a specific pathway on the foot. When your therapist finds an area of imbalance you may experience tenderness or irritation at that reflex point.

Some therapists will prefer to keep your head elevated.  This allows them to watch for the subtle changes in your expression as you respond to the treatment.  It’s important to communicate with your therapist – to tell her if something hurts, or if her touch is too strong – but sometimes during the treatment you’ll be too relaxed to speak.  Keeping your head elevated is the therapist’s way of keeping the lines of communication open.

General Aftercare

You will be encouraged to rest and relax following your treatment.  Find a quiet, still environment and sip water or herbal tea.  Allow the transition between your treatment and the return to ‘real’ life to be as gentle and easy as possible.

Reflexology is profoundly relaxing.  It soothes the nervous system and relieves stress.  While it does not offer a cure or a diagnosis, you can consider reflexology a conduit for greater healing.

While most treatments support general well being, a good therapist will be able to design a program that addresses specific concerns and conditions.  For instance, reflexology is excellent for digestive issues and sleep disturbances. It can also be of benefit for anyone suffering from chronic headaches and has been shown to provide relief from fibromyalgia. The truth is, reflexology has a positive effect on many chronic problems.  And while it isn’t a substitute for medical treatment, it is a powerful complement to an allopathic approach to illness.

A Home Treatment for Feet:

Use a golf ball to stimulate meridians and reflex points in the soles of the feet.  Soaking the feet in warm, scented water only adds to the treatment.

  • Place the golf ball on a folded towel (this will help keep it from rolling away from you).
  • Begin by resting the right foot on the ball at your diaphragm/solar plexus reflex.  This point is just below the ball of the foot, close to the midline.
  • Curling the toes down will stretch the top of the foot.
  • Hold this position for a few breaths.
  • When that feels complete, begin running the ball slowly up and down the foot, from the inside to the out.  Use firm but not painful pressure. Linger at any areas that may feel sensitive.  You can repeat this pattern as often as you like.
  • And then run the ball from side to side, working from the toes to the heel.  Again, stop and linger at any sensitive areas.
  • Repeat with the left foot.

Relieving Stress on the Road: 

A simple trick for calming down when stress attacks is finding the diaphragm/solar plexus point on the palm of your hand and applying a light pressure.  To find the point:

  • Relax the hand
  • Allow your left hand to fold gently and observe the creases in the palm.
  • They become well-defined and move towards one another.
  • The point where they are closest – just above the pad of the thumb and just below the space between the index and middle finger – that’s the general area of the solar plexus/diaphragm point.
  • Press into that spot gently with the pad of your right thumb.
  • Breathe in as you press.  Breathe out as you release.
  • Repeat several times, slowly and with self-awareness.
  • Repeat on the right side.

For more information about reflexology, or to find a reflexologist in your area visit these websites:

Reflexology Association of America: http://www.reflexology-usa.org/

American Reflexology Certification Board: www.arcb.net


Beware the YINJURY!

I couldn’t ignore the truth.  My hip was sore.  Real sore.  It was wince-inducing sore.  And while I limped in denial I began to hear stories similar to mine:  a recurring shoulder pain that increased after Yin practice; a wonky knee that ached the next day; a lower back that refused another forward fold.  All injuries reported by Yin Yoga students.

I refused to believe my beloved Yin was to blame.  It just had to be something else.  Yet, listening to these my students describe the course of events that led to their discomfort and considering my overstretched hip flexor with an objective mind the truth was obvious:  we had YINJURIES – the Yin equivalent to falling asleep in the tanning bed.  Sigh.

For a time the science of flexibility seemed to be changing like the wind.  When I trained as a sports massage therapist long held static stretches were all the rage.  Now the trend leans toward fast dynamic stretching.  I’m confused.  If science supports short and sharp stretches where does Yin fit in?  Does it hurt more than it helps?

I asked anatomist and philosopher Gil Hedley, circular strength training coach Michael Rook and personal trainer Steven Rice their opinion.

Gil offered this:

Virtually anything can be harmful or helpful.  That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to how you are feeling when you are doing something.  I’m no scientist, but I’ve overstretched and endured the consequences, and I’ve also relished the feeling of stretching and moving and enjoyed the benefits.  I personally believe that most anything you do over and over again represents a rut eventually, and like to change things up a bit myself.  While a practice is expanding you and your horizons, enjoy it.  When it becomes a tedium or mere repetition to satisfy a habit, move on.

There have been moments in my Yin practice when I’ve taken the poses almost ‘by rote’ – without thinking.  Without feeling.  Perhaps when we lose our mindfulness in the practice we open the door to injury?

Michael, who attended Paul Grilley Yin Teacher Training with me a few years ago, was frank in his opinion:

To be honest, I’m not surprised to hear about this.  The science is relatively clear that stretching before resistance training (some of my students attend Yin and then lift weights the following day) can harm performance and lead to injury.  Even more so before using kettle bells, I would say.  Personally, I don’t hold stretches for more than a minute (and it depends on the stretch).  There’s also a lot of deep flexion in many Yin poses that can play havoc with the lower back (if you’re posteriorly rotated).  Ultimately, all practices need to be tailored to the individual.

That sounds like obvious advice, but how often do teachers really attempt to do that?  In a large class that’s virtually impossible.  While it’s the instructor’s responsibility to guide the class safely, does it really come down to the individual listening to their body?

Michael then referred me to Charles Poliquin’s Blog and the Gymnastics Bodies website.

Finally, local trainer Steve “Mr. Science” Rice gave me this to chew on:

My understanding is that the ligaments should not be stretched as that will lead to joint laxity, and they don’t recover from that.  However it is also possible for the ligaments and capsule to get a bit glued together and need a bit of loosening.

Tendons of course are attached to muscles so I don’t know if they can be stretched separately.  A stretch will affect the tissue most willing to lengthen which is likely the muscle, and the length of a muscle is determined first of all by the brain. 

Traditional static stretching, like holding a yoga pose, has become depreciated in the sports world because it has been shown to decrease performance.  Current thinking emphasizes dynamic warm-up and mobility work.  End ROM (range of motion) positions are moved into and out of under control so the entire neuromuscular chain is engaged.  For example, instead of hanging in a forward bend with gravity pulling you down, walk and on each step do a high kick.  My stretches last no more than one or two seconds.

And then, just to inject a bit of controversy, Steven wrote:

Incidentally, Poliquin is a smart guy and leading fitness authority but also controversial in his interpretation of research.

So there you have it.  Static stretching out.  Dynamic stretching in.

Not so fast.  I love Yin not only for how it feels in my body but for how it soothes my spirit.  There’s no way I’m trading those five-minute dragonflies for some high kicks!  But here’s what I might do:

Offer my body more support in poses that are challenging for me.

  • Hold some poses for less time.
  • Avoid weight training for 24 hours after a Yin practice (I can assure you that won’t be a problem).
  • And then, more than anything, I’m going to listen.

Fitness trends emerge and fade, theories behind the science of flexibility change, our bodies cycle through movements that feel good and movements that don’t.

It seems that the only thing we can do is listen.


The Hip Bone’s Connected to the…

Anterior Hip Muscles

Image via Wikipedia

Do yoga teachers need to study anatomy?

I recently heard a well-loved and respected teacher with decades of experience give this answer before a group of trainees: “in my opinion, no.”  He believes we learn everything we need to know about the body through a strong asana practice.

Is he right?  Maybe.

A finely tuned practice, after all, strengthens our understanding of how we move, how we function, our strengths and restrictions.  Why do we need to know the muscles used for breathing?  Why do we need to know how the bones join together at the knee?

Because when a new student enters our studio and tells us they’re a few months past a lumbar laminectomy, or that last year they had meniscus surgery, or they’ve recently been diagnosed with osteoporosis – we should know what that means and what the implications are for their yoga practice.

And so, in my opinion:  yes, yoga teachers should study anatomy.

The teacher continued with his points:

“You don’t want to take up class time explaining the muscles…”

He’s right.  I don’t use class time for anatomy lessons.  But when a student asks why they feel Ustrasana (camel pose) near their hip crease I can move beyond “it’s because you’re tight there” and explain the hip flexors and their function.  I can explain how they become shortened and other ways to lengthen them.

And when a student’s knees are no closer to the ground in Baddha Konasana (seated cobbler’s pose) than they were when they began their practice five years earlier I can explain how each skeleton is different.  I can reassure her that it has little to do with flexibility and more to do with how the femur sits in the acetabulum. Knowing I can do this – knowing I can guide my student toward an improved understanding of their body – increases my confidence as an instructor.

Furthermore, when a student needs help modifying a pose or if they’re unable to assume “correct” alignment my understanding of anatomy informs the choices I make to help the student – whether it’s a different verbal cue, using a different prop for support or suggesting a different asana.

Do I know the name of every muscle and bone?  Of course not.  But by studying anatomy I’ve been given an amazing gift – a sort of “x-ray vision.”

Every body is unique. Knowledge of anatomy helps us see these differences. And since we can’t step into our students’ bodies to experience an asana as they do, having a good understanding of the body – knowing that the rectus femoris is a two joint muscle and might explain why the front of the hip hurts when the knee is drawn back in Natarajasana (dancer’s pose) – well, if I can’t experience what my student’s feel first hand, then knowledge of anatomy is the next best thing.