General

Yoga Beyond Belief

Ganga'sBook2.1.14There are a myriad of yoga books these days, many of which offer valuable information, and others that provide beautiful photos of great bodies in unusual positions. One of my favorite books, Yoga Beyond Belief, is more thought-provoking and insightful than it is visual. It is written by an internationally well-known yoga teacher whom I have knows for about 40 years (yikes!), Ganga White. He and his partner and wife, Tracey Rich, founded and run the White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara, CA. Through their yoga teacher training programs, Ganga is responsible for educating and encouraging thousands of blossoming new yoga teachers. I recommend their course to any aspiring yogis who want to expand their practice to include teaching others. (See the contact information below if you are interested in learning more about them and their program.*)

Dr. Andrew Weil, respected MD and author of Eating Well for Optimal Health, referred to Ganga as a “noted renegade yogi” and I agree that Ganga has been a frontrunner in questioning and challenging old traditions. I have always seen him as stating the obvious that others have not dared to vocalize. Joel Kramer, author of The Guru Papers and A Passionate Mind says that “This (Ganga’s) book can make yoga meaningful to people who never imagined it could be.  It is a tour de force of deconstructing tradition and making yoga a powerful, exploratory vehicle for modern times.”

With its growing popularity, there are now also many more yoga schools and philosophies.  Many people can be seen carrying yoga mats and it is not unusual to hear conversations not only about poses, but about yoga beliefs and principles.  And, I think with his “Insights to Awaken and Deepen Your Practice” (the subheading of his book), Ganga offers much food for thought for anyone practicing yoga –newbies as well as seasoned older teachers.

For those new to yoga, he explains in clear, easy-to-understand language about many of the ancient concepts and aspects of yoga. In statements such as “our understanding of spirituality needs to grow and evolve beyond the limits of tradition and ancient mappings” (page 204) Ganga tells us to “grow outside the box” at a time when so many are now trying to emulate the East. An example is in his discussion of meditation. It is commonly thought that to meditate, one needs to learn how to sit for long periods and “empty the mind” or focus on a mantra. But Ganga frees the reader from these boundaries by explaining that “…inner silence is still only one petal of the flowering mind…a questioning mind, an intelligent mind, a flexible mind, an open mind…these are just a few of the myriad valuable capacities of the mind” (page 172-3) and he suggests sometimes walking out in a forest to appreciate nature instead of just sitting. Simple.

Along with his charming stories, Ganga makes this book not only thought-provoking but also fun to read. I encourage all my students to read it and hope that others will do the same. This book is a gem and I recommend it to anyone who wants to “stand on the shoulders of the past to find out how we can see a bit farther.” (page 11)

If you have any question or comments, feel free to email me at shsh@yogawithshoosh.com.

*If you are interested in ordering this book, you can go directly to the White Lotus website at www.whitelotus.org/books_dvds.html or call them to order at 805-964-1944.

Resolutions and Yoga in Your Daily Life

This is the time of year for reflection.  We look back over the days of 2013 and think of the ways we made ourselves happy and also the things we did that caused or cause us disappointment.  As a result, we then often tell ourselves that THIS year, 2014, will be different. We will be “better” and we make promises to ourselves, most of which seem to bring disappointment when we once again reflect over the previous months at the end of 2014. Yoga is what we do to live in our bodies more contentedly.  So, this year, instead of making resolutions that you feel you “should” do, instead simply think about improving your life with things that you “want” to do.  Learn to incorporate yoga into your daily life!

How to do this is the BIG question!  For me, I try to start with honesty.  What will I actually do, not what do I hope I will do.  If you think you would like to attend more yoga classes than you did in 2013, be honest:  start by acknowledging how many classes you know you have been attending, and maybe say that one class per week is the minimum.  And, then any more than that will be a bonus that will make you feel good. OR, instead of trying to push yourself to go to more classes, tell yourself that you will start doing 4 rounds of sun exercises at home 2 days per week. And, maybe, once it starts feeling great, you might notice that you are adding other poses to that initial 4 rounds or doing them more than twice a week.  Once again, you will feel positive and pleased with yourself rather than disappointed that you are already not living up to your resolution. Being honest is the key. The goal is recognizing that you feel so much better after you practice, that you will want to practice and therefore will make the time and effort. But that has to be an honest feeling of want, not “should”.

The same can be said for those of you who feel you “should” start meditating, or you “should” increase the time of your meditation.  Many people spend their entire seated meditation time worrying that they are “not doing it right” or noticing how uncomfortable their knees feel or wondering how much time has passed.  For those folks, you might consider instead starting a walking meditation.  Find a lovely place to stroll and let your mind wander. Or, you can do a counting meditation by counting your footsteps, or counting the number of footsteps per breath, and so on. Be honest and find what works for you and makes your life better. Feeling disappointment with yourself is a negative that does not improve your life.

Living with more awareness is also something you can work on.  Notice your position when you sit down at the computer and adjust your pelvis to the correct seated angle (See my Seated Mountain Pose blog).  Be aware.  Before you get up from the computer, stretch your wrists (see my blog on Hands and Wrists).  Before going to sleep, move your neck and spine in all 6 directions (see my blog on Lymphatic Flow or view my YouTube Video.) Make this awareness a goal and it can become part of your life. Make 2014 a year of positives and enjoyment and honesty, awareness.  Live your yoga.

If you have any question or comments, feel free to email me at shsh@yogawithshoosh.com.  Happy New Year everyone!

LYMPHATIC FLOW YOGA SERIES

LYMPHATIC FLOW YOGA SERIES

The lymphatic system is part of our immune system and consists of tiny vessels, smaller than arteries and veins, which produce, store and carry white blood cells that fight infection and disease. So problems with the lymphatic system can impair the body’s ability to fight infections. We all should be aware of maintaining a healthy lymphatic system.

Lymphedema occurs when there is an impairment and the lymphatic fluids collect in the tissues and pool, causing swelling.  Lymphedema is a common side-effect of breast cancer surgery, and so maintaining a healthy flow is even more important for breast cancer survivors. Exercise is very important in keeping the flow of the lymphatic system healthy because the movements of the muscles stimulate the flow of the lymph.  However, not ALL exercise is appropriate.

For about 15 years I was the Executive Director of a nonprofit that worked to improve the quality of life for breast cancer survivors. During that time I created a Lymphatic Flow Series that is gentle and can be done seated. I have been teaching it to all my cancer students, as well as all of my basic yoga students and at workshops ever since. Before you begin this series, you should consult with your health practitioner about your own personal situation. For those at risk for, or who already have lymphedema, you might need to wear a sleeve when exercising, so make sure you check before you begin.

You will not need any special equipment fro this series. Wear comfortable clothes and the entire routine will be done seated, so make sure your chair is stable and solid. We have posted a VIDEO showing how to do each pose and movement.

The series starts with range-of-motion for your neck and spine and then moves from the shoulders, and trunk to the arms, hands and fingers. (In this series, we are not doing much for the legs except for the forward bend that stimulates the lymphatic flow in the groin area.)  By starting with moving the lymphatic fluid from the neck, trunk and central areas then moving from the arms to the fingers, the lymphatic flow is stimulated in a path that follows its natural flow.

THE SERIES:

This entire routine is done seated. Sit comfortably on the front edge of your chair with your feet about hip width apart.  If you are tall (or your chair is short) you might need to sit on a pillow or folded blanket or towel. (See my BLOG #4, posted on May 15, 2013, to learn more about how to sit properly.)  I often encourage the poses to be held for 3 breaths, but for simplicity to start, I have you hold for one breath each.  As you progress and get comfortable with the series, you can increase the breaths you hold each pose.

6 DIRECTIONS FOR YOUR NECK:

Your neck moves in 6 directions: side-to-side, twisting, forward and back

1-2. Side-to-Side:

  • Inhale, turn your head to the right, keeping your chin tucked a bit so the back of your neck is not compressed as you twist!
  • Exhale, turn your head to the left
  • Inhale back to the center (2 directions completed.)  Exhale

3-4. Ear-to-Shoulder:

  • Inhale, bring your right ear to your right shoulder (do not lift the shoulders.)
  • Exhale to the other side, your left ear to your left shoulder.
  • Inhale back to the center. (4 directions completed) Exhale

5-6. Forward and Back:

  • Inhale lifting your head and looking up (if your neck allows this.)
  • Exhale, drop your chin down towards your chest.
  • Inhale, back to the center. Exhale.

I tell my students that they can do the neck movements in front of a mirror before they brush their teeth. It doesn’t take long, but your neck will thank you for remembering and making it a daily routine!

6 DIRECTIONS FOR YOUR SPINE:

1-2:  Side-to-Side:

  • Bend your elbows and hold your arms a bit below shoulder level.
  • Keeping your hips and pelvis stable, swing your arms side-to-side, letting your head and eyes follow your elbow behind you so your entire spine gets rotated
  • Swing 3 times to each side (2 directions completed)

3-4:  Side Stretches:

  • Place your right hand on the outside of your left thigh, holding it mainly for balance.
  • Lift your left arm, placing your left hand on your head.
  • Inhale and lift the left elbow up towards the ceiling as you lean slightly towards the right.
  • Exhale, sit up straight, return your left hand to your lap.

Repeat on the other side:

  • Place your left hand on the outside of your right thigh.
  • Lift your right arm, placing your right hand on your head.
  • Inhale and lift the right elbow up towards the ceiling as you lean slightly towards the left.
  • Exhale, sit up straight, return your right hand to your lap. (4 directions completed)

5:  Arch Back:

  • Place your hands behind you on the sides of the seat of your chair.
  • Inhale, arch back and look up (if your neck allows that), lifting your sternum, opening the chest and rolling the shoulders back and down away from your ears.
  • Exhale and return to your starting position.

6.  Forward Bend:

  • Inhale, sit up straight.
  • As you exhale, lean forward and, either rest your elbows on your legs and let your head drop forward. OR, if you are more flexible, you can fold forward between both knees, letting your     arms and head drop down toward the floor.
  • Inhale and roll up to starting position. (6 directions completed)

Now we will work on the poses that open the shoulders.

EAGLE POSE: (to help stretch your back muscles around your shoulder blades)

  • Sitting up straight on your chair, bend your right elbow 90 degrees, if you can, in front of you
  • Either take your left hand and place it on the outside of your right elbow and move the elbow across your chest towards your midline ; OR, for those who are more flexible, bring your left elbow under your right one and intertwine your hands (or try to straighten the arms vertically), keeping them centered along your midline.
  • Inhale, and if you have your arms intertwined (2nd position above) lift them up a few inches without moving your head and neck.  Whichever position, visualize that nice stretch across the muscles of your back, under and around your shoulder blades.
  • Exhale and lower your arms if they are raised, and slowly unwind and release.

Repeat on the other side:

  • Sitting up straight on your chair, bend your left elbow 90 degrees, if you can, in front of you
  • Either take your right hand and place it on the outside of your left elbow and move the elbow across your chest towards your midline ; OR, for those who are more flexible, bring your right elbow under your left one and intertwine your hands (or try to straighten the arms vertically), keeping them centered along your midline.
  • Inhale, and if you have your arms intertwined (2nd position above) lift them up a few inches without moving your head and neck.  Whichever position, visualize that nice stretch across the muscles of your back, under and around your shoulder blades.
  • Exhale, lowering your arms if they are raised, and slowly unwind and release.

COW POSE: (forward rotation of the shoulder joint and stretching the triceps)

  • Bring your right arm straight up and bend the elbow, letting the lower arm drop down behind you.
  • Use your left hand to move the elbow closer to your head, facing forward to align the arm correctly in the shoulder socket before we continue.
  • Take you left arm out to the side, with your palm facing away from you towards the back and bend your elbow, moving the hand up your back.
  • Reach up with the left hand and try to grab the fingers of the right hand.
  • Hold the pose for one full breath and slowly release.
  • The goal and purpose of this pose is to increase the range-of-motion in the left shoulder socket and to stretch the muscles under the right upper arm (the triceps). So, do not force the   rotation. You can use a sock or towel, bathrobe belt or strap if you want, holding it in the right hand and dropping it down so your left hand can grab it and try to work the hands closer together. However, you do not need to use any prop if you don’t want to.  Move slowly and with awareness and keep practicing if your hands are far apart!

Repeat on the other side:

  • Bring your left arm straight up and bend the elbow, letting the lower arm drop down behind you.
  • Use your right hand to move the elbow closer to your head, facing forward to align the arm   correctly in the shoulder socket before we continue.
  • Take you right arm out to the side, with your palm facing away from you towards the back and bend your elbow, moving the hand up your back.
  • Reach up with the right hand and try to grab the fingers of the left hand.
  • Hold the pose for one full breath and slowly release.

ARM CIRCLES: (full range of motion for the shoulders)

This is a simple movement that anyone can do, but maybe your range will be much less, with smaller circles than you might have imagined!  This is a good pose to do in front of a mirror sometimes, so you can see for yourself how wide your circles are.  It is often a big surprise to my students because it may feel like full range, but in the mirror you can see that you might be bending your elbow, or not moving in a full range!  Give it a try.

  • Sitting with your arm left hand on your lap and your right hand hanging down by your side, inhale, and lift your right arm in front of you and then up as high as you can, keeping the arm as close to your ear as you can.
  • As you exhale, lower the arm behind you until it is back down by your side.
  • Repeat this circular movement 3 times.
  • Before placing your right hand on your lap, shake the arm a bit.

Repeat on the other side:

  • Sitting with your arm right hand on your lap and your left hand hanging down by your side, inhale, and lift your left arm in front of you and then up as high as you can, keeping the arm as close to your ear as you can.
  • As you exhale, lower the arm behind you until it is back down by your side.
  • Repeat this circular movement 3 times.
  • Before placing your left hand on your lap, shake the arm a bit.

REVERSE NAMASTÉ/Prayer Position: (to stretch the tops of your wrists)

I call this the “After Computer Pose” since everyone should do this after working at a computer!

  • Sitting up straight, bring the backs of both your hands together, with your fingers pointing down, at chest level. If you can’t keep the wrists together, then lower the hands if necessary.
  • Inhale
  • As you exhale, lower your elbows, keeping the tops of the wrists together.  Fell that great stretch!
  • If you can, hold this pose for 3 breaths
  • Release and shake out your hands.

NAMASTÉ/Prayer Position: (to stretch to underside of your wrist)

Always do this pose after the one above to balance out your wrists!

  • Place your palms together in front of you at chest level.  Inhale.
  • As you exhale, push your hands together and slowly lower them without letting the heels of your    hands separate.
  • If you can, hold this pose for 3 breaths
  • Release and shake out your hands.

FINGER SQUEEZE: (to squeeze the lymphatic fluid from your fingers back up your arms)

This is the final movement of this series. It is fun and can be silly, but it is also very beneficial!

  • Start by sitting up straight with your hands lifted at chest level, palms facing away from you.
  • Inhale.
  • As you exhale, slowly bend your fingers, starting with the pinkies, as you twist your hand so the palms end up facing you. (Do not bend the wrists; try to keep the hands vertical.)
  • Squeeze your fingers into fists (this squeezes the lymphatics)
  • As you inhale, once again leading with your pinkies, unwind the fist and twist the hands so they once again are facing palm-out.
  • Repeat 3 times.

For this movement, the silly part comes with the sound effects that I like to add, but it is optional:

  • As you are closing and opening your fingers, trill your tongue on your lips. (This is apparently more difficult to describe than I had thought, but you can see this more clearly on the video.)

So, you have completed my Lymphatic Flow Yoga Series.  We will be posting the video soon so be sure to watch the VIDEO to follow along, tell your friends, family and Facebook acquaintances about it.  If you find this to be helpful, please go to my Facebook page and LIKE it and pass it along!  If you are a lymphedema therapist, you can also go to www.lymphseminars.com for further information or to the lymphseminars Facebook page as well.

If you have any question or comments, feel free to email me at shsh@yogawithshoosh.com.

SEATED SUN EXERCISES

A few decades ago, a yoga student and friend of mine with MS told me she missed dancing and moving because she was in a wheelchair. So, I created a seated version of the Sun Exercises for her so she could “flow” and have been teaching it to all of my students ever since. For those who cannot get up and down from the floor, this series can be a very beneficial adaptation. For those who are capable of the standard version but maybe are tired or don’t have space to do them (like at work), this version can be energizing and certainly a good substitute on occasion.

This not a difficult series. Your breath will change with each position: when you move forward/down, you are exhaling, and positions when you are lifting up or arching back, you are inhaling. You can be creative and vary this by holding each position for more than one breath, but that will change the flow of the series.

Start by sitting comfortably at the front edge of a sturdy chair. (See my May 15th blog on Seated Mountain Pose.) Here is the sequence:

  1. Start sitting up tall with your hands at chest level in Namasté (prayer) position with your thumbs on your sternum. (A teacher of mine showed me this variation that I like: it connects the thumbs to the heart, but placing your thumbs on your sternum is optional.)  Inhale.
  2. As you exhale, slowly lower your hands down on either side of your legs.
  3. Inhale and raise your arms out to the sides, rolling your open palms forward until they are facing up, then lifting them as high as you can. End up with your arms straight up on either side of your head, with the palms facing each other.
  4. As you exhale, roll down over your right thigh, letting your arms drop towards the floor and relax your head and neck.
  5. Grab under your right thigh with both hands and as you inhale and slowly roll up, lift your bent knee as high as you can without tilting back on your pelvis.
  6. Lower your right leg and, exhaling, roll down between both legs and hang there. If this is uncomfortable, bend forward and rest your elbows on your knees and relax your head and neck slightly forward, instead.
  7. During the next inhalation, roll up and bring both hands behind you on the sides of the chair seat. Arch back and if your neck allows it, look up. This is a cobra variation and will open your chest.
  8. Exhaling, roll down over your left leg (as in #4).
  9. Inhale and lift your left leg (as in #5).
  10. As you lower the leg, roll down between both legs (as in #6).
  11. Inhale slowly as you role up to a sitting position, lifting your arms up high (as in #3).
  12. As you exhale, lower your arms and return to the starting position with your hands in Namasté (as in #1).

This might appear more complicated than it really is, yet it is actually just a few poses, repeated on each side. It provides a nice flowing movement, you stretch and lengthen your spine both forward and backward, you work the hip flexors by lifting each leg (as in a lunge), you get some inversion by rolling forward with your head down, and you get breath work.  There is no weight-bearing for the arms and hands, as there is in the standard Sun Exercises, and in another blog post I’ll talk about how I address this. Give this series a try!

I am working on a YouTube video that will show two models doing this series and plan to post it before the end of November.  I also am making this series into my newest graphic design, so you can have it on tees, totes, mugs, etc. to remind yourself and others how to do it!  Keep checking back here at my website to see when these are completed. Meanwhile, I hope you share and enjoy these and do them often!

If you have any question or comments, feel free to email me at shsh@yogawithshoosh.com.

YOGA for CANCER SURVIVORS

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During the 14 years I was the Executive Director of Enhancement, Inc. (a nonprofit that worked to improve the quality of life for breast cancer survivors) October was always intense and packed with breast cancer events.  This is still a cause close to my heart, so I thought I would take this opportunity to share some knowledge and experience of this topic with my readers.

A few weeks ago, I took a very interesting class at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado (http://www.unco.edu/rmcri/about.html) and received certification as a “Cancer Exercise Specialist”. Since I have already been teaching yoga to cancer survivors for more than 10 years, I thought this would be a good choice for continued education.  This program is internationally known and does much of the leading research on exercise and its affect on the quality of life of cancer survivors. I was happy to learn they have a solid respect for yoga and its benefits, and I was even asked to show the class my Lymphatic Flow yoga series that I created for my own cancer classes.  (I plan to have this series up on YouTube before the end of this year, so check back at this website to see my December blog and the link to the video!)

Cancer has many forms and stages. Symptoms can arise from the disease itself and also from various treatments.  Common symptoms are pain, muscle weakness, depression/anxiety, fatigue, and lymphedema.  Yoga teachers generally know how to use different techniques to alleviate some of these symptoms. It is important, however, that yoga teachers working with these patients be educated about the barriers to certain movements and therapies following some cancer surgeries or treatments. For example, knowing the movements that might improve the range-of-motion in a woman who has just had breast cancer surgery isn’t enough. One must know the type of surgery, medications and other therapies used in order to know which specific movements are appropriate, what to expect from the patient in terms of energy levels, and so on. If the patient is receiving chemotherapy the best practice might simply be stress reduction and techniques to reduce fatigue.  After treatment, the approach might change to focus on posture, balance and range-of-motion.  Further along, adding strengthening poses would be important.

Because yoga has become popular, teachers and medical professionals need to be cautious about prescribing yoga in general. It is important to learn about each person individually including their general fitness level combined with their type of cancer, and type and phase of treatments. When in doubt, I always find the most beneficial focus is breath, relaxation and stress reduction. Having cancer is stressful. Teaching tools to help cope can provide the survivor with more energy that can then be used for healing.  Also, since surgery often involves changes in body shape (such as having breast tissue removed) giving guidance on posture, alignment and balance is important as well.

So, during this month when there is a pink focus on breast cancer, consider giving the gift of empowerment through yoga to a survivor you know.

If you have any question or comments, feel free to email me at shsh@yogawithshoosh.com.

YOGA for HANDS

My last blog was about toes, and this month I am focusing on hands. They are so important to our daily function, yet we don’t pay much attention to them until they begin to ache or develop arthritis.

During much of our day, we use many muscles that hold our hands parallel to our forearms, or in a flexed position.  Most of the time when we write, use a computer keyboard, cook, drive, these muscles are tensed.  And, the position of our hands and fingers is also not only angled toward a closed position, but also tends to be angled off to the side. For example, when holding a pen, a steering wheel, or a mouse, we usually will angle the wrist and fingers to the right (if right-handed.)  This combination of repeated and unconscious tension in these muscles can lead to arthritis in the joints or repetitive use syndrome (like carpal tunnel syndrome) in which the muscles swell and pinch the nerves, causing damage and pain. Moving the joints in a counter-balancing position is important! Below are a few simple movements that can be added to your yoga routine (or done anytime throughout the day) that can help keep your fingers and wrists more supple.

One of my favorite stretches that I suggest everyone does before getting up from a computer to help release the tension in the hands and wrists, is the Reverse Namasté pose. Sitting up comfortably, place the backs of both hands together at chest level (or lower if you need to).  Make sure your wrists are also touching, lowering your hands to accomplish this if necessary. Inhale, and as you exhale, gently lower your elbows without parting your wrists. Hold this position for 3 breaths and release. This will provide a lovely stretch for the tops of your wrists and hands. Immediately afterward, to balance out your wrists, do the Namasté pose by placing the palms of both hands together at chest level, making sure the heels of your hands are touching along with your palms.  Inhale, and then on the exhalation, slowly lower the heels of your hands. Hold this for 3 breaths and slowly release. This pose will stretch the underside of your wrists.  Both so simple to do, and such helpful poses!

Another exercise I do for the fingers is called “O’s”.  Hold your hands about chest level, facing toward or away from you, inhale and bring the tips of your index fingers to the tips of your thumbs, shaping your thumb and finger into an “O”.  Exhale and open your hands and fingers wide. Do not hyper-extend them by overdoing the stretch.  Just be gentle and feel a widening space between each finger and an opening in the palms. Pay special attention to the thumbs.  We often do not open this digit out to the side but tend to keep it forward while moving the thumb away from the index finger.  Instead, try to bring the thumbs out to the side, making sure that these important thumb joints are getting lots of open movement. Next, as you inhale bring the tips of your middle fingers to the tips of your thumbs, and exhale as you release and open. Repeat the breath, O’s and widening release after each finger and repeat the entire series. This will relax your fingers and they will feel looser!

There are many more exercises and poses for the fingers and wrists, and I will talk about others in a future blog.  I hope you will add these basic movements shown here to your daily routine and share them with your students, friends and family!

If you have any question or comments, feel free to email me at shsh@yogawithshoosh.com.

FOR THE TOES

Toes: far too often we forget about them, yet they are so very important. They are key to balance in your feet, which obviously affects your full body alignment. Babies are born with such perfect little feet and toes. I have a three-year-old grandson whose feet I keep an eye on with great admiration! I also have students in their 30s, 50s, 70s and older, and it seems that as we age, our feet and toes take a beating! Pointy shoes, arthritis, and poor walking habits all take their toll! This post will outline a wonderful exercise that I do with all my students to help with alignment and circulation. For some this is painful at first, but still valuable. Once learned, it is best done in a warm bathtub or spa, which makes it easier.

Start by sitting comfortably, with your right ankle crossed above your left knee, and with the right knee going out to the side. You can have your other leg straight out in front, or if you are more flexible, you can sit with it bent under the right leg (partially cross-legged). Your right ankle and foot need to be loose so you can rotate them freely.

Next, from the bottom of your foot, work your fingers of the opposite hand (the left one, in this example) between each toe. Try to meet the webs of your feet with the webs of your hands, not just the fingertips. For many, this might be painful and will be a slow process to get to this point. If this is true for you, then do what you can and continue to work on it over a period of days, weeks, or months. Now, keeping your right foot relaxed, squeeze your fingers and gently massage the tops of your feet. At the same time, use your left hand to help rotate the right foot and ankle. Do this for 6 breaths, rotating for 3 breaths in each direction.

When you finish rotating, relax your hand, but keep your fingers between your toes! This time, squeeze with your toes, especially the little toe that often has weaker muscles. This may feel uncomfortable, but try to hold for 6 breaths, once again rotating in each direction as described above.

When you have finished your 6 breaths, keep squeezing, and take the thumb of your right hand and place it around the big toe of your right foot. Place the little finger of your right hand around the little toe of your right foot. Then, squeeze them together (while still squeezing with the toes!) Hold this for 6 more breaths, and try not to grimace!!!

After you have completed the 6 breaths, very slowly remove one finger at a time from between your toes. Ahhhhh! It feels as if your toes are breathing!!! (Or, for some it just feels great to stop squeezing them!) There are pressure points on both your toes and fingers that have been stimulated and so this is also terrific for the circulation in your feet. Don’t forget to repeat on the other foot.

Besides stimulating the pressure points and circulation, this exercise also helps to keep your toes aligned. Many of my students love this exercise and have nicknamed it “Toe Jam Asana”. I won’t tell you what those who find it painful call it! This is one of those exercises that needs to be done but for many does not offer much pleasure until it is completed. I keep reminding those students that their toes are only telling them how unhappy they are and therefore how much they need to do this exercise! Enjoy your happy feet!

If you have any question or comments, feel free to email me at shsh@yogawithshoosh.com.

THE PELVIS

Most people can locate their own pelvis, but as a teacher, I always make sure to give a clear explanation of its significance, since, surprisingly, many educated adults don’t understand the importance of the pelvis and its location.

The word pelvis is from the Latin and means “basin.” This tells us a bit more about it already! Judith Hanson Lasater explains it beautifully in her book, Yogabody: “ . . . the pelvis is a basin to hold the organs of digestion, assimilation, elimination, and reproduction. The pelvis is also the pot out of which the spine grows; thus the position of the pelvis is critical for creating spinal alignment and health.”*

Think about what this means! The bony structure of the pelvis holds many organs and is also the base into which the spine sits. Therefore, keeping the pelvis aligned is vital to both your posture and your internal organ health!

Now, let’s talk about proper pelvic alignment. Most people tend to tilt the pelvis back, which compresses the internal organs and causes the head to move forward to balance this tilt. This is not proper alignment. Learning what the pelvis should feel like when it is properly angled is a good place to start when learning this important concept.

Lie on your back with your knees pulled into your chest. Observe how the pelvis is tilted so that you feel the weight on your waistline in the back, with the sacrum slightly lifted. Then, using your hands on your knees, move your knees forward slowly, away from your shoulders. Pay attention to how the pelvic angle changes and the sacrum gets more weight while the waistline gets less. Your pelvis has now tilted slightly forward. This is the correct position for your pelvis and we all need to recognize what it feels like! Allow your legs to feel really heavy in your hands, as if they would drop like dead weight, if you lifted your hands away from your knees. Your hands and fingers are now holding the weight of your legs, letting the hip flexors relax. Your belly should feel soft since the muscles are relaxed. Pull your knees slowly back into your chest, and continue to observe what angle the pelvis takes as it moves forward and back. Repeat this a few times.

Once you can recognize the correct angle in this floor position, the next step is to feel it when you are sitting and standing. Tadasana (Mountain Pose) either seated or standing, is a wonderful pose to use to work on pelvic alignment. Feeling inconsistencies between the right and left sides of the hips and pelvis and figuring out what you need to move to be more balanced is an ongoing process. Feeling how the spine sits at its base and observing curves or tensions in the back will also help you to know what proper alignment feels like. (For further details, please refer to my May 15th blog on Seated Tadasana.)

Posture is a vital contributor to our physical comfort! It can change from morning to night, from day to day, and especially as we age. Therefore we need to be ever vigilant in our awareness of pelvic alignment and how it affects our posture.

If you have any question or comments, feel free to email me at shsh@yogawithshoosh.com.

* Reprinted with permission from Yogabody: Anatomy, Kinesiology, and Asana by Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., P.T. (Berkeley, CA: Rodmell Press, 2009, 93).

THE POWER OF THE BREATH

In Western culture, we really underestimate the value of how our breath relates to our health. In Eastern culture, on the other hand, breathing is thought of as not just anatomical (inhale, exhale) but also as an art. Maybe with the increased popularity of yoga in the West, the awareness of breath as art will become more prevalent.

As yoga practitioners, we learn poses (asana) that help us learn about integrity of form in our posture, balance and movement. But not often enough are we aware of how our breath moves within us as we work on these asana, and throughout our daily movements and habits. This is important, because the breath can help us be aware of the space within our bodies, how the energy flows through and around it, and how focused breathing can create change by opening blocked paths.

One of my most influential teachers has been Dr. John Hannon. He lives in San Luis Obispo, CA, is a Feldenkrais master and an internationally known chiropractor/body worker. He offers so much more than a typical doctor and his quiet and brilliant insights have changed both my yoga practice and my life. He strongly emphasizes is the importance of breath in his practice. For example, he taught me that I can inhale and let my breath create space in my left rear ribcage. He said, “Feldenkrais believed movement quality was determined by the interplay of posture and breath. Without the underpinnings of effective posture, breathing is bound to be physically restricted, and neurologically inhibited.”

As a yoga teacher, I tend to think in terms of poses (asana). Dr. Hannon, through his Feldenkrais perspective, has taught me the richness that is summarized in this yoga-related phrase:

“Asana is how you stabilize your body in space – breath is how you mobilize space in your body.”

This is a quote from my old friend Leslie Kaminoff, the Founder and Director of The Breathing Project, an educational non-profit organization, and also the author of Yoga Anatomy (available on Amazon.com). I think about the implications of this phrase often to remind me of the value of breath. I have found  that there is a universal thread among different cultures and movement techniques that emphasizes the importance of breath.

Here is a simple breathing exercise that Dr. Hannon taught me, using the ideas of both yoga and Feldenkrais: Lie on your back on the floor. As you inhale and your lower abdomen expand, rising up, and imagine pressing your 3rd and 4th lumbar vertebrae onto the floor. What this will do is allow the diaphragm to pull on the ribs, widening the floating ribs, and at the end of the inhalation, the sternum and clavicles will also open. This exercise is a good example of the breath working directly with movement. It is not difficult, as long as you know your anatomy and can recognize where your lumbar vertebrae, sternum and clavicles are. Try it!

I hope I have shown how important it is to emphasize the importance of the breath in our practice. Combined with posture, it is essential to how we can join body and mind for a better quality of life.

If you have any question or comments, feel free to email me at shsh@yogawithshoosh.com.

SEATED MOUNTAIN POSE

In my last Blog, I talked about fibromyalgia (FM) since the month of May is focused on fibromyalgia education and awareness. I explained that yoga, with its individualized approach, can address many of the symptoms of FM by focusing on alignment, posture, balance, and relaxation techniques. I also noted that, along with certain poses, visualization and breathing awareness were valuable tools as well. In this Blog, I will go into further detail on how to do the Seated Mountain Pose and its benefits. Of course, it is not ONLY for FM, since we can all benefit from proper alignment.

This simple pose, the Seated Mountain Pose (Tadasana) works on posture, visualization and breath. By aligning the pelvis and therefore the spine, and focusing on breath and visualizing its flow up and down the spine, this basic pose accomplishes a lot! I find that so many yoga teachers and even physical therapists don’t start with this foundation, yet it is a critical element in spinal alignment and hip joint movement, both of which affect posture and overall movement. Misalignment in this area in turn contributes to general body pain, joint pain, and other FM symptoms.

To begin, sit on a chair towards the front edge of the seat, lengthening your spine by sitting tall, with your knees and feet about hip-width apart. Your knees should be lower than your hips. If they are not, sit higher by putting a folded blanket or pillow on the chair seat to make you sit higher. Rest your hands on your thighs, palms down, relaxed.

Let your shoulders drop down, away from your ears. Let your elbows feel heavy, and soften your abdomen. Bring your awareness to your sitting bones, which are the two bony structures at the base of your pelvis that you are sitting on. It is common to tilt the top of the pelvis back and roll onto the buttocks (which means you might be sitting behind those sitting bones instead of on them!) This forces the lower back, which normally curves inward, to curve outward. When this happens, it can feel as if there is a thread running from your navel through your body that is being pulled from the back. This tilts your pelvis back and is a common cause of lower back pain.

You can learn what it feels like to be in alignment by consciously being out of it. Tilt your pelvis back so you are on your buttocks, behind the sitting bones, and notice what happens to your posture. You slouch, your shoulders round forward, your chest contracts, your chin moves forward, and you compress the back of your neck. Now roll forward and try to feel the center of your sitting bones. Feel how the spine lengthens and seems lighter. Your chest opens, your chin moves back, and the back of your neck lengthens. Sitting in alignment takes less effort and reduces muscle tension in the hips and pelvis. You may experience a feeling of melting release in your abdomen. It can also make your back feel less tired.

Now, think about your breath. When you inhale, visualize the breath moving from the base of your spine up to the top of your head. On the exhalation, let your body release and relax, following the breath from the head, jaw and neck to the shoulders, abdomen, etc until you feel heaviness in your sitting bones. This visualization can be very calming and relaxing.

Aligning your pelvis and consciously relaxing with your breath can help to alleviate your back pain or general body aches. For those of you with FM, hopefully, this pose will help with some of your symptoms!

If you have any question or comments, feel free to email me at shsh@yogawithshoosh.com.