Category Archives: poses

june spotlight on: manipura (solar plexus) chakra

We’ve been taking a closer look at the Chakras each month. Chakras are centers of prana (energy, life force) that align down the spine and correspond to vital points in the physical body. Brush up on the significance of the seven main chakras here, take this quiz to find out which of your chakras are under/overactive, and take a peak at the last two months, in case you’ve forgotten: Muladhara and Svadhishthana.

Manipura Chakra. Courtesy of Fit Yoga Magazine.

Manipura Chakra. Courtesy of Fit Yoga Magazine.

Manipura (Solar Plexus, or Navel) Chakra is the gateway to the more esoteric Chakras, what we sometimes call the “Higher Chakras.” Working our way up from our Root and Sacral Chakras, the heavy elements of earth (our foundation and survival) and water (our family, sexuality and creativity) give way to fire: our personal strength and power. Working with the third Chakra accesses and teaches you to trust your gut instinct, assert yourself around others, and make decisions and judgments with wisdom.

At its best, a balanced Manipura Chakra supports concentration, focus, clear vision and confidence. You have no issues with being assertive and have a strong sense of self. Even more, a balanced Manipura Chakra draws from the grounded qualities of the earth (creating mental and emotional stability, drawing from your realness, humanness), and then allows your spirituality to shine through. Physically, the benefits of having Manipura in harmony include excellent digestion, strong muscles and joints, boundless energy, calm nerves, mental clarity and overall A+ wellness (Manipura, at the gut, is really the seat of our vitality).

An under-active Manipura leads to timidity and passiveness, losing your voice in a group. It’s hard to make decisions, and when you do, you likely lack the confidence to stand up for what you want. On a physical level, you might suffer from a weakened immune system and have issues with indigestion and infections.

An overactive Manipura means your ego makes all the decisions (instead of your wisdom), and you come off as aggressive, domineering and judgmental. You might have an overtly strong sense of self (a strong foundation), but without the wisdom and compassion from your spirit, you tend towards negativity and insensitivity.

The good news is that pretty much every style of yoga and pranayama (from restorative to power flow) works with this Chakra to balance it out and create strength. Specifically, the Warriors (including Warrior II, pictured above) tend to hone in your concentration and give you assertive energy while keeping you grounded (and egoless). I also find that the Sun Salutations do wonders for the body and mind. So does Treta Bandha.

When meditating, visualize yellow, Manipura’s primary fiery color. Draw your focus to the Solar Plexus (where the ribcage fans out around the navel), and intuit your personal power as a long-burning fire. Imagine that you’re stoking the fire to stoke strength, creating energy to accomplish your projects, and learning to put trust in your instincts.

september {classic} spotlight on: balance

This post originally appeared as September 2009’s focus of the month. It’s such a classic I decided to revive it, with a few edits. 

via pinterest.

September is a month known for transitions and changes, as we move away from one set of habits and behaviors to another. It often means back to work or back to school.  Complacency, relaxation and reflection transform into times of preparation, industriousness, busyness. At our best, we welcome shorter days and a sun that burns cooler and feel satisfied at how productive we’ve become again! Then again, we also find ourselves mourning the loss of open-toed shoes (our best excuse for weekly pedicures),  the abundance of watermelon margaritas in our lives, and we grow anxious and quiet about the cold, dark winter monster that lurks not far off. Or maybe that’s just me, is anyone else such an eternally, seasonally pessimistic mess?! It takes but one random, semi-chilly September morning to drive me straight to wool socks and cocoa. Most normal people seem to understand that summer will return, eventually. Good for them.

Our ability to remain in the present helps determine how likely we’re able to be balanced, healthy beings. Likewise our ability to stay balanced helps keep us rooted to the present as it unfolds. The greatest challenge at the turn of any season is to maintain a sense of wholeness and evenness, even as the world around us changes. To do this takes equal parts courage and conviction in yourself, and also a sincere willingness to adapt.

Something I’ve noticed about myself (and my students) is that when I come into a balancing pose like Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon Pose), my tendency is to inhale sharply and hold my breath as if becoming more statue-like and rigid will allow me to hold the balance. But there is so much learning to be had from freedom of movement, even in this one-legged, one-armed hip-opening challenge. Not only because holding your breath is unsustainable, but also because the gentle sway, gentle contraction and expansion of your body that comes with breathing fully is what true balance really is: a place between stillness and movement, hardness and softness, exertion and comfort.

Yoga offers a myriad of benefits, but arguably the most essential, the most beneficial, is that it confronts your ability to balance – physical, mental, emotional – and stares it down, waiting to see what you’ll do. All balancing postures in yoga, from Tree to Headstand to Crow to Warrior III, demand that you pause and hold and breathe, instead of just flowing into the pose and immediately out of it. These poses require a certain discomfort. Toeing that edge of discomfort is where we start to transform.

(No less important, the CDC reports that the #1 cause of injury in the elderly is from falling from loss of balance. Start practicing balance now and protect thyself later.)

If you’re finding imbalance is taking hold of you in your life, something will suffer: a relationship, your work life, your body, your sanity. We all have different methods for bringing balance back. Try this essential oil blend for a quickie, at-home fix: blend 2 drops Valerian, 4 drops Australian Sandalwood, and 4 drops Laurel Leaf into 4 teaspoons of a carrier oil (like Apricot Kernel), and massage into your shoulders, forearms, and down the shins and calves to the soles of your feet. Valerian is powerful and grounding, and known to ease a troubled mind and restore emotional security.

lessons learned from physical pain: more than just coping

anatomy of a foot. via pinterest.

There was a lovely article published this week at MindBodyGreen, called “Finding Messages & Meaning in Chronic Pain.” As a professional yoga teacher, amateur anatomy junkie, and hobbyist athletic movement fiend, I’m constantly learning about the relationship between movement and pain. I grew up in an active environment and everyone I knew participated in rigorous sports. Mantras like “No pain, no gain” and “Pain is temporary, glory is forever” and “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” were pasted to the insides of our gym lockers and reminded us that we were going to experience pain (a personal fave: “If it hurts, change your mind.”). Some of it would be nearly unbearable, and some of it, sadly, would sideline us for a season or two.

At the tender age of fifteen and as a sensitive, creative, wildly imaginative girl, I had the capacity to feel things at a very deep level. I also had a frightening, self-destructive capacity to completely ignore these feelings at all costs for the good of the team. This second tendency overcame me in high school and led to a two-year struggle that started with foot over-pronation, resulted in painful shin splints, and ended in stress fractures that cut my cross-country and basketball seasons short. Custom-made orthotics, physical therapy, ultrasound and electrode therapy, and innumerable amounts of ibuprofen and icepacks. My deepest fear was that I’d be hurt forever, and I started to forget what it felt like to have legs that functioned without each step producing a shooting pain.

I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand “good” pain versus “bad” pain (in other words, physical intensity versus physical destruction). Today  all kinds of studies support the thesis that pain does not have to be a necessary evil of sport and exercise. In fact, there’s something to be said for avoiding pain (a fave mantra of yoga teachers: “If it hurts, don’t do it”).

To my total amazement, my shins healed, eventually, and today I rarely think about the pain I experienced. Those afflicted with chronic pain from arthritis, Fibromyalgia, MS and other degenerative diseases might not be so fortunate. And mantras like NO PAIN NO GAIN are not helpful in this case.

My point is this: know thyself. Some pain (like physical exertion and intensity) is okay. Most pain, though, is your body’s way of trying to tell you something important. Listen. Explore. Become your own expert and advocate. Learn from your experiences and adapt your practice. Ask a million questions. Also…get yourself a foam roller (more on this soon, I promise! I want to properly introduce you to my new best friend). And if pain management means seeking out doctors and medical treatment, especially in the case of disease, seek them out.

Keep practicing in good health, and in good spirits…xx

may spotlight on: tadasana body, savasana brain

Our fragile little brains are constantly being bogged down with “ideals.” By this, I mean we are receiving a stream of messages — from the world we live in, from friends and colleagues, from our own deep-rooted memories and experiences — about who and what we’re supposed to be, and when and how.

For example, you’re an ideal mother. You’re sweet, a modern-day June Cleaver in heels (or wedge booties, since you’re an on-trend mama), devoted to feeding your children only organic vegetables and homemade hummus. The next moment you’re a fierce lioness, guardian of your “No iPad at the dinner table” policy, a rule that’s harsh, but fair. You’re gentle and loving, and at once swift and justice-abiding.

Let’s say you also work in an office. As an ideal employee, you’re committed to your tasks and to being on time and being a team player. You’re smart and sophisticated, and somehow you’re also really really fun, playing hooky and taking 2-martini lunches every now and then with your girlfriends. You’re dedicated to work, serious work, and also hilariously fun-seeking.

And speaking of your girlfriends, you’re a perfect friend. You have just enough time to split a cupcake with a different pal each night, and also time to work off that half of a dessert at PowerBootCampExpress, right before heading home to prepare healthful yet irresistible homemade meals and getting into bed to read a few chapters of an important novel and then getting a solid 8 hours. You’re an ideal.

Ideals exist in the yoga community too. As yogis, we need to be lithe and limber and physically fit with impeccable posture and the flattest abs. We’re also meant to have extensive knowledge in ancient texts and Sanskrit and yoga theory, but with a practical understanding of how it applies to our modern lives. And we’re supposed to look like we’re constantly living in bliss, in a state of pure calmness and ease (despite our insecurities and angsts and the lines at Whole Foods). The yogic “ideal” is the best of everything: strength and flexibility, calm and energy, connected and detached, all at once. Yogis mask this seemingly impossible feat with language like “being balanced” (you won’t ever hear a yogi talking about being “ideal,” but being “balanced” is something you hear all the time).

Since this month we’re focussing on Tadasana (Mountain Pose) in the body and Savasana (Relaxation Pose) in the brain, I’m presenting two opposites not as a way to “achieve” (another no-no word in yoga, one does not achieve) perfection and balance and idealism, but as a way to bring body and brain to the same level. There’s a misperception that the body is a lesser vessel than the mind, that body is low and mind is high, that spiritual practices take precedence over physical ones. I’m proposing a shift in perception, to say that caring for and nurturing body can be an act of spirituality profound and powerful. Your body, after all, is a temple, didn’t you know?

Tadasana body requires some work; no one ever obtained a Tadasana body in Savasana. But you can access a Savasana brain in a Tadasana body. Movement, strength and stretch, breath, blood, heartbeat. These are the visceral, material parts of your soul. What better reason could there be to practice?

yoga for players: 6 poses to keep you in the game

Oh, hey there! I see you like yoga. That’s great. And you like a little cardio with that too, huh? In the form of running, tennis, bicycling, elliptical machines, soccer practice, Zumba, what have you. That’s great too.

See, I get you. Running is a huge part of my life. I try to log at least 20+ miles per week. Sometimes on a treadmill, sometimes with the Orchard St. Runners. I’m also suddenly, magically, on an all-girls, Nike-sponsored basketball team and we get to do cool things like run drills and scrimmage in top secret gyms and try out new gear and go watch the Knicks at MSG while eating an amazing assortment of cheese from the Nike suite. True story.

So I get that as an athlete, you’re faced with all kinds of bodily ailments. Like, for example, really tight hips. Really tight shoulders. Really tight hamstrings. Really tight _______. That’s why you need yoga.

You’re probably even tight in places that you weren’t even aware of (like, your lower back, your glutes, your IT band). All that pounding the pavement and repetitive movement creates stress in the joints and tension in the muscles surrounding them. Aside from just feeling really really good (most of the time, at least), yoga stretches and relaxes the body, easing tension and re-lengthening places that need to be re-lengthened.

What’s that? You think you don’t need to stretch it out? You’ve heard that there’s all this research that disproves the necessity of stretching? Those stretching skeptics may be onto something, I’ll admit. But there’s a far larger body of research out there that supports flexibility and elasticity as a cornerstone of overall health. And you simply don’t increase flexibility without stretching, bottom line.

Rather than listen to the drone of the researchers at large, listen to your own body. No one can argue with your own experience.

Here are 6 poses that have served me well, both on the mat (in yoga class) and off the mat (in sports). Practice in good health!

SUPTA GOMUKASANA (Reclining Cow’s Face Pose)
Stretches the outer hips and iliotibial (IT) bands

Start on your back and hug both knees into your chest. Try to press your entire spine flat onto the floor. Cross your right knee over your left knee, hiding the left entirely from your view. Keep your knees bent, extend your feet away from each other, and reach up to hold your ankles. Keep the back of your head and your shoulder blades connected to the floor. Need more stretch? Start to draw your feet down and in towards your hips. Hold pose and breathe for 10 breaths. Repeat on left side.

ADHO MUKHA SVANASANA (Downward Facing Dog)
Stretches hamstrings, calves, shoulders, chest, back, ankles and hands; strengthens arms; calms the brain

From hands and knees, walk your hands forward  and press into palms, spreading out through the fingers. Tuck toes underneath you and lift the hips up as you straighten your legs. Press your chest back towards the top of your thighs and keep lifting through the sit bones, even as you try to draw your heels down to the floor (your heels might not touch the mat, especially you runners, and that’s ok. Work on drawing your heels down and you’ll get that nice stretch through your calves and Achilles tendons). Breathe here for as long as you want, aim for at least 10 breaths if you’re very tight in the legs and shoulders.

URDHVA MUKHA SVANASANA (Upward Facing Dog)
Stretches the shoulders, chest, and thighs; strengthens the spine, wrists and arms

Lie facedown on your mat and bring your hands underneath your shoulders, drawing elbows in at your sides. As you inhale, lift your head and chest off the mat, continuing to draw the tops of the shoulders down the back and away from the ears. Stay here for a few breaths in Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose); lower to the mat on your exhale. Slide your hands back along your mid-ribs, until your wrists are right under your elbows. On your inhale, press into hands and lift the head, chest, and the tops of the thighs and shins off the mat, straightening your arms completely. Firm the shoulder blades together on your back. Think about trying to drag your whole torso between your arms toward the front of the mat, dropping hips, lifting chest. Keep thigh muscles engaged and lifted. Stay here for 3-5 breaths, then tap the knees down to mat, tuck the toes, and press back to Downward Facing Dog. Repeat 3-4 more times. (A NOTE ABOUT UPWARD DOG: if you experience wrist pain, check to make sure the shoulders are stacked directly over the wrists and not pitching forward. If this still doesn’t help, stick with Cobra for a while, and still enjoy the benefits of opening the front of the body).

ANJANEYASANA (Crescent Moon Pose)
Stretches the top of the hip flexors and quadriceps, the psoas, and opens the chest, armpits, abdomen and shoulders

From Downward Facing Dog, step your right foot forward between your hands, right knee deeply bent, and drop the left knee to the mat. You’ll already start to get a stretch in the top of the left hip flexor and thigh. To go deeper, place your hands on top of the right thigh and gently press down as you lift your chest up. Keep the abs engaged so you don’t sink into your lower back. Need to go even deeper? Hook your thumbs together and lift those arms way up overhead and slightly back, spreading the chest wide and stretching the armpits and shoulders. Take 5-10 breaths here. Release hands back down to floor, press back to Downward Dog. Repeat left side.

EKA PADA RAJAKAPOTASANA (Pigeon Pose)
Stretches outer and inner hips, psoas, thighs, knees

From Downward Facing Dog, step your right foot forward behind your left wrist. Allow your right knee to slowly lower to the ground, just behind the right wrist, then start to lower your extended left leg straight behind you. You can stay seated upright, opening the front of the body including the chest and abdomen, or you can fold forward over your front shin, going deeper into your hip. Ideally, you’re trying to keep your front shin parallel to the top edge of your mat, which is difficult for most of us. Stay here for as many breaths as you can, at least 20 if possible (My teacher says we should stay here for 40 minutes before really getting into the deep stuff, but who’s got the time these days?). Press into your hands and lift back to Downward Dog, repeat on left side. (A NOTE ABOUT PIGEON: Pigeon is an entirely personal experience and no two people will have the exact same-looking Pigeon. There are a number of variations and modifications to you if you struggle with knee or lower back pain. Comment below with your questions/concerns if you want! I’m here to help your Pigeon.)

PASCHIMOTTANASANA (Seated Forward Fold)
Stretches and lengthens the entire back body: calves, hamstrings, spine, calms your brain and body after intense workouts

Take a seat and extend your legs out in front of you, flexing your feet. Press palms down into mat alongside your hips to sit as tall as possible, gently drawing the abs back. On an exhale, start to walk your hands forward toward your feet, coming down as far as you can without force. Allow your head to drop slightly to relax, and direct the breath into your middle- and upper-spine, feeling the back body expand. Stay for 10-15 breaths. Walk hands back to hips, slowly rolling spine up to sit tall once again.

Doga: Lazy Dog Pose.

february spotlight on: for the love of backbends

ustrasana. bklyn bridge park.

It’s no secret to most of you who know me “yogically” (hmm…does that sound weird?) know that I am a backbending fiend. It’s kind of my thing. We tend to gravitate toward and favor the poses that we’re best at, the ones where we consider ourselves “advanced.” I confess: I know I’m a good backbender. Even though I’m supposed to, as a yoga teacher, shun words like “good” and “bad” and “advanced.” But my spine is flexible, and moves easily, and I can move into deep, graceful backbends with little fanfare. (Can’t say the same for inversions, though, or arm balances, or spinal twists, the absolute bane of my existence).

That I’m “good” at backbending is only a small part of why I love them. We’ve got a slew of physical benefits to enjoy when we backbend with intelligent alignment and awareness, especially in the deepest organs, which get squeezed and stretched and massaged and wrung out like thick, plump sponges. Backbends stretch the front of the torso, including abdominals, front of the hips, thighs, shoulders and chest. They increase energy and strength in the back body, from muscles along the spine to buttocks, wrists and legs. Muscles around the chest and heart are released and expanded, increasing circulation to flow freely to both heart and lungs. The thymus gland, located in the upper chest, is massaged and stimulated and builds up immune function. Same goes for the lymph nodes in the armpits and groin, which in turn pump lymphatic fluids into tissues. Cerebral-spinal fluids move freely up and down the body, relaxing the parasympathetic nervous system while stimulating metabolism. The whole digestive system is stretched while kidneys and adrenals are squeezed, encouraging better digestion and detox, and releasing adrenaline that gives you that light, happy rush you might experience in a backbend.

dhanurasana. coney island.

And that’s just the tip of the backbending iceberg. In the subtle body, energy is moved through the nadis, channels that flow to concentrated points of energy called chakras. Backbends specifically open Anahata (heart) and Manipura (solar plexus) chakras, which govern our capacity to give and receive love and our ability to assert our personal power, respectively. From this perspective, backbends greatly relieve depression and anxiety, helping us break down our guards, feel empowered, and face the world with openness and vulnerability.

Backbending is the counterpose to our daily lives, which mostly consist of us sitting, slumped over our computers or plates, commuting, walking with shoulders hunched in poor posture, protecting our hearts from a world that promises pain and dilemma and disappointment and loss. Peter Rizzo, master teacher and founder of Bhava Yoga in Vermont, recently said in a workshop that this means we’re perpetually in forward folds, all the time. That being the case, backbends shouldn’t get short shrift in our practice, but should really be front and center, the apex of our short time on the mat.

This month, yogis and yoginis, I’m quietly nudging you to weave extra backbends into your practice. Keep in mind you don’t have to have an especially flexible spine to drop into deep postures like Wheel and Camel. Backbends are actually about two things: opening the upper (thoracic) spine and chest, and opening the front of the hip (the psoas muscle). Knowing this, my favorite backbending mantra was born, a gentle reminder about how to approach backbends (and life): Strong legs. Open heart. Say it silently on each breath while backbending: “Strong legs” (inhale). “Open heart” (exhale).

urdhva mukha svanasana. costa rica.

THE BACKBENDS.
Warm up with a few rounds of Chandra Namaskara (Moon Salutes).
Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I)
Anjaneyasana
 (Crescent Moon)
Bhujangasana (Cobra)
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog)
Salabhasana (Locust)
Dhanurasana (Bow)
Setu Bandhasana (Bridge)
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel)
Kapotasana (King Pigeon)
Hanumanasana (Monkey God)
Ustrasana (Camel)
Bhekasana (Frog)
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon)
Viparita Dandasana (Upward Facing Staff)

Cool down with Jathara Parivartanasana (Supine Twist) and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold). Backbend much. Practice often. Love always.

yoga in the news: a pain in the neck (and butt and wrists and back and shoulder and…)

amazing sketch via isuckatyoga.blogspot.com/

Ouch. Yoga takes another critical hit from the NY Times this week (you may remember this from December), in the mince-no-words exposé “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.”

So how can yoga wreck your body? In so many ways, author William J. Broad says: specifically, compressive and straining postures that put pressure on the head and cervical vertebrae lead to swelling in arteries, clots, brain and eye trauma, and stroke. According to Broad, healthy, young, experienced yoga practitioners have suffered from yoga-related injuries that have led to ER visits, intensive rehabilitation, years of recovery, and stymied physical ability. All from practicing commonly taught postures, like Shoulderstand and Headstand, and from rotating the neck beyond the “normal” limits, like in Extended Side Angle.

I usually approach these reports with some grain-of-salt skepticism, especially in the fear-mongering world of journalism. But I couldn’t help but feel scared, and completely sympathetic to one research subject mentioned: a 28-year-old woman who suffered a stroke while in (and as a result of) yoga. In 2008, while undergoing yoga teacher training I also suffered a mild stroke that started as a tingling in my left arm, eventually becoming a violent migraine, accompanied by vomiting and trembling. The episode lasted all of 15 minutes, and my doctor later attributed it to the pill. I’ve since been healthy, normal, and practicing more than ever. At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder if the increase of yoga in my life had anything to do with my “mini-stroke.” Four years later, my brain is fine (no strokes, at least), but my chronically tight hamstrings remain resistant, my thoracolumbar mortice joint (anatomy nerd?) is freakishly and dangerously hyperextensive, and other little creaks and cricks all over the place give me some trouble. Some of it’s just because I’m getting older. Some of it’s because I’m careless, and a little reckless with my precious spine…

But look. Yoga is exercise, and all exercise poses risk of injury. And what do you always hear from every yoga instructor in every yoga class? “Practice with awareness.” “Move into this pose with care.” “Be aware of how you feel physically and mentally here.” “Awareness is true yoga.” There’s a reason “awareness” is forever engrained in your yoga teacher’s vocabulary: we don’t want you to hurt your dang self!

Yoga on, good people. Yoga on with consciousness, with clarity, with awareness, forever and ever…