Arm balances are among the poses that challenge your mind as much as your body. You have to have strength and alignment throughout your body to make these poses work. They are also a place where it’s easy to let your fear take over if you don’t come to yoga with a facility for balancing on your hands. Even though it’s given in many yoga classes, Bakasana (Crane or Crow Pose) can still feel unattainable.
Of course, like so many things in yoga, you can gain the flexibility and strength required for arm balances. If you have a regular practice, especially in a vigorous style like Ashtanga or Vinyasa, you probably already have the raw physical abilities needed to balance in Bakasana. What can be much more challenging is trying to find the balance point where your body weight needs to be to find your balance. And, this pose has a way of triggering nervousness if you tend to worry about falling. (featured pics is http://instagram.com/loveofyoga)
It’s a great example of just how important it is to train your mind as well as your body. When you are working up to any challenge pose in yoga, you need to be able to visualize yourself completing it successfully, and approach it with confidence, before you can make that a reality. Otherwise, you will often struggle to make the pose work for you.
On a purely physical level, poses like Bakasana can empower you to move out of your comfort zone and redefine what you are capable of (in this case, standing on your hands). Looking at it in a more metaphysical context, it gives you the chance to fly over your own doubts and fears toward what is ahead.
When you are preparing for the pose, it can help to admit to yourself that it does feel like a leap into the unknown. Yes, you will be putting your body into a new place. Then, give yourself a moment to appreciate that that feeling can be exciting as well as scary. Think back to the last time you did something that was really important to you. You probably did feel slightly anxious when you first attempted it. But, the reward made the initial hesitation more than worth it. This pose can help you recall that blush of excitement.
Here are some poses and tips to help you.
Ananda Balasana (Happy Baby Pose) Benefits: This pose helps open your hips in preparation for Bakasana. How to do it: Lie on your back. Exhale and bring your knees in toward your chest. Inhale and clasp your hands around the outsides of your feet. Let your knees open slightly wider than hip width and press them gently toward your armpits. Press up with your feet and down with your hands to carefully open your hips. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute, then release.
Malasana (Garland Pose)--Variation Benefits: Yoga teacher Kathryn Budig recommends this to help you get the correct alignment for the pose without the balance aspect. How to do it: Squat down. The insides of your feet should be touching. With your weight on the balls of your feet (your heels may or may not touch the floor), let your knees open wide enough to lower your torso between them and touch the floor. Bring your hands forward on your mat and round your spine. Hold for eight breaths, then release. (featured pics is http://instagram.com/patbailey)
Benefits: This propped version of the full pose helps you find the right physical actions.
How to do it: Start by placing a block on your mat. Put both feet on the block, inner sides of your feet touching. Place your palms flat on the mat in front of your feet. Come into a squat with your knees just wider than your torso. Snug your body between your knees. Make sure your hands are shoulder width apart. Contract your abdominals. Try lifting one or both feet off the block. After 30 seconds, step off the block and release.
(featured pic is http://instagram.com/goplantyourself)
Let go of the fear. As Budig says, the ground isn’t that far away. You are more stable than you think, but even if you do fall, you’ll be fine. Imagine you are a bird on an air current—the air itself is helping hold you up.
Keep trying. Practice really does (help) make perfect. Finding your alignment in this pose comes from trial and error. Each time you do it, try to figure out which way you are falling and correct it.
Remember, when you are learning any new pose, that there is a learning curve. You may not feel like you are getting anywhere, but you are. Every time you work on Bakasana, your body is learning one part of what it needs to know to fly.
(featured pic is http://instagram.com/goplantyourself)
Arm balances to uplift your yoga practice
Yoga for your center
Yoga pose library
The calendar may say spring is just around the corner, but, this year, Mother Nature is saying something else. Most of the country is still mired down by days of finger-numbing temperatures and an ice, snow, sleet storm or two. Though hibernation might sound pretty tempting, it’s not much of a coping strategy for social, activity-loving humans. You can’t change the weather, but you can change your point of view.
The most obvious step is to amp up your physical comfort level. Grab your Yoga Paws and your mat and head out to a hot class for an hour’s 100-degree escape from the season. Consider how you practice at home or the types of classes you choose. A power yoga class or vinyasa flow class helps to build heat from within, warming your tight muscles and releasing knotted tendons. If you prefer Hatha or Yin yoga, focus on how the intensity of holding poses generates heat as you move deeper into the asana and integrate your breath with your movement. If you’re freezing in an under-heated workplace, find some private space for a few minutes of Ujjayi breathing, taking long slow inhales and even longer exhales. Raise your arms over your head as you draw breath in, lower as you release your breath. If dizziness isn’t an issue, warm yourself with Kapalabhati Pranayama (Shining Skull Breath). Inhale and exhale fully. After the exhale, quickly contract your low belly to force short, sharp bursts of air out of your lungs. Try for 25 cycles at first and work up to 100. You’ll find winter changing to spring inside your body after the first couple of rounds.
Core work is a great way to warm up your body. Explore poses like Navasana (Boat Pose). It’s also a good time to try speeding your practice up a bit. Try to do a few Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations) at a faster tempo. Once you’re warmed up, the poses are yours to choose. You might want to focus on trying to flow from pose to pose, even if you don’t normally practice vinyasa. Or, maybe the intensity of a challenge pose feels good. As you wind your practice down, you might want to add in some deep twists to keep your body warm. Bring extra blankets for Savasana (Corpse Pose).
As you practice, notice that moment when you realize you need to take off your hoodie or grab your towel. Even if you started in a cool room, as you flow through your asana practice you shake off that chill as your circulation revs you and you take your body to its edge. The mercury may still be mired down at the bottom of the outside thermometer, but you are effectively changing your environment nonetheless. Inside your mind, body and spirit, it’s strictly warm and sunny.
Here are a few poses to try to help you stretch out and thaw out:
Plank Pose -- variation
Benefits: This dynamic take on Plank helps you warm up faster and stabilizes your core. How to do it: Perform Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). On an inhale, roll your body forward so that your shoulders are over your hands and your body is in a straight line. Then, exhale and bring your right knee to your left elbow. Hold for one breath, then extend back behind like in pic. Release back to Plank. Repeat on the left side. Do a total of five to 10 repetitions on each leg, then release back to Plank or Adho Mukha Svansana.
Benefits: This pose helps open your shoulders if they’ve been hunched or you’ve been shoveling. How to do it: Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Step or hop your legs three to four feet apart. Turn your right foot out and your left foot slightly inward. Make sure the heel of your right foot lines up with the arch of your left. Keeping the outside of your left foot on the ground, bend into your right knee. Your knee should never come past your right toes. Bring your left arm in an arc toward the ceiling, so that your palm faces you. On an exhale, lean your torso onto or toward your right leg. Place your right hand or fingertips on the ground or a block. Focus on your left arm. Remain in the pose for 30 seconds to one minute, then inhale, release and repeat on the other side.
Malasana (Garland Pose)
Benefits: This pose opens your hips, which can get tight from the cold or walking in the snow. How to do it: Stand with your feet close together. Squat down. Place a folded blanket under your heels if needed. Open your thighs enough to allow you to place your torso between them. Bring your hands into Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal) and press your elbows into your thighs to open your legs. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute, then release.
Don’t fight it. When you are cold, the natural tendency is to tighten your muscles to stay warm. Try to work past that on the mat. It’s OK if you feel tight, but don’t tense. Instead, try not to resist the poses.
Heat up your plate. A cup of ginger tea, some miso soup or the addition of some hot peppers or spices to your food can turn up your digestive heat and give you that “aah” glow from within. For added warmth, invite a friend over and try out a zesty recipe in the welcoming climate of your kitchen.
The process of heating yourself up is also a metaphor for the power you have in your own life. When you can stay warm in the winter, it’s a reminder of how much you can affect your own experience. You have the power to kindle your own inner fire.
Yoga hip openers
Yoga poses to free your practice
Yoga pose library
When you see the calendar show a new year, it feels like anything is possible. You vow this will be the year your finally knock “that” thing off your to-do list, whether it’s moving, changing jobs or losing weight. Looking at the year on January 1, it seems like there is plenty of time and energy to do what you want to do. But, by the end of January, cold weather and busyness make it all too easy to slip back into your comfort zone.
If, like many people, you blame lack of willpower for not being able to achieve what you want to achieve, you might need to change your perspective slightly. No matter how much you want something and how hard your work for it, lasting change (or even drastic change) can only come if you are able to rewrite your attitude toward that thing. The baggage most people carry around about a certain issue makes it hard not to drag the negativity of any past unsuccessful attempts into the current one.
These kinds of thought patterns are referred to in Hindu thinking as samskaras. Every decision you’ve made or action you’ve taking creates a samskara in your mind. While they can be either positive or negative, you might be prone to noticing the negative ones, especially if you are trying something that you have struggled with in the past. Freeing yourself from negative samskaras means detaching your current situation from any past ones.
The yogic idea of “living in the present” is a good starting point for doing just that. While it’s great to have a plan for the future and to learn from the past, you live in today only. So, as you try to change, you first need to learn how to focus on the present moment.
Whatever happened the last time you tried for this or a similar goal, is a closed chapter. It may have been relevant to the person you were at the time. Maybe, you needed to learn perseverance rather than “acing” the task the first time. Or, perhaps, the thing you wanted at that time really wouldn’t have served you in the long term. Your inner wisdom may have been telling you that you were exerting a lot of energy trying to accomplish something that didn’t resonate with your true self. If you tend to carry that negative forward, make a conscious effort to release that mental baggage. Remind yourself that you have learned that lesson, and are ready and able to move forward with new skills and determination.
So, as you set your intention and create a plan to reach it, take some time in meditation to examine why you want to reach this goal. Is it really something you want or something someone told you to want? And, if you get there, what will be the benefit? How will your life change? How will you change? If, after reflection, you feel that tingle of excitement about starting down this path, then go for it. You are not the same person you were yesterday or 10 years ago. The “you” that is starting this journey clearly has every chance to succeed.
Yoga reinforces that perspective. Most yoga practices include a core range of poses. So, you’ve probably done Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and Plank Pose more times than you can remember. But, your experience of those poses is different every time you come to your mat. Maybe you used to struggle to hold Plank Pose, but now you can focus on lengthening through your feet. Maybe your heels now reach the floor in Adho Mukha Svanasana, so your awareness moves toward your breath. These things demonstrate your ability to grow and change, so they’re good reference points for trying to manifest change in your life.
Whether you’ve just taken your first yoga class and or are checking out advance pose videos on Yoga Journal’s site or any of the various yoga offerings on You Tube, you’ve experienced yoga’s unique ability to instill a “yes, you can” belief in your mind, body and spirit. It’s a rare practice that doesn’t reveal something to you—something that empowers you and liberates you from the idea that you’re bound to fail. Your practice gives you tangible proof that you can accomplish anything you choose to do. Sure, you’ll wobble or even fall a few times. You’ll take steps backward and sideways. But you’ll also learn, and that knowledge will not only bring you goal closer but suggest new avenues to explore. The only real failure is not trying at all.
Here are some poses to help you wipe your personal slate:
Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend)
Benefits: This pose allows you to see and feel your body evolve as you practice it. How to do it: Start in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Leaning slightly back with your hands behind you, open your legs to a right angle. Then, press your hips forward to widen your legs somewhat further. Keep your kneecaps and toes pointing upward. Slowly move your hands forward as you stretch from your hips. Keep your back long. You should think of your belly touching the floor before your chest to keep from rounding your back. Hold for at least one minute.
Benefits: This pose helps you to feel centered, making it easier to focus on the present. How to do it: Start in Dandasana. Place your hands behind you. Engage your core to lift your legs until your shins are parallel to the ground. Exhale and bring your arms off the floor so that they point forward. If you can, stretch your legs. If you’re new to this pose, you can support your thighs with your hands. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds.
Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (Standing Split)
Benefits: As you deepen your practice of this pose, you will be reminded of your body’s ability to change. How to do it: Start in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose). Place your right leg will be in front. Sweep your left arm around to end over your head. Then, turn your body so that your torso lays down over your right thigh (you will need to pivot your left heel as you do this). Your hands should be on the ground on either side of your right foot or on blocks. Move them slightly forward and shift your weight into your right foot. As you do that, raise your left leg until it is parallel to the floor. Keep both feet parallel. If you can, clasp your right ankle with your hands. Think of sending energy down into the floor to lift your left leg. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute, then release and repeat on the other side.
Clear the air. If you’ve had difficulty with a particular issue in the past, it can help to sit down and make a physical list of your previous attempts. Then, destroy it—you can burn it, bury it, shred it or whatever else helps you feel like you have made a break with that samskara.
Be accountable. Vocalizing your goals, especially to a friend or family member who will keep you on track, is a great way to prevent backsliding. Share them with anyone you can trust to help you out. Write out a contract with yourself and sign it. Be as specific as possible. The clearer the goals are in your mind, the easier they will be to reach.
Remember that while samskaras can be hard to break, you can do it. Just as your body stretches and becomes more malleable and stronger as you work on physical yoga poses, your mind also becomes more responsive as you work to reshape your thought patterns. Happy New Year!
Yoga to dissolve that trapped feeling
The liberation of yoga
Yoga pose library
Even if you enjoy the physical practice, yoga’s not just another workout. Every movement has meaning that goes beyond your body mechanics. A heart-opening pose feels a lot freer when you’re happy and expansive. Finding balance isn’t such a challenge when your mind is clear and you can focus on your breath. As you move through a sequence of asanas, it’s perfectly clear you’re not just going through the motions.
But, that’s just the starting point in connecting the mind-body-spirit dots. What if you began to consider how every move you make, even the wiggle of a finger, is a form of self-expression? Think about how that realization could not only deepen your experience on the mat, but what it would do for your relationships with the world outside the studio.
One way to jumpstart that process is to consider some mind, body, spirit cross-training by integrating yoga with a complementary practice such as the Delsarte System of Expression. In the mid 19th-century, musician and composer Francois Delsarte, frustrated with the formalized and ineffective gestures used in singing and acting, launched a study of how people actually interacted. The results of this study led to the development of his Delsarte System of Expressions, which interprets what movements say about what someone is really thinking and feeling.
But, his work wasn’t just a guidebook of hand and head positions. Instead, says Joe Williams, the leading modern Delsarte teacher, it was an attempt to help people understand the physical language they were speaking in even the smallest gesture. Williams explains that each body part represents the mind, body or spirit. Your head, arms, legs and torso each have three parts in the Delsarte system, one that represents each aspect of yourself. Each one corresponds to the mind, heart (or spirit) or body.
For example, your upper arm represents the strength of your physical body; your forearm represents your spirit and emotions, and your hand represents your mind. So, when you turn your palms upward as you sit in Padmanasana (Lotus Pose), your hands become symbols of your receptivity to ideas and concepts. When you rest your shins on your upper arms in Bakasana (Crane or Crow Pose), your arms become a source of strength.
Williams says this also plays into how your teacher should adjust you in many poses. “I have one student with Parkinson’s Disease,” he says. “If she is physically unsteady, I’ll support her upper arm, so she knows she has literal support first. Then, as she stabilizes, I’ll move my hand down to her forearm, so she can feel supported emotionally. Finally, I’ll give her my hand, so that she knows in her mind that I am there for her, but also that I know she is strong enough to do the pose on her own.”
It’s also a powerful tool to become more self aware. While Delsarte doesn’t take a literal approach like some other techniques do (like saying that if you are weak in your core, you don’t have a well-developed emotional center), looking at your movements in a Delsartean way can help you become more aware of your personal vocabulary. For example, if you tend to use the “physical” parts of your body in your practice—your upper arms and thighs—you might think about whether you also tend to take a muscular approach in the way you communicate. Similarly, if you are very conscious of the arches of your feet or your forearms, you might want to think about how much the spiritual (not necessarily in a religious sense but in the sense of pertaining to your spirit) dominates your communication.
Here are some ways to incorporate the Delsarte system into your body awareness when you practice.
Find a new kind of balance. “Many poses, such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) for example, strongly use all three zones of the body, head, heart and abdominal/pelvis area,” says Williams “With a fundamentally sound technique, you can try to explore all three elements of the pose. How does it feel when you focus on what is happening in the stabilizing strength of the pelvis and abdomen, symbolizing the body? Then try focusing on the spirit or heart zone, and its elevation and opening. Then focus on the rising of the intellect, the head, and the energy of intelligence in its upward quest. It can be very stimulating to explore ourselves in this way through many poses.”
Learn to speak the language. Just as with words, you can choose what you want your body to say. It can be hard at first to feel how to change the focus of a pose, but doing so can transform your experience of it. For example, thinking about the arches of your feet during Utkatasana (Chair Pose) instead of your thighs can help you see past the simple physical challenge of the pose.
Find seated balance. It’s tempting to think of balance and alignment as more important in standing poses, but Delsarte’s harmonic balance exercises are a great tool for learning how to work your body in unison. You can do this in a chair, as William suggests. Start toward the front edge of the chair. Keeping your head level, move your chest forward. Then, go back to center and to the back. Do this a few times, then repeat the exercises going side to side, in a circle and finally on the diagonal. This may sound simple, but trying to keep your head level and your shoulders and torso open is important and requires much more sophisticated control than you might realize.
See the stories in the poses. This is kind of like a grown-up version of the kids’ yoga games where they pretend to be animals. As you do a pose, think about what aspect it emphasizes—mind, body or spirit—and how it’s meant to make you feel. Do you feel powerful doing a pose? Receptive? Uplifted? Whatever your thoughts, think about how the body position affects them. Do you feel strong because your upper arms are powerfully held, as in Virabhrasana II (Warrior II Pose)? Or do you feel strong in your mind because you are in physical balance, as in Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III Pose)?
Take your yoga into the world. Understanding how people’s movements convey meaning is a great tool to help you be empathetic when you interact with others. When you are talking to somebody, listen to his/her body language as well as the words. For example, watch someone’s arm when she/he mentions a topic or person. Is he/she moving mostly from the mind, body or spirit part of the arm? That can help you understand which aspect of the person’s personality is dominant at the time. Also, be aware that your physical interactions talk to others. If you take a child by the wrist instead of the hand, it implies a power play—like a manacle. Holding hands is an action that implies a spirit-to-spirit bond. Also consider a dance fusion class that will invite you to take your yoga practice out of linear range of movement and see what happens when you’re physically encouraged to say something that’s off the grid.
This is one of the most exciting things about your yoga practice. Each time you put on your YogaPaws, you can experience a deeper understanding of what you are doing. Exploring fresh ideas like the Delsarte system is a wonderful way to add another layer to your ability to unite the physical, mental and spiritual aspects that make up you and your practice.
The dance of yoga
Yoga to express yourself
Yoga pose library
Do you remember the first time you ever felt sad? Scared? Anxious? Maybe you don’t, but your body might. In yogic thinking, your body is not only enmeshed with your mind and spirit; it’s a journal of your journey through life. Your tight hips may not just be a matter of genetics. Tightening down through you hip cradle may be a lifelong response to a negative situation. You close down as you try to protect yourself, to literally brace your body against the anticipated blow. Or, perhaps, your dentist just recommended a mouth guard to stop you from grinding your teeth as the stressors build up in you days. If it’s hard to open your shoulders, think about how much tension you’ve held in your upper body whenever you’re uncertain or unhappy.
Memories from your earliest years can be shaping and defining the body you’re living in today. Even when you’re not consciously aware that you’re holding back emotions, your body is spelling it out for you. If you, like so many people, have intense, unresolved emotion experiences, the muscles, bones, organs and fascia in your body can become out of balance—tight, weak, stiff or under- or over-stimulated—in an attempt to deal with them.
Your yoga practice is one place where you can see that in action. For example, if you tend be shy in speaking or have traumatic associations with public speaking, it might be hard for you to keep your throat long and relaxed in backbends like Ustrasana (Camel Pose). If you are insecure, core strength can be a challenge. Working on strengthening and loosening spots that are tight or weak can also help to bring those thoughts into balance.
When it comes to deeply ingrained or buried issues, your yoga practice takes on a different, powerful role. As Yoga Journal points it, yoga’s message of understanding and acceptance can sometimes trigger an unexpected flood of emotions. Maybe you head into a heart-opening pose only to find yourself in tears, or maybe a challenging Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose) sequence leaves you irritable. While those emotions aren’t always a pleasant catharsis, they are often your body’s way of telling you that you can—and are able to—address the root causes. They break down the barriers between the stiff-upper-lip denial of how your really feel and put you face-to-face with emotions that are real, relevant and necessary to acknowledge.
Most yoga teachers agree, according to Yoga Journal, that you shouldn’t try to stir up emotions on the mat, but that doing so can be a natural part of your yoga experience. What is important is that if they occur, you don’t try to hold them back or over-analyze them. In the moment, register the sensation for what it is. Ask yourself what you feel. Accept the validity of that feeling. Later, in or out of class, you can try to find the deepest causes. Maybe opening your physical heart reminded you of someone you miss, or maybe you feel edgy because you feel like your strength isn’t being fully utilized. Whatever truths you uncover, let them come to you. Don’t judge your feelings, or yourself.
Here are some poses to make it easier to let your body speak to you.
Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
Benefits: This heart-opening pose helps you access your creative and emotional sides. How to do it: Start lying face down on your mat. Place your hands on the floor close to your body and about even with your shoulders. Focus on allowing the fronts of your thighs and the tops of your feet to sink into the mat. On an inhale, press into your hands to lift your torso off the floor. Straighten your arms as far as you can without straining your lower back. Think about elongating your front page and not “hinging” in your low spine to contract it. Keep your neck long and your breath even. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, then release.
Ananda Balasana (Happy Baby Pose)
Benefits: This gentle hip opener is a great way to help release emotional tension about long-ago or deep issues. How to do it: Lie on your back on the mat. Exhale and pull your knees in toward your chest. On an inhale, clasp your hands around the outside of each foot. Make sure your legs form a right angle, with your ankles perpendicular to your knees. Pull your feet toward your torso. As you push your hands down, gently resist by press your feet toward the ceiling. When you reach the deepest stretch that’s comfortable for you, stay there for 30 seconds to one minute and release. For added fun, gently rock from side to side on your back or bend and stretch your legs lightly.
Benefits: This pose can help remind you of your physical and mental strength, making you feel empowered to open up to your emotions. How to do it: Start in Adho Mukha Svansana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Bring your right foot between your hands. On an inhale, bring your body up. Brush your arms out to the sides and then up toward the ceiling, arms along your ears and palms facing each other. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute, being careful not to let your back arch. Then, release from the pose by placing your torso back on your leg and returning to Adho Mukha Svanasana before repeating on the left side.
Customize. As Yoga Journal recommends, what helps you release is unique to your needs. It can be as simple as finding a practice that feels opening to you. Or, you can use the chakra system or another metaphysical concept to help you target specific areas in your life you want to open up.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes, introspection is the best way to get to the root of a problem. But, if you’re drowning in the flood of emotions that your yoga practice releases, asking for outside help in sorting through it is a good idea. Whether it’s your family, a best friend, your yoga teacher or a therapist (holistic or allopathic), the sounding board and support another person can offer is a powerful tool to help you cut through self-imposed limitations and see a bigger picture. If you don’t do well with “advice,” look for an alternative like the Spiritual Companioning program offered by Cincinnati Yoga School (your mentor doesn’t tell you what to do, but keeps asking questions until you find the answer), Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy and similar approaches.
Yoga is a wonderful way to open yourself up to not only difficult emotions, but joyous ones. If you have had some cathartic sessions on the mat lately, dedicate your next practice to one happy thing—a person, place or activity you enjoy—and make the practice about deepening the joy that brings you. Then, in the moment, remember that feeling as a magnifying glass for your happiness.
Yoga to open your horizons
Yoga to express yourself
Yoga pose library
The concept of balance is one many yoga students spend a lot of time exploring in their bodies—standing on one leg in poses like Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III Pose) or flying into an arm balance like Bakasana (Crow or Crane Pose). And, as anyone who practices these asanas knows, it takes a great deal of focus to get to that point between surrender and control that makes what seems impossible, possible. But, as challenging as finding physical balance is, getting to a point of emotional equilibrium can be even harder.
Staying centered emotionally is a one-day-at-a-time journey. Hectic holidays can put some major obstacles on that path. From the sheer practical strain of extra time need to prepare for this festive season to the psychological tension of the New Year and its inevitable encouragement to take stock, you probably feel pulled apart. So, how do you stay in the moment and enjoy this time without getting bogged down?
It’s important to understand that emotional balance doesn’t imply being perfectly in harmony all the time. What it does mean is that you are basically at a centered point in your mind, so that the small disruptions and stressors of daily life stay in perspective. Yes, you’re going to yell at your children/partner/friends when they don’t deserve that kind of treatment. You’re going to feel disappointed, if not downright depressed, when the job or promotion goes to someone else. And, probably, you’ll shed a few tears when your favorite holiday cookies burned because you were putting out fires elsewhere in your house/life. Being in balance enables you to see these detours for what they are rather than opening up a tidal wave of guilt or frustration that throws you off course.
Focus on the idea of progress, not perfection. Like healthy eating or meditation, attaining a place of emotional calm takes practice. An asana practice is a roadmap for reaching that stress-free state. As you work through various sequences, the chatter goes away in your mind, the anger leaves you and you feel steady and free as you channel your thoughts into action.
While you can’t whip out your yoga mat in the car or at a meeting, you can use mantras or visualization to help you. Taking time when you are stressed or frustrated to remind yourself of the good things in your life is a powerful tool to return to a better frame of mind. You can also try using mantras of empowerment or calming. Ask your yoga teacher for some that might fit best with your personality and goals, or check on the internet. A search for mantras that make you feel empowered will be bring up more than a million results—a clear message that a lot of people around the world are looking for the same things you are.
When you can hit your yoga mat, use that time to help you create a “safe zone” where you can go to recharge your batteries. A practice with energizing, relaxing and heart-opening elements is a great way to help you find a place of calm. Here are some poses and tips to try.
Benefits: This heart-opening pose helps cultivate openness and receptivity to the other people in your life, encouraging you to feel loved and loving—which is a great balance point. How to do it: Start by lying on your stomach on your mat. Keep the tops of your feet pressing into the ground, legs extended behind you. Place your hands near your waist. Spread your fingers. On an inhale, press your hands into the floor to lift your torso and thighs off the floor into a backbend. Open your collar bones by rolling your shoulders back and down. Keep your neck long and your breathing even. Feel the stretch across your chest. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, then release.
Benefits: This pose helps you calm your thoughts, making it easier to return to an emotional center. How to do it: Start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Step or jump your feet three to four feet apart. Place your hands on your hips. On an exhale, hinge forward from your hips. As you bend, place your hands on the ground. With your torso parallel to the ground, make your back long and take a few breaths looking up with your head at hip height. Then, fold as far as you can, bringing your head toward the ground. Stay for 30 seconds to one minute, then release. If you’re very flexible and your head easily comes to the ground, narrow the distance between your legs until your spine is straight.
Benefits: This pose is a great way to help you feel more energized. How to do it: Starting on your hands and knees, bend your elbows and clasp your hands, forearms on the floor. Exhale and push your heels to or toward the ground. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute.
Make time. It’s not easy during the holidays, but setting aside even 15-30 minutes a day for yourself is an important tool. Nobody feels at their most centered when they are constantly rushed. So, find a time where you know you can make a practice happen—say early in the morning or in the evening—and make a date with yourself. If you don’t have a meditation practice, start one. Whether seated or walking, commit to 10 minutes a day at first and let your mind be free.
Pay into your emotional bank account. As much as the holidays are a wonderful time for you to indulge everyone else in your life, don’t leave yourself off your list. Pick one thing a week that’s just for fun—coffee with friends, a class, a massage, or just some uncommitted time—and enjoy.
These are just some suggested poses. As you practice, be sensitive to the poses that feel good to you now. Maybe it’s a good time to explore challenge poses, or maybe you’re into a restorative practice. Or maybe it’s a good time to try the comforts of practicing in a hot room. Think about you really need at that moment, and follow your bliss.
Meditation on the go
Yoga to ease anxiety
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When you were a kid, the holidays couldn’t come soon enough. The weeks leading up to these special times were filled with anticipation—and probably tins full of cookies (which had no calories then), less pressured school days and more time to be with family and friends. But the perspective is really different on the other side of the rolling pin (and the 10 trips to the grocery store for ingredients you forgot) and the midnight house cleaning that didn’t fit into your 25-hour day. And all those presents? Even if you shopped early and stopped early before you succumbed to conspicuous consumption, you’re still stressing about whether you got the gifts that would get that special smile as the wrappings come off. So, before this festive season becomes one more stressor, set an intention to give yourself a gift right now: the gift of calm.
Start by focusing on what yoga teaches you about being centered and authentic. Let go of all the created need of the to-do lists on the Internet or in magazines. Think about what celebrating really means to you and the people you care about. Will anyone really care if you serve five different kinds of cookies rather than six? If you like to bake, make that an occasion in itself. Invite a group of friends to bring the makings for their favorite desserts. Soon, your kitchen will be warmed by the confections coming out of the oven and the laughter of people enjoying themselves. Instead of wrapping up one more thing, give an experience that deepens your connection with someone or makes a new one. Forget about the ruffled scarf you’re desperately trying to convince yourself your BFF will like because you want to get home. Instead, get her/him a gift certificate for a private yoga class or pre-pay for a workshop you’d both like. Make a donation in your parents’ names to a cause they support. If you want that big box present, choose something from a company that promotes eco and social responsibility and let the recipient know how that gift keeps on giving. One click and you’re done.
Schedule time outs. Yoga can be more essential than ever within the context of this hectic time. You may not have an hour to devote to your practice, but you can do some breath work before you get out of bed. Emphasize a long, slow inhale through your nose and an even longer exhale. Pull your knees into your chest and gently roll you lower body from side to side. When you get out of bed, stand in Tadasana (Mountain pose) with your toe mounds touching and your arms straight by your sides. Close your eyes and breathe in the words, “I am calm;” exhale the words, “I am releasing stress.” This gives you a chance to get to a calm center before you take on the challenges of the day. You can repeat this short sequence at your desk to maintain that equilibrium throughout your workday as well. If your job requires you to be on your feet, do seated breath work during your break.
Before you head out to class or take out your mat for a home practice, thoughtfully consider what you need that day to de-stress. A power class can be the perfect antidote to stress if you’re pent up from an hour in traffic gridlock on the way to the mall or your workload is escalating as the year draws to a close. But if your body and mind have had enough and you need to release, consider these suggestions from renowned yoga teacher Kathryn Budig:
Try a seated meditation. As Budig points out, this is doable on the busiest day. Twelve minutes can change your life. Come into a comfortable sitting position. Lengthen your spine, stretching your crown away from your tailbone. Place the backs of your palms on your knees if you want to focus on receiving; cup your knees with hands if you want to feel solid and grounded or bring your folded hands into your lap to go deeply within. Hold that pose for seven minutes. Budig suggests thinking the phrase, "I am not my body" on your inhales and, "I am not even the mind" on your exhales. After the seven minutes are up, chant the sound “HA” seven times and continue to sit for another five minutes focusing your energy between your brows.
Close your day with yoga. Whether you’ve just arrived home or you’re getting ready to wind down before bed, try some gentle asanas to lower your stress levels. Consider these restorative poses or ask your yoga teacher to recommend choices for your specific needs.
Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall Pose). Expert teacher Rodney Yee calls this one of the most restorative poses in yoga. He offers three variations. In the first, sit in an L-shape with your right side up against a wall. Swing your legs up the wall as you lower your head and shoulders. One option is to bend your knees and cross your legs as you do in Sukhasana (Easy Pose). Allow the legs to rest on the wall while the back body relaxes into the mat. For a second variation, begin the same way but straighten your legs. If you’re less flexible or have back issues, consider placing a bolster under your lower back so that it will support your back as you swing your legs up and lie back. To go deeper, flex your feet or, if you’re working with a partner, ask her/him to press your legs into the wall. In the third version of this pose, place a bolster next to the wall. As you enter the pose, place your right hip/buttock on the wall and ease your left side up onto the bolster. Raise your legs and recline back. Yee sees this as a valuable alternative to full shoulder stand, with many of the same heart opening and calming benefits. Try to stay in any of these poses for five minutes. Ease your legs down, walking down the wall and then bringing your knees into your chest and hugging them with your arms.
Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose). Come to a comfortable seat. Bend your knees and draw the soles of your feet together into Baddha Konanasana (Bound Angle Pose). Ease yourself down, lowering onto your forearms. If possible, recline down to the mat. If you need support, place a folded blanket or bolster on the mat to support your head and neck before you begin. Stay in the pose from one to 10 minutes. Release by using your hands to press your thighs together. Then roll up to seated position.
Live in the moment. By keeping your focus on what you’re doing at any given time, you won’t get overwhelmed by all the to-do’s. Look for the joy in what you’re doing, whether the mind/body/spirit exhilaration of yoga or the fragrance of home-made soup simmering on the stove. Make your daily shower a pampering ritual by using a new herbal soap or applying sesame or almond oil before stepping into the warm waterfall of water.
Learn to be a good editor of your life. Declutter your mind. Instead of trying to get everything done, do only those things that matter most. Then, calm down. The best present is given heart to heart—and you already have that taken care of.
Seven Poses for Calmer Holidays
Poses to Keep Your Holidays Bright
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The whole routine of fall house cleaning may have gone the way of 50s sitcom moms who wore pearls as they vacuumed their already squeaky clean homes. But idea of using this time to give a thorough cleansing to your mind, body and spirit as you transition from autumn to winter is totally “now.” Just as layers of dust dull the beauty of wood or glass, the build-up of stress, negative thoughts and draining emotions stop a human being’s full beauty from shining through. Committing to a detoxifying regimen can help clear all that debris, get you back to your center and re-energize you at every level.
You have lots of options for creating an effect cleanse. Considering what you eat and how you feel as a result of your food choices is one component. Some people take a strict view that narrows those choices only to fruit/vegetable juices for several days. Others choose a vegan or vegetarian dietary jumpstart, with an emphasis on organic foods and lighter meals. Still others favor a raw food menu, at least for the first few days. Or, maybe, the first step is simply to leave processed food and products with fillers/additives out of your shopping cart. Herbal teas may be a nice companion. There are also a wide variety of specialty supplements for detoxifying, but you should discuss them with a trusted expert so that you understand what the full impact could be on your digestive and immune systems.
While eating healthy foods is a great way to enhance your wellbeing, taking a holistic view of cleansing your system means being aware of your body at a more subtle level. That’s where your yoga practice comes in. The alternate stretching and tightening of your muscles in yoga not only helps stimulate your digestive system, but also helps your circulatory system work more efficiently. Your asana practice helps your lymphatic system collect and remove unwanted substances. And, the mind-body nature of your yoga practice can help trigger calming responses in your brain.
The upside doesn’t stop there. Yoga is a compelling tool for detoxifying your thinking. Every time you tell yourself about your tight hamstrings, bad balance, weak arms or not-model-perfect thighs, you feed your mind a diet of negative thoughts. That’s a pretty toxic way of thinking. Just walking into a yoga class or getting our your mat or Yoga-Paws stops that cycle. The choice to practice means you believe in yourself enough to take on the challenge of whatever that class or at-home session offers. Somewhere inside, you know you can move forward and grow. The more you focus on that positive attitude, the easier it will be to clean out the thought patterns that hold you back and limit you.
Before your next practice, take your detox into your practice. As you prepare for class, find a word that helps you concentrate on detoxifying your mind and body. Maybe you want to breathe in “renew” or “refresh” and exhale “staleness,” “dullness” or “complacency.” Use something that is meaningful to you. You’ll know what it is the minute you open your mind and let the word form. You’ll feel lighter, cleaner, more ready to take on the world as that word is integrated into your breath.
Then, make it physical to help start your cleanse. Here are some poses to help you help your body run at peak efficiency.
Standing Shakti Kicks
Benefits: Sadie Nardini uses these vigorous kicks to help stimulate digestion. How to do it: Standing at the front of your mat, bend over and place your hands shoulder width apart in front of your feet. Engage your core to pull your right knee into your chest. Take an inhale. On the exhale, extend your leg into a split. Inhale as you stretch your right leg, and exhale as you bend it in. Repeat five to 10 times, then switch sides.
Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana One Foot Downward-Facing Dog Pose
Benefits: This pose helps boost circulation. How to do it: Start on your hands and knees. Exhale and stretch your legs, bringing your heels to or toward the floor. Keep your shoulders even and your head between your arms. Lift your right leg as far as you can toward the ceiling, keeping your hips square and reaching through your (right) heel. Hold for five breaths, then switch legs.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose)—Variation
Benefits: This pose helps stimulate digestion. How to do it: Start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). On an inhale, bend your knees as close to a right angle as possible. Press your palms together in front of your sternum, thumbs resting on your chest. Exhale and bring your right elbow to the outside of your left thigh. Rotate your head to gaze upward. Hold for three breaths, then release and repeat on the other side.
Focus on Twists. Twisting poses help stimulate your digestion, circulation, and lymphatic system. Try repeating some twisting poses each time you practice to enhance those benefits.
Breathe. No matter what kind of yoga you do, keeping your breath deep and even helps bring fresh oxygen to your muscles and expel both breath and whatever stressful thoughts you have. Make sure to keep your exhalations complete (and longer than your inhales if possible) as you practice.
And remember, even a complete physical detox won’t feel cleansing unless your mind is clear as well. Make a list of five to 10 thoughts that make you feel stuck, either physically weighted down or limited in your mind. Each time you practice, focus on letting go of one or two of them. Enjoy the possibilities of a de-cluttered self!
Yoga bodywork to detox
Yoga to detox
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Sleep is supposed to be a routine part of your life—the time when your body and mind rest and repair themselves. But, a good night’s rest can be elusive. In the U.S. alone, 70 million people suffer from insomnia, according to 2012 data from National Sleep Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, that’s not counting the millions more who fall asleep but never relax into the deepest of the five sleep cycles as they toss, turn or grind their teeth.
It’s hard to point to any single cause of sleep problems. You live in a 24/7 world where your schedule is manipulated by stress, counter-intuitive eating times (think no breakfast or dinners that don’t start until 10 P.M) and technology (as in the constant glow of the monitor or the music that flows through your ear buds). So all of the internal systems connected with your fight-or-flight response are always on high alert. The adrenalin rarely ebbs, making it difficult to power down when you—and need—to.
Hormonal changes can lead to a lot of sleepless nights, So can environmental factors, from the obvious ones such as street noise or neighbors who leave lights on at night, to more subtle ones. Canada’s Naturopathic Medicine Profession says the accumulation of environmental toxins and synthetic chemicals can interrupt your sleep patterns, as can lack of time spent outside.
Obviously, trying to create a lifestyle that is conducive to a normal sleep cycle is important. Yogic thinking usually recommends rising before dawn to take advantage of this lighter, vata time; eating when the sun is the hottest (noon) and going to be around 10 PM. But, sometimes, even when you have made adjustments to your schedule, shut down your electronic devices and tried to relax, you’re still counting the minutes going by while you lie awake. Preparing yourself for bed demands that you help you mind and body activate the natural responses that tell you to turn off and go to sleep.
For many people who have trouble sleeping, movement helps provide some of those cues. Because yoga isn’t aerobic, it’s a particularly good choice to help release physical tension. And, many yoga poses trigger physiological calming responses in your brain that help send the message to your body to sleep. According to doctor and yoga teacher Baxter Bell, writing in Yoga Journal, inversions help the body shift from the sympathetic nervous system that controls a fight-or-flight response to the parasympathetic one that controls a relaxation response.
Here are some poses to try in the evenings to unwind and prepare for sleep:
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
Benefits: This pose can help you calm down by grounding your thoughts. How to do it: Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Place your hands on your hips. On an exhale, hinge forward from your hip joints. Keeping your torso long, place your hands or fingertips on the floor. If you can’t reach the floor, you can put them on a block. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute, then bring your hands back to your hips and come up with a straight back.
Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose)
Benefits: This supine pose helps you relax your entire body while releasing tension in your hips. How to do it: Begin seated in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) with your knees bent out to the sides and the soles of your feet touching. Lean back, supporting your weight with your hands. As you get to the point where you are on your forearms, use your hands to create space in the back of your pelvis, the lie down all the way and bring your hands by your sides. Don’t try to force your knees toward the floor. If needed, you can place a block or bolster under each knee. You can also place a bolster under your shoulders or your low back for support. Stay for one minute, then release.
Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Bridge Pose)
Benefits: This pose helps tell your body that it’s time to sleep. How to do it: Fold a blanket into a one by two foot rectangle. Lie down, placing your shoulders along the edge of the blanket so your head is on the floor. Bend your knees in and place your feet on the floor. Draw your knees in toward your chest. Round your spine to lift your pelvis off the floor. Place your hands on your lower back. Keep your elbows relatively close together and your upper arms on the floor. Lift your knees to the ceiling. On an inhale, stretch your legs and bring your toes toward the ceiling. Keep your neck relaxed. You can also place a block under your low back, adjusting the height until you have a comfortable level of support. Hold for 30 seconds if you are new to the pose. As you get more comfortable with it, add a few seconds until you can hold it for three minutes.
Benefits: This meditation helps deepen sleep. How to do it: Sit in a comfortable pose. Focus your gaze on the end of your nose. Cross your hands in your lap, right over left, palms up. Chant “Sa Ta Na Ma” silently as you inhale, and “Wahe Guru” as you exhale. Repeat for 15 minutes.
Work it out. It sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes tiring yourself out with a vigorous practice can help you rest. Just avoid doing it within an hour of bedtime.
Watch what you eat. While avoiding caffeine or spicy, heavy food within two hours of bedtime might be an obvious “don’t,” keep in mind that fruits high in natural sugars can also be sleep disruptors. Looking for calming herbal teas can be the start of a soothing, nighttime ritual. Consider complementing that with a warm bath or shower and aromatherapy.
All of this helps to remind yourself that nighttime is the time for rest and rejuvenation, not stress. Lying awake worrying about things won’t help you get them done. Let your to-do list go. Just as you do in your practice, use your breath to focus on what you are doing at that moment. Breathe in the world “calm,” breathe out “stress.” Or use whatever words help you feel centered, relaxed and ready for the liberation of a deep, refreshing night’s sleep.
Yoga to reduce anxiety
Yoga for relaxation
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Menopause used to be referred to as “the change.” It’s hard not to chafe against that term. Like the other code words applied to the functioning of women’s bodies—“visits from Aunt Flo” (periods), “visits from the stork” (pregnancy), “that time of month” (PMS), it feels like one more attempt to cover up what’s really happening and put this transition/transformation behind the curtain.
But, in this case, the idea of change is far more accurate than the clinical word, menopause. Sure, change can be hard. No woman looks forward to hot flashes, mood swings, insomnia, headaches and a rollercoaster ride of emotions. And, there’s a lot of introspection needed to come to grips with moving beyond your child-bearing years—especially if you have children and they’re growing up and, perhaps, moving away.
But, as yoga demonstrates, learning to work through those tough places in order to make change happen can be truly liberating. The shift in how your body functions is powerful opportunity to reconnect with your mind, body and spirit. You are no longer tethered to a monthly cycle of weight gain, moodiness and generally feeling lousy. Nor are you any longer bound by having to serve as chauffeur, cooking midnight meals for school the next day or helping with homework.
This stage in your life offers you an opportunity to turn your focus inward. The chaos you might feel in your body demands that you step back from the rat race and take some time to figure out what works for you. What makes you feel good? What does your body need right now? When you do feel most energetic? Most ready for rest? In many ways, going through menopause, like puberty, forces you to explore your needs and wants—something a lot of women end up putting on the back burner for much of the time between the two. Jobs, houses and families leave a lot of women last on their own priority list. Now is a time to redress that balance.
It’s challenging to keep that in mind during the process of menopause. First of all, know that you’ve got plenty of good company for this journey. Also, focus on the fact that the toll menopause takes on your body and mind isn’t something you’re just imagining or that you’re just not coping well. Over half of women feel some noticeable symptoms during menopause, ranging from mild annoyance to severe discomfort. And, the causes of much of this discomfort are physiological. Don’t let anyone tell you this is “all in your head.”
The hormonal swings that lead up to menopause can start many of the common symptoms. As Yoga Journal explains, the push-pull between estrogen and progesterone in your body creates that quicksilver mood shifts as your body is alternately powered up with estrogen and calmed down with progesterone. Hot flashes, fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety, mood swings and memory problems are all relatively “normal” issues during menopause. And, hormonal fluctuations aren’t unique to this time in your life. From puberty onward, it’s a constant in women’s lives; each month, your body goes through many of the same tensions as you go through your menstrual cycle.
To help ease the physical and mental downside of this life-affirming change, try these poses:Yoga is a good shelter from this storm. Whether you go to your mat to calm down or energize, you can practice how to focus, how to ask yourself whether a pose is appropriate and how to determine where your “edge” really is. Twists can help you rid your body not only of toxins but tension. Breathwork is calming and clarifying. If you’re feeling rage, a powerful flow class can burn off some of those high emotions. As you exhale, you let go of the byproducts of that inner blaze. As you come to the seated posture, you might find yourself cooling down as much mentally and physically.
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
Benefits: This pose can help relieve anxiety and irritability by making you calm down. How to do it: Start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Hinge forward from your hips. Place your hands on the floor in front of you or on a block. Let your head hang between your arms. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute, then release.
Benefits: Yoga teacher Shiva Rea uses this pose to open the heart, which relieves symptoms of depression. How to do it: Begin in Low Lunge. On an inhale, lift your arms in front of you. Spread them to the sides of your body at about a 45-degree angle to your shoulders in a wide “V”. Lengthen your neck and look up toward the ceiling. Feel the expansion in your chest. Hold for 30 seconds, breathing deeply, then release.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
Benefits: This pose helps you calm down, which also boosts memory and focus. How to do it: Start on your hands and knees. Your hands should be under your shoulders and your knees should be hip width apart. On an exhale, stretch your knees and lengthen your heels toward the floor. Take a breath there, then try to stretch your heels onto the floor. Stay in the pose for one to three minutes, then release.
Relax. Letting go of tension in your body can help control hot flashes and anxiety. Yoga teacher Patricia Walden suggests trying supported backbends with props. You can also try a restorative sequence.
Stand Tall. Your posture can affect your mood. Open your chest and roll your shoulders back. Notice how much more in control you feel.
Cool Down. Sit comfortably. Inhale through your nose, then shape your lips into the letter “O”. Curl your tongue (if possible,), and blow your breath out through the circle of your lips. Enjoy the almost minty coolness that remains in your mouth afterward. Typically, yoga advises breathing in and out through the noise because the air that filters into the body is warm and moist. Exhaling through the mouth sends out that warm air, leaving you feeling cooler and drier.
And, remember, how you cope with menopause is unique to you. This could be a great time to try acupuncture or Thai body work. Maybe yoga nidra would help you sleep. Or, new foods, aromatherapy or new routines could make this change easier. Whatever tools you use, embrace this new time of life.
Yoga to help you feel free
Yoga for energy
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