What’s Missing from Your Yoga Practice?

Most yoga students begin the practice of yoga to learn and benefit from its physical postures or asana.

It’s the way that I got started. As a former dancer, I was drawn to the slow movements and deep sense of alignment that the poses provided. At that time, I didn’t realize that I was simultaneously tuning into my breath. My first teacher would gently remind the class to inhale and exhale as we stretched and contracted. It felt fluid and natural and my body felt aligned and peaceful at the end of each session. But we didn’t call it pranayama. At the end of class, we took time to close our eyes and sit quietly. We were encouraged to focus on the simple pattern of our breath, the sounds within the space or a specific intention for ourselves. But we didn’t call it meditation. Continue reading “What’s Missing from Your Yoga Practice?”

YOLY Challenge #45: Honoring Transition

Happy May Day!

In ancient times, this day celebrated the season of fruitfulness and the coming of summer for many northern hemisphere cultures. The festivities may have included a maypole –padstow-736149__340 thought to be the symbol for a tree that represents new vegetation. More recently in the U.S., this type of celebration is usually only seen in schools as it is taught as a tradition stemming from the European cultures. Nowadays, and by coincidence, May Day is associated with protests and marches promoting change for the rights of workers and immigrants.

Symbolically, the month of May is connected with movement, balance and change or transition.

A big part of life is experienced through transition. Our bodies and minds go through many phases as a result of maturation, education, connections and societies’ conventions. And, as we “go across” these passages, we attempt to keep a steady footing on the other side. Some of the transitions we encounter can be smooth when we learn to adapt and accommodate. But many times, the shifts we undergo create havoc and can be harmful.

The same is true for our yoga practice.  While we may master specific poses, or at least feel confident and comfortable practicing them, the transitions into and out of these poses may not be as composed. Knees, hips and feet can easily move out of alignment and, with repetition, be injurious to a yoga practice. This is especially true when we do vinyasa yoga, a form defined by linking postures in a flowing routine.

So, our challenge this week is to be more aware of our transitions; since this is the season for transformation.  Let’s break down the elements of our practice and tune into the spaces between the poses.

  • Find a resting place to digest your experience as you practice. As you progress through your daily practice, return to Tadasana (mountain pose), Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog) or Balasana (child’s pose) to realign with your breath and get back in touch with your intention.
  • Work on your balance.  Repeatedly insert Vrksasana (tree pose) between other standing postures to hone your alignment and your perception.
  • Try linking one posture with another.  Start with a downward dog/plank combination or try to move from warrior I to warrior II.  Study the principles of alignment for these various poses, as instructed in Iyengar yoga for example, to make certain the transitions are healthy ones for your joints.
  • Practice Nadi Shodhana This breathing technique will balance and clarify your mind so that you can transition well off your mat. Use caution as any form of pranayama can be a powerful force.
  • Transition to the ground. When you complete your standing poses, find a posture for converting to the floor such as Uttanasana (forward bend) or Prasarita Padottanasana (wide angle forward bend).
  • Allow yourself time for transitioning at the start and end of your practice.  Initiate your practice with seated breath awareness and/or an invocation. Before jumping up to start your day, give yourself permission to close the practice with a quiet acknowledgement in a simple seated posture.

Hopefully, these tools will not only enhance your practice but make you more aware of the metamorphosis that is yoga.

Namasté.

Can We Change Our Alignment?

This is a DEEP subject, but if you made it through this week’s YOLY Challenge, you should now be more acquainted with your postural alignment.  Let’s look a bit further.

What did you discover?

  1. Did you have to strain to keep your head against the back of the wall?
  2. Which parts of your shoulders could touch the wall?
  3. Did your calves touch the wall?
  4. Did you have a difficult time keeping your lower back away from the wall?

Here are some yoga postures that can target these specific postural areas:

  1. If your head did not move back easily toward the wall, your upper back may be rounded and resistant to correct alignment. imagesThe term for a rounded upper back is kyphosis. By stretching and lengthening the front body, you give the back body less resistance to resume its neutral position. Eventually, the head may move back to be in line with your spine. Bhujangasana (Cobra), Sphinx or Matsyasana (Fish) can open and lengthen the front body.
  2. If your shoulders had difficulty reaching the wall, then it may be connected to kyphosis as in #1. If you could keep your shoulder blades at the wall but not the outer portion of your shoulders, try these poses to increase your shoulder’s range of motion: Purvottansana (Upward Plank), Garudasana (Eagle) and Gomukasana (Cow Face).
  3. If your legs were not able to remain long and straight as you stood, you may have trouble lengthening your hamstrings.  Work with Supta Hasta Pandangusthasana (Supine Hand to Foot Pose) to expand your range.
  4. water-46551__180A flat back can be connected to short hamstrings as in #3 (see the trend here?). In addition to the short hamstrings, you may need to improve your hip flexibility. Setu Bandha (Bridge) and Cat/Cow are gentle ways to bring more movement into your hip joints and lower spine.

 

Please know that genetics/structural differences are the reason for many of our postural imbalances. These alignment issues have been years in the making, therefore, we need to work slowly and gently in order to evoke changes.

If you are healthy, you can use yoga slowly and with guidance to remedy your situation. However, if you have spinal pain, scoliosis or any serious degenerative issues, please refer to your physician before attempting yoga. And, always, “Pay Attention – Practice Mindfully.”

YOLY Challenge #9: Check in With Your Alignment

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All students of yoga should periodically check in with their alignment.  Although consistent yoga practice would dictate that our bodies are perfectly in line, poor postural habits can develop along the way at any time. It is only when we are aware of these deviations that can we work back towards neutral spine.

This week’s challenge is to check your alignment.  Here’s a good test to practice each day this week:

Stand with your back against an unobstructed wall.  Your feet should be hip width apart and parallel to each other. The backs of your heels, glutes, shoulders and possibly your head will touch the wall.  Try to tuck your pelvis under while still maintaining a slight space behind your lower back (lumbar curve).

Over the course of this week, make the following observations:

  • How close is your head to the back of the wall?  You can measure this by placing your hand behind your head to identify the amount of space that is there. Is there enough room for one finger, two fingers or more?
  • Which parts of your shoulders are touching the wall?
  • Are your calves touching the wall?
  • Are you able to maintain a small space between your lower back and the wall?

Don’t dismay if you are finding some discrepancies here.  Remember the challenge is to create awareness.

Check back in on Friday for some ways to improve your body’s organization.