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Friday, May 27, 2016

Tip of the Week: Keep Spine Straight in Half Tortoise Pose

 photo from Bikram Yoga Charleston

When it comes time to do Half Tortoise Pose (Ardha-Kurmasana) in the Bikram series, it's easy to feel like it's time to relax as you've finished the standing and floor series, and you can sense the end approaching. But it's important to remember that this posture is not like Child's Pose in other forms of yoga. Half Tortoise is an active pose. Getting into and out of this posture effectively and easily relies on solid core strength. A key to being able to be actively engage your core as opposed to using back strength, is to keep your spine straight.

Some Tips for Keeping Your Spine Straight:
  • Chin away from the chest to keep your spine straight and long – focus on the floor in front of your mat as you come down. If you are in the front row, you should focus on yourself in the mirror as you come down.
  • Resist the urge to draw your chin into your chest when you are performing the stretch. Try to keep your chin as away from your chest as possible while maintaining contact between the forehead and the yoga mat. 
  • When coming out of Half Tortoise Pose, use your core muscles to lift your torso away from the floor while keeping your spine straight. 
  • Keep your head and neck straight (as opposed to tucking your chin to your chest). If your head is down and the neck is rounded, the energy will be transferred to your back instead of your core. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Tip of the Week: Yoga Mantras

We have heard over and over again that having a mantra can help you, making your performance stronger.  Oftentimes, positive affirmation allows us to do things we didn’t believe were possible.  Mantras can also help us do something as simple as clearing the mind. We as humans are great multi-taskers.  We are constantly thinking of multiple things at once: our job, how we don’t want to be at our job, what to make for dinner, worrying about a family member, etc, etc, etc.  You name it, at one time our brains could be juggling 10+ different topics!

If you have ever taken a yoga class, you have probably heard your instructor say in some shape or form, “Quiet your mind.”  “Let go of your thoughts and be present with your body.”  It seems like it would be so easy to clear your mind, but we fight it so much.  A good way to let go of your thoughts is to have a yoga mantra.
I would keep it short and simple.  A Mantra *Lisa Johnson recommended to me that I love to use is, “I am.”  I am, can mean so many things.
  • I am present.
  • I am love.
  • I am grateful.
  • I am happy.
  • I am strong.
  • I am a fighter.
By itself, it means whatever you are in the moment, helping you be strong and present in your practice!

Another great simple yoga mantra is to repeat the focus of each asana (posture) you are in.
For example:
  • Half moon : “Push, Push, Push!”
  • Awkward pose : “Spine Straight Spine Straight Spine Straight.
  • Standing Bow : “Kick, Kick, Kick”
Whatever you feel you should focus on, say that word over and over throughout the posture.  You will be amazed at how quickly your postures improve and how clear your mind will be using a mantra!  It is when you clear your mind that the real yoga starts!
From *Lisa Johnson has been a Bikram Yoga Instructor since Fall 2002.  She found Bikram yoga when her Chiropractor referred her to a class to help her recover from extreme whiplash caused from a car crash.  Lisa opened 2 yoga studios in Las Vegas and now spends most of her time teaching at Bikram Headquarters and serving as a judge for the National and International Bishnu Ghosh Yoga Championships.  “Lisa believes that helping others change their lives, and learning to create peace within, will create a domino effect so that ultimately through yoga we can attain world peace.”-Lisa Johnson Bio

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Tip of the Week: Breathe Like the Tortoise to Double Your Life Span

In class the other night, our teacher Nella shared a story about being on vacation and seeing a tortoise. She was told that the tortoise only breathes 3 to 4 times per minute, and interestingly enough also happens to be one of the longest living animals on earth. She told us to imagine ourselves breathing like the tortoise, as slooowly as possible so we could have long healthy lives.

The following excerpt from The Mind Unleashed has some fascinating facts on breathing rates and life spans:

How Do You Breathe?
Much of the science of yoga was gained from watching nature and her creatures. Ancient saints and sages noticed that animals with low respiratory rates, like the tortoise, but also like the elephant, and the other animals listed in the chart below lived longer life spans with a controlled, long breath. You will also notice, though, that as the speed of respiration increases, the life span of the animal shortens.

Animal Breathing rate,  breaths/min Life span,  years
Giant Tortoise 4 150
Whale 6 111
Elephant 4-5 (lying down) 70
Horse 8-15 50
Chimpanzee 14 40
Monkeys 32 18-23
Dogs 20-30 10-20
Though there are animals on our planet that live even longer, like sponges and sea clams, that can live for more than 400 years, humans are often thought to be relegated to a lifespan of around 70 years – and that’s when all key indicators of life or life force are excellent.

Poets and sages knew better. For example, in a sloka (verse) from the Bhagavad Gita we learn:
“When, like the tortoise which withdraws its limbs on all sides, he (a sage) withdraws his senses from the sense-objects, then his wisdom becomes steady” (Chapter 2-58)

Additionally, here is a couplet from Tirukkural: “If a man learns to control his five senses in one birth as the tortoise, that power will stand by him in his seven future births.”  (Kural 126)
Part of this ‘control of the senses’ refers to the control of the breath. Though there are many practices in yoga – from meditation to yogic postures or asana, which can help to keep the body well and vital for many years, perhaps non among the yogic practices is as important for the extension of life as learning to control the life force through pranayama.
Pranayama Defined
Pranayama is a Sanskrit word that means literally life force, or an unseen energy, which runs like currents through the body ‘prana,’ and ‘ayama’ which means control, or extension of the life force. Just having an increased life force, without knowing how to control it, is rather useless, according to yogic wisdom.

It can take an entire lifetime to master all the breathing techniques or ‘control of life-force techniques’ offered through yogic science, from Samavrtti, Ujjayi, Kumbhaka, Anuloma Viloma, Kapalabhati, and Sithali, and more, but alternate nostril breathing, or Nadi Shodhana also called Anuloma Viloma, has been scientifically proven to increase life span.

Here’s why:

When the respiratory rate decreases the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood throughout the body. Our nervous system then calms down and takes a much-needed break, also. You can think of it like the conservation of energy in physics, or putting fewer miles on your car so it will last longer.

A Danish study, for example, published in Heart, suggests that a higher resting heart rate is an independent predictor of mortality — even in healthy people that are in great physical condition.

Danish researchers gave physical exams to 5,249 healthy middle-aged and elderly men beginning in 1971. In 1985 and 1986, they tracked survivors, of whom there were 3,354. Of these, 2,798 had sufficient data on heart rate and oxygen consumption for the analysis. Researchers followed them through 2011.

After controlling for physical fitness and many other health and behavioral factors, they found that the higher the resting heart rate, the greater the risk for death.

The numbers were quite telling:
Men with a resting heart rate of 50 beats per minute or less compared to those with 71 to 80 beats per minute has a 51 percent greater risk of mortality. At over 90 beats per minute the risk tripled.

The lead author and researcher at Copenhagen University Hospital Gentofte, Dr. Magnus Thorsten Jensen explains:
“If you have two healthy people, exactly the same in physical fitness, age, blood pressure and so on, the person with the highest resting heart rate is more likely to have a shorter life span.”

That’s where pranayama comes in, and specifically alternate nostril breathing. Not only does this breathing practice “increase cardiac autonomous modulation” (a long-winded way of saying, help out the heart and sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems) but it also lowers the resting heart rate. It gives profound rest to the entire physical and energetic system, while also invigorating it.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Tip of the Week: Are You Practicing Self-Judgment or Self-Compassion?

Oftentimes we can be so patient and loving with others, but can have a harder time giving ourselves the same respect. As we begin to incorporate self-compassion into our yoga practice, we start to incorporate it into our daily life. At its most practical level yoga is a process of becoming more aware of who we are. Yoga techniques facilitate balance and health, and unfold our dormant potential. Yoga allows us to be more aware of ourselves and feel connected.  As such, yoga is a process of self-discovery, and when we approach this process with self-compassion we are more likely to love the person we discover.

Self-compassion is extending compassion to one's self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. Kristin Neff, PhD has defined self-compassion as being composed of three main components – self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. 

  • Self-kindness: Self-compassion entails being warm towards oneself when encountering pain and personal shortcomings, rather than ignoring them or hurting oneself with self-criticism.
  • Common humanity: Self-compassion also involves recognizing that suffering and personal failure is part of the shared human experience.
  • Mindfulness: Self-compassion requires taking a balanced approach to one's negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. Negative thoughts and emotions are observed with openness, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which individuals observe their thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.
The following article by Jamie Greenwood from answers the question "What are you practicing?" in a humorous and enlightening way. 

What Are You Practicing—Self-Judgment or Self-Compassion?

“You are what you practice most.” ~Richard Carlson

“What are you practicing?” she asked in a gentle, lilting voice.
The entire class was in triangle pose, and at that moment I was comparing my triangle to the young woman’s right next to mine, scolding myself for wobbling out of the pose and simultaneously harassing myself for not being “further along” in my career. (Because if you’re going to hate on yourself, my motto is GO BIG.)

“Are you practicing judgment or comparison?” she tenderly probed.
“WTF!” I thought. “Does this woman have a direct line to my brain?”

“Are you practicing worry or blame?” she continued. “Perhaps youre practicing patience and love. Notice what youre practicing and know that you become what you practice. What you practice is what you live.”

DAMN IT! I was three days into a five-day yoga retreat and I was far from blissed out. In fact, I had deftly managed to tie myself into a knot of comparison, self-doubt, judgment, confusion, shame, and embarrassment.

With my inner critic having hijacked my brain I was a total wreck, and caught myself, more than once, crying through one of the two yoga classes I took each day.
I should also mention I was pissed to be spending days of supposed relaxation and inner communion bumping up against every old demon that laid buried within me. Not a productive use of time, and if there’s anything I hate, it’s feeling unproductive.

I had gone on the yoga retreat (my first ever, and a huge indulgence according to my inner critic) for a good dose of soul care. I was craving reconnection badly and knew an idyllic yoga retreat in the Berkshire mountains was just what I needed to come back to myself. Little did I expect that to get to that reconnection, I first had to wade through a number of stinky layers of self-perpetuated crap.

And so there I was, wobbling in and out of triangle pose, in full blown comparison mode and hating on myself for not having written a book yet, for not being on SuperSoul Sunday, and for most certainly not being Zen during a yoga class.

And then her soft words plucked me out of my maelstrom of negativity.
“What are you practicing?”
I took a breath.
And then another, letting the fresh oxygen pulse through me.
I took another, solidified my stance, stretched more deeply into the pose, and faced all I was practicing.
I let the comparison and self-doubt wash over me. Let the judgment and shame flow. Let the embarrassment of this entire emotional debacle be there without feeling bad for feeling any of it.
In the breath I found that I wasnt practicing the negative feelings and old stories. I was experiencing them. What I was practicing in feeling them (without kicking myself for experiencing them) was compassion.
I let the compassion grow, filling every edge of my body, and watched it morph. First into curiosity for my feelings, then acknowledgement for my pained state, and then into deep love for myself for finding kindness where there had originally only been gripped anger and a cold heart.
What I found in the instructor’s question was this: I can experience any number of painful thoughts and feelings, and in approaching them with compassion, it’s compassion I’m practicing, not negativity.

I wish I could tell you with that realization my struggle ended, my demons were forever released, and I quickly became the blissed out, wise yogini I had wanted to be at the start of my retreat.
Not so much.
It took another few days (and will probably take the rest of my life) to continually soften, to come back to the breath, and to remember to practice compassion. 
But what her question did do was loosen the knot.
It created space to find compassion where there had originally been none. It sparked the sloughing off of old layers, the questioning of painful stories, and the unfurling of my most sacred knowing to allow me to reconnect with myself.

“What are you practicing” is a brave question, as it often brings us face to face with the uncomfortable emotional space we’re in. And yet, it’s in letting ourselves ask the question and getting curious about it that a crack is made for compassion to squeeze through.

The next time you catch yourself in a maelstrom of comparison, anger, self-doubt, worry, or judgment, take a breath and ask, “What am I practicing?” Be gentle with what comes up (no judging yourself for being judgmental) and notice if in embracing your experience with tenderness, compassion has a chance to blossom.

Know this: It’s impossible to practice love and patience all the time. That kind of every-second-of-every-day bliss was not built into us humans. We suffer, and that’s okay.
And when we can be compassionate with ourselves when we’re practicing things other than love, our heart softens, our grip loosens, and suddenly we have a greater access to the love we were seeking all along.

Woman with heart hands image via Shutterstock