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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Tip of the Week: Look in the Mirror

Here are the reasons why the mirror in Bikram yoga is crucial:

1. The mirror helps you ensure you are in proper alignment in poses. It gives you instant feedback if you are performing a pose incorrectly so you can adjust.

2. The mirror allows you to monitor your progress. As you work hard at something, you will gradually see improvement. And what is more gratifying than witnessing yourself improve?

3. Drishti is a point of focus where the gaze rests during yoga practice, and the reflection in the mirror serves as one during balancing poses. Focusing on a single point aids concentration because it is easier to become distracted when the eyes are wandering all over the room.

4. The mirror lets you view your half-naked body and every flaw it has and gradually make peace with yourself through familiarity. Let’s face it: we’re all so busy, who really has time to become at peace with their reflection in the mirror? Bikram yoga and the mirror provide this opportunity.

5. When you start to get tired or hot, the mirror becomes an outlet to look up and smile at yourself – or laugh if you lose your balance. Your yoga practice should be fun and uplifting. Don’t forget to give yourself some much-needed encouragement now and then by turning up the left side of your mouth and then the right to form a smile. (No, that is not one of the 26 Bikram yoga postures, but I think it should be!)

When you attend your next Bikram yoga class, please make sure to stagger yourself with other yogis around you, providing everyone with the maximum benefit of gazing at their own reflection in the mirror.


Monday, December 12, 2016

Tip of the Week: Yoga for Stress

What happens in your body when you get stressed out?

• Where do you feel sensation?
• What is the quality of your breath?
• How does your energy feel?
• What is going on in your mind and your thoughts?

Under stress, vicious cycles of all kinds can take hold – inactivity or overworking, overeating or under-nourishing, isolation or distraction, sleep deprivation or oversleeping, substance abuse or digital addictions. Coping behaviors can lead to even more stress. So how do we break the cycle?
We all have bad habits and good habits. Habits are just an accumulation of repeated thoughts and activities. Thoughts repeated become patterns… patterns repeated become behaviors… behaviors repeated can become personalities… and personalities repeated can become reality. In other words, our thoughts shape and can become our reality.
Repetition of thoughts and actions starts to create grooves, or samskaras, in our lives. Once you’re in a groove, it’s easier to stay there than to get out of that groove and into another one. Cars on the road or water on the ground follows the same pattern: staying in a smoothly worn path or channel is simply a lot easier to do than climbing up and out. Inertia and momentum are at work here.
So how does yoga and yoga philosophy figure into all of this? The first step is awareness. We can start by simply noticing what it feels like when we are stressed out – what are the sensations in body, breath, and mind. And the quality of awareness is non-judging. We simply observe.
Why is awareness so important? It’s nearly impossible to shift and change out of patterns that we don’t think are working for us if we don’t even know what they are!
Yoga asana is an amazing place to start practicing this awareness. Can we simply notice and observe what’s happening in a pose (as long as there’s no pain) without judgment? Without striving? Without clinging or pushing away what’s actually happening? When we can simply be with what IS rather than resisting it or wanting it to be otherwise, there’s less of an internal struggle, less resistance. We can reduce the extra layers of pain, suffering, and stress that we add on top of whatever it is that’s already going on.
The more we practice awareness in the safe space of a yoga class, on the mat, the easier and more familiar it becomes to carry that witnessing, observational quality off the mat into our day to day lives…. to not get so caught up in believing everything that is going on in our thoughts.
And that’s in itself is the definition of yoga: the stilling of the turnings or the mind, or citta vritti nirodha. We give the mind something to focus on so that instead of running around, it can calm down.

• When we focus solely on our bodies and breath in asana, we give our minds something to focus on and keep coming back to in order to stay present in the moment.
• When we practice breathing or pranayama, we keep our brains occupied with the quality and direction of our vital life force moving in and out.
• When we sit to practice concentration or meditation, no matter how briefly, we can start by concentrating single-pointedly on following the breath, or silently repeating a mantra – a word or phrase, or on a powerful image.

Once we have the ability to find a little bit of calm in our own heads, it’s easier to recognize thoughts and feelings without being swept away with them and without identifying with them. We can get to know our own patterns and simultaneously discover that those thought and emotion patterns are not who we are – they’re simply how we have become accustomed to reacting to a kind of stressful situation.
When we can notice our reactions without getting wrapped up in them, we can actually be more connected to the moment and what’s actually happening right now. And then we can notice more skillfully what are the conditions that are causing us stress – and eliciting strong thoughts and feelings. Some of these conditions we might even be creating ourselves!
But many stress triggers will be beyond our control. So instead of fighting or fleeing from stressful situations, we can start to learn to flow with that stress… to stay present to whatever is arising – without struggle – and simply do the best we can given all the current circumstances. We can’t control what happens to us in the world, but with patience, awareness, nonjudgmental awareness, and mindfulness, we can start to learn how to cultivate more pure presence and less stories and layers of reaction. We can be more and more in the moment.
While many yogic practices help us to look at our negative thought patterns and allow us the opportunity to notice them and weed them little by little out of the fertile garden of our being, we also have to do more than just pull weeds if we want to grow beautiful and delicious plants! We also have to plant seeds and water them even as we keep diligently weeding.
During yoga class, when your teacher invites you to think of something you are grateful for, or encourages you to call to mind someone for whom you feel compassion, or offers you the opportunity to set an intention or a sankalpa, these are all opportunities to build and strengthen a new habit of looking for the good, for the beautiful or the shri. These positive things are always there, we just might have to shift what we are looking for. It’s not to say that we should deny or ignore the darkness or melancholy, the anger or fear, the jealousy or negativity, that we pretend everything is hunky dory. But when we reflect on how a challenging pose or a challenging experience offers us the opportunity to get stronger or to grow, how simply observing our thoughts with kindness can help us be more loving towards ourselves in a way that simply no one else can, we may be a little more inclined to remember that the sun is there somewhere behind the clouds even when we are in the eye of the storm or weathering the darkest of days.
Awareness, breath, movement, and meditation are all practices we can do on the mat and in the studio…. But really they’re all preparation for how to surf the stresses and storms of day to day life with less suffering and more steadiness and ease.
Written by Elizabeth Kanter, a DC yoga therapist teaching stress relieving classes at Yoga District yoga studios in Washington DC.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Tip of the Week: Engage Abdominals in Cobra Pose

A rock climber scaling the side of a mountain peak finds the courage to reach for the next handhold from knowing she’s safely tethered to her guide rope. It’s the same with yoga. You can dare to explore challenging poses if you know how to safely enter and come back out of a pose whenever you want.

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) is an invigorating backbend that can feel like an exciting journey. But if you tend to create most of the bend in your lower back, it can cause compression and pain, and excitement is quickly replaced by fear. Since the lower spine is naturally more flexible than the upper spine, it’s easy to overdo the arch there. Ideally, you work toward an even bend along the whole spine, including your neck. It helps if you learn to work carefully, making conscious choices each step of the way.

To create an even, pain-free Cobra Pose, learn to engage your abdominals in the pose—they act as the guide rope that keeps you safe. The abdominals can support and protect your lower back while you reach for more opening in the upper back. Once your lower back is stable, you can focus on contracting your upper-back muscles and pressing your shoulder blades into your back to create space in the spine and open your chest. As long as you feel supported, you can keep going deeper, continuing to press your upper spine in toward the front of your chest and coiling—like a snake—into a big, healthy backbend.

When you’ve found your ideal alignment in Cobra, you can use it to strengthen the upper back and the backs of the legs and to stretch your chest and shoulders. The backbending action is powered by the muscles of the back of the body. But the pose is also a powerful way to tone the abdominal muscles: They get stretched as you move into the backbend and contracted as you control the movement and return to your starting point.

Cobra will invigorate you energetically as well. It stretches the intercostal muscles (the ones between the ribs), which allows your rib cage to expand and thus can increase your breathing capacity. It’s also thought to gently squeeze the adrenal glands, giving you a feeling of alertness and vigor.
Bhujanga, the Sanskrit word for “snake,” is derived from the root bhuj, which means “to bend or curve.” The king cobra, revered in Indian myths, can glide forward while lifting the upper third of its body upright. Try to emulate this animal’s powerful yet fluid motion when you practice. Imagine your legs as the snake’s tail, reaching long behind you as you curve your spine to lift your chest majestically.

Refine: Press your hands into the mat while pulling them back against the resistance of the surface. This can help you lengthen your waist. Drop your shoulders away from your ears and press your shoulder blades forward into your chest. Gently lift your navel, pulling it toward your lower back.

See if you can lift your chest farther off the mat. Think of creating space by lengthening your spine first, reaching your tailbone back. Once you’ve created space, use the strength of your upper-back muscles to move your spine forward as you broaden and lift the chest. Slowly arch forward and up, maintaining just enough lift in your belly to keep your lower back happy.
Adjust Yourself: Tips for a Pain-Free Cobra
  • Make Space First: Your upper back is harder to bend than your lower back. To open it, lengthen your spine, which makes more space between the vertebrae.
  • Release Tight Muscles: Instead of squeezing your buttocks, which can compress the lower back, relax them. Roll your inner thighs up to lengthen your tailbone back.
  • Exit With Care: Come out of the pose gradually to allow your spine to decompress.
Elements of Practice
Yoga, which means “union,” is always a marrying of opposites. As you practice Cobra, you exert a forceful effort to create a big, beautiful backbend. But the pose also calls you to balance this with a hint of the energy of forward bending. You’ll experience this when you round in your belly to support the spine, but it’s also in the feeling you bring to the pose. Forward bends are associated with softness and surrender. Try practicing Cobra with a quiet sense of introspection to temper your willpower and remind you that yoga is always about balance and contentment.