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Monday, January 30, 2017

Tip of the Week: Squeeze Arms into Body During Cobra

In class tonight Elizabeth had a tip for Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana). She said that one of the biggest things she sees students doing incorrectly during this posture is placing the arms too far away from the sides of the body.

If your hands are too far away from your body, you’ll likely end up jamming your shoulders toward your ears—a Bhujangasana no-no. Before lifting, your hands should be right next to your chest and directly under your shoulders—thumbs in line with your nipples. Your upper and lower arm should create an "L" shape at 90 degrees.

You'll naturally want to splay your elbows out to the side, so you need to consciously hug your upper arms and elbows as tightly as possible to the sides of your body. At the same time, pull your elbows back towards your feet, drop your shoulders away from your ears and press your shoulder blades forward into your chest.

By having the proper arm alignment, you'll be able to create more space in your spine by lengthening it, and use the strength of your upper-back muscles instead of your arm muscles.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Tip of the Week: Inspirational Story of Mind Body Soul Connection

Jenny McKane started practicing at Bikram Yoga SLC in January 2011. I practiced next to her today and she gave me permission to share her story. She is so strong and graceful in her practice.  Her mind body soul connection is strong. Such a positive inspiration to all that know her story. We never know why people practice at Bikram Yoga SLC.  But once I know their story, it is a testimony to me of the why students keep coming and practicing.  We have the best students in the world.  I appreciate all that come and practice even if I do not why they come.    ~Greg

It was 2013 and I was 37 years old when I found myself in the emergency room in the middle of the night with severe abdominal pain. The pain was caused by a cancerous tumor in my colon that had grown to the point of rupturing through the colon wall and spreading cancer cells all throughout my abdominal cavity and into my lymph and circulatory systems. At that point, statistics showed that I had a 3% chance of being alive 5 years hence. Enduring a six-month round of chemotherapy was said to increase those chances of survival to 22%. So after two separate surgeries, I decided to endure the chemo, crossed my fingers and started the balancing act on that thin line that divides positivity, hope, & the belief in miracles from depression, despair, fear, and acceptance of death. The latter had more gravity so, unfortunately, I tended to lean in that direction.

Two years later, hoping I might actually be in the clear, but still believing otherwise, I began experiencing more pain. What the doctors and I were hoping was just a ruptured ovarian cyst turned out to, in fact, be the cancer. It had metastasized. By the time I got into surgery, my right ovary had transformed into a tumor the size of a grapefruit. Neither I nor my doctor could find statistics to show whether or not more chemo increased my chances of survival at that point, presumably because all of the statistical data (i.e. the patients) were dead. But I wasn't ready to say goodbye to my kids yet, so I told myself I could keep the core of my body alive while the chemotherapy tried to kill every other part of it.

But this time something was different. I was different. I was tired of reading medical journals and case studies and begging for non-indicated methods of treatment and arguing with ignorant doctors and, most of all, being pumped full of toxic chemicals that were destroying my internal organs and making me feel inhuman. Four and a half months into the second six-month chemo regimen, I made the very difficult decision to quit. It might have been the wrong decision but it just felt like the right thing to do. So I flipped it a big ol' middle finger, informed my oncologist of my decision, and I haven't looked back.

I can't pinpoint exactly what was different the second time. It could have been the books I was reading, the people I was talking to, unadulterated desperation, or, perhaps even cosmic intervention, but pretty soon I found myself drawn exclusively toward Eastern Medicine and ancient health and healing methods, including yoga.

My body thanked me for quitting chemo and I vowed to REALLY listen to my body from that day forward... to care for it to the best of my ability. And, you know, it was very hard to love and care for a body that didn't even seem like my own. I was a scrawny, emaciated, pale, hairless, weak, torpid figure covered in scars and filled with adhesions. I had very little energy to work with so I started out slowly and carefully by simply laying on my back on the floor every night and sensing tension and pain in different areas of my body. And then I would stretch and move in such a way as to address these areas. I was surprised at how instinctive it became and by how amazingly good it felt. Before I knew it, I was moving in a way that looked an awful lot like yoga! And I was completely convinced that something I had read somewhere not long ago was true: that these human bodies we inhabit do, indeed, have the ability to heal themselves if given the opportunity.

Fast-forward several months and here I am: strong, healthy, fit, and more mentally sound than I've ever been. Yoga has reconnected my body and my mind. For the first time in 3 years, I have a genuine, whole-hearted belief that I'm actually going to beat the odds and live much longer than expected.

I owe my current state of health, in part, to eating a very healthy and almost entirely plant-based diet void of dairy, sugar, and other substances that are believed to promote tumor growth. I owe it, in part, to opening up my heart not only to my support network of family and friends, but also connecting to humanity as a whole... expanding my awareness beyond what I can physically perceive. I owe it, in part, to letting go of every aspect of negativity that once seemed to have a choke-hold on my mentality. I owe it, in part, to learning to laugh and have fun and to keep a sense of humor in the face of difficulty. I owe it to meditation.

All of these things go hand-in-hand with yoga. The more I practice yoga, the more awareness I gain, the more healthily I want to eat, the easier it is to remain positive, the more connected I feel to everything around me, the less stress I feel, the more slowly and deeply I breathe. If done properly, yoga *is* meditation.

I currently practice 3 different styles of yoga including Bikram. Even the beginner-level Bikram class is decidedly advanced for a person whose body has recently undergone multiple surgeries and chemotherapy and who has significant muscle atrophy. I don't know that I would recommend it to someone who has no prior yoga experience.

But there are two things that Bikram has done for me that the other yoga practices have not: First, it has sped up the rate at which my body has been able to rid itself of the chemotherapy and radiation chemicals that would otherwise remain in my system indefinitely. The compression postures increase circulation of both blood and lymph and the complimentary sweating helps to flush the tissues. Secondly, the spine-strengthening series has helped me to regain back strength like no other yoga class has done thus far. I once spent 28 straight days laying in a hospital bed in an inclined position. As a result, my front body was chronically contracted and my back body stretched. Bikram yoga helped me to identify this imbalance and helps to correct it.

I constantly promote yoga to whomever will listen to me passionately rave about it. It has transformed my body and my mind. It has transformed my life. It enhances my feelings of strength and willpower and the concentration and focus it requires makes me feel like I can confidently and fearlessly take on the world. I wish it didn't take such a difficult turn of events for me to come to this discovery and realization, but I'm exceedingly glad I am where I am right now. Already, my passionate promotion of yoga has encouraged several people to take up their own practices. My hope is that yoga will help them to keep their minds, bodies, and breath connected such that a continuous natural healing process offers them full health and the ability to avoid cancer and any other of today's rampant and prevalent health conditions. Yoga for life!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Tip of the Week: Shoulders in Spine Strengthening

The spine strengthening series has always been challenging for me. Instead of isolating the muscles of my back I have been cheating — using my leg strength, especially in Locust Pose. But the other day, I had a bit of a breakthrough. I finally heard the words of the dialogue that talked about shifting your weight forward. The teacher must have elaborated on this theme or maybe I just finally heard it, but something clicked. I was able to isolate and use my back muscles. Boy, did that feel different.

As the teacher explained, the key to Locust Post — all three parts — is in the shoulders. Pushing your shoulders onto the mat and using your hands to create leverage against the floor forces you to use the muscles of your back. This is challenging for me, because my shoulders and chest are very tight. I need to really shift my weight forward to get my shoulders to touch. But when I move slowly into the posture, I can do it.
It is important to shift the weight forward and press your shoulders and hands down BEFORE you lift your legs — otherwise the leg muscles will take over. My legs do not reach nearly the same height as they did during my “cheating” days, but I feel the benefits are greater. I am excited for this breakthrough.

I also discovered that the position of the shoulders is important for the other spine strengthening postures. In Cobra Pose, the shoulders must stay down to activate the lower back muscles and the proper back bend. In Full Locust, they must stay level with the arms elevated, even as the shoulder blades remain relaxed and down, once again activating the muscles of the back. And in Bow Pose, the key is to relax the shoulders, letting them be guided back by the strength of the kick. In all cases, focusing on the proper placement of the shoulders forces the back muscles to do the work. It is harder, but the result is better.

This got me thinking about my shoulders in general. Keeping the shoulders back and down is a common refrain in almost every posture — even Savasana! I realized I have been ignoring my shoulder position throughout class, letting my stronger leg muscles and core bail me out in several postures. In fact, my most common correction in the standing series is to lower my shoulders away from my ears.

I am making my shoulders a focus of my practice for the next several months. Back and down will be my mantra. Let’s hope my spine will emerge happier and more supportive of a happy life!

~ From

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Tip of the Week: 4 Secrets to Survive Your Most Awkward Pose

The following from Zefea Samson on lets us in on some secrets for surviving Awkward Pose. These tips could also be taken to heart for other postures we find uncomfortable or awkward in our practice.

4 secrets to survive your most awkward pose

I am infamous for holding postures longer than most of my colleagues. I have certainly heard students complain that I hold awkward posture too long. Heck, I want to complain when other teachers hold the pose more than my legs appreciate!

A friend and long time teacher once said during a workshop: “I believe you shouldn’t trust any teacher who won’t hold this posture long enough, as it tells you everything about their own practice. Awkward pose is indeed an uncomfortable pose for most of us, but the teacher, as well as you as a practitioner, should know that it is a safe posture that physically and, most importantly, mentally prepares you for the rest of class. It’s a shame to get shortened on that, so be happy with a teacher who holds this posture a bit longer.”
Well, that’s nice, you might think, but knowing this won’t be enough to maintain a pose that feels so strenuous, for an extended amount of time. So here are some tips from that annoying long-posture-holding teacher, to survive awkward pose, or any other pose for that matter, that feels the most awkward in your practice.

1. right intention & focus

We all have those days, that the moment class starts you feel that your body is just not up for it. For whatever reason you feel stiff and tight and maybe even sore. Muscles that you didn’t know existed start talking to you. You are pretty certain that they are telling you to not do the posture, just leave the room and instead go enjoy your favorite comfort drink in the coffee shop next door. And if it isn’t your body, than it will be your monkey mind telling you that it wasn’t the best day to come in because you are tired, you ate too much, you have too much work to do or just because it’s too rainy or too sunny outside. But hey, you are already there, so you might as well make up your mind to feel different and figure out what it is that will make you enjoy the experience.

Often teachers suggest at the beginning of class to set an intention. Before you start moving around, take this moment to identify with the focus you will need to approach your practice this time, what body part needs some extra attention, what thoughts you need to let go of. With every posture you have an opportunity to start over again and to recheck if you are still connected to these objectives. You can also start every next posture with an intention for that specific pose. If you always tend to come out of awkward pose before it’s over, you can make an extra determination to not give up, to listen to the teacher’s voice instead of the one in your own head. If nothing else works, you could even bribe yourself with the reward of that comfort drink after class, only if you comply with your own goals.
You’ll be amazed by how quickly your mind will get strong this way. And this will benefit you not only to execute a specific asana, but with all other aspects of your life. For me one of the most amazing effects of practicing yoga was to realize that I can do anything if I just set my mind to do it!

2. correct form

Depth in a posture is only relative to correct form. By practicing the correct form you will gain deeper depth. I am often personally guilty of this. I bypass some essentials, just because they don’t feel so good, to get to a certain end result. Just because I was able to reach a certain depth last time, doesn’t mean it needs to happen today. 

How do you know what the correct form is? Listen to the teacher. He or she is there exactly for that, to let you know what steps are essential and what the results are. I find it very important to listen to the teacher each time as if it is the first time I am practicing. It doesn’t matter in that sense if it’s an entirely new practice or the familiar 26+2 series. In some traditions and some classes it’s encouraged to follow your own intuition, but I find it important to let the teacher lead me. Otherwise I could just do my own home practice, right?

Different traditions give different variations of similar postures. Utkatasana, which I have learned as awkward pose, is called chair pose elsewhere. In a flow class you might practice it with your arms stretched up instead of forward. Not one way is better than another, it’s simply that different approaches have different benefits. And this of course requires a different correct form. If you practice the way you believe is correct instead of listening to the instructions in the moment, you will most likely miss out on a lot of new information, understanding and depth in your practice.

3. breath

In most activities that we do, our breath follows our movements. It seems to be something that we have only little control over, if at all. I recently watched a whole bunch of runners jogging by our house for a marathon. Most of them were panting, huffing and puffing; their mouths open in their red faces. They were focused on their pace and maybe their steps, but their breath was trailing. It didn’t seem that they were conscious of their breath. In yoga, ideally, it is the other way around. Your movement follows your breath. That is why many teachers will precede most instructions with a breathing cue: “Inhale, arms up, exhale bend forward.”

In a fast paced class, when postures are held longer or when you practice in a heated room, it will feel very daunting to focus on your breath while you are also trying to stand on one leg or bend your spine in different directions. This is why most classes will start with a specific breathing exercise that not only will warm you up, but also help you tune in to this essential force of life. Sometimes the teacher will suggest a special way to breathe in a posture. When there are no specific cues given, just be conscious of your breath and notice how you are breathing. When, after just a few seconds in awkward pose your legs start to shake and your arms begin to shiver, instead of panicking and coming out, check what your breath is doing. Are you holding your breath when things get tough? Never a good idea! Are you breathing through your mouth? See if you can shift it to your nose, this will give you more control. Is the pace fast and shallow, try to extend each inhale and exhale. Notice how this will help to keep your heart rate slow and steady. When this become your primary focus, the posture will be over before you know it.

4. stillness

All asana practice includes savasana at some point. Most classes will end with this posture where you do nothing, be completely still and let the benefits of the practice sink in. The faster you can find that place of stillness by letting go of your thoughts and tuning in with your breath, the quicker you will feel refreshed and reenergized. Once you get accustomed to this process you can apply it anywhere at any time with whatever you do.
Once you advance in your practice, it is important to start finding this place of stillness not just in your savasana, but with everything you do. First find complete stillness in between the poses. If it seems that you only have a few seconds in a fast paced class, you will find more time and space if you are still in between. Really still. No fidgeting with your hair. No water drinking. No adjusting of your outfit. No anxious looks around the room.
Just. Be. Still.

And then, once this is no extra effort anymore and it starts to feel like a normal thing to do, find the same stillness in each and every pose. This might seem odd when you are stretching, kicking, and contracting. The trick is to know where to be active and where not. There is always something that you can let go of. You might often hear teachers telling you to smile and that maybe seems unauthentic. What it is, however, is an encouragement to let go of some tension. Maybe its in your neck and shoulders, maybe in your face.
I recently saw an old picture of me in awkward pose, and oh, did my face look awkward! When you are able to let go of tension somewhere while at the same time you consciously contract and stretch specific body parts, you will feel everything open up! This way you create space and stillness within the pose, within yourself. Now you are truly practicing yoga!

Well there you have it, my four secrets for surviving awkward pose and an entire challenging yoga class. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy. After practicing hot yoga for about 10 years I’m still working on all of this in every single class. But take my word, focusing on these four aspects will bring your practice and your life to a whole new level. Of course there is much more to work on, like having compassion for yourself and acceptance.