My Concern with Shoulderstand

I love the inversion called Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana), plus the benefits of practicing inversions are many. Shoulderstand is thought to promote good blood circulation, calm the nerves by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, decrease fatigue, and improve immune function. It also strengthens the spine and core muscles. However, it also puts a lot of pressure at the base of the neck (cervical spine), especially if performed incorrectly (“no” in picture 1). The body’s weight is pulled down by gravity, to rest on your cervical spine.   
Picture 1
In Shoulderstand it is important the body aligns in a vertical line (“yes” in picture 1). I tell my students to image the entire back of their body up against a wall. The ankles, knees, hips and shoulder line up with one another. Your hands are supporting your back, with fingers facing inwards toward the spine. The shoulders blades are squeezing together and the back of the arms helps create a trapezoid base. The core and leg muscles are all engaged. Energetically your reaching your toes towards the ceiling. 
If you still feel too much compression on the neck, use a folded blanket. A blanket adds space between the neck and the floor (pic 2), releasing pressure. One blanket is usually enough. 
Picture 2: shoulder stand with a blanket
Other great options are Half- shoulderstand (pic 3) and a  Modified-shoulderstand (pic 4), which uses a block. In Half-shoulderstand the torso is at an angle, alleviating pressure from the neck, while still working core muscles and getting the benefits of an inversion.
Pic 3: Half-shoulderstand
Pic 4: Modified shoulderstand with block
In Modified-shoulderstand, start in bridge pose, press the hips up and place the block under the sacrum, then lift the legs straight up. This pose is a cross between Shoulderstand and Legs-up-the-wall. You are still getting the benefits of an inversion. It is gentle and works for most bodies.
Cautions! If you have chronic neck issues, you should not attempt Shoulderstand, instead stick with the modified options. If you have high blood pressure, inversions are not recommended. You should consult your doctor. Always listen to your body, pushing your body beyond its natural limits is likely to cause injury. 

I Can’t Focus.

Recently I was talking with a friend of mine about yoga and how it helped one of my students with her lower back issues. It’s an incredible story and I know she suffers with back pain. I was hoping to inspire her. Half way through our conversation she said, “I can’t focus!…that’s the problem”.

It’s a common problem, especially in this day and age, where we are connected 24-7. It’s no surprise there’s practically a whole generation, with ADD or ADHD. It’s crazy. There are seemingly hundreds of things vying for our attention on a daily basis. One Mindfulness expert said our biggest commodity, in this age, is our attention. I agree.

Just like a yoga practice, focus is something that needs to be practiced. In order to do that, you need to be aware when it’s happening, and then be able to implement techniques that help redirect your mind to the present moment. This is the corner stone of the practice of Mindfulness.

In my yoga classes, I always tell my students “if your mind starts to wonder, redirect your attention back to your breath”.  This is one technique that helps bring your attention back to the present moment. Not only does it redirect your mind, it also brings in large amounts of oxygen into your body, which helps calm your nervous system. It’s a win-win technique and one that is easy to use no matter where you are or what you are doing.

So next time your mind starts to wondering, first, take a moment to notice it’s happening, then take 5 to 10 deep breath focusing on pulling the breath into the lungs, filling the lungs up like a balloon in your chest cavity. Then feel the lungs deflate until there isn’t another breath left, like a deflate balloon. Stay with the breath, no matter how silly you think the exercise is at first.  After a while, with practice, you will start to feel calmer and more centered, which means your focus is strengthening.

There are no quick fixes for anything that truly matters in life, however if you make the decision that you matter, then it’s worth the effort!  Take time to practice focus, it will change your life…for the better.

Different Yoga Styles

There are many different yoga styles out there today. In addition, instructors love to create their own unique version. Choosing a yoga style can be confusing. Let’s try to clear it up a little. It starts with Patanjali’s eight-limbs of yoga, which encompasses both the physical practice of yoga and the spiritual. The western world has developed the physical practice of  yoga called Asana. The western approach focuses more on the physical benefits of yoga, especially classes associated with gyms.

Under Asana, they are different yoga styles. Some classes combine styles, while other styles are strict like Bikram Yoga. Even within a particular style like Vinyasa Yoga, you can have variations such as a Fit Flow or Slo Flow. Each yoga style has something unique to offer the practitioner, depending on the level of vigor, exercise and intensity. Choosing a style depends on different things, for example how hard you want to work, what rhythm you want to move with, or the level you want to practice at. There is no right or wrong, only what’s right for you and your body at the present moment.

 

Ten Examples of a Yoga Style:

There are other yoga styles that are not on this list, like Yin Yoga, Athletic Yoga and Aerial Yoga to name a few. As yoga has evolved, so has the styles. I like to encourage my students to try different yoga styles, as well as different instructors. Each instructor can teach the same yoga style differently. If you’re looking for a yoga style that incorporates more of the spiritual aspects, then you are better off going to a yoga studio. It can be more expensive, however it is a more well-rounded experience for mind, body and spirit.

The Intimacy of Yoga

The intimacy of Yoga. What does it mean? Yoga becomes sacred when you start to develop a relationship of love and respect with your body.  They always refer to yoga as the mind-body connection because your mind is focusing on your body, and through that focus and attention you begin to discover that you are more than just a body.  Your breath becomes your spirit, linking body and mind.  Yoga is not just the connection between mind and body, it is the connection of mind, body and spirit, or shall we say “self”.   

As you quiet the mind and focus inward you uncover the “self”, the presence within that has always been there, and will always be there.  A presence that is infinite, boundless and timeless.  A “self” which is connected to something bigger, more expansive then just the constructs of the body or mind.  If you tune in with non-judgement during your practice, you will begin to feel the self.  Its beauty and power cannot be measured, only felt. 

That “self” is the essence of you.  An essence that is omnipresent like the oxygen we breathe. We do not see oxygen, nevertheless it is always present.  It sustains us.  It is the same with our spirit, our self.  Most of us focus outward, using judgement, material objects, titles and other superficial measures, trying to find our self-worth, when all we need to do is search within. Our self is whole, it is complete, there is nothing missing, there is nothing wrong.  All of the issues we create in our head is false. I love that quote don’t believe everything you think.

Yoga is a journey through the self to the self.  I have often said “music and dance saved my life, while yoga healed it”.  It is true.  Yoga help me find my way back to my spirit, to uncover my soul, with every breath, every twist, every warrior, and every tree.  It asked me to be presence and accept myself as I am.  It is that process of showing up, the discipline of being present and the commitment to care for my “self” with compassion and non-judgement.  I AM HERE right now and I am ok just as I am.  There are no labels on you mat, no discrimination, you’re not playing one of your many roles, it’s just you.

If you allow it, compassion will evolve and love will replace doubt, that’s when real healing begins. It is a connection through the self, to the self.  So when you feel disconnected, lost or at odds with your life…find your way back on your mat.  All of the answers are there, within, located in the essence that is the self.

Three poses to do right!

Proper alignment is key in yoga.  It keeps you safe, makes your practice stronger and it helps to navigate balance.  Every time I teach I am constantly looking around the room.  I look to see if there are any corrections I can illustrate, even if you’re pose is correct you can still benefit from checking in to your form.  These three poses, Downward Facing Dog, Warrior II and Triangle are beginner poses and practiced in almost every yoga class. Review each pose and the comments below, so next time you find yourself in one of these poses you can be mindful of your alignment.

Downward Facing Dog:


A lot of beginners practice Downdog incorrectly.  They stop somewhere between Downdog and a high plank. This puts a lot of undue pressure on the shoulders, and sometimes causes injury.  In many pictures you will see the heels on the floor, however if your hamstrings are very tight, which is common, it’s impossible to do.  You cannot force it, forcing it is counterproductive. I like the suggestion to add a bend to the knees, even with a slight bend in the knees, the chest should press back towards the thighs.  Also I love the way her head is lined up with the ears next to the biceps.  She not looking under and she’s not looking forward. This position is ideal. I also like that she mentions to “press the floor away from you”.  This is another key factor in doing this pose correctly.  Downdog stretches all of the back line muscles, from the feet through the achilles tendon, back of the legs, lower back, shoulders to the wrist and hands. It also becomes a place to rest during a vigorous flow.

Warrior II:


Warrior II is a standing hip opener, a leg strengthener and a great pose for practicing balance.  I love all of the suggestions here.  One thing to keep in mind is the width of the stance.  If you draw a vertical line from her left wrist to the outside of her foot you can see they more or less line up, same in front.  She is working at her maximum stance.  This is what you want to strive for.  Many beginners work with a short stance so you don’t get the full benefits, however there’s a balance issue they are still trying to master.  Warrior II looks simply, and if you hold the pose for a while you will feel how powerful it is. My instructor would say “practice your warrior…from a place of victory.”

 

Triangle


Here are great alignment recommendations for Triangle, another common pose practiced in most classes. In my class we have the front hand in front of the foot or in back. I don’t feel either is wrong.  When you’re in triangle, image your whole body against a wall, that will help to line you up properly.  This is another challenging pose, if you’re doing it right, in terms of balance and core strength.  If you were to draw a horizontal line across her spine, you will see that it is nearly parallel to the floor, that’s where you want to be. Also start with your gaze ahead, and then when you’re feeling steady, turn your gaze up to the ceiling, it will help stabilize your balance.

You can practice these poses hundreds of time and each time is an opportunity to stand stronger, work deeper, and have more balance.  The ability to feel strong and steady in each pose is a great goal, that’s why yoga is called a “practice”.  🙂