A yoga practice should complement your physical health, emotional temperament, and intellectual interests. Yoga can be practiced by reading books, or volunteering, or meditating, but the physical exercises are a popular place to start. Here are a few aspects to consider. Continue reading →
It turns out that yoga in the back of the office is the best idea ever! We’re going to keep it up through March.
The focus is “desk job decompression:” yoga poses to counteract all those ruinous hours at our laptops. We usually do 15 minutes of simple stretches to wake up the wrists, ankles and spine, then about 45 minutes of standing poses, and a guided relaxation at the end.
So. Myshoulderthing is still going. Lots of crunchy noises (which the sports medicine guy said are no big deal, unless there’s also pain) and the occasional sharp pain (which is moving from the top of the arm to the inside of the shoulder blade). It’s lessening and lessening, but still not gone. I know this stuff takes forever to heal, so I’m trying to be patient. But I’m also trying to keep my practice habit intact. I was already struggling with slacking, and then the injury confused me almost to the point of inaction (much like a muscle in spasm). I’ve been wondering how much rest my shoulder needs, how much work and what kind, how much stretching / massage / release, and, most of all, what is up with my Down Dog? (My left shoulder doesn’t feel anything like the right one now.) I’ve been unable to distinguish pain that is strengthening my shoulder from pain that is further aggravating it. So, I’ve been looking for some specific guidance on what poses to practice, and what poses to avoid.
A friend who also has a left shoulder injury (from a skiing accident, much more glamorous than my sleeping accident) recommended Beth Hinnen at Integral Yoga. She studied Structural Yoga Therapy, an Iyengar-based system of individualized therapeutic yoga, and wrote her final paper on rotator cuff injuries. (Note: I don’t know any other teacher training that makes you write a thesis.) The class is general Hatha II, with a mix of men and women, young and old. We did some gentle warmups, three rounds of Sun Salutes with variations, some standing poses and inversions, and closed with pranayama and meditation. (Warning: there is chanting, for those of you who can’t take it.)
I’ve been three times now, and been helped greatly by each class. In the first class, after I introduced my injury (not that it’s a separate being…), she gave me some great adjustments in Down Dog. She really emphasized the external rotation of the upper arm bones, while keeping the inner rotation of the forearms, until my shoulder blades simply couldn’t wrap around the side of my ribs any more. She eliminated my overarched back by waking up my abdominal lift and containing my flared lower ribs. I felt strong in the pose again, and not scared to practice it any more!
The second class started with the Joint-Freeing Series, a sequence of wrist, elbow, and shoulder movements that’s also great for arthritis. She also gave us shoulder tips in each and every pose. But I had a flashbulb moment at the very first instruction. From sitting, she had us bring our arms straight out in front of us, and stretch them forward. “Now pull the shoulders back, into their sockets, and feel them relax downward.” Well, mine were the opposite: relaxed when stretched forward (out of the socket), tense and awkward when drawn back home. So I’ve been working on that adjustment for three weeks now, and noticing crazy subconscious postural habits. (I really think injury is 90% posture, and 10% irritant.)
In the third class, the Cobra instructions were really helpful. Lying on the belly, palms under the shoulders, relaxing the lower back and butt. Keep them relaxed as you raise the forehead an inch off the floor. Try again. Try again. It’s amazing how much we overuse our lower back. This method helps release the lower back, and strengthen the upper. We also did Locust with arms by the side, out perpendicular, and in front, for three more levels of strengthening.
Beth was also kind enough to bring me the handouts from the shoulder workshop she teaches: anatomy articles from Yoga Journal, diagrams of the rotator cuff bones and muscles, and instructions for the Joint-Freeing and Shoulder Strengthening Series. She taught me Cat Bow, a short pushup from Table Top (with the shoulders in front of the wrists) that helps strengthen the serratus etc. These two series take about 15 minutes total, so I’m trying to practice them every day.
It feels really good to have a strategy now. I really appreciate all the tips Beth gave me; I have a path back into my poses. If you have a rotator cuff injury, a slipped disc, a bad knee, or really any kind of confusing pain, I urge you to check out the research papers on the Structural Yoga Therapy site. It will give you an amazing introduction to the field of individualized yoga therapy, if you haven’t encountered it already.
It’s sometimes hard to have a happy holiday. You’re so sleep-deprived you could kill/cry, your brain is a gray mush of to-do lists, and the prospect (or lack) of family time is cuing thunderclouds of emotion. Plus, it’s so cold/windy/sunless that your shoulders are frozen somewhere near your ears and you haven’t really exhaled in weeks. Ready to party?
Note: If you don’t have time to practice, just read through the exercises, visualizing each for a few seconds. The brain cannot really tell the difference between reality and a strong visualization. You’ll feel the effects.
WAKE UP THE SPINE AND FIRE UP THE GLANDS
Sit in a comfortable seated position (cross-legged etc.) Move as quickly as you comfortably can, breathing through the nose. In these poses we do “Breath of Fire” where the exhales are quick, pulling the navel up and in, and the inhale comes as a passive relaxation. Make sure to relax for a few breaths after each exercise, to observe the effects and regain your peace. These poses are part of Yogi Bhajan’s spinal warmup series. They stretch each portion of the spine, massaging major glands along the way.
Camel Ride: Sitting comfortably, holding the ankles. Inhale and arch the spine forward; exhale and round the back. Head stays level with the ground. Breath of Fire, quickly. (60 seconds)
Chinese Drum: Hands on shoulders, fingers in front, thumbs in back. Arms parallel to the floor. Inhale and twist and look left; exhale and twist and look right. Breath of Fire, quickly. (60 seconds)
Camel Ride: Same as before, but siting on the heels. Hands rest on the knees. (60 seconds)
Shoulder Shrugs: Sitting comfortably. Inhale and lift the shoulders to the ears; exhale and drop them down. Breath of Fire, quickly. (60 seconds)
See-Saw: Clasp the hands in front of the heart. Inhale and lift the left elbow; exhale and lift the right elbow. Breath of Fire, quickly. (60 seconds)
Bear Grip: Pull hard; take a deep breath in and out. Raise the grip above the head; take a deep breath in and out. Repeat 2 more times. (30 seconds)
Neck Rolls: Let the chin fall towards the chest. Inhale and roll it very slowly towards the right; when you reach the back exhale and return the chin to the chest. Repeat in the other direction, making a few figure eights. (60 seconds)
Antenna: Sitting on the heels, raise the arms and make a steeple grip towards the sky. With sharp exhales, think “true.” With passive inhales, think “name.” Breath of Fire, quickly. (2 minutes)
STRETCH AND STRENGTHEN THE MUSCLES AND NERVES
This sequence is a Moon Salutation variation. Moon Salutes have a lot of back bends and forward bends, which calm us down. There are some tricky transitions, which help us regain balance and focus. And they feel great, stretching arms, legs, and spine in nice swinging arcs. Do a few sets, until your heart rate is raised and/or you break a light sweat. Its not what you can do, but how you do it move gently, like your breath. Don’t worry about doing it perfectly; if there were instant mastery we’d have nothing to practice. Start off standing, with your hands in Prayer Pose in front of your heart.
Raised Arms: INHALE, lift hands and gaze up to the sky.
Prayer Pose: EXHALE, bring palms together in front of heart. Repeat on the other side to make one set. (Try 3, 5, or 9 sets)
RELAX THE BREATHING AND CLEAR THE MIND
These poses are just you and gravity. They alter the standard blood flow, to rejuvenate the organs and other systems. Holding poses longer lets you experience stillness and more subtle sensations. You don’t have to “do” anything, you just want to let things be as they are. Become completely fascinated by the breath, letting the thoughts rise and flow out like steam. Take a vacation from your thoughts; if they try to intrude on your nothingness just let them go away, and start listening to the breath again and again.
Half Headstand: Sitting on your heels, clasp your hands and place them on the mat or carpet 18 inches in front of your knees. Spread your elbows apart, slightly narrower than your shoulders. Roll the flesh of your forearms out from underneath the bones. Place the crown of your head on the floor in front of your hands. The back of your head should graze your fingers. Press into your forearms to move your shoulders away from your ears, and take most of the weight off of your neck. If this is comfortable as relaxing as sitting on the couch gently exhale the legs straight, into an inverted V shape. If this is comfortable, walk the toes 12 inches forward and feel the hips balance over the head. (Hold 15 minutes)
Legs up the Wall: Place a small cushion or folded-over bed pillow against the wall. Rest your hips on the pillow, and extend the legs up the wall. This pose prevents and eases swelling in the legs and feet. (Hold 15 minutes)
Straight Leg Twist: Sit upright, with legs extended. Draw the right knee into the chest. Place the foot on the outside of the left knee. Inhale the left hand up to the sky. Exhale and twist gently to the right, about 80% of your maximum, taking the extended arm around or in front of the bent knee. Place the other hand on the floor behind you for support. (Hold 15 minutes; repeat on other side.)
Seated Forward Bend: Sit up, with legs extended. Place the hands on the thighs. Inhale and lift the chest; exhale and move the chest towards the toes. Keep the shoulders relaxed and the toes pointing straight up. With every inhale, feel all the little stretches. With every exhale, relax the chest forward and down. Surrender to gravity. (Hold 15 minutes)
Corpse: Lay down on the back. Feet are 18 inches apart; palms face up, 12 inches from the body. Lift the ribcage for a second and tuck the shoulderblades down the back. Lengthen the back of the neck and relax. From the toes to the tongue, feel each part of the body relax. Let the eyes and mind rest on the tip of the nose. Enjoy the feeling of your breath rippling across the surface of a deep, still pool of water. (Hold 210 minutes)
After your final relaxation, it is nice to enjoy some alternate nostril breathing, or a seated meditation to continue this vacation from your thoughts. When you are ready to rejoin the world, imagine a thin plexiglas shield surrounding you, sealing in your peace. Let stress and stimulus just slide right off it.
POSTSCRIPT: These 3 types of yoga are also great spread across an entire day. Kundalini is nice in the morning because it has a lot of quick movements and breathing to wake up and warm up. Vinyasa is great in the afternoon or twilight to clear out the stress of the day, and stretch with naturally warm muscles. Hatha is perfect before bed, to slow down the pace of the mind and prepare for sleep.
Last night, at the invitation of my “friend”, I went to a Bikram class in the West Village. I haven’t been to Bikram in five or six years, but I practiced it for about six months when I first started yoga. At that time I was fresh off of rowing crew, and looking for something similar (that didn’t require 7 other women and a 200-pound boat). Rowing is just two poses, the catch and the finish, and you jump between them 1000 times each morning until it’s muscle memory, leaving just you and your willpower. Bikram’s 26 poses was the simplest sequence I could find.
Bikram is great for beginners: practicing the same poses each class gets you past their novelty, into details and then concentration. I like repeating each pose twice; seeing improvement from the first attempt to the second is an obvious reminder of the benefits of regular practice. It’s also one of the few schools where they use mirrors, so you get visual feedback on your posture as well as sensory. And the script (although I’ve never heard it delivered the same way twice) is chock full of alignment reminders.
But the genius of Bikram, the horrible unescapable challenge, is the heat. The poses are almost irrelevant compared to the stress of the sweat lodge. It’s just you versus the heat; your whole body yelling GET OUT OF HERE while your mind thinks maybe it can manage one more pose… Meanwhile the sweat is pouring out of you, the air seems to lack oxygen, and your muscles are going limp. Which is a good thing, you’re sweating out drugs you did in high school, and you’re only safe to stretch when you’re warmed up… but the only thing that gets me back into a Bikram class is my bad memory; I forget what a steamroller it is.
Last night’s class was at Bikram Yoga Manhattan, the Greenwich branch. They have a ridiculous 30 days for $30 special that’s cheaper than going to the Russian baths for one night. The center was small, and of course smelled like a gym sock (they all do). But things were clean, and the owner was super friendly.
Stepping into class, the room felt invitingly warm. (It was a rainy December night in New York). Twenty minutes in, I was red-faced and sitting on my butt. Just the first few standing poses wiped me out Side Bends, Back and Forward Bends, Eagle, Awkward Chair, Head-to-Knee, Dancer, etc. They were fairly familiar poses, but the continuous squeezing, pulling, and flexing was a muscular triathlon. In Kenya. And next time, I will start hydrating two days in advance. Apparently coffee does not count as one’s daily water intake. I got seriously light-headed, and since I occasionally faint, I was happy to listen to the instructor telling me “You know you can sit down, right?”
I thought it would be better once we got to the floor poses. I remembered that much. Instead, I felt my broiling skin smothered against a sweaty towel and rubber mat. How I wished I’d gotten a spot by the window! (Benevolent teachers will sometimes open a window a crack, to improve the ratio of students actually practicing to those collapsed on the floor.) But this was just the joy of the first-timer; it’s always horrendous the first time you run, swim, etc. after a long break. (The second time is SO much better.) And it was a reminder to BE a first-timer, and not see myself as “an experienced Bikram practitioner.” The only goal of Bikram Class #1 is just to stay in the room for the whole 90 minutes. ‘Cause if you go, we all go.
Finally, we made it to Corpse pose. Lying there, slowing my breathing, feeling the room cool bit by bit as each student departed, I reconsidered my mid-class swearing to never come back. Bikram is great to warm your bones in the winter, and I’ve been missing the sauna… why did I leave it?
I remember hearing Ashtanga was a “better” sequence more complete, more challenging, less artificial. At the time I was Type A if I was anything, so I had to try it. (I’ll save my comments on Ashtanga Vinyasa for another day.) And there are no inversions in Bikram no Headstand, Shoulder Stand, etc since you’d pass out in the heat. I wondered if Bikram was indeed the best yoga… marketing.
Returning to the sequence, I realized it was not actually missing as much as I’d thought. Forward Bend and Wide-Legged Forward Bend are actually inversions, since your hips are over your head. Rabbit puts pressure on the crown of your head like Headstand, and creates a throat lock like Shoulder Stand. And there’s much more glandular work than I realized… the Standing Head-to-Knee and the Forward Angle (Parsvottanasana) are held with a rounded back (Pilates style) and the forehead to the knee, prioritizing pressure on the abdomen and forehead instead of the usual stretching of the hips/hamstrings. Other poses similarly claim to clear the glands and blood vessels by creating pressure or blockage in an area, to create a cleansing rush when the pose is released.
And if we look at the Sivananda sequence, which narrowed the “essential asanas” to only 12, we see that the Bikram sequence has covered the same bases (if we accept Rabbit and Forward Bends as a substitute for Headstand and Shoulder Stand, and Camel and Bow as a substitute for Bridge and Fish). Yes, there could be more twists. Yes, it’s too focused on achievement. But it is a good sequence.
I don’t think I could give up the creative dance of Vinyasa and go back solely to Bikram… my art teacher always said it’s much easier to loosen up than tighten up. But it will (well, it might) be making a nice adjunct to my winter practice for the next 30 days.
I was only half joking in the title of this post; Mr. Bikram tried to kill me. But that’s the path the death of the ego, right? He created a crazy environment, trying to flatten my ideas about what I could and couldn’t do. He forced me into survival mode, a struggle through the heat of each moment. He tried to drown my internal narrative with his verbose, scripted instructions. But of course, he did not succeed; my ego remains in all its annoying glory. I’ll have to walk the boring path a bit longer than one class.
In the past week I’ve had two good lessons on drishti, or the point of focus for each pose. I knew that looking in different directions stimulates different functions of the brain (looking left stimulates new thought, which is why liars look left, while looking right stimulates memory, etc.), and that keeping our eyes focused on one thing keeps our mind from wandering, but a few exercises last week helped me really feel it.
Simplify the poses, and practice with the eyes. Steve’s Classic Hatha class at Greenhouse on Tuesdays has fairly minimal instruction, but he always points out the direction for the eyes to go. In Locust, for example, (lying on the belly with the arms and legs raised behind) we look forward towards the horizon. In Cobra (again on the belly, legs straight, arms straight under the shoulders to arch the spine), we look up towards the periphery of the vision. If the eyes start to blur and waver, he says it’s good; it’s strengthening the optic nerve. When I’m cross-eyed I’ll remember that.
It’s a weird feeling, when you really keep the gaze fixed. It’s so incredibly boring that you realize how much the eyes usually scan around, looking for entertainment. (I’ve heard we get 90% of our sensory information through the eyes.) Since Hatha classes don’t care about A+ alignment details, and we held poses for two, three, four minutes, I could actually devote my entire attention to this one effort… and I felt so much calmer just from making the eyes sit a while.
Initiate movement by anchoring the eyes. So, keeping the gaze fixed while holding a pose is one thing, but we can eventually practice drishti while moving, or even to initiate movement. Leslie mentioned this in his Application of Breath-Centered Yoga class at The Breathing Project on Wednesdays. We sat cross-legged facing partners, and as they traced a path in the air with one finger, we tried to follow it with the tip of our nose. By fixing the eyes and forcing the head and neck to work, the whole body began to participate: the chest would lift or round, the stomach would turn and contract. It was a funny feeling the head really didn’t want to move, it was much more natural for the eyes to jump around. It was disorienting; l felt like a child bobbling along, trying to walk. Some people got nauseated just from sitting and moving their heads.
I think that previously, I was doing a lot of movement of the eyes within the sockets as I directed them towards the sanctioned point of focus. Moving from the tip of the nose seems to keep the eyes more calm, in more of a softly focused gaze, and also acknowledge the limits of the neck. (I think Ana Forrest teaches something similar; she puts drishti for most poses at the tip of the nose, and even has you use your hand to move the neck around.) Leslie says it helps to quiet the internal laundry list of alignment corrections, and bring the attention back to how the pose feels, rather than how it looks. Indeed, it’s much less strain to follow the nose.