When Stretching ISN’T The Answer

image from fitsugar.com

image from fitsugar.com

I’ve been battling an aggravated hip injury for some time in my yoga practice. For a while, it was something that came and went and if I practiced mindfully it would go away. For the last month or so, it has been consistently present and I had started also getting irritation in my knee as well. Any time the pain would flare up, I would immediately pull out my “yoga asana tool box” and start working hip openers and other stretches…because for me, anytime something hurts my response has always been to stretch it. And I would argue that is the natural response of many of us, yoga teachers or not, to find relief from my pain through stretching.  And yet, all this stretching and nothing was getting better.

Enter my partner, and a workout called “Inferno.” I have done my fair share of intense work outs in my life having trained for a half marathon, rode over 550 miles in 7 days in the AIDS Lifecycle, and participated in various other adventurous outdoor sports including climbing, kayaking and mountain biking. I had not, however, done “Inferno.” From my understanding of cross-fit, its something similar…lots of push-ups, lots of core-work, lots of squats and lots of jumping…not to mention lots of sweat and lots of drill sergeant style encouragement.  Basically the anti-thesis to my yoga experience. I was initially wary of the impact on my hip and knee and paid very close attention as I began the workout to ensure that I wasn’t making things worse, yet to my surprise, after only a few days of practice things started feeling better. My knee pain subsided and my hip, while still not totally happy, was doing much better. I was baffled, all this pushing hard and no yoga, and I was feeling better.

The following week I was in a yoga teacher training with twelve hours of anatomy training, with nearly four hours focusing only on the hips. I was in heaven, I was looking for answers! What came up as we talked was that sometimes stretching ISN’T the answer, sometimes strengthening is. In my case, some of my glute muscles were weak and some smaller hip and quad muscles were over-working to compensate. What I needed to do, to help these over-worked muscles, was strengthen the muscles that were weak so the hard-working muscles could start to let go. This explained why so much squatting, so much jumping, would actually make me feel better, I  was strengthening those glute muscles that needed my attention. I wasn’t over-stretching these already over-worked muscles. Little had I known, but I had stumbled upon exactly what I needed to start healing. It was a powerful reminder of that age-old adage “everything in moderation”…even stretching.

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Yoga for Sciatica

I recently had a student approach me who had been suffering from sciatica for a while and was looking for ways her yoga practice might be able to support her. Sciatica is tricky because it involves the interplay of several different things: bone, muscle and nerves, all of which can be playing a role in causing the flare ups, and for different people it will manifest differently. As with many issues in the body, its not all about stretching either, if other muscles are not strengthened the stretching only does so much good.

In general, some things to watch if sciatica is present in your practice:

  • Avoid all seated forward folds with legs straight, this will simply aggrevate the sciatica.
  • Modify with poses like janu sirsana where one leg is bent and you are stretching over only one extended leg.
  • Bend knees in downward dog and focus on the back lengthening and pelvic tilt rather than pushing the heels to the floor.

Here are some poses to help support you in home a practice:

To Strengthen

Locust Pose
Work several different variations: 1) only lift legs; 2) lift chest and legs; 3) lift chest and legs, then open legs on inhale close the legs on exhale. This will help to strengthen the piriformis which is often at the root of sciatica issues.

image courtesy of fitsugar.com

image courtesy of fitsugar.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bridge Pose
Work variations on this pose as well: 1) begin with feet and legs close together; 2) move to standard feet and knees hip-width apart; 3) move to feet and knees as wide as the mat. This too helps strengthen many supporting muscles.

image from findingdrishti.com

image from findingdrishti.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Stretch

Seated Spinal Twist
Now move into stretching the piriformis with a simple seated spinal twist. If it is too intense with the bottom leg bent, take the option of extending the bottom leg.

image courtesy of fitnessmagazine.com

image courtesy of fitnessmagazine.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pigeon Pose/Thread the Needle
Finish stretching with one or both of these poses. If pigeon is not accessible for you simply work with thread the needle as your variation.

image courtesy of ekhartyoga.com

image courtesy of ekhartyoga.com

image from guysandgoodhealth.com

image from guysandgoodhealth.com

 

6th Chakra & Neptune The Power of Dream Time

“Neptune’s realm is the unhurried, imaginative dream state, which is always available to us through the act of conscious reflection…When we pause in dream time to gather our wits, we are reminded that beauty is ubundantly available to the unhurried mind. Conscious reveries, trance—any portal to ecstatic self-loss, such as diving through a sun-dappled wave—are all forms of worshipping Neptune. Neptune rewards us for these acts of reverence with inspiration.” – Caroline Casey, Making the Gods Work for You

One could easily substitute 6th chakra for Neptune in the description above. The 6th chakra is our portal to dream time and our capacity to dream our world into being and to manifest is often directed by the 6th chakra. The power of the chakra is profound, but it is something we wield unconsciously. Casey goes on to write, “We are constantly summoning and invoking through our imaginings, but often in an inconsistent and confused manner. Our lives, therefore, assume a corresponding design of confusion. One law of the dream world is that our personal lives are expanded or constricted by what we imagine to be possible.” Working in the 6th chakra becomes important work to ensure we are manifesting what we truly desire rather than dreaming unconsciously. Use these practices below to access the dream world of Neptune and the 6th chakra.

Nadi Shodhana

Nadi Shodhana is an excellent pranayama practice for stimulating the 6th chakra. The movement of prana up the nadis (ida & pingala) terminate at the 6th chakra and are accessed through the breath flow through the nostrils. Try this variation on Nadi Shodhana, instead of using the hands use the focus on the mind. Bring your awareness to the third eye at the brow center. Focus your awareness on the third eye and visualize an orb of purple light there. After a few minutes, connect with your breath and take several deep breaths in and out through the nostrils. Feel the breath in both nostrils evenly and smoothly. Now focus on your left nostril and draw the inhale through your left nostril into the third eye region. From third eye exhale out through the right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril up into the third eye and exhale through the left. This is one round. Do 8 more rounds with the focus on the third eye. Once you complete the pranayama practice, spend several minutes with the eyes closed, and the focus on the 3rd eye and the prana that you have generated there.

Inversions

image from fitsugar.com

Prepare the 6th chakra for an expansive savasana through the practice of inversions toward the end of your practice. Any kind of inversion practice will bring a flow of blood and prana to the 6th and 7th chakras. As the pranic flow increases to the 6th chakra, we open up to its capacity for fruitful dreaming. If possible practice a version of headstand or headstand to ensure an open flow of energy to the upper chakras (inversion like shoulder stand while beneficial in their own right will not bring the same flow of prana to the 6th chakra). Practice the inversion and then give yourself 5-7 breaths in downward dog to transition and finally 5-7 breaths in virasana to absorb the benefits of your inversion practice.

Yoga Nidra

image from dancingthesoul.com

Yoga Nidra is often known as the yoga of sleep. The practice of yoga nidra allows the body to relax while the mind stays awake through a form of guided meditation. Yoga nidra practice allows the body to drop into a brain-wave state that we reach during sleep. This brain wave state is one that takes several hours of sleep to reach, yet yoga nidra can reach it instantly. It is a wonderful practice for nourishing and replenishing the body, but it is also a place where we can actively participate in our dreams. I often encourage students to set an intention when they begin their yoga nidra practice as it is carried with them into their subconscious mind and working with intention on this level can help to powerfully shift behavioral and thought patterns and can open us up to new ways of dealing with issues that have arisen for us. For more information about yoga nidra, please visit my website.

Chakra Color Visualization to Activate the 6th Chakra

“The real voyage of discovery consists of not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

As we traveled through the lower chakras, we explored the elements associated with each. The first chakra is associated with earth, the second water, third with fire and the fourth with air. The throat chakra is often spoken of as being associated with the element of ether, which has a very light and etheric quality, but moving out of the throat, we leave all traditional element behind (a note here, that sometimes the throat is considered to embody the element of sound). The sixth chakra, is sometimes spoken of as embracing the element of light. While light is not an element in it the most traditional sense, it certainly has elemental qualities and given the 6th chakra association with sight, light makes perfect sense in this context.

Diving further into the element of light, we have the opportunity to connect with vision and this week we explored that through the colors of each of the chakras. The practice involved visualizing the colors of the chakras as we worked particular areas. Not only does this begin training the inner eye of the 6th chakra, but it also offers us the opportunity to activate each of the chakras through the energetic activation that comes form visualizing the colors of the chakras.

Below are colors and areas of the body to focus on around each of the chakras:

1st Chakra
Visualize the color of deep crimson red. See this at the base of the spine, in the perineum. You can also visualize this red light traveling down the leg lines and into the soles of the feet. Visualize this color in standing poses, balance poses and seated poses.

2nd Chakra
See the color of deep burnt orange in the 2nd chakra. See this color in the hips, low back, sacrum, and low below. Visualize this color in hip openers like pigeon pose and thread the needle. See the color orange as you take belly breaths in reclining poses like Supta Bodhakonasa.

3rd Chakra
Visualize a vibrant yellow in the solar plexus, the belly region above the navel center and contained by the diaphragm. Visualize this bright yellow light moving through the upper belly like electricity or fire. See it in core activating poses, when working uddiyana bhanda and other pranayama like kapalabhati. You can also bring this color to the organs in the abdomen.

4th Chakra
The color of the fourth chakra is a rich emerald green. See this color in the heart center at front and back of the chest. Visualize it in the lungs, the physical heart and up to the shoulders. I also like to visualize this light traveling out through the the arms and into the hands. See this color green in chest openers like bridge pose and in poses where the breath is invited into the chest through a binding of the arms behind the back.

5th Chakra
See the color here at the throat as cobalt blue. See it wrapping the throat like a band of blue light. Its focus here on the physical body is the cervical spine. See the color blue flooding the neck during neck stretches and release. Also visualize the color blue went chanting and moving the breath.

6th Chakra
The color here at the center of the brain is amethyst purple. Visualize this color during meditation. See the purple light traveling from the center of the brain out through third eye at the center of the forehead. Direct this light outward, but also turn it back on itself opening up inner site and intuitive wisdom.

The 5th Chakra our Creative Center

In the philosophies of India, sound is considered the primordial ingredient of creation. Sound, crafted from the cosmic drum of Shiva in the celestial realms, was given to Brahma and Saraswati, the pair of deities that rule over creation and beginnings. The divine order o the universe, the essence of spirit, and the element of sound are intricately connected. Without sound, the universe will collapse again into nothingness, stolen by Mother Kali, in her final act of destruction. With sound, we are given the power to create from within ourselves using the same primordial energies that crate the world around us and indeed, our very selves.

With sound, we are given the tools to avert destruction. The fifth chakra facilitates a profound passage between the abstract information of conception, image and idea, and the manifested realm of the material world. It takes us through the heart where we communicate and connect with each other; through our power where we command and contain; through our emotions, and down into the coordination of the cells within our bodies. on the spiritual plane, sound brings us up through the lower chakras (using body, movement, will and breath) into resonance and harmony, information and understanding. It is the prime transmitter of consciousness itself.  Although sound may be the primordial ingredient of existence, it is consciousness–created from vibrational impact–that creates and maintains the very web of life. – Anodea Judith Eastern Body, Western Mind

Working with the 5th chakra truly brings us into alignment with our own creative capacity, but first we have to believe in our own ability to do that and in our own worthiness for owning such creations. The throat chakra is a tricky place, I find it so intricately linked to the other chakras as its often a gateway for expressing our chakra energy and needs in the world. When we can’t find this expression not only does the 5th chakra become blocked, but we also experience energy stagnation in other energy centers as well. For example, when we’re unable to speak our truth about our feelings, not only does our 5th chakra become blocked, but our 2nd chakra is also denied and energetically shut down. An open and flowing chakra then truly opens us up to health in many of our other chakras and in our capacity to make manifest the intention coming down from the higher chakras and the emotion, passion and physical experiences of the lower chakras. We can therefore, use our other chakras to help gain access to our 5th. The more we create flow through multiple chakras we open to better health and well-being in the body, mind and spirit. Try these practices below to open the 5th chakra by way of the lower chakras.

1st Chakra Body Movement

One of the best ways to free the voice is to first free up the body, and the body is ruled by the 1st chakra. Free form body movement helps us to get more comfortable in our skin, as we get comfortable in our own skin we get more comfortable with sharing our voice and speaking truthfully. This practice is so simple and can be done at any time. Turn on some music, preferably something with an accessible drumbeat and is somewhat unknown to you (i.e. don’t turn on your favorite Beyonce dance song as you most likely have a particular way of moving your body to this song). A favorite song of mine is The Rhythm is Not Mine (Instrumental) by John de Kadt. To do this practice, turn the music on, close your eyes and begin swaying with the music. As your body drops into the rhythm, widen the stance into a squat and continue to move. Involve the arms, the legs, the head, shoulders and neck. Keep your eyes closed, no judgement about movement and start to dance. Don’t worry about your dance moves, move in a way that feels authentic, represents the experience of energy and emotion in the body and keep moving. As you drop away the layers of worry around doing it correctly, you’ll find an authentic voice in your body’s movement which will eventually help you find an authentic voice in your 5th chakra.

2nd Chakra Emotional Release

image from energyenhancement.org

When we can give voice to our emotions, whatever they may be, we open up to the power of the 5th chakra. I have definitely found myself in tears in yoga class before and not really been able to express how or why I feel that way. The more we can open to the waves of emotion that arise for us on the mat, the more we can be open to the authenticity of our expression in the 5th chakra. Woodchopper is one of my favorite poses for releasing emotion locked in the body. A series of 10-12 is often enough to move energy through and open up to emotions. After the series, be sure to give yourself time to be with the flow of energy and let whatever comes up move through the body like a wave. Don’t hold on to anything that arises and don’t worry about unpacking where the emotion came from. Let it arise, be with it and let it go.

3rd Chakra Practice for Stimulating Creative Flow and Opening

image from yogajournal.com

The 3rd chakra and the 5th chakra are intricately linked. They hold either side of the heart and are both associated with creativity. The 3rd chakra is associated with more physical manifestations of creativity and the the 5th chakra with more consciousness based manifestation of creativity. Both equally important and both tied together. When we do 3rd chakra practices to clear out this chakra for creativity, we can also open the 5th chakra for the same energies. A heat building and clearing practice that I love is lion’s breath. It can also help clear 2nd chakra emotional blockages much in the same way that the Woodchopper can. Use this breath in any pose where you feel stuck and as you exhale bring your awareness to your throat and visualize vibrant blue light traveling out with the breath. As you take each lions breath you stimulate the 3rd chakra, release the 2nd chakra and open the 5th chakra.

Opening the Neck to Open the Throat Chakra

This week was our first exploration of the throat chakra. As a society we tend to have unbalanced throat chakras. Advances in technology and social media have lead to an over abundance of “communication” but communication that is inauthentic and doesn’t provide true connection. You can see this physically manifested in the over-stretching common in so many people who spend their days at the computer. The neck is long in the back and constricted in the front, the cervical curve is lost. Energetically this speaks to a blockage in the front of the chakra (the giving side of the chakra) and a weakness in the back of the chakra (the receiving side of the chakr). We can all benefit from a little throat chakra work!

The throat chakra is the center for communication. It is the place from which we speak our truth and connect with others. It is the first chakra above the heart and represents the first chakra in the “upper” chakras associated with wisdom, spirit and thought. To begin working with the neck, starting with the physical structure is the easiest avenue. As a result of our poor posture, many can benefit from working the neck, stretching and strengthening. This combined with vocal work will help loosen and open the throat chakra and facilitate better communication and listening.

Neck Stretches

The most basic way to access and work with the throat chakra is through the structure of the neck. Begin your practice with some basic neck stretches. Turn the head from left to right several times. Drop the chest to the chin and lengthen the crown forward. After several breaths, lengthen up through the chin as you lift your gaze to the ceiling. Do not let the head drop back, keep the cervical spine long. After several breaths, drop the chin to the chest then on inhale roll the right ear to the right shoulder. Bring the right hand to the let side of the head and apply gentle pressure, lengthen the left fingertips toward the floor. Find some small movements, shake the head yes and no and open and close the mouth. Release the right hand, take a few more movements. Bring the right hand to the right side of the head and press the head up to center as you find a neutral spine. Complete the same sequence on the other side. Take an exhale and drop the chin to the chest, roll the head from side to side with the breath. After several rounds complete full circles with the head in both directions. Finish the sequence by bringing the chin to the chest, squeeze the shoulder blades together on the back. Breathe here for 5 breaths.

Woodchopper: Clear Out the Blockages

image from energyenhancement.org

One of my all time favorite throat chakra clearing exercises! The picture shows the hands going between the legs, in my variation I have students stand feet shoulder width apart with a little bend to the knees. Arms are lifted up alongside the ears on inhale and on exhale the arms are swept alongside the legs and back behind the body. On the exhale make a loud “HA” noise, or if any other sound needs to escape use that. As you prepare for the practice and move into it, imagine all the spaces in your life when you haven’t been able to speak your truth, speak your mind or perhaps even share your voice. With each “HA” allow yourself to release these memories and release the energetic blockages they’ve created in the throat.

Restorative Neck Stretches

End the practice with several restorative neck stretches. Start on the back and bend the knees, set the feet to the floor and come up into bridge pose. Take a block and slide it underneath the fleshy part of the butt and the sacrum. Rest here for 3-5 minutes. Let the back of the head be heavy. To come out rise up onto the toes, lift off the block, slide it out of the way and roll down one vertebrae at a time. Next prepare for a supported fish pose. Roll over to the side, come up to your seat, take a bolster and lay it lengthwise on the mat. Sit on the edge of the bolster and recline back. The shoulders should be on the bolster, the edge of the bolster follows the length of the bolster as the back of the head touches the floor (see a more supported version above for those with neck injuries). Stay here for at least 3 minutes. Breathe into the front of the throat. Ensure the teeth are not clenched. Breathe. To come out roll over to one side into fetal position, press up to a seat and clear the mat for savasana.

The Heart Chakra: A Bridge Between the 3rd & 5th Chakra

This was our final week exploring the heart chakra. This last week we worked with the flow of energy to the heart center. The heart chakra holds a unique place in the chakra system as it governs as a bridge between the lower/physical chakras and the upper/spiritual chakras. It is the melding of the gross and the subtle here with love that we find the true union of the physical world and the spiritual world.

If, as we’ve discussed in previous weeks, we have built walls, blocks and other protection around the heart, running this energy becomes increasingly difficult. Lower chakras can atrophy without the touch of the divine, and upper chakras have trouble staying grounded without the the touch of physical reality. We need both kinds of energy and the heart is the bridge. Use the following practices to fortify the bridge of the heart and bring your energy into alignment in the chakras.

Mudra for the Heart

Gyan mudra is a simple and widely used mudra. It is often used in meditation and in beginning yoga practices. It is also a beautiful practice for opening the heart and it offers the bridging of energy of the lower and higher chakras much in the same way the heart bridges the energy of the lower and upper chakras. To practice this mudra, bring the thumb and the first finger of the right and left hands together. Bring the left hand to rest on the leg, palm face up. Bring the right hand, palm facing the chest, to the chest with the thumb and first finger resting on the sternum. Close the eyes and start to find the breath. Give yourself about 2-3 minutes to drop into the flow of the energy in the body. Feel the rise of the energy up the spine on the inhale and the descent of energy down the spine on the exhale. Follow this for 10 breaths and then move your awareness into the heart. Focus on the heart and begin to draw energy up the spine from base of spine to heart and down the spine from crown of head to heart. Keep drawing breath from earth and sky into the body and into the heart. Stay here for 2-5 minutes and when you are done, release the mudra and spend 10 breaths noticing any shifts in your body.

Poses for Feeling the Bridge of the Heart

In each of the poses shown below, feel the energy running along the spine–tailbone to heart and crown to heart. Connect with that flow of prana and then connect with the flow of prana extended out through the arms on the second and third poses. Do this is a series, beginning with Bridge and ending with Bridge.

Bridge Pose

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunge with Twist

 

 

 

 

 

 

Warrior I with Arm Variations

 

 

 

 

 

Bridging Earth and Sky Mediation

Come to lie on your back. Close your eyes and bring your focus to the heart. As you focus on the heart center, envision a deep emerald green orb of light resting at the chest. Take an exhale and drop a green cord of light from the back of the heart through the body and into the floor. Send it deep into the earth and let it fan out like roots of a tree. With each breath send the roots deeper. After 5 breaths reverse the flow of energy and like nutrients and water rising up roots to feed a plant, draw diamond white light up the root system, through the cord and into the heart. Fill the heart with diamond white light. Continue with this visualization for 10 breaths. Then move the awareness to the front of the chest, push an emerald green cord of light from the heart center up toward the ceiling through the roof and into the sky. Send it up toward a celestial body of your choice: sun, moon, stars or planets. Connect with the energy of that body and then draw it back down the cord of light, see it as shimmering golden light that travels back into the the heat center and fills the heart. Take 10 breaths allowing diamond white light and golden light to mingle in the heart center. Stay here for 5 minutes and when you feel complete slowly begin moving the body and as you’re ready open your eyes.