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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Inhabiting the Body: 1st Chakra Exercises

“When we live in exile from our sensate reality of the body, we live in exile from the source of our aliveness.  The only place that we can reconnect with this aliveness is in the body.  Of course we all have bodies, yet few of us truly inhabit our bodies.  We may live a short distance from the body divorced from our feelings, sensations, intuitions, and instincts.  The body may seem like a foreign land that we have read about but never personally visited.  And just as we may come to know a foreign land through the stories we’ve heard and the pictures we’ve seen, the actual reality of the place can never be known until we have walked, eaten smelled, touched, and been there ourselves.  When we begin to live in the body again, we take of citizenship in our personal residence. In this way we come home to the body.” ~Donna Farhi

I feel like I have spent all month harping on the fact that the 1st chakra’s access point is the physical body…but really, how cool is that? We’ve got everything we need right here in front of us, all we have to do is be present. And as I sat with that this month, I began to notice how hard that can be. Some of the signs of a 1st chakra imbalance are being ungrounded in the body, living out of body or harshly criticizing or judging the body. As I began to do my own work with these lessons this month I began to notice how often I was moving outside my own body. I would find myself comparing my body to others, wishing my body somehow looked different or when I was “in” my body, pushing it further than it needed to go. It was so refreshing to have this 1st chakra reminder to come back into my body and sit with those thoughts, feelings and judgements. While I certainly can’t say that I’ve moved beyond it all, I can definitely say I have become more aware of how I inhabit my own body.

This week marked the last week of practice with the 1st chakra. I feel like I’ve just begun my exploration of what the 1st chakra has to offer, its a little daunting to move on to the next. The great opportunity here is the bridging between the chakras and as I develop a stronger more grounded first chakra, the more I support my 2nd chakra, and the rest of the way up the line. While the waters of the 2nd chakra are already calling my name, here are some final practices to ground into the first chakra:

Be Here Now

Lollipop Graphics Poster

Each and every breath you take, be present in your body. As you come into a pose, notice those places that you check out. Where do you have blind spots in your practice? Where do you go numb? Are there places that you’re not able to visualize in your mind’s eye? Notice these places. Invite your awareness into these places and in particular, invite the breath. Use the breath to create space and to explore. The more you bring the breath, the easier it will be to be present.

Now start to notice the transitions you make between poses. Its easy to be present in Warrior II (well, most of the time…). But how present are you as you move from Downward Dog to Warrior II? Are you aware of how you step through? Are you fixing your clothes? Fixing your hair? Are you watching other practitioners? Make a commitment to notice your transitions, make the movement from pose to pose be the focus of your practice for a day. It relates to the idea that its easy to be centered and grounded on your yoga mat, but when you’re in transition, driving in traffic from home to class, how grounded and centered are you then? Let it all be your practice!

 

Using Sound to Connect with Earth: The Schumann Resonance

Alex Theory created a series of CDs called Full Spectrum Soundhealing. The Earth CD in the series works with the Schumann Resonance (listen to a portion of it above). I used this CD for several of the classes, as the sounds he invokes in the Earth series, are grounding and connect us with the resonate power of the Earth. The Schumann Resonance can be thought of as the heartbeat of the Earth. When we bring ourselves into alignment with this sound,we come more into alignment with the energy of the Earth and therefore our own 1st chakras.  For more about the Schumann Resonance visit my previous blog post on the topic.

Embodying the 1st Chakra

We were fortunate enough this week to have Summer Solstice fall on the day of our Chakra Yoga Practice at 8 Limbs Yoga. It was a gorgeous day and the sun was streaming in through all the windows. Days like that (especially in Seattle) make me feel more alive. I feel the dance of sunlight on my skin and I feel more connected with my breath and with my experience of the world around me as I perceive the world around me through my sense. This afforded us the perfect opportunity to connect more deeply with our 1st chakras.

The 1st chakra, is deeply connected to the physical body and to our experience of being in present in any given moment. The 1st chakra invites us into the laboratory our of bodies and invites us to fully experience each opportunity that comes along. Furthmore, we invite the essence of Shakti into the practice. We often speak about the 1st chakra as the home of Shakti, and the 7th chakra subsequently the home of Shiva. It is their union that animates all life and their meeting in our own bodies that invites Kundalini to awaken and rise up the spine.  In my own experience, I think of Shakti as this heavy, Earth Mama energy. She keeps us grounded and connected to all of life, and like the Earth, is the birth place of all living things.

Below you will find some practices from this week to further explore the 1st chakra:

The Body as a Field Meditation

image courtesy of permaculturepower.wordpress.com

Close the eyes, connect with your seat. Feel the heaviness of the seat resting on the earth. Breathe down into your sitbones and connect with the resting place of Shakti. Connect with Shakti as Mother Earth, feel the deepness and richness that this energy offers you.  Connect with your breath and with each inhale and each exhale begin to draw this earth energy up the spine. As a fills you up connect with the sensations in the body. Become completely present to all the sensations you are experiencing: the movement of the breath, the seat on the floor. Become aware from tips of fingers to tips of toes.

Now, see yourself as a field. A dark, earthy, rich field. See the whole body as a field ready for planting. Set your intentions, plant them as seeds in the field of the body. As you set each intention, plant it in the body and invite it into your asana practice. Know that as you practice your intentions will be nurtured and fed. As you move your body, you feed the soil in which your intentions are planted and through your practice you can help manifest and realize your intentions. Once you have sat with you intentions and feel grounded in your body, let your eyes softly open and move into your asana practice.

Supta Baddha Konasana with Props

image from lunch.com

This is one of my all time favorite restorative poses. Be sure to give yourself at least 5-10 minutes to relax in the pose. In order to set up for it, be sure you have a bolster and a strap. If you are working with knee or hip injuries, two blocks can also be helpful to slide underneath the knees for support. First, slide the bolster right next to your low back, with short end of the bolster pressing into the low back. Then, take the strap and make a large belt around the body. Bring the feet together in baddha konasana and loop the strap around the outer edge of the feet (be sure the buckle isn’t pressing on the feet). Cinch the strap down partially and then recline back, you may find once you are back you will want to tighten the strap further. Make sure that you are comfortable and allow your eyes to close. Take a few deep breaths first into belly and chest and feel the expansion and opening of the breath on the inhale, the softening and relaxation of the body on the exhale. After a few more breaths invite your focus to your sitbones. Feel their connection with the floor and breathe into your seat. As you are connected the sitbones visualize roots dropping down into the Earth, at the same time, visualize the body as a fertile field allow your intentions to grow and blossom.

Shivalinga Mudra

image from yogamudra.alt-com.ru

Find a seat of meditation. Bring the hands into Shivaligna Mudra. The left hand rests on the bottom cupping the right hand. The left hand symbolizes Shakti, that fertile soil from which life is born. The right hand makes a “thumbs-up” sign and rests in the palm of the left symbolizing Shiva, the spark of the divine igniting all beings. Once the hands are set, close the eyes and begin to breathe. Sit with the mudra for 5-10 minutes and stay completely present in your body. Follow your inhale and exhale and if the mind wanders off, invite yourself back into the breath.

 

Resonate: Colors, Sounds and Visualizations for the 1st Chakra

This week marked the second week of Chakra Yoga at 8 Limbs Yoga in Wedgwood. I have truly been enjoying this class as I feel like it gives me the opportunity to present something I’ve been playing with for a long time and its fun to see it reflected back to me in new ways now as the teacher instead of the student. This week, our exploration of the 1st chakra moved into the realm of colors, sound and visualization.  We stayed deeply connected to the Earth element from last week and began to weave some other elements into our practice. Below you will find some highlights from that exploration that you can explore and take into your own practice to continue finding your connection to the 1st chakra:

LAM: The Seed Syllable of the 1st Chakra

image courtesy of centrodharmayoga.it

Chanting LAM, the seed syllable of the 1st chakra can help you connect with and activate the 1st chakra. It can be used at the start of practice, much in the same way we chant the sound of OM, beginning first with a drawn out “L” sound, moving to the “AH” sound and then to the “MMM” sound. We also explored using the mantra as a way to extend the breath in a pose and a way to activate the energy of the 1st chakra while moving into that pose. While chanting LAM and moving into asana, I encourage students to also find Mulabhanda (drawing in and up on the perineum) to further activate the 1st chakra. When chanting LAM and engaging Mulabhanda, two sequences I like to flow between are:

  • Cow → Cat → Prayer
  • Arms alongside ears with belly button lifted, flow from uttanasana to urdva hastasana. If there are considerations for the low back, please put the hands on the hips instead.

Seeing Red

image from serenityexpressions.com

The color red is assigned to the 1st chakra. It is a deep earth red, and the color red, much as the chakra it rules, is associated with life, vitality, strength and the physical aspect of human beings. Visualizing the color red at the 1st chakra is another way to activate the energy of the chakra. When visuazling the 1st chakra, I invite students to do the following:

Close your eyes, visualize an orb of light at the base of the spine, at the perineum. Focus on that orb of light and allow it turn a deep crimson red. Take 8-10 breaths bringing your focus deeper and deeper into the red orb of light. Once that image has become clear for you, envision the orb of light extending red light downward from the perineum through the center-line of the legs. Allow it to travel down between inner thighs, inner knees, inner calves, inner ankles until it extends down below the feet. Allow that light to shine down into the floor, imagining its connection with the Earth below you. Take 8-10 breaths running crimson red light down the legs and into the floor. As you’re ready, release the visualization and take a few breaths to feel your experience of the feet on the floor, the energy in the legs and when you’re ready let your eyes open.

Finding your Foundation

image from wikipedia.com

When you see the image of the 1st chakra, no matter how it is depicted, there is always a square inside the image somewhere. The square is a symbol of structure, foundation and stability, all positive characteristics of the 1st chakra. To connect with this energy, close the eyes and take a few deep breaths. As you breathe, feel the heaviness of your sit bones resting on the floor and start to feel the connection points of the sit bones and that on which you are resting. As you become more aware of the sit bones, visualize a line running from sit bone to sit bone — the top of the square. Drop two lines down from each of the sit bones to create the sides of the square and then see a line connecting these two sides to create the bottom of the square. Breathe into the square, feeling the sit bones resting on this structure. Feel yourself, held up, supported and grounded. Stay here as long as you like.

1st Chakra: Earth Element

“Those who dwell among the beauties and the mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” ~ Rachel Carson

Yesterday was the beginning of the Chakra Yoga class that I teach each Wednesday at 8 Limbs Yoga Wedgwood. As I mentioned in my last post, we are starting the exploration of the chakras with the 1st chakra and will spend the entire month diving into practices geared toward accessing and exploring that specific chakra. The 1st week, our focus for the 1st chakra was its governing element, Earth. We spent the practice dropping into the connection of our bodies to the Earth and ways in which we experience the Earth element in our bodies.

The 1st chakra rests near the base of the spine at the perineum. Our exploration included a great deal of focus on running energy from the 1st chakra into the earth. This can be done in your seat or standing. In a standing pose, the legs provide a vehicle for that energy to travel downward and connect with the Earth, and vice versa, to travel back upward and feed the chakra. Rather than telling students what they should expect to experience, I opened it up to their own exploration. Truly we are our own masters and have the best knowledge about our own energetic systems. The practices listed below are opportunities to open to Earth energy, and whatever you experience beyond that is true and accurate and represents your own knowledge around Earth in your body.

Below are some practices we explored in class to connect us with the Earth:

Tree Meditation

Find a comfortable seat. Feel your sit-bones resting on the floor. Take a few breaths and feel their weight resting on the Earth. Breathe into the length of the spine and connect with the 1st chakra located a the perineum. Take a few breaths into this space and then send your awareness from your seat into the Earth. Imagine roots growing downward, with each breath sink them deeper. After 8-10 breaths, reverse the travel of energy and just as a tree’s roots feed it water and nutrients, begin to draw the energy of the Earth up the roots and into your body. Let it rise up each root imagining the energy as light, color, sensation or simply envisioning it in your mind’s eye. Take 8-10 breaths drawing the energy into the 1st chakra and feeding it. Before you open your eyes take a few breaths to notice what you feel, breathe into your own wisdom and allow the eyes to softly open.

 

Connecting with Leg Lines: A Block Between The Thighs

Try the following sequence with a block between the legs. Start at the back of your mat and move slowly, as if you were swimming through honey. When you move from Ardha Utanasana to Adho Muka Svanasana, walk the hands forward on the mat to arrive.

photo courtesy of teachasana.com

Tadasana → Utanasana →Ardha Utanasana →Adho Mukha Svanasana → Chaturanga Dandasana → Bhujangasana → Adho Mukha Svanasana → Ardha Utanasana → Utanasana → Tadasana

Focus your awareness through the duration of the practice on hugging the inner thighs into the block and experiencing the activation of energy running down the legs. Take 4-5 breaths in each pose.

 

Prithivi Mudra: Earth Mudra

image courtesy of youngever.com

Find a comfortable meditative seat and close the eyes. Let the hands move into Prithivi Mudra with the tips of thumbs and ring fingers touching. Take a few breaths and breath into the energy being generated in the hands. Let your awareness travel from the hands into the arms toward the center of the chest. Imagine a rose at the center of the chest and as you watch the rose SLOWLY blossoms, then begins to drop petal after petal.  Each petal floats downward in slow motion and comes to rest at the seat. Spend anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes in this seat, as you feel complete, release the mudra, notice what you feel and then as you’re ready open your eyes.

Accepting What Is

“You are having a human experience, and part of that is experiencing the boundaries and limitations in a physical form rather than flying above it.”
– Niki Scully & Linda Star Wolf , Shamanic Mysteries of Egypt

I came to yoga in college as a runner. Thanks to genetics, I found myself to be naturally inflexible and the long distance running I did in college did little to help tight hamstrings, calves and quads. Initially, yoga was a way for me to find some more ease in my body, but eventually it became more. As my yoga practice deepened I found myself exploring poses I never thought possible and exploring the philosophical and spiritual sides of yoga on a much deeper level.

Yet through all of this deeper knowledge and exploration, I was still struggling with myself on a most basic and fundamental level. I wanted my body to do more than what it was currently capable of. I was never happy with what was, and had trouble acknowledging the advances I had made. I would see pictures in Yoga Journal and envy the women in these beautiful forward folds with their heads resting on their knees and their wrists wrapped effortlessly around their feet. For years I pushed up against my edge, and sometimes beyond it, thinking that if I could just somehow do MORE, I would be able to get there.

About three weeks ago, after struggling with an injury that wouldn’t heal, I went to see a Physical Therapist. I laid out for her my “story” as I had always known it, I was inflexible and had trouble with forward folds. She spent about 10 minutes assessing my body and as soon as she reached my hips she exclaimed “You have such a big pelvis!”.  I had already known that my pelvis and my rib cage were very close together, but being a small lady, had always assumed it was because I had a short torso. No, she assured me, somewhat surprised “You have a really tall pelvis. No wonder you have trouble with forward folds! You’re trying to bend over this tall pelvis and you have just that much further to go.”
It was as if this weight I had been carrying for years (and I mean YEARS! I remember being in elementary school and failing the “fitness tests” that measured your flexibility through your ability to fold forward over a box that would measure your relative flexibility) had been suddenly lifted! You would think, as a yoga teacher and a long time student of yoga I would get this, but it felt so new to me. My body would only go so far because that’s all it could do, my bones would never allow me to go any further…and that felt so freeing! I was doing my perfect version of a forward fold and there was such a sweetness in letting go of the struggle around that and surrendering into the acceptance of the sweetness of my own body’s perfection.

As a teacher, I am privileged to stand as witness for so many people in these same journeys in their own lives and yoga practices. What has your journey been like in accepting your body as it is, in its own glorious perfection? I would love to hear your stories!

The Throat Chakra: Finding Your Voice

With all this talk of sound I felt it would be important to move into the throat, the 5th chakra, Vissuddha Chakra:

Color: Cobalt Blue
Seed Syllable: HAM
Element: Ether
Rules: Thyroid, jaw, neck, mouth, throat, tongue, larynx
Planet: Mercury

Because the 5th chakra is located in the throat and governs higher communication, speaking, hearing and listening, it helps us to understand our inner truth and convey it with our voice to the outside world. The sense for the 5th chakra is hearing. Chanting, singing, speaking, reading aloud are all good for the 5th chakra. The vibrations of all these things affect the body down to the cellular level.

The element for the 5th chakra is ether/space. It is connected to the cosmos, which consists of these elements. Deficient energy in the 5th chakra can cause neck and shoulder problems, jaw disorders, throat problems, an under active thyroid and a fear of speaking.

On the other hand, excessive energy in the 5th chakra can cause hearing problems, inability to listen, excessive talking and an overactive thyroid.

Here are some yogic suggestions to work with the throat chakra:

Asana
– Matsyasana (fish pose)
– Bhujangasana (cobra pose)
– Setu Bhanda Sarvangasana (bridge pose)
– Neck Stretches

Pranayama
– Ujjayi (conqueror breath)

Bhandas
– Jalandhara Bhanda

Mantra
All kinds of mantra and chanting are excellent for releasing the throat chakra.