Thursday, March 25, 2010

Musings on yoga workshops

To help keep my yoga practice fresh and informed, and to continue honing my teaching skills,  I like to attend various workshops during the year -- some of them are teacher training workshops, and some are general workshops.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a general yoga workshop at The Yoga Loft in the Village  (the beautiful yoga studio of my friend Vicky Elwell) in Sheffield Village, Ohio,  taught by Rebecca Lerner of the Center for Well Being in Lemont, PA.   Rebecca is a senior-level Iyengar Yoga teacher.

I met Rebecca a few years ago, when I went to Feathered Pipe Ranch, outside of Helena, Montana.   The two years I went, her husband, Dean, and Mary Dunn were co-teachers for the weeks I went, although Rebecca was the "unofficial" third teacher.   Since Mary passed away, Dean and Rebecca are the co-teachers.   They make an excellent teaching duo!  (Well, I've really only seen them teach together during their yearly teacher training intensives that I've been to a couple times, and they really do well sharing in the teaching.) 

(By the way, if you're interested in a "yoga vacation" this summer, check out the Feathered Pipe link above -- it's not particularly cheap but worth every penny -- it's a good week; beautiful surroundings, good food, interesting people, and of course wonderful yoga!   Talk to me if you have more questions about it.)

I've enjoyed all the Iyengar Yoga teachers I've studied with, for different reasons.   They all have their own interesting personalities and their own unique way of teaching; their own "take" on Iyengar Yoga and what is important to them, but all fully within the framework of the Iyengar Yoga system.   

One of the aspects that I appreciate about Rebecca's teaching is her ability to sequence the poses and break down the more difficult poses in such a way that everyone, from newer students to more seasoned practitioners, can safely learn and participate and be challenged, all within the same class.  She builds on concepts introduced in the beginning of the class, repeating and reminding us of these concepts throughout the class, taking us from more familiar poses to more difficult poses.    She doesn't let us get away with being "sloppy" or mis-aligned in the poses, if she figures we can do better. 

Her pacing was good -- we had long classes but I didn't feel over-worked, and I didn't feel that the class dragged.   She also has a good eye for alignment, and a calm but friendly, straight-forward manner for correcting us and for controlling the class.

All good yoga teachers should be able to do this.   I feel I do relatively well as a teacher, but I know my own weaknesses.     Watching the more senior teachers in action, such as Rebecca, helps me to work toward becoming a better teacher and a better student/practitioner.

Creative Commons photo credit:

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Spring Cleaning' the body -- detox with yoga poses

The last few days have been gorgeous -- sunny with temperatures in the 50's and 60's.   The snow is gone, our crocuses are up, robins are singing, and I heard (then saw) sandhill cranes as they flew overhead this morning.    (Sandhill cranes have a very distinctive "call" -- Maybe you've heard them but don't know what they are.  Check out this website for an audio clip about halfway down the page.  Sandhill cranes )

With the warmer weather, I've been airing out the house and cleaning out the accumulated winter clutter and (I hate to say it) grime.  The stronger sunlight shows the dirt and dust more clearly.  It is time for spring cleaning.

Our bodies can use some "spring cleaning" too.    During the winter, many of us start to feel more sluggish and heavy, both mentally and physically.   We eat heavier foods in winter, we may not get as much exercise, and with less daylight, many of us are less energetic and more moody.

The practice of yoga poses can help us "spring clean" our bodies by helping our natural detoxification processesses to work more fully and efficiently to get rid of accumulated "gunk" -- waste products and toxic materials.      

Wastes and toxic matter are eliminated from our bodies through the circulatory system, digestive system, lymphatic system, and through the skin and lungs.  If we're healthy, then these systems work well by themselves.   But if our diet is poor, or if we don't exercise, or if we're under a lot of stress, then these systems don't work as well, and can use an extra boost.

A well-rounded yoga practice, with different kinds of poses will stretch, twist, and compress all parts of the body, and turn it upside down.   All categories of poses will help, but the three categories listed below, to me, are the most important for helping the body "detox".

 When I think about yoga poses to help detox the body, twists come to mind first.  Twists have a cleansing, refreshing effect on the abdominal organs.

B.K.S. Iyengar talks about the "squeeze and soak" action of twists.   Just as we would wring out a sponge to force out dirty water, so it can then soak up clean water, so the twists "wring out" the abdominal organs, forcing out metabolic by-products and toxic material.   When the twists are released, then fresh, nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood flows into the organs.  

Twists also promote digestion and circulation of blood and lymph.

Forward bends and Abdominal poses
Forward bends and abdominal poses compress the abdominal organs, again helping to force out waste material.   The digestive system is stimulated, which helps with the elimination process

Inverted (upside down) poses such as headstand, shoulder stand, or a simple legs-up-the-wall pose help to drain lymph fluid from the legs so it can re-circulate through the body.   This benefits the immune system.

Inverted poses also help to soothe the nervous system and reduce stress.    When we're not stressed, then it's easier to make better choices for our bodies -- we're more likely to eat better and to get more exercise when we're not stressed.

For a somewhat longer (and admittedly more commercial) article on this, check out Springtime Yoga Detox

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reflections on Practice

If you're a student of mine, you've heard me repeatedly encourage you all to practice yoga in between classes.   You've heard how important your own practice is for you to benefit more fully from the effects of the poses on your body, mind, and spirit.   Also when you practice, the poses become easier, and you probably enjoy your classes even more (and maybe you'll decide to step up to the next level if your class starts to feel too easy!).

You know that it's good to practice.   I know it.   But....still....I know it's difficult for many of you to find time to practice.   And the same poses continue to be difficult for you, and more difficult poses are out of the question.


One of my joys each week is to sing with the Women's Chamber Chorus in Ann Arbor.   This is a community choir for women -- there are no tryouts, and any woman who can carry a tune and can learn the music is invited to join.   Our director is patient with us -- he's a good director and a good teacher, especially for those of us who never had much vocal music experience (besides singing in the shower, or in the car with the windows rolled up, or campfire songs....but I digress).

AND he strongly encourages us to practice in between our rehearsals. I practice???    Well.... occasionally.   Occasionally.   I'm not going to tell you how little I practice.   Of course when I do practice, the music that is difficult for me really is easier next time we all get together, and I remember it better than if I just sing it during rehearsals.     And I enjoy the music and it feels so good when I do get it right!   So why don't I practice regularly???   Same reasons as everyone else.    I procrastinate,  I get involved with other activities, some necessary, and some not-as-necessary.    It's hard to get started, especially on a more difficult piece.   It's also more fun to do with a group (a few of you are in that group -- it's a great group to sing with).   But practice does make a huge difference in my level of competency and enjoyment in that group. 

Our concert is coming up quickly, and we don't have all of the pieces pulled together yet.   I don't want to be a part of the problem if certain pieces don't come together well, so.....maybe it's time to create my own "30 Day Challenge" for this music, such as I offered to you all earlier this winter.   If I set a goal, just for the next few weeks, of only 15 minutes a day, I will have this music under control for the concert.   And it'll feel GOOD!   Wish me luck!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Iyengar Yoga and MS -- inspiring YouTube video

The following YouTube video is an inspiring story of this one man's experience with Iyengar Yoga and his battle with multiple sclerosis.

Garth's experience probably isn't typical -- he's a certified Iyengar teacher and has a strong personal practice, and is very motivated to work with his MS through his yoga practice -- but it does show how powerful this practice of Iyengar Yoga can be to help us maintain our health on many levels.

Courage and Caution - Garth McLean's battle with MS

A recap of the video:
Garth was diagnosed with MS in 1996, and at one time was literally numb from head to toe.    In the beginning of the video, he's shown riding his bike, but he says when he was first diagnosed, he figured he'd never ride his bike again. 

After he was diagnosed, he wanted to explore what he could do to help himself -- what he could do to put things right again.   He didn't want to become dependent on medications especially if they wouldn't necessarily heal him, but wanted to find alternative ways to regain his health and to be able to function in the world; to be able to continue pursuing his dreams and living his life.   He says that the side effects of the drugs were debilitating while the side effects of yoga are "abilitating".

He found the Iyengar Yoga Institute in Los Angeles and has been studying yoga ever since.   He became a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and is qualified to work with people therapeutically in the Iyengar Yoga method.   People that he works with therapeutically are inspired to continue with their own work in Iyengar yoga when he tells them that he has MS, and that yoga has helped him maintain his health and mobility.    Garth doesn't discount traditional medical knowledge and therapies, but decided to try a much more ancient approach to health through the practice of yoga.    He remains under a doctor's care, and his doctor thinks his results from yoga are remarkable.

The practice of Iyengar yoga helps to align the body in such a fashion that the body is given the opportunity to begin to heal itself.     B.K.S. Iyengar told Garth that every day he "must walk that fine line between courage and caution" -- that he needs to have enough courage to take action, but to have enough caution to respect what's going on in the body.   

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The "yoga" of cross country skiing

My husband, David, and I vacationed up at Stokely Creek Lodge, near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario for a few days last week to cross country ski and snowshoe.   It was a fun trip, and it was great to get away for a few days to do something we enjoy doing together.

I've been a cross country skier for about 35 years, much longer than I've practiced yoga.   My practice of yoga, however, has improved my cross country skiing experience.

The most obvious benefits of a regular yoga practice for a cross country skier (or a snowshoer!) are that the shoulders, hips, and spine are more flexible and the muscles stretch more easily.   Then there's less stiffness and soreness after a many-kilometer trip and less chance for injury.   I can honestly say that I had very little muscle soreness after my excursions last week,  even after my longest excursion, about 14 miles.   I was tired....but not particularly sore (well, there were a couple minor injuries...).

Another benefit of a regular yoga practice is the development of a keener body awareness.  We learn to pay attention to the body when we practice the asanas (yoga poses) -- we first learn where to place the different parts of the body to bring it into the basic shape of the asana, then we fine tune this placement so that the body works with more ease and can better experience the benefits of the pose.   We learn to discern where the pose is going right and where it is going wrong, and how to fix it if it's going wrong.  As we become more practiced and proficient, we can see on a more subtle level how to go deeper into the pose in a healthy manner.   

The development of this profound awareness of the body helps us perform better in any physical activity.  In my cross country skiing, for example, I'm aware that my legs work differently from each other.   My feet work differently -- one big toe bends more than the other so the weight is distributed unevenly from side to side.   One leg turns out more readily (as it does in my yoga poses), and that knee and hip can start to bother me if I'm not careful.   When I'm aware of these differences, then I can start to make changes to bring the body into a more balanced state.    If I'm not aware, or not paying attention then my unevenness grows, and there's more chance of injuring or aggravating parts of the body.

I ended up over-compensating when trying to work my legs evenly, and currently my usually healthier hip is hurting.   So I mis-judged how much I needed to change, but that's just the process of figuring out how to ski better.   This happens while practicing yoga asanas too -- to fix one area of the pose, we may overdo somewhere else.   Then we learn how to move more intelligently in our new problem area.   Developing our yoga poses is an ongoing process of awareness.   We make mistakes, and then learn from them.   Developing our skill in any physical endeavor is no different.