Saturday, May 29, 2010

Twisted -- the Benefits of Yoga Twists

Sometime ago I wrote that yoga twists are one of the categories of poses that can help to cleanse or detox the body (See Yoga Poses For Detoxing).

Twists work with a "squeeze and soak" action on the abdominal organs, which stimulates the digestive system and makes it easier for the body to eliminate waste products. 

When you wring out a sponge, the dirty water is squeezed out, and the sponge can then absorb clean water again.

This is similar to what happens in twists.   The kidneys and liver are squeezed, or wrung out during twists, forcing out "old" blood that contains waste material and toxins.   When the twists are released, fresh clean blood enters the kidneys and liver, bathing the cells in nutrients and oxygen.

Twists also are obviously beneficial to the spine, helping us to retain (or regain) normal spinal rotation.   The hips and shoulders are also affected.  Many of us lose our full range of spinal rotation due to our sedentary lifestyles -- we may sit slouched over at a desk or behind the wheel of our car for long periods of time, and the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and fascia start to shorten, which limits mobility.    Our backs may become achy and more prone to injury from this reduced spinal mobility. 

According to Julie Gudmestad (certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and yoga anatomy expert) practicing twists regularly help us to maintain the length and resilience of the tissues around the spine, abdomen, rib cage and hips.   Twists also help to maintain the health of the discs between the vertebrae.

To twist well, we need to keep the spine extended (slumping reduces our ability to twist -- slumping reduces our ability to do any yoga pose well!), and learn to twist evenly along the length of the spine, from bottom to top.     We're more mobile in the neck, and if we're not paying attention to the even twisting along the entire length of the spine, many of us turn the head first, neglecting the stiffer parts of the spine.

Until recently I have had the mis-understanding that the lumbar spine is also very mobile in twists -- but actually the twisting motion in the lumbar spine is limited.  What does happen for many of us is that the low back may over-arch as we lift the spine to twist more.   Twisting this way hurts the low back.  So we need to make sure we're grounding down well through the sit bones to keep the low back from over arching.   We then begin the twist in our lower back, and move our awareness up through the length of the spine, twisting evenly along its whole length. 

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Asana Requires Thought and Inner Reflection

On page 46 of Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health by B.K.S. Iyengar there is the quote:

"An asana is not a posture which you assume mechanically.  It involves thought, at the end of which a balance is achieved between movement and resistance."

I read this to some of the classes during the week that we compared the two Utthita trikonasana (triangle pose) photos -- one from the Yoga Journal calendar for the month of May, and the other either from The Path to Holistic Health, or from Yoga: The Iyengar Way.

Yoga Journal 2010 Calendar

Compare the two Trikonasana photos on this page.  They're both nice poses -- arms, legs, and trunk are extended, and both have hands on the floor.  But there are also some differences.

In the first photo, the Yoga Journal Trikonasana is a decent pose.   But notice that the stance is narrower than in the Trikonasana on the Yoga: The Iyengar Way book cover.

The second picture is of a gorgeous pose!  The wider stance makes it more possible to bring the whole trunk into better alignment.

Look closely at the first picture.  You'll see that her left leg (the back leg) thigh is rolling down slightly.  This rolls the left hip downward, narrowing the front of the pelvis.   This results in the chest rolling slightly toward the floor.  You can see this in the v-neck of her top.   The midline of the front of her trunk is turning slightly downward, but her gaze is upward.   There's a disconnect between the spine and the neck.

In the second picture, her stance is wider, and her left hip rolls back rather than forward, opening up the front of the pelvis.   This makes it easier to turn the whole trunk more fully in the pose.   The turning of the face results from an even turning of the spine and neck.    There's no disconnect between the two.

In the first photo, the turning in of the left leg may be partly from a stiffness in the hips, or of the placement of the left foot.   We do often teach to turn the back foot in a little because it does make the pose easier to enter for beginners.  But if we turn the foot forward, as in the second photo, it makes it easier to keep the left thigh and pelvis facing forward.   That makes it easier to turn the whole trunk correctly.

Also if the woman in the first photo took her right hand to her shin or to a block, she'd be able to turn her trunk better.

Yoga:  The Iyengar Way

So how does the observation of these two poses pertain to the quote at the beginning?

If we do this pose mechanically, we never figure out where we are going wrong.   We turn the right leg out, the left foot in, straighten the legs, extend the trunk and take the arm down.   That is fine for beginners (and we can be beginners for a long time!).  But to grow in our poses, we need to start looking at them in a more thoughtful manner.   We need to look at what needs to move and what needs to stay put.  The right leg turns out, and if we're not paying attention, the left leg goes with it and turns inward, especially if we have tight hips.   We need to learn to resist the left leg from turning in. 

If the hips are tight or the hamstrings or ankles are tight, we may not be able to have a wide stance in the pose, but then it's best to not take the hand to the floor. That just collapses the chest downward.  It takes thoughtfulness and inner reflection to see this in ourselves.  We need to develop this thoughtful reflection to improve our poses.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Yoga Can Help Arthritis

Arthritis causes joint pain with accompanying loss of mobility and range of motion.    The practice of yoga is a good way to help reduce pain by gently opening the joints, increasing their range of motion, and by strengthening the surrounding muscles to give more support to the affected joints.

Yoga For Arthritis  gives an overview of what arthritis is, and how yoga can help ease arthritis symptoms.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Balance the body -- working the sides evenly

A few weeks ago I wrote about finding better balance in the standing poses but today's post is about a different kind of balance -- moving toward more evenness in the body from side-to-side.

It makes sense, of course, to do poses on each side -- i.e. Utthita trikonasana (Triangle pose) to the right, and then to the left.    We wouldn't do a pose only on our easy side, because we'd become more and more unbalanced.

Even in the "simple" poses, such as Parvatasana (diagram, arms), in which we interlace the fingers and press the palms toward the ceiling to extend the arms, we do twice to include the opposite interlock.     Maybe you remember how bizarre that felt the first few times you did this!

It's the same with Sukhasana (cross-legged seated pose).  It's good to practice alternating which shin is crossed on top.   And yes, that feels awkward too.

These seem like minor changes in the body, but we're so used to unconsciously positioning our bodies in the same way over and over again, and over time, that sets up imbalances in the body.  

But in our everyday lives, there are many things we do that are not balanced evenly from side to side.    We're right-handed or left-handed, so we use our dominant hand more often.   We step on the gas with our right foot.

If you do sports, you probably lead more with one side of the body than the other.   Sports like golf, soft ball, and soccer are "sided" sports (or at least I'm guessing soccer players usually kick with one foot?).

When you rake leaves or shovel snow, you're probably one-sided.

For most of these activities, it doesn't make sense to practice evenly on both sides!   Can you imagine learning to write well with your non-dominant hand!   Or swing a bat or a golf club on your other side?

Still, when we repeatedly do activities on one side, the body becomes unbalanced, and that can lead to injury.   The mindful practice of yoga poses helps us to keep the body from getting too unbalanced, and it reduces the likely-hood of injury.   This is a good reason to practice yoga!   We learn to strengthen our weaker (probably non-dominant) side, and we learn to create more flexible in our stronger side.   Your right and left sides will never work exactly the same, but you can reduce your imbalances.
I've been doing much more writing and other computer work over these last couple months, and talk about "mouse" arm has suffered, all the way from the wrist through the shoulder.   That's what inspired this post in the first place.   I've tried using the mouse with my left hand, but that is incredibly difficult!   As long as I don't overdo my computer work (oh, that's hard though!), and continue with my poses and stretches that help open my wrist and shoulder, I figure I'll be okay.    But I'm also looking into an ergonomic mouse!  (Anyone have any recommendations?)

If you're interested in what else I've been working on which has led to such wrist soreness, you can check out my Squidoo lenses (yes, it's an odd name, but a great community).   My Squidoo home page has a list of the lenses I've written -- some yoga and some on other subjects.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Tapas, Svadyaya, and Moving Forward in Our Yoga Practice

After you first started taking yoga classes or started practicing on your own, you may have experienced an initial quick improvement in the yoga poses, and in your overall sense of health and well-being.    You became stronger and more flexible, and you probably felt good after leaving class.   Then you may have hit a plateau where nothing much changed for a long time.   This is very common  -- I'm guessing we all go through it if we stay with yoga for any length of time -- and I know it's frustrating.

How do you get past this plateau?

Two of the components of niyama (second limb of yoga which focuses on personal ethical observances) are tapas and svadyaya.   Tapas is the Sanskrit word for "burning determination" or "strong discipline".   Svadyaya is "self-study".

We need these two attributes to help us to move off our plateau and start climbing again along our yoga path.  We need svadyaya, or honest self-study, to figure out why we are stuck in our practice, and we need the discipline, or tapas,  to do the work to get "un-stuck".

I'll focus on difficulties in our physical practice right now, although how we go about working through these difficulties also inform us about how we work on difficulties in our daily lives.

Some of the reasons that a pose can be difficult are:
  • Stiffness
  • Weakness
  • Lack of balance
  • Lack of understanding the poses (especially the more difficult ones)
  • Resistance to discomfort (resistance to change)
  • Fear

Most of these reasons can be addressed just by practice.    We still may always have a tendency toward stiffness/weakness/lack of balance, but less so if we just practice.  Sometimes we have to look more closely at these specific reasons.   If one part of the body remains particularly stiff even with diligent practice, how do we work this out?   Or if balance eludes us (I know this one well!),  how do we work on this?   Sometimes you'll need extra information and help from your teacher to understand these aspects of the poses.

Resistance to discomfort is a mental obstacle.   To really improve, we will experience discomfort in the poses.  There is no way around this!   If we work to maintain comfort all the time, the poses will never get better even if we do them daily, and eventually we'll back-slide.  (Well, we all eventually back-slide anyway, but we can stave this off for longer with diligent, intelligent, thoughtful practice!)

Fear can be a difficult problem to get past.    We have to figure out what's scary about the pose and if this fear is reasonable, and how to take steps to get past this fear.   Sometimes there's a very good physical reason that we just shouldn't ever do the pose.   Sometimes we THINK there's a good reason to not do the pose, but maybe we're fooling ourselves.  Sometimes progressive baby steps toward the scary part of the pose is all that's needed.  BUT make sure that these baby steps are not really just shuffling back and forth in place, or even shuffling backward!   (Yes I see that in some students!  I see it in myself with one pose in particular!  Do you see that in yourself for certain poses?) 

Suggested homework for the week:
  • Pick a pose that has been eluding you but that doesn't seem too far out of your reach.
  • Look at it closely and decide what part of the pose is most difficult for you.
  • Decide what you need to do to work through this particular difficulty.  Maybe working on a similar but simpler pose will teach you how to improve your more difficult pose.
  • Then actually do it!   At least a few minutes each day!   
  • If you still have problems, ask me for ideas.  
  • Then carry through with my ideas!
Don't give up!

p.s.  If you haven't already looked at this, and want some ideas for overcoming obstacles to your own practice, read Practice Yoga at Home