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Month: March 2018

Myofascial Release: Caring for your Connective Tissue

Tiffany Cruikshank, LAc, MAOM, E-RYT, discusses the importance of caring for your connective tissues, and how myofascial release can be a powerful tool for relieving tightness and discomfort. Reprinted from Well Being Journal, Vol. 27, No. 2 print edition. See digital and more at www.wellbeingjournal.com.

Connective Tissue Health & Myofascial Release

Connective tissue has a long history of being overlooked. It has always been ignored in favor of what seem to be more important features in the body. In medical school cadaver dissections, the connective tissue is carefully extracted and thrown away to reveal the more precious structures and organs. But, finally, our low prioritization of it is finally being reconsidered. Recent research is putting fascia and other connective tissue in the spotlight. With so many new studies opening our eyes to the crucial functions of this tissue, we need to reexamine our understanding of it and its potential contributions to our health.

Fascia is a type of connective tissue. It has a broad array of functions, including linking nearby tissues, supporting organs, reducing friction that comes with muscular force, forming compartments that enclose groups of muscles and other structures, separating tissues, investing the tendons (thereby adding to their strength and resilience), creating functional chains of muscles that allow us to move more smoothly and efficiently, and much more. This tissue also contains important immune cells, protective adipose cells, myofibroblasts that assist tissue healing, and a complex communication system to help oversee it all.

Another important feature of fascia is that it is a continuous intermeshed system of fibrous tissue that weaves through the body, from head to toe. This interconnected system can be the reason your pain in one area may be influenced by changes in another part of your body. It is also a big part of how we adapt and respond to stress via a body-wide tension-distributing system. Every year, half the fascial fibers (collagen) are replaced in a healthy body, providing us with a powerful intervention point to steer these changes in the tissues at any time.

Myofascial Release

The term myofascial release refers to any technique that works on the muscles and the fascia. There are many different modalities; however, the most common self-myofascial release (SMFR) techniques usually involve the use of balls or foam rollers. The beauty of SMFR is that it can be done with simple tools and training. Which means, it is a very accessible tool. There are numerous articles and studies showing positive outcomes for these modalities. The main limiting factors of these studies are that many of them are small and their methods can vary considerably. Nevertheless, most of them show significant positive outcomes with only minor side effects, which usually involve temporary soreness and/or bruising.

Fibroblasts, cells within the fascia that are responsible for producing the fascial matrix. They play a large role in how the tissues remodel over time in response to the demands placed on them. These demands can have relatively positive (as in yoga, stretching, exercise, or myofascial release) or negative (in the case of poor posture, repetitive motions, or injuries) effects on the way the fibroblasts remodel the components of our  connective tissue. Myofascial release is thought to both stimulate and regulate fibroblasts; it helps break down excessive connective tissue deposition as well as stimulates them to produce new, more resilient connective tissue. It also enhances the hydration of this tissue.

Uses of Self-Myofascial Release

Probably the most well-known uses of SMFR are to increase mobility and relieve pain and injuries. The effects of SMFR on mobility are probably the most commonly studied, with positive but often temporary effects seen. Immobility, repetitive movements, poor posture, and injuries can all cause excessive collagen deposition that leads to fibrosis or adhesions between the tissues, resulting in diminished range of motion and mobility. SMFR helps to reduce and prevent excessive collagen deposition by increasing collagen turnover to keep the tissues strong, elastic, and resilient. This feature is critical both for working with injuries and helping to prevent them. Also, one of the great advantages to using SMFR is that the increases in mobility do not initiate the temporary decrease in muscle power and performance seen with stretching.

A key feature of connective tissue that we are still learning about is its function as a communication system. With six times as many sensory neurons than are found in any other tissue (besides the skin), the fascia is a huge sensory organ important both for proprioception (spatial awareness) and interoception (internal body awareness). One of the often-overlooked benefits of myofascial release is this increase in proprioception, which you feel right away. Try, for instance, rolling out your feet before attempting a challenging balance position, and you can experience this firsthand. Research suggests that increasing proprioception can also decrease pain. What’s even more interesting is the new research pointing to the fascia having its own internal communication system, which functions independently from the nervous system via vibration, crystallinity, and electricity. This suggests an inherent body-wide intelligence within this system.

 

The Recovery Rounds by Yoga Medicine® + RAD

Fascia & Immunity

There are also other body functions that SMFR influences—the parasympathetic response, the blood and lymph circulation, and possibly many more that may be revealed as the studies continue. In addition, there are mental and emotional implications of the connective tissue system that we don’t fully understand yet. Practitioners may observe this in their clients as an unexpected emotional release that may spontaneously arise with SMFR.

The beauty of SMFR is that you don’t need to understand the emotional history of a trauma or injury to let it go; you need only provide the space to allow it to pass. Studies suggest that receiving SMFR just once or twice a week will yield a more resilient fascial system in six to twenty-four months, so slow and steady wins the race for connective tissue health. As with any healing modalities, it’s important that you consult your doctor before using SMFR and seek the help of someone trained to use it.

Though there is still a lot of research needed to show the extent to which the fascial layer may be involved in many pathologies, there is already more than enough to indicate the need for further inquiry into how the health of this tissue can affect so many interconnected systems. Myofascial release techniques show promising outcomes in enhancing mobility, increasing proprioception, supporting injury prevention, promoting tissue healing, regulating inflammation and immune function, and optimizing tissue resilience. As SMFR has so few side effects, I believe it’s our opportunity to pursue further study to see how we can best use this simple, cost effective modality that could have a significant impact on pain, inflammation, injuries, tissue health, and possibly pathologies such as cancer.

Conclusion

Within the fascial layers, we also find important immune cells that help to modulate inflammation and tissue healing. Many people think of the fascia as just surrounding the muscles, but this tissue also interweaves through the muscles and surrounds organs, bones, nerves, and blood vessels throughout every part of the body. Since it envelops just about every structure of the body, you can imagine how important the immune function in this protective internal fascial layer is.

There is increasing evidence that the physical and mechanical environment of the tissues can influence cell behavior and tumor progression. In fact, some of the newest research on fascia focuses on its effects on cancer and suggests that healthy fascia could be an important component in treatment and prevention.

The hydration of the connective tissue is a key component in its health, influencing communication, adhesions, and immune function. Imagine dry tissues rubbing over each other with every movement. Impaired hydration of the fascia causes increased friction, stimulating the fibroblasts to lay down more collagen cross-links between layers of tissue, eventually leading to adhesions between the layers. You might think drinking more water would solve the problem, and though that may be part of the answer, it doesn’t necessarily equate to connective tissue hydration. Gentle SMFR techniques help to increase the hydration of the connective tissue to decrease adhesions, enhance communication, and facilitate healthy immune function. Think of the connective tissue as being like a fishbowl; not only do you need to add more water, you also need to clean it out from time to time.

Author Note

Thanks to the Fascia Research Congress for promoting the work of so many researchers who help bring this information to the public, and many thanks to all the researchers out there doing the work.

***

Bibliography

  1. Beardsley, C., and Škarabot, J., “Effects of self-myofascial release: A systematic review,” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 19, no. 4 (2015): 747-758.
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  3. Chaudhry, H., Schleip, R., Ji, Z., Bukiet, B., Maney, M., and Findley, T. “Three-dimensional mathematical model for deformation of human fasciae in manual therapy,” Journal of the American Osteopathic Association 108, no. 8 (2008): 379-390.

  4. Guimberteau, J. C., Delage, J. P., McGrouther, D. A., and Wong, J. K., “The microvacuolar system: How connective tissue sliding works,” The Journal of Hand Surgery, European Volume 35, no. 8 (2010): 614-622.

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  6. Kalichman, L., and Ben David, C., “Effect of self-myofascial release on myofascial pain, muscle flexibility, and strength: A narrative review,” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 21, no. 2 (2017): 446-451.

  7. Kjaer, M., Langberg, H., Heinemeier, K., Bayer, M. L., Hansen, M., Holm, L., et al., “From mechanical loading to collagen synthesis, structural changes and function in human tendon,” Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 19, no. 4 (2009): 500-510.

  8. Langevin, H., Bouffard, N., Badger, G., et al., “Dynamic fibroblast cytoskeletal response to subcutaneous tissue stretch ex vivo and in vivo,” Am J Physiol Cell Physiol 288, no. 3 (2005): C747-756.

  9. Langevin, H. M., Keely, P., Mao, J., Hodge, L. M., Schleip, R., Deng, G., et al., “Connecting (T)issues: How research in fascia biology can impact integrative oncology,” Cancer Research 76, no. 21(2016): 6159-6162.

  10. Neuberger, A., and Slack, H., “The metabolism of collagen from liver, bones, skin and tendon in normal rats,” The Biochemical Journal 53, no. 1 (1953): 47-52.

  11. Parravicini, G., and Bergna, A., “Biological effects of direct and indirect manipulation of the fascial system. Narrative review,” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 21, no. 2 (2017): 435-445.

  12. Pollack, G. H. Cells, Gels and the Engines of Life. A New, Unifying Approach to Cell Function. Seattle, Washington: Ebner and Sons Publishers; 2001.

  13. Pollack G. H., et al. Water and the Cell. The Netherlands: Springer; 2006.

  14. Schleip, R., “Fascial plasticity—a new neurobiological explanation, Part 1,” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 7, no. 1 (2003): 11-19.

  15. Schleip, R., Duerselen, L., Vleeming, A., Naylor, I. L., Lehmann-Horn, F., Zorn, A., et al., “Strain hardening of fascia: static stretching of dense fibrous connective tissues can induce a temporary stiffness increase accompanied by enhanced matrix hydration,” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 16, no. 1 (2012): 94-100.

  16. Schleip, R., Findley, T. W., Chaitow, L., Huijing, P. (Eds.). Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. The Science and Clinical Applications in Manual and Movement Therapies. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone; 2012.

  17. Schleip, R., Klingler, W., and Lehmann-Horn, F., “Active fascial contractility: Fascia may be able to contract in a smooth muscle-like manner and thereby influence musculoskeletal dynamics,” Med Hypotheses 65, no. 2 (2005): 273-277.

  18. Schleip, R., and Muller, D. G., et al., “Training principles for fascial connective tissues: scientific foundation and suggested practical applications,” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 17, no. 1 (2013): 103-115.

  19. Sommer, A. P., and Zhu, D., “From microtornadoes to facial rejuvenation: Implication of interfacial water layers,” Crystal Growth and Design 8, no. 11 (2008): 3889-3892.

Treat Upper Body Tension & Pain

In this article, Shannon Stephens, Yoga Medicine® Teacher, identifies key trigger points in the trapezius, pecs, and rhomboids, and explains how you can address upper body pain and tension with a blend of myofascial release and Yin yoga. Techniques, poses, and tips are provided to release areas prone to tension.

Upper Body Tension: Myofascial Release & Yoga Poses That Can Help

We all carry tension and stress in our neck and shoulders. The way we sit or stand, repetitive movements, and psychological stress all contribute to tightness and pain, which is why yin postures that focus on breath and passive release of muscular tension can be particularly beneficial for this area. Although yin yoga typically targets the lower half of the body, we can still incorporate yin principles to target the neck, chest, and shoulders.

When teaching yin yoga for the upper body, I often incorporate myofascial release. As a technique, myofascial release can help to ease pain, restore range of motion, improve circulation, and hydrate the tissues. The pairing of these two modalities offers an effective treatment for neck and shoulder tension that my students welcome.

The sequence below targets the trapezius, the pectoralis major and minor, and the rhomboids. The white x’s indicated in the illustrations denote trigger points. Myofascial trigger points are painful spots, more commonly known as “knots”, in the fascia surrounding the skeletal muscle.

When we apply pressure to a trigger point it can feel tender, both at the site and in a different region (this is known as referred pain). With myofascial release work dull, achy pain is normal, but we should always avoid the pain that is sharp, shooting, or unbearable. Place the tennis balls directly at the site of the trigger points and stay for up to two minutes. Avoid bone, major arteries, and nerves, and do not practice if there is acute injury, bruising or visual swelling. To decrease the intensity, try placing a towel over the tennis balls.

Props needed: 2 tennis balls & 1 block

1. Trapezius

Tension in the shoulders is often the result of overuse of the trapezius. The trapezius is a large, superficial V-shaped muscle that originates at the occipital ridge and extends distally to the lower thoracic vertebrae, and laterally to the spine of the scapula. There are a couple of common scenarios that occur when we overuse this muscle. Scenario 1) When the shoulders are slouched, and the head is pitched forward, the trapezius can become overstretched.

“Text neck” is the term used to describe the injuries and pain sustained from looking down at wireless devices for too long. When we look down at our smart phones it places a tremendous amount of strain on the muscles that help to hold the head up. Scenario 2) Elevation of the shoulders is an involuntary response to stress. When the muscles return to this position repeatedly, or remain there for long periods of time, tension develops. Headaches are also common with overuse of the trapezius.

Yin – Seated Neck Stretch

Sit on a cushion or folded blanket. Draw the chin toward the chest then slowly roll the right ear over the right shoulder. Relax the jaw and tilt the chin slightly forward and slightly back. Allow the head to be heavy. Find an area that feels tight and stay there for up to 2 minutes on each side. To go deeper, rest hand just above the ear and extend the arm of the side being stretched so that it hovers 6-12 inches above the floor.

Myofascial Release

Lie on your back and set up for a supported bridge with a block positioned beneath the sacrum. Place tennis balls near the top of the traps, 1-2 inches lateral of the spine. For location accuracy, if you were to look at your students from above, you should be able to see the top of the tennis balls. Lift the hands toward the ceiling and allow the arms and upper back to be heavy. Stay here for a few breaths, then pin the tennis balls in place while slowly lifting and lowering the arms. Continue for up to 2 minutes, then push into feet to roll the body up, tennis balls down 1-2 inches. Repeat the same movements.

2. Pectoralis Major & Minor.

Although we typically feel more tension in the back of the body, it’s important to investigate the other side. On the front of the torso, located in the chest, is the Pectoralis major and minor (Pecs). Shortened or tight pecs contribute to pulling the shoulders forward. By encouraging flexibility in this muscle, we can prevent the constant forward pull of the shoulders.

Yin – Pec Stretch

Lie face down with arms in a cactus shape. Turn one ear toward the floor, then roll the body to that same side. A variation of the pose can be performed with the arms extended to a “T” shape. Increase the stretch by lifting top hand toward the ceiling, then drape the arm behind the back. Allow the side of the head to rest on the floor. Remain here for approximately 3 minutes then repeat second side.

Myofascial Release

This can be performed at against the wall or lying face down, however, I find that with large classes it’s easier to do this one seated. Sit in sukhasana and place 1 tennis ball in your left hand. Roll the ball from the anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder), to the small hollow just below. From here, roll slightly down and medially to locate pectoralis major and minor. Apply firm pressure and roll the ball in a circular motion. Move slightly up and down to access the entire surface area of both muscles. Spend 2 minutes on each side.

3. Rhomboids

The rhomboids lie beneath the trapezius and extend from the spine to the medial border of the scapula. Pain and tension here can be a result of many factors. When the shoulders droop forward, the scapulae fan away from the spine. Over time, this position causes the rhomboids to become overstretched and weak. When these muscles are used excessively, it can lead to pain. Carrying heavy loads, performing repetitive and/or tedious tasks with the hands, and playing sports such as golf or tennis can all cause overburden the rhomboids. Pain here is common but relief is fairly easy to achieve.

Yin – Prone Shoulder Stretch

Lie face down and extend the arms forward. Push into the palms and lift the upper arms and chest away from the floor. Thread the right arm under the left arm, then crawl left fingers forward and over to the right so the arms are crossing beneath the chest. Tuck the toes under and inch the body forward. Rest the head on the arms or floor. Stay here 3-5 minutes and breathe into the new space between the scapula. Repeat on the other side. *Thread the Needle is a great alternative for students who cannot comfortably get into the pose.

Myofascial Release

The landmark for this technique is the space between the medial edge of the scapula and the spine. Most students won’t be able to place the tennis balls in the right spot with their hands, so I have them set the balls 1-2 inches apart (enough space for the spine) and lie down slowly. I always ask students to put a hand in the air if they need assistance. To assist, stand over your students with one foot on each side of their torso. Wrap your hands from outside the ribcage in and have them lift slightly if possible to unweight their upper back.

Start with the arms in cactus, palms up. Stay here a few breaths, then create circular motions with the arms, crossing the wrists just in front of the chest (think, Karate Kid, wax on, wax off). After several circles, cross the arms in front of the chest and rock from side to side. Continue for 2 minutes, then push into the feet and roll up or down. The medial border of the scapula is peppered with trigger points, so move in 1 inch increments and repeat. Your students will appreciate this one!

How to Pack for Yoga Medicine Training

 for Yoga Medicine shares some tips and tricks for making sure you have the right gear for your next Yoga Medicine training.

How to Pack for Yoga Medicine Training

Does this scenario sound familiar? You’re on your way to your next training. You have spent hours pondering, planning, and packing for this week-long yoga medicine training trip. You’ve spent money on new yoga clothes, traveling supplies and new shoes. You’re ready! You have everything you need… Then, you get to the training.

You begin to realize you need this item, or that item, and you have to go to the store to buy this, so it ends up costing you more money, and everyone else’s outfits are cuter and look comfier, and you are borrowing the retreat center’s pen, and you’re feeling dehydrated because you didn’t bring the right water bottle, and you keep dropping manuals and props, and you think, “How am I not prepared?”.

Some of you may not relate to this in the least bit. But if you’re like me, an over-thinker and an over-processor, this may be really helpful for you in getting ready for your next training! I’ve now been on five separate trainings with Yoga Medicine®. I’ve experienced cold weather, warm weather, and sticky, humid weather.

After my third training, tired of feeling unprepared, I started compiling a list of items I wish I had brought with me. And after my most recent training in Koh Samui, where I sweat gallons of water, got sick, and had to borrow the retreat center’s mat because I kept sliding on mine, I added on quite a few more items. Below you’ll get my view of the best items to bring with you to a training. Obviously, keep in mind the differing weather, and adjust accordingly to your specific training and needs. And if you tend to be more of a light-packer, cut everything in tenths. Here we go…

1. A really, really, really big suitcase and your own yoga mat.

This trip to Koh Samui, I decided I was going to pack “light”. Since the travel for me was 24-hours, I thought, “I’ll just do a carry-on bag, that way they can’t lose my bag.” That was the worst decision. My carry-on bag was so heavy that I ended up having to check it anyway. And because it was smaller, I didn’t pack as much as I would have liked to. And, because I didn’t bring a large suitcase, I had to carry my yoga mat through the airport. So, I decided to borrow a friend’s travel mat that I had never used before. Bad idea. It smelled, and I couldn’t practice on it because I was sliding off. I also caused quite the scene on the airplane. (Sorry, to the man I bumped in the head with my mat.) Just bring your own mat. And stick it in your large suitcase so you don’t have to carry it through the airport. Be sure to get travel insurance just in case your bag does get lost.

2. Props: Journal, 4 pens, 2 tennis balls, towel mat, light water bottle, travel mug, and a tote bag that you can use to-and-from class and lecture.

Journal: I have used the same journal now from the very beginning of my teacher-training journey, and am finally getting ready to invest in another one. It’s really nice to be able to look back at your notes from previous trainings and track your progress.
Pens: I always lose them, as I’m sure others do as well. Bring enough for yourself and everyone else in the training.
Yoga props: If you don’t know by now, you should always bring two tennis balls with you for myofascial release work. If you’re an overachiever, bring several to share with those that forget. In humid weather, a towel mat is helpful.
Drinking Containers: You have to drink so many fluids at these trainings, and often-times, mugs aren’t allowed in the Shala. Bring a light water bottle (easier for travel), and a travel mug (with a lid) so you can bring tea/coffee/juice into the Shala as well.
Tote Bag: It’s really convenient to have a little tote bag to carry back and forth with you. It can carry your manual, laptop, tablet, phone, tissues, cough drops, pens and any other necessities.

3. Your medicine cabinet.

I don’t know about you, but when I stress out, I get sick. Oftentimes, this comes with travel. You never know what’s going to happen, and often in these remote areas, it’s hard to get exactly what you need if you get sick. Below, I’ve included both holistic and Western options for medicine:

  • Supplements: Oregano, Garlic, Vitamin C, Probiotics, Cranberry, Ginger
  • Essential Oils
  • Day and Nighttime Cold/Flu
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Cough Drops
  • Bug Spray, Suntan Lotion, Aloe Vera
  • Eye drops, Ear Plugs, Eye Mask
  • Any Feminine Care Products (Pads, Tampons, Infection cream)
  • Antibiotics (If you feel this is the best route)
  • Any medications/powders/supplements that you already takeI have had a really sick roommate of whom I was able to share my medicine with, as well as, been sick myself, and am very grateful to those that shared with me.
    *Fun tip: If you tend to get stopped up when you travel, invest in Smooth Move tea. You can get it in-stores or online. Follow the directions and enjoy the results!

4. What to wear: 7-8 days of yoga outfits, 4-6 days of loungewear, 1 really cute outfit, and travel gear.

Yoga Outfits: I always think I won’t need as many clothes as I bring, but on these trainings, I usually end up using all of it. You can bring laundry soap and a sink stopper with you, but when you have break times, it’s best to spend that time recovering. There is practice every morning and depending on if you get sweaty, you may have to change your outfit right after. This is when the loungewear usually comes out to play.
Loungewear: I’ve noticed for warm weather places, loungewear looks like rompers, comfy shorts, dresses, tank tops and crop tops. For colder weather places, it’s usually sweatpants, sweatshirts, comfy socks and sweaters. Basically, bring your most “yoga-looking” outfits and you’ll fit right in.
Cute Outfit: The last night is usually a celebration or an outing night. This is when the dresses, jeans, or cute tops come out. The best decision is to wear something that is YOU.
Travel Gear: I’ve always found it’s best to be comfortable and dress in layers for the plane. This usually looks like sweatpants/leggings, top, sweatshirt, tennis-shoes, and warm socks. I often get cold on the plane and then hot in the airport. For long travel, bring a change of clothes.
*Fun tip: Wait to spend money on new yoga clothes until after the training. That way you can see what you like as it’s being modeled on your friends and training-mates. And, you’ll probably spend less because you’re broke from your training.

5. Yourself.

I’ve really changed from the beginning of my trainings to now. It’s been such a beautiful journey, but I remember feeling so insecure with who I was, who I fit in with,not being “popular” enough, and not being good enough on my first couple trainings. I have since then, become more confident, been through more life experience, and come into more of a place of contentment. My last two modules, I really felt a strong connection with my training-mates. We weren’t there to judge each other or ourselves. Instead, we were there to learn and build each other up within this community that so easily tears others down. I am so grateful for a community of yoga teachers who are eager to learn, eager to help, and eager to grow within the beautiful realm of yoga. Thank you, Tiffany for leading us on this incredible journey.

To my Yoga Medicine family. I love you all.

Cheers,
Leanna

Note from the Yoga Medicine® Team:

This is a suggested list to help you prepare. Always make sure to double check visa and passport requirements, your personal medications, and whatever else you need for traveling and yoga practice. Required and recommended items may change per training, so make sure to double check the information you receive after registration and contact info@yogamedicine.com if you have any questions.

6 Yoga Poses to Improve Your Sex Life

By Isadora Baum for Men’s Health.

Yoga Breathing: The Importance of the Basics

 for Yoga Digest discusses how seductive new practice can be, and the true value of focusing on the yoga basics and proper yoga breathing, no matter where you are in your journey.

Back to Basics: Breathing is the New Black

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the human brain’s proclivity for being seduced. Yoga students are seduced by the fancy (and perhaps erroneously labeled ‘advanced’) yoga poses. University students are seduced by the new, sexy, advanced concepts in certain academic fields. We are seduced, visually or otherwise, to the point where the basics—the very foundation of what we are trying to learn—is considered boring. We, quite frankly, don’t seem to want to spend the time mastering the basics. As a yoga teacher and university professor, I often see this in my students, and just so that all is on the table – I still find those seductive tendencies creeping into my own brain every now and then.

Why do we do this?

Why do we scroll through our social media feeds or thumb through yoga magazines, pausing at those in handstands, arm balances, and pretzel-like positions? We sigh and say, “Wow, I wish I could do that.” Have you ever paused in awe at a picture of someone meditating? How about an image of someone in Tadasana/mountain pose, who is working tirelessly at all of the loops that need to be set up in order to ensure proper alignment and posture? Why are yoga workshops focusing on inversions more well-attended than workshops focusing on the bones of the basic sun salutation? Or even more importantly, the breath?

What is it that drives this behavior? Is it impatience? Excitement? Curiosity? Dare I say, laziness (i.e., to get to some desired point faster and skip the hard work along the way)? Is it our socialization to believe that bigger is better? Maybe a combination of several things? And before you give me the evil eye or send me some hate mail, let me say that I do think that there is a place for inspiration and for working toward a goal. But tell me, how can we get to those ‘advanced’ poses or concepts if we skip the foundation? How can a house be built if there’s nothing to build it on?

An Unexpected Peak Pose

A few years ago, I took a class where, as is fairly typical, we were focused on a peak pose. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t the ‘usual suspects’ of peak poses….backbends, inversions or an arm balance. It was breath. Let me say that again. It was breath.

For an entire hour, we moved, one breath per movement, through a continuous and very simple breath flow. It was transformative, it was flat out challenging. It was inspiring. And it really taught me how much the breath is lost in our standard vanilla yoga class. Our students have been ‘trained’ to see bigger as better. A wise mentor said to me once, “If you don’t train them, they’ll train you.” And she was right.

As a yoga teacher and trainer of aspiring yoga teachers, I believe it is part of our responsibility to inspire our students to learn. After all, if we don’t encourage a strong foundational practice, who will? What if we encouraged our students to be in awe of the breath? In awe of the foundations of the practice. Amazed by the process by which we integrate breath, alignment, and movement. Fascinated, not with standing on our hands, but with the self-awareness that is built through yoga.

What if we made the basics downright amazing? If we change how we speak about and teach the breath and the basic, foundational poses, we may just change how our students approach them. Not only will this shift in perspective guide them to be more present in their own yoga journey, but it will also decrease comparison and feelings of inadequacy, and encourage joy and contentment on the mat. Becoming an active listener and observer to our mind and bodies throughout the yoga practice can, indeed, be the ultimate seduction.

Five Lessons on Teaching the Basics

As you consider this perspective shift, here are five things I’ve learned from trying to focus on the basics in my own practice and with my students:

1) It’s hard.

Even the basic poses can be challenging. Particularly if the intention is to sit in the pose for several breaths and become the internal observer. The mind wanders. A lot. And, to sit with ourselves? I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard. The mind is a muscle and we need to exercise it and teach it to be present.

2) Paying attention to the breath can be exhilarating and expansive at times and downright aggravating at others.

I’ve left my breath-centered practices feeling cracked wide open and breathing more fully than ever and I’ve also left them feeling agitated that I couldn’t find ‘the groove’ that day. Stick with it….this is teaching the practice of patience and allows us to check in with why we react the way we do when things don’t go our way.

3) Leave the ego at the door.

Going back to the basics can be a humbling experience. But…to be able to find contentment with the sensations you feel while pausing in, for example, Warrior 2? That is tapping into one of the main intentions of yoga. Be willing to stay. To steep. Linger. Explore. Some of the best lessons come at the moments when we want to bail. Staying is often harder work.

4) Focusing on the foundations has decreased my brain’s relentless quest for ‘bigger is better’ and replaced it with ‘subtlety/nuance is better.’

For example, instead of focusing on how deep I can go in Trikonasana (i.e., how flat can I get my bottom hand on the floor), I stay up very high in this pose, focusing on creating equal length on both sides of my waist by lengthening my spine. I focus on keeping my mind present by trying to find the subtle firing of my Quadratus Lumborum muscle. The possibilities for focal points in simple postures are quite literally, endless.

5) Teaching these concepts to students is more challenging than teaching a vanilla yoga class.

Some of your students will buckle in, stay the course, rave about it, and want more, more, more. Some won’t. If you’re teaching from a place of authenticity (no matter what approach you take to teaching) you’ll ignite a fire and change the lives of those that stick it out.

Read the article on Yoga Digest here

Prenatal Yoga: Relieve Pain, and Enhance Mobility

 for Yoga Journal. Prenatal yoga teacher Allie Geer demonstrates a self-myofascial release practice to relieve tension and pain during pregnancy and enhance mobility.

Prenatal Yoga Practice

During my pregnancy, every morning brought on a new challenge for my body. I woke up feeling tight in areas that I never knew were restricted. I felt pain and stiffness from lying in a position for too long during sleep. My joints were unstable; a result of relaxin, the hormone secreted during pregnancy that relaxes the ligaments around the pelvis. Adding self-myofascial release (SMR) to my regular yoga practice brought me so much relief from pain and tension on a daily basis, and enhanced my mobility.

What Is Self-Myofascial Release?

Self-myofascial release (SMR) is a practice that incorporates the use of specialized myofascial release balls to target the trigger points on the body, promoting a sense of mobility, release, and restructuring of fascia or connective tissue.

Fascia is one continuous connection of tissue that exists in the body from head to toe. It connects, protects, fills space, communicates, and interrelates to everything within the body. Fascia also has a tendency to get restricted or wound tight, and in some cases may even cause pain in the body. This can have many adverse effects. Mobility is the key to maintaining optimal health in our tissues. Whether or not you are pregnant, SMR improves range of motion and circulation, relieves pain, and encourages relaxation.

Self-Myofascial Release Practice for Pregnancy

The following practice is for women in any stage of their pregnancy who have been cleared for exercise by their doctor or medical practitioner.

You will need: A blanket, a block, a bolster, and two tennis balls or myofascial release balls. The support of a wall is always encouraged. Please remember to stay hydrated throughout the practice.

Three Reasons to Practice Side Plank

 for Yoga International goes over why you should consider replacing the plank in your practice with a side plank. Then, she demonstrates seven variations on the side plank to keep your practice fresh.

Three Reasons to Practice Side Plank Instead of Plank

Plank, which is integral to vinyasa practice, is a powerful pose with an array of benefits, but it targets muscles on the front of the body that are often already strong, short, or easy to engage. In contrast, side plank (vasisthasana) helps us to access muscles that tend to be neglected—not just in yoga but also in daily life.

The muscles utilized in plank include the pectoralis majors (chest), anterior deltoids (fronts of the shoulders), recti abdomina (superficial abdominal muscles), and quadriceps. There’s nothing wrong with strengthening these muscles, but for most of us, activities like walking, running, and cycling, and yoga postures like chaturanga (four-limbed staff pose), the warriors, utkatasana (chair), and navasana (boat pose) take care of that.

Muscles Used by Side Plank

Side plank, however, activates muscles that tend to be underused in our daily lives, including the following:

• The infraspinatus and teres minor (posterior shoulder) muscles, which externally rotate the upper arm bones, drawing the heads of the shoulders away from the chest.

• The internal and external oblique abdominals, which help us twist and side bend.

• The transverse abdominis (or TVA) muscles, our deepest abdominal muscles, which hug in around the waist to reduce load on the spine.

• The quadratus lumborum (QL), muscles that provide key lateral support for the lumbar spine.

• The glutei medii and minimi, our main hip abductors and crucial lateral stabilizers for the pelvis.

Each of these muscles plays an important role not just in movement but also in joint support and stability. Since we have far fewer opportunities to activate these muscles and thus strengthen them, it’s worth replacing a few of our regular planks with side planks in order to do so.

1. Better Balance

When we shift from plank into a side plank, we reduce our contact with the floor, making it more challenging to balance. The extra effort required to balance teaches us to engage deep stabilizing muscles around our spine, hips, and shoulders, a lesson which brings powerful benefits both on and off the mat.

First, the deep and subtle muscular support that we cultivate in side plank has the potential to reduce wear and tear on our key joints. Further, balance work also awakens neuromuscular connections that allow us to move with more grace and control and fosters mental clarity and focus. The more often we challenge our balance, the better it becomes—and the more easily we retain our equanimity when faced with the challenges of life.

2. Healthy Posture

Sitting, standing, walking, running, rowing, biking—most of our daily activities recruit the same front body muscles as plank pose. And as these muscles shorten from repeated use, we are drawn into a postural slump—the head juts forward, the spine and shoulders round, and the chest hollows.

But while plank contracts the same muscles that create our slump, side plank encourages us to use our strength to target important and beneficial muscles like the TVA and QL (both vital supports for the lumbar spine) and glutei medii (key stabilizers for the pelvis). Good alignment in side plank also engages posterior shoulder muscles, including the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles, which draw the heads of the arm bones back to sit centrally in the shoulder socket, opening the chest. Put these actions together, and we find ourselves standing taller and more upright, with muscular support that helps us to maintain neutral positions in the spine and shoulders.

3. Variety!

In today’s sedentary world, we rarely stray from facing forward with our arms in front of us: Just think about how much of your waking day is spent sitting at a computer, using your phone, or driving. Yet our soft tissues thrive on variety—diverse positions, movement speeds, and loads. So, any time we can swap out an often repeated position, like plank, for something less familiar, we reap the benefit of stronger and more resilient muscles and fascia.

Every pose in yoga has its benefits, but when it comes to rebalancing the impact of modern life, some poses are more helpful than others. Side plank creates greater stability for the shoulders, hips, and spine, and allows us to opt out of our habitual pattern of rounding forward. That’s why it’s well worth adding more variety into your yoga practice by replacing a few of those regular plank poses with side planks.

Seven Side Plank Options

Experiment with these side plank options to build deep core and side body strength. If you’re using side plank instead of plank in a standard vinyasa, you may only have a breath or two to hold the pose, but it’s well worth holding it for a longer period when you have the time. Outside of your vinyasa practice, aim to build up to holding a static side plank option for up to a minute, or to moving through a dynamic version eight to ten times. And be sure to do the pose on both sides!

1. Side Plank on Your Knee

Bringing your bottom knee to the mat reduces the balancing challenge and thus the core strength required to hold the pose, allowing you to focus on fine-tuning the alignment in your bottom shoulder and activating the gluteus medius on your bottom hip.

2. Forearm Side Plank

Using your bottom forearm as a base eliminates stress on your wrist and gives you a larger surface area for support without sacrificing any of the core or side body activation.

3. Side Plank Push-ups

Keeping the head of your supporting arm firmly centered in the shoulder socket, allow your hips to lower toward the mat, bringing your top arm down by your side. Then powerfully contract the side body closest to the floor to lift your hips up toward the ceiling, sweeping your top arm overhead. This is a great way to reinforce shoulder stability while building your obliques, QL, and glutei medii.

4. Side Plank Scoops

Try these to pinpoint your obliques. Hug the head of your supporting shoulder back into the center of its socket. Keeping your hips facing the side wall, scoop your top arm under your waist so that your chest turns partway down toward the mat, contracting the side waist that’s closer to the mat. Then contract your top side waist to sweep the top arm back up toward the ceiling and return your chest to face the side wall.

5. Top Leg Lift

Lifting your top leg engages the glutei medii of both hips—the side of your bottom leg engages to keep your hips lifted, and the side of your top leg engages to lift the leg against the resistance of gravity.

6. Bottom Leg Lift

Like the abducting glutei medii, our adductors (inner thigh muscles that aid pelvic stability), also generally get short shrift in daily life. Removing the support of your lower leg by bending the knee and lifting it toward your chest shifts the workload to the adductors of the top leg, which are now forced to engage to keep your hips lifted.

You’ll feel the effort in the adductors and hip flexors of your bottom leg too; try straightening the lifted leg at a 90-degree angle to your hips to add to the challenge.

7. Wild Thing (Camatkarasana)

From side plank, retract your bottom shoulder blade so that your chest starts to turn toward the ceiling. Bend your top leg to set your toes on the floor behind your bottom leg, in line with your knee or lower thigh. This variation reduces the balance aspect of side plank, but adds a juicy chest opener. Sweep your top arm overhead to add to the chest and side body stretch.

You can follow your top arm with your gaze, but when you want to exit the pose, it helps to look at your supporting hand to create stability as you transition back to side plank.

Article courtesy of Yoga International

Yoga Sutras: Finding a Balance of Energy

 for Yoga Medicine dives into the Yoga Sutra texts, and explores the concept of the Guanas, and how we should always be striving for balance.

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The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Learning to Find Balance

Most dedicated yogis have come across The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali at some point during their journey through yoga. The text is introduced in most 200-hour training, but we rarely get a chance to really dig into it. Often because there’s so much for us to learn as yoga teachers in the making. We usually just end up giving it a quick glance before turning our attention to what feels most challenging in our studies, like sequencing, anatomy, or even our own physical practice.

On top of that, there are so many things that might concern us on the way to getting our certificates. Are we going to say something silly during our teaching exam? Will we forget the difference between rectus abdominis and rectus femoris on our final test? And will we ever be able to wrap our tongues around the 1008 names of asanas? In this situation, memorizing a bunch of philosophical terms in Sanskrit might feel less relevant to us and our students than actually figuring out how to get them safely through their asana practice.

So when it comes to the study of yoga philosophy, we often have a vague idea that the Yoga Sutras is a text about eight limbs of yoga. And that sounds a lot like the Ten Commandments. This means that as long as we don’t steal, lie or sleep around (too much) we’re probably not that far off the yogic path. However, while following the eight limbs is definitely a great place to start if we want to embrace a way of life that feels like yoga, the text has a lot more to offer.

The Text & Its Message

A sutra means a thread. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali could be said to be a weaving of threads that form a tapestry on how to approach the world if we want to find balance. The definition of yoga according to the text might surprise you.  Or it might if you have an understanding of yoga that’s been colored by social media.

Patanjali’s definition of yoga has nothing to do with being really great at handstands. It doesn’t have anything to do with having thousands of followers on Instagram or even the coolest collection of yoga pants. Although, that might be because yoga pants weren’t a thing back then. The classical definition of yoga, mentioned in the second verse of the Sutras, is simply that yoga happens with the cessation of the turnings of the mind.

Or to rephrase it in language that’s a little less opaque: Yoga happens when we find our stillness.

From that point on, the entire text is more or less a description of how to arrive at that stillness.

Or, rather, how to realize that it has been with us all along.

So to return to the eight limbs that we’re all familiar with: if we find ourselves not following them from time to time, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to end up in some yogic hell, where we can’t receive shipments from Alo Yoga, our hamstrings will never lengthen and the Instagram app won’t download. It simply means that reaching a state of yoga is going to be that much harder.

One of the great beauties of the Sutras is that it’s an extremely undogmatic text. Yoga can be approached from numerous directions, according to Patanjali. And none of them are necessarily better than the others.

The World’s Energy

In my own practice, one of the most useful ideas has been that of the gunas. Or, to make it less esoteric: that the world is made up of energy. Which means that all there really is to the ever-changing material world all around us and in us (also known as “life”) is energies in a perpetual dance. Gunas acting on gunas, to paraphrase my teacher, Richard Freeman. That doesn’t mean that we’re subjected to these energies with no possibility to affect our own destiny. It means that if we learn to recognize them, we can have a say in how they unfold.

Especially to non-yogis (and maybe even to secularly minded yogis) talk of energies might feel uncomfortably new-agey. But the Yoga Sutras aims to describe the world exactly as it is as well as how we perceive it. To add a few nerdy terms, it’s thus both an ontological text (about what is) as well as an epistemology (about how we perceive what is), which simply means that it was probably considered to be a scientific endeavour at the time it was written down. So the idea of the gunas came from a very close study of the world unfolding at a time when microscopes had not yet been invented.

How are the gunas described in the Sutras? The text bases its ontology on the philosophical system called Samkhya Yoga, where we meet the idea of the gunas for the first time. The gunas are rajas, tamas, and sattva, often translated respectively as action, inertia, and balance.

The Three Guanas

As Western readers, when we are presented with a list like this, it’s normal to add value to the terms. We are so used to thinking in dichotomies of positives and negatives (i.e. good/evil, beautiful/ugly, young/old), that it can be hard, even on the subtlest levels, to not add value to the gunas. Doesn’t action sound a little bit better than inertia? And isn’t balance what we should be striving for all the time?

So, if you really want to integrate the idea of the gunas in your understanding of life and yoga, it’s important to keep reminding yourself that they’re just energies. Neither positive nor negative, but simply present to varying degrees during different stages of our lives. To make this even clearer, I like to compare the gunas to the Taoistic idea of yin and yang that we’re probably all familiar with.

Guanas & Taoist Ideas

If we know even a little bit about Chinese Medicine, we know that yin can’t exist without yang, and yang can’t exist without yin – like the sunny side of a hill can’t exist without the side that’s in shadow. And where we might find a balance between the two (sattva, broadly speaking, in yogic terminology) from time to time, constant balance is probably not possible or even all that interesting.

To pair this analogy with the gunas, the rajas is yang and tamas is yin. Imagine the very first weeks of a love affair. The butterflies in your stomach, your heart beating faster when you receive a text from your lover, the pure excitement of simply being together that makes it hard to sleep when you’re in each other’s arms. The devastating heartbreak when you’ve had your first fight and you fear that this might be the end of you as a potential couple. But then comes reconciliation and the world is once again a place of pure beauty and delight. So while you might not feel either in balance or in complete control of yourself when you fall in love, would you really want to exchange all that for perpetual equanimity?

Energies Change

As the love affair progresses over the years, a third, tiny person might join you. Which might mean that your main energy is pretty tamasic. Partly because your sleep cycle is disturbed by breastfeeding, diaper changes and the general lack of interest in sleep that babies seem to have at night. But no matter how exhausted you are, deep in your heart, you know that you wouldn’t swap it for well-rested balance if it meant not having your bundle of cuteness smiling at you at 3 am in the morning.

So one of the secrets to playing along with the gunas is simply to figure out what energy is predominant at any point in your life and how you might approach it. While you might go a little over-the- top rajasic bordering on slightly crazy when you fall in love, you can balance your rajas with a much needed sattvic meditation practice for a great yogic approach. So instead of following your butterflies around, you’ll start noticing if you’re falling into patterns that have gotten you in trouble in the past.

Or if you’re collapsing from lack of sleep because your baby is teething, you might decide that now is not the time to worry about your abs even if society demands that you look like a runway model four weeks after giving birth. A few easy, comfortable yin poses to release tension and a good long shavasana will be a perfect way not to fight your tamas, but instead embracing it’s nurturing qualities.

Learn to Balance with your Asana

The interesting thing about how we approach our asana practice in the light of the gunas is that we often tend to do more of what we already have enough of in our lives instead of what might help us create new and more sustainable patterns.

We tend to practice quite hard if we’re caught up in a rajasic cycle. Or if we simply have a tendency towards rajas. And while we might not change our practice from Hot Power Flow to restorative yin every time we unroll our mats, understanding how nourishing a quiet practice can be from time to time to balance the intensity of modern society is a great way for us to support ourselves. And Conversely, if we tend to be drawn towards quiet, contemplative practices, our system might benefit from adding strengthening asanas and flows that create circulation to our practice, so that we find the energy to go out and make a difference in the world through our kind, quiet approach.

A great way to get started doing that work is simply to start noticing the world as energy. So that you can figure out how your particular energy at any given moment fits into the dance that is life.

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