Join in as Yoga Medicine Teacher and Clinical Psychologist Diane Malaspina walks you through 4 steps to reduce stress, a process for quieting a chaotic mind. In just 4 minutes, we will work on calming meditation techniques that will work effectively towards stress reduction by focusing on breath, amongst other meditation techniques:
Focus on breathing techniques for stress reduction and notice how it connects to emotions.
Gratitude meditation: develop a sense of gratitude by bringing to mind qualities, circumstances, people, that evoke gratitude and then connecting to a state of feeling with gratitude.
Intention meditation: setting an intention to guide the day and to affirm existing qualities
Letting go of negative thinking, attitudes, or behaviors that aren’t serving.
A regular meditation and mindfulness practice like this one helps alleviate the mind from worries and negativity and is a great tool for stress management. Studies have shown that meditation is effective in managing chronic stress as well and everyday stressors that may arise at home, with family, at work, etc.
If you’re ready to test your physical and mental strength while exploring yoga in a deeper form, you may want to consider a daily practice of Ashtanga yoga. Known as one of the more strenuous types of yoga, this ancient practice has been challenging yogis for decades.
To find out why Ashtanga yoga is such a popular practice, we asked a few seasoned instructors to share the ins and outs of Ashtanga yoga, including the many health benefits it offers. So, if you’re ready to give this highly structured, physically demanding style of yoga a try, check out this Ashtanga Yoga 101 crash course, designed with beginners in mind.
What is Ashtanga yoga?
Developed by the late Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga is a vigorous style of yoga that incorporates set sequences or series of postures where the breath is linked with movement, according to Yoga Medicine® Therapeutic Specialist Diane Malaspina, Ph.D.
There are six levels of sequences or series in Ashtanga yoga, including the Primary Series, Secondary Series, and four levels of Advanced Series. A newcomer would typically begin with the Primary Series and progress once they’ve memorized and mastered the sequence.
The energetic nature of all of the series leads to a cleansing of the body through heat, which Malaspina says enhances circulation, improves joint pain, carries impurities away from the body, and builds strength. “As students progress through the series, strength and grace are cultivated, and breathing becomes more even, which purifies the nervous system,” she says.
The Ashtanga system emphasizes the Eight Limbs of Yoga as outlined in the Yoga Sutras, which Malaspina says serves as practices for living a meaningful life. This system inspires followers to adopt a daily practice of yoga.
What are the health benefits?
Ashtanga yoga is known for its ability to help students develop a routine of self-discipline and, eventually, their own daily practice. Additionally, many people choose Ashtanga for its physically demanding series of poses as well as the numerous health benefits that come from practicing this method of yoga. Here are six health benefits worth noting:
1. Improves breathing technique.
In Ashtanga, the postures are strung together with a breathing technique called ujjayi breathing—a textured audible inhale and exhale through the nose, says registered yoga teacher, andMINDBODY holistic wellness expert Christa Quattrocchi. Since each pose is held for five full breaths, Ashtanga yoga allows you to develop a deep level of awareness over your breathing.
2. Establishes mental strength.
Ashtanga is challenging, both physically and mentally. With the physical challenge of deep stretches, core strengthening, and inverted postures, Quattrocchi says the practice pushes you beyond your boundaries and into a space of mental perseverance. “It constantly reminds you that you are capable of much more than you realize,” she says.
3. Boosts psychological well-being.
Researchers have found that Ashtanga yoga can be used as an intervention to improve psychological well-being. According to a 2017 study published in Mindfulness, participants who took Ashtanga yoga classes two times a week for nine weeks reported significant improvements in both depression and anxiety symptoms.
4. Calms the nervous system.
“Ashtanga is a moving meditation focused on breath and precision,” says Quattrocchi. The rigorous sequence ends with savasana, or corpse pose, where your body can integrate all of the physical and mental feats. It’s here, she says, that the body can easily transition into “rest and digest” mode as the mind is quiet, and the body is prepared for stillness.
5. May help with bone formation.
A 2015 randomized controlled study published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found that an eight-month practice of performing two sessions a week of Ashtanga-based yoga had a small positive effect on bone formation in middle-age, premenopausal women.
6. Reduces lower back pain.
The Ashtanga Primary Series includes postures that stretch and strengthen lower back muscles. And since the same poses are executed each time you step onto the mat, Quattrocchi says you will continue to flex (and strengthen) these muscles, which may help reduce low-back pain.
How to practice?
To practice this style of yoga, Quattrocchi says you will first follow the Primary Series, which is comprised of four parts: sun salutations, a standing sequence, a backhanding sequence, and a finishing sequence. The poses are always practiced in this order and held for five full breaths.
During a class, Malaspina says a teacher will lead you through the sequences and provide guidance on alignment and offer hands-on assistance. After you memorize the sequence, you can join a Mysore-style class where you practice in the same room with other students but without a teacher leading—although, they may be present to offer encouragement.
To unify body, mind, and spirit, Ashtanga yogis integrate all three components of the practice, including vinyasa, or movement linked with breath; bandhas, or energetic locks that direct the energy of the subtle body; and drishti, a one-pointed focus, which Malaspina says centers the mind.
The system is a highly structured style of yoga, and as you progress, the poses become more challenging. That’s why Malaspina says it’s important to let instructors know about any physical limitations and to listen to your body. “Ask for modifications if you feel pain in any pose, and consider taking classes that are teacher-led prior to taking Mysore classes,” she says.
Who is Ashtanga good for?
If you’re looking to build strength and flexibility along with physical and mental endurance, consider trying Ashtanga yoga. However, since it is a very physically demanding sequence of poses, it may not be a great fit for yoga beginners.
That said, if you’re eager to get started but you’re new to Ashtanga yoga, Malaspina recommends beginning with the Primary Series. “This teacher-led class is a great place for new students since they often find the repetition helpful,” she explains. Plus, once you learn the series, you can practice at your own pace, in your own space.
Additionally, Quattrocchi stresses the importance of being self-motivated and thriving on structure as characteristics that may determine a good fit for Ashtanga yoga. “It requires a great deal of discipline and physical strength, so if you’re already active, this is a great way to introduce yoga into your routine,” she says.
The bottom line.
Yes, Ashtanga yoga does fit better with more advanced yogis and those looking to strengthen their practice, but that doesn’t mean newbies can’t benefit from the self-discipline, structure, commitment, and strength that are the cornerstones of this style of yoga.
And while it’s definitely not the easiest method of yoga to practice, with time, patience, and grace, you can learn to link your breath with movement and eventually fall in love with this transformative sequence.
When I started teaching at a prominent Silicon Valley corporation in 2017, I immediately noticed the intensity and achievement-oriented energy of many of the class participants. These students told me that they sought out yoga for life balance and centering, but I noted they were primarily offered (and also gravitated to) fast-paced vinyasa and power yoga sessions which reinforced an emphasis on speed, pushing oneself to the limit, and focusing on an end goal instead of the process. According to Boston Consulting Company, mindfulness boosts the potential for corporate agility initiatives and seamless transformations.1 It helps people to inspect and adapt their behaviors in short cycles, relax so that they can rewire established attitudes and think clearly in the midst of overwhelming digital stimuli. As yoga and meditation teachers, we are aware of the stress reduction and cognitive benefits of these practices, but how do these practices translate to a corporate environment?
The Questions Are:
How can we as teachers integrate mindfulness in a corporate environment that is often structurally resistant to slowing down in order to emphasize the present over the future and the value of the process over quantifiable results?
How can we retain the sacredness and tradition of the practice to minimize co-optation by such corporate imperatives and thereby maximize the benefits for our students seeking pain and stress reduction, tranquility and equanimity, and the building of community instead of isolation?
After repeatedly seeing that teaching asana alone often didn’t appear to enable students’ awareness of their achieving mindset and clinging mind, I was determined to integrate meditation into my corporate yoga classes.The Vinyasa workouts, for a significant portion of my clients, seemed to be more of what they experienced in their typical workday: rapid, goal-driven activity that perhaps exacerbated existing physical challenges such as wrist, neck, and back pain. Of course not every student approaches the practice this way, but it certainly was the undercurrent.
More and more students approached me with questions about nagging pained sleeplessness, and it was clear to me that more meditation and pranayama to help balance the nervous system would fill an apparent need, but providing a strong vinyasa flow was still expected.
There are clearly beginnings of a mindfulness infrastructure here in the Silicon Valley, the hub of technology and innovation. A September 2018 article in the Nation cites how many hours Americans now spend at work – a third of Americans work over 45 hours per week and nearly 10 million work over 60, nearly a 8% increase in time at work since 1979.2 These numbers are conservative for tech environments so incorporating mindfulness and meditation on the job seems not only appropriate but necessary.
Mindfulness has been appropriated by corporations as another productivity tool, but it also undeniably benefits the mental, emotional, and physical health of the individual practitioner as well as their work production. Thus,it behooves us to take advantage of the corporate receptivity to mindfulness programs in the current moment. Sara Lazar, a Neuroscientist at Harvard University, speaks to the benefits of meditation: “Results suggest that meditation can produce experience-based structural alterations in the brain. We also found evidence that meditation may slow down the age related atrophy of certain areas of the brain, helping you react less to stress and feel calmer and in more control.”3
Here are five suggestions for ways to incorporate more meditation and equanimity into your corporate-based classes:
1. Infuse research-based science in your classes and connect it to your class theme.
An example that I might reference is how the pre-frontal cortex has connections to other parts of the brain that help us cultivate positive emotion. This reference is from a recent Health and Wellness Company podcast where Richie Davidson explained, “ If we worry about the future and ruminate about the past – those are the kinds of things that can ensnare us and cause ulcers but we can also harness this potential to direct our minds on positive qualities and nurture human flourishing.”4
2. Short meditation as the students arrive to get them grounded and/or close with a meditation.
I often have students close their eyes and begin by observing their body and their whole body breathing. I encourage the awareness of what begins to arise, whether it’s images, incessant thoughts, sounds, or an uncomfortable emotion. Then come back to the focal point of the breath. Spend approximately 2-5 minutes, depending on the level of the class.
3. Create a sequence that weaves mindfulness into the movement together.
In this example, the focus of the asana could be any particular joint, balance, or breath while the cueing intermittently to weave your mindfulness touch-points as referenced below. The key is cueing reminders such as the nature of the mind to go back to the default network or how we can notice without judgment. Then return again and again to the ebb and flow of the breath.
4. Incorporate short mindfulness points during the sequence, especially when in a relaxing hip stretch, child’s pose, or a chest opener.
Refer back to the highlighted research on how the prefrontal cortex connects to other parts of the brain which helps us to access and sustain positive emotions.
5. Post Savasana
Close with a final point of how just even a few minutes of mindful breathing every day can help develop a habit that will shed positive light on ourselves and those with whom we come into contact.
The Results of Incorporating Mindfulness into my Corporate Classes
In my experience, after six months students commented that they enjoyed class because they felt “different.” They felt more connected to their bodies and in tune with their breath on and off the mat. Deploying language to help the students deepen their interoceptive awareness had an impact. One young programmer described how he struggled with chronic insomnia and back issues but after taking my classes he sleeps well, he notices what’s happening in his body and mind, and consequently doesn’t suffer from the same degree of nagging lower back pain from all his late nights on the computer. Although students were not coming to the class specificallyto meditate, they benefitted from the mindfulness practices that I integrated into the existing yoga class structure. Furthermore, many signaled curiosity in additional mindfulness and meditation by signing up for my newsletter, emailing me about the classes, happily providing me with testimonials, and attending the occasional community meditation events.
My goal in integrating meditation into the corporate yoga classes was to create something meaningful for this specific Silicon Valley audience and I believe that this approach applies to any other community in which clients want to develop a practice to deal with stress, improve their relationships, or discover more self-compassion.
After feeling some success, I have approach the Fitness and Wellness Director about adding meditation classes to all the fitness center locations and she agreed to incorporate this into the 2020 schedule! My next experiment will be to build a community of meditators with the high-tech clientele outside of Corporate Fitness Centers in the Valley, which will be the next part of this series of articles.
Yoga for lymph flow isn’t a common topic, but with so many superbugs and contagious diseases floating around these days, it’s pretty astounding that one of the most critical components of our immune system — the lymphatic system — is so seldom talked about. The lymphatics, as sort of the passive circulatory system of our immune system, is one of our most potent innate tools offering protection from the daily challenges our internal physiology meets. In addition to nutrition and sleep, yoga can be an effective and accessible tool to maintain a healthy lymphatic and immune system that doesn’t cost a lot of money or require any fancy products.
Why the Lymphatic System Is So Important
The lymphatic system is an essential component of our immune system that helps eliminate toxins and waste from the body. You can think of it as your clean-up crew. Our lymphatics are responsible for transporting waste and toxins out of the tissues back to the bloodstream and regulating the immune response as a local communication mechanism within the tissues. Your lymphatic system creates an essential link for the immune cells to both monitor and respond to signals to increase or decrease immune and inflammatory responses. This also helps protect the body from threats like infections, bacteria and cancer while balancing fluid levels.
The lymph nodes and vessels create a loose sort of webbing throughout the body, providing this vital immune support to every part. Lymph nodes are like little immune hubs found all over the body, but there are three areas that are most influential in mounting an immune response to foreign invaders that we can target in a yoga practice — the neck, armpit and abdomen.
The first two areas contain lymph nodes right under the skin, whereas the abdomen houses deeper lymph nodes throughout the digestive tract. These lymph nodes are important to help trap pathogens so the immune system can promote a defense response. However, research suggests that lymphatic flow is also an important part of a healthy immune response.
How Yoga for Lymph Support Works
An intelligently created system, the superficial lymph nodes are strategically congregated around the joints to allow the changes in pressure with movement to facilitate lymphatic flow through the nodes, bathing them in immune cells. The lymphatic system depends on this changing pressure to pump lymphatic fluid through the system with valves that keep fluids moving in one direction. The flow through these nodes is what drives our capacity to both mount an immune response and to sound the alarm for other needed immune cells.
Any sort of movement practice (gentle or vigorous) can act as an important pump for this system, however yoga can be especially helpful with its capacity to be both specific to these congregated lymph areas, regulating the breath as a pump and also helping to regulate stress which we know can dampen the immune response. Yoga adds in the component of gently compressing some of these more superficial lymph nodes to stimulate circulation of lymphatic fluid here.
The inversions add a powerful assist to the lymphatic flow of the extremities and torso that work against gravity. The use of diaphragmatic breath exercises and breath-centric movements in a yoga practice help to magnify the effects on the lymphatics as the diaphragm acts as a central pump for the deeper lymphatics.
Key Components of the Yoga for Lymph Support Practice
To create a yoga practice targeted to lymphatic system support, keep these components in mind. The first and probably the most important is to focus on deep, relaxed breathing throughout, as this creates the internal pump driving this more passive system. Another thing to keep in mind is that our purpose is creating superficial circulation under the skin, so it’s important that all of the movement and breathing be done with a sense of ease rather than actively pursuing strength or flexibility as you might in other yoga classes.
The series of poses below incorporates both traditional practices and movements inspired by research. This practice is done in a specific order that helps to support lymphatic circulation, starting by releasing tissues around the thoracic duct as the main outlet for this system, so there’s an exit pathway for this lymphatic flow. Then, we move down through the torso, work our way out to the extremities and end back where we started to encourage good lymphatic drainage at the thoracic duct under the clavicles.
As with any movement practice, these movements should be pain free. If not, back off or stop and consult your healthcare provider before continuing. Though these practices are relatively safe, if you have a known illness, injury, cancer, lymphedema or significant health concerns, it’s always best to contact your healthcare provider who knows your specific needs prior to starting a new routine such as this one.
A Home Practice to Support Your Lymphatic System
We’ll begin by freeing up the diaphragm as the central pump for our work here, something we’ll come back to during the practice. Start in a comfortable position on your back with your hands on your belly. As you inhale feel your belly expand and press into your hands, as you exhale feel your belly relax back toward the floor. Continue for 1 to 2 minutes, feeling your body drop back into the floor as you relax here.
Lymphatic Booster in Sukhasana (Easy Seated Pose)
This gentle, breath-guided movement helps to support lymphatic flow through the neck, under the clavicles and near the thoracic duct to free up the outlet for the lymphatics, creating an exit route for the toxins and wastes being eliminated through the lymph.
This is also a great one on its own to boost lymphatic flow around the nodes in the neck if you’re feeling a bit run down or start to feel a sore throat coming on.
This one takes some extra time to wrap your head around, but once you get the movement, it’s a simple and effective one to come back to.
Start in an easy cross-legged position. If this is difficult for you, try sitting on the edge of a pillow or bolster to elevate your hips. You can also sit on the edge of a chair with the feet flat on the floor.
Place your right hand on the floor or chair behind you, and your left hand somewhere along your right leg.
As you exhale turn your shoulders into a gentle twist to the right as you turn your head forward toward your left shoulder.
Stay here as you inhale lean your head back slightly to the left to feel a slight tug under the skin on the right side of the neck (to enhance this you can shrug your right shoulder down gently).
Stay for the exhale.
Inhale come back up to the starting position with your hands in the same place.
Repeat 5 times on one side, then repeat on the second side.
Interoceptive Belly Roll
This pose is helpful to stimulate the deeper lymph in the abdomen along with the diaphragm. Note: It’s not a traditional sphinx pose, so the legs are relaxed and elbows are underneath you anywhere that feels comfortable.
Begin by rolling up a towel to about 2 to 3 inches in diameter.
Place the roll across your yoga mat and lie on your belly with the roll across your belly. Make sure the roll is placed in the soft part of the belly, between the ribcage and pelvis.
Place your elbows on the floor anywhere that feels comfortable.
Inhale as you press the belly into the roll, exhale as you relax the belly and let the roll sink into the belly.
Repeat for 1 to 2 minutes, relaxing a little more with each exhalation.
Low-Lunge Lymphatic Pumping
This gentle movement is a great way to pump the lymphatics through the arms and chest to encourage a healthy lymphatic flow and immune response.
Start in low lunge with your back knee on the floor (feel free to put some padding under your knee here).
As you inhale, let your pelvis sink toward the floor as you take your arms out to the sides like a cactus and clench your fists, opening across the chest. (The key is making sure the hands reach above heart level as you clench the fist to pump lymph down the arms.)
As you exhale, release your hands and arms, relaxing them down by your sides as the hips come back.
Repeat 5 times moving slowly with the breath, then do the same on the second side.
Think gentle, easy movement with the fists clenching and releasing to drive the lymphatics.
This common yoga pose provides a gentle backbend to stimulate the deeper lymphatics in the torso, along with a mild inversion to encourage lymphatic flow and some gentle compression to the lymphatics of the neck.
Start on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor.
Gently lift your hips and spine off the floor to a comfortable height as you press down through the arms and shoulders to feel a gentle lift and opening through the chest.
If you’re comfortable here, you can clasp the hands behind your back to open the chest more.
Stay for 5 deep breaths, then slowly lower the hips to the floor.
Legs Up the Wall
Inversions are a great way to enhance lymphatic return back to the heart, an efficient way to support the lymphatics throughout the body.
To begin, roll a towel to about 3 to 4 inches in diameter.
Then, sit with one hip against the wall and your rolled towel nearby.
Carefully roll onto your back as you swing your legs up the wall.
Find a comfortable distance from the wall so your legs can easily rest on it.
Bend your knees and place your feet on the wall so you can lift your hips enough to place the roll under your pelvis there.
Then rest your pelvis on the roll and extend your legs up the wall to relax there.
Stay for 3 to 5 minutes, using your exhalations to help relax.
Supine Reclined Twist
Twists are a great traditional way to stimulate lymphatics through gentle compression. This one targets the thixotropic quality of the connective tissue in a gentle movement. Thixotropic means that the connective tissue becomes more liquid with movement and more viscous as we become sedentary. Since the lymph lives in the connective tissue, this more liquid environment allows for better lymphatic flow.
Begin on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor.
Walk your feet a little wider than your hips. As you exhale, let your knees gently swing to the right like a windshield wiper, keeping your feet on the floor.
Let the inhale come back in naturally as the legs come up.
Then exhale swing the knees to the opposite side. As you continue, allow there to be as little effort as possible.
If you’re happy here, find a little momentum in the movement as you move more quickly (but still effortlessly).
Repeat for 2 minutes, then extend the legs for savasana.
Take a few minutes in a still savasana to take it all in and allow your body time to absorb the effects here.
Final Thoughts on Yoga to Support Your Lymphatic System
Yoga can be a simple, accessible way to support your lymphatics.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing acts as a pump for the deeper lymphatics.
Simple movements create changes in pressure around the joints where the lymph nodes congregate to drive lymphatic flow.
Simple breath-centric movements performed with ease can be a great way to encourage lymphatic flow.
Twists and simple inversions are an efficient way to support the lymphatics.
We often use myofascial release techniques to hydrate the tissues, for sore muscles and to promote good health but we can also use myofascial release to prepare for meditation. A common reason why people discontinue meditation practice is due to physical discomfort in the body. In this video, Diane Malaspina shares a short myofascial release sequence that she practices prior to meditation to prepare the body to feel open while sitting in meditation. The sequence includes myofascial release techniques for the neck (using the block) and MFR along the upper traps and paraspinals (2 MFR balls, block). After the practice, you can return to your seat to notice ease in your sitting posture.
Disclaimer: This is just one woman’s story and this content may be triggering for some. By no means am I trying to diminish how anyone else has been treated nor feels.
I rose from my bed after a night that changed my life forever. I would say I “awoke” but this was a sleepless night filled with adrenaline, guilt, shame, fear, and self-hate.
The night before, I was raped. By a friend. I was scared for my life and what was to come as he broke into my room and then the closet I was hiding in with what turned out to be a butter knife. I had my mother on speaker phone as she prompted me through God only knows what I said.
Miraculously, he left.
As I lay my head back on my pillow, I was full of adrenaline pumping through my veins with a heart rate well over 200 and no connection to my breath; but I remember closing my eyes and knowing it was all my fault.
I should have listened to my intuition. I should have locked my bedroom door. How could I be so stupid? Why does it take the worst of the worst to happen to realize how stupid it is not to listen to your intuition?
That last night, my low belly, my space of intuition, was screaming at me. My head told my belly to chill out, I’ve never locked my bedroom door in my life.
Lesson #1 – ALWAYS trust your body. It knows.
As I rose the next morning, I called my mamma back and before I knew it… I found myself in yoga clothes in my car, driving. To where? I had no idea; I just couldn’t be at my apartment.
I had gone to this particular Saturday morning yoga class the last 3 Saturdays since I moved to my new home in Nashville. I had no friends in this new city and nowhere to run; so my body went into routine mode.
I walked into the studio late but the teacher, with a huge smile on her face, was waiting for me (mind you, I didn’t even sign up online). There was one mat space left in the room, of course, in the middle of the front of the room (aka I had to walk past every single other yogi in there to get to my space).
So, with swollen eyes and an empty heart I held my mat as close to my face as possible and made my way to my space. Everyone was watching me (in reality, class was about to start, I’m sure everyone was in child’s pose… but it didn’t matter, everyone was watching, and everyone knew).
I took child’s pose and the rest is a blur. This was a Baptiste flow: powerful, vibrant, and energetic. The teacher never asked if we wanted assists or not… but it was expected at this particular studio.
I stayed in child’s pose, half crying, maybe breathing when it hit me, “why the &%!# did I come to yoga?! Am I really here right now?!” I was in the middle of the front row and embarrassed that everyone was “for sure” watching me, but I didn’t know if I could physically stand up or not.
Half-way through the class I heard Tree pose. “I got this,” I said to myself as I sluggishly rose from my mat for the first time. As I stood up, I almost passed out. Back into child’s pose I went.
Between tears, mental chatter, and wanting nothing more than to leave my physical body… I stayed – praying class was almost over, praying no one would ask me if I was “okay.”
Then it happened… the teacher came over and offered me a physical assist. Still in my child’s pose, she came and gently pressed my hips down. Never asking, not knowing and yet – that assist saved my life.
Quietly, I cried into my mat; but I was different. For, in that moment, I knew I was going to be okay. I knew this was not how I would feel forever. I didn’t know how or when, but I knew I was safe here: in this space, on my mat.
Looking back, had the teacher asked if I wanted to be assisted, I’m sure I would have said “no.” My mind would have wanted no part of someone to touch me. Anticipating being touched would have made me crawl out of my skin. And yet, to this day I will tell you that her assist saved my life. My physical body needed a safe touch to know not all touch is violent. My mat supported me as I felt everything from the night before leave my heart space and come into my physical body. Within less than 60 minutes of being on my mat after being assaulted – I had changed.
With everything going on in the yoga world with hands on assists and allegations/accusations/confessions of sexual assault, I am not here to diminish anyone else’s story. Simply, I am here to share mine.
So often men and women alike will listen to the news and take action to almost CYA (cover your a$$). In today’s world, I can absolutely see why yoga teachers are stepping back from offering physical assists.
I would love to challenge that. Offer a different story, a different perspective.
After that assist, after weeks of living with my sorrows trapped in a physical body and mind that I didn’t recognize, I joined a yoga teacher training. If nothing else I would get to be in my “safe space” for a little longer. Through my teacher training experience, we had a full weekend on learning safe physical assists. We offered assists and received assists and through it, I healed. I didn’t even want to hold my friend’s hand as she tried to console me, but yet I could receive an assist from a classmate whom I had met only a few times.
The difference, for me, was the intention. My friend trying to hold my hand was tiptoeing around me, trying to heal me. My classmate’s intention was to help me dive into my body and in turn, help me rediscover the parts of myself that I was neglecting – the parts that needed healing.
After that assisting weekend, I was able to share my story, share my journey. I did it through very ugly tears, but it was the first time I was able to share it fully. In that I had to relive my story. But because of my yoga practice, I could disassociate from that. I am not the chatter in my head. I am not the aches in my body from holding onto all of my tension. I am not my rape.
I was able to embody what happened to me, fully feel it and through that – I was able to let it go. It didn’t happen all at once. But it happened. One yoga class after another I was able to release, surrender. This transformation was through holding strength-based postures, the introduction of new ways of breathing (for me, ujjayi breath helped me stay out of my negative thought patterns and in the present moment), balancing postures helped me ground daily, and savasana and meditation aided the recognition of where I held onto self-resentment, hatred, and embarrassment. And most of all, through giving and receiving physical assists. I felt my teacher’s and peers’ intentions as they guided me towards healing – never forcing or fixing – just offering me the space to explore my physical body in different postures and in turn, challenge my mind and emotions there too.
My yoga practice healed my internal wounds of sexual assault.
So, yoga teachers, know that you have a very vast and important job: you are healing internal and external wounds. I’m not advising to not ask for consent, definitely do. But an assist that I truly didn’t know that I needed saved my life, my spirit, and restored my belief in the divine.
Yogi’s with internal wounds and scars, open yourself up to the possibility that what you think you don’t want, may be exactly what you need – especially if your love language is physical touch like mine. How often in life do we shy away from or avoid exactly what you need in order to heal?
For all the men and women that have been affected by poorly given and/or poor-intentioned assists, my love and condolences go out to you. I pray that you heal, love and receive physical love again on and off your mat.
And I pray that through your yoga practice, whatever it may look like, you recognize and honor the highest version of yourself. For you are in there. May you use your practice to bloom, deepen your understanding of yourself and rise into your highest power once again.
Working as a breast cancer surgeon often leads me into the most feared and intimate moments when I say the words, “the biopsy shows that you have breast cancer.” I purposely chose the word “intimate” because being in that moment with the patient will forever change her inner landscape in relation to herself, her “body home,” and her future. This encounter will be the first opportunity to intercede on her behalf to hold space for these words.
In the moments of speaking about a potential life-threatening diagnosis, neuroception is unconsciously employed, meaning that the patient’s neural circuits are wired to seek cue on the seriousness of the diagnosis within moments of our interaction.1 The impact from our meeting can leave long lasting imprints on the patient’s perceived outcome. I am aware of this potential and therefore, I share bad news with a patient-centered intent. Sensing how she is absorbing and processing the news, I break down terminology and speak clearly because I know that the foreign language of cancer can quickly lead to destinations such as surgery, radiation, and medical appointments discussing adjuvant treatments. She will undergo bodily changes, emotional adaptations, and mental constructs that now include the possibility of facing mortality.
The Start of a Winding Journey
A cancer diagnosis is the beginning of an unknown journey with no clear endpoint that can create fear, uncertainty, anxiety, and stress. Once cancer treatment has been completed, there is no guarantee of a wholly successful treatment that can lead patients into the territory of fear of cancer recurrence (FCR). FCR is a haunting emotion, thought, or preoccupying consequence of facing an illness with an unsure outcome. “FCR causes significant psychological distress and can manifest along different points of survivorship. It is most commonly begins at diagnosis or at key stress phases which include treatment adjustments, bodily changes, additional screening or testing, and even at the completion of cancer therapy. The never-ending concern that cancer can return is an insidiously haunting prospect.”2
Moderate to severe FCR, estimated to affect 49% of survivors, is described as experiencing frequent thoughts about cancer (greater than once/week) and FCR in the absence of triggers.3 Rumination and perceived negative thoughts about cancer recurrence can lead to a heightened stress response within the body, which can influence neuroendocrine function and immune functioning through the sympathetic nervous system.
Roughly 7% of people diagnosed with cancer will have debilitating FCR, whose beliefs become conviction that the cancer will return leading to suffering and death, with constant intrusion of thoughts and fears, and can interfere with daily functioning causing significant distress.4 These beliefs can lead to hyper vigilance with bodily symptoms leading to over estimation of risk, fearfully presenting as a sign of cancer recurrence, or even oppositional behavior like the avoidance of follow-up screening even if a suspicious physical change is apparent. They are constantly living in a sympathetic “fight or flight” mode, not allowing parasympathetic healing to occur.
On the other hand, mild FCR may inspire cancer patients to create positive lifestyle changes to improve health, find purpose and meaning. This can spur a patient to cultivate compassion for others, strengthen social relationships, better health maintenance and self advocacy – all of which contributes to an enhanced wellbeing and increased rates of long-term survival.
A Shift in Realization for Improved Outcome
There are currently 17 million cancer survivors in the United States.6 As cancer diagnoses increase in numbers and individualized treatments have helped prolong life after diagnosis, continuing wellbeing through survivorship will be key. It is important for healthcare providers to share empathy with patients regarding the life changes with a cancer diagnosis. There is a great and often missed opportunity to create change with a cancer diagnosis—a shift in realization that the fragility of life and health can inspire self-reflection, life purpose, and meaning.
Research has demonstrated that cancer survivors who seek out mind-body practices, such as yoga, find relief from their disease-related concerns and often forge a sense of autonomy over their personal health.7 Similarly, research on meditative movement practices, such as yoga and tai chi, demonstrate that cancer patients cultivate an ability to foster feelings of self-agency, coping with uncertainty, and developing trust in their body which translates into a sense of safety within oneself.8 Connection by grounding and landing in the body through yoga and meditative movements can foster a sense of oneness and awareness of a greater purpose.
Conclusions from a Breast Cancer Surgeon
As cancer is an unwelcomed intruder within the body, it often promotes deep seated fears regarding future suffering and possible mortality. Working as a breast cancer surgeon, it is an honor to have the trust of my patients to be their surgeon. However, I know that true healing occurs by feeling safe within oneself, and if that is harnessed, can lead to growth and an enriched future ahead. There is opportunity within great adversity for personal growth, and as a yoga teacher myself, I believe that holding space for the body to find sanctuary has deep value for healing. I have observed my cancers patients set deep intentions, and allow for feelings and sensation to arise through awareness and breath. This seems to help them to calm emotions and work through discomfort which allows for connection and trust to build within. As a breast cancer surgeon, yoga teacher, and the observer, I have great hope for my patients who use yoga and breathwork to harness the body’s wisdom to true healing.
In 2020, there will be an estimated 2.2 million people living with an amputation in the United States.1 Among those living with limb loss, the main causes are vascular disease including diabetes and peripheral arterial disease (54%), trauma (45%), and cancer (less than 2%).1 A study done in 2008 found that nearly half of the individuals who have an amputation due to vascular disease will die within five years which is higher than the five-year mortality rates associated with breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer.2These startling statistics indicate that this special population faces immense physical, mental, and emotional challenges and yet these individuals are widely under-represented among yoga practitioners. Although participating in yoga asana can be very challenging for amputees, simple modifications can open the door to a life changing modality. Continue reading to find out how you can get involved as a yoga instructor and what you need to take into consideration when working with this population.
Before you reach out to potential amputee clients, you need to seriously ask yourself if you are a good fit for working with this population. Safety is especially important for these clients, so these questions will help you gauge whether or not you’re prepared:
Are you familiar with chair yoga techniques?
Are you knowledgeable of how to assist a client who needs to use a wall for support in even the most basic poses?
Are you physically strong enough to help individuals of varying capabilities move in all directions?
Are you comfortable discussing and addressing emotional health?
If your answer to any of these questions is “NO,” this does not mean you can never work with these amazing clients. It just means you may need more time to prepare. If you answered “YES” to all of these questions, it’s time to find your first amputee client!
Connecting with Clients
Sometimes it can be challenging to find people in this demographic that are interested in yoga because they’ve always thought yoga wouldn’t be accessible to them. I’ve found success with reaching out to support groups, asking current clients and students if they know anyone that would be interested in your services, and offering free or donation-based workshops. Simply putting the word out there will launch you in the right direction.
Working with Your Client
To protect and fully support our students, we need to be adaptable to their ever changing needs. In my experience, starting with a detailed evaluation of posture, daily mobility, and mental health is key to fully understanding their current situation. Continue to evolve your approach as your student’s needs change. Do not assume that your student wants to use their prosthesis during their practice or that you can address the “same” prosthetic condition the same way. Every single body and mind are different, so you must treat every client individually.
Here are three considerations I’ve found useful to keep in mind while creating a program for an amputee client.
First, every amputee has been through some type of trauma in association to the limb loss. If you don’t address the mental aspect of the condition, then you are leaving out a huge portion of their healing journey. It may be weeks before they are ready to move through any yoga asanas.
Second, limb loss will cause imbalances in their posture. This is a great place to start once they are ready to be mobile in your sessions. Focus on level hips and shoulders with healthy spinal curves.
Third, myofascial release can be a game changer! Traditional stretches may be limited or not very useful. Try using myofascial release for a targeted approach. Furthermore, myofascial release can be beneficial in the beginning stages before movement is accessible.
Preparing for the Unknown
Throughout your journey together, you will navigate territory that is new to you and often your client. Be patient, caring, and ask their opinion. As an amputee, your client will be very aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, they are a wealth of knowledge during these roadblocks. Ask for feedback on how they are feeling and what is not working – ask early and often! Armed with this knowledge, you will be able to continually modify their program to maintain their gradual progress.
When dedicated care is provided and modifications are explored, big changes can happen! Working with the amputee community has been some of the most rewarding and challenging work I have ever done as a Yoga Medicine Therapeutic Specialist. Their condition may be physical, but the practice of yoga can improve many aspects of their life well beyond the physical.
Ziegler‐Graham K, MacKenzie EJ, Ephraim PL, Travison TG, Brookmeyer R. Estimating the Prevalence of Limb Loss in the United States: 2005 to 2050. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 2008; 89(3):422‐9.
Robbins JM, Strauss G, Aron D, Long J, Kuba J, Kaplan Y. Mortality Rates and Diabetic Foot Ulcers. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association2008 November 1, 2008; 98(6):489‐93.
Cranio-Sacral Rhythms Hold a Link to Therapeutic Yoga
The growing desire of our students to become self-healers has shifted teachers’ focus into slower flows and yin style classes to create a space for students to unwind, draw inward, and ride the wave of their breath. What if we could do more than speak to awareness and help create therapeutic shifts in how our students perceive pain, work through suffering, and connect with their nervous system?
The foundation of this technique resides in the power of the cranio-sacral connection. The founder of Osteopathic Medicine, A.T. Still, discovered that the connection between the cranium and sacrum held a key to deeper understanding in human health.1 Still compiled this into an article to shed light on how yoga teachers can employ concepts of Osteopathic cranio-sacral motion into a simple therapeutic yoga practice. The many complexities of this concept requires an understanding that this practice is only an entry point into this methodology.
Cranio-Sacral Rhythm (CSR) is a subtle two-phase movement occurring throughout the body. Cranio-sacral motions consist of a flexion stage and extension phase. During the flexion phase, the cranium widens transversely, the sacral apex moves anteriorly (nutation), and the extremities rotate externally. During the extension phase, the cranium narrows in the transverse dimension, the sacral apex moves posteriorly (counter-nutation) and the extremities rotate internally.2 The flexion and extension are most apparent in the cranium and the sacrum. The teacher within me wanted to relate flexion and extension to pranayama and yoga but the mechanical motion does not always match the cranial rhythm. Instead, I focused on cardinal movements of the sacrum and began exploring how nutation and counter-nutation impacted the autonomic nervous system.
By observing an osteopathic physician treat patients using Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT), I was able to dig a little deeper into how I could modulate yoga postures to impact this rhythm. The physician explained that patients treated by an osteopathic physician through OMT rely not only on the cranial movement and an associated rhythm, but also with an ability to palpate that movement and rhythm. Treatment proceeds by mobilizing the cranial bones, the sacrum, and the dural tube. OMT helps facilitate the release of restrictions that may inhibit the functioning of the cranio-sacral system— the fluid membranes that surround the brain, spinal column, and nerves. These fluid membranes or sheaths of connective tissue around the nervous system and the brain, and in between those sheaths and the neurons themselves there is cerebrospinal fluid that absorbs shock, nourishes, and supports the nervous system.3
It became easier to envision the cerebral-spinal fluid mimicking an ocean tide and the cranio-sacral motion acting as a gravitational pull of the sun and moon. Osteopaths dial into the rise and fall of these tides in treatment. The tides and their pull impact the entire structural system of the human body, ultimately influencing its function.
Modulating the Nervous System Through Yoga
Three areas in which we, as teachers, can influence the autonomic nervous system are through the parasympathetic nervous system, the sympathetic chain ganglia, and the cardinal movements of the sacrum (nutation and counter-nutation.) By layering in pranayama we can accentuate the innate motions of the cranio-sacral rhythm.
A direct impact on the parasympathetic nervous system is experienced through the subocciput. The vagus nerve, the largest parasympathetic nerve in the body, originates proximally to this area and is influenced by the amount of tension occurring in the suboccipital region. By adapting a myofascial release technique in the subocciput to focus on the oculo-cervical reflex we can induce subtle muscular activation to enhance the release of this posture.
The other contributor to the autonomic nervous system is our sympathetic chain ganglia. Located on the rib angles and along either side of the spinal cord, the afferent (bring information to the brain) and efferent (sending information from the brain) nerve bodies regulate the flight or fight response. By placing two yoga blocks 1-2” apart in supported fish, or matsyasana, we can evenly distribute the applied pressure to the sympathetic chain ganglia. The result is a more direct influence on the sympathetic nervous system.
In order to completely address the parasympathetic nervous system and create a pathway through the entire spinal column we can take advantage of the cardinal movements of cranio-sacral motion (nutation/counter-nutation). These movements are created through the dura of the brain. This tough sheath that surround the brain and spinal cord attaches at the base of the skull, foramen magnum, and upper cervical vertebrae. Another firm attachment is the second sacral segment and then the tailbone self via filum terminal. Through this very hard mechanical connection you can influence by changing how we move in easy pose, sukasana, in what I call the Double Block Sacral Release.
For this modification, we add two blocks with a 1-2” gap between them just as we did in supported fish. The use of the double blocks and the firming of the sit bones on them allows for more dedicated sacroiliac/sacral motion. One notation that may be helpful when working with students is awareness of the amplitude in lifting the chest and hollowing the body. By keeping these movements small, almost invisible to the eye, it brings the focus to the superior cranial rhythmic actions rather than the postural (mechanical) axis.
Moving through this practice, we ride the cranio-sacral rhythm from the subocciput to the sacral release. This allows my students to move through some of the areas of greatest muscle restriction and tension in the body to ultimately settle into the quieter motions of cranio-sacral rhythm. Here, I have found that supported savasana provides the deepest connection to the more subtle sensations of respiration and muscular release. Giving space for extended savasana has proven the most beneficial to my students. Remember that cranio-sacral movements and releases can be fine-drawn but their impact on the autonomic nervous system is deeply therapeutic in practice.
1. Double Block Subocciput Release with Oculo-Cervical Reflex [Parasympathetic]
Set-up: Place two blocks into a “V” shape with the ends closest to the head elevated using a small wedge or weight to secure the blocks.
Lie down on your back and place the base of your skull onto the blocks. Bend your knees so they start in a knee-knock pose.
For more intensity you will extend your legs out.
Once you position take 3 deep breaths in through the nose and out through mouth to clear out any extra energy.
Muscular Activation: To start the release you will work through several positions of the eyes. Imagine a compass when moving your eyes. (North, South, East, West).
Take 5 slow breaths in/out through the nose with your eyes gazing in one direction. Repeat this process until you have gone up, down, right, left.
Conclude with gazing up at the ceiling for 5 breaths, then softly closing your eyes.
Allow 3-5 minutes in this pose.
2. Double Block Supported Fish [Sympathetic Chain Ganglia]
Unlike traditional supported fish you will orient your blocks in a vertical fashion with a 1-2” gap between the blocks. This leaves space for the spine.
Lie down on your back. Place the base of your shoulder blades on the bottom of the blocks and lean back. You can place your head on a third block to make yourself more comfortable or a bolster.
Find a comfortable position for your legs either in knee knock pose or savasana Allow 4-5 minutes in this posture.
Placing the sit bones firmly on the blocks with 1-2” between them to give space for the sacrum to move you will begin by placing your right pointer finger on your chin.
As you breath in draw your chin in and as you exhale extend the chin forward. Both motions are barely noticeable.
Layer in the pranayama with your movement. Breathe in, draw your chin back. Breathe out, your chin slides forward.
Drop your hands down to rest on your knees and add the final movement. As you breathe in, draw your chin back and lift your chest and create a small cow pose as the sacrum moves into nutation. Then as you exhale, extend your chin forward, and arch your back just enough that the sacrum begins to move into counter-nutation.
Continue this sequence for 2-5 minutes. Slow, focused breaths in/out through the nose.
Place on block on its highest height at the back of the mat.
Place a second block 6-8” away from the first block on a medium height.
Lay your bolster over the blocks.
Bring your low back to the edge of the bolster and keep your knees bent.
Lean back and allow your spine to rest comfortably on the bolster.
Slowly extend one leg at a time and extend your arms out.
Stay as long time allows or a minimum of 5 minutes for a full body release.
DeStefano, Lisa A. (2017). Cranial Technique. Greenman’s Principles of Manual Medicine (4, 159-161).
Beal, Myron C. (1992). The Principles of Palpatory Diagnosis and Manipulative Technique. American Academy of Osteopathy, (2-4).
Waters, K., DO, (2019, October). Personal Interview
Yoga Medicine®’s is a trademark used to identify products and services offered, related to the study and practice of yoga. None of these products or services involve the practice of medicine or take the place of medical consultation. We urge you to consult a physician or other health care professional of your choice before undertaking any form of exercise, including yoga, to make sure that it is safe and appropriate for you.
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.
Choose the information you want to receive. You will only receive emails about the topics you select below, check as many as you like. We typically send our newsletters 2-3 times each month, plus information about any training that you’ve enrolled in.
We respect you and your inbox. We will never share your information.