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Month: April 2021

A Beginner’s Guide to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offer a succinct reference outline for the practitioner of yoga to mark their progress in their unique spiritual experience. It’s a really comprehensive list of aims with which we can discover our Self in this world. If we see the world and all beings in it as one with our Self, then we can potentially be free from suffering and find even more freedom in remembering who we are – really.

You could think of the Yoga Sutras as a reference book to pick up and find whichever Sutra may be more relevant in our lives at that moment. Sometimes we can read a whole book and remember a fraction of the content or misread something over and over again, but the information only reveals itself when we’re actively seeking knowledge in the context of life’s demands.

One of the beautiful things about Patanjali’s writings is that they provide a unified multifaceted container of principles for the many schools of yoga and can be an encouragement to the enlightened or to the diamond in the spiritual rough. The text is always there to help us polish our practice of yoga, and this is my humble summary of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Book One: Samadhi Pada – Contemplation

On starting a journey towards becoming a yogi, we have to at least be aware of how our perception and others’ perceptions have made an impression on how we make up our mind up about things, judge things and then make decisions or act based on these perceptions.

We may directly experience something for ourselves or trust in the recounting or hearsay from another whom we trust. We may also not know something as we think we do if we have wrongly perceived something. We may believe in something that simply is not fact. We may recall or recollect something, which as we know, can be selective.

It is the goal of the yogi to base perception on truth. This could mean that we are not to be influenced by external stimuli, wants or desires with the aim of hearing something, observing something and not drawing erroneous conclusions. It might mean to see something for what it is and not be swayed by a perceived connection or feelings of attachment.

We can strive to practice non-attachment in order to be free from influence and to steady the mind. This can become easier by balancing the Gunas, which are qualities of energy and represented by Tamas (darkness and chaos), Rajas (activity and passion) and Sattva (beingness and harmony). The eventual outcome might be to even become free from the Influence of the Gunas to reach a state of Samprajnata Samadhi or distinguished contemplation.

The practice of non-attachment may lead to Samadhi by total devotion and dedication to Isvara (Lord, God, Supreme Soul), which can be a theistic or non-theistic spiritual focus. Chanting the sacred sound of ‘Om’ in meditation can be an aid to blocking out all else to reach the Self.

Book Two: Sadhana Pada – Practice

In this book, Patanjali gives directions on how to lay the foundations for Samadhi by starting to build the layers brick by brick, and then to have your house in order to be ready to sit and receive. We can try to minimize and overcome obstacles to realize life for what it is and to let go of attachment and aversions by dissipating the ego through meditation.

The Karmas are our experience, present and future, determined by our actions. A constant fluctuation of the Gunas results from discrimination between this and that and what we may like at one moment and have an aversion to the next. Suffering can be avoided with steady practice of non-attachment balanced in the Gunas. We can also detach from our perceptions to try to be free from ignorance – less attachment, manipulation, and influence – to live our real truth.

Practicing the Eight Limbs of Yoga can ready the mind, body and spirit for Samadhi or the superconscious state. We can practice Pratipaksha Bhavan, to cultivate a positive thought every time a negative thought enters the mind, in order to manifest and experience supreme joy and self-realization. We can practice asana to ready the body to sit with concentration for meditation to withdraw the senses’ focus on the external world of stimuli and come into the Self.

Book Three: Vibhuti Pada – Accomplishments

This book outlines all of the accomplishments which can be achieved through the practice of yoga. These accomplishments are The Siddhis (supernatural powers, abilities, attainments) which can be cultivated by practicing the final three limbs of Raja Yoga: Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (complete integration).

Combining all three in the practice of Samyama can guide us towards the light of knowledge by steadying the continuous input of new information to the mind. Observing or being a witness to one’s Self through Samyama can lead to knowledge, insight and a powerful sense of Self. With more practice, the need to focus on external or mind object becomes unnecessary.

The final state of Samadhi is reached where nothing is needed. Observe the Self to know the Self and then ultimately to see the true light of the Self after the veil of external influence is lifted. Kaivalya (detachment) is the ultimate goal of Raja yoga and is achieved when the seed of attachment is gone. Of course, in life there are many necessary distractions and attachments and so we just visit the practice to come inward as a means to manage our connection with our Self.

Book Four: Kaivalya – Absoluteness

The final book brings everything together by explaining how the yogi’s state of being results in absoluteness. The Kaivalyam is the embodiment of the qualities of absoluteness and unlimitedness. The goals achieved by the practices of the Eight Limbs of Yoga and in particular the last three limbs, bring the yogi into an impressionless Karmic state resulting from a mind born of meditation. At this stage the yogi may not worry about death as the desire to live is eternal.

This book also explains the Karmic fate of those who do not take into consideration their life’s journey and actions in affecting their next life. Perhaps they will unintentionally repeat or perpetuate a scenario or manifest a less than desirable outcome.

If everyone perceives things differently and there is only one subject and one object, then we cannot rely on anyone else’s perception, and, at the very least, we should question our own.

We can only do this by practice and meditation.

What are the chances of the practitioner of yoga reaching these Cosmic Conditions? Practically speaking, we can learn, study, question, practice, meditate, live an all-encompassing absolutely limitless life of non-attachment, to the best of our ability and with the best of intention. It is for the practitioner of yoga to find their actuality in the theory.

Where to Begin

There are so many inspiring translations and interpretations for Patanjali’s great work in codifying a guide to daily life as a practitioner of yoga. It can be helpful to focus on a spiritual anchor to which you can relate and which holds true to you, as a starting point.

A suggestion would be to sit with one of the 196 Sutras which may be resonating with you in a particular moment and see what comes up. I hope at the least some introspection and a fair amount of liberation from suffering. Remember that only you can keep the spiritual reference books together with your own unique bookends of practice and intention for the ultimate aim of yoga – union.

If you’re interested in reading more extensively on this topic, please see:

  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Translation and Commentary by Swami Satchidananda, which talks the reader through the fascinating and beautiful Sanskrit written language.
  • Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Mukunda Stiles, which offers a concise and poetic rendition.

7 Holistic Well-Being Strategies For The Entrepreneurs

No one ever said being an entrepreneur was going to be easy. It is like walking in the Sahara desert alone and not a single footprint in front of you to guide the way. Yet there is an immense amount of purpose propelling you forward with each sand dune you cross.

As you reach a shaded palm to regather your strength and hear only the sound of the wind, the thought of turning back often creeps in. You look back, yet something still pushes you onward.

  • It is your vision;
  • It is your motivation;
  • It is the passion that you are creating or even recreating.
  • It is something bigger and better than you could have imagined.
  • It is your journey, and it is your choice to continue to grow, learn, and evolve.

As an entrepreneur, we all know that we build our own schedules, initiate the conversations, and run the show. So what is it that causes some to turn back yet others to press forward?

There is an underlying sense of fundamental well-being that grounds the entrepreneur. With these skills, they can continually progress, pivot, and raise the bar while remaining authentic to their work. With that purpose, I selected seven holistic well-being strategies backed by research to work synergistically, give you a leading edge to propel you forward. 

1. Create a Routine with the Purpose

Every successful entrepreneur has a routine, and that routine is followed for more productive days. Some people thrive and are focused first thing in the morning. For others, creativity does not start until the sunsets. Whatever your routine may be, it should always fulfill a purpose, whether that is nourishing your body with a nutrient-dense meal, stimulating your mind with expressive writing, or restoring your spirit with restful sleep.   

2. Master Emotional Maturity

This is not the easiest of tasks to master. In fact, it is quite challenging to become self-aware. The task of understanding your emotions, their consequences, and the benefits of controlling them comes with practice. Learning to forgive and engaging in acts of kindness and compassion can increase your self-awareness. In fact, being present in the pause gives you the clarity to respond from a place of understanding and experience.  

3. Establish Healthy Boundaries

Entrepreneurship can be lonely. But if you set healthy boundaries, the collaborations can be a source of inspiration and generate creativity. With any relationship, personal or business, setting expectations, communicating your guidelines. And being straightforward can create a stronger connection and deeper trust to build your business. 

4. Design a Sacred Space 

Having a sacred space where you can spend time alone can cultivate better relationships, create stronger memories, and make you more innovative. The solitude reboots your brain and helps you unwind. Additionally, if you meditate or journal in this space, you can promote emotional health, enhance self-awareness, and send positive signals to your brain. Mindful practices also allow you to show up as a better leader and entrepreneur.  

5. Nurture Your Personal Identity

Sometimes in the entrepreneurial world, we get lost in the process, especially if we are focused on what others are doing. Honor your true self by letting go of the comparison trap and know that you are enough. Allow space for your personal identity to grow and develop by living with your principles and letting go of perfection and expectations.    

6. Institute Money Priorities

With anything in life, you need a plan, and understanding your money priorities is part of the plan. To promote a sense of financial well-being, set up a budget, understand your income, monitor your expenses, and set goals. Investing in yourself is an investment in your business. So make your expenses count and have a positive rate of return.

7. Integrate Physical and Mental Release 

The human body is dynamic and works best when given a chance to surrender. Often as entrepreneurs, we feel the need to continue without rest. But it is in the rest and quiet space that our creativity can grow, and our thoughts evolve. Spend time in both physical and mental activities away from your business so you can return with a sense of purpose and momentum. 

There are many ways to navigate the entrepreneurial journey and thrive; however, you can flourish and expand to the next level when you take well-being into account. Using practical tools, where we can bridge the science of well-being with the here and now, entrepreneurs can utilize these strategies to harmoniously complement one another. The ultimate outcome will lead to an authentic experience with a high level of satisfaction, success, and purpose.

The Importance of Embracing Self-Care Practices as a Lifestyle

Whether it was intentionally or unintentionally, we can all agree that the lifestyle that most of us were embracing prior to the 2020 World Pandemic was not sustainable for our optimal health. The fast paced, non-stop, never-ending busyness of it all, would eventually lead us to some form of illness, exhaustion or burn out. 

Which is why lately the word “self-care” has been buzzing online; but what does it really mean to practice self-care? Why is it important? How do you know which one is right for you, and when do you practice self-care? All fair questions, so let us break these down. 

What does it really mean to practice self-care?

My personal definition is that mindful self-care practices are small conscious acts that you do throughout your day to help you feel and stay balanced in all the different layers of your human experience (emotional, physical, mental, spiritual, and even energetic). These practices go beyond the stereotype of just “drinking a glass of wine or taking a bubble bath” occasionally. These practices are designed to really nourish the lack of or excess of so we can feel more grounded and balanced as we go through life’s challenges.   

Why is it important?

These practices, when done regularly, will help you maintain and improve your optimal health. When embraced as a lifestyle, these practices become an effective tool to help you feel balanced, which ultimately prevents feelings of burnout or depletion.   

Practicing daily mindful self-care can help your nervous system to operate more frequently from the parasympathetic state, also known as “rest and restore”, which is the ideal state for the body to be able to self-regulate its functions in a natural way (digestive, circulatory, respiratory, etc.). The state of stress, worry, anguish and others activates the sympathetic nervous system also known as “fight or flight”. In this situation, the body is in a state of survival, so it saves energy and minimizes the self-regulation of its functions. Keeping the body in this condition constantly is not ideal as it causes an imbalance in our health, which can manifest stress causing inflammation in your body. Mindful self-care practices like yoga and meditation help to maintain a balance between these states of the nervous system and to maintain the body in a state of homeostasis, all of which is ideal for the optimal function of the body and therefore, of our health. 

How do you know which form of self-care is the right one for you?

I personally like to start by practicing daily mindful self-care practices such yoga and meditation – these practices will help you increase your self-awareness so you can later create discernment for better and healthy habits that would help you stay connected with the things that bring and cultivate your inner balance. For instance, when having a regular yoga practice, you would be able to quickly identify any body signals that may negatively affect your well-being. So, if you are starting to feel physically tired, perhaps it’s your body asking you to: 1) take some time for constructive rest so it can recover energy, 2) eat more light and natural meals to help your digestive system to function properly and use less energy, or 3) create a daily routine that supports time for your meditation or pranayama practice so your nervous system operates more from the “rest and restore” state.

When do you practice self-care?

The more in-tune you are with your body’s needs, the easier it becomes for you to identify when and what type of mindful self-care practice you need to implement on that particular time and moment. Our bodies’ needs are always fluctuating just like our thoughts and emotions. That is why self-awareness is key – it will help you to identify in early stages the information your body is sending you so you can then adjust your daily habits to address such needs. And that is the beauty of it. Self-care practices change and adapt to you, your body and needs… just like your yoga practice! 

When you ignore the needs of your body, and continue your days without changing unconscious habits or the pace of your life’s demands without creating space for self-care, ultimately your body will manifest that imbalance through illness. In my experience, I can confirm this to be true. Whenever I am in a high-level stress situation for a long period of time without setting healthy boundaries for self-care, I would fall sick for days. Which leads me to the next question, why do we put our own needs last?

Taking care of yourself is so important and vital for your health and happiness. Once you start to embrace this lifestyle to treat yourself with kindness and compassion, make your needs a priority, cultivate your joy, happiness and health, and realize you are worthy of it… everyone around you would follow your lead, creating a positive trickle effect.  

So, today I am inviting you to prioritize your self-care practices as non-negotiable and embrace them as a lifestyle. It is important to understand that self-care practices are the opposite of being selfish. Especially if you are a yoga teacher, you want to be able to offer your best self to your students. You can’t teach your best classes from a place of physical exhaustion or a restless and anxious mind. On the contrary, you want to feel inspired, creative, focused, at ease, and balanced.

Here are a handful of the many examples on how you can embrace mindful self-care practices as a sustainable lifestyle:

  • Physical Care: Move or rest your body
  • Emotional Care: Journaling practice
  • Mental Care: Meditation practice 
  • Spiritual Care: Gratitude practice 
  • Energetic Care: Spend time with nature walking barefoot, if possible 

These practices changed my life, and I have learned not to sacrifice my own health or push beyond my healthy boundaries simply because it’s not healthy and sustainable in the long run. These personal tips are meant to help inspire and motivate you to prioritize time to take care of yourself daily because you deserve to feel your best! 

As a student and teacher of yoga, I continue to delve into the beautiful relationship of yoga and its effects on our health. There are more and more reasons why I confirm that embracing self-care practices like yoga and meditation as a lifestyle can offer us positive tools to 1) help us achieve and maintain optimal health conditions, 2) develop an infinite appreciation of life with a calm, present and balanced character, and 3) increase our ability to develop kindness and compassion for ourselves and others, giving us the opportunity to lead by example and inspire others to the same! It all starts within us first. 

If you would like to receive my FREE Mindful Daily Self-Care Toolkit feel free to visit www.yogayely.com.

Forever Student Podcast: The Science Behind Yoga And How We Can Change Our Mental Landscape

By Stephan Muller who interviews Valerie Knopik for Forever Student Podcast.

In this podcast, Valerie Knopik discusses how our internal biology and external physical environment can positively influence our mental health.

Click here to listen to the full episode.

How Long Should You Hold a Plank? Probably Not as Long as You Think

By Leah Groth for BYRDIE.

The plank is one of the most simultaneously loved and loathed core exercises. While it looks relatively easy—no crunching, pushing, or squatting involved—it’s more involved than most other exercises. And oh, can it burn. But how long do you need to hold a plank to see results? Read on to find out what the experts had to say.

What Is A Plank?

A plank is an isometric exercise, “meaning we’re using our muscles to statically hold a specific position,” explains Jenni Tarma, Yoga Medicine Therapeutic Specialist and teacher on Yoga Medicine Online. “In the case of a plank, the effort comes from resisting the pull of gravity: you hold yourself steady while gravity tries to pull you to the floor.”

Kelsey Wells, a Sweat Trainer and creator of the PWR Workout, explains that planks are very effective as they help you strengthen and stabilize your entire body through strengthening your core.

While a plank is typically considered a core exercise—don’t be tricked into believing a plank is all about your abs. While your midsection will definitely burn, Tarma explains that like most core exercises, it actually involves many muscles in the trunk of your body, including the glutes, the spinal erectors, the lats, the pecs, all the muscles of the shoulder, as well as the deeper abdominal muscles and stabilizers of the spine. “Engagements in any or all of these muscles are often cued when teaching plank, so it’s fair to say that planks are generally a pretty comprehensive full-body exercise!” she says.

Are There Variations of the Plank?

While most people tend to think of the plank in terms of a front plank, performed in pushup position, hands down, keeping a straight and rigid torso and neutral spine —like a plank of wood) — Peloton Instructor Selena Samuela points out that there are actually a few variations. These include forearm planks, similar to the original but using the forearms to rest on, a side plank, and reverse planks.

What Are the Most Common Mistakes

While planks are an effective exercise to incorporate in your training routine, there are a few common form mistakes that can decrease their effectiveness and lead to injury.

  • Hips are too high or too low: Wells reveals that your hips first thing you want to pay attention to. “A lot of the time, I see people raising their hips too high or dropping them too low,” she explains. “This is a common mistake that can reduce the engagement of your core.” To avoid this, she suggests imagining that you’re drawing your belly button in towards your spine to keep your glutes engaged, ensuring your back is flat. “Your body should resemble a straight line from head to toe,” she says
  • Your shoulders and wrists aren’t stacked: Your shoulders need to be stacked over your elbows, instructs Wells. “If this is too difficult for you, you can modify the movement by moving into a high plank position or dropping to your knees, ensuring that your shoulders are stacked over your wrists,” she says.
  • Your spine isn’t neutral: It’s important to keep a neutral spine when you perform a plank, and this has a lot to do with your neck, explains Wells. “As soon as you start tilting your neck to look up or forward, you no longer have a neutral spine,” she points out. “Make sure to keep your neck in line with your spine by looking directly down at the floor in between your hands.”
  • Your body isn’t perfectly aligned: If your body doesn’t resemble a plank of wood, there’s a good chance you aren’t planking correctly, points out Tarma. “Ideally, we’re trying to form a straight line from the heels to the crown of the head, which helps maximize the muscular recruitment around the core. It follows that the more common mistakes center around the loss of this alignment!” she explains.
  • Your muscles aren’t engaged: Not engaging the glutes, pecs, and lats—muscles most people don’t think of as “the core”—are also “missed opportunities to create solid support in your plank position, and subsequently maximize the benefits of the exercise,” says Tarma.
  • Your abs are fatigued: If you do find yourself in a position that looks more downward dog than anything else —i.e., booty in the air and sagging hips—your abs might be fatigued, Samuela points out. In that case, “it’s time to end the plank!” she says.

How Long Should You Hold A Plank?

While it might be tempting to join in one of those social media plank challenges, don’t let yourself get held up on the numbers on your stopwatch. Think of it more as a personal challenge, not a competition with others.

“How long you will be able to hold a plank will depend on your strength and fitness level,” Wells points out. In other words, there is no ideal set amount of time to hold a plank. “The aim is to hold a plank for long enough to challenge yourself, ensuring that you don’t compromise on your form.”

However, Tarma points out that if the goal is to strengthen, it requires exposure to increasingly larger loads. “So, with a regular plank, there’s a limit to how much we can accomplish in terms of strength since we’re maxed out with just our body weight,” she explains, “Once you’re holding a well-aligned plank for more than one-to-two minutes, you’re arguably building endurance rather than strength specifically.”

If you are new planking, Samuela suggests beginning with short time intervals and working your way up. “I recommend starting with 10-second holds and then dropping to the floor and repeating a few times, then build up to 20-second holds, 30, 45, 60,” she says, “A one-minute plank is a great goal!

If you are having trouble getting through any amount of time, don’t be afraid to modify, Wells adds. “A great alternative is to perform a plank on your knees instead. Always modify before you quit,” she says. Alternatively, if your plank isn’t challenging enough, try making it harder. “There are so many great plank variations which can help add some variety to your workout and make your planks a little more challenging if you need, such as plank dips or a side plank, to name a few.”

When Will Planks Start to Feel Easier?

Initially, expect some major burn and soreness when you add planks to your routine. “Very deconditioned individuals will experience some soreness when they first start any fitness routine —including doing planks,” Tarma points out. The good news is, most people will experience steady improvement quickly. “The key, as with everything, is to progress at a sensible pace so that you’re a) stressing the tissues in a meaningful way to stimulate adaptation, but b) are doing so in doses you can recover from (recovery is where the strengthening happens!),” she points out.

“The more you plank, the easier it will get!” adds Wells. “Remember that planking should always be relatively challenging.” When they start to get easier, it is time to adapt, either with a more challenging hold or adding time.

Another useful thing to remember is that aside from the muscular gains, learning any new exercise also stimulates neurologic adaptation, “meaning your nervous system gets more competent at coordinating the movement,” explains Tarma, “This is definitely a factor in any exercise starting to feel ‘easier’—the movement becomes more familiar and accessible the more frequently you train it.

When Will You See Results From Planks?

Again, this varies by the person and also several factors, “including previous movement experience, loading history, coordination, and stamina,” Tarma says, “Ironically, people who are highly conditioned tend to deal in smaller improvements because they’re already operating much closer to their maximum capacity, and making even small gains takes a lot more work. Fitness beginners will start to see improvement very quickly, though. Provided you are planking at least three to four times a week for an amount of time that feels reasonably challenging, movement skill, endurance, and strength will usually improve noticeably within a few weeks.” And remember, frequent exposure is key. “A little bit often is better than one giant plank session once a week,” Tarma says.

Wells also points out that to see results, you need a well-rounded training program. “If your goal is to increase the length of time you can hold a plank, or build core strength, try to incorporate some core variation exercises into your training to hit the muscle in different ways,” she suggests.

The Takeaway 

Whether you are a yogi or a HIIT fanatic, planks are an effective and efficient exercise to strengthen your core as well as the rest of your body. And try not to get hung up with the numbers on the clock—quality is much more important than quantity, as executing a perfect plank for a short period of time will reap you more rewards than doing one the wrong way for longer.

Simple Seated Stretches for Upper Back and Shoulder Relief

These days most of are spending longer than we would like hunched over our computers or phones. We are getting all too used to sitting slumped with our head tipped forward and shoulders rounded. As the weight of our head and shoulders drift forward, this places increased load on the muscles that run either side of the spine, over the tops of the shoulders, and between the shoulder blades.

Simple Seated Stretches

As we sustain this load through hour after hour of Zoom meetings, one of the inevitable side-effects is the familiar feeling of a tight upper back, shoulders or neck.

We all know how much better we feel when we move, reintroducing hydration and circulation to the muscles tired from holding us in place, but it isn’t always possible to leave our desk or device.

Here’s the good news, though: a few stretches, done regularly, can make the world of difference without you even having to leave your seat.

So set an alarm to chime regularly through your work or study day, and try this simple seated sequence to provide rapid relief for your upper back and shoulders.

1. Overhead Side Stretch

Simple Seated Stretches for Upper Back and Shoulder Relief DIY 01a

Shift forward on the seat of your chair until there’s a little space between your spine and the chair back, setting your feet on the floor hip-width apart.

Clasp your hands, flip your palms away from you, then sweep your arms forward and overhead. Grow as tall as you can by lifting all four sides of your ribcage away from your hips.

Simple Seated Stretches for Upper Back and Shoulder Relief DIY 01a

As you next exhale, stretch up and over to your right, lengthening the tissues over your left side ribs. Inhale to return to centre, then exhale to your second side.

Inhale to return to centre, then exhale to bring your clasped hands behind the back of your head with bent elbows out wide.

2. Cat & Cow Flow

Simple Seated Stretches for Upper Back and Shoulder Relief DIY 02a

As you next inhale, tip forward on your sitbones, arch your back, and press your head into your hands.

Imagine bringing the back of your skull closer to your sacrum, gently contracting your back muscles to open your chest for a deeper breath. As you exhale, tip backward on your sitbones and scoop your belly to round your back.

Simple Seated Stretches for Upper Back and Shoulder Relief DIY 02a

Draw your chin toward your chest and let your elbows drape by your ears, providing traction all the way down your back and between your shoulder blades.

Flow back and forth with the rhythm of your breath a few times, reintroducing movement into the full length of your spine and refreshing circulation in the muscles surrounding it.

3. Twisting Neck Stretch

Simple Seated Stretches for Upper Back and Shoulder Relief DIY 03a

Release your hands and turn your ribcage toward the right. Keep even weight on both feet, and your navel pointing forward to focus the rotation on your mid back.

Catch the back of your seat with your right hand and bring your left hand to your right outer knee or thigh. Lean your right ear toward your right shoulder, looking for a gentle stretch over the left side of your neck.

Simple Seated Stretches for Upper Back and Shoulder Relief DIY 03a

Take a breath or two here then tuck your chin toward your right collarbone, feeling the stretch shift slightly down your upper back toward your left shoulder blade.

Take one or two slow breaths here before coming back to centre to repeat on the second side.

Wrap-Up

Our bodies are amazingly resilient, and despite the hours we spend stuck in Zoom meetings it doesn’t take long to refresh our posture and revitalize tired muscles.

Just a couple of minutes flowing through a sequence like this could be just what you need to ease tension out of your neck, shoulders and upper back, and leave you feeling better for the rest of your day.

Nervous System Wellness

The Secret Sauce of Optimal Performance

Most people know that good recovery is a precursor to high level performance, whether it’s hitting a new PR at the gym or shaving a few seconds off your 10k time. What actually constitutes good recovery, though, can be a little vague and difficult to pinpoint. Professional athletes have entire teams of trainers, strength coaches and specialized physical therapists, tracking every aspect of their wellbeing to make sure they’re properly recovered and maximizing their performance. But for us regular folks without access to these kinds of resources, “feeling recovered” very much remains a mostly subjective assessment of the body’s post-training state.

While good recovery can be challenging to pinpoint, the feeling of being under-recovered is unmistakable. As anyone who’s ever attempted to exercise in this state will tell you, it’s no fun at all. You’re simply not firing on all cylinders and every little movement feels labored, or perhaps excessive muscular soreness makes it impossible to exert any real power, much less get a good workout. 

At other times, the signs of suboptimal recovery might be more subtle, but no less debilitating: the body feels sluggish, the mind is unfocused, and movements are uncoordinated or sloppy. Your mental game might feel off, too: it’s difficult to motivate, the usual anticipatory pre-workout excitement fails to materialize, or it’s impossible to get into any kind of a groove, let alone achieve your usual exercise high. In other words, it feels like both mind and body are putting the brakes on, and workouts are a pointless, unenjoyable grind. Confusingly, it’s possible to feel this way even though you’re getting a solid 8-hrs of sleep every night, your nutrition is on point, and your yoga-stretched and foam-rolled muscles aren’t even sore. What gives? The underlying cause could well be inadequate nervous system recovery. 

To understand this concept fully, let’s back up a little. We generally tend to think of our muscles as generating force, and subsequently movement, in our bodies and joints. That’s just one piece of the puzzle, though: our muscles are merely slaves to the nervous system, which controls every aspect of muscle function. Think of the nervous system as the puppet master, issuing commands to instruct muscles on how to engage, when, and in which order. From a neurological standpoint, even the simplest movements are incredibly complex, carefully orchestrated maneuvers that require vast amounts of fine-tuned control and laser-sharp timing. As anyone in the early phases of learning a new movement skill will tell you, there are significant cognitive challenges associated with coordinating a clean and jerk, a crow pose, or a handstand pushup. Knowing this, it also makes sense that a fatigued or poorly recovered nervous system simply won’t do as good a job coordinating the nuts and bolts of complex movements, resulting in suboptimal performance. 

Nervous system function affects every part of the body and every aspect of how we feel and move. Therefore, nervous system fatigue also has wide-ranging potential to wreak havoc with our ability to perform at a high level. Unlike garden variety muscular soreness, which is a localized effect (your quads and glutes will be sore after heavy squatting, whereas your shoulders most likely will not), a tired nervous system is a full-body, global mess of poor coordination, slow reflexes, and sloppy movement. Given its all-encompassing nature, it’s also not surprising that poor nervous system recovery can present as a broad variety of symptoms, including dysregulated sleep patterns, an inability to concentrate, and generally feeling unfocused or “off”. Ironically, an over-stressed nervous system can also present as an inability to wind down at the end of the day: the system is so habituated to existing in a state of constant arousal that it “forgets” how to transition into resting mode, allowing the body to heal and repair in preparation for the next day’s challenges. In fact, common complaints associated with nervous system exhaustion include being overly wired at night and difficulty falling asleep, a self-perpetuating pattern which subsequently feeds into the following day’s lethargy. 

If any of this sounds a little too familiar, here’s the good news: while resetting a wiped-out nervous system can take some patience, it’s generally a very pleasant and relaxing task! At its core, it’s about making a concerted effort to minimize contributing stressors to allow the nervous system some chill downtime, which includes temporarily taking the physical rigors of athletic training down a notch. It can (and should) mean addressing other life stressors, too: super long hours at the office, too many extracurricular commitments, or a hectic social life can all deprive your nervous system of the opportunity to truly decompress. 

Since many ambitious Type A’s struggle with taking actual downtime (anyone else fill up their “rest day” with a variety of errands and chores?), it can be helpful to take a proactive stance and a more structured approach with your designated recovery time. Find a meditation app you like, and make it a point to include a few minutes of guided mindfulness every day, maybe before bedtime to improve sleep quality. Schedule a yoga class; not the power flow you’d usually gravitate towards, instead, pick a restorative or gentle class. Give yourself regular breaks from needing to achieve or accomplish anything, or even being productive in any way. If this feels counterintuitive, schedule unstructured downtime into your calendar, and treat it like an obligation, same as anything else. 

Finally, it’s worth noting that while we’ve been discussing athletic training specifically, much of this applies to our professional lives, too. Consider how it feels to struggle through a presentation while groggy after a night of bad sleep, or even at the tail end of a particularly stressful work week. While you might be able to pull it off, summoning the necessary mental clarity and focus certainly feels much more labor-intensive when you’re already drained and running on fumes. Nervous system exhaustion is an all too common issue in our modern world, which requires us to juggle a million moving parts and be on the ball in countless ways, day in and day out. Ironically, it’s the same drive to constantly perform at maximum capacity that, in the absence of quality downtime, ultimately robs us of the ability to excel at all. It’s worth considering that allowing ourselves proper recovery, on every level, is not only beneficial but even necessary for the kind of optimal, long-term function we all want in our lives.

Want to learn more about the nervous system? Check out Yoga Medicine’s Nervous System and Restorative Yoga Online Teacher Training.

Wake Up Your Butt! 3 Exercises that Will Save Your Back and Knees

By Pooja Virani for Yoga Medicine®.

When students come to me complaining of chronic back or knee pain, the first thing I check is whether they are activating their glutes while they exercise.

Your gluteus maximus is the largest and strongest muscle in your body. Along with the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, it allows you to extend your leg back in space, externally rotate your hip, and move your leg from side to side. In other words, these are the set of muscles you use when you jump, run, lunge, climb stairs, and stand up from a seated position.

How does this relate to pain? Our gluteal muscles need to contract while we are engaging in yoga and other forms of movement in order to stabilize our hips and prevent compensations by other muscle groups, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and erector spinae. When the glutes are forgotten, the result is often low back and knee pain.

Current lifestyles and work situations only exacerbate this problem. Sitting for long periods of time can lock the glutes, adductors, and hamstrings in a long (overstretched and weak) or short (tight and weak) position and can adversely affect posture through the curvature of the spine.

To prevent this, we need to teach our glutes how to fire properly. Try these three exercises before your yoga practice or a run to wake up your hip extensors!

Here’s the How

 

Exercise #1: Donkey Kicks
  • Loop a resistance band around the balls of your feet.
  • Come to all fours with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
  • Extend your right heel towards the ceiling keeping your lower back neutral or even
    slightly rounded.
  • Do 5-15 reps.
  • Switch sides.
Exercise #2: Clamshells
  • Loop a resistance band around your legs above your knees.
  • Lay on your right side with your legs bent and feet touching. Keep your head in line with
    your hips and feet. You can support your head with your hand or a yoga block.
  • Keep your right knee on the ground and lift your left knee towards the ceiling while
    maintaining contact with your feet. Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Slowly bring your knees to touch and then drive your left knee back towards the ceiling.
  • Do 5-15 reps.
  • Switch sides.
Exercise #3: Bridge
  • Loop a resistance band around your legs above your knees.
  • Lay on your back with your feet hip-width apart and walk your heels close to your hips.
  • Push your knees out until you feel resistance from the band.
  • Flatten your lower back against the ground and then lift your hips.
  • Three variations for your feet (choose the one that turns on your glutes!):
    1. Press the four corners of your feet into the ground.
    2. Lift your heels.
    3. Lift your toes.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Slowly bring your hips down to the earth and then drive them back up again.
  • Do 5-15 reps.

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