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Valerie Knopik

The Basics of Meditation: Getting Started

In this article by PsyCom online, two senior Yoga Medicine® teachers, Dr. Valerie Knopik and Dr. Rashmi Bismark, discuss the meditation basics, why we do it, which practice might be best for you, and a few simple meditations.

The Basics of Meditation

What is Meditation?

If you’ve been confused in the past by meditation, you’re not alone. Meditation is hard to define.  Generally, it consists of focusing your attention as a way to calm the mind. Breathing is a common focal point in many different types of meditation. Because staying focused on your breath removes distractions, worries, and restlessness from the mind.

While the practice of meditation dates back centuries, it has recently gained a newfound popularity. Why the sudden popularity boom? Meditation is accessible to everyone and can be tailored to accommodate a variety of time constraints, demanding responsibilities, physical disabilities, and lack of space.

Meditation is a healthy form of self-care and both experts and meditation enthusiasts say it’s a valuable antidote to the fast pace of our technology-driven culture

Yael Shy, author of What Now? Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond (Parallax, 2017), further explains, “Meditation is not just about helping us calm down and “de-stress” although it can do both of those things. Meditation helps us to see the contents of our minds and hearts, to understand the way we construct the world and the pain we carry around with greater clarity, compassion, and acceptance. In this way, meditation has the power to transform our relationship to ourselves, to others, and the world around us.”

Why Meditate?

Meditation has a wide array of health benefits, both mental and physical.

Studies have shown that meditation can reduce symptoms of anxiety.1 Another study found meditation may encourage the growth of new brain neurons by forming new connections between existing neurons. This study concluded that these neurological effects suggest meditation is an effective treatment for anxiety and may even help prevent anxiety from developing.2

Valerie Knopik, PhD – Director of Research for Yoga Medicine, the Miller Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University says, “when we practice mind-body techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and focused intention tasks, we influence brain activity in regions that are involved in reducing psychological stress and increasing the parasympathetic response.  This can, over time and with practice, ease anxiety and increase mood.”

However, there is no current research demonstrating the efficacy of meditation in improving clinically diagnosed anxiety disorders.

It’s okay to be skeptical. Rashmi Bismark, MD, MPH, a Yoga Medicine instructor and Preventative Medicine Physician, explains, “Though it is easy to get carried away on the bandwagon, like every potentially helpful intervention, mindfulness and meditation must be taken into context with the myriad of other interdependent factors influencing our health and wellbeing.  The growing list of research studies on contemplative practices are promising, but to make confident statements about impact, more rigorous trials are needed incorporating larger, more diverse patient populations and comparing the effects of meditation against other active control interventions.”

What Type of Meditation Is Right for Me?

There are dozens of types of meditation that use different techniques, focus points and even sounds. Here are a few:

Zen Meditation

This type of meditation, also referred to as zazen, is practiced in a seated position with eyes closed. This meditation technique emphasizes correct posture—sitting with one’s back straight and head centered.

Guided Visualization:

This meditation technique is popular in the athletic community. With Guided Visualization, you imagine a desired outcome. For example, a basketball player might use Guided Visualization in a game by closing their eyes before taking a foul shot, imagining the ball swishing through the net. To extend guided visualization, you can imagine how you will feel once you accomplish your vision.

Transcendental Meditation:

Transcendental meditation (TM) is a very popular meditation technique that encourages use of a mantra and is typically practiced twice per day. Consider learning more about transcendental meditation with acclaimed meditation teacher Bob Roth’s new book, Strength in Stillness.

Mindfulness Meditation:

This meditation technique helps you to fully experience the present by hyper-focusing on various tasks in your day. It’s necessary to turn off all distractions including phones, the TV, computer, etc. When you are fully focused on the task at hand and how you feel in relation to it, without letting your mind wander to separate worries (or refocusing your attention when it does wander), then you are being mindful. The goal is to have the “focus” become natural, so that you don’t have to be redirecting your attention back to the food on your plate or whichever task at hand you are completing, so that you feel fully in tune with what you are doing. Learn more about mindfulness here.

Meditation Exercises to Try Now

Consider developing a mantra, “Thank you for being here,” “I appreciate this time, I feel calm,” or something similar, to repeat as you meditate. It can be as long or as short as you want. The idea is that you can use this mantra while meditating—whether you are walking, in the shower, or sitting with your eyes closed—as a starting point for meditation. It might feel strange to repeat these words to yourself, but the repetition allows you to focus on a pattern and you might end up connecting to the words more than you expect. You can use this mantra during any type of meditation.

Shower Meditation

We know what you’re thinking…what in the world is shower meditation? Consider: when taking a shower; you’re alone, water in the shower creates its own meditation music, and it’s something you have to do every day, anyway. It’s a great alternative if it feels unnatural or impossible to sit somewhere with your eyes closed.

To begin a shower meditation: Notice how the water feels on your skin, in your hair. Listen to the sounds of the water droplets. As you clean, apply soap to areas that feel tense and rub into them. Send your breath to those areas. How does the water feel running over your head, down your neck? Breathe deep into the scents around you. When you are finished showering, take a step back from the water before turning it off. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Breathe into your feet, widening the space between your toes to firmly plant your feet into the ground. Consider repeating a mantra that readies you for your day.

Walking Meditation

Walking meditations are an excellent way to begin meditating if you feel like you have too much energy to focus during a seated meditation. You’re able to keep your body moving and take in your surroundings. Consider leaving your phone and iPod at home or in your car. If you want your phone on you, consider turning it onto airplane mode so that you aren’t distracted, or try out a meditation app. Try a walking meditation for just five minutes or for your entire hour-long walk

Before you begin your walk, close your eyes for a moment and breathe deeply, preparing yourself to let go of outside worries. You are on this walk, and everything can wait until you are finished. Walk at a comfortable pace. How does your body feel moving? How do your feet feel planting into the ground on each step? Consider rolling your neck gently from side to side, letting go of tension in your shoulders, your face.

If the mood strikes you, stop walking at a scenic location and take in your surroundings. What’s in the distance? What is directly in front of you? How does the sky look? Are you hearing birds, water? If you start worrying about your to-do list or other things you should be doing, try repeating a mantra. At the end of your walk, wiggle your fingers. Roll your head back and take a look at the sky. Has it changed since your walk began? Consider thanking yourself for the time and movement.

10 Count Meditation

Dr. Knopik shares her favorite meditation technique: “I personally love the 10-count meditation, which is simple and effective. You will count each in and out breath until you reach 10 and then start over again.  You may lose count, but it’s so easy to just start over and start to train your brain to not wander off.  Meditation for me is grounding and literally slows down time (for me).  Even when you think you don’t have time to do it, sitting for just 5 minutes, can be a reset button for the whole day.”

Meditation might feel like a waste of two or ten or forty minutes, but the truth is that giving yourself this time to breathe and to center yourself will likely help you be more clear-headed and productive during the day. Experiment with the different techniques until you figure out what works for you.

Click here to view the original article on PsyCom online.

Can Yoga Slow Brain Aging and Increase Neuroplasticity?

Valerie Knopik for Yoga Digest discusses yoga’s ability to slow brain aging, summarizes the science behind it, shares some other possible psychological benefits.

Yoga and Meditation – The Fountain of Youth?

When I first started to practice yoga over 20 years ago, it was for the physical practice. As my practice matured, I stepped onto my mat not only for the physical connection but also because it soothed me – mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. It brought me to a peaceful place even after the most tiresome or stressful of days. And now, as my meditation practice has become consistent, I am able to tap into the peaceful space with as little as 10 minutes of sitting in stillness. As a yogi who is also a scientist, I have to sheepishly admit that I didn’t dwell too much on the physiological changes that might be happening in my brain. Although, I figured that some change must have occurred. Ask yourself, have you ever stopped to think about the effects of yoga and meditation on the health of your brain?

There is a growing body of research that suggests that mind-body therapies, such as yoga, pranayama, and meditation, can have a profound effect not only on our physical musculature and our mood, but also on the health of our brain. In short, there is suggestive evidence that yoga, meditation, and pranayama can keep our brain ‘young’.

Top/Down, Bottom/Up

How does this happen? A recent review (Muehsam et al., 2017; Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews) beautifully summarizes these pathways as ‘top/down’ and ‘bottom/up’. You can think of top/down effects as those that result from targeting an individual’s cognitive state. More specifically, top/down effects occur when we practice mind-body techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and focused intention tasks. These types of techniques have been shown to influence brain activity in regions that are involved in reducing psychological stress and increasing the parasympathetic response.

These top/down effects have downstream results of reducing heart rate, increased immune function, and more efficient digestion. All of these systems send messages to the brain to affect mood and behavior. Bottom/up effects occur when we engage in the physical aspects of yoga or controlled breath work. Both of which require us to use our musculoskeletal system and increase our cardiovascular output. These physiological changes also subsequently influence the body’s capability to fight illness, the balance between the parasympathetic/sympathetic nervous system, and mood. You can think of top/down and bottom/up pathways working together to produce direct effects on physiology and the nervous system.

Connecting the Dots

If we drill down a bit deeper, we see that these effects can come in many forms. They can change our immune system through the expression of stress-signaling genes. They can change our cognitive response to stimuli and our ability to learn through increased brain activity and connectivity.

Let’s connect the dots even further. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines yoga as the cessation of the modifications, or vrttis, of the mind. When we change brain activity, particularly in regions known to be involved in the process of learning to identify maladaptive or irrational thoughts (i.e., vrttis), through yoga and meditation, we have the amazing capacity to also change the landscape of our brain. This concept is called cortical plasticity. Essentially, it is our brain’s way of reorganizing itself by forming new neural connections based on our experiences, lifestyle, and environment.

The Takeaway

One lingering question might be on your mind. Are these only available to the most seasoned of yoga practitioners? Not necessarily.

While there is some evidence to suggest that long-term practice is needed to acquire enhancement of specific cognitive skills, such as processing of visual stimuli, there is also research to suggest that those newer to the practice of yoga and meditation can also benefit, particularly in areas of the brain involved in memory.

The take-home message? Practice. Step onto your mat. Sit on your meditation pillow. Or, simply just take a few moments each day to focus on your breath. Because you just might begin to tap into your own personal fountain of youth for your brain.

Read the article here.

Happy Father’s Day from Yoga Medicine!

Fathers come in all forms. Biological, step, traditional, non-traditional, uncles, brothers, friends, single mothers who take on the role of both mother and father, you name it.  Let’s honor these father figures in our lives today (and how about everyday!) by foregoing the traditional Father’s Day gifts. Instead, give them the gift of our TIME and by extension, the gift of CONNECTION.

My father had to take on the roles of both mother and father when my mom passed away from cancer when I was 12. I’ve given him countless ‘traditional’ gifts of golf balls and World’s Best Dad coffee mugs.  The most special times were when I sat with him in the kitchen and asked questions. How he bought his first house. What it was like to be let go from a job when he had three young children and a wife at home.  Or when I asked him to teach me how to make his famous coleslaw or his traditional Polish holiday bread. It’s in those moments, even when he’s schooling me on the intricacies of cutting cabbage or kneading dough, that the most lovely and lasting memories are made.
These memories will allow me to tell his story to my children. Then they can pass along his stories to their families. In today’s world, there are ‘virtual connections’ to so many people. Yet, we often feel so alone. We invite you to spend this day giving the most amazing gift. The gift of your time and attention, and ultimately, the gift of connection. Happy Father’s Day from all of us at Yoga Medicine! May your day be filled with love, light, and true, authentic connection.

Let’s Talk Yoga Medicine with Valerie Knopik

More and more, the worlds of science and natural remedies and practices continue to work in tandem with one another. Athleisure Magazine took some time to chat with Valerie Knopik who works with Tiffany Cruikshank, the founder of Yoga Medicine that blends these principles together.

Let’s Talk Yoga Medicine

Tell us about your background and how you came to work with Yoga Medicine.

I have a PhD in Psychology and I am currently an academic researcher/scientist mentoring postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty at Brown University. I will be moving into an endowed professorship in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University this summer. In addition to this career in science, I also teach yoga and have been a student in advanced training with Yoga Medicine since 2014.  In late 2016 at a module in Sedona, Tiffany Cruikshank (founder of Yoga Medicine) and I started talking about the possibility of a research project and that was the exciting beginning of the Yoga Medicine Research Institute and my role as the Director of Research for Yoga Medicine.

What is Yoga Medicine and why is this a way to blend science and nature together?

Yoga Medicine is a thorough, anatomically-based training system that trains teachers across the globe to work more powerfully with their students. Yoga Medicine teachers are trained in the fusion of East and West to blend the best of anatomy and physiology with the traditional practice of yoga, including pranayama, mindfulness and meditation. It is this foundation that makes Yoga Medicine the perfect venue for building a research program that focused on the combined application of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to improve health and the human condition.

Our vision is to educate and empower our global communities to use yoga therapeutically based on a deeper understanding through purposeful and well-designed research. Through this effort, I have the honor of mentoring and training our Yoga Medicine community of teachers in the nuances of conducting research and to deliver purpose-driven yoga, meditation and mindfulness instruction as a way to robustly examine its effects on various health outcomes.  In my view, this continues the push, already started by Yoga Medicine, to raise the bar on what it means to be yoga teacher.  Education.  Experience.  Results.

How can one access Yoga Medicine?

To learn about all things Yoga Medicine, you can start by visiting the website. On this site, you can find information about our mission, the Research Institute, the Seva (or service) arm of Yoga Medicine, training, articles written by our teachers and contributors and so much more.  Our Find a Teacher platform is also available via the website or directly. This is a free service that Yoga Medicine provides to connect you directly with a Yoga Medicine trained teacher in your area. Through this service, you can find all teachers in your area and you can see what trainings they have completed with Yoga Medicine so that you can find a teacher that meets your needs.

With Spring being upon us, what is a detox that one can do to get their summer body prepped?

A detox is a process where one abstains from or rids the body of toxic or unhealthy substances.  Spring is synonymous with the idea of spring cleaning and that doesn’t have to mean strictly of the house or closet variety of spring cleaning.  There are simple ways to participate in a detox or cleanse (for more details, check out Tiffany Cruikshank’s book:  Optimal Health for a Vibrant Life).  Here are some simple strategies that you can do to get a jump start. If you can stay on this detox for about three weeks (the amount of time they say it takes to break a habit), you will notice some significant changes in how you look and feel!

Suggestions:

  • Eliminate coffee and alcohol. If possible, eliminate all caffeine. If you must keep a small amount of caffeine in your routine, consider substituting green tea for coffee – the caffeine in tea is gentler on your system
  • Eliminate added sugar – become an avid label reader – sugar hides everywhere
  • Eat fresh and organic vegetables and foods
  • Start your day with a large glass of water with the juice of one half of a lemon.  Drink a lot of water throughout the day.
  • Drink herbal, decaffeinated tea – not only will this increase your fluid intake and hydration, but the antioxidants in tea are beneficial as well
  • Be aware of allergens and pollutants in your environment and add skin brushing and the neti pot to your daily routine.
  • Consider eliminating dairy and wheat for the three-week period
  • If you eat meat, try eating only local, free-range, organic, and grass-fed offerings. Find a local farm so that you are aware of where you are getting your meats from. Bonus: you are supporting local businesses!
  • If you eat fish, try to find wild caught offerings
  • Move your body!  Yoga, exercise, whatever it is will increase circulation to all systems to help move toxins out
  • Sweat – through exercise or the sauna – regularly!

For those that have kicked into their workout methods of choice, how can we keep our bodies injury-free and what can we do when we have strained muscles in our arms, butts, and legs when we start a new workout routine?

To keep your body injury-free, it is important to make the time to restore the muscles that you challenge during your workout of choice. This can be something as simple as taking the time to stretch before and after physical activity. Other ways to make sure you restore your system include myofascial release, massage, mindfulness, water intake, sleep, and nutrition. A muscle strain implies damage to the muscle and can be a result of fatigue, overuse, or improper use. The most important strategy for muscle strain is a period of rest, followed by light stretching or myofascial release to encourage circulation to the area.

Stress tends to creep in from time to time – what are three things that we can do in terms of breathing techniques and movements to manage it?

Here are three techniques:

  1. Basic Breath Awareness:

    Lay on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and at least hip-distance apart.  Once comfortable, place a hand on your abdomen. Begin to just notice your breath. Does your breath feel strained or smooth? Just observe your breath without judging whether or not you’re doing it right or wrong. Gradually begin to make your breath as relaxed as possible. Introduce a slight pause after each inhale and after each exhale. Now begin to bring your awareness to your hand on your abdomen. Notice that with each inhale, your abdomen rises, and with each exhale, your abdomen contracts. Without being forceful, just begin to gently try to expand the abdomen on the inhale and contract the abdomen on the exhale to support the natural movement of your diaphragm. Continue for 6-12 breaths.

  2. Long Exhale:

    The long exhale is a 1:2 breathing practice that involves gradually increasing the length of your exhale until it is twice the length of your inhale.  Start with basic breath awareness as outlined above.  With a hand on your abdomen, mentally count the length of both your inhale and your exhale for several breaths. Start to gradually make the inhale and exhale the same length. Once your inhale and exhale are of equal length, then gradually increase the length of your exhale until it is up to twice the length of your inhale.  If you start to feel stressed, back off to a ratio that is more comfortable for you. It’s important to note that an exhale that is even slightly longer than your inhale can have profound relaxing effects on the nervous system. Continue for 6-12 breaths.

  3. Chandra Bheda – Lunar/Moon Breath:

    In this breath practice, you inhale only through the left nostril and exhale only through the right nostril. In Eastern traditions, the left side of the body represents the moon, or more yin and calming energy, while the right side of the body represents the sun, or more yang fiery energy. Therefore, in Chandra Bheda, we encourage the lunar, calming energy to enter the body, and we encourage the fiery yang energy to decrease – which will help bring the body back into balance.

    To try this breath: Sit in a comfortable position. Allow your left hand to rest in your lap. Look at your right hand. Fold the index finger and middle finger into the palm. For this breath practice, you will only use the right thumb and the right ring finger. With your thumb on your right hand, close off the right nostril and inhale through the left side of the nose. Then use the ring finger to close off the left nostril, release the thumb and exhale through the right nostril.  Start with an inhale and exhale that are about a count of 5-10 and are equal in length. Repeat for 3-9 rounds.

What are 3 stretches that we can do when a short travel experience becomes a longer one due to flight delays, missed connections etc?

One of the most important things you can do is to make sure you move around during these delays.  We have a tendency to just sit and wait, but adding some gentle movement can have significant effects on mood, anxiety, and just the feeling of tension that accumulates in the body.  Even just a walk around the terminal can help.  Here are a few specific stretches that you can do to ease travel tension and anxiety:

  1. Neck Release

    Sit in a comfortable position with a tall spine. Allow the right ear to drop down toward the top of the right shoulder. Keeping the head in this position, try to send the top of the left shoulder away from the left ear so that you create a lot of space on the left side of the neck.  From here, think of your chin like the rudder of a boat and gently shift the chin toward the right shoulder (keep sending the left shoulder away from the left ear as you do this). Move the chin slowly to find additional areas of neck tension. Stay for 5-10 breaths. To bring your head back to neutral, place the right palm on the right cheek and gently assist the head back to center.  Repeat on the left side.

  2. Standing (Or Seated) Side Stretch

    Reach the arms high toward the ceiling. If possible, clasp the hands overhead. Imagine that you can lift and lengthen the torso out of the pelvis. Find this by reaching up towards the ceiling, then side bend to the right.  Think about wrapping the right armpit toward the wall that you are facing so that you are less likely to collapse in the chest. Stay for 2-4 breaths. On an inhale and come back to center. Then, side bend to the left.

  3. Legs Up the Wall

    Find a deserted or less busy part of the airport with a bit of wall space. Lay down on your back and send your legs up the wall. Try to scoot your sitting bones as close the wall as possible. Allow the back of the skull and the entire spine to rest on the floor. Allow the legs to rest on the wall. Find a comfortable position for your arms. Stay anywhere from 5-30 minutes.

  4. Forward Fold (Seated in a Chair, Standing, or on the Floor)

    Getting the head below the heart can be an excellent and accessible way to reduce anxiety. It can also stretch the lower back muscles that tend to get tight when we sit for too long.

Do you think that more doctors and practitioners are realizing that it is essential for new and old medicines to come together? Where do you see that in the next few years?

I do believe that there is a movement toward a more collaborative and blended approach to health and self-care. For example, I work with a client who has been experiencing chronic low back pain. With his permission, I have worked alongside his acupuncturist and chiropractor to develop a plan for him. I think that both doctors and practitioners are open to this blended approach. Unfortunately, at this point, I believe it is still primarily on the shoulders of the practitioners/patients/clients. Currently, doctors are not yet seeking out ways to bring together Eastern and Western medicine.

However, there are more and more initiatives for bringing mindfulness into the traditional Western medical settings, such as hospitals and doctor’s offices. These efforts lead me to believe that, in the near future, we will see more of the traditional Eastern modalities of Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, pranayama, and mindfulness being more formally incorporated into approaches to health care and self-care. Also, with information and education comes the possibility for more comprehensive approaches to health.

Native Society feature: Valerie Knopik

Yoga Medicine is proud to share a feature on one of our assistant teachers, Valerie Knopik, by Native Society. Native Society connects aspiration readers with inspirational content, and we couldn’t agree more that Amanda is a motivational resource on our team! We hope you enjoy reading this article.

Bethany_O_Photography_-_www.bethanyo.com-3321_349x254 Valerie Knopik, PhD, is the Director of Research for Yoga Medicine, a Senior Research Scientist & Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University, and a yoga teacher in Providence, Rhode Island. Formally trained in classical ballet, as well as a former runner, Valerie has always been a believer in staying active but yoga is the perfect marriage of her work in mental health & her love of movement & anatomy. With a PhD in Psychology, Valerie is extremely active in mental health research, focusing on how our internal biology and our external physical environment (including yoga, mindfulness, and meditation) can interact to positively change our mental health landscape.

Valerie’s sincere hope is that, while the physical asana practice might be the introduction to yoga (as it was for her), her students can utilize the asanas as a tool to find cohesion of body, mind, and spirit in order to experience fullness & purpose in their lives. Valerie lives with her husband and their two children (and a big, lovable Great Dane named Justice) in Rhode Island.

What do you do best?

If I had to pick one phrase to capture what I do best, it would be the following: I inspire others to pursue and achieve their true potential.  I wear multiple professional hats – one as an academic researcher/scientist mentoring postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty at Brown University, one as a Yoga Medicine trained teacher holding space and guiding students every week, (as of a few months ago) yet another as the Director of Research for Yoga Medicine.

While these professional hats used to feel very separate and distinct from one another, I find that now, more than ever, my experiences in these various domains are mutually informative.  I truly believe that this gives me an advantage and allows me to carve out a very specific niche.  What I do best boils down to this simple action, informed by all aspects of my life – inspire others to pursue and achieve their true potential, provide them with the tools to dig deep, start from within, and achieve their goals.

What makes you the best?

I am so passionate about my new role as Director of Research for Yoga Medicine because it allows me to draw on every modality of my experience to date. Working alongside Tiffany Cruikshank and the Yoga Medicine team, I am building a research program focused on the application of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to improve health and the human condition.  Our vision is to educate and empower our global communities to use yoga therapeutically based on a deeper understanding through purposeful and well-designed research.

Through this effort, I have the honor of mentoring and training our Yoga Medicine community of teachers in the nuances of conducting research and to deliver purpose-driven yoga, meditation and mindfulness instruction as a way to robustly examine its effects on various health outcomes. In my view, this continues the push, already started by Yoga Medicine, to raise the bar on what it means to be yoga teacher. Education. Experience. Results.

valerie-knopik-3I teach, mentor, and speak from a genuine and authentic place. That is, I use my own personal journey and experiences – both struggles and successes — to connect with others and inform my work. I know that not everyone is going to appreciate that and that is okay; but, in working from that authentic place, I have built a community that encourages all to bring their unique gifts to the table and to shine brightly.  Moreover, I think that passion and authenticity actually shows – i.e., that it is evident to those around me and they can, in turn, find a safe refuge to learn and grow in that space that I have helped to create.

What are your aspirations?

In many ways, my personal and business goals are intertwined.

PERSONAL: To love fiercely (family and friends), to support unconditionally, to be passionate about what I do for a living, to be better at creating balance in my own life, to stay grounded through life’s challenges, and to be someone people want to be around. Ultimately, I want to make a difference in people’s lives.

BUSINESS: To continue to find ways to combine my two loves/careers – scientific research and yoga – in a way that is meaningful and balanced. To continue to be an outstanding mentor and teacher in all domains of my professional life. To continue to learn and grow by working and training with my own mentors.

Biggest Success?

I feel very fortunate to have worked incredibly hard and to say that I’ve been blessed with many successes.  My academic career has had a trajectory that I am very proud of and my path in yoga has, of late, blossomed into more than I could have imagined one year ago.  The joining of the two – research and yoga – via my role as Director of Research at Yoga Medicine, is something I dreamed of and something that I proud to say that I am diligently working toward.

However, I remain steadfast in saying that my family is my biggest success.  My two children and my marriage are the most important work that I do. They are my biggest supporters and cheerleaders and I would not be where I am today without them. They have shaped who I am and my work ethic (and, let’s be honest, having two children has honed my ability to juggle multiple jobs and projects!).

Most Challenging Moment?

There are three incredibly challenging moments that have shaped who I am – (1) the death of my mother when I was 12 years old; (2) the death of my 16-year-old niece; and (3) a 6-month separation from my husband.

When I was 12, my mom died of cancer…

She was sick on and off for about 3 years before she passed.  Having to navigate those waters as a child – well, I can’t say that I did it very well.  I did the best that I could and my dad and siblings did the best they could.  But how do you survive that grief and that loss? I am still dealing with the aftermath of really having never completely processed many aspects of her death.

I still wrestle with feelings of guilt that I didn’t go into her hospital room one last time before she died and the constant wondering of whether or not she would be proud of the person that I have become. But, losing her gave me such gifts…a relationship with my dad that is like no other and the fierce desire to be the best mom I could be (and you can bet that I celebrated inside myself when my children, one by one, turned 12 because I have officially had more time with them than I had with my mom) – and for these gifts, I am so incredibly grateful.

Four years ago, my 16-year-old niece, Leanna, fell ill with a rare viral infection of the heart, myocarditis…

From the time she fell ill (with what seemed like the flu) to the time that she passed, was a little over one month.  ONE MONTH.  One month of touch and go.  Of my brother and his wife living in the Ronald MacDonald house at the hospital.  Of ups and downs and gut-wrenching decisions. One month of our family, in various combinations, rallying in that hospital waiting room. It still feels surreal. I wish every day that she was still here with us. Yet, what I take away from this is the lesson in how one person can affect others…how one person can profoundly change another’s perspective on life…and to remember to enjoy each and every moment because I’ll never get another moment quite like it.

My 6-month separation from my husband and our decision to make it work…

Five years ago, my husband and I were separated.  I will not go into the details but suffice it to say that we lost track of each other.  After 11+ years of marriage, we lost each other, plain and simple. During that separation, there were times when I was sure we were going to get a divorce and times when I wondered how our children were going to handle things.  I hate that we went through that period. But, I’m so incredibly grateful at the same time.

Why?  Because we found each other again. In all of our flaws and our individual differences, we made the joint decision to try to make it work. That period in my life taught me how much effort a successful marriage (or any relationship, really) requires.  It is not something to just sit back and watch.  You need to be an active participant.  You can’t check out.  Not for one moment. It also taught me who was truly in my support network.  I still can’t believe it, but I lost people who I thought were good solid friends when my husband and I decided to move forward with our marriage.  For whatever reason, they couldn’t understand it or chose not to.  It taught me who was in my tribe…and those people who stood by me (and by us). I love those people fiercely and always will.

Motto?

Sparkle it up and let your light shine! AND, of late, “If you limit your choices to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you really want. And all that is left is compromise.” – Robert Fritz

valerie-knopik-1

Favorite People/Role Models?

Walter Knopik, My dad, for showing me what it means to be a beautiful person, inside and out, and for teaching me the value of hard work.

Chris Knopik and Steve Knopik, my brothers, and my sister, Barbara Baker for setting the bar and being supportive every step of the way.

Kristi Garner, My dearest and oldest friend, for everything.

Scott Kiekbusch, My husband, and our children, Violet and Ronin, for holding me accountable every day and for teaching me how to love deeply and unconditionally.

Tiffany Cruikshank, My mentor, for pushing me to be the yoga teacher than I am today, for encouraging me to grow and find my niche, and for giving me the opportunity to join my love of research and my love of yoga in a way that empowers others.

My trainees and students, for trusting me and for teaching me.  I’ve learned so much from each and every one of them.

Favorite Places/Destinations?

Ah, here’s the short list:

Secret Beach (Kauai)

Australia

Punta Monterrey Beach Resort, Mexico

Siesta Key Beach, Florida

Birch Restaurant, Providence, RI

Favorite Products/Objects?

Manduka Eko yoga mat

Rad Roller myofascial release balls

Meditate Your Weight, by Tiffany Cruikshank

The Great Work of Your Life, by Stephen Cope

My trusted meditation pillow

Any drawing or project created by my children

Current Passions?

Yoga, science, research, the beach, the ocean, food, dark chocolate, music, cooking, wine, reading for pleasure (not work), downtime, relaxing at home, Sunday afternoons with no obligations, movies, massages, my family – translation???  Anything that fuels me and makes me feel alive!

Visit the online article here.

Click here to learn more about the Yoga Medicine team.

Prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis with 5 In-Flight Stretches

By Chelsea Peng for Marie Claire.

Spotify’s ads have been a mixed bag lately—hate the “Milkshake” phone plan one, love to listen to the Calvin Klein girl who somehow manages to speak with only enough air to flutter her vocal chords—but one of them brings up a good point: You are dying! We all are, because modern live demands that we sit, always.

Nothing reminds one of one’s looming mortality-by-dormant-butt more acutely than the long-haul flight (with layovers!), during which you can practically feel a deep vein thrombosis forming as you direct deeply negative vibes at your seat-mate, who’s insisted on keeping his reading light on EVEN THOUGH HE’S TOO FAST ASLEEP TO ACCEPT THE MINIATURE PRETZELS. You *could* be that person who crowds the aisles, but in this post-9/11 world, better to limit your bathroom trips. That doesn’t mean staying completely put, though—here, five not-embarrassing stretches to do at 30,000 feet, brought to you by Valerie Knopik (PhD, E-RYT), Director of Research at Yoga Medicine, and FitFusion trainer Andrea Orbeck.

1. Lower-Leg Extensions with Ankle Circles

Start with both feet flat on the floor. Lift your right foot off and extend the knee, reaching the right lower leg forward as far as your space allows. [Editor’s note: HAHAHAHAHA. But at least these celebrities know the hardship.] With your leg extended, flex and point the foot several times, then circle the ankle, both clockwise and counterclockwise. If you have the space, gently hug the right knee into your chest, clasping the hands around the shin, about 1–2 inches below the knee. Place the right foot back on the floor. Repeat with the left leg.

2. Figure-4 Stretch

Seated tall, place one heel across the opposite knee and push down on the bent knee. This will stretch the glute, which is a large muscle that tends to become very sedated when you’ve been seated for long periods of time.

3. Alternating Knee Pull-ins

Can be done seated, but standing will encourage more circulation. Hug your knee to your chest with both hands until you feel a stretch in the glutes and hamstrings. Alternate each side at least five times.

4. Quadricep Stretch

While you’re waiting in line for the lavatory/when everybody else is passed out because you’re weird like that, stretch your quads and hip flexors. Standing against a wall, bend one knee and pull the heel into the glutes. Hold for at least 20 seconds, alternating legs several times.

5. Foot Pumps

Start with both feet flat on the floor. Keeping your toes and the ball of the foot on the floor, lift your right heel. Then lower the right heel so the foot is flat again. Keeping the right heel and the ball of the right foot on the floor, lift all the toes. Repeat with the left foot. Continue for 5–10 repetitions.

Click here for the original article with Marie Claire.

Perspectives on Nutritional Mental Health

Yoga Medicine assistant teacher Valerie Knopik shares her perspectives on nutritional mental health in a multi-part series on how the Yoga Medicine® approach might just change your practice, your teaching, and your life.

Perspectives on Nutritional Mental Health

In a recent article on “The Emerging Field of Nutritional Mental Health” Kaplan and colleagues state, “We live in a transformational moment for understanding the etiology of mental health.” The premise of the article was that the medical community is accumulating more and more information about how inflammation in our bodies, imbalances in our gut (digestive system), chronic low levels of stress, and metabolism affect the brain.  Moreso, the article was a call for the medical community to use nutrition, i.e., diet changes and dietary supplements, to alleviate pain and suffering.

As a scientist and researcher in the world of mental health, I read this article with nerdy fascination.  As a yoga teacher and assistant in the Yoga Medicine® community, I read this article thinking of the important variables that were missing.  And, as a someone who has personally struggled with an auto-immune disorder for the past three years and changed their prognosis, in part, by diet changes, I was thinking of how so much of what was said in that article applied to me.  But again, there was a key missing link.

Where was yoga?  Mindfulness? Community connection?

In this multi-part series, we will explore each of these topics.

Part I. Yoga.

In our daily lives, the majority of us live in our sympathetic nervous system, or what is more commonly known as “Fight or Flight.”  Whether you work as a stay-at-home mom, a full-time yoga teacher, a corporate attorney, or anything in between, we live in a culture that is go-go-go. We’re running from here to there, trying to make ends meet, trying to stay afloat, constantly promoting our businesses on social media, and addictively texting and checking email.  We are screen-obsessed.

This constant bombardment affects our blood pressure, our metabolism, our heart rate, our brain waves, our entire being.  Indeed, we are, as a culture, depleted.  Depleted in mind.  In body.  In spirit.  And some of the ways in which that chronic stress and depletion might show up in our physical bodies is via inflammation, imbalances in our gut, and in our metabolism – which, in turn, can lead to mental health and physical health imbalances.

The etiology of these imbalances has been shown to be due, in part, to the biological pathways brought up by Kaplan et al (2015) and, in part, to our genetic predispositions; however, what I see in my own work is that people forget that our environments are just as important.  The amount of stress that we are under is an example of one such environment.  (There is also research to suggest that some of us may have a biological or genetic predisposition to consciously or unconsciously put ourselves in stressful or challenging environments, but that can be the topic of another forum article.)

Yoga as a Mental Health Treatment

As a yoga teacher, I know that yoga can offer, at least part of, a solution.  Pranayama, or specific breathing techniques, and Asana, the physical postures of yoga, can elicit the Relaxation Response and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system (i.e., Rest and Digest).  This is particularly salient for restorative yoga, yin yoga, and gentle flow classes; however, many seasoned practitioners might also find this Relaxation Response in more powerful classes. And that is just it. 

We have the capacity to change our physical environment and we have the capacity to change our internal cellular environment and in turn, modify our mental landscape.  One such approach to changing our internal and external environment is yoga – and for the purposes of the article, when I say yoga, I am referring to Pranayama (or breath practices) and Asana (the physical postures).  I will address mindfulness and connection in separate forum offerings as part of this multi-part series.

This is not to suggest that yoga can be the end-all-be-all cure to mental health concerns.  But, I am suggesting that practicing something as simple as basic breath awareness can calm our nervous systems, and in turn, ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.  Adding a handful of yoga postures can further bolster that Relaxation Response and bring our bodies back into balance.  Here is a 20-30 minute mini-sequence to try whether as a student or as a teacher guiding your students.

1. Basic Breath Awareness 

Basic Breath

Lay on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and at least hip-distance apart.  Once comfortable, place a hand on your abdomen.  Begin to just notice your breath.  Does your breath feel strained or smooth?  Just observe your breath without judging whether or not you’re doing it right or wrong.  Gradually begin to make your breath as relaxed as possible.  Introduce a slight pause after each inhale and after each exhale.  Now begin to bring your awareness to your hand on your abdomen.  Notice that with each inhale, your abdomen rises, and with each exhale, your abdomen contracts. Without being forceful, just begin to gently try to expand the abdomen on the inhale and contract the abdomen on the exhale to support the natural movement of your diaphragm.  Continue for 6-12 breaths.   

2. Supported Bound-Angle Pose (stay 5-15 minutes)

Restorative Supta Valerie Knopik

This is one of the most relaxing of all restorative poses and while it requires some props (and time) to set yourself up comfortably, it is well worth the effort!  In the picture, we used several bolsters and blankets, but you can use a combination of pillows, couch cushions, towels or blankets to set yourself up similarly.  Sit at the small end of a bolster (or a stack of blankets, pillows, or cushions).  The bolster should be close to the tailbone.  Bend your knees and place your feet firmly on the floor. Use your arms to lower yourself back onto the props.  Your entire spine should be supported.  If you feel any discomfort, decrease the height of the props. 

Make sure your head and neck are adequately supported as well – place a towel or blanket under your head and neck to raise the head slightly.  Your forehead should be higher than your chin, your chin higher than your collarbones, your collarbones higher than your pubic bone.  Bring the soles of your feet together and let your knees fall open.  Place bolsters or blankets under the outer thighs to support the weight of the legs.  The object is not to stretch the inner thighs here, but rather to support the body for relaxation. Once you are set up and comfortable, this is the perfect opportunity to come back to your Basic Breath Awareness.

3. Simple Spinal Twist (5 breaths each side)

Simple Twist Valerie Knopik

Lay on your back.  Gently pull knees into the chest.  Let your arms relax on the floor like a “T”.  Take your knees to the left, stay for at least 5 breaths. Practice Basic Breath Awareness here. Extend your Basic Breath Awareness as follows: With each inhale, envision length and space in the torso and spine.  With each exhale, gently soften (do not force) the right shoulder blade and right rib cage closer the floor.  After you have completed at least 5 breaths, gently pull the knees back into the center of your chest.  Repeat the entire series taking the knees to the right.

4. Supported Forward Fold (10 breaths) 

Supported Forward Fold Valerie Knopik

Place a bolster (or pillows, couch cushions, or blankets) under the knees.  Gently forward fold.  If needed, additional blankets/towels can be placed between the tops of the legs and the chest for extra support.

5. Savasana (at least 5 minutes)

Keeping bolster under the knees, lower yourself down onto your back.  To increase the feeling of groundedness, place a folded blanket across the abdomen/hips.  If your feet are not grounded, place a blanket under them to bring the floor closer to the feet, or remove the bolster.  You want to feel grounded during savasana.

6. Reflection

As you awaken and rise to a seated position, notice how you feel.  Allow yourself to take a ‘feeling moment’ and acknowledge any changes or shifts that have been made by unplugging, breathing with purpose, and slowing down for as little as 20-30 minutes.

This emerging field of “Nutritional Mental Health” can be so much more than just how diet changes or supplements can assist in overall health.  This is not to say that nutrition is not important, because it is, and research supports this.  But, nutrition is just one part of a much larger solution.  In the Yoga Medicine® community, we are on a mission to change the landscape of traditional health care. 

The vision is to create a community of impeccably well-educated yoga teachers that can work alongside Western and Eastern modalities of medicine to treat the overall person as opposed to treating just the symptoms.  We have the capacity to make real and lasting changes in our own lives and for our students and clients.  These offerings are intended to be an innovative perspective on the term “Nutritional Mental Health” – specifically, nourishing the mind, body, and soul not only via food or supplements, but rather via a combination of movement, meditation, breath, and community outreach to offer true connection and deepened community in order to cultivate happiness and well-being.

Check back soon for Part II of this series:  Community Connection

Suggested Readings:

Kaplan, BJ, Rucklidge, JJ, Romijn, A, McLeod, K.  (2015).  The emerging field of Nutritional Mental Health:  Inflammation, the microbiome, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial function.  Clinical Psychological Science, 3(6): 964-980.

Lasater, Judith (1995).  Relax and Renew:  Restful Yoga for Stressful Times.  Rodmell Press: Berkeley, California.

Shaw, Scott (2004).  The Little Book of Yoga Breathing:  Pranayama Made Easy.  Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC:  San Francisco, California.

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