Sunday June 21st marks summer solstice and the day when the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere receives the most direct sunlight in the year. This makes it the day with the longest daylight and shortest night. It also marks the beginning of summer, a season that many of us look forward to with the longer, warmer days giving us an opportunity to do more things that we enjoy. During this season, I feel a lightness in the air and a desire to be outside meeting with friends, family and enjoying nature. I also very much enjoy being outside with a good book, soaking in the sun’s rays. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (“TCM”) the summer season is governed by the Fire element, making it an easy one to remember as we associate the heat from the sun during this time of the year.
I try to bring concepts from each of the elements in TCM into my classes throughout the seasons. For my students and for my readers, I thought it would be useful to expand on what the five elements are and what you can expect from the Fire element on and off the mat as we begin the summer season.
The Five Elements in TCM
In TCM we have five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water) that are used to help us understand how the environment around and in us influences the health of our body and mind. We each have the five elements in us which are constantly fluctuating in balance (either being in balance or out of balance). These five elements are commonly used to diagnose and treat ailments in TCM by understanding which area of each element is out of balance. Our bodies are continuously evolving, meaning the balance of each of the five elements is also in a continuous process of natural change and flux. In my opinion the five elements help us understand where an imbalance may be present and how through yoga, diet and lifestyle changes we can bring our mind and body into more harmony.
Each element has various qualities about it and is paired with certain organs in the body. Each of the organs is classified as being yin or yang in nature and has energy lines (also known as meridians) that run throughout the body (usually starting and ending at our feet and hands). The energy that runs through the meridians is known as Qi (pronounced “Chi”) and can be also viewed as our vital life force. When there is a disharmony in the body it usually means that our Qi is either lacking or deficient, or is stagnant or stuck (it can also be collapsed or rebellious (i.e. not moving in the right direction)).
From a yoga practice perspective, we use postures to apply pressure or to stretch our muscles or tissues around these energy lines in an attempt to move stagnant energy or to increase circulation through the meridians but with no needles involved!
In addition to the meridians, each of the five elements includes sub-categories such as body tissue, season, emotion, taste and psychology that tell us more about when an element is in or out of balance.
Qualities of the Fire Element
Summer is a time when plants and creatures flourish. A time when we feel the expansive and radiant energy from the sun beaming down on earth for longer. In TCM, the fire element is most strongest during the summer season and it is also the height of yang. Yang representing light and warmth.
Fire is important for our joy and our ability to be passionate and optimistic in life. It gives meaning to our relationships with others and allows us to express ourselves fully.
The fire element, unlike the other elements, has four main organs associated with it: the heart (yin), small intestines (yang), pericardium (yin) and triple heater (yang). The heart is the most important of the four organs, however, all four have their meridian lines running up and down our arms. In yoga, we place more emphasis on the yin organs as they are seen as having greater influence on our mind and body, which is also why we call them the “precious” ones. When we think about these organs, it’s important to remember that in TCM they play slightly different roles to the ones in Western medicine (just something to bear in mind).
As the principal organ for the Fire element, the Heart stores our spirit (or our Shen) and is responsible for housing our thoughts in our mind. Effectively, the Heart is the centre of our emotional and mental activity.
When the Heart meridian is in balance we are optimistic and enthusiastic about the future, and we have a strong ability to connect our actions to our heart. We have compassion for those around us and are comfortable with being vulnerable, allowing our authentic self to show up in the world. We are creative and able to be expressive, creating depth in our relationships.
When the Heart meridian is out of balance we may lack depth in our relationships and interactions with others. We may be impatient or uninspired and have a strong reluctance to letting down our guard. The physical issues we tend to see with a Heart meridian imbalance include short-term memory problems, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, insomnia and anxiety.
To bring the Heart meridian in balance from a yoga perspective, we focus on the upper body and in particular our arms, armpits and shoulders, as this is where the energy lines run. Some great poses to help bring this into balance include:
Puppy dog pose
Wrist work (which you can do even while sitting at your desk).
On my next blog post in early July, I will be sharing some of the poses that you can do at home to balance your fire element. Look forward to seeing you on the mat over the summer as we practice moving the energy of the fire element in our bodies.
Props are for students who can’t do the “full pose”, right? Wrong! Rather than being training wheels for beginners to rely on, yoga props can deepen our practice in unexpected ways. The addition of a prop to a familiar pose can completely change our experience; rather than falling back on our old habits, the prop can highlight new areas for focus. Rather than being just a stepping stone for new students, smart use of props can refine our practice. But don’t take my word for it; try these ten tips to see how the simple addition of a yoga strap can change your practice for the better.
1. Shoulder Circles
This is a fantastic shoulder warm-up, perfect to use early in practice to open your chest for better range of motion and deeper breathing. It’s also excellent preparation for overhead stretches (like Urdhva Dhanurasana or Wheel) and overhead binds.
Try it: Find a comfortable upright seat. Measure a length of strap from your nose to one hand and hold with between both hands in front of you. With your inhalation circle the strap overhead, lengthening your grip, if required, to allow both shoulders to glide through simultaneously. On your exhalation, take the strap behind you, feeling a stretch across your chest and shoulders. Next inhalation bring the strap overhead again, and exhale to guide it back down in front of you. Take 10-12 shoulder circles, feeling increasing warmth and fluidity with every round.
2. Side Bends
One of the most potent benefits of a physical yoga practice is reminding our bodies of their full range of motion. We so seldom side-bend in daily life; this exercise is useful to re-awaken both strength and ease in our side body, allowing us to deepen our breath and move more freely into side-bending and rotated poses as well as overhead binds.
Try it: From your comfortable seat, with your strap still between your hands, take your arms overhead. As you next inhale, reach up and over to the right, feeling the entire left side of the body fan open, and as you exhale engage your left side body to come back to center. On your next breath in swap sides, flowing side to side for 10-12 breaths and noticing how both your strength and your ease of motion increase with each cycle.
Whether we love abdominal work, or love to hate it, there’s no question how important abdominal engagement is to our yoga practice. Adding a strap to supine abdominal work is a fool-proof way to learn how to engage rectus abdominis (your “six pack” muscles) to fine-tune the position of the spine and pelvis. It’s especially beneficial for students like me, who need help learning how to support a deep lumbar curve. It is my favourite preparation for Adho Mukha Vrksasana or Handstand, where without strong core engagement we would have the tendency to collapse into a banana shape.
Try it: Lie down on your back with your strap on the floor behind your waist. Catch one end of the strap with one hand but leave the other end loose. Draw your navel toward your spine, pressing your low back down onto the strap and pinning it to the floor. Maintain downward pressure on the strap so that you’re unable to pull it out from beneath you, then lift your right knee above your hip, shin parallel to the floor. Without letting your strap move, swap legs midair to lift your left knee. Continue to flow side to side for around 60 seconds without allowing the strap to slip, then return your feet to the floor to rest for a few deep belly breaths. If you’re ready for more of a challenge in your second set, keep the downward pressure on the strap and extend the lifted leg out to hover above the floor. Keep your neck and shoulders relaxed,but feel the powerful engagement of your abdominals supporting your low back.
4. Boat Variation
This variation of Navasana takes the pressure of your hip flexors, giving you space to notice the powerful relationship between the strength in your legs and the lift of your core. It works well as part of a warm-up, so that you’re able to tap into that potent connection throughout practice.
Try it: Come to a seat, taking your strap under your armpits and around your back at bra strap or heart rate monitor height. Make a long enough loop that you can hook the ball of your right foot with little or no bend in your knee. Cinch your belly, as if you’ve tied a string around your waist and drawn it tight. Shift forward to the front edge of your sit bones and lift your left leg, bringing your left foot into the loop of the strap beside your right. Notice that the more you press through your legs, the more you’re able to lift out of your low back. Hold for 8-10 slow breaths before bending your knees to return your feet to the floor. Rest for a few belly breaths before repeating with the left leg leading.
5. Angel Wings
No matter how mindfully we move through our yoga practice, it’s what we do the rest of the day – in other words, our posture – that really impacts our physical health. This “anti-slump” strapping technique helps us learn healthier postural patterns by anchoring our shoulders back and down to broaden our chest.
Try it: Thread the strap around your back just under your armpits, then loop the ends of the strap forward over the fronts of your shoulders to drape down behind you again. Cross the two ends of the strap over your upper back in an X-shape, then bring the long ends back under your armpits to lock in place just below your sternum.
Tightening the strap pulls your shoulders back and down, immediately resetting your posture from slumping to upright. Try wearing your angel wings for a couple of hours of your day, or through your standing yoga practice, and observe your breathing, energy and mood to see what a difference balanced posture makes.
6. Pyramid Hip Hinge
Our aim in Parsvottanasana or Pyramid is to hinge at the hips, lengthening both the front line of the torso and the hamstrings on the back of the front leg. Eventually we may round the spine to fold over the legs, but we need the movement to initiate at the hips. For many of us, hinging at the hips is challenging and instead we tend to round our back and collapse our chest. Using a strap can help us find the anterior pelvic tilt required by the pose, as well as engaging the posterior shoulder and mid back to keep our chest open.
Try it: Stand with your right foot forward and left foot about 3 feet back, toes turned slightly out so that you can ground your left heel. Hold the strap across the front of your pelvis just below your frontal hip bones, adjusting the length of the strap so that with your arms a couple of inches from your sides, the strap pulls taut. Keep the weight even between both feet and slowly hinge forward at your hips. Draw your hands back to help lift and lengthen your chest. Feel how the strap helps you to balance the forward lift of your chest and the backward pull of your sit bones and hands. Stay for 8-10 breaths before slowly rising up to repeat with left foot forward.
7. Warrior 3 Variation
Virabhadrasana III is one of the most powerful standing balance poses, and great way to learn to access the power in our legs. But while many of us are able to feel the strength in our standing leg, we can struggle to engage the lifted leg. The resistance of the strap allows us to experience the pose with vigour in both legs.
Try it: Stand upright with the strap between your hands and a long loop grazing the floor. Step your right foot forward through the strap and hook the ball of your left foot in the loop. Adjust the length of the strap so that, with your arms a couple of inches from your sides, the strap pulls taut. Shift your weight into your right leg and hinge forward at your hips to float your left leg. Draw the heads of your shoulders away from the floor, feeling your posterior shoulders and back awaken. Find balance between the resistance of your left foot, the pull of your hands, and the opposing length through your crown. Notice the stability you feel when you’re fully engaged in the pose. Stay for 5-7 breaths before slowly releasing to repeat on the other side.
8. Sleeping Butterfly
Supta Baddha Konasana or Supine Bound Angle Pose is one my favourite hip openers. It can be an active pose, with muscular effort required to draw the knees apart and hold the feet together, but the addition of the strap creates a more comfortable and restful option.
Try it: Take a seat with your feet together and bent knees opened wide. Thread the strap around the back of your sacrum, over the top of your hip creases, and under the pinky toe blades of your feet, connecting the strap where you will easily be able to reach the free end to tighten the loop if required. Recline back onto a prop or the floor, aware of how the strap lengthens your sacrum, creating space for your low back. With the strap holding your feet close, you can allow your inner thighs to melt into the stretch. Relax for 10-20 slow and steady breaths before loosening the strap to release your legs.
9. Hand to Big Toe Pose (Variation 1)
Supta Padangusthasana is arguably the most common place a strap is used during yoga class, but using the strap to reach our lifted foot can create tension in the chest and shoulders. Using the strap instead as a sling for both lifted foot and head eliminates much of the effort required, allowing us to more easily relax into the stretch. You’ll feel the benefits not just in your hamstrings, but in your upper body too.
Try it: Make a long loop with your strap and hook it over the ball of your right foot. Your left leg can remain bent or straighten. Ensure you can reach the free end of the strap so that you can adjust the length of the loop to cradle the back of your skull without you having to distort your spine or overly bend your right leg. Position the strap above your ears so that your head and neck can hang heavy with their relaxed weight gently lengthening the back of your right leg. Feel free to keep a slight bend in your right knee and subtle resistance up through the ball of your right foot, but allow your head, neck, chest and shoulders to melt. Relax for 10-15 slow and steady breaths before loosening the strap to swap sides.
10. Hand to Big Toe Pose (Variation 2)
If you have more mobility in your hamstrings and find it easy to catch the lifted foot in Supta Padangusthasana, you can use the strap to fine-tune your alignment. As we straighten the lifted leg, our hip often hikes toward our ribcage, moving us away from the full potential of the hamstring stretch. In addition, we often forget the lower leg. This strapped variation harnesses the strength in the lower leg to help us keep the hips square. These are both very helpful patterns to in this pose, as well as in any standing hamstring stretches.
Try it: Make a long loop with your strap. Hook one end around the very top of your right thigh and the other end around the ball of your left foot. Ensure you can still reach the loose end of your strap so that you can tighten it to roll the right outer hip away from the right side ribs. As you extend the back of your right leg and catch your big toe, press out through the ball of your left foot, feeling how the strength of your left leg helps you to create more symmetry in your hips. Stay for 8-10 breaths before releasing your right foot to swap sides.
Hopefully now you’ve experienced how a prop can actually deepen your asana practice. Rather than being a fall-back for new students, smart use of props can create deeper and more nuanced understanding of a familiar pose. In my opinion, it’s this process of exploration and experimentation that builds a truly advanced asana practice.
Yogins United, a collective of yoga and Buddhist teachers, says yes. The organization is a new initiative to help yogis get out the vote this November.
One hundred and sixteen prominent yoga teachers and three Buddhist leaders signed on to an initiative in May that will encourage members of their communities to vote in the upcoming 2020 presidential election and increase voter turnout. The group, dubbed “Yogins United” (a yogin is a gender neutral term for a yogi), includes luminaries and changemakers like Reginald Hubbard, Octavia Raheem, Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Stephen Cope, Rajni Tripathi, James Bae, Rod Stryker, Seane Corn, and Shiva Rea.
“In light of recent events pertaining to the murder of George Floyd, I have seen a tremendous hunger in the yoga community on how they can be more engaged with matters of racial justice and civil rights,” says Reginald Hubbard, a yoga teacher and senior political strategist and congressional liaison for MoveOn.org, a public policy advocacy group.
Hubbard teaches yoga and meditation to political operatives, congressional staff, and members of Congress including “The Squad” (Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib), and says that wellness should serve as a foundation rather than an afterthought. For Hubbard, his pledge to Yogins United is part of a larger effort to reform the status quo through community engagement. “My hope is to use my teaching platform to share from my activist experience about why voting and civic engagement matters, and to help organize the community through online live events like the Wellness of We,” he says.
Every Vote Counts
The November election threatens to exclude an alarming number of eligible voters. Voter suppression has been a tactic of the Republican party, according to an audio recording that was leaked by a top Trump adviser and obtained by the Associated Press in late-2019. And the current administration is rallying against voting by mail.
Yogins United, started by David Lipsius, a yoga teacher and former president of Yoga Alliance, is a call to action for the yoga, mindfulness, Ayurveda, and spiritual communities to help get out the vote—in person, or by mail if COVID-19 prevents millions of Americans from making it to the polls this fall. “Spiritual teachers have united with nonprofit leaders and CEOs, and community builders have joined forces with activists and healers to send a message—the time for division is over,” Lipsius says. “A new era of partnership and teamwork must be fostered to achieve the highest goals of yoga—peace, freedom and liberation for all.”
Collectively, Lipsius says, the 80 million Americans who practice yoga form a potential voting block that has the power to change systems, leadership, and even society itself. “What would happen if 50 million yoga practitioners inspired just one other person to vote?” Lipsius asks. “Could we begin reversing climate change? Could we eliminate childhood food insecurity? Could we ensure basic human rights for every person in this country?” Lipsius acknowledges that not all yoga practitioners share the same political beliefs and values, but says that as yogis, it is our collective responsibility to address these issues rather than remain impartial or neutral.
Yogins United began as an outreach effort in the Buddhist community started by renowned spiritual teachers Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. When Brach asked Lipsius if he thought yoga teachers would be interested in mobilizing, he began contacting yoga leaders and received an overwhelming positive response. “It’s exciting that we can be natural partners in initiatives like this,” says Brach, a psychologist, author, and Buddhist meditation teacher. “Together [we] have the potential for significant and deeply beneficial impact.”
The Buddhist and Yogin groups—more than 200 strong together—will use digital platforms and outreach to provide resources and reminders for how to improve the percentage of Americans who vote, particularly in the yoga, meditation, and spiritual communities. “One of the central teachings of yoga is the truth of our interdependence,” Lipsius says. “Now is the time to come together.”
9 Yoga and Meditation Teachers On Why They’ve Pledged to Help Get Out the Vote
While some yoga practitioners have argued that politics don’t belong in a yoga setting, there’s never been a more compelling time than now to rethink the intention behind the practice. As Gandhi said, “Those who think politics and spirituality are separate, don’t understand spirituality.” For me, yoga is not about temporarily escaping or hiding from reality, rather yoga strengthens our resolve and gives us the tools to navigate it all from a place of integrity and truth. Yoga practitioners can be peaceful warriors who stand up for what they believe in and possess the courage to speak out against injustices.
I reached out to a few of the yoga and meditation leaders who’ve pledged to Yogins United to learn more about why they believe we, as a collective community, need to help get out the vote this November.
Maya Breuer, E-RYT
Co-Founder of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance, Founder and Co-Director of the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color
We are in direct need for this country to alter what has historically been the mistreatment of the black community. The murder of George Floyd and numerous other Black Americans; police brutality and violence, racism, inequality, mass incarceration, harsh jail sentencing; the lack of socio-economic parity. I am not sure how things can be changed even with new leadership. I remain hopeful that if Joe Biden is elected President of the United States, it will signal the intention for a better America and we will be poised to begin to address these issues that have been endemic to the black community for many years.
Rhode Island has a long history of disenfranchised voting rights. Until recently, felons were not allowed to vote even after completing their sentences and probation. Voting rights were restored to RI felons in 2006, but the long history of not being able to vote continues to impact voter turnout. Today, RI requires a photo ID for all voters, and this serves to suppress voting, particularly among the unhoused. A provisional ballot is offered in these cases, based on matching signatures.
In 2005, the following information was published by the ACLU of Rhode Island: “Rhode Island disfranchises a greater percentage of its African American residents than Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, and 34 other states. With long probation sentences increasingly the norm in Rhode Island, some felons are prevented from voting for decades after they have reentered the community. The Family Life Center estimates that of the 15,500 disenfranchised felons in RI, 86 percent are not incarcerated and would be re-enfranchised by the proposed amendment. According to the Center, since 1987, the number of Rhode Island citizens barred from voting has increased nearly 70 percent.”
Times have changed, and teaching yoga has changed too. Not that long ago, we connected with our students in person and online yoga was something that other people did. Not any more.
Suddenly our only option is to live stream or video our classes, or not connect with our students at all. It’s as if our ideas of what it means to teach, and what skills are required, have abruptly turned on their heads. Lighting, video editing, and technical skills suddenly seem a crucial part of a teacher’s repertoire.
For many of us, the change has brought to light stories that we have been telling ourselves for years. Stories like: “My practice isn’t fancy enough to film”, “Technology isn’t my thing”, “I can’t teach if I can’t get a feel for the room” or “My students won’t respond to that”.
Some of these stories may be based in fact, but others are rooted in insecurity.
I’ve met hundreds of yoga teachers from all over the world, and whatever our differences there are core similarities too. Most of us don’t teach because we want to be the “star”. We are often introverts, behind-the-scenes types, thoughtful enough to be acutely aware of our flaws. Yoga is our comfort, our solace, our sanity, and we teach because we feel drawn to share the tools that help us with others. But ask us to market our offerings, to sing our own praises, and many teachers fall silent.
Our work asks us to dig deep, to examine our actions and motivations with a critical eye. That practice is incredibly helpful, but it can also create a tendency to judge ourselves more harshly than we do others. To feel that we have nothing unique to offer, that there will always be someone else who can do what we do better. Who can offer more inspiring, more creative, more intelligent, more challenging, or more useful practices than we can. Who have a clearer voice, a better platform, or the technical skills that we lack.
But this is not the time to listen to our inner critic. Whatever other teachers have, there is a crucial thing missing, and that is the unique relationship we have built with our students over time. We may not have felt it as keenly as we do now, but our students have always had the option to practice with other teachers, whether locally or online, paid or free of charge, and they have chosen us.
Mahatma Gandhi said: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” These words have never been so true. In these trying times, in the face of almost complete uncertainty, our students need yoga more than ever. There has never been more potent motivation to set our stories aside, to overcome our perceived limitations and reach out to our students in new ways.
Thankfully our students realize how new the online yoga world is for most of us, and are very forgiving in their expectations of production value and ease of access. This the perfect time for us to give online offerings a try.
What does that mean to you? It means that you:
Find a platform your students will have ready access to: for example a private group on Facebook, an unlisted video on YouTube, or Zoom or Vimeo classes that you can email access to.
Determine what core content will most benefit your students. Decide what class length, type, and level will be most useful and whether you prefer livestream or pre-recorded content. You don’t need a camera, fancy lighting, or expensive recording equipment; your students aren’t expecting polished and professional delivery, they simply want to connect with you, so your phone will do just fine.
Perform a test run, free-of-charge, with a friend, family member or regular student to iron out any technical hitches. Assess whether they can see and hear you clearly. Notice any visual or auditory distractions that could be reduced or eliminated. Decide what props will be accessible outside of the yoga studio, and whether or not you plan to “mirror” your students. Don’t listen to the voice of your inner critic telling you that it’s only worth doing if done “right”; these days your students simply need connection, however imperfect, to the comfort of familiar people and practices.
Let people know that your classes or courses are available, and offer payment options. No need for a payment process to be embedded into your online platform, you may just choose to message interested students your bank account number, Venmo or PayPal details. If you are concerned about your students’ economic state, you can offer donation-based or sliding-scale payment options.
Be consistent. You aren’t trying to build an online empire, so set a schedule that you can maintain without adding too much to your plate.
We are all dealing with unforeseen obstacles, pushed to learn skills that didn’t seem relevant just a few weeks ago. Our option is to leave our comfort zone miles behind us or stop teaching entirely. But we teach because we need to. Because the practice has been our support, our relief, our release, and we know our students need the tools yoga provides more than ever before.
Robert Ingersoll said: “We rise by lifting others”. And so we find a way.
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After over 10 weeks of intense work on the COVID-19 healthcare frontline, I had the most perfect vacation days planned: sleeping, gardening, cleaning, catching up on life. Then I read about Christian Cooper’s story.
Growing up a minority in a mostly Caucasian world has been anything but easy. And even as an adult, things remain hard. But if there’s one thing that you learn very early on, it’s to develop a thick shell so that the constant micro-aggressions don’t destroy you. You keep going and you work harder, a smile plastered on your face so as to not make others around you feel uncomfortable. Resiliency is key for survival. Period.
The incident implicating Christian Cooper highlights perfectly how society still has some major racial problems. I had become complacent in assuming that, in 2020 North America, people finally had enough knowledge and critical thinking skills to evolve from believing everything “the system” had been feeding them for the past 400 years. This story triggers me to the highest level, making me ask what would have happened to Christian Cooper ( or any other Black man, in this instance) if the encounter hadn’t been recorded… Soon thereafter, the George Floyd murder took place. All 8:46 minutes of it recorded for the world to witness. To me, it was incomprehensibly brutal, vicious, senseless and filled with hatred. And it made me realize that the use of the expression African-American to characterize a Black person in North America is completely erroneous: Black lives obviously are not being considered when we speak of North American lives…
Instead of all my carefully crafted plans, I spent my last week reflecting on this realization and its implications, rehashing traumatic memories I had buried so deeply within myself. The process made me both scared and angry. Could one layer of different color skin cells really determine one’s fate at the hands of a stranger or the law? What makes it so inconceivably difficult to understand that we’re all equal? I have thought about all the instances Black community leaders have tried, over the past decades, to reach out and educate officials and the population about culture bias. All the times I’ve also reached out to friends and strangers alike to share my experiences and sensitize them on racist issues. My conclusion: IT’S TIME TO WAKE UP. We no longer have a choice. We all need to pitch in. Now is the time to push for the change we NEED to see. It’s now or never. These horrific stories must stop. Now. Systemic racism is a global health emergency of pandemic proportions; it has to be addressed the same way we’re addressing the SARS-Cov-2 virus. Black lives are lost now, and more will follow if racism is left unchecked. This will be a lengthy process, but we’re all in it for the long haul. Resiliency is key, so let’s make this uncomfortable work bearable by working together. It is our duty to make Black lives North American lives that matter. Observe, listen, educate yourselves and your peers, vote for that change and most importantly: speak up when it’s time!
In the last three months, all of us have entered a new relationship with distance, time, and, as social beings, each other. To help prevent the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, governments have enacted stay-at-home orders and enforced strict social distancing policies. Businesses and schools are closed. Travel, for the most part, has ground to a halt. Some of us, including those employed in industries like food, healthcare, and manufacturing, have continued to show up for work, while the remainder of adults who were employed before the pandemic are working from home or have lost their jobs altogether. These months have brought tremendous loss and suffering—in different ways for different people—affecting us all.
Many of us are grieving, contending with not only the loss of life, but also the loss of so much that makes life meaningful, or at least lends it structure. If you are like me, you might feel as if you are adrift, less able to make sense of life without the schedule, appointments, and basic routines that made up your day. Without places to be, people to meet, and things to do, the days melt together, and time flows on without punctuation. I invite you to mourn this loss of structure. At the same time, I hope you find space within yourself to explore a new source of meaning within its absence.
I, for one, have been thinking about the fundamental nature of our interconnectedness—how, without the busyness of daily life, and despite this moment of social isolation, I feel that I have come into closer connection with the rhythms and pace of the Earth, my body, and the cosmic forces from which all life is drawn. I am resetting the clock.
As a physician and a mother, I derive meaning from serving my patients and raising my children. My daily routine, while at times demanding, has helped structure and orient my life. Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, for instance, meant that I was teaching yoga, while Thursday evening was spent taking a yoga class, and Friday meant an early morning and a full day in the operating room. Three nights per week, I wouldn’t be home until after 9:30 p.m., as I would be picking up my daughter from dance practice an hour away from home. Amid this busy schedule, I have always found time to nourish myself with outdoor exercise, eating well, and practicing yoga. Despite these attempts to find balance, however, I often felt out of whack. I was stretching myself too thin, coming home exhausted, and sleeping poorly. It felt like I was trying to keep up with two different clocks, one set to the demands of my schedule and the other to my own innate circadian rhythm. I was out of sync.
I was experiencing what the chronobiologist Till Roenneberg calls “social jet lag,” or SJL. It is the gulf between our internal clock and the demands of our social world. According to Roenneberg, social jet lag “promotes practically everything that is bad for our body,” from weight gain to reduced mental performance, inflammation, cytokines, type 2 diabetes, and chronic illness. Studies suggest the circadian misalignment occurring in SJL can lead to bad health habits, including cigarette smoking, caffeine overconsumption, increased risk for cardiovascular disease, and even certain forms of cancer.
Our social obligations have pressured us to manipulate time and disregard our internal clocks, which, believe it or not, are somewhat genetically predetermined and set to the rhythms of our natural world.
The most poignant aspect of interconnectedness to our planet, every life form has been dependent on the tilted rotation of the earth for over 4.5 billion years. The circadian clock, a biological rhythm set by the 24-hour cycle of light and dark has been an inherent foundation of health and wellness in the oldest practices of medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine, each have circadian cornerstones for health, and bridging wellness to deeper understanding of “harmony between humans and nature”.
Our manipulation of time, ignoring nature’s cues has not only misaligned our innate genetic circadian rhythm and health, it extends to the world around us. One of the great observations of slowing down human movement that has emerged during the pandemic is the impact we have on our environment. Measurable from space, and visible on earth, atmospheric pollution and greenhouse emissions have declined in some areas by 50%. The Himalayan Mountains previously hidden from smog can be seen in a distance, clear vibrant waterways have emerged, nature and wildlife are venturing to reclaim otherwise busy human occupied spaces. Humans have imposed an “environmental jet lag” on mother earth, placing human priorities above the natural rhythm needed to sustain a balance with nature. Environmental warming, pollution, disruption of natural resources, the earth has suffered from humans. Nature has shown us the ability to heal in a short few weeks by global sheltering in place. If human’s sheltering in place could aid the planet’s healing, imagine the impact we could make by being intentful, nurturing our environment and tapping into nature’s circadian wisdom. Perhaps it is time to “reset the clock” and to look at ways to improve balance within each of us, and maintain harmony with the world around us.
Sűdy ÁR, Ella K, Bódizs R, Káldi K. Association of Social Jetlag with Sleep Quality and Autonomic Cardiac Control During Sleep in Young Healthy Men. Front Neurosci. 2019;13:950. Published 2019 Sep 6. doi:10.3389/fnins.2019.00950
When I started researching trauma in literature over 10 years ago, I had no idea how wide-spread the concept of trauma would become, and I didn’t think much about its influence on my yoga teaching and practice either. To me, it was just something that belonged to psychology research and cultural studies. This has all changed in recent years. We have seen a steady increase in books, articles, talks, workshops and trainings on yoga and trauma. There is trauma- sensitive yoga, trauma informed yoga, yoga for PTSD and so forth. It is becoming as important for a yoga teacher to be aware of trauma as of hypermobility or joint issues. This is great, but also complex, because it is easy to think that trauma is one thing and one thing only, when in fact it’s unique to each person and each experience. This makes it harder to say what yoga for trauma should look like. On the other hand, we also know that not all hypermobility is addressed with the same pose adjustments, so perhaps it’s the same approach we need to apply here.
So, what exactly is trauma? We can simplify trauma to say that it’s an experience, or a collection of experiences, that impact our nervous system, so that it becomes trapped in a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. Bessel van der Kolk explains it as: “something that overwhelms your coping capacities”, Peter Levine defines it as: “an overwhelm of our natural defensive responses that creates something like an injury in our autonomic nervous system, which affects its ability to self-regulate”, and Judith Herman says: “Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life”.
A good example to think of is how animals in nature respond to danger, attacking their predator, freezing so that they become unseen or running away. Animals tend to release these events from their bodies relatively quickly afterwards by shaking, but if the danger persists, they become traumatized in the same way as people do. Think of a dog that has been neglected or abused, what’s its body language like? How will it respond to a stranger coming over to it? How would you approach it? This is similar for people who have experienced trauma, but it’s often less overt. Sometimes, they may not be aware of it themselves, or that their reactions are anything out of the ordinary. This is why it is important for yoga teachers to be aware of the many ways in which trauma manifests in people’s bodies and minds, especially if we do hands on assists.
The difficulty with trauma is that it is experienced in different ways by different people, not one singular event is inherently traumatizing. As Dr Gabor Mate suggests, “Something bad has happened to you, or not enough good things have happened to you.” Some people come away from a terrifying accident completely unharmed, others carry the event within them, unable to process it. Therefore, we shouldn’t assume that trauma is expressed the same way by different people. Cultural, generational, and gender issues impact this as well, adding to the complexity. Knowing this, it becomes apparent that there isn’t one way of approaching trauma in the context of yoga – what may be soothing to one nervous system, may not be for another. Restorative yoga may be healing for some but triggering for others, same for any style of yoga. So what can we do?
Well, there are some simple things that can make any yoga class more conducive to trauma healing. The teaching space has to be one of exploration of connection, but within a safe structure. This may seem paradoxical, but the most important thing we can create in a yoga space is a sense of safety so that the nervous system can start to let go of some of its hypervigilance, and therefore start to explore what it’s like to be in the body. Simple ways to establish safety is being clear about what you will do in the class, what the sequence is, where you will place yourself in the room, whether you will turn the lights off or not during Savasana and why you may look at someone’s pose. All it takes is a couple of words stating: “We will do X, I will be walking around making sure your practice is anatomically safe, and during Savasana I will play some music/turn off lights etc.” And it’s paramount to be clear about time, always being on time and finishing on time is an underestimated technique for creating safety. It develops trust that you will do, what you say you will do.
Some other aspects of yoga may be both more triggering and more healing, and it’s a fine line to walk, knowing that we all may get it wrong from time to time. This is where it gets more complicated. One of the profoundly healing qualities of yoga is its ability to cultivate a connection between body and mind. Often, trauma separates the connection to the body, or makes the body an unsafe place to be, for a variety of reasons. As van der Kolk explains, “Trauma is actually NOT the story of what happened a long time ago; trauma is residue that’s living inside of you now; trauma lives inside of you in horrible sensations, panic reactions, uptightness, explosions, and impulses. Because trauma lives inside of you, getting to know yourself can be the scariest thing to do.” The invitation to experience the practice from within, is where the experimentation and exploration part comes in. As a teacher, you are slowly coaxing and inviting the person to connect to what it may be like to sense the body.
This doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact, it may be very simple, yet profound. Some embodiment practices that we may want to incorporate, and that we may already use, are as simple as feeling the breath and the movement of ribs, with hands on ribs. This combination of interoception (feeling from the inside) and proprioception (feeling from the outside) is a simple link that can bring the person back to the sensation of being in their body. Deep breaths are always good as well! Feeling feet on the floor, inviting the students to touch their own skin to feel the boundaries of their bodies, feeling the sensations of hands pressing into each other, all of these small things can be some of manageable and digestible moments of when a person returns to their body and is able to experience the union of body and mind.
One thing that we must be aware of with trauma, beyond anything else or any training that we do, is our own traumas and how we harbor them in our bodies. Working with our own traumas as teachers, is probably the best thing we can do to provide a safe space for our students. Seeking support in holding space for our own trauma will help us in holding space for other people’s traumas.
How does yoga affect the different systems in the body?
When we look at the research and breakdown how yoga can be helpful, we’re still really just barely touching the tip of the iceberg when we talk about being able to explain it.
The Nervous System
The effects of yoga on sympathetic and parasympathetic regulation and circulation are a big part of the effects of a yoga practice that we can explain right now. Our capacity to efficiently & effectively regulate stress and recalibrate the nervous system responses and increase blood flow. Interestingly enough a large number of pharmaceuticals target the nervous system to create their responses and yet we actually still know very little about the nervous system and the brain.
Then there’s the flip-side. The sympathetic also gets a bad rep. New research also shows that the power of stressing the system is really important to our health & longevity, with things like intermittent fasting and athletic training being examples. What’s important is that we can rise to the challenge and then smoothly transition back to a more parasympathetic dominant state. With such a diversity of movement and more introspective practices, yoga is an excellent way to train these shifts in the nervous system.
The mind & mental health are a huge part of the effects we see from a regular yoga practice. In fact one the things that makes researching yoga so difficult is that so often prompts positive lifestyle changes from these mental shifts. A regular yoga practice changes the lens through which we see the world by creating a more nonjudgmental appreciation for what’s within & around us. It allows us moments to sit in the middle and watch the waves of our lives around us, which is a big part of its use in stress reduction.
It’s fascinating to look at the placebo studies coming out of Harvard and how we look at placebo as a negative outcome rather than the power of the mind. The importance of our perspective, our mindset, our purpose, setting an intention with practice, all these really simple things are also a big part of what’s shaping the effects of our practice. We’re learning so much more about the brain and how powerful it is in regulating so many things, including pain and our experience in the world.
The Immune System
With all the super bugs and viruses right now, the immune and lymphatic impacts of a yoga practice are precious modalities. There are so many great ways to support the immune system with yoga. Simple stress reduction, pranayama and gentle flow for lymphatic circulation; or more specific movements to target the lymph nodes. The lymph nodes intelligently congregate around the joints and rely on changes in pressure to pump lymphatic fluid through them. Movements targeted to these areas help to pump fluids through the lymph nodes and the lymph flow through the nodes is an important part of our immune function.
I love seeing how new research supports these things and the implications of how important the flow of the lymphatic fluid is to supporting the immune system. It just comes down to digging in a little deeper to understand how it all works in order to create a purposeful practice to support lymphatics.
The Connective Tissue
Connective tissue research is teaching us a lot and much of that information can be applied to a yoga practice. I believe the next wave of sports medicine will build off of this new info.
There are so many implications to support the connective tissue in yoga. We find simple things like eccentric contractions, slow flow and held passive stretches as a great way to apply a healthy stress to the connective tissues which help hydrate the connective tissue and stimulates the cells to lay down more collagen, making the tissues stronger & more resilient.
There’s some interesting research on the impacts we can have on the connective tissue and the implications in yoga. Yin yoga has some interesting applications in particular. Imagine the connective tissue right under the skin like a sponge. If you think about pulling that sponge from both ends—and they’ve done studies on this—the fluid content of the fascia goes down right away. Then as you come out, once you’ve stayed in for two minutes or longer, the fluids come back into the connective tissue, to where they were and then keep increasing beyond that for up to three hours afterwards.
There’s a whole lot more to the connective tissue, but that gives you a quick peek into one area of research. Yoga is such a big part of this and since the connective tissue is a sensory organ and a key part of our proprioception and interoception there are many more connections to how yoga can benefit the connective tissues.
What is pain education and how can yoga help us understand our pain?
There’s some interesting research out of Australia with Professor Lorimer Moseley and Professor David Butler on how pain education changes pain. I think teaching mindfulness is such an important foundation when working with pain as it allows us to peel away the filters of our past experiences as we shift to this nonjudgmental attention.
We actually don’t have pain receptors in our tissues, we have nociceptors, which are basically just sensing extreme changes in pressure, temperature & chemicals, and relaying that information back to our brain. Our brain is then filtering that against all of its past experiences, emotions and beliefs about pain or fear of pain. It’s filtering all these things and then predicting whether there is an inherent danger to the system. So ultimately the nerves are actually danger receptors, protecting us from harm to our tissues.
The interesting thing about that is that our brain is always going to air on the side of safety and protection. The feelings that we feel don’t always match up with the threat to the tissues, especially in chronic pain when the mechanical issues are long gone. For me, this is where yoga becomes such a really important tool; being able to slow down and peel away the filters of our emotional body & past experiences to sit with the experience (safely of course). Is there actually a threat or danger? Can I relax here and see if it’s still there?
Pain is in some ways our greatest teacher. If something is painful, can I go slower and allow it to shift? If I go slower and it’s still there, what is it trying to teach me? Maybe I shouldn’t be moving there. Maybe not every day. Maybe that changes tomorrow. The idea of being able to look and take away the judgment, take away the reactions, the emotional reactivity of it, and really look at this experience and remind ourselves of the fact that we all experience stress. We all suffer. We all experience pain.
Empowering our students to understand their bodies rather than be afraid of it, is really an important & empowering part of our practice.
Fear-based approaches never benefit anyone. “Don’t do this or you’re going to hurt this.” We need to empower our students to be advocates of their health and empower them to appreciate pain as a learning opportunity. To respect it by slowing down enough to listen and adapt rather than pushing through.
Pain is a precious signal and a brilliant and intelligent system that is constantly adapting. Pain education is an interesting field that we’re still learning so much about.
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