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Apr 30

Let’s Talk Yoga Medicine

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

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

VALERIE KNOPIK: I have a PhD in Psychology and I am currently an academic researcher/scientist mentoring postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty at Brown University and 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.

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

VK: 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.

AM: How can one access Yoga Medicine?

VK:  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, trainings, 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.

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

VK: 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!

  • Eliminate coffee and alcohol. If possible, eliminate all caffeine, but 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 and (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!

AM: 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?

VK: 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.

AM:  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?

VK: 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.

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

VK: 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 rutter 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 over head. 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 come back to center and 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 – trying 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 and stretch the lower back muscles that tend to get tight when we sit for too long.

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

VK: 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 and, 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, but at this point, I believe it is still primarily on the shoulders of the practitioners/patients/clients to seek out ways to bring together Eastern and Western modalities for relief from anything as simple as the common cold to more complex situations such as low back pain.  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. With information and education comes the possibility for more comprehensive approaches to health.

Valerie Knopik, PhD, is a Yoga Medicine instructor, Director of Research for the Yoga Medicine Research Institute, a Senior Research Scientist & Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University, and a yoga teacher in Providence, Rhode Island.

Read more from the April Issue and see Let’s Talk Yoga Medicine in magazine.

Valerie will be assisting Tiffany Cruikshank at the upcoming Shoulder Module training taking place in the Catskills, NY. This training will look at the anatomy, dysfunction and yoga therapeutics of the complex shoulder joint. Want to learn more? Click here for details on this advanced yoga training with Yoga Medicine!

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