I’m loving this roundup of information from HuffPo on how yoga improves health and well-being. Click on the infographic for more information!
How Yoga Changes Your Body October 31, 2013
books: Healing Back Pain Naturally, by Art Brownstein November 14, 2012
My father has had three spine surgeries to date, and as a yoga teacher, I’ve wondered what I could do to help him while at the same time fearing to damage his back further. My friend Kyle recommended this book. Dr. Brownstein’s program is one that a yoga teacher can really get behind, focusing not just on recovering from physical injury, but on the mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of healthy living as well.
Dr. Brownstein begins the book by telling the story of his own struggles with debilitating back pain and his journey to recovery. His experiences give him a special understanding of what those with back pain are suffering. Because of his own search for healing, Dr. Brownstein has a unique perspective on how to heal from a back injury and prevent future problems.
Dr. Brownstein’s program for healing is based on his concept of the mind/body connection, described in chapters 2 and 3. According to Dr. Brownstein, mental and emotional stress can result in an increase in muscle tension and tightness, leading to injury. Dr. Brownstein urges the reader not to overmedicate, or to leap ahead to treating back problems with surgery and other invasive techniques; rather, he advocates spending some time with the pain, to understand what’s wrong and what the body is trying to communicate. It’s important to understand how the back works physically, and chapter 2 describes back anatomy in detail so the reader will understand the structures and terminology and know how back pain can result from weakness, imbalance, or strain elsewhere in the body. But sometimes the best and most permanent solution to a back problem is to make changes to lifestyle and behaviors that cause stress.
This book covers the full lifestyle spectrum in Dr. Brownstein’s approach to healing the back. Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the physical body. Chapter 4 includes a wide variety of stretches for the back; most of these are taken from yoga asanas, and may are simple and gentle enough to be done in the midst of back pain and can lead to some relief when done properly. Dr. Brownstein outlines how to use these stretches, in the order he lists them and over time, to regain mobility and reduce pain. Once the back has been fully stretched and the pain is gone, the reader can move on to strengthening the back as described in chapter 5. Back muscles that are both flexible AND strong are less likely to be pulled or strained.
Chapters 6-10 cover stress management, healthy eating, work, play, and spirituality as they relate to back care and overall health. Dr. Brownstein takes a holistic approach based on his mind/body concept: since anxiety and stress can affect the body, causing muscle tension and contributing to injury, it’s important to heal not only the body but also the mind, heart, and spirit to truly recover from a back problem. By reducing stress, reducing caffeine intake, improving one’s outlook on work, opening the heart in personal relationships, and cultivating a sense of humor and fun, the reader can improve her overall health and happiness and remove many of the stressors that can lead to future back pain and injury.
I’ve never suffered from a chronic pain condition, so I can’t comment on the book’s usefulness for those actively in pain. However, as a yoga teacher, this book helped me to understand better the perspective of someone in that kind of pain and gave me some tools to help those future students. I plan to buy a copy of this book for my dad as well.
Inspirational Link: Hey, Fat Girl June 1, 2012
Today I’m loving this post from Flintland: Hey, Fat Girl. I have some things to say about it, but you should read it first before you hear my thoughts. Don’t worry, it’s short. Go click on the link, I’ll wait.
So, I love how the writer has a completely different way of looking at the larger runner than what we typically see in our culture. I love his warm, encouraging, and supportive tone. I love how, throughout the post, he mentions several benefits of being a runner, but nowhere does he mention weight loss – only health, strength, and confidence. Yes! I hope that all the larger runners, walkers, and other kinds of exercisers out there see this post and learn that the jerks who heckle you are only a small minority. Plenty of us are cheering you on.
From a yoga perspective, this is the attitude I want to share with my future students. Yoga is hard: it takes strength and stamina and flexibility and concentration. But, like running, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It means, start now, and a month or six months or two years from now, look back and be proud of how far you’ve come and what you’ve achieved. I want to fill my yoga classes with all kinds of people, all different sizes and abilities. Yoga is not about size, and it’s not about judgment. Like running, yoga is a path to becoming your best, strongest, truest self.
Avoiding Injuries Through Mindfulness January 12, 2012
A lot of people have read the recent NYT article about how yoga will “wreck your body”. As a brand-new yoga teacher, I obviously disagree with a lot of what the writer says: I mean, I just spent a significant amount of time and money dedicating myself to learning about yoga, which would be kind of a waste if this guy is right. Here are my thoughts.
Of course many people have injured themselves doing yoga. It’s not difficult to do – I’ve done it myself, and so has almost anyone who’s practiced yoga with any dedication over an extended period of time. You can injure yourself hiking or dancing or playing video games or gardening, too, but that doesn’t mean that we stop hiking and dancing and gardening. These are things that feed our spirits, and so is yoga. To single out yoga as an activity that can wreck your body doesn’t make sense, because there are so many other activities that can wreck your body! We humans are equal opportunity wreckers. Accidents can happen no matter what you’re doing.
The key thing, for me, is to keep in mind what the true purpose of yoga is. According to the ancient texts, yoga is a way to get the body healthy so you can then sit in meditation. The point is not to sculpt the body or lose weight or to get a great workout, and people who approach yoga with that attitude (or, with that attitude only) may in the long run be more likely to injure themselves. The point is to be healthy: whatever healthy happens to be for your particular body. And the point of being healthy ultimately isn’t the body at all – we’re working on the body so that we can sit comfortably in meditation. A healthy body won’t be aching and complaining when you sit still for ten minutes. That’s the point we’re trying to get to: improving the body so we can focus on more important things.
Keeping your focus off the body and on the mind can actually help yoga practitioners not to injure themselves. You want to be aware of what’s going on in the body, certainly, and it’s really important to cultivate that awareness of how the body feels and the difference between work and pain. Being mindful of your body is crucial, but it doesn’t do any good to be looking in the mirror or comparing yourself to other students and forcing your body toward something you’re not capable of. And don’t think ahead to what this yoga class is doing for you; keep your mind right in the moment, on your own mat. Stay present and focused on the pose you’re doing right now.
When you take part in any activity, you do your best to be careful and to be mindful of what you’re doing. When you go hiking or ride your bike, you watch where you’re going, but if your mind wanders, your foot can slip or your bike can veer off the path. It’s the same thing in yoga. Staying present and mindful and focused on what you’re doing will help you to avoid inadvertently causing an injury.
Here are a few other responses to the article by nvnehi and anytimeyoga and Michael Taylor. I think it’s interesting to see the very different, thoughtful ways that different yogis have reacted.
Yoga for Great Sex, Part 1 October 26, 2011
It should come as no surprise to my readers here that yoga can improve your sex life (after all, it improves just about everything else!). But what might be surprising is just how many of yoga’s many benefits do translate to the bedroom. It’s not just about flexibility and physical fitness: there are a myriad of other physical benefits, along with mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits. The truth is that all the things in yoga that prepare us for meditation also prepare us for great sex and for connecting deeply with another person. This blog series will discuss the many benefits of yoga for sex and examine how some familiar yoga poses can pay off in the bedroom.
First, let’s look at the physical benefits.
- We all know that yoga improves the body’s strength, flexibility, coordination, muscle control, and overall health and physical fitness. People who are physically healthy, strong, and flexible will be able to perform better and have more stamina in the bedroom.
- In addition to overall fitness, yoga specifically targets core strength and works the muscles of the pelvic floor, which are the muscles used during sex (see my recent post about the pelvic floor to learn more about how these muscles work and why they’re important). Having strong, flexible pelvic floor muscles will lead to a good sexual experience for both partners!
- Doing yoga also gives you more energy. When you’re holding a difficult yoga pose, powering through it even though you’re struggling, you’re using tapas, which builds heat and energy in the body. Also, yoga opens and balances the chakras throughout the body, which leads to a better flow of energy. And more energy equals more passion!
- The flip side of having more energy during the day is getting better sleep at night. Studies have shown that people who practice yoga do sleep better. Getting the sleep your body needs means that you’ll be well-rested and ready to do other things in the bedroom besides sleep.
- Yoga also promotes self-knowledge, including a better knowledge of your own body. There are two consequences of this:
- First, you become more aware of physical sensations in the body, which can lead to just plain enjoying sex more!
- You also develop a better understanding of subtle physical movements. When we learn how to make tiny adjustments in the body in order to perfect our alignment in a yoga posture, we can then use that knowledge to make the same sorts of small movements during sex, which can turn a good sexual experience into a great one!
Next time, we’ll start talking about the mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits of yoga and how they apply in the bedroom (or, as was suggested to me during my presentation, wherever you might choose to get frisky!).
Yoga and the Pelvic Floor October 10, 2011
I keep seeing the pelvic floor muscles come up throughout my research on yoga and sex. We rarely think about these muscles, and don’t use them often (although they sure come in handy on an emergency run to the bathroom). However, the pelvic floor muscles are incredibly important for sex, for childbirth, and just in general for keeping our internal organs where they’re supposed to be.
The pelvic floor is just that: the muscles at the bottom of the torso, supporting the internal organs and the spine. These muscles control the passage of waste matter out of the body; they also include the muscles lining the vagina, so having a healthy pelvic floor can increase pleasure during sex for both partners. A healthy, strong, flexible pelvic floor can also really help a woman during childbirth. As women age and enter menopause, the hormone balance in the body changes, which can cause the pelvic floor to thin and weaken, which is why June Allyson sells Depends. This is why it’s important to keep the pelvic floor healthy throughout your lifetime!
The best plan is to keep the pelvic floor muscles in good shape, so you don’t ever have to worry about incontinence or the health problems that could occur if these muscles are weakened or torn. This means not just toning and strengthening, but making sure the muscles are flexible. However,the pelvic floor can be stretched out, weakened, or torn during childbirth; it could also be affected by a variety of other issues like obesity, hysterectomy, or even just constant straining on the toilet. Whether your pelvic floor is healthy or not, exercise can really help to get it in shape or keep it that way.
Most of us have heard of Kegel exercises. Named for Dr. Arnold Kegel, these are simple exercises in which you squeeze and relax your pelvic floor muscles. You can read more about Kegel exercises here or here. An even simpler exercise to work your pelvic floor is just squatting. The action of squatting is great for these muscles.
Of course yoga and pilates both include exercises and stretches that really help the pelvic floor. In yoga, the mula bandha or root lock can be employed to strengthen and stretch the pelvic floor. In a pose like Goddess or Chair, for example, if you’re doing the pose properly you’ll probably be activating your mula bandha, and it can be used in many other poses. To learn more about mula bandha, this book is a pretty exhaustive review of the topic, covering the benefits of employing mula bandha along with several techniques for doing so.
One simple pose that’s good for the pelvic floor is Cobbler or Bound Angle pose. Sitting on the floor, bend your knees, bring the soles of your feet together, and cup your hands around your feet. Just sitting like that is good, or you can bend forward. This pose stretches the hips and soothes menstrual or urinary problems, and helps with anxiety and fatigue too.
For more information on the pelvic floor, check out the wikipedia article or this really informative article written by a midwife. Or check out this excellent post on finding and moving your pelvic floor, complete with a video, over at anytimeyoga.
Yoga in the News: It’s good for fibromyalgia and orthopedic problems! August 11, 2011
Here’s some good news: Yoga Beneficial for Fibromyalgia. Women with fibromyalgia have lower-than-average cortisol levels, which contribute to pain, fatigue and stress sensitivity, but after doing hatha yoga twice a week for eight weeks, the women participating in the study had higher levels of cortisol. They reported that they suffered less from pain and other symptoms after practicing yoga, and further, they experienced psychological benefits: feeling stronger, more accepting, and less overwhelmed by their condition.
And more good news: Yoga Therapy May Help Prevent and Treat Orthopedic Problems. From the article, “Dr. Fishman, a lifelong devotee of yoga who studied it for three years in India before going to medical school, uses various yoga positions to help prevent, treat, and he says, halt and often reverse conditions like shoulder injuries, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and scoliosis.” The article goes on to describe how a modified yoga headstand can be used to treat painful rotator cuff injuries without expensive surgery or lengthy physical therapy and without recurrence of pain. Dr. Fishman also did a study on yoga for bone disease and found that the patients with osteoporosis who practiced yoga daily for two years had increased bone density.
Yoga in the News: Good Posture July 19, 2011
Here’s an interesting article from Boston.com about good posture. According to the article, people who sit slumped over a laptop all day, or who simply sit all day, are at risk for developing curved spines and other problems. However, there’s hope: as we all know here, yoga is excellent for improving posture. The article cites a study where elderly people with curved spines either attended a one-hour yoga class once a week or didn’t. The group who went to yoga had much improved posture at the end of the study. The article also recommends tai chi, which involves slow, deliberate movements, and pilates, which works the abdomen and core muscles, to improve posture.
Thoughts from Last Night’s Class June 15, 2011
A few miscellaneous thoughts on last night’s yoga class:
- N’s classes are a pretty amazing workout. I feel challenged in a completely different way than I do in J’s class. It’s kind of humbling, actually, because I think it’s not hard for me to get puffed up about my yoga practice, and N’s class brings me right back down to earth where I belong. It doesn’t matter how bendy or strong you are – what matters is the intention behind the practice – but really, I am not so bendy or strong as I think I am.
- N’s class also serves to make me feel old. Last night, my back hurt, the backs of my knees hurt, my standing leg hurt all through the balance poses, and my arms hurt and wobbled all over the place. The arms are a strength thing, and clearly I’m working on that just by showing up, but the back and the knees could be age-related. N’s classes, while inspiring me to do more, work harder, and get stronger, also remind me to be careful, be mindful, and not hurt myself.
- Speaking of the standing leg in balance poses, N had us do another balance sequence that kicked my butt again. I think the issue for me is that we’re going from balance poses where we bent forward (like ardha chandrasana) into balance poses where we’re upright (like crane and tree). Plus, putting that much pressure on the standing leg for several poses in a row without a break is really rough, and N doesn’t give us time to shake it out after we come down. (I say “without a break” but I gave myself several breaks last night, and it was still really tough.) This looks to be just one more area where I need to practice ahimsa and be gentle with myself.
- When I find myself hurting in yoga class, or unable for whatever reason to keep up and do the pose as everyone else is doing it, I have a tendency to get angry. How long have we been holding this?!, I’ll think to myself, or Down-dog twist again? We’ve done it five times now! Last night it was really hard for me to practice tapas and work through the burn, and really hard to practice ahimsa and counter those negative thoughts with positive ones. Again, I have to turn my brain around and see this as an opportunity: a difficult yoga class is frustrating, but it’s going to make me stronger, and my negative thoughts are natural, but they give me a chance to practice some loving-kindness towards myself. If I need to rest, it’s okay to rest.
- I hate ardha chandrasana. I really, really do. I’m practicing it more this month and I’m improving, but still. It is just Not Fun.
- And speaking of Not Fun, someone near me in last night’s class was experiencing a gas problem. Now, I have nothing but sympathy for whoever it was – I’ve been that person before, we’ve all been that person – but it just makes the whole “deep even breathing” thing a little more difficult. Grabbing my lavender-filled eye pillow for savasana was a big relief, let me tell you.
Ayurveda: what’s it all about? June 14, 2011
One of my assignments this month was to complete an ayurvedic questionnaire and explore the results. My first response was, wait, back up, what’s ayurveda?
Ayurveda is an alternative form of medicine traditional in India, with a history going back thousands of years. It’s a system of healthful, mindful living based on the concept of balancing three elemental energies called doshas: vata (air/wind), pitta (fire/water), and kapha (water/earth). Ayurveda holds that each person has different levels of these three doshas, and poor health comes from an imbalance in the doshas. Balancing the doshas, in a unique way for each individual, will lead to better health. This balance can be accomplished by focusing on diet (to improve metabolic system, digestion, and excretion), exercise, yoga, meditation, and even massage. In balancing the doshas and living in moderation, it’s thought that the body, mind, and spirit will also come into balance, improving the health of the whole person.
Each person has a unique distribution of the three doshas. Each person has some of each, but often one or two doshas are more abundant; by examining your physical attributes and personality (for example, in a quiz like this one), you can find out which is your dominant dosha. Your dosha levels can fluctuate, affecting mood and health, which is why it can be helpful to bring them back into alignment and balance! I took N’s ayurvedic questionnaire and came up almost equal in vata and pitta, with a very low level of kapha by comparison.
Vata, the air or wind element, is characterized physically by a thin, delicate body type with low body fat. A vata person is sensitive, jumpy or unable to sit still, easily overwhelmed, flighty, often runs late, easily confused. A vata dominant person who is well-balanced will demonstrate the most positive traits of this type: sharp, quick thinking, creative, while an unbalanced vata person could experience gas, bloating, lack of focus, spaciness, dry skin, nervousness, sleeplessness, and worry. A vata should avoid low-fat, raw, or cold foods in favor of warm, heavier foods.
The pitta element combines fire and water. Physically, a pitta type is medium-framed and well-proportioned; personality traits include being focused, organized, “type A”, workaholic. A pitta person tends to need to eat regularly and gets cranky when she misses a meal. When balanced, pittas are productive, organized, energetic, enthusiastic; unbalanced, pittas become agitated, irritable, and overly competitive and may experience diarrhea, rashes, and perspiration. Pittas should avoid overly spicy foods and red meat, choosing sweeter foods.
Finally, kaphas are earth and water types: physically larger or big-boned, not necessarily overweight but able to gain weight easily, and can be powerful athletes when in shape. Kaphas are grounded, stable, solid, slower moving, sensual. Balanced kaphas are reliable, dependable, calm, even-tempered, and peacemakers, while unbalanced kaphas can be lethargic, depressed, dull and sluggish, congested, and overweight. Kaphas should avoid fatty and heavy foods, dairy, and red meat, and choose lighter grains and proteins.
I think my results are pretty accurate. There were a few questions I could have answered differently, but doing so wouldn’t have changed the overall balance. I have a lot of vata and pitta characteristics. At my best I have the quickness and creativity of vata and the focus, organization, and productivity of the pitta. At my worst, I get the vata’s spaciness, dry skin, nervousness, lack of focus, and worry, and the pitta’s irritability and rashes. I definitely have the pitta need to eat regular meals (as F’s family can attest; I’ve started packing snacks for myself when we visit because they just don’t seem to eat on a schedule!). The food recommendations for vata and pitta are a little contradictory (the above is just a summary) but on both lists I see things that really appeal to me and that I’ve been naturally drawn to: lighter proteins, creamy soups, mashed sweet potatoes (vata), and fresh lime, dark leafy greens, sweet vegetables (pitta). My yoga teacher N is an ayurvedic practitioner, and I’m considering having a session with her to look at these things more closely.
Interestingly, I made F take the questionnaire with me, and he came up almost completely balanced among the three doshas. Looking at the descriptions, F has many characteristics of each dosha: he’s stronger in vata and kapha than pitta, but all three were within four points of each other. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that. Apparently I have a well-balanced husband.