Point of Departure – a new look at resolution

If you don’t choose a different present, then your past will choose it for you.

Rod Stryker

As January 1st approaches we are again asked to reflect on the past and set our goals and intentions for the new year ahead. It seems cliche at this point. Regardless, the opportunity for a fresh start is tempting and in this post-Christmas holiday stupor, I could use a jolt of intentional energy. Honestly, it was never the banality of the tradition that kept me from setting those new goals. It was more likely the fear of failure, the all-too-perfect recall of “been there, asked for that!” or the memory of exhausted efforts with too little or transient pay-off. Sometimes it is so comfortable staying right where you are.

This past year has been different from any I have known. My mind was rested from a year of isolation. My body was healthy because I had more time to dedicate to myself. Even my home was in order. I saw the possibility of forging new ground, with new energy. However, I found myself straddling 2 paths. I was ready to embrace freedom from the constraints of the pandemic but not sure it was safe. Also, I was no longer comfortable with how things were before social-distancing. And yet, I kept returning to the words of my teacher “if we don’t choose a different present our past will choose it for us”.

The ambiguity of the past year was uncomfortable for me. It stirred up a need and a drive for clarity. Looking back on 2021, I celebrate the choices I made to step off the well-worn path. I offer gratitude for the individuals, words and works that kept me inspired. Here is a list of some of the places I found support, insight, inspiration and guidance:

I am starting to recognize the patterns that are holding me to the path set in place by my past. I can see how creating new patterns will help me set a point of departure. With each step in a new direction, the view of what lies ahead is more clear. Here are some of the steps I am taking on the new path:

  • Whole-heartedly accept and give gratitude for the abundance in my life rather than wasting energy resenting or fearing the work that goes into it
  • Accept support and love from those around me when I need it rather than pretending I am okay
  • Plan priorities by who I want to be rather than what I need to do
  • Be open to emotions, to discomfort, to ambiguity
  • Be authentic and celebrate that I am enough rather than comparing myself to others
  • Practice more than preach
  • Throw myself into direct experience rather than letting expectations steal my attention
  • Rest more, do less

There is much work to be done. However, the the work of forging a new path will be weighed against the cost of not following through. There must be some lessons we choose not to learn over and over again.

…and the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

Anais Nin

Wishing you and yours vitality and clarity in the new year! We will meet January 2nd at 10AM EST for a brief guided Community Meditation to help calm your mind and clarify your intention for 2022. It is free and you can register here if interested.


You really “should” read this blog

Recently I have added a list of triggering “shoulds”, (specifically Byron Katie’s list of Universal Beliefs) to my yoga therapy intake form. I will admit it seems a bit unusual amid the medical history and lists of symptoms and problems. I find, however, that stress and/ or trauma is nearly always on this problem list. In order to work with stress and trauma, we need to understand our own triggers. Many of these triggers are not physical events or activities but emotional and mental beliefs.

With the growth of social media and the constant advances in consumer marketing, it seems like there are more and more “shoulds” in our life everyday from political opinions to life-hacking solutions. However, “Shoulds” have always been around. They are the basis of morality instilled deeply in us as children and throughout our lives. They are the answer to the toddler’s question, “But, why do I have to do it that way?” and take root when we are forced to protect ourselves from what we see as a threat. Overtime some of these beliefs turn from moral guidance into rules and imperatives, conscious or subconscious scripts for living our lives – not unlike yogic samskaras. When they do, we can become stuck – not only mentally, but physically as well. At this point, they belong on the problem list.

I find that individuals who carry a lot of “shoulds” tend to take on a physical energy and posture of “never enough”. They literally get stuck when trying to inhale. Other individuals are more stuck in what you should not do. They fall into a cycle of shame and guilt when they don’t live up to their own expectations, or in fear, blame and control when others consistently fall short. Eventually they find it difficult to exhale and “let it go”.

Whether we are aware of our beliefs or they are just beneath our consciousness imprinted from childhood or past karma, there is a point where some beliefs exist in stark conflict with our current reality. Over time this conflict begins to surface as stress and cumulative stress can often result in physical symptoms similar to trauma. It really doesn’t matter whether you are “shoulding” yourself or others or being “should” upon, the anxiety is yours to deal with.

The key to moving beyond your triggering beliefs is awareness. Awareness comes from listening to your self-talk and that of others and raising a flag each time you hear the word “should”. Reviewing the Byron Katie List was a jump-starter to awareness for me and has helped me pinpoint a guiding philosophy unique for each patient at this moment in their lives. Working with the list, you can highlight the beliefs that ring true to you and then go back through the list and place a star next to the ones that you know are the source of repetitive stress. You may also choose to reflect on a recent conflict while looking at the list and notice which beliefs might have been triggers in that particular conflict. Fill in the blanks or tweak the language to make it specific for your situation. For example, an easy trigger for me is “kids should respect their parents”. I believe this is true and it is a good idea for me to bring this belief into my household, but it is in direct conflict with my day-to-day existence. Extrapolating from Byron Katie’s Work, I ask myself “What does it feel like to think this thought?” The answer for me is easy – “FRUSTRATING!” It also makes me think I am not a good parent (which I SHOULD be) or maybe even that my child is evil or BAD (which he/she SHOULDN”T be). I might then ask myself “What would it feel like to not have this thought or belief?” Depending on the circumstance, I would feel more relaxed, maybe even slightly amused by the complete irreverence of my children. For fun, I might even take it one step further and turn it around “I should be more respectful of my children”.

On our paths as yogis, we are learning to check in with ourselves daily, to prioritize our needs and wants, and to set guiding intentions for how we want to manifest. We can use our list of “shoulds” as part of this process, just as we reflect upon samskaras as a guide to recognizing our sankalpa. Once you are aware of the thoughts, they will begin to lose a little of their power and, naturally, a little of the stress will drop away. However, there are numerous techniques available to use the beliefs on the list actively in your growth and recovery.

One method is to take each “should” or belief and ask ourselves the following 3 questions:

Is this belief true?

Is it in line with my current intentions / goals? Can I visualize this belief in action as helpful in some specific way?

Is it possible that it is true but not for me or for this moment in my life?

Another helpful “should-buster” technique I find helpful comes from a blog by Dana Mitra. She suggests you ask yourself these questions:

“Whose should is it?

Is it Mine?

Where did I get it?

Does it come from my inner critic or my inner mentor?

Like beliefs, not all “shoulds” are bad, but all are worthy of examination. By bringing awareness to our personal list, we find new energy and empower ourselves to reframe our approach to stress and trauma in our lives. We find that “we are enough” and begin to shed light on those thoughts and beliefs we can choose to let go of, at least for now.

What is my Yoga personality?

So, you are fully committed to practicing Yoga at home. You have your equipment, you have set aside time and carefully considered your goals and intentions. You have experimented with different teachers and different practices. You are beginning to feel the energetic and emotional benefits of Yoga in addition to the physical ones. Now, it is time to figure out what yoga practice is therapeutic for you and your needs. You may find it interesting to learn that the answer to this question is seldom the type of yoga you LIKE the most. When we begin to look at Yoga as a tool for health and well-being, we can rely on the guidance of Ayurveda, the “sister science” to Yoga. One of the key principles of Ayurveda is the idea that “like attracts like”. This means that a person will be attracted towards the very thing that has the greatest potential to create imbalance.

photo credit: Ekhartyoga.com

The first step towards this knowledge is to determine your pakriti, or baseline dosha. There are 3 doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Each dosha is made up of 2 of the 5 universal elements: ether, air, fire, water, and earth. There are many online tests that will give you a good idea of what elements and qualities drive you. You can also spend a little time reviewing your “type” online and reviewing the strengths and the symptoms of imbalance expected for each dosha. Everyone has a little bit of each of the 3 which make up their basic nature. Most are predominantly a combination of 2 doshas (Pitta-Vata, for example) and some, rarely, are all 3, or Tri-doshic.

Vata is made of the elements of air and space. It is, therefore, light, dry, diffuse, cool and contains the energy of movement – motivated, quick, and agile.

Pitta is made up of fire and water. It is, therefore, hot, steady, sharp and contains the energy of transformation – digestion and assimilation.

Kapha is made up of water and earth. It is, therefore, wet, warm, stable, slow-to-move and it contains the energy of cohesion – bringing things (or people) together.

There is no set prescription of poses for each dosha, but rather an attitude towards practice that will acknowledge your tendencies and assist in bringing you into balance rather than accelerating you towards imbalance.

Vatas, for example, are creative, talkative and energetic when in balance. They may be drawn towards practices with a lot of pose changes and rapid movement, such as sun salutations and power vinyasa classes. However, when this is their primary practice, they are likely to become erratic, depleted of energy and less-focused. A balancing practice for Vatas should be slower, grounded and intentional. This includes, but is not limited to, restorative practices. They can still enjoy a vinyasa flow but may want to keep their eyes downward and focus on exhalations, and lower body strength. Their mantra for yoga is “Slow Down!”.

Pittas, at their best, are passionate and strong, quick to learn and love challenge and change. They are, however easily over-heated so a strong hot yoga practice may bring out their competitive, judgmental and reactive nature. A balancing practice for Pittas will include many seated and prone poses especially twists and forward folding. They can still enjoy strong standing or backbending poses, like Chair or Upward Bow with shorter “holds” or from a well-supported position. Their mantra for practice is “Chill Out!”

Many Kaphas love yoga because their bodies (and minds) are relaxed and content to rest and stretch in a pose as long as possible. They are also drawn to the community aspects of Yoga as well as the sensual smells and sounds often found in a yoga studio. However, Kaphas can be sedentary and heavy in mind and body. A light vinyasa practice with little to no “holds”or rests moving towards deep backbends and inversions (especially early in the morning) will help their warm and loving potential to shine all day long. For Kaphas, the mantra is “Keep it moving!”.

Because we, and everything around us, are all made up of all 5 elements, our imbalances are not always this straightforward. We tend to take on the qualities of the elements in our environment (including our clients, friends, food, climate, etc). In Ayurveda, we also rely on balancing gunas (or qualities). When you feel heavy and dull (qualities of Earth), you opt for a light and mobile practice. If you feel light-headed and diffuse (qualities of space and air) you try to move in a way which is grounded and focused. During the heat of the day or in the midst of summer, you avoid poses that easily burn you out and opt for more stable, cooling poses. There are 10 guna pairs (20 qualities) to guide our practice and lifestyle choices: Hot/Cold, Dense/Liquid, Soft/Hard, Stable/Mobile, Gross/Subtle, Smooth/Rough; Cloudy/Clear, Dull/Sharp, Oily/Dry, Heavy/Light.

One of the things I love best about following Ayurvedic guidance is that you are never doing the “wrong” or unhealthy thing. You are merely doing what you are naturally drawn towards. Knowing the qualities around why you “like” one season, pose, practice or food over another helps you to recognize when you need balance. In seeking improved health and well-being, you do not give up what you love; you simply add in some of the elements you need to keep your strengths supported and balanced.

Yoga at Home Part II: Why isn’t Yoga working for Me?

No matter what your health and wellness goals are, it seems you can find an article, a blog, a book or a person to tell you how “Yoga” is the answer. In light of all this evidence, more and more people are giving it a try. In fact, according to a recent study, there are thought to be 300 million yoga practitioners worldwide. Between 2012 and 2016 the number of Americans doing yoga grew by 50%. Approximately one in three Americans have tried yoga at least once. The number of over 50s practicing yoga has tripled over the last four years. (all sources listed on GoodBody.com).

So why isn’t Yoga working for you? The are a number a reasons you may get stuck or simply give up. Let’s demystify them so you can get back to reaping the rewards and find out what everyone is talking about. Below are 6 reasons you may be lacking the motivation and stamina to keep coming back to the mat. If you are just starting out with your yoga practice in these times of social isolation, you might want to read Part I to this series for tips on how to start a yoga practice at home.

  1. The most obvious reason for your yoga fail is that you are expecting too much from your yoga practice. While any type of yoga can be better than sitting on the couch for one more Netflix binge, yoga alone cannot meet all your fitness goals. I find it very helpful to look at Yoga as medicine rather than exercise. In this way, Yoga can give you the energy and the resilience you need to participate in all other activities – including other forms of exercise. Pushing too hard into a yoga practice will lead, at best, to burn out and, at worst, to injury. Look to your breath for guidance. If you are holding your breath while practicing, you are not practicing Yoga, you are simply doing an exercise.
  2. Once you apply this framework, you will see that Yoga, like medicine, is not likely to be effective when practiced irregularly or inconsistently. Consistent, daily practice for even 15-20 minutes will create incremental change over time and leave you feeling much more satisfied than “over-dosing” one or two days per week. This is why having a home practice is so important. Each time you come to your mat, you should leave feeling better than when you started. If your yoga practice leaves you feeling depleted, it is not serving you and you will not maintain motivation for your practice.
  3. Inconsistency can also be seen in the type of yoga practice you choose. As demand for Yoga grows, one is able to find an almost endless variety of yoga classes and poses. If you are, like me, someone who loves variety, persistent “sampling” can dilute the effects of your yoga practice and leave you locked into the revolving door of stimulating mental practice without the physical and energetic carryover. If you find a teacher and a practice which challenges you appropriately and from which you feel you receive noticeable benefit – stick with it for at least 30-40 days before changing your practice.
  4. Finding a teacher, a practice and an environment that works for you is not simple; however, with a little preparation, you do not have to go about it blindly. Spend some time thinking about how you manifest when you are the best version of yourself. Even if it has been a long time since you felt you were at your best, you have a unique and special quality that when stressed, you lose track of. When you are at your best, is your mind clear and creative or are you calm and carefree? Are you passionate and full of energy or relaxed and happy? Are you compassionate and giving or are you the one who is driven to march for the cause? What practices and people make you feel more of this quality? Some practices might chill you out or feel good but if your goal was to get off the couch with energy and vitality, you are moving in the wrong direction. Or, you worked up a good sweat in that power yoga class but then came home and screamed at your kids or couldn’t sleep.
  5. A similar mistake is not allowing your yoga practice to change as your needs change. The practice you had at 25 years of age is not going to be the same as when you are 50 and your practice in the hot days of summer should not be the same as in the dead of winter. If you do not change your practice, you won’t be able to stick with it or you will begin to feel worse for the effort. That doesn’t mean you have to stop. Stay in tune with yourself and changes within and around you. Trust and accommodate to your needs over time. This is particularly true of injury and illness. Invest the time, and possibly the money (for yoga therapy), to learn how to modify your practice to meet your current condition. Getting injured in yoga doesn’t mean that yoga will not work for you, it simply means that your current practice is not working for you right now.
  6. Finally, the simplest reason your yoga practice might not be working for you is that you are consistently skipping Savasana. Savasana is an essential part of every practice. Savasana is the time and place and shape where the efforts and rewards of the practice are assimilated, dispersed and absorbed. Without Savasana, the effects of even the most carefully curated practice will dissolve quickly.

Yoga at Home: 10 steps to finding your way in the increasingly virtual world of Yoga

2020 has offered quite a few challenges for us – not the least of which has been finding a way to keep going on our own, without our to-do list, without social pressure, and without our yoga studios. If you, like many, have started or are considering starting a virtual home practice, here are some things to help you find your way.

1. Find a space.Whether you have a small apartment or a large home, finding the right place to practice is often difficult.   A perfectly peaceful extra room may be filled with boxes and old furniture or have weak WiFi.  The WiFi hotspot of the home may be filled with kids and animals.  Where do you turn?  Outside is nice until the landscaping crew arrives.  The TV room may require a great deal of negotiations with others in your household.  Keep an open mind – the perfect place may not be the one that looks most like your studio experience.  Here are some considerations when choosing:

  • Smaller than you think:  you really only need a space big enough for a yoga mat with about 3 feet to spare all around on the ground and space enough to raise both arms overhead when standing.
  • Good air quality and control: the best space is one that is not too hot or too cold and with good ventilation.
  • Electricity:  virtual and online streaming can be very draining to a device’s battery, do not let a low battery break your momentum.
  • WiFi:  Good WiFi connection is a definite bonus in a virtual world.  If you have a perfect location but no connection, consider downloading classes for stress-free playback or purchasing a local hub or WiFi extender for the area you choose.
  • Privacy:  How much do you need?  This may be different for everyone but as a general rule, you should be in a place where you feel comfortable chanting “Om” (even if that’s not your thing).
  • Temporary is fine: So, you have to move a table or put a dog in a crate.  Roll out your stuff and give it a go!
  • Distractions: see #4.  Please do not disqualify a space because you may be interrupted.

2.  Think about what you need (and what you want).  There really is no one thing that you need to practice yoga other than your body, but there are many things that are nice to have.  Here is a list in order of relevance / importance:

  • A sticky mat:  while you can practice on the carpet or hardwood floor (as I did for 15 years), a sticky mat assists with alignment, hygeine, and strength-building.  The basic size is 72″x24″x1/4″.  I would not recommend anything thinner (1/8″) but you may consider a longer one if you are very tall (84″).  A sticky mat is not the same as a foam exercise mat.  If you bought a foam exercise mat by mistake, try putting it under your sticky mat for padding.
  • A phone / laptop / computer / smart TV:  While it is nice to screen share to a TV, it is not necessary for a successful virtual practice.  Use what you have and what you know and will not need any technical support for.  If you cannot live without music for your session, you may want to have one device for class streaming and another for music.
  • Props:  So many people put off starting a practice because they do not have props.  A chair or couch or even large can of soup can provide the support shown with a block; beach towels, blankets or pillows can be used to create supportive bolsters and an actual belt can be used in place of a yoga belt.  If you don’t have props, start anyway, learn what you would like to have and reward yourself as you grow into your practice.  If you want a complete kit now, check it out here.  A bolster, while not necessary is nice if you are going to practice regular restorative yoga.
  • Ear buds / wireless headphones: While wearing earbuds can take a little time to adjust to, the benefit is in blocking out distractions and in learning to listen to cues and not stare at the screen risking neck strain and competitive comparison to the pose as shown.

3.  Check in with reality.  While it might be nice to have a 60 minute yoga practice 5-7x / week, you might start with the amount of time you know you can find almost everyday and commit.  You can always choose a longer practice on days when you have more time or energy.

4.  Check in with yourself.  The right yoga practice for you right now may not be the one you used to do, or the one you saw advertised.  Yoga practice changes, sometimes day to day, sometimes in periods of recovery or emotional stress, and, always, in different times of life.  Know your limitations and your strengths (your injuries, your energy, your past yoga experience).  Take heed when you feel pain, pinching, or radiating or when you feel you are being pushed too hard.  Know whether you need a live class for accountability or if you can use pre-recorded playbacks.  Strive to find a practice that challenges you but meets you where you are.  When you are finished with your practice you should feel replenished, not depleted or injured.

5.  Plan:  If you have gotten this far, you have been doing this already.  One of the luxuries of virtual yoga is the ability to practice when you want, to be flexible with last minute changes, and to “try out” different teachers or small portions of a practice.  However, do not use these as excuses not to plan your practice in advance. Choose your place and time, think about your intention, gather your equipment and choose your class / teacher and whether you will attend a live feed or watch a pre-recorded session well ahead of time.  Don’t get lost online with all the class choices sampling and switching and never actually sitting down to a “practice”.  Don’t forget prepare your family / roommate.  Learn to ask for privacy and space and not just expect it and you will save yourself a great deal of stress.

6.  Trust Yourself:  You don’t have your favorite teacher in the room with you to give you that adjustment or modification.  Trust yourself.  If something doesn’t feel right to you, it may not be right for you.  If you feel like doing something slightly different – try it out!  One day a week, turn off the device or close the book, set up your mat and play with what you have learned.  Explore new expressions of each pose.

7.  Don’t forget that Yoga is more than just the physical poses.  Physical postures in yoga are designed not only to open the body but to energize the body and center the mind.   If you are committing to a regular practice, adding in simple breath exercises and mindfulness will allow you to capitalize on this and create lasting and powerful changes in your overall mood and energy.  This can be as simple as committing to stay for Savasana or to practice 3-5 minutes of 3-part breath before starting a practice, cooking dinner or getting on that call for work.  But you may find that practicing alternate nostril breathing or kapalabhati followed by a few moments of silence serves you better one day than a strong physical practice.

8.  Invest.  As you know, not all yoga practice is right for every body.  You are saving a lot of money by not going into the studio every week, so how can you redirect this cash?  Equipment is an obvious option.  You might also consider investing in a virtual private session to help create a program that works for your needs and goals.  Alternately, while there is plenty of free yoga to be found online right now, there are also reputable organizations (like Yoga International.com and Glo.com among others) that are offering discounted subscriptions (the monthly rate equivalent to one studio class) with access to high quality teachers and a variety of programs for a variety of needs.

9.  Stick with it.  They say it takes 40 days to make something a habit and many of us have a little extra time these days to make it work.  Set reasonable goals and rather than skipping a day because of low energy or time commitments, simply explore 1 posture on your own or sit and breath.  Make a commitment to sit in your practice in some way for at least 5 minutes everyday.  Discuss and share your intentions and progress with others and then congratulate yourself rather than feeling guilty for skipping it.  This is the way we bring our practice off of our mat and into our lives.

10.  Practice makes is perfect.  Many people believe that until they can perform a pose “correctly”, it does not benefit them.  Perfection has no place in yoga.   If it were possible to practice perfectly, we would experience little to no benefit.  Pattabhi Jois said “Practice and all is coming”.  This means, stick with it and you will begin to see results and maybe in places you hadn’t even known you were working on. Consistency makes the poses more accessible, and when they become easier, you can tap into the energetic and physiological benefits.

2019 is on the Horizon – Can you SEE it?

As each year closes, we face the urge to toss out undesired habits, start fresh and to move in new directions.  Maybe you look forward to this “turning point” or maybe you are a bit hesitant after many years of  watching January’s enthusiasm fizzle out as you fall back into the trenches of old habits by February.  In fact, research has shown that about fifty percent of us make resolutions, however fewer than 10% of these keep them for more a few months.   Whether you call it “resolution”, a  “goal” or the more yogic term of “intention”, the process of follow-through and sustained change is very difficult for all.  Scientific research suggests that one tool, Visualization, may provide the key to success.

Psychological research teaches us that in order for a resolution to be successful, it must be specific, measureable and attainable.  Add the elements of relevance and time and you have created a SMART goal.  But, as you may have experienced, even these well-crafted goals fail.  One of the reasons for this is that our goals are often related to changes in lifestyle and personality which are entrenched in what yoga calls “samskaras“.  In Indian and Yogic philosophy,  “samskaras are the mental impressions left by all thoughts, actions and intents that an individual has ever experienced”(yogapedia).   Do you ever have circular thoughts or an old story that is preventing you from realizing your dream?  This is samskara in action.  Meditation and other yogic tools work because they seek to dip beneath the conscious mind and get us in touch with our hidden expectations and unconscious ideas.

Meditation, especially practices such as Yoga Nidra, rely on the individuals ability to focus on and cultivate body sensations rather than thoughts.  One is asked to focus on how the body feels when our goals, or sankalpa, are fully manifested.   These techniques seek to convert the brain waves into a more relaxed and suggestible state similar to that of hypnosis.  Visualization techniques go a few steps further.  Several studies have shown that the brain does not differentiate between a real and an visualized memory.  We can, therefore, lesson the anxiety of a new challenge by creating a memory of that experience through visualization.  In addition, research  shows that visualizing a physical activity stimulates the brain in much the same way as actually performing the activity.  This may be especially true if the activity is an unfamiliar or if fear and anxiety are associated with it.

Proponents of Visualization put much faith in the concept of the philosophical Law of Attraction.  Many have questioned this principle which states that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts, people can bring positive or negative experiences into their life (wikipedia).  However, knowledge of how the brain processes visual information may provide some scientific evidence to support how visualization helps one to attract what they want into their life.  Our brain relies on a network of neurons called the reticular activating system (RAS) to filter out what IS, and IS NOT important visually.  Since 90% of the information processed by the brain is visual, the RAS is critical.  Without it, we could  become desensitized and confused by the vast amount of information we receive every day.  Visualization techniques help “program” the RAS much the way Facebook feeds us information based on our search history and demonstrated interests.  Visualization is the lens through which we begin to see and describe our world.

With 2019 on the horizon, can you really SEE yourself acting in a way which cultivates the changes you wish to manifest in your life?  Close your eyes, relax and try to see and imagine how it looks and feels for you to live the life that you long for.  The more often you repeat this process, the stronger the path you are forging.  Good luck and I hope to see you on the mat in the coming year!

Need a little guidance?  Join us January 13th 2-5 for Creating a Vision for 2019:  Vision Board and Yoga Workshop with Melissa & Jules from Julesguide.


Solving the Unsolveable: 4 Steps in a Path to Healing & Preventing Chronic Pain

Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn’t you – all of the expectations, all of the beliefs – and becoming who you are.

– Rachel Naomi Remen

Over the last 30 years I have gradually gotten myself into the business of chronic pain.  I developed this niche not by claiming it but, rather, through following my interests and passion for all teachings and related to the mind-body connection.  I first studied Psychology, and then Yoga, followed by Ayurveda, Meditation, Mindfulness and Buddhism.  Every path led to the same place with different words. While I was developing my own model of approaching my patient’s complaints from what we used to refer to collectively as a “holistic” or “alternative” point of view, the scientific theory of pain was evolving as well.  Currently, there is substantial evidence to prove that pain is not simply a physical or neurological reaction to a stimulus, but a process  involving an individual’s culture, their environment, their past and present experience and their perception along with the original stimulus.

All pain, acute or chronic, is real but not all pain is true in a mathematical sense (a + b ≠ c).  In recognizing this, we can let go of the need to find a solution to the problem.  In fact, these efforts to determine the how and why and whose to blame often create a self-perpetuating pain cycle and impede the natural processes of healing.  Below I offer you 4 steps to help you move through acute pain directly (without initiating the cycle) or to free you from the grip of the chronic pain cycle.  I believe these steps to be effective in most to all cases however the amount of time to progress through the steps is highly variable.  In the case of acute pain, you may move through these steps in a matter of hours; in cases of chronic pain, it may take weeks, months or years.

  1.  Release Ownership:  stop referring to the discomfort you feel as “my pain” or, especially “my painful…injured…weak…bad…etc. body part”.  This is the most important first step to releasing the assigning of blame and responsibility for a solution.  In the truest sense, claiming pain as your own will ensure that the burden is yours to carry.  Attaching a negative adjective to body part will give your pain a home.  In truth, pain is dynamic and changing and healing is systemic.
  2. See it for what it is:  The word pain is so loaded.  What is “pain” and how is it perceived in the body?  “Pain” is the mental recognition of a negative sensation.  What would happen if you remove this word from your vocabulary?  Describe your sensation in every way you can, other than the word “pain”.  Give it a size, a shape, a pulse, a movement, a temperature, a weight, a texture, a taste, a smell, etc.  Next, describe another place of your choice in the body (maybe the opposite side, left/right, front/back).  Finally, check in with your the original place once again and note any changes in the sensation.  Even if the discomfort has intensified, you will recognize that your discomfort is not static or intractable.  This practice can take the form of a Body Scan or Body Sensing Meditation if you like.
  3. Accept It / Neutralize It.  This is usually the most difficult step and it may take time.  You don’t have to be happy about the presence of discomfort and irritability in your body, but you don’t have to run away from it either.  As you begin to describe the pain for what it is, you will begin to notice the hold it has on you and your life.    It may be the lack of control, the frustration of not knowing what is happening to your body, the inability to continue the activities which make you fuel your passion for life, the feeling of being “less than” or the guilt of not being able to fulfill your responsibilities.  On the other hand, you may recognize that you are somewhat attached to this presence.  It brings you love, nurturing and attention, it gets you out of doing things you don’t enjoy or that take up your time.  With persistent pain, there is often the relative comfort of living with pain compared to the fear of starting over without it.  When you begin to ask yourself, what can I accept and “what am I afraid to feel?”, you give yourself permission to feel the sensation or the emotion  (for more on this, see Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach).  In feeling the sensation or the emotion directly without negative connotations, resistance, or aversion, you free this connection in the cycle of pain.
  4. Take Positive Action with Compassion:  When you make it to this last step, you have so many options to move forward.  You are no longer trying to solve the problem, you are simply moving forward regardless of the condition in whatever way you feel safe and ready with a gentleness towards yourself and your body.  In the case of acute pain, you have the detachment to treat the condition directly and appropriately for what it is – you have described the sensations and you know which you will tolerate and which you will not.  In cases of persistent pain, the options include, but are not limited to: meditation, yoga, physical therapy, psychotherapy, nutritional support, medication.    Describe a “positive” version of yourself, one that you can remember with all your senses,  (“I am…”), and move slowly and steadily towards it with each breath and each decision.

Please feel free to comment on  your experience with pain or your path to recovery, to inquire for more resources or guidance, or to find out how to book a session with Melissa at Discover Yoga & Physical Therapy.

Moving from the Inside, Out – Experiencing Anatomy through Movement

Next time your yoga teacher asks you to “rest” in that Down Dog for just a few more breaths, look around you – no two Down Dogs are quite the same.

Excepting severe injury, genetic anomaly or deformity, we all have the same muscles pulling on the same bones to create the hip and shoulder flexion needed to assume the Downward Dog position.  What then, makes one person’s movement so different from another?  Or what makes the same movement different when done with a different orientation to gravity with a different point of contact (think of Half-Forward Fold, Staff Pose, Boat Pose or Legs-up-Wall, Half Handstand), or at a different speed (Iyengar vs. Power Vinyasa)?  The quality of our movement is determined by the various forces created by a muscle across a joint.  How a body part moves in response to these forces is different in each body and depends on a variety of factors.


Flexibility is Relative

The only difference between flexible and inflexible people is that they have to go further to get to the same place. ~ Aadil Palkhivala, founder Purna Yoga

When it comes to performance in yoga, relative flexibility is the factor that most readily comes to mind.  If you have ample length in your hamstrings, you will easily be able to press your heels to the floor with straight knees when your hips rise and you fold into that 90 degree angle at the hip.  However, this is only half the battle.  What remains of the pose is the 180 degree flexion at the shoulder allowing for a well-balanced and centered spine. If you are blessed with open and long hamstrings, you are also likely to hyper-extend your shoulders and collapse the shoulder blades into retraction or downward rotation as you push your heels down.  What follows is a potential injury to the shoulder and a loss in the sense of balance in the pose.  It is a common misconception that yoga is easier or even better suited for those who are more flexible.    According to the principles of Length-Tension, muscles which are too short will pull harder on a structure, muscles which are too-long will not be able to pull effectively. Flexibility is, therefore, important for both mobility and strength – there is such a thing as too much flexibility.  In fact, individuals who tend to hyper-extend their joints tend to lack adequate proprioception  or kinesthesia (the internal sensing of movement and positioning of the joints).

Muscle Recruitment – Building the YOUR Quality Team

Postures should be stable and comfortable. ~Patanjali, Yoga Sutra 2.46

In order for our Downward-Facing Dog pose to be both stable and comfortable, we need more than flexibility – we need strength.  The strength to balance a yoga posture is often very different from the strength we identify in other recreational activities.  Rather than shortening a muscle to move a weight, muscle strength in yoga is usually static & stabilizing (isometric) and / or lengthening and controlling the pull of gravity into a position (eccentric) and the weight is that of our own body coupled with gravity.  Quality for this type of movement is derived from muscles working in teams to align, stabilize and open a joint simultaneously.   To build a balanced posture, we often need to recruit muscles on the opposite side of the body from the muscle we are stretching (antagonists) as well as muscles which perform the same action as that of the posture and, often, additional aligning actions (synergists).  As with a work team, recruiting everyone in the area all at the same time leaves us with all “effort” and no “ease”.  Individuals who tend to be more flexible can gain stability in their vulnerable joints from enlisting the help of the synergist muscles.  In our example of sunken Down Dog, these are muscles which flex the knee (Gastrocnemius), flex the spine (Abdominals) and extend and retract the shoulders  (the rhomboids and the long head of the triceps).  On the other hand, individuals who are looking to gain flexibility can recruit antagonist muscles to perform reciprocol inhibition – a reflexive decrease in the tone in one muscle when the opposing muscle is activated.  In the example of our stiff, squared or rounded Down Dog, these are the muscles which extend the knee (Quadraceps), flex the hip (Iliopsoas, Tensor Fascia Latae and Rectus Femoris) and flex, protract and upwardly rotate the shoulders (Serratus Anterior, upper Pecs and Anterior Deltoid).

Why easier is sometimes better for all levels

Simplicity is a prerequisite for reliability ~ Edsger Dijkstra

Sometimes, regardless of the appropriate cueing, an individual is just not able to assume this triangle shape or is unable to maintain the safe positioning of the hips and shoulders.  It is helpful in these cases to reduce the degrees of difficulty (anatomically, Degrees of Freedom).  Softening in the knees or even releasing them to the floor (often called Puppy Dog Pose) frees the hamstrings to allow for a deepening in the hips, a lengthening of the spine and a softening in the shoulders.  Likewise, we can keep our legs strong without worrying about potential instability in the shoulders, elbows or wrists by performing this pose with the forearms to the floor (as in Dolphin Pose).  By decreasing the degrees of freedom, it is now possible to work on flexibility or stability in a similar manner as that suggested above.  One reason for this is that we have shortened the lever arm and therefore the overall resistance to overcome.  The other reason for this is that many of our hip, knee, shoulder and arm muscles are multi-joint muscles controlling movement at two or more joints.  When the hips are flexed and the knees are extended the hamstrings are subject to passive insufficiency – the limiting of the ability of a muscle which crosses two joints to be stretched enough so as to allow for full range of motion in both joints at the same time.  Shoulder flexion coupled with elbow extension weakens the long head of the triceps as it is subject to active insufficiency – the limiting of the ability of a 2-joint muscle to shorten sufficiently so as to allow for action in both joints.  When limited by active insufficiency, we can decrease the degrees of freedom or we can call upon synergists to stabilize one joint while the muscle works on the other.  Both passive and active insufficiency play out in Boat Pose as we attempt to maintain or increase hip flexion while straightening the knees.  A soft bend in the knee will shorten the hamstrings at the knee allowing length enough as they cross the hip for a forward pelvic tilt as well as an increase in the ability for the rectus femoris to pull the thighs up towards the abdomen.

It’s all about your Contacts and Connections

Like a tree, you need to find your roots and then you can bend in the wind.                  ~ Angela Farmer, yogi

We can also change the area of focus and intention by changing the pose’s orientation to gravity and the individual’s point of contact with a supporting structure such as the floor, the wall or a prop.  In almost all modifications and alignment of Down Dog discussed thus far, both the upper extremities and the lower extremities are grounded and therefore all movement is closed-chained. Closed-chained exercise is excellent because it allows us to work multiple joints at the same time.  Most yoga poses, like functional activity,  contain some element of close-chain muscle work.  Along with the isometric and eccentric muscle work described above, this aspect of yoga exercise makes uniquely effective for healing, aligning and balancing the body.  Compare the experience in Down Dog to that of Half Forward Fold where the legs are in a closed-chain position and the shoulders and arms are now flexing in an open-chained movement or Staff Pose or Boat Pose with raised arms in which both the upper and lower extremities are working in an open-chain.  If the pose is essentially the same, 90 degree hip flexion and 180 degree shoulder flexion with extended knees and elbows, why are these experiences so different?

Experiential anatomyThe reason is that in open-chained movement, the point where the muscle begins, the origin, must stabilize in order to draw the end where the muscle attaches, the insertion, closer as it shortens. We will need to stabilize the torso through the acromian process of the scapula, the clavicle and the sternum so that the pecs major and anterior deltoids can can shorten and lift the humerus.   In closed-chain movement, where the insertion site is fixed, the origin and insertion often switch roles with the insertion pulling the origin closer.  In our example, the humerus is stabilized through the elbow and wrist in the full expression of Down Dog or through forearms in Dolphin Pose.  The muscles’ origins on the anterior chest and shoulder will, therefore, move toward the fixed arms.  Likewise, in Staff Pose, the quads are actively pulling the shins up to straighten the legs. In a closed-chain version like Forward Fold, the quads pull the thigh to a fixed shin.


The Weight of Gravity

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.  ~ Stephen Hawking, physicist

As we change our relationship to gravity by doing Down Dog against the wall or by lifting into a Handstand with flexed hips or simply laying on or back with our Legs-Up-the-Wall we change the weight of gravity through our joints or the resistance needed for the muscle to overcome to assume the position.  Although strength can become more important with increased weight, flexibility and alignment remain critical, as to muscle function and quality of movement.  We can try, but we cannot power ourselves into a handstand or simply relax in a Down Dog against the wall without compromising our commitment to effort and ease as well as risking injury to the body.  When we conscientiously change our relationship to gravity, we change our area of focus and attention.  Rather than allowing our weaknesses to decide what we will get out of a pose, we adapt the pose to focus on our chosen intention.  For a person with very tight hamstrings, placing the hands against the wall in Down Dog can shift the resistance away from the neck and shoulders towards the hips and spine allowing for a direct experience of the full expression of the pose.  For those who are hyper-flexible, placing the hands against the wall can help create correct alignment and facilitate proprioception and kinesthesia for better joint stability.

Are you Built for Speed?

Whether one moves slowly or with speed, the one who is a seeker will be a finder.    ~ Rumi, poet and Sufi master

Finally, consider the experience of a Vinyasa flow beginning in Mountain and moving through a Sun Salutation which includes rapid flows in and out of Down Dog compared to that of a static Iyengar practice or even a slowly-flowing ViniYoga class.  The practices feel different in many ways.  The faster flow can challenge our aerobic capacity and endurance while the static practice can challenge our strength as well as our flexibility.  Both practices challenge the mind-body connection in different ways.  Like people, certain muscles prefer one kind of movement to another.  A tonic muscle has slow-twitch fibers and tends to shorten and tighten when stressed whereas a phasic muscle has fast-twitch fibers and tends to lengthen and weaken when stressed.   Tonic muscles produce lower forces for longer without fatigue and are therefore very good for posture and stability.  Phasic muscles produces greater force but are very susceptible to fatigue.  When our bodies lose anatomical alignment, tonic postural muscles like the upper trapezius and levator scapulae as well as the hamstrings are stretched and respond by shortening and even locking in a muscle spasm.  Phasic muscles, like the gluteus maximus and medius, begin to weaken over time when rapidly stretched.  With proper alignment and recruitment of antagonists and synergists, movement both fast and slow can be achieved safely and with focused intention.

Moving Forward from the Inside-Out

The variety of tools available to teach or assume a pose is almost endless.  It is important to understand why you choose a certain tool over another and in what circumstances and for what bodies certain tools are most appropriate.

Sometimes the most important use of our tools is to empower the individual to learn more about the experience of their own body.   While we may often employ our tools in the “correction” of asana, it is important to use our tools to encourage the individual to feel what determines the quality of the pose for his or her intention.  This is the Awareness-Response factor.  It comes from the Nervous System and the Subtle Body (Chakras, Nadis, Koshas, Vayus).  When working with awareness, we cue a person to feel how one pose is different than another, to seek ease and to find improved breath.  We can use repetition, props, voice, music and many other tools to enhance awareness.  Learn more about the Awareness-Response Factor and about using your knowledge of anatomy to direct Prana and energy in Part II of this post, Moving from the Inside, Out:  Experiencing Energy through the Anatomy.

Moving from the Inside, Out:  Experiential Anatomy will be offered as a CE course at YogaFest NC on April 7th, 2018.

For more information on Continuing Education Opportunities, group classes and private sessions with Melissa, please visit Discover Yoga & Physical Therapy online.

Lineage – “Please, Tell Us About the Wall!”

In yoga terminology, lineage refers to the historical succession of knowledge passed from teacher to teacher. With the foundation of lineage, a disciple of yoga gains insight not only from his/her own teacher, but from all the teachers that came before. The result of lineage is instruction that is enriched by many perspectives and free from the influence of any one teacher’s ego.

Yoga Lineage is often depicted as a tree in which each teacher grows from the branch of his or her teacher across generations most leading back to one of a select few yogis born in the late 19th century.  These core teachers are, of course, tied to their own teachers who extend back to the 5th – 2nd Century BCE.  In my studio, I have a row of photos of the individuals who have, in some way, altered my path.  While it is not a tree, each one of these teachers have a tree of their own and several of them share a common lineage. There are a few people missing because, believe it or not, I do not know their name but they are not forgotten when I set my drishti (focused gaze) towards the wall.  Many of my students have asked, “Tell me about the people on the wall”.   I don’t know how interesting my story is, but I think it is important to tell, so here it is.

For me, it all started in 1990 when a young yogi named Ana entered my life and my home in Sierra Leone, West Africa while I was working as a Peace Corp Volunteer.  She spoke reverently of her master yogi teacher back in Gainesville, FL and when she left the Peace Corp (after only a few months), she gifted me a yoga guide written by her guru depicting his core beliefs and a physical practice to follow daily.  My diligent practice with this guide had less to do with the philosophy as with a lot of lonely days and nights and a soul-seeking mind.


When I returned to Western Society in 1991, I stumbled upon a tattered 20-year-old paperback book written by SatchidanandaIntegral Yoga Hatha.  Why a 24-year-old girl living on her own in San Francisco, CA might choose to carry around such a book reading it over and over again on the bus and during her lunch break, I don’t really know, but I did.  And I found a wonderful Integral Yoga Studio in the Mission and established a regular practice.  As a Christian, I remember being amazed that there were pictures of the Budha and Jesus on the walls of the studio room.  The Integral Yoga movement is dedicated to the philosophy “One Truth, Many Paths”.  This inclusiveness and holistic approach spoke deeply to me.

From here I moved erratically in my search, retreating often and meeting a few gurus face-to-face.  Unfortunately, none of them made the wall.


In 2004, I entered the Teacher Training Program at The Hatha Yoga Center in Seattle, WA. Bob Smith & Ki McGraw were my teachers.  The two combined had a beautiful and complex lineage.  Rather than trying to agree on or consolidate a new approach in the teacher training, we benefited from the uniqueness and passion of each as an individual yogi on a path.  Sometimes it felt like the two were in conflict with each other and this became part of our study to learn where they meet up.  We were learning to find our own path with tools from so many different yogis in the Hatha Yoga tree.  I had no goals of becoming a yoga teacher.  I wanted only to experience what it was like to live as a yogi.


After I finished the year-long program, Yoga was so deeply embedded in my soul, I had no choice but to practice, and teach.  I found myself inspired and motivated and, by-the-way, 6 months pregnant taking a prenatal ViniYoga class at a local studio.  My path was about to change and Yoga was just one part of this change.  In 2006, my teacher, Alison Eliason, brought me into the community of Discover Yoga and gave me an opportunity to teach.


I had practiced ViniYoga before but I didn’t feel like it was enough for me.  I learned the basic principles so that I could use some ViniYoga flow in my class and make the students feel comfortable.   For myself, I craved alignment and strength.  In looking for an Iyengar studio, I found Aadil Palkhivala, the co-founder of Purna Yoga at Yoga Centers in Bellevue, WA.  In Purna Yoga I found all the precision of Iyengar Yoga with the heart of Integral Yoga plus lots of props!  I was challenged and with every class I was learning so much.


By 2007, I had over 10 years of experience as a Physical Therapist and over 15 years practicing Yoga.  My father set me on my path toward Ginger Garner, founder of Professional Yoga Therapy (now Medical Therapeutic Yoga) with a newspaper clipping highlighting the “new” profession of Yoga Therapist.  I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before!  The first time I met Ginger, I knew I was in the right place.  All of my prior education and training, my interest in Ayurveda and my passion for Yoga finally fell together in one practice and it was so much more than experiential.  I learned why not all types of yoga work for all people all the time and what each teaching path offers and when to call upon it.


In 2009, I partnered with Alison to open Discover Yoga Therapy in Redmond, WA.  Just 2 years later, in 2011, my family and I moved to Hong Kong.  While in Hong Kong, I had the priveledge of meeting and learning from so many amazing teachers through the Evolution Asia Yoga conference but none changed my path so deeply as Hersha Chellaram.  Hersha’s own tree in most firmly grounded in Integral Yoga having grown up with Satchidananda.  With Hersha I became part of larger community of beautiful teachers all over the world who teach, practice and live yoga.  Never before have I witnessed a person who touched the lives of everyone she encounters so deeply – making yoga relevant and accessible to all people.

While I still do not feel like I have my own lineage tree, I am so proud to be part of this garden of teachers and I know that everything they have taught me finds its way into my teachings on a daily basis.  Next time we bow in Namaste as the class ends, give an extra six or seven nods to the wall.

Thanks for listening.