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.

Yoga – “The Everlasting Gobstopper”

You can suck ’em, and suck ’em, and suck ’em, and they never get any smaller”     ~Willie Wonka

I really love Gene Wilder and the original Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is one of only a handful of movies I will watch over and over again.  My love for this movie is almost 100% attributable to the amazing character of Willie Wonka, played by Gene Wilder. Continue reading Yoga – “The Everlasting Gobstopper”

Putting “Therapy” into Your Yoga

Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.  ~BKS Iyengar

I am often asked “What is Yoga Therapy?” and “How is Therapeutic Yoga different from regular yoga and from Physical Therapy or other forms of traditional therapy?”.  First of all, let me say that not all Yoga is “therapeutic” and not all “yoga therapy” is therapeutic for every person.

At the core, Therapeutic Yoga begins with Awareness.  In this, it is very personal and, often, different for different people.  Whether taught privately or in a group, Therapeutic Yoga offers the individual student or client a series of tools to look at themselves and identify what it is he or she desires or needs less/more of.  These tools are usually taken from Yoga, from Ayurveda, from Physical Medicine, and contemporary Psychology.

In a regular class, the student takes positive actions (asana) towards “feeling good”.  In traditional therapy, a patient is relatively passive and the goal is to diagnose (“You are sick”), reduce symptoms and cure disease.  On the contrary, in Therapeutic Yoga, the client is “empowered” with physical, mental and emotional tools and the goal is to adapt and improve.  In some cases, the student will learn that it is not possible to improve the physical state (“The body is sick”) but that adaptations can be made to allow the mental or emotional state to  drastically improve.

“It is less helpful to know the cause of one’s stress than the state of mind when one is stressed”

While starting in the physical body, therapeutic yoga allows insight into the layers of the body, or the Koshas.  These layers are the Physical, the Emotional, the Energetic, the Social, the Intellectual and the Spiritual. The student begins to see how these layers overlap and intersect – how that “trapped” feeling in your neck, shoulders and upper back can be eased with the intention of “freedom” or “surrender” or maybe by becoming more physically grounded and aware of the alignment of the feet and the lower extremities or looking into our social / emotional and noting where he or she may feel stuck.

Once the student has the tools, he or she can put “therapy” into any yoga session.  What is more, the student is ready to put Yoga into his or her life and learn to adapt and improve “off the mat”.

PITTA – Embracing and Balancing the Heat of Summer

yogasweat

Sometimes it takes a meltdown to cool down.         ~Evinda Lepins

I’m hot, really hot.  Literally, I am actually HOT and wet, according to Yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda, I am a PITTA, which means my body, mind and emotions are guided by the elements of heat and water.   Continue reading PITTA – Embracing and Balancing the Heat of Summer

Legs-up-the-Wall / Viparita Karani

Viparita Karaniphoto credit:  Carmen’s Canvas

It is not the load that breaks you down.  It is the way you carry it.    ~Lou Holtz

Legs-up-the-wall is my very favorite pose – so easy and so profound.   The beauty of this pose starts with the sanskrit name translated into “making action by turning things around”.    The list of ailments of the mind and body that are eased by this pose are endless and yet there is no effort, no prerequisite pose and very few contraindications – you simply find a way to turn yourself upside-down and find the flow.   It is a paradigm-shift. Continue reading Legs-up-the-Wall / Viparita Karani

Downward-Facing Dog: Adho Mukha Svanasana

Sometimes you have to let life turn you upside-down, to learn how to live, right-side up.

downdog

For anyone who has ever heard “…allow yourself to rest in down-dog” this pose can quickly become the pose you love to hate.  As you turn yourself upside-side down, gravity starts to pull on you and not in the ways you are used to.  Where do you start to find yourself grounded especially if your heels do not touch the floor? Continue reading Downward-Facing Dog: Adho Mukha Svanasana

Tadasana – Mountain Pose

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.  Nelson Mandela

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Here is where you may be thinking…”This is one pose I know – I can do this one!  All I need to do is stand at the front of my mat, right?”

Well, yes…and no.  Tadasana or Mountain pose comes from the ever-repeated “call to action” pose in Ashtanga yoga – Samastitihi (SA-MAS-TI-TI-HI) translated as “equal standing”.  There is a reason I am only showing my feet in the image above (and it is not because my husband thinks they are so pretty or because I love the purple polish on my toes).   Continue reading Tadasana – Mountain Pose