Archive | March 2011

Stress. Coping. Cleansing. Spring!!!

Happy Sunday afternoon to you!  It is a bright, brisk, chilly- did I mention brisk?  Sunday afternoon here in NYC.  It is a clear day, with deep, turquoise-y blue above us, and just a faint yet exciting peek at Springs first flowers flirting from the ground at our feet.  Ahh, Sunday.   It is a day some of us use for renewal, restoration, catch up, cool down, sleep in, sleep over, buy food, eat food, surf the web, update our blogs (ahem), and of course, indulge in the ultimate gift to ourselves, that being our yoga practice.

I have not blogged in over two weeks, some of your regular readers have reminded me, and I have really missed it!  The last blog post was a way to showcase the photo shoot I recently did.  The talent of the photographer, the afternoon lighting and the beauty there can be in self expression all converged on that day to create a satisfyingly complete yoga-photo-document experience.  I have entered this picture below into a contest sponsored by Yoga Journal where they have asked for original reader photos in yoga poses. There will be a chance to vote for the favorite picture. Once the voting starts I will let everyone know. I am sure there will some incredible photos to choose from.

In the interim, lets talk about a few things. In the interest of staying true to the wonderful seasonal change we have experienced -at least on the calendar -lets talk about stress, coping, cleansing and spring.  As my students can attest to, this mornings Vinyasa class was all about twisting, binding, cleansing and celebrating Spring. It was a fabulous class with amazing energy, tremendous focus and impressive displays of determination. In short, my students are awesome:)

Stress.  We all have it. We actually need it to some degree. Some of the earliest clinical work done to study stress and its effects on the body concluded that there is a very intricate mechanism within the nervous system and various other systems of the body designed to keep us alive, functioning and alert to danger.  What usually happens in Western – lets face it – NYC culture, is that we have lost the mechanism to counteract stress, and as such our bodies, via our nervous system and various other systems (digestive, endocrine, muscular, etc), contain undue amounts of stress that no longer serves us productively.  We not only manage it poorly but fail to create and access a viable outlet for it.  So how do we cope?  And by cope I mean how we choose to handle situations sometimes beyond our control that can create a stress response in the body. Do we talk to someone?  Do we go for a long walk?  Do we smoke, drink or use chemical substances to take the edge off? Sure sometimes that glass of wine really does do the trick, and there is plenty of research to prove the positive effects of moderate alcohol intake. But lets talk about yoga and how it can not only be a safe place to experience stress, but also a place to allow stress to dissipate and become manageable. In other words, yoga as both a place to experience stress, to cope with stress, to cleanse the body, and embody the beauty and wonder of rebirth in this our glorious season of Spring.

Sometimes in a yoga pose we can add a twist, as you see here in the low lunge to the left.  Lets suppose that you have been holding the low lunge, or several postures prior to where you are now, and your instructor tells you to “add a twist”. And what you would like to do is tell your instructor “No YOU add a twist!  My legs are burning!  Cant you see that?  You have had us here on this leg FOREVER!  You corrected someone, then you had sip of water, then you gabbed about x,y and z, and now you want me to add a twist????  No way.  There is no way.”  But instead of verbalizing that, you do indeed add your twist.  and in a couple of breaths, you find a deep stretching sensation that feels so divine you forget what you were so angry about, and begin instead to enjoy, maybe even deepen (gasp!) the pose, and truly feel like time has stood still, the world is in the palm of your hand, and the next downward dog or child’s pose is the best one you have ever had in your entire life.   Let me explain…By inviting voluntary stress onto the body – holding a posture for longer than we would like, adding twists or binds on top of it – we excite the nervous system, and momentarily overload it.  Then, with breath, with compassion, with strategy, we release what we have, and we experience the safety  and calm of regaining control and composure.  That is the stress response aspect.  What happens during that whole process is the coping aspect.  This means what we tell ourselves, what we think we can do versus what we think is beyond us and our interpretation of that.  This also means how we decide to handle a posture that might be too advanced for us, or one that feels like it is just at our level but to truly experience it might bring discomfort to the point where we are just not sure if we can bear…that is learning how to cope.  So indulge in the possible train of thought that might sound like this when your instructor asks you to add a twist to that low lunge:  “OK. I can do this. I have done this before.  It is going to be intense but it is temporary and I can come out if at any point.  I can also use my breath. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do?  Inhale, exhale.  Hey this is feeling pretty deep…and pretty good…a couple more breaths and I am there. I can actually deepen this a bit.  Ah, yes, that’s -well that is amazing! Time to release… ahhhh sweet downward dog.  That was great.  And we get to do the other side.  Awesome.”  Or perhaps you follow the path of detachment, like the Buddhists or other spiritual folk. Whatever your coping style, if it is positive in nature and adds to the nurturing of your body rather than its destruction, you are on the right track. Its in yoga class that we get to safely have this experience, which can in time, better equip us for what we may encounter outside of the yoga studio.

In summary, what this leaves us with is a feeling of cleansing and renewal.  Our hearts might be a  little more open – either via our chest opening in a back-bend, or softening in a restorative pose. We might start to resemble those first few flowers that flirt with us from the newly un-frozen earth. We show a little more of ourselves each time, knowing that stress is no match for our breath, our focus and our knowledge that we can experience discomfort and come out the other side feeling  something like bliss.

“It is the truth we ourselves speak rather than the treatment we receive that heals us.” (O. Hobart Mowrer, 1966)

“Things do not change.  We change.” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden)

Real Women Do Yoga.

Today is one of those days that is more beautiful on the inside than the outside.  In NYC it is raining and gray.  At times the rain is very heavy, at times it is a drizzle but the sun is nowhere in sight.  This is something we cannot control. So we get up, we amble over to yoga class, we breathe into our bodies, we stretch what is tight, we lengthen what is short.  All the while we revel in the possibility of what could be (a sunny day perhaps?  springtime soon?). We dream indulgently about what potential there may be for our yoga practice, about what new sensations we might feel and what level of depth we may permit ourselves to explore.  Or maybe we don’t…some of us use Sundays to go to church,  read, sleep, catch up on work, clean, shop, see family, rest, restore and anything and everything in between.  In any case, Happy Sunday to you. It is a beautiful day no matter rain or shine.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I did a photo shoot last weekend with a photographer named Sharon Goldberg.  You can find her work at http://www.iliketotakepictures.com  She is very talented and the photo shoot was as smooth and easy as it gets.  Minimal makeup, natural lighting and one “outfit” – if you can call a leotard an outfit – and in an hour we were done.   You can click on the photos for a larger version.  Here is one of my favorite pictures:This is a version of Eka Pada Koundinya II, or as I like to call it in my head, “that arm balance that I really like doing”.  Many thanks to one of my favorite teachers Derek Beres for letting us play with this pose in his class.  If we are never given the chance to fly, how will we ever leave the ground?

We moved through the shoot, as you can see there were no mirrors. There was no chance for that (sometimes loud!) voice of self doubt to ruin what ended up being an amazing experience.  Here is “two-legged inverted staff pose” (dwi pada viparita dandasana):  I have my forearms underneath my head while my head is still above the floor. This pose requires flexibility in both the hips and shoulders, and should be attempted after a very thorough warm up, and should not be attempted if you are not able to hold wheel with your palms flat,  elbows straight and feet parallel for 5 full breaths.  If you can hold your wheel in this way comfortably for 5 full breaths, try extending your legs.  Do this by lifting through both your thighs and hip flexors, making sure not to crunch or add pressure to your lumbar spine.  Once you have mastered that variation, you can try placing your forearms down.  This is a very advanced pose and should not be attempted by a beginner, or someone with injuries or loss of integrity to the major joints/ligaments/tendons/fascia of the body.

Here is a variation of wheel pose.  This one requires strength in the hips to allow for the extension of the leg: Wheel variation I will admit that if you look carefully, my bottom foot is a bit turned out, or externally rotated. I have the flexibility in my hips and lower back to accommodate for this, but ideally my foot would be parallel, ensuring that my lower back remains neutral.  This cannot be overstated!  If the lower back positioning is compromised, we are putting ourselves at great risk for herniated disks, ligament damage and possible nerve pain.  Having all the flexibility in the world is not useful if you hurt yourself!  We have to take care of our bodies and respect their limitations, be in awe of what they can do, and enjoy the journey as we figure it all out.

The final two pictures are similar, in that they are variations on low lunge.  Low lunge, or anjaneyasana, is one of those poses that once the basics are understood, the potential for creativity is limitless.  Here is how I played with it:

In this version I simply reached back with my right hand as if I might grab my left foot while extending my left arm towards the sky.  There is very minimal pressure on my back knee because I am using my left butt muscles to support the stretch in my left hip, rather than sink down to my back knee. I am also using the opposition of my top arm to create lift and stretch from the long line of connective tissue that encases my thigh, hip, torso and chest.  If you are new to this kind of variation, you can try using a blanket or other form of support under your back knee.  Be mindful of the pressure you apply and be sure to lengthen in multiple directions  -up, down, forward and back.

The final photo I will share is another low lunge variation.  In this one I admit, my dance background crept into the room and I felt a softness come over me, as I twisted and gestured, Sharon in her brilliance was able to capture a moment that emanates both stillness and movement:low lunge variationThat is it!  That was my photo shoot. I was nervous and excited. I found myself on various points of the emotional continuum that is one end fear and the other end ecstasy.  Looking at the pictures, sharing them on the blog, sharing them on twitter and facebook, teaching my wonderful students this morning, I have come towards delight and ecstasy – I felt fear, I embraced it, I was vulnerable and I survived!   That is yoga:)

If you would like to check out the photos on facebook , here is the link:

“It is the truth we ourselves speak rather than the treatment we receive that heals us.” (O. Hobart Mowrer, 1966)

“Things do not change.  We change.”(Henry David Thoreau, Walden)

This entry was posted on March 6, 2011. 1 Comment