Tutorial: Forward bend

Forward bends can be done both sitting AND standing. Forward bends create length in the spine, relieve any compression, and can promote introspection.

But, tight hamstrings and physical patterns, such as rounded shoulders (hello, sitting in front of a computer for hours! check out some great info on “un-rounding” your shoulders HERE) can make forward bends challenging!

Forward bends also provide us an opportunity to break these patterns: a fresh perspective!

Senior Kripalu Yoga teacher Cristie Newhart shares these tips for getting the most out of your forward folds:

Alignment is key.

  • The action of forward bends, is to fold at the hip crease, bringing the top of the pelvis forward.
  • Also, think about lengthening the front of the body as you fold, keeping the neck and jaw relaxed, and engage the quadriceps so that the muscles around the knee are stabilized and protected.  Use the support of the abdominal muscles below the navel allow for greater flexibility in the lumbar spine. And, until the hamstrings are sufficiently open, Cristie says that it’s best to practice forward bends with a slight bend in the knees.

Props are your friends.

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  • Standing: Use blocks to help you lengthen your spine if your hands don’t reach the floor easily.
  • Seated: Place a folded blanked, cushion or bolster under your seat to tilt your pelvis forward. Grab a strap (belt, tie, towel!) to help reach your feet.
  • Use props to prevent over-rounding the back, release tense shoulders, and ease locked knees.

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Don’t force it.

  • Forward bends are not about how deep you can go but rather how deeply you can release. Less is more. 
  • Surrender to the present moment, notice the experience, and settle into the breath. As Cristie reminds us, “Honor the body where it’s at—let it unfold at its own pace.”

So, fold inward and find introspection and release. Much love.

Reference:

kripalu.org/blog/thrive/2012/12/10/the-benefits-of-forward-bends?utm_source=Thrive&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=121012ForwardBend

yoga for rounded shoulders

To address tight and rounded shoulders, something commonly seen in our society, we can use the serratus anterior and middle trapezius to balance and stabilize the shoulders.
In our body, muscles work in pairs – one contracts, and opposing one relaxes (i.e. think about how your biceps and triceps work when you bend your elbow). This means that we need to exercise muscles in pairs.
In rounded shoulders, you can feel your serratus anterior (side rib, pulls scapulas forward) by creating a big bear hug action; you can feel your mid trapezius (middle of shoulder blades) by bending your elbows at side and squeeze your shoulders together.
To realign back to a neutral shoulder, we need to work out tension in the serratus and strengthen the trapezius.
Try the following sequence to bring your shoulders back to neutral:
Crocodile (makarasana)
Lie flat on the floor on your stomach. Your arms should be in front of you, with your elbows just in front of the shoulders. Widen your legs mat width. Squeeze your buttocks together and press into the floor. Lift up in your chest and bend your elbows to clasp each elbow with the opposite palm. Tuck in your chin and gently rest your forehead on your arms. Reposition your body if you need to for comfort. Hold the pose for several breaths and release on an exhale.
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Heartbed
Place a rolled up blanket lengthwise along your mat. Place your hips and lay your spine along the rolled up blanket to open your chest. Bend your elbows and place the back of your palms on the ground (“cactus”).
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Downward dog (ardo mukha svanasana)
Starts on your hands and knees and lift up into downward dog (see “Teaching an old (downward) dog new tricks” for more instructions). Open up front of armpits, press through pad of index fingers, draw your belly in, life through sits bones, ease through side ribs, slide your shoulders down your back, relax your neck (I need to relax my neck in this picture!) and jaw.
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Cobra (bhujangasana)
Lie face down on the floor on a yoga mat with your palms flat, placed beneath your shoulders. The tops of your feet should be flat on the floor. Engage your abs by tilting your pelvis and drawing your belly button toward your spine to protect your lower back. Spread your fingers and press your palms into the floor. Rotate your shoulders back and down – away from your ears. Push your upper body off the floor and straighten your arms as much as is comfortable while keeping your hips, legs and feet planted on the mat.
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Bridge (setu bhandasana)
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Extend your arms along the floor, palms flat. Roll your shoulders back and underneath your body and bend your elbows to 90degrees. Press your feet and back of upper arms firmly into the floor. Exhale as you lift your hips toward the ceiling. Draw your tailbone toward your pubic bone, holding your buttocks off the floor. Keep your thighs and feet parallel and press your weight evenly across all four corners of both feet. Lengthen your tailbone toward the backs of your knees.
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Regular practice will help strengthen and stretch those muscles (traps, serratus) to help you greet the world with a more open chest, deeper breath and fuller heart. much love.
For more info, watch “Trapezius and Serratus Anterior” by Sara Guglielmi on Yoga Internation.

Yoga for sleep

We’ve been discussing sleep issues… why sleep is important (here) and sleep disorders in Parkinson’s disease (here)

“Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.” M. Ghandi

A little yoga before bed can be a great way to wind down the body, and mind too, and prep for a good sleep. Here are three poses for a relaxing bedtime sequence.

Next time you find yourself counting sheep, try these poses instead! much love

1. a) Figure 4 / Eye of the Needle

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lying on your back, cross one leg over the other with the outside of the ankle resting on the opposite knee. Either place our hand on the knee to create pressure OR reach your  arm through the triangle between your legs and clasp your hands around the back of your leg of the non-bend side. Keeping your shoulders on the ground and a long spine, gently pull the hamstring towards your belly and feel a stretch to the opposite side. Repeat other side.

OR

1. b) One-legged Pigeon (Kapotasana)

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Come onto hands and knees. Bring your left knee forward and place it near your left wrist, with your shin on a diagonal and your left heel pointing toward your right frontal hipbone.

Maintaining a square hip alignment, shimmy your right toes back until your right thigh releases to the floor. Move your left foot and shin toward the front of your mat, aiming for your shin to be parallel to the front edge, and flex your foot to protect your knee. If you wish to go deeper: using your arms for support, walk your upper body to rest your forehead on stacked fists or on the ground. Repeat other side.

2. Stacked Ankle to Knee / Firelog (Agnistambhasana)

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Sitting tall with your knees bent, feet on the floor. Slide your left foot under your right leg to the outside of your right hip, and lay the outer leg on the floor. Then, stack your right leg on top of the left. Be sure the right ankle is outside the left knee (i.e., sole is perpendicular to the floor). If you are more flexible, slide your left shin forward directly below the right; otherwise, keep the left heel beside the right hip. If you’re tight in the hips, simply sit with your shins crossed in Sukhasana (Easy Pose). Repeat other side.

3. reclining twist

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Lie on your back and draw both knees into your chest. Open your arms to the side like wings and drop the knees to one side, turning your gaze to the opposite side. Place hand onto of outer thigh to add more resistance to your twist. If your shoulder/hips begin to float up, place a blanket under the shoulder or a bolster along the spine. Repeat other side.

happy hips = happy sleep! much love.

… more great yoga pose ideas at: http://tarastiles.com

Tutorial: teaching an old (downward) dog new tricks

Teachers can get stuck in how they explain yoga postures and students can get stuck in patterns of holding. Yoga is like learning a new language (uhh, sometimes it is… sanskrit!) and it make take years to translate from mind to body.

Teachers have the opportunity to examine how they are using language and presenting postures… it’s up to them to notice if students are getting “lost in translation”

forearm downward facing dog *great modification if you suffer from wrist pain

forearm downward facing dog *great modification if you suffer from wrist pain

Arguable, downward facing dog, or Adho Mukha Svanasana (pronounced: AH-doh MOO-kah shvah-NAHS-anna) is one of the most practiced and taught asanas (i.e. yoga pose) in yoga studios around the world… thus, likely, one of the most misunderstood. Here are a few tips to try next time you find yourself in an inverted “V”.

Stabilize the shoulder: externally rotating the upper arms in relationship to the shoulder joints while pronating the wrists to root the hands solidly on the ground. External rotation of the upper arms allow the back to extends. The lats, traps, erector spinae and intercostal muscles awaken and elevate towards the hips and tailbone.

Establish your roots: contacting the quadriceps and lengthening the hamstrings lift the knees upward and move the femur heads (top of thighbones) back. This helps root the feet/heels down, allowing the lower back, sacrum and gluteus muscles to extend.

Balance ‘effort’ and ‘ease’: lightness and freedom of downward dog comes from strong grounding from the legs into the feet.

When yoga students are “lost in translation”, this can result in compression, forced movement, overextension and possible injury! Keeping in mind these slight adjustments will help you (and/or your students!) move towards a downward dog with a sense of groundedness and lightness. much love.

Adapted from: Shelley Piser for Yoga Dork

Tutorial: meditation 101

Being in the present moment is a meditation practice.

There is a challenge in sitting still in meditation and watching the activity of the brain/mind. Anytime you sit with the intention and willingness to be mindful, transformation will happen. At first, you want to bring stability to the mind, perhaps by focusing on one thing, such as the breath (note: you can count your breaths in groups of 10; restart once you reach 10 or lose count). Eventually expand your focus/awareness to encompass bodily sensations and thoughts. Typically the first insight meditators have is, ‘Holy crap! I think all the time!’ By practicing meditation, you start to observe the way your thoughts move and change, and you can develop a more subtle awareness of your experience.*

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Health benefits of meditation primarily focus on increasing the relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system) and allows us to  “rest and digest.” … and this leads to boosting the immune system, improving digestion, improving sleep, and increasing cognitive function. This helps your relax more throughout the day. Meditation decreases the likelihood of reacting negatively to stress… for example, you might stop overeating/drinking.

More Reasons to meditate:

  1. Dull the Pain! Meditation training cuts pain perception in half (J Neurosci 2011) and makes pain less unpleasant because brains are busy focusing on the present moment, and anticipating the pain less, blunting its emotional impact (J Pain, 2010).
  2. Improve your sex life! Meditation helps bring thoughts into the present moment, and can enhance a woman’s sexual experience (less self-judgemental chatter!) (J Psychosomatic Medicine, 2011)
  3. Problem-solving! Meditations helps apply switching strategies for problem-solving and getting out of habitual patterns… it breaks the cycle and enables you to look at things with a fresh perspective (PLoS One, 2012).
  4. Boosts mental toughness! Regular meditation improves mood and working memory, which allows for short-term retrieval and storage of information. Meditation helps individuals stay alert and in the moment without becoming emotional (J Emotion, 2010).
  5. Emotional regulation! Meditation improves feelings of empathy and benevolance (PLoS One, 2008).
  6. Improve your attention span! Meditation practitioners are better able to make fine visual distinctions and sustain visual attention during a demanding tasks (Psychological Science, 2010).
  7. Get a bigger brain! Long-term meditators have larger amounts of gyrification (i.e., folds) of the brain’s cortex than people who don’t meditate. The extra folds may allow faster processing of information (Neuroimage, 2011; Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2012).

How do you find ways to bring meditative moments into your day? Share some of your meditation experiences in the comments below. much love.

*Adapted info from: Kripalu Thrive Blog

Yoga language: myth-busting twists and inversions

Amy Matthews is the co-author of Yoga Anatomy, the co-director of The Breathing Project’s Advanced Studies Program in New York City and has been teaching anatomy and kinesiology for over 15 years. Matthews did some yoga myth-busting for yoga.about.com that I think everyone should know… (http://yoga.about.com/od/anatomy/a/Yoga-Anatomy-Myths.htm)

(adapted)

First, “Twists”

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Q: Do twists really “wring out” and cleanse the internal organs? Is that even beneficial?

Amy Matthews: There are a number of ways that a statement like “twists wring out the organs” is inaccurate and incomplete if we are looking at the anatomy and physiology of the visceral organs (the organs in the thoracic, abdominal and pelvic cavities).

Definitions: moving the organs around in relation to each other = mobility; movement within an organ (like the beating of the heart) = motility.

Any movement that changes the shape of the thoracic, abdominal and pelvic cavities (spine, ribcage, abdominal wall or pelvic floor … including breathing) can move the organs in relation to each other . Movements that articulate the spine (flexion, extension, lateral flexion and axial extension) – mobilize the organs. However, organs are positioned so that no single movement will mobilize every organ!

The motility of the organs is affected by a wide variety of factors, including signals from the nervous system and the endocrine system. Increasing mobility in the organs can increase blood flow, which brings in nutrients and oxygen and takes away by-products. To a degree, increased circulation can help each organ function at its best.

QTwists are often touted as aids to digestion. Is this correct?

Amy Matthews: The function of the digestive organs (stomach, small/large intestine) is to transport contents from one opening in the body (the mouth) to the opening at the other end (the anus), along the way extracting water and nutrients. The more mobility there is in the intestines in particular, the more easily the contents can move through. And if by “improved digestion” we actually mean less constipation, twists that mobilize the abdomen might indeed be helpful with “moving things along.” (i.e., if “improved digestion” = better absorption)

Secondly, “Inversions”

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QCan inversions increase the blood flow or oxygen flow to the brain? Improve circulation?

Amy Matthews:We are constantly in relationship to gravity, and when we change our relationship to gravity it has an effect on our body.

The circulatory system ensures that there is an appropriate amount of blood flowing to each tissue in the body – so if the circulatory system is functioning well, there will be just enough blood flowing to the brain, and an inversion will not have any effect on that blood flow, in a positive or negative sense. (More blood flow to the brain is NOT a better thing.)

A healthy circulatory system is an adaptable one – one that is able to increase and decrease blood pressure as needed. So any activity that invites the circulatory system to adapt is one that will “improve” it, in some way.

This is just an example of some ways in which us yoga teachers twist and turn our language upside-down instead of focusing on the anatomy and physiology behind it.  much love.

PS want to geek out more? check out some anatomy behind breathing HERE

Full article available at: http://yoga.about.com/od/anatomy/a/Yoga-Anatomy-Myths.htm

Tutorial: Nah-dee-show-DAH-nah

Nadi (=”channel”) Shodhana (= “cleaning” “purifying”) Pranayama is an alternate-nostril breathing exercise.

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The right hand is placed in Mrigi Mudra (a Sanskrit word meaning “to seal, close, or lock up” or “gesture”) by pressing your hand into a fist with your index and middle fingers firmly into the base of your thumb. Stretch out the ring and pinky fingers. Keep your pinky relatively straight, but curl your ring finger slightly; the idea is to “blend” the two fingertips into one.

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  1. Gently close your right nostril with your thumb
  2. Inhale through your left nostril
  3. Close left nostril with your ring-little fingers
  4. Open right nostril and exhale slowly through the right nostril.
  5. Inhale right nostril
  6. Repeat step 1. This is one cycle.
  7. Repeat 3 to 5 times, then release the hand mudra and go back to normal breathing.

Benefits include lowered heart rate, reduction in stress and anxiety. This breath is also said to synchronize the two hemispheres of the brain (oh so beneficial for Parkinson’s disease!) and encourage prana (life force energy) flow.

This breathing exercise is great for quieting your mind before beginning a meditation session, and it is also a soothing practice for calming racing thoughts and anxiety if you are having trouble falling asleep.

 

Try it to feel more balanced and calm. much love.

PS. Want more yoga tips for a better sleep? Check out Yoga for Sleep I and Yoga for Sleep II

Tutorial: 3-Part Breath

Dirga Pranayam, or three-part deep breathing, is the foundation of all the yogic breathing techniques. This breathing exercise mobilizing your life force energy (prana) to cleanse and balance.

The three-part breath is deep and full breathing and helps dispel anxiety and create a sense of calm (via vagal nerve). The purpose this three-part breath is unlearn patterns of taking in slow sips of breath (shallow breathing!) and mouth breathing, which can create tension in your body and anxiety in your mind. Three-part breath also brings smoothness to the breath & improves breath holding for singers, divers, etc.

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dirga pranayama

A typical visual is to think of filling your lungs up like a glass of water from the bottom up. First you inhale expanding the belly, then let the air raise upwards expanding the ribs, and finally filling (puffing out) the chest. BUT, from an anatomical perspective, air never rises into the chest. Air only goes in and out from the lungs, moving from the bronchial tree. As you inhale, air enters from the top downward, branches left and right, then fans out from center to periphery. An exhale follows the exact opposite pattern.

the bronchial tree (academic.kellogg.edu)

So, anatomically, when we “inhale into our bellies“, the abdominal expansion is caused by the contracting/descending diaphragm which pushes forward on the abdomen and causes the forward displacement of the organs (really, the abdomen bulges forward).

The diaphragm is connected to the lower ribcage. When we “inhale into our ribs“, the contraction of the diaphragm creates the side-to-side expansion.

Finally, when we “inhale into the chest“, the contraction of the diaphragm creates a front-to-back expansion (and a slight upwards lift) in the sternum (where ribs meets chest).

…. So, thanks for letting me geek out a little with my anatomy…

Thing about lengthening out the inhales and exhales to counts of 6… and then try elongating the exhales to counts of 12 (with inhales still at 6).

As you practice dirgha pranayam, I encourage students to note sensations, emotions, and thoughts that come up … to help tap into the more subtle aspects of the practice.

So, what are you waiting for? Try deepening your breath first thing in the morning, or before bed and see how it feels! much love.

PS. Want more? Check out Breath through your Nose and A Pranayama a Day…

Tutorial – yoga for a better night’s sleep in Parkinson’s – part 2

To follow up the information on sleep difficulties in Parkinson’s HERE… I wanted to introduce some of my favourite bedtime poses… one’s you can even do lying in bed to help relax the bodycalm the mind and prepare for dreaming!

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1. Reclining Cobblers (Bound Angle) Pose 

Benefits: Stimulates organs like kidneys, heart, and improves circulation. Stretches knees and inner thighs. Relieves symptoms of stress, mild depression.

Contraindications: Groin or knee injury – put cushions under your knees (if not resting on floor) to ease knee pain.

  • Lie flat on your back with the soles of your feet together.
  • Let your knees fall outward *place supports under knees if not resting on ground
  • Release your lower back through your tailbone and widen your pelvis (think of bringing hip points together)
  • Imagine dropping your groin (instead of your knees) to the ground and your groin will naturally open
  • Have your arms out to your sides and palms up to open your chest.

2. Reclining Twist 

Benefits: Improves breathing, back/spine/neck tension, digestion, lower back pain, stress and fatigue.

Contraindications:

  • Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Let your chin settle towards your chest to lengthen the back of your neck
  • Lift your hips and shift them slightly to the left, drawing the tailbone towards the heels
  • Place your right hand on the outside of your left thigh and gently let your knees fall to the right until your right upper thigh hits the floor or a cushion
  • Slide your shoulder blades down your back and extend your left arm out at 90degrees to the left… look towards the left
  • When ready to release, slide your feet along the floor in front of you so you end up gently rolling onto your back.
  • Repeat other side.

3. Happy Baby

Benefits: Calming. Relieves stress and tension in the lower back and spine.

Contraindications: Knee injury, neck injury (*support head with a cushion)

  • Lie flat on your back and bent your knees up onto your belly with the soles of your feet like they are standing on the ceiling
  • Grab the soles of your feet with your hand, or hang onto a strap that is placed across both soles of your feet
  • Open your knees slightly wider than your torso and let them sink
  • Release your tailbone towards the floor and lengthen the back of your neck

try these before bed to take you away into dreamland. much love.

P.S. want another pose that is restorative and relaxing? try legs up the wall!

P.S.S. still feeling sleepy? check out restorative child’s pose, and hotelroom sleepovers!

photo credits: yogajournal, lovemyyoga, pullingdownthemoon

Tutorial – yoga for depression in Parkinson’s – part 2

I wanted to following up with my introduction to depression in Parkinson’s disease and the benefits of yoga (hello, Breath of Joy!). In this TUTORIAL (new regular post!) are 3 yoga poses that I find are constructive ways to release tension, improve mood and find balance.

1. Gentle BackBends or Heart Openers

Here, I want to offer 2 suggestions…

1.A. Fish Pose (Matsyasana)

Benefits: Releases tension and is also good for deep breathing and relaxation. This is a great chest-opener; many people who have depression coupled with anxiety often have feelings of tightness or pressure in the chest—this pose can help ease the pressure. The Fish is also very beneficial for a tense neck, shoulders and lower back.

Contraindications: Back pain, injuries to neck or shoulder

  • Lie flat on your back with your knees straight and keep your feet together with toes pointed to the ceiling.
  • Slide your hands under your thighs and buttocks. This motion should cause your chest to bow upward slightly.
  • Bend the elbows and push them into the floor; use the bend of the elbows and arms to raise the chest higher, keeping the chest arched upward.
  • When the chest is arched as high as possible, drop your head and rest the very top of your head on the floor. Your chin should point to the ceiling.
  • While in this posture, breathe deeply and really enjoy the chest expansion. Hold this position for as long as is comfortable.

OR 1.B. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhasana)

Benefits: Back bends may benefit those with depression. Bridge Pose, can be stimulating and fight darkness and delusion.

Contraindications:

  • Lie on the floor and place a thickly folded blanket under your shoulders to protect your neck. Bend your knees.
  • Exhale while pressing your inner feet and arms down, then push your tailbone upward, lifting the buttocks off the floor. Keep your thighs and inner feet in line and make sure your knees are directly over your heels.
  • You may progress to clasping your hands below your pelvis and extend through your arms to help you stay on the tops of your shoulders.
  • Elongate the tailbone toward the backs of the knees and lift the pubis in the direction of the navel. Push the top of the sternum toward the chin.
  • Release with an exhalation, rolling the spine gradually down onto the floor.

2. Child’s Pose (Balasana) – see full post HERE

Benefits: A good, relaxing counter-pose when performed after Fish. Child’s pose is comforting and peaceful. It enables connection of the third eye to the earth and promotes safety and security. It also stretches lower back and shoulders … which feels wonderful!

Contraindications: Back injury.

  • Kneel on the floor, and then sit onto your heels.
  • Open your knees until they are a little more than hip-width apart (giving space for your chest to come down between your thighs).
  • Bend forward at the hip; bring your chest to rest between your thighs.
  • Try and keep your buttocks in contact with your heels (if this is not happening either: A. widen your knees OR B. place a cushion between your hamstrings and buttocks). Also, rest your forehead either on the floor OR on a cushion/folded blanket OR stacked fists.
  • Lengthen your arms out in front of you on either side of your head. You can also slide your arms back to your sides, palms up and relax.

3. Legs up the Wall Pose (viparita karani)

Benefits: This pose is great to calm the mind, and I find it especially relaxing before bed! It’s great to relieve tired or cramped legs and feet. It also relieves mild backaches.

Contraindications: Back injury or glaucoma. *Note: If your feet begin to tingle during this pose, bend your knees, touch your soles together, and slide the outer edges of your feet down the wall, bringing your heels close to your pelvis.

*Note: you can also place your legs on a chair if this creates too much tension on your back or you have difficulty getting into this version of the posture – see HERE

  • Start with a cushion/rolled up blanked about 5 to 6 inches away from the wall. Sit sideways on one end of the support (with your side against the wall) (see pic 3.(prep)) and swing your legs up onto the wall and lean your shoulders and head lightly down onto the floor *this may take a few attempts … Your sitting bones should be “dripping” down into the space between the support and the wall and your lower back should be supported by the cushion/blanket (see pic 3.)
  • Elongate the back of your neck and soften your throat *here you can place a small rolled towel under your neck if the cervical spine feels flat. Open your shoulder blades away from the spine and stretch your arms out to your sides, palms up.
  • Keep your legs firm enough to hold them vertically in place.
  • To release, slide off the support onto the floor before turning to the side. You can also bend your knees and push your feet against the wall to lift your pelvis off the support. Then slide the support to one side, lower your pelvis to the floor, and turn to the side.

And most importantly – savasana!

Try these poses to create an open heart and relaxed body and mind! much love.