Resolutions? Or Intentions for 2020?

New YearThe New Year is upon us.  It’s time to set those New Year’s Resolutions.  Or is it? When you set a New Year’s Resolution and you don’t manage to achieve it, how do you feel?  Do you feel defeated and deflated?  We start out with excitement and great expectations of the changes that we will make—this year. Yet, if we don’t achieve those goals and make those changes, we can be so hard on ourselves.

When we set New Year’s Resolutions, we can set ourselves up for failure. We set goals that we may not be able to achieve; and when we don’t, we feel as though we’ve lost, or that we’re not good enough! New Year’s Resolutions focus on the future, rather than on the present.  When we lose that extra 10 pounds, we imagine how good we’ll feel. That might be true; we might feel better when we’ve lost some extra weight, but what about right now? We want to feel better in this moment!

When we set an intention, we set ourselves up for success. Setting an intention can help destinationyou to live in the moment and enjoy each moment as it comes.  An intention gives you a road map for how you want to live your life, rather than a resolution, which only gives you a map showing you the final destination, and doesn’t give you any idea of how to get there.

Suppose you do want to lose weight. Think about how you can achieve that.  What would you do in your life to bring that weight loss to fruition?  Would you intend to eat more healthfully, nourishing your body with more fresh fruits and vegetables? Would you intend to move your body each day to give it the exercise it requires to stay strong and flexible? Perhaps your intention might be to ‘live a healthier lifestyle’.

Once you’ve set your intention, write it down. Then take some time to think about how you will feel when you assimilate this intention into your life.  You may feel stronger; have a more positive outlook on life; feel more energetic.  What wonderful feelings and outcomes to achieve for yourself!

Knowing that we cannot predict the future, allow yourself to enjoy the present moment; live in the present moment and bring your conscious awareness of how you want to ‘be’, into the present moment. “Sankalpa—the Sanskrit word for intention—is generated for your soul’s growth. A good intention nurtures your consciousness and has the power to significantly raise your awareness. When you set an intention, you don’t have to worry about your actions. A righteous intention creates a righteous action.”

I, as many of us are, am looking for more joy, and gratitude in my life.  My intention is ‘to explore my relationships’: to explore my relationship with myself, to explore my relationships with others, to explore my relationship with the world I live in.

When I begin these explorations, I believe I will feel more joy in these closer and more connected relationships, and I will feel gratitude for the relationships that I am nurturing and holding close to my heart—whether the relationship is with others, with me, or with the world around me.

This year, anchor yourself in the present moment, set an intention, and create meaningful changes in your life.

Pose of the Month

To ground yourself in the present moment, try an asana that supports your Root Chakra— Utkatasana (Chair Pose):

Chair
Hello everyone! Me in Utkatasana!

To do Utkatasana, start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with your big toes together and heels slightly apart. Make sure that your knees are pointing forward.  If they aren’t, adjust your feet.  Inhale, as you bring your arms up over your head.  Exhale and begin to bend your knees as though you are going to sit down in a chair. Sit down as low as you can, and bring your weight into your heels.  Look down at your feet to make sure you can see all 10 toes.  If you can’t see your toes, then your knees are too far forward and you are putting stress on the knee joint—so sit back.  Lift your toes, and this will help you to sit back towards your heels. Tuck your tailbone and firm your abdominal muscles. Hold this pose breathing in and out through the nose for 6 to 8 breaths.  To come out of the pose, straighten the legs and bring your arms back down to your sides.  If it is difficult to keep your arms up over your head, you can bring your hands to Prayer, or Anjali Mudra.

Good luck with intention setting.  I’d love to hear how it goes!  Next month, I’ll explore the Root Chakra!

Reference: Why you should focus on intentions instead of resolutions this year (and how to do it).https://www.wellandgood.com/good-advice/why-you-should-focus-on-intentions-instead-of-resolutions/

Yoga for the Goat in all of Us!

20191109_124655Recently, I tried something I never thought I would try: Baby Goat Yoga! Prior to this experience, as someone truly passionate about the practice of yoga, I thought goat yoga sounded a bit silly and that maybe, it even watered down the true meaning of yoga.  I had also read opinions on yoga involving animals, written by other passionate yogis, who have called the “practice” of including animals in a yoga session, “unethical” (Downward Dog, but without the Dogs, Denise Moore, Toronto Star – November 18/19), because it ‘dilutes the true teachings of yoga’.

Then one day in October, while out on a wine tour, my oldest daughter texted me about a winery that was offering goat yoga sessions that—in spite of everything—piqued my curiosity. I figured that I ought to, at least, give it a shot before forming my ultimate opinion. Now, I have to admit, I’m glad I kept an open mind.  Yoga is a beautiful practice.  When undertaken with regularity, passion, and knowledge, yoga can be transformative and healing – mentally, spiritually, and physically.  I truly believe that.  I have had first-hand experience with the healing benefits yoga has to offer.  And yet goat yoga is something so different—yes, that includes it being a little silly—but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad.

Was it fun, and truly engaging for me, to hold “Table” pose with a goat on my back? Yes, it was.  Were the other people taking part in the session focused on their breath and on the technical aspects of20191109_124718-1.jpg each pose? No, it certainly didn’t seem so. Many had probably never held a yoga pose before in their life and, to be frank, while some may never take part in yoga again, they might otherwise have never been exposed without the novelty of involving those lovable, furry creatures.

For those like me, that have practiced yoga, it turned out to be a fun and enriching way to spend our afternoon. With my best friend beside me, we spent the better part of an hour rejuvenating our souls as we laughed, snapped some photos, and held a few yoga poses, all with a bunch of baby goats!

These miniature goats from Africa, wander in and out between people, and often hop right up on your back for a better view of the territory.  When the group is loud and excited the goats are active.  When we calmed ourselves by closing our eyes and focusing on our breath (which we all did – momentarily), the baby goats quieted and calmed down along with the group.

The session I participated in was run by Fox Den Yoga. Their philosophy is that their inclusive classes allow participants of all skills levels to feel welcome and leave the goat yoga session feeling lighter, happier, more connected to nature Anne 3and each other. (https://www.foxdengoatyoga.com/site/about-goat-yoga-niagara). From my experience, that’s exactly what happened!

Baby Goat Yoga may not be for everyone, but in the yogic spirit of accepting that life is ‘change’ and that to live life fully we need to live in the moment, perhaps we should all be more willing to try new things, be it goat yoga or something else.  Ultimately we should look to do things that bring us joy and happiness.

#foxdenyoga

Yoga and Pelvic Health

10Incontinence is something we don’t like to talk about, and when we do, it is likely in a hushed tone, with accompanying giggles.  Does that mean that incontinence is a joke? Well, hardly!  Incontinence can lead to embarrassment and missed opportunities to work on physical health because we are afraid of what might happen if we run, or jump, or hop, or dance, or do any variety of physical movements.

There are three types of incontinence:

  1. Stress incontinence which is when you leak during a laugh, jump, orgasm, sneeze or cough.
  2. Urge incontinence is when the need to urinate is immediate.  For example, the moment you get up from the dinner table..
  3. Mixed incontinence is a combination of both of the above types of incontinence.

Sometimes referred to as the “core 4”: the pelvic floor, diaphragm, multifidus and transversus abdominis are responsible for maintaining continence.

Pelvic floor muscles support the pelvic organs: bladder, bowel, and uterus.  The diaphragm has respiratory functions, but also, it increases abdominal pressure to help the body release waste: urine, and feces. The multifidus is a deep muscle located along the back of the spine very close to the midline.  Together with the transversus abdominis and pelvic floor muscles, the multifidus works to stabilize the low back and pelvis, raising intra-abdominal pressure.

Various yoga tools can help to strengthen those core muscles that are responsible for maintaining continence.

Restorative Yoga

Pelvic floor muscles can become ‘hypertonic’ or too tight.  Restorative yoga can help to relax pelvic floor muscles, allowing them to activate when needed, but also letting them relax and release when appropriate.  Muscles that are too tight cannot operate optimally.

Pranayama, Meditation, and Gentle Yoga

All of the above help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or the ‘relax and digest’ response. Someone who is dealing with urge incontinence can use these yoga tools to tap into their relaxation response.

Alignment and Posture

Having good alignment, which results in good posture, has a positive effect on how the core muscles function.  Alignment is a major topic of importance and discussion when holding and moving through yoga poses.

Strengthening

During yoga practice the core 4 muscles can be activated and strengthened. Simply sitting in Easy Pose or Sukhasana can be an opportunity to engage and activate those muscles.

Awareness

Yoga invites us to bring awareness to our practice and to our life. Incontinence sends the message that something in the body’s system is not functioning optimally. Yoga provides the opportunity to listen to that message and respond.

Surrender!

Surrender

When you hear or read the word “surrender”, what does it mean to you? Does it make you think of giving in, giving up, waving the white flag when you’ve lost the battle you’ve fought so hard to win?  In yoga, surrendering is not losing, it’s not giving in—it is opening up to possibility, releasing worry, letting go of self-expectations, and living in the moment.

Surrender then, is not submission. Surrender is allowing your higher power—the universe, God, or whatever that bigger presence is for you—to guide you, if you allow it to.  In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali refers to this inner presence as Ishvara, our foremost teacher (Yoga Sutra I.26). “Through intimate listening to this voice within us, we begin to have a relationship with inner guidance in all aspects of our life.”

In yoga, people often struggle with certain poses.  For example, balance poses: Tree, Eagle, Half Moon—I struggle with balance poses everyday, some days, more than others. I used to get angry with myself, that incessant monkey mind would rattle on and on, “Why can’t I do this?  How can I be a yoga instructor if I can’t do this pose? What is wrong with me?”.  Thoughts like those would fill my mind, allowing no room for mistake, no room for growth, and no room for inner guidance.

Slowly, as I continue my meditation practice—following my breath—I have learned to do the same in my yoga practice.  When I stop trying so hard to be perfect, and allow my body to ease into the pose, when I follow my breath, and allow myself the option of making a mistake, I am more able to hold my balance.

Yoga is practice for living life.  At the end of a yoga class or session, we take Savasana, Corpse Pose.  Savasana is truly surrendering—it is allowing the body to assimilate all the benefits of the yoga practice, it is living in the present moment, following the breath.

Savasana
Savasana – Corpse Pose

To practice Savasana, follow these steps:

Lie on your back with knees bent. Keep your head centered. Extend your arms to the sides, palms facing up to accept energy from the universe. Turn the upper inner arms away from the trunk, and gently tuck the shoulder blades in, bringing a slight lift to the chest, yet not overarching the lower back. Maintain the arm position, and then stretch the legs out one by one. Allow the inner legs to roll outward and relax completely.

Allow your breath to flow smoothly in and out. Close your eyes and relax the facial muscles, beginning with the forehead and eyelids. Then relax the cheeks, lips, and tongue. (Relaxing your tongue will release tension in the face, which has a direct effect on the brain and mind.) Relax the throat and neck. Continue to bring attention to each part of the body, consciously relaxing each part, starting with the head and traveling all the way down to your feet. When the physical body is still and at rest, the breath naturally draws you inward toward the essence of yourself.

Learning to surrender is not easy, but it is important to remember that when you surrender, you are not losing the battle—in essence, you, the true “you” is winning.

“… Ishvara pranidhana focuses not on ego but on the sacred ground of being, it reunites us with our true Self.”

Reference: Ishvara Pranidhana: The Practice of Surrender. Shiva Rea. Updated:May 23, 2017. Original:Aug 28, 2007, www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/the-practice-of-surrender

 

Pranayama

Prana – what?

When people think of yoga they think of asana practice, practicing the poses, yet when pranayama is practiced along with the poses, it is what helps us to stay in the moment, and to ‘work’ the poses, and soften into each pose.  Pranayama is the channeling or control of our life force energy, our breath! Prana means life force, or breath, sustaining the body; Ayama translates to “extend or draw out.” Pranayama is the 4th Limb of the 8 Limbs of Yoga.

Breathing is a natural reflex.  We breathe automatically, usually, without even thinking about it.  When we feel physically or emotionally challenged, it is the body’s natural response to hold the breath. Pranayama teaches us to breath slowly, evenly, and deeply.

If you simply sit quietly, in a chair, with your hands resting on your thighs, and observe your breath, without changing anything, you will likely note that your inhales and your exhales fluctuate.  Your inhale may be longer than your exhale, at times.  Or, one full breath may be short, another may be long.

Breathing slowly, evenly, and deeply increases the capacity of the lungs, brings more oxygen into the body and stimulates the Vagus nerve, which stretches from your brain stem down to your abdomen. When the Vagus Nerve is stimulated it activates the parasympathetic nervous systems to slow your heart rate, relieve stress, and heal your body.  Wow! All that from breathing slowly, evenly, and deeply.  Might be worth it, don’t you think?

Three types of breathing techniques that you can use to calm you body and your mind in preparation for asana practice, or simply to help relax your body and your mind, are Dirga Breath, Nadi Breath, and Ujjiyi Breath.

Dirga Breath

Dirga Breath is called three part breath because you actively breathe into three parts of your abdomen.  First, the low belly, on top of, or just below the belly button.  Second, the low chest, or lower half of the rib cage; and third, the low throat, or just above the top of the sternum. Dirga Breath can be a wonderful way to prepare for asana practice, by focusing the mind on the breath.

Dirga Breath is continuous, inhaling and exhaling through the nose. Begin by lying down on your back.  The inhalation starts in the first position, bringing the breath to the low belly; then moves to the second position, the low chest; and finally, to the third position, the low throat.  The exhalation starts in the low throat, moves to the low chest, and finishes in the low belly.

Resting your hands on the individual positions to feel the breath rising and falling through each position can help you to isolate the three areas. Eventually you will be able to relax the effort of the pranayama and breathe into the three positions gently, feeling a wave of breath move up and down the torso.

Nadi Breath

Nadi Breath, or alternate nostril breathing is also a good pranayama technique to focus the mind in preparation for asana practice.  It can be used on its own if you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed to calm the body and the mind.breath

To prepare for Nadi Breath, sit comfortably, with a tall spine, chin parallel to the floor, and head centred over your body.  Make a fist with your right hand.  Keep the index and middle fingers folded in towards the palm and release the thumb, and then release the ring and pinkie fingers, extending the two as one unit.

Close your right nostril with the thumb of the right hand, and inhale slowly through your left nostril. Then close the left nostril with the ring and pinkie finger combination, open and exhale through the right nostril. Finally inhale through the right nostril, close it, and open and exhale through the left. Repeat 2 or 3 times, then release the hand mudra and breathe normally for a minute.  You can also use the left hand if you prefer, but you will cover the nostrils with the opposite digit or digit combinations.

Ujjayi Breath

Ujjayi Breath, or breath of victory, is a wonderful pranayama to use during your asana practice.  It is calming, the sound provides a point of focus and it warms your internal environment.

To practice Ujjayi Breath, sit comfortably.  Inhale through the nose and then exhale through the mouth with an “haaa” sound.  Now inhale and exhale through the nose, maintaining that same slight constriction at the back of the throat that you used to make the “haaa” sound.  Your breath becomes audible, sounding like the ocean waves as they roll in and out along a beautiful beach.  This is your Ujjayi Breath! Practice for a few minutes and then begin your asana practice.

There are many other Pranayama techniques: some to calm, others to energize!  These are just three to get you started.  Which one do you prefer? Are there any others that you use?

Happy International Yoga Day 2019

I have to writeIYD_CC today!  June 21st is International Day of Yoga!  It was declared as such by the United Nations in 2015. The theme of 2019 is Climate Action, so what does the 2019 logo depict?

The Yogis’ hands, joining above her/his head signify “union”.  Yoga is the union of body, mind, and spirit, but yoga also brings people together.  All over the world on June 21st, people unite in the powerful, yet peaceful practice of yoga.  The orange halo encircling the head and arms, represents the element of fire. The globe around the head of the Yogi represents our “oneness”, with the global civilization, as we practice together.  Moving down the body of the seated Yogi, the green leaves symbolize “nature”, and the brown leaves, the “earth”.  The blue body of the Yogi is representative of the element of “water” throughout our body.

Enjoy this day of power, peace, and action – practice your yoga today!

Inhale, Exhale – Using the Breath

Breathe DeeplyIn yoga practice, the breath is of the utmost importance.  For every movement, there is a corresponding inhale or exhale. Usually, as you are moving into a pose, you inhale, and as you move out of a pose, you exhale.  While you are holding a pose, you continue to breathe.  No holding the breath!  So often we see weight lifters, as they get ready to lift a huge weight, take a deep breath in, and then hold their breath as they are lifting and holding the weight!  There is a big explosive exhale as the weight is lowered down.

Holding the act of holding the breath and exerting is called the Valsalva Maneuver. During this state, you create an air ball in your abdominal region by forcing air against your closed windpipe. This is actually a survival response that stabilizes the body to prevent injury under CERTAIN circumstances.  It is a technique that should only be used for a few seconds. Otherwise it can result in a myriad of short term and long term repercussions, such as:

  • Glaucoma: Intraocular Pressure (eye pressure) increases significantly during the Valsalva Maneuver as compared to a breathing while exerting.
  • Headaches/Migraines: Abrupt blood pressure changes in the head, as a result of using the Valsalva Maneuver can induce this condition.
  • Ruptured Blood Vessels: Sustaining the Valsalva Maneuver can lead to blown vessels virtually anywhere, but the eyes and forehead are very susceptible.
  • Fainting: This circumstance would arise when not enough oxygen flows through the body and to the brain.

Yoga tells us that breath is life.  Through yoga, we discover our body’s abilities and it’s challenges.  We explore what we are capable of, as well as where we want to take our practice of yoga.  Using our breath, we become capable of more than we may have imagined.

Bringing our attention to the physical act of breathing helps us to disengage from the constant chatter of the mind.  As we inhale breathing feeds our cells, tissues, muscles and joints with oxygen.  As we exhale we release toxins from those same places.

We hold tension in various parts of the body.  The neck and shoulders are two of the more lucrative hiding places for tension. Think of that shrug of the shoulders when you don’t know the answer – and the stress that thought might harbour.

Your hips are another prime location of interest to stress and tension. We sit, walk, and stand, with so much of our body weight being transferred to our hips.  Your glutes can become tight and just try to take a deep breath with a tight butt!

The other harbinger of stress and tension is the jaw.  You might surprise yourself if you start to notice how many times in a day you clench your jaw!  And if there is tension in your hips – this will often transfer to the jaw.

Pigeon
Pigeon Pose

You can consciously relax areas of tension that you find by using diaphragmatic breathing—that deep belly breathing—to focus on inhaling into the tension, and exhaling to let it go. So next time you are holding a pose—Pigeon Pose, let’s say—focus on in haling into the hip where you feel tension, then exhale to let that tension go!  It is a visualization technique for sure, but “electromyograph studies have shown that tension increases slightly in all the muscles in the body each time you breathe in, and reduces slightly each time you breathe out.”  Focusing your attention on, and bringing your breath to, the muscles you wish to ease, can bring a greater release to that particular area.Belly-breathing-header

Next week, I will look at some different Pranayama (Breathing) Techniques that can be incorporated into your yoga practice.

Reference:

Stretch Therapy. Breathing. Overcome Neck & Back Pain, 4th edition
(first edition published 1995). https://stretchtherapy.net/breathing/ (06/12/2019)