Yoga for Arthritis

ArInspirational-Yoga-Quotethritis means joint inflammation.  While people of any age, even babies, can have or develop arthritis, its prevalence increases with age.  It used to be that medical professionals told people with arthritis to rest and save their joints.  Over time that advice has changed.  Joints that are unused, tend to stiffen.  Unused muscles become atrophied.

Osteoarthritis is often called ‘wear and tear’ arthritis, and is generally related to aging.  It tends to occur in larger joints such as the hip, knee or shoulder. Cartilage wears away, exposing bones, which then rub on one another and this can permanently damage the joint.  Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto immune disease, affecting multiple joints on both sides of the body. Usually the affected joints are smaller joints, such as the fingers, wrists, feet, and toes.

Whether you have Osteoarthritis or Rheumatoid arthritis, yoga provides a gentle strengthening and flexibility regimen that can not only ease pain but also depression, fatigue, and stress, as well as support one’s attention regulation, memory, and relaxation. (Carson, Krocoff, p. 36).

Yoga is a moving meditation: it combines the physical activity of the asana practice, with breath work and mindfulness.  The poses build strength and flexibility.  Breathing as you move into and out of poses very simply fuels joints and muscles with oxygen on the inhale, and releases toxins on the exhale. The mindfulness—developed by focusing on the breath—helps the individual with arthritis to stay present, to focus on the here and now, and to learn more about her/his own body and how movement affects that body. Staying present is what eases depression, rather than allowing your thoughts to be pulled into the past or the future.

As with any physical activity, it is important to know your limitations and have medical consent.  Finding a yoga instructor with knowledge of arthritis and how to modify a yoga program would be beneficial.  The wonderful thing about yoga is that it can be modified to fit the personal needs of most individuals.

If you have either Osteo- or Rheumatoid Arthritis, consider the following points when building your practice:

  1. Ease into the activity of yoga: start slow and see how it feels. Starting with breath work and gentle stretching helps to familiarize the body with movement.
  2. Always warm up your joints at the beginning of your practice. If a joint is red and swollen—a sign of active inflammation—exercising could lead to further damage.
  3. Modify poses as required.  You can turn poses upside down to reduce stress on joints.  For example, if child’s pose places too much pressure on How-To-Do-Half-Dog-On-The-Wallthe knees, lie on your back, using the same leg posture and support the thighs with your arms.  Downward Dog can be done pressing your hands into a wall, thereby easing pressure on wrists. You can also use props such as chairs, blankets, blocks, and straps to ease stress on joints and make a pose accessible.
  4. Focus on strengthening the muscles that support your affected joints—tune up those shock absorbers!
  5. Relaxation supports ease.  Finding the quietness and relaxation of Savasana at the end of your practice will help to integrate the completion of your physical activity with your mindful breathing, bringing ease to your body and your mind.

Reference: Carson, Kimberly & Krucoff, Carol. 2007. Relax into Yoga. New Harbinger Publications. Oakland, California.

Don’t Lose Your Balance!

feet_crop

In Working your Balance!,  I discussed the importance of practicing poses that support your sense of balance.  Balance is so important as we age, to help prevent injuries from falls! To develop your balance, there are two more important points to consider and tools you can use to increase your sense of balance.

First, drishti, in sanskrit, is your gaze!  I’ve mentioned that before.  When we think of gaze, we think of line of sight; when working to improve your balance, it’s important to maintain your drishti on a still point in the distance. But drishti can also be thought of as your ‘focus’.  Hmmm, same thing, right? Well, yes and no. In yoga, it is always important to have a focus, and that focus is internal. It is what keeps you in the present moment, the only moment that matters.  Your breath can help you to maintain that internal focus. (Baptiste, 2016)

When working your balance in yoga, it helps to focus externally—on that still point—which will assist you in steadying your internal focus.  By engaging your Ujjayi breath, Breath of Victory, you also give yourself an additional point to hone your focus, the sound of your breath.

To discover your Ujjayi breath, make a slight constriction at the back of your throat so that as you inhale and exhale (through your nose); your breathwarrior iiia becomes audible, sounding like beautiful ocean waves as they roll in from the sea! Ujjayi breath creates an internal tapas or heating of the body, which helps to build energy for any practice, but can really assist in holding balance poses. Creating both an external and internal point of focus, or drishti, will support you in developing your balance.

Second, is to develop firm feet. How? Sit in a chair with a tall spine (don’t slouch).  Stretch both feet out and point your toes strongly, notice that your calf and Achilles tendon are short and compressed.  The ankle, is stretched.  Now, push out on your heel and pull the toes back. You will feel the Achilles and calf lengthen, and the muscles and tendons at the front of the shin and ankle are shortened.

When your foot is well-balanced, neither the front nor the back should feel compressed or stretched!  You are looking for that middle point as the optimum position. Practice this before you start your daily yoga practice as it takes time to learn the feel of that middle ground.

Another part of firm feet has to do with pronation and supination. A foot supinates when the inner foot (including the arch), lifts up and the lateral (outer) foot is heavy.  Pronation is the opposite: the arch droops, and the outer foot lifts. A typical non-weight bearing foot tends to supinate.  In a foot balance pose, we need to actively pronate our feet.  When working on a balance pose, such as Tree, Vrkasana, press out through the base of the big toe and inner heel  Then visualize and feel that you are sending energy out through your leg to the four corners of your standing foot, and then sending energy out even beyond those four corners. (Gudmestad, 2019) You are truly growing the roots to your tree!

I can’t say enough about how important it is to maintain the ability to balance.  I also, can’t say enough about how the practice of yoga, steadies the mind, and encourages the ability of balance.

How do you practice balance?

Tree

Baptiste, Baron. 2016. Perfectly Imperfect. Hay House. California

Gudmestad, Julie. Feb. 5 2019. How to Firm Feet for Balance Poses. Yoga Journal.  https://www.yogajournal.com/teach/neat-feet.  Accessed May 16, 2019.

Asteya, Brahmacharya, Apariagrapha: The Last 3 Yamas

Trillium

It’s been awhile since I’ve written. I’m hoping to get back into the swing of my blogging, after a busy few months!  When I look back at the last two blog entries, I recall (it really has been awhile!) that I had been writing about the first Limb of the 8 Limbs of yoga, the Yamas, of which there are five.

Quick review: the Yamas are personal restraints, or ways to live our life that help us to follow the path to enlightenment. Ahimsa is living without committing violence toward one’s self and others. Satya is living and speaking the truth.

The third Yama is AsteyaAsteya is not stealing: not stealing in the concrete sense of the word, such as taking something from someone or somewhere, that you have not been given permission to take. Most obviously, taking an item from a store or from someone’s home without paying or permission to do so, is stealing!

A little less obvious, but still an act of stealing would be that in Ontario it is against the law to pick our provincial flower, the Trillium.  Picking a Trillium, even though no one might be aware of your action, would be an act of stealing.

And even less obvious still would be the act of stealing, for example, someone’s time. After a yoga class, you stay to talk to the instructor about a pose you are having trouble with.  Even though the instructor says to you, “I would love to talk to you about this, but I have an appointment I must get to”, you continue to press on with your conversation.  In that moment you are stealing the instructor’s time.  Asteya, asks us to lead a life of honesty, with an ethical sense of respect for others and their belongings.

Brahmacharya can be misunderstood and can frighten or repel people from following the 8 Limbs of yoga.  Brahmacharya is right use of sexual energy.  This does not mean abstinence from sexual activity.  Rather it means not using sex to coerce, to threaten, or to persuade.  It means that sexual abuse, rape, and incest are unacceptable and using sexual energy for any of these acts will not allow one to achieve the union of body, mind, and spirit that yoga is intended to drive. Brahmacharya  requires, again, an ethical sense of respect for others and how we use an energy that can manifest in a negative manner, without that ethical respect.

Finally, Apariagrapha, which for some, is the most difficult of the Yamas to achieve.  Apariagrapha is not grasping, or not clinging.  To what?  To anything!  Our life, our world, our universe is constantly changing.  There is nothing in life that is permanent: not our children, our parents, our jobs, our home, our relationships, our finances, our life as we go from birth to adulthood, to old age, to death.  Nothing in life is permanent and when we try to hold on to things, people, ideas, ways of being, it leads to pain and suffering.

To achieve Apariagrapha, we have to accept, acknowledge, let go, and move on.  We have to surrender to life, as it is and what it holds.  We do our best in the moment, once that moment is over, it is the past.  We cannot change it and we cannot hold it.  We have to let it go.

Which of the 5 Yamas do you struggle with or find the most difficult?  For myself, it is Apariagrapha, learning not to cling and grasp at the experiences in my life that I have loved is my challenge, right now. Learning to live in the moment and enjoy what life is offering – right here, right now, is the place to be!

 

Nothing but the Truth!

women-gossip-break-senior-lady-

For many of us, sitting with a friend, sharing a cup of coffee, or taking a walk though the park together, and having a good chat is one of the best ways to spend time.  Connecting with people and sharing our thoughts, our dreams, our hopes is a blessing to nurture. A huge part of that nurturing process is being honest, true and kind in our communication.

Looking at the second Yama, Satya, the commitment to truth tells us that speaking the truth is essential to developing trusting relationships.  Whether in professional life, or personal life, it is difficult to trust someone you know has lied to you, or who has been dishonest.  Whether the relationship is with someone you see and speak with on a regular basis, such as a family member, relative, colleague or neighbour; or whether the relationship is impersonal, such as with a government official or community leader – once you realize the ‘wool has been pulled over your eyes’, so to speak, it is difficult to feel comfortable and confident with anything that person says.  You lose confidence.  In Canada, we’ve seen this with our federal leadership quite recently.  It makes one question the values and morals that such officials hold dear.

Based on the precept of Satya, when we speak, we need to be sure that what we are saying is based on what we know to be true.  Satya tells us that we need to be aware that we are not exaggerating, or deliberately deceiving others by what we say.  We also need to be aware of the difference between making a judgement and making an observation.  When we judge we may also be missing the mark with our practice of Ahimsa – our judgement may cause discomfort or hurt to someone else.

Or, we may be judging to alleviate our own discomfort.  Yet once again, Satya goes deeper than what we say to others. Satya also lives in what we say to ourselves and how we lead our own life.  Knowing our own values and morals, do we live our life, communicating and behaving in a way that upholds those beliefs?  Do we have the courage and the conviction to leave relationships, or jobs that do not fit with what we believe to be important, good, and true in this life?

The commitment to truth may sound simple, but it is a challenging course to steer. At the end of the day, knowing that you have been honest and true to yourself and to others takes you one step closer to leading that life of freedom and finding the clarity, calm, and peace that so many of us are searching for.

Reference: Farhi, Donna. 2000. Yoga Mind, Body, & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness. Henry Holt and Company.

One Life, One Practice, One Breath

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More and more people seem to be adding yoga to their daily routine.  What is it about yoga that our society finds intriguing, to begin with, and often, more and more satisfying, as the practice of this ancient Hindu spiritual discipline, finds its way into the mind, body, and spirit of the new practitioner?  Perhaps it is exactly that!  Yoga is not just a physical exercise, or activity.  It is a mind/body/spirit experience, a union of those three entities that encompasses a deeply meaningful philosophy and way of being.  In the hectic, 24/7 lifestyle, that so many Millennials, Gen-X, Gen-Y, and even late Baby Boomers have adopted, many are searching for an oasis of tranquility, calm, and peace that the practice of yoga can provide.

Living in our world today offers many challenges, and while some yogis may focus more on the asanas, the other 7 limbs of yoga offer an approach to life that brings clarity, calm, and peace to human existence.  Often, even if one starts with the asanas, that can lead to a curiosity to find out more about where this ancient tradition came from and what it has to offer.

I know that is what drew me to yoga.  I am a relative new comer to the practice of yoga, but after 5 years of practice, I wanted to deepen my understanding of the yoga philosophy.  I began teacher training and soon decided that it was time for a career change.  The philosophy I was learning about had me hooked, I wanted teach.  I do, however credit my previous profession, of early childhood education, with the understanding that positive role modeling is key to students’ acquisition and integration of new learning material.  If I act as a role model, students will, in many cases, do as I do!

The first limb of Yoga, the Yamas, offer ways of ‘being’ in relationship to our world, to other people, and to ourselves, that are central to living a life of freedom (Donna Farhi, Yoga Mind, Body, and Spirit: A Return to Wholeness – pg. 7). The first Yama, Ahimsa, is a characteristic, integral to a life lived in freedom.  Ahimsa is compassion for all living things and can be roughly translated as, ‘nonviolence’. But what does that really mean – is it simply, “thou shalt not kill”? Ahimsa goes beyond not killing living creatures or other human beings.  Ahimsa speaks, as well, to the relationship we have with ourselves.

Ahimsa encourages self-kindness and self-love.  It encourages gentle words of gratitude and self-compassion.  The ability to extend compassion to our natural world and all living creatures depends on our ability to show compassion to ourselves.

The ability of practicing yogis to understand the meaning and the importance of Ahimsa, comes in part from, seeing their yoga teacher, as self-accepting and knowing that they too, with all their beautiful imperfections and unique characteristics, are accepted by their teacher. Then they must work on accepting themselves.

If actions and our words are based in Ahimsa, we can pass on to others the benefits and the beauty that yoga can bring to life.  I believe that Yoga and the Yogic philosophy will have the greatest effect on humanity as it changes one life at a time, one practice at a time, one breath at a time.

Working Your Balance

Balance

As we age we can begin to lose our sense of balance.  To maintain your balance various sensory and motor systems need to be in good working order.  Vision is important to perceive direction and motion.  The vestibular system, found in the inner ear, is required to monitor motion and provide orientation clues, such as which way is up.  “Proprioception” is required, so you have the ability to sense where your body is in space. To stay steady, you also need good muscle strength and reaction time.

The good news is, that even if your balance has begun to deteriorate, there are exercises you can do that will help to build up your sense of balance!  Yoga, is one of those forms of exercise.

If you find balance difficult, start easy!  Begin by focusing on your breath, start with the 5 minute meditation suggested in Be Here Now! Your meditation will help to calm and center your mind.  A busy mind that is flitting about from one thought to another will find it difficult to connect to a sense of balance.  Then, come to a standing pose in Tadasana, Mountain Pose. Once you have found your Mountain Pose, gently and with your breath, close your eyes.  Begin to sway forward and backward on your feet.  If you feel you are going to fall over, simply open your eyes.  As with all poses and balance poses in particular, your balance will improve as you practice.

Next, open your eyes, bring your drishti (gaze) to the floor a few feet in front of you.  Keep your arms down at your sides or bring your hands to Anjali Mudra (Prayer).  Quiet your mind and focus your attention on your center of gravity (usually in your low belly when standing).  Bring your weight to your left foot and bend the right knee slightly, lift the right foot.  Think positive thoughts, “I can do this! My balance improves with every breath I take!”  Hold this balance for 10 – 15 seconds.  Switch sides.

If you are worried about losing your balance stand close to a wall or a chair that you can hold on to for stability.  Eventually you will want to try standing on one foot, in this same manner, with your eyes closed and work on holding the balance with eyes closed for 10 – 15 second – maybe not today, but eventually.

Two simple balance poses are Saaras Pakshi Asana (Stork Pose) and Vrksasana (Tree Pose.

To come to Saaras Pakshi Asana, begin in Tadasana.  Bring your weight to Storkyour left foot, focus your drishti on the floor, several feet in front of you, breathe.  Reach both arms out in front of you at shoulder height.  Bending the right knee, begin to lift the right foot off the floor.  Keep being your knee and lifting the foot until the bottom of your right thigh is parallel to the floor and you have a 90 degree bend in that right leg.  Point the right toes down towards the ground.  Hold this pose for 10 – 15 seconds.  Return to Mountain Pose.  Repeat on the opposite side.

To find Vrksasana, begin in Tadasana.  Bring your weight to your left foot, focus your drishti on the floor, several feet in front of you, breathe.  To begin and to play with your balance and figure it out.  Kick stand the right foot up against the inside of your left ankle.  Bring your hands to Anjali Mudra.  If this feels okay for your balance, slide the

Modified Tree

right foot up to the inside of your left calf.  If your are still feeling good, use your right hand to guide your right foot up to your left inner thigh.  Bring your right hand back to meet the left in Prayer, and then let your branches grow, floating your arms up above your head.  Perhaps your branches sway, gently in the breeze! Hold this pose for 10 – 15 seconds.  Release your right foot and bring your arms back to your sides in Mountain Pose.  Repeat on the other side.

Yoga has many poses that strengthen your balance, including these two poses and Warrior III, which we began to practice in Finding Your Warrior Within.  Keep working your balance.  Build your strength and stability!

Open Your Heart

heart chakra

A couple of months ago, my daughter got married.  It was a ‘destination wedding’, so we were away in a sunny warm climate by the Caribbean Sea. I asked her if she would like me to plan a ‘wedding morning’ yoga practice for her.  Always a lover of physical activity, she said she would enjoy that!  I thought about how to plan for such a special practice.  I wanted our practice to have more meaning than simply being a way of reducing the pre-ceremony jitters, although that was definitely a factor for her, as it is for any bride-to-be!

One of the therapeutic aspects of yoga is that various poses help us to open, keep open, or to unblock, our chakras.  In Sanskrit, chakra means wheel or disk.  The seven chakras, located along our spine and through the neck and crown are thought of as the spiritual energy centers of the body.  When they are aligned and open, ‘prana’, our healing energy, flows freely through our body, up and down the spine, through the chakras.  However, if a chakra is blocked that’s when we may have physical, mental and/or spiritual dis-ease.

For a my daughter, on her wedding day, I thought my main focus, or theme would be opening the heart chakra.  When your heart chakra is aligned and balanced, love and compassion flow freely.  You are able to both give and receive love and compassion, an important ability for anyone entering into a matrimonial relationship.

There are many yoga poses that support opening the heart chakra.  The ones I chose for my daughter on that beautiful sunny beach, to stindexart her wedding day were the following:

Sphinx – a gentle back bend, which opens the heart.  Start lying on your tummy.  Lift the chest and slide your hands back so that your forearms are flat on the ground and your elbows are directly under your shoulders (align those joints!).  Your palms press firmly into the ground, lifting your chest and opening your heart.  Your pelvic area is resting on the ground, your thighs and the tops of your feet are pressing firmly into the ground.  In Sphinx, your gaze is straight ahead. Stay here for 8 – 10 breaths.

Cobra – a deeper back bend, which is a great follow up to the gentle, yet focusecobrad Sphinx.  From Sphinx lower your chest to the ground.  Slide your hands back by your chest.  Press into your palms, keep your elbows tucked close to your sides as you being to straighten your arms, lifting your chest and upper abdomen off the ground.  Keep a micro bend in your elbows.  Your gaze is straight ahead.  You can adjust your Cobra to meet your needs.  To deepen the pose, or bring your Cobra up higher, slide your hands back further towards your waist, straighten your arms more and look up. This will lift your chest higher, and more dramatically open your heart.  Hold your Cobra for 8 – 10 breaths. To find a gentle and lovely stretch for your neck use your breath to exhale and look back over your right shoulder, inhale as you come back to center and then exhale to look over your left shoulder, inhale to come back to center.

Lord of the Dance or Dancer – a beautiful lord of the dancebalancing pose which is an intermediate pose, but can be adjusted to meet your needs and ability. Start in Mountain pose (Tadasana – I explained this one last week!).  Bring your weight to your left foot.  Bring your left hand to your left hip. Bend your right knee, bringing your foot back towards your right glute. Grasp the top of that foot with your right hand.  You can stop here and work on your balance.  Just being in this position, you have already begun to open your heart center.  When you feel ready to continue (maybe now, may tomorrow, maybe next month!), begin to straighten your left arm and reach that hand out in front of you, as you hinge from your left hip, bringing your torso forward. Again, you can stop here.  To take the full Lord of the Dance pose, continue reaching forward with that left arm and hand – reach through your finger tips and press your foot into your hand.  That posture will cause a greater arch in your lumbar spine and therefore a greater opening though the heart center, as your chest comes forward.  Focus your `drishti`just ahead, on a still object  Hold for 6 – 8 breaths and repeat on the opposite side!

Find love and compassion, and open your heart with yoga! This week has made me think about the importance of balance in our lives and the way yoga can help us find and maintain that balance. Next week we will find our balance together.

Enjoy your Practice! And let me know how it goes.