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Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: disarm practice resistance with small steps – and Viparita Karani

Well, it can be if you can disarm it.

Well, it can be if you expect it, understand it, and know how to get past it.

“Building a practice has been impossible for me,” Susan, a new student, wrote in an email.  “There is a part of me that is fighting yoga – it’s so weird.”

Not weird at all, really.

Undertaking a yoga practice will change your life.

You can let your practice grow gradually – in fact it seems to wear better if you do. You get to make all kinds of choices about exactly how you’ll change along the way.

But there’s no avoiding it: if you invite a yoga practice into your life, and maintain it over years, your life will change, because you will change.

And no matter how much your rational brain might see that as a good thing, it’s not always calling the shots.

As Robert Maurer explains in his excellent book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way there’s an older brain that has kept us alive through the millennia by setting off the fight or flight response in any new situation – even if it’s a situation we’d like to be in.

Announce to yourself that you’re going to be starting a yoga practice, and that mid-brain, the amygdala, aware that circumstances are changing, will put on the breaks.

The Kaizen approach suggests that you focus on taking just one small step, sometimes a step that seems ridiculously small – like, say, a five-minute yoga practice.

Here’s how Maurer describes what happens next:

“Small, easily achievable goals . . . let you tiptoe right past the amygdala, keeping it asleep and unable to set off alarm bells. As your small steps continue, and your cortex starts working, the brain begins to create ‘software’ for your desired change, actually laying down new nerve pathways and building new habits. Soon, your resistance to change begins to weaken.”

This week’s Five-Minute Yoga Challenge is to pick one practice that appeals to you from the list, and do it.

Today’s suggestion is particularly useful for those moments when you ask yourself, “am I up for a five-minute practice right now?” and the answer turns out to be “no.”

Try rephrasing the question. ”Am I up for five minutes of total relaxation in Viparita Karani?” may evoke a very different response.

Experiment with more or less height under your pelvis to come into the most restful position.

Experiment with more or less height under your pelvis to come into the most restful position.

Here’s how to do it:

Put the short end of your yoga mat at the wall. Have a bolster nearby.

Sit down with your left shoulder touching the wall, your buttocks at the right side of the mat.

Keeping your buttocks close to the wall, roll back so your spine is aligned with the centre of the mat and your legs are up the wall.

Bend your knees and press the soles of your feet into the wall to lift your pelvis. Slide the bolster under your waist. Then bring your back onto the bolster and straighten your legs up the wall.

You’re in the right place if your thigh bones feel like they are dropping down toward the floor on the wall side of the bolster, your shoulders rest easily on the floor, and your belly feels soft and relaxed.

Now draw your shoulder blades away from your ears, and press the bottom edge of your shoulder blades into your ribcage to open your front chest.

Check that you still have a natural curve at the back of your neck. Try moving your chin away from your chest and then back toward your chest, looking for a feeling of ease in your throat.

With your legs parallel, roll your upper inner thighs in. Bring the sides of your knees, your ankles and your big toes to touch.

Keeping your ankles and big toes connected, move your inner arches further away from you than your outer arches.

Spread wide across your metatarsals and separate your toes as much as you can.

Keep that alignment as you soften your legs. Remain for five to 15 minutes.

Benefits: Five minutes in this pose will relax and energize you. Stay longer and you’ll feel deeper effects from the chest opening, the gentle stretch of the legs, and especially from the inversion. With venous blood flowing down from your legs, your heart gets a rest. Like a mini shoulder stand, Viparita Karani also balances the hormonal system, strengthens the immune system and calms the mind.

Sequence: As a stand-alone practice, you can do Viparita Karani almost any time except after eating. Place it at the beginning of a longer practice if you come to the mat tired, or near the end of a vigorous practice to quiet your body and mind for relaxation.

Ouch: Viparita Karani needs to feel good from the beginning. If it doesn’t, adjust the bolster an inch or so in either direction, and see how that feels.

If your upper back feels strained, try moving the bolster lower in your back.

If you’re already working with back pain, try one chip-foam block under your pelvis instead of the bolster. Work with this lower height for the first few times you try the pose.

Avoid this pose if you are menstruating. Instead, just lie down with your legs up the wall for five minutes.

Sanskrit Corner: Say: vip-par-ee-tah car-AHN-ee. Viparita means inverted. Karani means action, or cause.

Photo courtesy of Teofilo, Flickr Creative Commons

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It’s Not All Bliss: How to Work With Poses You Don’t Like, Part One

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Brigid January 10, 2011, 8:17 pm

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been practising yoga for 14 years and recommend it to everyone as a ‘life saver’. Yet there have been times over those years where I’ve pulled away from yoga. I even dropped my yoga teacher training to move overseas on a whim, while knowing yoga was the most important thing in my life. Your post makes a lot of sense to me as I’ve always wondered what that was all about!
    And ah, viparita karani. I feel calmer just thinking about it :-)

    • Eve January 17, 2011, 6:26 pm

      Hi Brigid,
      Funny how we can run away from the things that matter most. I’ve got my own areas where I wonder if that’s what I’m doing, especially in writing. I really like Havi Brook’s take on this – the link will take you to a post she wrote that seems to come right to the point about it. Nothing we can do but get smarter as we go along. Well, and lots of viparita karani.