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virasana roll full pose

That roll between my calves and thighs is a close to magical prop for foot pain, and it helps tight calves and thighs too.


Thirty years ago, when I first started taking yoga classes, Virasana (hero pose) was a 50/50 proposition. Some days it was fine. Sitting up on three chip foam blocks, I could feel a pleasant stretch in the fronts of my feet. My knees didn’t bother me, my front thighs weren’t tight and life was good.
On other days, without warning, one of my arches would cramp.
(I know of two cures for foot cramps. One is to stand up and put weight on the afflicted foot. The other is to sit with the cramp until it goes away. In my experience, the second approach, once you can bear it, gives more long-lasting results.)
After several years of practice, my feet stopped cramping. I took out one chip foam, and there I stayed.
Half lotus became full lotus. Bound angle pose opened and my shins dropped to the floor. My hamstrings lengthened and I no longer needed to sit on a blanket in forward bends.
And yet I still sat on two blocks in Virasana.
At that stage of my practice, I didn’t mind.
Hero pose is one of the first seated poses taught to beginners. Small children do it quite naturally, even if they do sit with their feet out to the side, like this dubiously dressed model, at an angle that’s hard on the knees.
I was working on more glamorous poses, such as elbow balance and headstand, and wasn’t interested in something so seemingly basic.
Besides, besides, when I took out a block and tried to sit lower, I was instantly transported into the land of misshapen ankles that bowed outward, rapidly turned white, and were exceedingly uncomfortable.
It might have stayed that way if I hadn’t started having foot problems: a sprained left toe, and plantar fasciitis, also on the left. In a disturbing and related development, my left leg had suddenly begun to tighten. Leg stretches felt wildly different on the left and the right sides.

Sitting in Virasana with a thick roll between my calves and thighs gave me relief, especially when I also stretched my feet on wood bricks.
The extra pressure into my calves and hamstrings works like a deep massage, and has softened my left leg again. For the tight of hamstring, using a roll in Virasana is a useful way to loosen up.

I still begin most practices in hero pose with a roll, and use the position to centre and quiet myself. The unexpected bonus: slowly hero pose is beginning to change. I understand it better than when I was perched up on blocks. I can see how my groins need to move deeper while my femur heads pull towards each other.

This Five-Minute Yoga Challenge is an excellent way to increase your leg flexibility, reduce any pain in your feet, calves and heels, and remove some causes of knee pain.
If you have an existing knee injury, avoid this pose until your Iyengar yoga teacher, or your physiotherapist, has cleared you to work with it.

Here’s how to set it up:
virasana roll sticky matTake a blanket in shoulder stand shape, and place the long-end fold at the end of a yoga mat. Roll up the mat and the blanket to make a thick, not-too-firm roll.

Have a collection of bricks, foam bricks or blankets close at hand.
Set your timer for five minutes. You can stay for 10 if you like.
Position your legs for hero pose, with your thighs parallel.

To bring the roll as deeply as possible behind your knees, lean forward and bring your head to the floor.
Pull the roll into place. As you begin to sit back, take your hands to your hamstrings and draw them up toward your buttocks.
Then slowly bring your weight onto the roll.

Your buttocks will be suspended in the air. If you’re in some discomfort, but basically okay – you can breathe easily through your nose, and your eyes aren’t popping out of your head – then let your buttocks hang for a moment to see if you descend further. When you’ve reached your limit, take whatever props you need for a comfortable seated position.
The height of support determines the intensity of the sensation.

You can try a wood brick on different levels, a pair of them in different combinations, or a wood brick and a blanket.
Make the pose challenging, but doable. You will feel compression in your calves and the backs of your thighs. Stay with it.
Sit tall. Press your fingertips into the roll, and use your arms to help lift your spine.
To come out, lean forward, and remove the roll.
Then remove the other props and carefully test your hero pose. You may find that you can sit a little lower than your usual setup. Don’t push it. If your feel pain in your knees, or your ankles bow out and turn white, you need to sit higher.
Before you leave your mat, stretch out the backs of your knees in seated stick, downward dog, or standing forward bend.

If this was your kind of pose you might also like:
Find your working place in hamstring stretches
Supta Virasana: Sometimes Even Super-Heroes Need to Lie Down
Television Yoga for Tight Front Thighs

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My guide to home yoga practice? On its way.

home yoga practice book.ganesh1

I've taken on a big task, so I'm bringing in reinforcements.

Last Sunday morning before teaching, I was browsing through BKS Iyengar’s Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom
looking for a quote about my current practice obsession, the centre line.

I didn’t find what I was looking for, but I stopped in my tracks when I read this:

“I sometimes tell my pupils that the practice they do in yoga class is not, strictly speaking, yoga practice. The reason for this is that in a class, although you are undoubtedly “doing” and, hopefully, learning, you are subordinate to the teacher. The directing intelligence comes from him, and you follow to the best of your ability.

“At home, on the other hand, it is your own intelligence that is the master, and the progress that you make is yours, and will be maintained.”

Ah yes, home practice.

I’ve been meaning to write a guide to home yoga practice for more than 20 years now, prompted by my own experience of how revolutionary just one small practice, pursued daily, could be.

Without a home practice, you remain on one side of the divide, never really claiming the work as your own. Establish a practice, no matter how small, and yoga begins to transform your relationship with your body and your mind.

It’s a bit like someone who wants to play the piano, but can’t maintain a practice: they’ll never be the one playing carols at the Christmas party.

The purpose of my book would be to offer a helping hand to everyone who knows the value of a daily yoga practice, but still finds it hard to do. It wouldn’t be a practical guide, in the sense of detailed descriptions of the poses and tips on how to do them. Instead it would be a practice guide: an aid to starting, maintaining and enriching your practice.

You do indeed meet your Self on the mat, a Friend, if you like, who can be with you even when the day comes when your practice consists only of drawing one conscious breath after another.

guide to home yoga practice: pipal ganesh

Ganesh constructed from leaves of the Pipal tree

In the meantime, what do you do when your Friend stops showing up and your practice turns dry? How do you get over not knowing what to practice and how? How do you tune in to the inner voice that is supposed to guide you?

I doubt that I’m the only one among us who has a book they’d like to write. In fact, as years go by, ideas for books accumulate, and never go away.

I haven’t written this one for all the mundane reasons. I’m too busy. I start and then lose steam. I let other things come in the way. There are other obstacles, of course, pale, crawly things that live under the rock of resistance.

One of them is the voice of doubt, that asks: “Who needs it?“

The answer, of course, is me.

I write about setting up a practice precisely because it doesn’t come easily. I’m not a former gymnast, dancer, or fitness instructor. I live a normal North American life, with a family, a studio to help run, a deep love of food and cooking, a tendency to read late into the night in the grip of a good book, and, to be frank, a love of idleness and lolling around.

But there it was, Iyengar’s pronouncement on the importance of home practice. If I have plans to write a guide to home yoga practice, it seems I ought to get to it.

So I’ve set an intention: over the coming year, I will write at minimum a first draft of a book-length guide to starting and maintaining a home yoga practice.

I’ve been thinking more about this for the past several months, ever since my friend and former editor, Daphne Gray-Grant, started planning a year-long program called Write a Book With Me.

guide to home yoga practice: ganesh riding rat

Ganesh riding his rat.

I’ve written two cookbooks with Daphne’s help and encouragement, Five-Star Food in 1993, and Six O’Clock Solutions in 1995. She was also my editor for most of the food essays Whitecap published as Eating My Words in 2003. I know how useful it is to have her clarity available, and her way of turning mountains into rocks of a quite manageable size.

Prompted by Iyengar’s words, I’m going to jump in, and do the program. (Yes, I get the friend’s rate.)

I’ve already started preparing.

I cleared my desktop, and brought my three favorite Ganesh images together to face me as I write. Auspicious at the start of any new venture, always the remover of obstacles, Ganesh is one of the yogis’ favorite gods.

My Pipal-leaf Ganesh is from a temple in Goa. I bought lounging-on-a-leaf Ganesh in a shop in Pune, a few blocks away from the Iyengar Institute. And riding-on-a-rat Ganesh came from Banyan books, Vancouver’s spiritual bookstore.

Even multiplied by three, he’ll have his work cut out for him. Patanjali, the compiler of The Yoga Sutras, lists the obstacles in the way of yoga practice. They include doubt, laziness and indolence – three of my specialties.

In fact, I’m thinking of adding Saraswati for backup. She’s the goddess of wisdom, whose symbols include an inkpot with pen and books.

In the meantime, I plan to post here every two weeks. And I’ll let you know how it’s going with the book.

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How do you end a practice break?

title="yogajennblog3"

It's time to come inside now. Your mat is waiting for you.

Surely one of the most unfair parts of being human is that good habits are hard to form and easy to lose, while bad habits rub against your ankles like cats who’ve just heard a can opener.

I could blame renovations, house guests who have nowhere to sleep but my practice space, early morning ferry rides, summer weather that begged me to be outside, a break from my normal routines.

Or I could point the finger at August: languid, lazy, a foe to every form of discipline that exists.

The truth is, my practice has been spotty since the end of July, and “why?” doesn’t matter.

Usually September is enough to get me back to a regular practice. As soon as Labor Day arrives, I’m in back-to-school mode and ready to go. And once I start teaching, steady practice is guaranteed.

But what if you don’t have an external prompt? And what if your September weather, internally and externally, is doing a great impersonation of August, still hot and dry?

Years of getting back on the practice bicycle have led me to develop a few time-tested strategies for ending a practice break:

Clean your practice space and lay out your mat.
If you’ve been away for a while, declutter, sweep the floor and dust. Make the space as inviting as you can, with as few obstacles to starting as your living arrangements allow.

Set an intention the night before and get up and practice first thing.
At the best of times, practice deferred often becomes practice denied. If you’re in a practice slump, any activity that can will insert itself between you and your practice.

Centre in a quiet position before you start moving through poses.
This is an important step in any practice, but if you’ve been away from your mat for several weeks, take a little extra time to still your mind and connect with the sensations in your body. Remind yourself why you’re there, and spend a moment being grateful: you live in a world in which good teaching is widely available; you’ve had the innate wisdom to turn toward yoga, you are free to practice.

Make your first practice gentle and exploratory.
Put your legs up the wall and do all the leg actions of Dandasana (stick pose), just in a different relationship to gravity. Roll on massage balls and come into supported bridge pose. Do leg stretches interspersed with supine mountain pose with your arms overhead. Then slowly move into standing poses, taking your quiet intelligence with you. End your practice with some version of shoulder stand, and Savasana.

If distraction is your enemy, set a strict limit on the amount of time you have to practice. Instead of imagining that you’ll do a two-hour practice, and then telling yourself you don’t have the energy, limit yourself to 15 minutes, or, if you’ve learned the joys of the Pomodoro system, to 25. And if that still seems like too much, tell yourself you’ll just do five minutes – but do it every day.

Enlist a practice buddy.
I spent one morning last week catching up with Baya. Yes we chatted, about how we spent the summer, but we also practiced, with more energy than I could summon to work on my own.

Go back to class.
It may be that what you need is a leap into the deep end of the pool. Once you connect again to how good you feel during and after class, you’ll be more motivated to find that sense of well being every day.

I’ve been attending Elise Browning Miller’s workshop on Yoga and Scoliosis this week.
Being in the presence of a master teacher was not only inspiring, it’s given me new ideas to explore and a multitude of actions and understandings to test out in many poses.

Fall is here, and I’m delighted to be back.

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Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away home . . .

Distinctly non-funereal flowers in the bold colors Ann loved

My sister Ann passed away on Good Friday. Her memorial service was a week ago today.

I wanted to give you that news and thank you for all of the support you’ve given me, both in comments and in emails. It truly helps, in the misery of loss, to feel the presence of sympathetic people who wish you well.

I am doing fine, as these things go. I’m back to teaching this week, and back to taking classes.

But I’m not ready to write again, at least not regularly. For the next three months at least, I’m taking it easy and thinking things over.

For a while now I’ve been wanting to reorganize this website, to make the more than 160 posts more organized and accessible. So I’m going to work on that. From now on, I’ll be showing up on Facebook, just to keep in touch.

I also want to think about what Ann meant to me, and how I want to honor her memory.

My big sister had her own nursery rhyme:
“Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire, your children will burn – all except for little Ann, who’s hidden under the frying pan.”

I was so envious, and yet I never thought to find out who made it up.

When she was five, she went out with Dad and his buddy Jack Sheen and came home with a chocolate rabbit as big as herself.

When she was eight, she broke into the nearby children’s polio hospital to sit in the painted wooden teacups – by far the most appealing toys in the neighborhood – and was immediately evicted by the horrified staff, despite the sheets she and her friend Olive brought with them as they scaled the chain-link fence, hoping to pass themselves off as little patients.

I used to stare at those teacups too. But when I see a chain-link fence, I think that I’m not meant to be on the other side.

When Ann saw chain-link, she climbed. At least in the beginning. Then something happened, sometime in her forties. She seemed to give up on the possibility of happiness. In one of those odd twists of fate, Alzheimer’s softened her and made her more easy-going and affectionate.

I have written jokingly that yoga wrecked my life.

In truth, yoga keeps me from falling into the family default of helplessness and despair. It’s a vantage point, born, I believe, from fear, fear that life isn’t good, and that if we recognize our good fortune and claim happiness, it will be taken away from us.

Yes, people get old and sick and die. Yes, evidence quickly massing around me says that my body is aging, and yes, someday, I’m going to die. I still think it’s possible to be happy most of the time.

For the past month I’ve been reading and delighting in the poetry of Kay Ryan.

This one, called Age, is one I’m memorizing, hoping to “kinden” as I go:

AGE

As some people age
they kinden.
The apertures
of their eyes widen.
I do not think they weaken;
I think something weak strengthens
until they are more and more it,
like letting in heaven.
But other people are
mussels or clams, frightened.
Steam or knife blades mean open.
They hear heaven, they think boiled or broken.

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Remembering when

This is a picture of my sister, Ann, holding me.
She’s eight years old; I’m three months old.

We had been living in that half-built house for at least three months because this picture was taken in June, and they brought me home from the hospital in March.

Isn’t she beautiful? And doesn’t she have the most amazingly strong and capable looking hands for a child her age?

Ann is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and is now in the last stages of the disease. Sometime in the next few weeks or the next few months, she will die. So I find myself back in the land of childhood lately, trying to know my sister as best I can before she finally slips away.

I’m still practicing and teaching, living the truth of Guruji’s words, that yoga helps us cure what can be cured and endure what must be endured. It’s not all sad, and I work to be as happy as I can be under the circumstances.

But I can’t find it in my heart to write about practice, or more precisely, to write for publication, even to you, my yoga-blog friends.

When that changes, I’ll be back. In the meantime, I wish you a sustaining practice.

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Headstand at 70? Why not?

headstandat70.leap of faith

Sometimes the only transportation available to you is a leap of faith.
––Margaret Shepherd

JoAnn came to her private yoga class last week with a copy of “Father William,” Lewis Carroll’s poem in which an obnoxious young man attempts to guide his father in age-appropriate behavior.

“Do you know it?” she asked.

Do I know it? My mother loved it, and often quoted the first lines. I’ve used it on this blog. I don’t need to see it to start reciting:

“You are old father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white.
“And yet you consistently stand on your head,
“Do you think at your age that is right?”

JoAnn is 69. She wants to be to be able to say: “I learned headstand when I was 70.”
Her questions: Did I think at her age that is right? And would I help?

My answer? Of course – on both counts!

This is the kind of challenge I adore. The goal is exciting. The timeline is as long as it takes, but as soon as possible. And the protagonist is a steady student, good humored and hardworking, with none of the contraindications for headstand (high blood pressure, neck pain, glaucoma or other eye problems).

Lewis Carroll’s verse ends:

“In my youth,” the father replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain.
“But now I am perfectly sure I have none,
“So I do it again, and again.”

But I think it’s precisely because we have brains that headstand grows in importance as we age.
After all, who couldn’t use a little more energy, concentration and mental clarity?
And there’s an excellent precedent. B.K.S. Iyengar taught headstand to the Elisabeth, Queen of Belgium, when she was 80, although, in his telling, she commanded him to do it.

To begin, we focused on three basic elements for getting into a good headstand: strong, active legs with flexible hamstrings, strong abdominals, and strong, open shoulders.

headstand.hamstring stretch

Supta Padangusthasana 1: with the correct leg actions, it will connect and strengthen your core as it lengthens your hamstrings.

•Downward dog will help with all three.

• The first variation of lying down big toe pose (Supta Padangusthasana) will loosen hamstrings and increase core strength and awareness. This one shows a strap at the groin, but you’ll get the idea, and the actions.

• Prasarita Padottanasana, the wide-legged standing forward bend, gets us used to having the head down and sets up the essential action of headstand through the shoulders: they lift away from the ears.

We also looked at the classic headstand preparation with the hands clasped, elbows in line, head on the floor and pelvis lifted, feet walking in.

But that preparation is harder to hold than the full pose – which is why most yoga students, myself included, are tempted to sail past it as quickly as we can.

If this is your main preparation for headstand, you’re likely to feel that the pose itself is beyond your reach. As useful as it may be for increasing strength, it doesn’t provide something equally important – a firm platform for a leap of faith.

Given the basic uncertainty of life, I’m sure as I can be that JoAnn will one day place her knuckles at a wall and kick up into a headstand with lifted shoulders, a long lower back and active legs, and then take her heels away from the wall and balance.

To do that will require a leap of faith.

No one ever kicked up into headstand for the first time, even with a wall behind them, without having to jump past the primal fear of falling over backwards.

headstand: three blocks at the wall

The blocks at the wall support your shoulders and help you lift your pelvis.

What we need is a preparation that allows us to experience how headstand, or at least a pose very much like it, could be easy, and could make us feel powerful.
The best one I know is this headstand preparation with support for the back. (Click on the link for the full instructions.)
I learned it in a long-ago workshop with Aadil Palkhivala. As he pointed out at the time, it gives the same head-clearing sensation as a full headstand.

It also allows us to see how pressing down into the forearms lifts the upper arms and shoulders away from the floor.

It gives us the sensation of walking in to kick up without the heaviness of the unsupported preparation.

In that lightness, we can learn to press the upper front thighs back and lift the pelvis even more.

Yes, when it’s time to kick away from the floor for the first time, we all need to take a leap of faith to get where we want to go.

But with this work set in body and mind, we’ll have built ourselves a great place to push off from.

Photo courtesy Diego Hurtado, via Flickr

If this was your kind of post you might also like:
Give me strength: a tale of three headstands
Are some yoga poses lemons?
Life, Happiness and the Pursuit of Liberty?

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SuperHeroes

Don't tell me they're always this energetic.


A yoga practice is a friend for life, and like any lifelong friend, it’s bound to change.
In some ways, that can look like doing less. I’d like to argue that there are powerful poses, reclining hero for one, that can deepen as we age.

Perhaps, in your 90s, or possibly your 60s, you will no longer feel that vigorous rounds of sun salutations are right for you.

But really, when will you not be able to lie down on the floor, given the appropriate propping behind your back?

And might you not, over time, deepen your understanding enough to be, as Iyengar says, “in the pose, beyond the pose”?

Reclining hero rests the mind and the belly, opens the chest, brings blood pressure to normal, stretches the front thighs and rests the legs.

You can do it right after a large meal. It relieves cramps, both menstrual and gastric.

In Geeta Iyengar’s Yoga: a Gem for Women, therapeutic uses include “acidity, rheumatism, stomach-ache, pain in the back, asthma, ulcers, heartburn, disorder of the ovaries and inflammation of the nerves.” In pregnancy, Geeta writes, Supta Virasana “relieves one from morning sickness, constipation, and flatulence.”

But for those who love the pose, and I count myself among them, the sensation is its own reward. In reclining hero, your arms, legs and side body feel like the banks of a river. Between them runs a current of energy, which becomes stronger and richer as you hold the pose. You rest and recharge.

If a solar panel had feelings, then I imagine that’s how it would feel on a sunny day – especially here in the cloudy West Coast rainforest.

Why isn’t this excellent pose more widely practiced and taught?
Simple: it’s hard to find a starting point, and without a safe place to work, you could hurt your knees, and your lower back. (Check the Yoga Journal’s online guide. Supta Virasana is the only pose description I’ve seen that starts with the word “Caution” – yes, in bold.)

The most common suggestion is to start with a bolster lengthwise behind your back. But many students, especially cyclists and runners, need much more than the standard props when they first try the pose.

suptavirasana.setup

Put the same number of blocks on the stool as you plan to sit on.


The result can be a teacher’s nightmare. You move from one suffering student to another, piling up props that don’t quite do the job. And at least half the students never feel the glory of the pose.

Happily, this version, which my teacher Louie Ettling showed in a class last fall, is much more accessible.
As a bonus, it stars one of my favorite yoga props, a little plastic stool you can find in a hardware store for less than $10. (Buy two. You’ll be glad you did.)

If you’re ready to start recharging your inner hero, here’s how:

For your first attempt, place the number of chip foam blocks you would sit on in hero pose in front of the stool.

suptavirasana.1

Sit in hero pose.


Here’s a guideline: if you can’t sit with your calves and ankles in a straight line just outside your buttocks, with your spine lifted and no discomfort in your knees, you need more height under your buttocks. Add blocks until you can sit comfortably in good alignment.

Place the same number of chip foams on the stool.
(If you don’t have chip foams, you can, of course, use blankets or wood bricks. Chip foams are easier to wrangle.)

Take a brief trial run to see if the stool is placed close enough to support your shoulders when you lean back. There’s no set distance. It will vary with the number of blocks you’re using.

Sit in hero pose.

suptavirasana.leaning back

Curl your buttocks strongly toward the back of your knees and lift your chest.

Then push down into your hands, lift your buttocks and roll your buttocks strongly toward your heels. Keep the length you’ve gained in your lower back as you lift your chest and lengthen your whole front body. Then slowly, keeping your chest lifted and your lower back long, lie back on the blocks.
Catch the bottom edge of your shoulder blades on the front edge of the blocks.
To begin, support your head in your clasped hands. Keep your elbows only as wide as your shoulders.
Make sure that your chest stays lifted, that your buttocks continue to roll toward your heels.

suptavirasana.shoulderstostool

Catch the bottom edge of your shoulder blades on the bottom edge of the block.

Then check your front ribs and your diaphragm. If your belly feels tight, and has lifted higher than your bottom front ribs, the blocks under your chest are probably too low on your back. Move them towards your shoulders.

Depending on your proportions and the number of blocks you’re sitting on, you may need an extra block or a folded blanket under your head in order to feel comfortable in the pose.

When everything is stable, clasp your elbows. Pull your upper arms into your shoulder sockets. Keeping your shoulder blades moving away from your ears, stretch your forearms overhead.
From the top of your outer arms, press in toward your ears. From the top of your outer thighs, press in toward the centre.
Keep your shoulder blades moving down as you lengthen your side ribcage.

Then relax your work in the pose to about half, still keeping the actions, but less intensely.

suptavirasana.clasphands

Support your head with your clasped hands, and lengthen the back of your neck.

To come out, press your hands into the floor, lift your chest, and sit up, keeping your head back to maintain the shape of your back.

Stay for as long as you want, but only if you are pain free. If it’s hard work to keep the actions, then try 30 seconds, and repeat the pose several times.

When you can easily hold the pose for two minutes, try removing one chip foam from under your buttocks and one from the stool.

suptavirasana.comingout

Lead with your chest, not your head as you sit up.

Once you can happily stay in the pose for several minutes with just the floor under your buttocks and the stool under your shoulders, you’re ready to experiment with a bolster, some blankets or a double layer of chip foams.

Sanskrit Corner:
Supta Virasana (say SOOP-ta veer-AH-sanna) means reclining hero. Supta comes from the same root as the English word “supine,” meaning lying on your back. “Vir” the root of Virasana, means manly, or its closest English equivalent, virile.

I generally prefer Sanskrit names for poses. They’re international, in the way Latin used to be. I like the way they sound, and they often have meanings that shed light on the poses. But in this case, I’m considering the merits of “reclining hero.”

In the reconstructed language that linguists call PIE – Proto-Indio-European. “Hero” has roots that reach back 3,500 years to a word that meant “to watch over, to protect”

That’s the kind of hero that we’re all called on to be, all our lives.
We watch over and protect our children, our pets, and in time our parents, our siblings, our friends and our mate.
You don’t have to be manly for that, although it can help. Having a way to rest and recharge can help even more.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:
Television yoga for tight front thighs
Bathtub yoga for tight sore hips
Learn to do a full backbend, one step at a time

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Can Yoga Help You Lose Weight?

canyogahelpyouloseweight.scale

As experienced dieters know, your true weight is taken first thing in the morning, naked.

An interviewer in search of material for a January fitness story recently asked me, “Can yoga help you lose weight?”

I ought to expect that question, but I never do, so I blabbered:
some forms burn calories, other forms not so much. . . . even one hour of yoga measurably lowers blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which means less stress-fuelled eating. . . . a regular yoga practice changes your preferences, making it easier to eat a more healthy diet and drink less. . . . yoga makes you more friendly toward your body. . . . so yes, yoga can help you lose weight . . . . sort of. . . .

Our weight loss discussion didn’t make it into the article, and I was happy about that, because I didn’t think it was a good answer.

I’ve struggled to give a better one, and the best way I can is through my own experience.
I started to practice yoga at 39. Ten years later, still practicing, I gained 28 pounds during menopause and a year of commuting from Vancouver to Seattle every week while eating chocolate bars to stay awake on the drive.

Then the commute ended, and the hormones settled down. Over the next three years, I lost that weight, five pounds at a time.

Now my weight is mostly stable. It generally rises a few pounds over Christmas and slides back down without too much effort beyond eating less sugar, which, by January feels like a blessing.

That’s not much of a weight-loss testimonial.

But the interior reality is a different story.

Like most North American women, I was dieting by my late teens, always starting a new year by resolving to lose 10 pounds.
I ate what I thought would make me thin. I swam, and jogged, to help me lose weight. I spent hours looking up calorie counts, devising diets, calculating how many calories I’d burned in the day, and what I could afford to eat. My self-esteem fluctuated with the numbers on the scale.

At my most obsessed, I ran nine miles and swam five every week, and did juice fasts on the weekends.

I was indeed thin. I was also lonely, isolated, mourning my father’s sudden death, and just about to start a cycle in which I gained my ten pounds back again, and added another ten – a classic yo-yo.

My weight dropped during six month’s travel in Southeast Asia – the week in Burma was especially conducive to weight loss – and gradually rose again when I came home and settled into my habitual patterns.

But the year I came back from travelling is also the year I started yoga, and the year that everything about losing weight began to change.

I would never claim that the change was instantaneous. It was, and continues to be, more like unpacking an infinite set of nested boxes. I’d stumble on a truth about my way of being in my body, think I’d understood it all, and a few months later unpack another box.

Most of what I learned was in the direction of friendliness and humility.

Western culture teaches us that we are two selves, a mind and a body. The mind is supposed to be in control. The body is the animal self, naturally ruled by the mind.

In truth, we’re a body-mind.

Our genes set our metabolism and predispose us to one body shape or another. And our body chemistry, as we’re now learning, dictates our moods and the way we see the world.

A mind that imagines itself to be “in control” of a body is delusional.
If you doubt this, think back to puberty.

In Wende’s yoga classes, I learned to turn inward and become intimate with my body. I learned where my bones and organs were, how to spread the skin on the soles of my feet, how to lift my inner ankles as my heels move down, how to press my forearms down into the floor to hold me up in elbow balance.

I started to feel powerful in my body, proud of its strength and its ability to take on the shapes of the poses.

Now I want to learn how to soften my groins, how to work my arms, how to even out the stronger, tighter right shoulder and the weaker, looser left shoulder.

I no longer resolve to lose weight. I don’t count calories, I don’t put any food into a forbidden category. I do try to eat more vegetables and drink more water.

My yoga practice changed the context.

When it comes to my body, I have other things to think about than numbers on a scale, and somehow, the numbers pretty much take care of themselves. I am not thin, but I am fit, and at a healthy weight.

Can yoga help you lose weight? Did it help me lose weight?

In fact, I lost the heaviest weight of all – the compulsion to diet.

Photo courtesy of the Italian voicevia Flickr.

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Looking back on a year of yoga

A heap of jewel-bright Iyengar bracelets.

It was cookie night last night, by which I know that it’s officially Christmas time, and year’s end.

We made Cappuccino Shortbreads, Peppermint Patties, Gingerbreads, Clove Snaps (a clove-and-citrus take on Ginger Snaps), Lemon-Lime Butter Wafers, Kris Kringle chocolate cookies that you roll in either cocoa or icing sugar before baking, and, in a climax of chocolate adulation, Jackson Pollock inspired chocolate lace with orange-flavored sugar.

So I woke up this morning with the feeling that before I stop teaching, and blogging, until the New Year, I ought to look at what’s happened in my yoga year.

The truth is that deep in the quiet of my own practice, I’ve experienced a sea change.

Ever since my first class I’ve been told, over and over again, that I have too much curve in my upper back.
My mother and my sister both developed Dowager’s humps, so part of it at least was either genetic or such early postural programming that I might as well have inherited it.

Class after class, teacher after teacher gave me a gentle or not so gentle poke, sometimes in my mid-thoracic, sometimes higher.

It was so regular a correction that I came to expect that any forward bend, any seated meditation posture, and when Gabriella Giubilaro was teaching, any headstand, would come with a guaranteed poke in the back.

No matter how well I thought I was working my shoulders, no matter how straight my back felt, there was always something visible to correct.

If there’s a defining feature of Iyengar yoga, it might be the demand for constant inquiry. We are always asked to go deeper, to observe ourselves, to observe the actions in the poses.

In June I took the basic Iyengar question – “what happens if I do this? – to the Bandha Yoga website’s suggestion for activating serratus anterior. When I do the correct sequence of actions – upper arms back, down, and deeper into the shoulder sockets, hands pressing apart against resistance – the last little bit of my upper spine straightens.

Finally I’ve managed to reverse the curve.

Since then I’ve explored that action in just about every pose that puts weight on my arms, and many that don’t. Again and again it works to give my ribcage a close to magical lift and opening.

I’m Quasimodo no more.

We’ll see if that holds next March, when Gabriella looks at my headstand, but so far it’s been months since a teacher has prodded my upper back in a forward bend.

In fact, every pose is changing, perhaps most remarkably, pushing up from the floor into Chaturanga Dandasana, the yoga pushup. With a straight spine, my shoulders stay back and my abdominals engage in a different way.

I can tell that my version of the pose is correct, which means that if I just keep working at it, eventually I won’t need the mechanical advantage from the two wood bricks I’m using right now.

A work of art in chocolate – and it tastes as good as it looks.

And that, friends, will be yoga miracle.

That it took 25 years for this to happen may seem like a long time.

That so much has happened since June is breathtaking.

For now, I’m happy just to spend a few weeks absorbing it, and busying myself with baking and shopping and holidaymaking. (I hope to share some recipes from cookie night, at Ant and Anise soon. I’ll post to Facebook when I do.)

In the meantime, I wish you happy holidays, joy in your practice, and constant inquiry in the year ahead.

The bracelets in that lovely heap of color above come from Kelly Murphy’s Bend Over Backwards studio in Nanaimo, B.C. They’re a fundraiser for The Candles, a group of HIV-orphaned children in Uganda. You can buy the bracelets on the website, or email Kelly at kemurphy@shaw.ca.

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Looks innocent, doesn't it? Fold it in four, leave it lying around, and you'll see the damage it can do.

I learned that if you’re walking barefoot, and your little toe gets caught in something and you keep walking, your little toe will hurt, for a long, long time.
A month ago last Tuesday night, just after the first class came out of Savasana, I walked through the studio to open the door and let the students for the next class in out of the rain.

Someone had left a folded yoga mat in the middle of the room. My little toe got caught in the fold. There was a flash of pain, and then I just kept walking.

My inner Spartan boy – the one who hid a wild fox he had stolen under his clothes and suffered the consequence – kicked in immediately.

I had one more class to teach, and I couldn’t see sending the students home, or teaching from a chair in the middle of the room. So I made it a game to see if could get through the 90 minutes without letting on I was I injured.

Knowing what I know now, I’d have sent out for ice, and taught large portions of the class on my back, with my legs up the wall.

When I sprained my little toe, I learned that it’s important to keep props out of the circulation space.

I don’t blame anyone for the sticky mat incident, or if I do, it’s me, for not paying attention. But the truth is, I walk around the studio looking at the students, not the floor, so I need all the help I can get to stay safe.

For years I’ve seen the scattering of props around the room as a happy sign of yogis at work. I thought that teachers who insisted on keeping the room clear were a bit on the military side.

Not any more. Just call me Captain.

I learned what a sprain is.

By definition, a sprain is an injury at a joint, usually the knee, ankle or shoulder, but little toes count too.

In a sprain, we tear the ligaments that tie the bones together. Ligaments, from a Latin word meaning to tie or to bind, and by association, a bandage, connect and stabilize one bone to another. They look a bit like bandages, white, stringy, fibrous and tough.

They can be stretched to increase range of motion. If they are over-stretched they can’t regain their former shape, and the result is a loose and weakened joint.
Hence the alarm about “hanging in your joints” when you do yoga poses.

When you wrench ligaments, by say, getting your little toe stuck in a yoga mat, they take a long time to heal. In fact, a sprain can take longer to mend than a broken bone.

Ligaments don’t get much blood supply, so they are naturally slow to heal. And they are always subject to new strains, just in the normal course of doing their jobs.

Think of it: the work of the ligaments is to halt the movement of the bones when they go too far away from each other. You don’t have to be playing sports to make a ligament stretch. All of us place our weight unevenly and stumble from time to time.

I learned that it’s best to take sprains seriously.

One of the hidden but real dangers of yoga is that you generally feel so good that you come to think of yourself as invincible. I almost never get colds or flu. When there’s a bug around I might have a hot bath and then tuck up in bed with a cup of tea for the afternoon, but that’s about all that happens. (In fact, the illusion of invincibility is so strong that I’d completely forgotten The Sniffley Sadhana when I wrote this. And that was only six months ago.)

When I sprained my little toe, I expected it to heal quickly, almost by itself. Everything else always does. Why not this?

I could have taken anti-inflammatories on a regular schedule, but I didn’t do that, nor did I lie down and put my feet up as much as possible.

I didn’t even Google “sprained little toe” until into the second week, so certain was I that all I could do about it was ice and wait. And since it was going to heal quickly without much help from me, I didn’t really bother too much with the icing.

A month later, my foot still hurts. Today, it’s swollen and it looks bruised again. I seem to be able to walk inside, barefoot or in sandals, without much trouble. Not so much outside, in shoes.

I used to take 40-minute walking breaks down to the library and back to clear my head when I’d been writing. I trotted up to the bank, bought most of my groceries on foot, took just about any chance to head out the door and see how the world smells, and how the air feels on my skin.

Now it makes a difference to me if I park in front of my destination, or a block away.

I’m getting an X-ray, to see if it’s just a strain (whew!) just a broken bone (whew! again) or a broken bone with a small chip of bone lodged in the joint (not so whew!).

And the last thing I learned?

I need a bike.

Photo courtesy of bradleypjohnson, via Flickr.

If this is your kind of post, you might also like:
Wrecked by yoga: a personal story
Greet your feet in the foot-work series
Tricky Triangle Pose: protect your SI joints


VanCitybuzz just published my story on the joys of Iyengar yoga, titled Highlighting Iyengar Yoga. If you like it, please share.

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