Yoga for Every Body

Every body is unique and different, which sounds so cliche, and yet we forget. How many students think their yoga pose should look like the one on the cover of Yoga Journal? We forget that there is no ‘perfect pose’, and no ‘one pose that fits all bodies’. Students come into yoga with a spectrum of suppleness: those whose bodies tend to be more flexible and those whose tend to be more stiff and tight. A very flexible student can have too much mobility – so much so that they go too far, and overstretch already loose tendons and ligaments – they need to create stability and strength in their body by engaging muscles to protect the joints. Bendy bodies also tend to sit in joints, for example collapse at the knee (see below). In addition, a bendier body will typically have their stance too large, and need to be given direction to shorten their stance – with a shorter stance they are able to engage muscles, versus letting them go slack and be passive. Students whose bodies are prone to stiffness have a slightly different but equally challenging dilemma – they need to incrementally bring flexibility and openness to tight areas, but know when to put on the brakes and not overdo, so that they don’t strain a muscle. In addition, stiffer bodies tend to have shorter stance (which is not as demanding), when in reality what they need to widen their stance. How do we address these different bodies, and keep the integrity of a pose? This is a challenge for sure, but not mission impossible. It is critical to give instructions (using precise language) and cueing for different types of bodies so that you create a safe yoga class, and the use of props helps. To quote Richard Freeman, “In teaching Trikonasana, I try to show students all the different ways they can adjust the pose, so they don’t have a static model. I give them a variety of tools so they can tease out what works for them.” (Yoga Journal, The Right Triangle, by Todd Jones)

Let’s look at Utthita Trikonasana, Extended Triangle Pose, a straight leg, externally rotated standing pose. Beginning with the foundation, the base of the pose, we work from the ground up – correct alignment from the base of the pose has a spiral effect as we move up the body (what goes wrong down below, gets worse as it moves up the body). Alignment of our feet, the first platform, is critical. An important instruction for the front leg in Trikonasana is to externally rotate your thigh from deep within the hip socket. This action aligns the ankle, knee and hip, and protects the ankle and knee.

In addition, to further protect the knee (an area of risk in Trikonasana), the weight of the front leg should be towards the ball of the foot, not the heel. This is an important instruction because it counteracts the likelihood to hyperextend or lock the knee. Too much weight in the heel generates a risk of knee hyperextension. A useful instruction would be, ‘press down with the big toe mound.’ Even students who don’t normally hyperextend at the knee are vulnerable to overstretch the back of the knee joint. Additionally, engaging both the quadriceps and hamstrings muscles, creates stability in the knee joint. This is a helpful instruction for bendier bodies, who need more muscle stability. An instruction would be, ‘micro bend the knee to engage the hamstring. Then, pull the kneecaps up, engage the quadriceps.’ Another option is to place a block under your calf. This gives support for a student who hyperextends at the knee, keeping their knee from locking. (Note: hyperextension is a condition of ligament laxity causing the joints to be unusually flexible – they go beyond straight. This excessive mobility throughout the joints, can be seen in very flexible and bendy bodies, though not all flexible bodies hyperextend).

Working our way up the body, once in Trikonasana, a block under your bottom hand (or use of a chair, if the block isn’t high enough), helps both stiffer and bendier bodies. If a student lowers their torso to their maximum, there’s a temptation to push too deeply into the pose, and hurt themselves. By using a block under the bottom hand, a tighter body can find length through their waist and spine, and not lose the expansive integrity of the pose – that way, they don’t sacrifice stability for mobility (and vice versa), just to bring their hand to the ground, ‘the way it’s supposed to look’. Modifications help students express the pose – to access the pose. It’s important as teachers that we reiterate to students that props are not a cheat, nor an easy way out, and in fact often make the pose harder. Through this lens, a block is also useful for bendier bodies, since the block allows them to explore the relationship of the work of their legs and the extension of the spine vs. stretching already loose ligaments and tendons further. The block in this case creates stability. This is not to say that a student’s hand can’t come to the ground – again, it’s a matter of Satya – being truthful with yourself. A note to all bodies: discourage students from placing their hand on their shin – instead, encourage a hand on the block. Otherwise, the tendency will be to sink into the joint. This is an important cue for every body.

Leslie Peters, the director of the Los Angeles Iyengar Yoga institute, says it well, “Your intention determines the fruit of your practice. The point of yoga isn’t to tie your body in a knot; it’s to use the body to purify and study yourself, beginning with what you can see – your leg in Trikonasana – and progressing to what you can’t see – your breath and the movement of your mind,” (Yoga Journal, The Right Triangle, by Todd Jones). The yoga is, can you be present enough to listen to your body – practicing satya (truth, honesty) and ahimsa (nonviolence, compassion). Recognizing that our bodies are different on any given day – sometimes tighter, sometimes looser, sometimes asking to go deeper, sometimes asking to back off – when we come to the mat. Going inward, and listening to our bodies we are able to see just what our body needs, and find the Trikonasana of today.

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The Beginner’s Mindset

Do you recall your first yoga class?  How you felt?  Have you had a few ‘first’ yoga classes,  where your yoga comes to a halt, you take some time off, and then start up again?  I’ve had a few first yoga classes in my journey.  My first class ever was with an Indian yogi when I was living in Costa Rica, in my mid-twenties.  He spoke no English or Spanish.  He lead us through the Sun Salutes with gestures and breath cues. Though I was a newbie, it had a profound calming affect on me.  I began to meditate for longer periods of time, on my own, and felt something awaken inside of me.  I was enthralled.

Upon returning to the States, the yoga movement was just taking off, in particular hot yoga.  My girlfriend and I tried out Baron Baptiste’s Cambridge class.  It was so different from anything I had ever done.  Part of me loved it, loved the sweat and hard work out – that sweet yoga aftermath, leaving you feeling blissed out.  The poses and flow was meditative – meditation in motion.  Though a world’s difference from my Indian yoga experience, again there was something there that I felt, and hooked me.

After having kids, and a few injuries, resulting in  a long yoga break, I never thought I could do yoga again.  I was now in my late 30’s and didn’t think this body could ever move pain-free, let alone with ease.  Plus, I was scared I would re-injure myself.  I remember the day that changed – I was feeling the need for something besides just a physical workout.  I happened to stop in a yoga studio, and take a class with dear Claire Este-McDonald.  I placed my mat in the way, way back of the class, so my disaster wouldn’t be too obvious.  I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to complete a class, especially with the last yoga taste being very physically intense.  I remember thinking, to myself, I have no expectations, I will just see what I can do, no judgment.

I made it through the class, though barely.  Claire came over and introduced herself to me, and we had a lovely chat.  She made me feel warm and welcome.  I came back.  I explained my injuries to her, and she helped guide me back into my body.  It forced me to look at myself – something that isn’t easy to do.  I  had to face my body, and this process healed me.  I no longer saw myself as fragile and broken, and I became connected with my body.  I had never known this kind of yoga.  At allowed me to finally find a place where I could listen to my body, and without judgement see where it would take me.  I found profound inner peace.

Now, after being consistent in my practice for the last 4 years, I still try to keep that beginner’s mindset.  One of open curiosity, that’s non judgmental.  Loving and caring to myself, with no set plan of where I will go next.  But it’s a difficult mindset to maintain!  Sometimes I find my eyes wandering to the mat next to me, comparing.  Then the self-judging begins.  But, I try and have patience, and bring my wandering mind back inside.  That’s why it’s called a yoga practice, after all.

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Kids favorite yoga pose – it might surprise you

Kids love to move – especially after a long school day with lots of sitting, they love (and need) to get their wiggles out. They also love to go on yoga adventures, invent new yoga poses, create yoga poses with a partner, present yoga stories and act out their yoga poses, etc. They love going on yoga beach adventures, turning their mats into Dandasana cars, mats become diving boards, beach blankets, where we do crab races, create an ocean out of our yoga mats, and have tandem surfing contests. All this is great and wonderful, but by far their favorite pose – and their favorite part of class – is Savasana. “When can we do Savasana?  Is it time for Savasana?” I’m asked, again and again. When it is time for our final pose, our resting pose (and, the most important pose of our practice), Savasana, I hear ‘YES!’  from many children. They can’t wait. They are gleeful. This is especially true for kids elementary school and up (though even my 4 year old preschoolers get into it too).

This might surprise you, as it did me. Why?  Here are a couple theories: 1) kids nowadays don’t have much time to themselves, always in groups in after care programs or after school programs. This is a time just for them, where they get a break from socializing, and have an opportunity to go inwards; 2) kids are so over-scheduled, and don’t have opportunities to slow down and be still. It’s go, go, go for kids. They aren’t allowed to be kids anymore, not given a chance to simply chill. I will never forget a few years ago, when I taught yoga on Friday afternoons, and a little 2nd grader said, “I am so thankful we do yoga on Fridays. I need to relax because my weekends are so busy.  On Saturday I have soccer and violin, and dance.” There is no down time. Kids need more time to just be – to figure things out on their own, no adult dictating what they should do and when. Savasana gives them some of that, and they know it.

I do give my yoga kids (elementary and up) a Savasana choice, which most of them take me up on. I let them roll themselves up in their yoga mats, and do what we call ‘sushi Savasana.’ For many many children, this helps them drop into Savasana. It’s like an eye pillow for their body. Since I often work at schools, where there aren’t props, no blankets, it’s also like having a blanket resting on your belly – very soothing. In addition, for my older yoga kids I also give them a foot massage, if they want (not all kids do). This also helps them ‘drop’  into Savasana (see my blog post Dreamy Savasana).

Typically in kid yoga classes we hold Savasana for 5-10 minutes, even when only teaching a 60 minute class. They both relish this time, and need it. As adults, we too need a long Savasana. We recently had an interesting discussion in my 300 hour YTT training at Down Under about Savasana, and it’s benefits. It is the most important pose, and in fact one of the reasons we do our Asana practice is to get us to Savasana.

Adults and children desperately need this time to be quiet and still. Enjoy the precious gift that Savasana gives, even if you can’t feel it, see it, if it’s hard for you. Keep practicing.


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It’s the little things, little nuances

I’m going into my final YTT 200 hour weekend, and though I’ll be happy to have the tests over with (a take home, an in class, and a practicum – oh, my), I will miss these intensive weekend trainings – though my family, dear family, will not (they are done with studying, practicing, lack-there-of-mom).  It has been quite the ride, adventure, journey – an awesome learning experience (thank you, Natasha and the DU team).  I will so miss this special and amazing group of people.  Getting to know all these incredible trainees, has been just one of the bonuses, like the icing on a cake.  Oh, I’m getting teary eyed, and better move on…

When I mention to folks that I’m doing this training, they inevitably ask, ‘oh, so you want to teach?’  I answer, ‘honestly, I don’t know. I’m letting things unfold, and see what happens.’  As we edge closer to the conclusion or our training, I still don’t know.  Sometimes that’s a frightening thought (thinking of my Dad, who though well intentioned, would easily remind me:  all that money and time, and you’re not going to do anything with it?) And yet, I already see the benefits of the training all around me.

I taught 4 kid yoga classes this week, and though the after school ones were challenging (little people just needing to move and run about – no sitting still like frogs…), I noticed some wonderful changes in my teaching and in my observations:

1)  Foot sandwich:  In our warm up we do a ‘foot sandwich’ – we bend the right knee, bring the left leg into a lunge on the ground (knee on ground, foot flat);  staying grounded with our left hand, we wrap our right hand around to hold onto the right foot.  “Say hello to your foot, give it a massage.” This is a tricky pose for many of the younger kids, and some would get frustrated and teary eyed.  Thanks to my training, I looked down at my feet and was able to give a very clear, kid friendly, cue about where to plant the hand, and to know with which hand to wrap around and back.  And, it worked.  My little frustrated friend who exclaimed, “I can’t do it,” with many deep exhales and sighs, was pleasantly surprised to find that he could in fact do it.  Of course this was a great moment to remind students that yoga is about letting go of results, why it’s called a ‘practice’ and how I too struggle with poses, but it’s the intention that’s important – how we react to the pose, not the pose itself.  Simply put:  “point your thumb to your brain, and tell your brain you can do this, you can try.”

2)  Tadasana:  When faced with a challenging standing pose, this week it was an arrow pose (it being February, hence some Valentines poses), I had the children start in Tadasana – a pose I teach them every class, and one we come back to again and again.  But, beginning here with the kids was revelatory.  WOW did it help!  At first my little frustrated friend, immediately said, “I can’t do this.”  But when we started from the foundation, the blueprint of standing poses, Tadasana (plus kids feel comfortable with Tadasana and can do it), it led to successful, non teary eyed trying.  Yeah!

3)  Child’s pose:  difficult even for some children.  Kids typically love mouse pose, or child’s pose.  They get to get very small, curl into a little ball, squeaking like mice.  As I looked around the room, however, I noticed that one little girl, was uncomfortable, and couldn’t relax her head her mat.  So, I went over and helped her widen her stance, and then added a rolled up yoga mat to place under her head.  Then she too was able to find the relaxing quality of the pose, and feel good (instead of feeling, why can everyone else do this but me – what’s wrong with me).  I wouldn’t have known how to help her, had it not been for my training.

4)  Now, this last one I must preface:  After a fantastic weekend with Julie Gudmestad in our Down Under YTT 300 hour (oh, yes, I forgot to mention that I am continuing my journey – family rejoice), she lead us into self study and observation – nonjudgmental – of our bodies, our anatomy.  I noticed a few new things this week:  when we sit in a circle, criss cross apple sauce legs, I noticed how many children have very rounded backs.  Even after I cue, lengthen your spine, sit tall – some can’t.  Now I know it’s the end of the day, and they are tired, but I was shocked at how many slumped shoulders and flexed backs I was seeing.  My fear is this will translate into their adult bodies, where it is even harder to fight the slump – think computer, working at a desk, sitting, etc.

If we can help kids gain awareness of their bodies, isn’t this what the real asana is about?  Beginning with the little things – just sitting up tall, strong, and proud.

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Falling in love with Adho Mukha Svanasana, Downward Facing Dog

Jamie Horn and Karma Yoga picuture of a dog doing Downward Facing Dog pose When I first began to consistently practice yoga, Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog), was a challenging, physically demanding pose for me.  It was not restful or restorative on any level.  Since in a typical yoga practice, AMS is often repeated throughout the class, I was mostly happy to move out of it, quicker than slower. There were rare moments where the prana flowed, and I wanted stay and be a very still Dog.  But, let me be honest, after the umpteenth Down Dog, that we were holding for what seemed like forever, I was thinking, “Oh, my goodness – when is this going to end.  Please, let us move onto the next pose.”

In my 200 hour training at Down Under, I have been learning AMS from the ground up (well, if we’re being literal: from my hands up). And, the tides have turned.  Learning how to create Down Dog, starting from my fingertips and moving through to my heels, with specific guided alignment cues, helped me find my happy serene Down Dog. So much so, that AMS has become an upside-down version of Balasana (child’s pose) for me.  It feels wonderful for my back – elongates the spine, and strengthens the upper body, stretches hamstrings and calves, tones the belly, gets the head upside down – a refreshing change in perspective.  When I now come into AMS, I don’t want to leave.  I feel this great peace and my body simply wants to stay and marinate.

Building AMS from my hands up, with specific alignment cues, has also gotten me to focus on me – on what’s going on within my body, turning me inwards, quieting the vritti (mind chatter).  As my mind grows quiet, and I luxuriate in my breathing, life itself seems to melt away, and “I” cease to exist.  This is the goal of yoga – to quiet the mind.  A union of body and mind.  I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but that’s something I feel is desperately needed in this hectic technology driven world we live in.

Finding this peace in AMS that I didn’t think possible got me thinking this is a template for most yoga poses, especially the ones we don’t like, don’t want to stay and linger in.  Can you find Sthira and Sukha – steadiness and ease – in demanding poses so that when you are faced with challenges in our daily lives, you can handle them with calmness and ease?  So important to take that next step, and translate what we learn on the mat, into our daily lives.

I invite you to find ease in challenging postures, and challenge you to re-find ease in life’s challenging moments.

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creativeyogakidsKeeping my 3 year old yogis engaged during yoga has been challenging as of late.  I just haven’t felt they are with me, minus the one or two.  That inspired me to do some research and see what I could do to rein in their attention.  Yesterday I brought imaginative play with concrete tools (this was key) into my class.  I put on my wizard hat, and with my magic wand turned the kids into animals that they picked out of my magic bag.  One little boy, looked at me with big nervous eyes and asked, “Am I really going to turn into the animal?”  The power of children’s imagination!

Before the children chose a stuffed animal from the magic bag, we talked about being respectful to the stuffed animal, and I told them how my own two children had generously donated these animals for today- we could pet them gently, and hold them or place them on the front of our yoga mat.  This was immensely helpful to discuss beforehand, and had a great impact on their behavior – they didn’t throw the animals in the air, etc. (and believe me that can happen).

Having a concrete animal that they could feel and see, not only helped keep the kids engaged, but also helped generate ideas about a yoga pose.  Before we did the actual pose, we discussed the animals  characteristics – always trying to integrate learning whenever possible.  We all made their sound, talked about what antlers or paws are, and then we either did the yoga pose or I asked the kids how they would make up a yoga pose for the animal.  They loved it.  However, I think out of all of them, I had the best time.  🙂

Bring a little magic into your kid yoga class.

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Kids bring out the divine play of yoga

Dale Chihuly glass exhibitionIn teaching kid yoga I am reminded that yoga is playful and full of exploration, trying and falling, taking unabashed risks, not caring what the person next to you is doing, letting go of all inhibitions (sometimes harder for me in an adult group class with experienced practitioners).  Kids are natural explorers, and bring out the playful piece of yoga that I love.  We bark like dogs in Ado Mukha Svanasana, turn into snakes in baby cobra, transform into giraffes with long necks in Utthita Parsvakonasana, and grow elephants trunks in Prasarita Padottanasana.  When learning each others names, kids make up our own yoga pose with the first letter of their name, and they love it – they are all engaged.  This creativity is exciting to them – giving them the ownership of their learning, letting them be their own teachers.  Granted, sometimes the kids are struggling to just stay on their mat, but then when a child initiates a three person group pose to create her own version of dolphin – I am astounded.  Their creativity is endless, boundless, and fills the heart.

A great way to cultivate the “play” mindset into your yoga practice, is with inversions.  Something about having your head below your heart, brings out the child in me.  It reminds me of all the upside down, topsy-turvy playground fun.  Inversions can be intimidating for some of us.  I myself am struggling with Sirsasana (headstand) and Ado Mukha Vrksasana (handstand).  I am trying to let go of my fear, and view these poses as play.  I remember loving cartwheels and handstands as a child – they were so much fun.  Now, if I could just convince my brain that I am still that child, even with my longer limbs, older body, and healed injuries.  It’s a work in progress.

Try and connect to your inner child, and invite play into your yoga practice.

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Dreamy Savasana

P1010851Have you ever been in a yoga class where during Savasana someone snores?  It got me thinking – should you be so relaxed that you fall asleep?  Then, in my teacher training, Natasha put is straight:  it is a pose.  So, no.  It’s a time to synthesize or imprint what you learned, a time for deep relaxation.

I have heard it called the most important pose.  Some people love Savasana, some find it quite challenging.

I recently took a yoga class in San Francisco at the YogaWorks studio, and experienced a lovely long Savasana.  While we were resting (10 minutes – pretty long for an hour and half class), the teacher rubbed some peppermint oil on his palms, and came around and aerated the room with the lovely scent (this was especially appreciated after lots of sweating).  He then rubbed more peppermint oil on his palms and placed them on our shoulders, gently pushing them towards the mat.  I have to say it was dreamy.  Just that simple touch, brought me to a deeper relaxation.

I started incorporating a longer Savasana, and giving my kid yogis a forehead and temple lavender massage.  They went into deep relaxation.  It was wonderful to watch.

My students have always enjoyed Savasana.  They request it, and know that yoga isn’t complete without it.  It’s like they know their little bodies need to be still, and they want it, especially with these busy and crazy lives the kids lead.

The massage or shoulder touch, adds that little extra that can bring Savasana to sweet dreaminess.  But, no snoring please.

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Being an non-judgmental observer, or at least trying to be

P1000187Sometimes it is hard to be a non-judgmental observer of yourself.  This weekend was the sun salutation weekend, and we learned all about the beautiful Vinyasa that Surya Namaskar is.  Linking breath with movement, it becomes meditation in motion.  I have been doing sun salutes for quite some time, but had never focused on some of the transitions, in particular going from Chaturanga Dandasana (Four Limed Staff Pose) to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Up Dog), and then from Up Dog to Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Dog).  I’ve been so focused on my hands, arms, shoulders, legs, breath – that I had forgotten to take notice about how my feet bring me through these transitions. When I watched Natasha so beautifully and artfully demonstrate the Surya Namaskar sequence, I learned my feet have been doing it incorrectly all these years!  And I had no idea – it came as a total surprise to me. Then, when I tried to get the feet action, and couldn’t, I became irritated and frustrated with myself.  I went from being a non-judgmental observer, to judging myself, and not in a good way.  It was like this was the last straw – all of a sudden all of my other observations, i.e. areas I need to work on, that I have been learning over the last few weeks in my training, grew into one big downward spiral, leaving me feeling that I stink at yoga – at least the physical piece.

After I got a good night’s sleep (I have to admit, I’ve been a wee bit tired), I realized this is the yoga – this is the work.  When things are easy, it’s easier to cultivate “citta vrtti nirodhah”  – a quieting, calming, of the mind, where you are the non-judgmental observer.  But when our thoughts and feelings become our mind (Sutra 4), how do we handle it?  How do we stop that detrimental pattern of thinking.  A good night’s sleep, practicing the physical postures & breath work this morning, helped me to step out of head, and rediscover “abhyasa vairagya,” non-attachment.  Sometimes, it’s other things, like watching my children laugh, play, be silly creatures.

To “move in the direction of,” as Judith Lasater stated so well, is key.  Trying to let go of the results, and be a non-judging Observer of my physical yoga practice, which translates to my mind, my life (and the other way around).

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Taking yoga off the mat today

woodsWalking in the woods today, on the glorious fall day that it was, I began to notice my walking stride.  I tried to think of Tadasana in motion, and realized that I slouch (much more than I thought), and really need to extend my sternum to the sky as I soften my ribs towards my frontal hip bones (thank you for those cues, Natasha).  This gave my wandering mind something to ponder, while taking in the mushroom smells of the woods, and beautiful colored leaves.  It helped free the chitter chatter that I can fall prey to, even while being outdoors.  This jibber jabber tends to be worse when the schedule is insanely busy – like Looney Tunes nuts.  But I took my “lunch” break, and tried to give my mind a rest, a break.  I came back feeling energized and focused.

Today, it wasn’t enough just to be in nature, I had to give my mind a “chew” toy – spread my collarbone wide, pull my trapezius muscles away from my ears.   Taking yoga “off the mat” today.

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