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It may be argued that these days, our society is much too focused on “self”– the self has become the important idea, and community has been forgotten. However, in contemplating this, one realizes that self-esteem and self-confidence– or what I like to refer to as strong inner posture – is far beyond “selfishness”. These ideas are deeper than the modern-day definition of “ego”. When we speak about raising our children to love themselves and be strong within, we don’t mean to encourage undeserving accolades and award or to have children link success with external reward. Building self-esteem and self-confidence – though these words can be overused – requires some planting and gardening at the very core.

Self-esteem, in my opinion, runs much deeper than simply “feeling good about one’s self” (and we could also argue that selfishness, self-entitlement and self-centeredness may actually stem from feelings that lay on the opposite end of self-esteem). I want to extend self-esteem to include self-belief, self-trust, faith in one’s self… strong “inner posture”.

Yours is the energy that makes your world. There are no limitations to the self except those you believe in. ~Jane Roberts

As a naturopathic doctor, I get to meet a lot of people and learn a lot about causes and contributors to disease and dis-ease. Something that I come across quite frequently is a hard outer shell, but a deficiency within. A deficiency in trust in one’s own abilities and capacity – sometimes physical, sometimes functional, and often mental. A deficiency in the sincere belief that we can attain our visions (truly can) and achieve ________ (insert vision here – good health, success, a good partner… etc.). Faith in our bodies and mind and the human capacity. Respect for our Selves and for all that we are. And THIS, to me, is strong inner posture, self-esteem, and self-confidence.

Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are. ~Malcolm S. Forbes

This week, I challenge you to assess, understand, and strengthen your inner posture during your yoga practice. I challenge you to see beyond the hard outer shell, and begin to cultivate not only vision, but trust that you have the resources required to achieve that vision. Let’s marvel in the human body and mind and it’s capacity to overcome so many obstacles. And then, we will take it off our mats to achieve even greater things.

When I’m trusting and being myself… everything in my life reflects this by falling into place easily, often miraculously. ~ Shakti Gawain

Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-break on. ~ Unknown

Asana of the week:  To achieve this week’s asana of the week, it is important to work from the bottom up to find stability, security, strength, and, most of all, trust. The first chakra, located at the base of our tail bone, is responsible for feeling grounded, safe, secure. With a deficient first chakra, the core cannot fully form. The first chakra is where we learn to trust. So, take a seat today, before your practice, tall and perched on your sit bones. connect to this first chakra by rocking back and forth, left and right, to find your sit bones. Breathe here to begin. In any core conditioning posture, first bring your attention to your inner thighs and pelvic floor, firm those areas, and then move up from there. This approach will help you more effectively activate your core and will help ensure proper spinal alignment as well.

Kakasana (Crow) and Bakasana (Crane) are our apex poses today. For many people, this can be a tough one. “I don’t have the arm strength,” “I’m going to fall flat on my face,” – these are comments every yoga teacher has heard a thousand times from students. And those are the comments that are expressed aloud. I like to start with kakasana (crow) pose, as there is a very slight difference (which I cannot seem to find a resource for anywhere online) from crane, and requires more core, less brute strength, and can be a little less scary.

I like to start in a wide-knee squat, toes and heels together. Take the time to stretch here – walk your arms forward… way forward… while you press your sit bones back. Then drag one hand back, bending your elbow towards the back of the room, and snuggle the upper arm (tricep) into the upper inner thigh. Try to get it as far back as you can, as high up the arm as possible (yes, this is a big hip opener too). Drag the other arm under the other thigh, and get compact. Use those strong inner thigh muscles to squeeze the arms.

Then, look past the front of your mat, and start to move forward in space. Don’t think “up” with your hips yet, and don’t think “down” with your face (whatever you do!). Slide along a horizontal plane with the earth. You’ll reach a point where there will be no more movement.

Experiment by picking one foot off the floor – but keep squeezing those thighs! Try the other foot. And then, with courage and trust in your heart, see if you can bring both feet off the floor, heels and toes together. Keep thinking “forward”, not back or up or down. Keep the body compact, heels and buttocks close – don’t aim for lifting the buttocks high. Keep using the strength of the legs to secure you to your arms. The more you engage your inner thighs, the more you engage your core.

The next step would be to squeeze those thighs so much that your abdomen and bottom start to rise up towards the sky. Here is where I say bakasana (crane) begins. In bakasana, the hips are raised higher, the spine rounds forward, and the knees are sitting on the shelf of your triceps. BUT, you are still looking FORWARD. Then, for the full expression of the pose, you start to straighten your arms.

You are very powerful, provided you know how powerful you are. ~Yogi Bhajan

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When we think of core strength, our society often envisions hard, flat abdomens. This, somehow, has become the embodiment of a healthy physique in our culture and sells everything from yogurt to underwear. But is this healthy? And most of all, is this important? If we look at the most prominent yogis of the past (including the Buddha himself), we see that not one is “blessed” with a six-to-ten-pack. In fact, many have quite the ‘Buddha belly’. But does that make them weak? According to yogic, Ayurvedic, and even traditional Chinese medical philosophy, it is quite the contrary.

The belly, or the abdomen, is a centre of power, and where a large reserve of energy/qi/prana is held. Thus, if one has worked to develop a supple, flexible, and innately strong midsection (not tense, hard, and blocked), they can tap into an infinite resource of energy. This does not mean that the bellies we see in IHOP or at a buffet are healthy – too much belly fat is detrimental to health. However, the opposite – overworking the abs to eliminate all fat and harden the muscles beneath- is also detrimental to health. Women, especially, are not usually made for six-pack abs naturally. And striving for this is quite unrealistic. If you think of a healthy muscle or muscle group, it is at it’s optimal strength when it is both strong AND flexible – springy and elastic. A tense muscle, especially a stabilizing muscle, cannot attain its optimal strength.

Not only does overworking the abs harm us physically, but it also creates some psychological blockages as well. It only overemphasizes “control” – making our bellies hard to try to “keep it together” and avoid vulnerability. It causes a sort of “mental constipation” – where we are not following intuition, only rules and order… where we are not free to act on our will, but according to standards or society. Yogis, though also warriors and soldiers, require a supple belly in order to connect to a strong core of space and calm within.

In addition, the core encompasses much more than just abdominals. Our posture is greatly determined by the balance of local and global muscles around the spine. Some shorten as they weaken, some shorten as they are overused. Some become overstretched, while others need a good stretching. It is the balance of these muscles that determine what our default posture becomes. And often, in our society, it can be an ugly balance. Again, yoga practice does not only physically attempt to bring the body back into alignment, but in strengthening the core, we are also strengthening a mental core as well. Our internal strength translates in our integrity of character and the ability to remain stable, calm, and authentic despite external conditions. By reconnecting with our body’s optimal alignment and strength, we take stress off of the nervous system, we create space within, and we feel good about ourselves.

Asana of the week: We begin with breath. Our asana this week, is easy seated pose (or Sukhasana). We are going to connect to our core with breath. A supple (but strong) belly is needed to use one’s full breath capacity. Activated core muscles are required to sit tall, without back support, with our legs crossed. (If you feel as if your sit bones are rolling forward when you sit, roll up your mat, use a blanket, or a cushion/bolster to prop up your bottom. Your knees should fall below your hip bones, and you should be seated right on your sit bones, spine long.) Keep in mind that deep, diaphragmatic breathing does not entail pushing your belly out deliberately. Full belly breathing just requires a naturally alternating engagement and release. To assure deep diaphragmatic breathing, first engage the abdomen in a complete exhalation, then allow your lungs to fill up naturally, relaxing the abdomen but not pushing it outward.

Place your right hand on your abdomen so that you may feel your breath moving your diaphragm, your left hand at your heart centre. Breathe slowly and deliberately, sensing the strength of your inner core as your obliques and deep transversus muscles compress to expel the air from your lungs completely. Then enjoy the flow of oxygen that fills your chest as these muscles release, creating space for prana to stream into your heart like water flowing into a basin. After a few minutes, allow your breath to resume its natural pattern. Observe it without criticism or effort. Imagine your abdominal cavity as the fluid container of your deepest wisdom and feel the energy at your navel radiating throughout your body.

While finding myself falling into an old pattern, rushing frantically to teach yoga this evening, I realized that it was no big surprise that most of my yoginis had “balance” as a part of their yoga vision for 2012. Whether it was physical balance – one-legged poses, arm balances – or balance in other forms, I found an essence of this theme in practically everyone’s goals. And for a good reason: yoga IS balance.

Yoga literally means “to yoke” – to yoke two opposites together, to yoke together mind and body, to yoke together sky and earth. It is the practice, the discipline, that helps to join these together. I like to interpret it further and to apply it to modern day life – to me, it is the discipline that we can use to aid in balancing our spiritual life and our day-to-day life. It helps to create balance between effort and relaxation, between suppleness and strength. And most of all, it helps to reach more of a balance within our bodies – a balance of the elements, of health.

What is balance within? We all have constitutional types, and we contain different proportions of the elements within. We each have individual susceptibilities to individual imbalances. Some of us tend to over-accumulate fire (stress, overwork, migraines, heat symptoms), some, tamas (sluggishness, weight gain, lethargy). Some of us have too much air/wind  (anxiety, lack of grounding, constipation), some may have an overactive water element (oedema, lack of drive, emotional). Our constitution makes us individual, gives us some character, and determines our body types. However, we CAN reach our optimal health within these different tendencies and constitutions.

Although the simple act of yoga certainly does inspire balance, I would say that the FIRST effect we see from yoga is likely the AWARENESS that yoga brings us. Yoga gives us the space to observe our own bodies and minds, their relationships with the world around us, our actions and reactions, and, most of all, where we might be “out of balance”. Identifying our susceptibilities and patterns is the first step to knowing where and how to adjust when we’re feeling “off”. This is why yoga is fantastic: regardless of our individual makeup, our practice can be modified to rebalance our unique internal environments. A balanced yoga practice will work on the core requirements for balance: strength, flexibility, endurance, and calm. We will all experience a class differently – within our bodies and minds. Depending on your individual body composition and needs, you will feel a balanced yoga class where you need to feel it. (This being said, it is best to be in a class that is mindful of your individual constitutional makeup and is geared to ou as an individual – smaller class sizes, more attentive, with modifications, knowledgeable teacher. Many classes in our society are only right for one constitutional type… and often not the most needed.)

So, lets hear it for yoga and balance. Let’s toast to our individuality and to the development of awareness within. When you begin to learn more about yourself and understand the way your body works, it makes it that much easier to rebalance – within and without. We strengthen what needs to be strengthened, and relax what requires relaxation. The result: health in body, mind, and spirit.

Asana of the day: Dancer’s pose, or Natarajasana. What a beautiful pose! When you see someone in this full pose, it is impossible not to take in a deep breath of awe. And why? The balance of this pose is impeccable. Not only are we in a asymmetrical shape, standing on one leg, but you can literally feel the balance of energies here- reaching forward and back, stretching toward the sky while grounded below, strength and flexibility. The origin of this pose is exactly this: the god Nataraj dances the dance life – the delicate balance between creation, maintenance,  and destruction. Attaining this pose is all about working on that balance.

Begin always by standing in the most basic form of this pose: one hand on the hip, one hand holding the foot or ankle behind you. This may be your pose. The knee is slightly forward, hip flexors are relaxed. The bottom foot is grounded, toes spread out, connecting to something deeper below. Your head is tall, reaching toward the sky. You keep the hips square, and you breathe. You may reach the opposite hand up to the sky here.

If you want to go further, the foot begins pressing backwards into the hand. Feel the creativity begin to flow – this opens the heart and the front body. As you press the foot into the hand, you counterbalance this backwards movement by reaching forwards with the heart and the hand a little – move slow in order to tune into what is going on within the body. Monitor your stability, know your limits. When you have reached the point of balance, you pause and breathe. The chin is slightly lifted, eyes are soft and focused. Bottom leg is strong and stable, the energy is flowing in an arc from your outstretched arm through your back leg – reaching in all directions. Enjoy. Breathe. And come out as gracefully as you came in – balanced, calm, and strong.

Sometimes, I feel as if I’m a broken lamp. Flickering, unable to shine out a constant, stable stream of light. My light bulb isn’t burnt out, I’m plugged in correctly. Jiggle my cord a little, and… *WHOA* – there she is: I’m shining as bright as ever. Find the right position, and I’m back to my radiant self. Our bodies are wired “like” electric circuitry. (I put “like” in quotations, because I HATE to reduce the complicated and fantastic nature of the human body to something so simple as a man-made electrical circuit.) Prana, qi, ki, blood circulation, neurologic impulses, mana, and vital energy flow through the body in complex circuits with linear and circular paths. Whichever medical system you subscribe to, you will find evidence of these organic manifestations of  circuitry. You can call these meridians, nadis, channels, networks, circulatory systems – the point is that our bodies contain communicating paths of ‘substances’ that provide us with energy to move and act and live. Thus, it only makes sense that if properly aligned (like our finicky lamp) we will find our optimal luminescence.

As the first law of thermodynamics states, energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed to another type of energy or lost as heat and work. This is surprisingly the basis of many ancient medical systems. If we are constantly adding energy to our system, via breath and food (Kong Qi and Gu Qi), then we always have energy at our disposal – in theory. (This is ignoring the innate energy that we have within our body as well – in traditional Chinese energy we call these Essence and Original Qi – these we deplete via ‘work’ with age.) If we always have energy at our disposal, why does it sometimes feel like we’re nearing zero, regardless of how much we breathe or eat?

In an inefficient electrical device, sometimes it’s friction that is causing a loss of energy though heat. Sometimes there is a slight break or kink in the wiring. Sometimes an injury to the outer shell skews the alignment of the internal wiring. And we can’t ignore those devices that are just used beyond their capacity. All of these “defects” can be analogous to our bodies. This is why activities like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are said to optimize our internal energy and life force.

Putting ourselves in proper alignment, fixing our posture, strengthening our stabilizing muscles, and stretching out the compressed parts of our bodies are all “jiggles” that our wiring needs. This is not to mention the mental strength and coping strategies that we develop to handle stress (a HUGE energy-sucker), difficult people (who can certainly feel like they are robbing you of energy at times), and life’s obstacles (speaking of friction…). We learn to reduce the external losses of energy (avoiding overwork, minimizing stress, learning to say no, reinforcing our boundaries, slowing down), maintain our innate energy (remember, we cannot “create” extra energy), optimize the energy we obtain through breath and food (are you a shallow breather? are you getting your nutrients?), and keep our circuitry in line to encourage proper energy flow through our systems. Who knew yoga class is really just a physics class?!?

With the holiday season approaching, I suspect that many of us are thinking about our energy levels (or lack thereof). How can we possibly give our time and energy to others (think: office party after family get-together after open house) if we don’t feel as if we have enough for ourselves? In class today, we focused on our breath and the proper alignment of our bodies in order to optimize our energy levels. We worked on getting our circuitry in the right position to better handle the flurry of holiday parties, shopping, and activities.

Pose of the day: Last post, I spoke of my nemesis: Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. I eluded to a fantastic supine version of the pose: Supta Hasta Padangusthasana (with a strap). Well, this is our pose of the day. If this pose does not rejuvenate your legs and align their circuitry, I don’t know what will. When done with a yoga strap, ANYONE can get into a life-affirming version of this asana and reconnect with their hamstrings, hip abductors, hip adductors, and peroneals. There are three stages to the pose we practice in class:

  1. One leg is extended on the ground (we’ll start with left), toes pointing up to the sky; the other (right) is flexed at the hip and aiming towards the sky or beyond (but without sacrificing the grounding of the bottom leg and hip), strap looped around the ball of the foot.
  2. The left leg stays put, both ends of the strap move to the right hand, and the right leg opens out to the side (again, without sacrificing the grounding of the bottom leg and hip).
  3. The right leg now comes back up, through first position, we switch the belt to the left hand, and the leg crosses over the body. At this point, the left leg can now roll over onto it’s outer edge, but the upper body continues to face the sky.
Hold each of these for 5-10 breaths, then switch legs! Note how much longer your right leg feels before you go to your left. Now, how can we optimize the alignment in this pose? A few tips:
  • Activate the feet by flexing them as if you are standing on the ground. Activate them more by concentrating on pushing out through your big toe mounds and pulling up on the pinky toe. Our tendency is to sickle our feet in the opposite direction. It takes effort to prevent this, but it will strengthen the muscles we need to keep our knees and ankles healthy!
  • When in stage 1 of the pose, bring the leg away from you slightly, and then feel both hips ground equally. Don’t move your top leg unless you can move it without lifting the right hip and the left thigh!
  • Keep the legs STRAIGHT. This is not to say LOCKED – engage your quad muscle and keep those feet working!
  • When the leg opens out to the side, only open it so far as your opposite hip stays put. Use the strap to keep your femur bone integrated into the hip socket. Continue to work your feet.
  • When the leg crosses over, work on pulling the hip back and away from your torso to increase the stretch. Hello, IT band!
  • Throughout this asana, BREATHE. Relax your shoulders (they should not be involved) and your face.

What better way to understand our practice of yoga than to go back thousands of years and understand it from the very beginning? This is what part of deepening our practice is: studentship. We come to a point when we understand the basic structures of poses, we (somewhat) recognize the names of poses (something-asana?), and we are beginning to see the benefits of yoga and meditation for our minds and souls. At this point, questions start to arise, naturally. Questions about the intricacies of poses. Questions about the subtle body. Questions about the nature of meditation. And finally, questions about the history of yoga.

Dont worry, I won’t be going into a long history lesson this week. We will be reading 2 simple phrases (yes, just two) from the “Yoga Bible”– the first written document about yoga and all it’s glorious details: the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. And trust me, the answer to many of our questions can lie right here, in the first two phrases (or sutras) of this book. Especially this one: Why do we practice yoga?

atha yoganusasanam

yogah cittavrtti nirodhah

How these two small verses are translated can take up books in itself. However, the consensus lies in something like: “Now we begin to explore the sacred art of yoga with it’s guidelines and instructions .” (That’s number 1) “Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.” (Number 2) On first glance, these two verses seems only introductory, simple; yet, it is looking at them in context that brings their importance to light.

First of all, these two loaded verses were written over 2000 years ago. Yet, as we think of how relevant these are today, we understand the beauty of this writing. When we start to question, “Where am I headed with yoga? Am I on the right path?” the second verse can bring simple answers. Yoga is the cessation of the movements of the mind. Yoga’s purpose is to still this ever-chattering mind we have. Nowhere does it say that yoga is looking great (although it may be one of many benefits). It does not say that attaining yoga occurs when your every limb can bend in a different direction simultaneously. Yoga is not attaining the most difficult physical pose. Stillness will be yoga. (Yoga also meaning this integration between all layers of Self that we seek.) The practice of yoga will bring us yoga. Yoga is a means and an end.

What I find so beautiful is that something that seers and yogis realized thousands of years ago applies more than ever to our society. We practice yoga to clam these fluctuations in the mind, the wavering between concentration on mind, on self, on ego, on intelligence. What do these fluctuations cause? In my opinion, the “un-stillness” within in which we so often find ourselves causes many diseases and psychological unrest. Why does our society suffer so much from anxiety, depression, image disorders, and emotional lability? In addition, (although my thoughts on this may be slightly controversial) perhaps the root of conditions such as cancer, autoimmune disease, and neurological illness is psychological unrest, suppression of emotions, and unresolved pasts. We are ungrounded, and yoga is here to help us bring back some grounding (especially in the mind). I think we can all attest to this: by focusing for an hour on our body’s movement, on opening up channels of energy, on consciously breathing, we find a sort of peace of mind that is pretty difficult to get otherwise. And this is the first step. If we can stop our mind chatter for just moments at a time, simply by bringing more awareness to the integration of every layer of our body, we can train ourselves to do this for longer periods of time, in more situations. If a minute fraction of that awareness goes into your everyday life, just imagine how in tune you can become. Imagine how peaceful life might be. That peace is health. That peace is yoga.

“Yoga is the teacher of yoga; yoga is to be understood through yoga. So live in yoga to realize yoga; comprehend yoga through yoga; he who is free from distractions enjoys yoga through yoga.” ~ Sri Vyasa

Just me…

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