Finding Your Axis

by Chelsea Doohan 

Do you remember being a child and learning how the Earth spins like a top? 

A top has a visible shaft at its center. The widest part of the top is like the equator of the earth. When you look at a top, its shaft and circumference are tangible, visible. With the Earth, this is less true.  Because we aren’t in a position to see the entire earth as one object (unless we are in space), we have to conceptualize the earth’s axis and equator.  They don’t feel like solid things. Yet they are still real.  

When teaching yoga, I often refer to a student’s vertical axis. This is much the same as Earth’s axis. It’s very real but isn’t a tangible object. Rather, it’s a reference, and it gives us something around which to organize.

So let me be more concrete.  Your body’s vertical axis is basically a plumb line generated by a gravitational pull toward the ground you stand on.  Around this plumb line, the weight of your body must distribute itself evenly. Otherwise, one of two things happens: 1) you fall over like a top that has stopped spinning, or 2) one side of the body needs to work hard to keep you from falling over. As time goes on, this second options gets tiring!.  

 Exploration no. 1:

Stand in tadasana, (mountain pose). Don’t worry if you are a beginner and/or you don’t know how to do the pose “correctly.” Just stand vertically.  That is tadasana.   

Bring your attention to your vertical axis, your plumb line.  How do you know where it is?  One way is to sway in the pose, such that you move around the axis.  Play with swaying in tadasana, forward, back, and side to side.  

When you move around something enough, you start to get an idea of where it is.  Your vertical axis is somewhere between front, back, and your two sides—that’s pretty obvious.  But, you can get more specific by gradually making your swaying smaller.  In other words, move in a smaller radius around your plumb line.  Playing with smaller and smaller movements, you may hone in on where your axis is. 

Effortless Standing

Once you find this, you can stay in tadasana for a long time without any one part of you tiring. That’s because all your parts are organized around the plumb line, and your body’s weight is evenly distributed around it.

 Here’s a pattern I see in tadasana a lot: Hips and belly move forward of the vertical axis. Shoulders are nice and far back, perhaps over the heels, which might give the impression of having a plumb line. . . until you realize that the hips are off of this line—they are in front of it. The body is making something of a bow shape.  Is this a problem?  Well, it can put a lot of pressure on the low back. And if you do tadasana like this all the time, you may start to feel that that position is centered and plumb, when it isn’t.

 Exploration no. 2: 

Stand in tadasana and push your hips forward.  You can even exaggerate it (but stop if it makes your back hurt!)  This is just to feel a particular pattern.  Then, gather your hips back a bit so they are more over your heels.  This is likely to tone your abdomen and gather your belly towards hour low back.  It should feel nice on your low back, spreading and lengthening it. More generally, you may feel that you can grow upward all around your vertical axis.  Your back lifts as much as your front lifts, so that your back doesn’t get compressed.  

This plumb line I’m talking about. . . where in relation to other body parts is it?  It is an axis that runs just in front of your spine.  Your spine can be a great reference, and we often hear about lengthening the spine in yoga. Nothing wrong with that! However, we can also get more precise and note that the  the body’s true axis is in front of the spine, more on the inside.

In tadasana what if you felt the length coming from a space just in front of the spine, a place that is more central?  One thing this does is place the crown of the head in the vertical axis (not in front of it, as I so often see).   

So now we have crown, hips, and ankles all in one plumb line.  This is a very strong tadasana!    

 Sitting involves the same principles

This vertical axis of the trunk, from hips to head, is essential for seated poses as well and especially twists.  Twists need a clear axis to move around or else one side of the body becomes compressed or collapsed.  You will get more benefit from twists if you find your vertical axis before moving into the rotation.  

Exploration no. 3 (chair twist):

Find a level, firm-seated chair with a back but no arm rests.  Sit sideways in the chair such that the chair back is on the right side of your body.  Before you twist, find your two feet flat on the floor and find your vertical axis.  You can think of it like tadasana, except now you are “standing” on your two sitting bones instead of your two feet.  From here, twist to your right and take your hands to each side of the chair back, so that your arms are somewhat engaged, helping you rotate.  You can think of lengthening up through your axis the whole time, or it might work better for you to think of growing upward, then twisting, growing upward again, twisting a bit more, etc.  

The twist will involve the whole trunk, from head to seat.  One note here: sometimes students aren’t sure whether they are supposed to keep their hips square while the trunk twists. My answer is that it is actually helpful for the pelvis to participate in the twist.  It won’t turn a lot, but there will be a slight rotation of the hips around each other (and around the central axis). This will bring one sitting bone forward on the chair, and I encourage students to simply let that happen.  

Rewards 

The rewards you can gain from this awareness are about relating to the world that is around you. Being clear in your axis creates a stable vantage from which to better see outside of yourself. You can not only attend to what is in front of you but also to what is to the sides and all around. Then, pivoting in order to switch attention from one thing to another becomes more effortless and graceful.  Also, it makes backing out of parking spaces a whole lot easier.

Have fun playing with this!  Namaste.

 

Insight on the Shoulders

Shoulder Insights

Today we have an audio exploration that investigates movements of the shoulder blades.

Awareness of the different ways the shoulders can move is essential to freedom and mobility in the upper body. It’s also vital vital for maintaining strength and stability.

This inquiry brings particular attention to the relationship between shoulder movement and arm rotation, which is a necessary skill in asana practice (and handy for life in general).

Just click on the image to listen.

Thoughts (and Yoga) on Labor Day

Labor Day in America is a really strange thing.

A holiday recognizing workers gets a little weird when it’s framed more as the last gasp of summer, the beginning of school, the revving up of the National Football League, a chance to sell a lot of stuff, and an opportunity to serve a bunch of food.

Which all means that a big chunk of the working population works on Labor Day.

Describing the holiday this way might put the whole thing in a discouraging light, but it offers a shift of perspective back to the original idea of Labor Day. It’s a reminder to honor, consider, and be aware of the state of workers in America.

Of course people of different political persuasions will view this issue in different ways and will come up with very different answers as to the health and rights and strength of the American work force.

Here I’m less concerned with that broader political back-and-forth. What I can write about is what I see on the ground level, with people’s bodies and hearts and minds.

Work is such an important thing in the way it can give people structure, dignity and a sense of accomplishment.

In my job as a yoga teacher though, I get a close view of the struggles of work, the tangled parts of work that cause pain and suffering.

This is certainly the case for people who have to work in jobs they don’t like (and it’s magnified with people looking for a job), but I find there’s a lot of struggle around work even among people who love what they do.

That being the case, this piece could neatly button itself up with a conclusion along the lines of: “Work in today’s modern society is really hard and yoga can really help you. Don’t forget to come to yoga class.”

Certainly, I don’t disagree with this. Yoga can truly help to mitigate the slings and arrows of one’s work life. This is sometimes as far as it’s taken, but I think yoga can offer more than 5 poses you can do to deal with your shitty job.

If the relationship of a yoga practice to a job is that it only soothes the hurts, it might be tempting to just keep going along with what doesn’t work with work.

Yoga has much to offer to a person’s greater relationship with work because it is essentially a way to be more awake and aware, more deeply true to oneself.

Honoring that awareness might mean in one instance that a person maintains the fortitude to stay in an unfulfilling job for some time because it is clearly the available option that puts food on the table and pays the bills. In another instance, that awareness might reveal a possibility to do something different.

What’s more, the awakening that yoga inspires is of a piece with honoring work that is done, recognizing the energy that’s put into work, and having the presence of mind to lessen the suffering of others when it’s within one’s power to do so.

The forces at play that shape the distribution of income and labor are huge and overwhelming. My experience with yoga is that it can offer a way to live within those overwhelming, sometimes discouraging forces and stay open, stay available, while at the same time being able to question and probe and do what’s possible.

……………………

The other thing about yoga and work is that asana itself can be work (it’s also play, but that’s for another bit of writing). It’s work you can do for free if you have a personal practice. Or you can attend a class and pay someone to guide your work. Good deal, huh?

There’s a reason that it’s worth paying for: it helps people become more resilient to stress. Asana is itself a kind of useful stress that can help people become more adaptable to other stresses.

One of the key factors for this to be effective is that the work of asana is not wholly about quantity. That is, working more in an asana does not necessarily make a person more resilient. Working more than necessary can in fact burn a person out.

Instead, it is about learning to discern how much work, how much energy is appropriate. It’s about working with clarity and coordination.

This increased resilience and awareness can offer some very real benefits in relation to work. Especially when a job is very stressful, mitigating the challenges of work may be much of what the practice supports. This falls under the yogic precept of ahimsa, non-harming.

At the same time, as a person has a clearer sense of ahimsa for themselves, it can be extended to others.

It is in this spirit that right now I am thinking about all the varieties of work in this crazy world and all the people who work. I am thinking about people doing work that’s mundane, inspiring, pointless, nourishing, life-saving, dangerous, physically taxing, and mentally demanding. There’s so much work in the world, and so much joy and suffering that results from it.

Let this be a small offering to recognize the struggles and the fruits of work.

Let this be a small offering to honor work and workers.

namaste.

Yoga to Relieve Back Pain

by Eric Stewart

Today we have an audio class for you that works with lengthening and strengthening of the spine and trunk. It can be a helpful practice for back pain.

Also, because an open and strong trunk is essential to the function of the limbs, this sequence can be helpful for pain in other areas of the body such as the knees, shoulders and neck.

The Limits of an Audio Practice

An audio practice to help remedy pain is a little tricky given that no single asana or group of asanas works for everyone exactly the same way. Also, if you are unfamiliar with the postures, you may find that you miss the direct benefit of a teacher’s guidance.

The Benefits of an Audio Practice

On the other hand, it’s possible to use an audio class as a support to develop inner resources. This is essential to accessing a deeper relationship with yoga. Doing this can also increase your skill at reducing your own pain, which is a freeing and empowering ability.

If you are often in pain in your life, be especially attentive to how you respond to the practice. If there are parts of the sequence that provoke discomfort, explore ways to modify. If that doesn’t work, avoid doing things that cause pain. Seek the guidance of an experienced teacher.

(This is really good advice for anyone: see what you can do on your own, but if there’s pain that you can’t figure out, get help.)

Diminish the Habit of Pain

It’s especially important if pain is a regular visitor in your life because the practice will be most supportive when you can find longer periods of time where that pain-switch doesn’t get triggered.

This sequence works to decrease pain by finding a balance of lengthening and strengthening actions, decompressing areas of the body that get shortened, tight and weak.

I’ve done my best to suggest common modifications and variations that can help provide clarity if an asana is not integrating. That said, I encourage you to stay alert to how this sequence will work best for you, so that you have agency to adapt it to your body and your needs.

The practice requires a chair and two blankets. Here is a link to stick-figure drawings of the sequence.

Have fun!

5 Ways to Take Yoga With You

Happy summer to you!

Happy summer, whether you are traveling for work, on vacation, wishing you were on vacation, or content that you’re not.

Yes, those vacations can cut both ways: sometimes they’re a refuge, sometimes a living hell (sometimes both).

A Different Routine

Traveling is interesting in terms of routines and habits. It changes the normal schedule, and this can help a person reset and rejuvenate, giving respite from the parts of everyday life that are a drag.

Other times though, old habits come along for the ride.  Or, new routines end up getting in the way just as much as the old ones.

One common struggle is negotiating the needs and desires of family or friends during travel.  As you know if you’ve ever traveled with other people, those needs and desires don’t always line up!

(Of course it’s also entirely possible to sink into a less functional routine all on one’s own, without any contribution from other people!)

Travel and Yoga

This is relevant to yoga because some people go on vacation looking to use the freer schedule to jump-start a personal practice. While this might call to mind yoga retreats in tropical locales, I’m referring more here to a person who simply wants to introduce some yoga practice into their day.

I’ve spoken with folks who have intended to do yoga during a vacation, and they often discover that the routines and rhythms of travel are not so conducive to anchoring a practice.

Being in a different surrounding, changing location frequently, staying in close quarters with other people– these sorts of conditions can easily short-circuit a practice.

Insight from an Old Text

Interesting to note: one of the major obstacles to practice that’s listed in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is travel. This is understandable, especially if you consider the challenges of a journey in 15th century India when the Pradipika was written.

Yet the amenities and the speed of modern travel also do little to facilitate practice. If anything, the pace and distractions involved with moving around the world today make this centuries-old observation as apt now as it was 600 years ago.

So, travel can be an obstacle to practice, but does that mean it’s impossible? Should someone aspiring to practice on vacation just hang it up before starting?

No, and no.

Here are 5 simple things you can do to support your yoga during a period of travel. It’s worth mention that these strategies also work very well if you find yourself at home!

1) Make space for yoga off the mat.

A yoga practice can be more than asana on a mat. This recognition has the potential to bring the fruits of yoga into more of life. With respect to travel, it can mean being more present and appreciative of the enjoyable parts and being more level-headed during the challenging parts.

In this respect, yoga is about keeping in touch with a personal center that is steady in the face of different experiences that occur. This is the simplest manifestation of practice and also the most challenging.

Have you ever gotten so tangled up in the planning and logistics of travel that when you get to the place you wanted to go, you find that you are not really present?

The simplest way that I have found to avoid this sort of thing is to consistently keep my attention anchored in physical experience.

That doesn’t mean it’s all I’m noticing, but if I can keep returning to the space of my body, my connection with the ground and the feeling of my breath, I tend to be more present and resilient to ups and downs.

Sometimes it’s easier to access this, other times it appears far away, but just setting the intention to stay with it– to keep returning– can be very powerful.

2) If you are with other people, pinpoint the best times when you can practice.

Alone-time is healthy for everyone. Be aware though that personal space is a relative thing. If you are on a vacation with other people in close quarters, you may not feel quite as alone as you are used to, and this feeling can constrain interest in practicing.

This can be an opportunity to be creative with time. You may be able to squeeze in a few shorter sessions within a day. Times that work best are often found at the very beginning or the end of the day.

You’ll likely discover that you can find the most time and personal space in these periods.

3) Be creative with space and objects. 

Just as it’s possible to be creative with time, you can also be creative with everyday objects, using them as props to support yoga poses.

For instance, cars, chairs, and other furniture can all serve as useful yoga props. Car hoods are great for poses like half-dog, as well as forward bends with one leg elevated, resting on the hood (utthita hasta padangusthasana).

Chairs of course are great for all manner of twists, forward bends, standing poses, backbends etc. Mattresses and couches are often great for supine backbends, depending on the height of the object and your flexibility.

The possibilities to be found in your surroundings are endless! Just make sure that whatever you are using will support you. And have a strategy for moving into and out of the asana so that you don’t injure yourself.

4) Envision and plan the physical act of beginning the practice.

If you can envision stepping onto a mat, or even write down simply that you are going to step onto a mat and practice, you’re much more likely to actually do it.

Telling someone else of your intention to practice is another way to firm up your resolve and make it more real.

5) Last, if you need support and reinforcement, consider some of the free audio practices available on the Solaluna website.

If you go somewhere without internet or phones, this won’t be an option; but if that’s the case, your surroundings will be a better teacher than a recorded yoga class anyway. More power to you for unplugging!

If you have access to the internet and are looking for some guidance, visit the programs page on our website. There are some active practices, gentle practices, and meditations.

Let us know what helps you and how your vacations and stay-cations and work-filled summers are going!

Vigorous Standing Poses

by Eric Stewart

Today’s audio offering is a sequence of standing poses. This is meant for more experienced practitioners. It requires being able to balance on one leg in poses like garudasana (the eagle) for a sustained period of time. It also involves spending 1-2 minutes per side in wide-footed standing poses such as triangle, side-angle and revolved side-angle.

This practice needs a certain level of balance and endurance to do skillfully. If you’re feeling up to the challenge it will support the further development of these qualities and is a great way to access the well-rounded benefits that yoga has to offer.

For stick-figure drawings of the poses in this sequence, click here.

A Short Intermediate-level Practice

By Eric Stewart

Just a reminder that the early registration for the Summer Intensive ends tomorrow, Monday July 7 (see sidebar to the left).

If you are interested but can’t do the whole schedule, it is possible to do parts. Let us know if you have any questions.

Today’s practice is an excerpt of a class that I taught earlier this week. It is appropriate for intermediate to more experienced practitioners.

The practice requires a chair, which is used for a supported warrior number III, among other things.

This sequence emphasizes a transition I’ve been using in classes lately that involves turning from a wide-footed standing pose position (where the back foot is rotated slightly in and the heel is on the floor) into a vertical lunge with the heel off the floor.

The balance for this can be a little tricky. If you find it difficult, here are a few things to consider:

As you begin to turn into the lunge, lift the back heel off the floor and feel that the ball of your big toe can be a pivot point, allowing your heel to rotate out.

Make sure that the heel turns up off the floor enough so that the back leg is centered, knee facing down and you have weight in the outside (little toe side) of the foot as well as the inside.

When people don’t fully commit to rolling the heel out to the point where the leg is centered they get stuck in a limbo area that is difficult to keep steady.

Having the heel on the floor is a solid place to be. Having the back foot vertical with weight on the inside and outside of the foot is also a solid place to be. The space in between these two feels not so solid.

If you have any questions, you can contact us here.

For stick figure drawings with some instructions and helpful hints, go here.

A Supine Practice For Beginners

by Eric Stewart

Today we have a very basic, accessible floor practice lined up for you.

It emphasizes activation and mobilization of the hips in several ranges of motion.

This sequence is well-suited to beginners, though even accomplished practitioners may find it useful as a grounded way to start the day or a chance to connect with support and unwind in the evening.

While this is a basic practice, keep in mind that if you experience pain in the practice, don’t simply push through it and continue to create strain for yourself. If you experience pain in any part of the sequence, back off and see if you can figure things out by bringing more awareness to what you are doing.

If you continue to experience pain, seek the guidance of an experienced teacher and get things checked out if you haven’t already.

Happy practicing.

 

You can access stick-figure drawings of the practice here.

Accessible Hamstring Practice

Here’s a practice that’s good for beginners. It’s fairly general, with some emphasis on alternately strengthening, then lengthening the hamstrings. The whole thing is around 22 minutes, a bit more if you do a resting pose at the end.

Even as this is appropriate for beginners, be aware that everyone has different restrictions and limitations. While the recording offers instruction, it of course can’t provide the in-person guidance of a teacher in your living room, so if you experience pain in any asanas, back off and explore how you might do the movement with more ease.

If pain persists, don’t continue to do what’s causing the problem and seek the advice of a qualified instructor.

The first part of this practice involves lifting the leg from a prone position in a few ways that may not be customary for some people. Being clear with these movements is less about generating a lot of effort and more about finding a fluid way to support what the legs are doing.

Keep in mind that you have a lot of latitude as to how much you lift the leg. If you feel discomfort in your back, you’re probably lifting the leg too much, putting excess leverage in your back. If this is the case, do less.

 

Click here to access stick-figure drawings of the sequence.

Happy Practicing!

 

The Thrill of Flying

Has there ever been a yoga pose that you couldn’t do, and then one day, you did it?  There is nothing quite like that feeling.

I find this to be particularly acute when it’s a pose that requires balance, such as half moon pose or headstand.  There is a moment in which you need to lift off, un-tether from the ground, or as I like to say, fly.  Because that’s what it feels like.

It requires a letting go.  A letting go of the ground and the security if offers.  It requires trust and courage, because nothing is guaranteed when you are in one of these poses.  You could tip over.  You could hurt yourself, to be perfectly honest.  Or (worse?) you could embarrass yourself in class.

Do you remember learning to ride a bike without training wheels?  There is a moment when you just needed to go for it, to stop looking for the security provided by the training wheels and instead pedal forward into the unknown, the wobbly insecurity that only smooths out once you get over that terrifying hump.  And when you do, it’s an entirely new feeling and a different state of being.

Something comes into focus in these moments.  It can feel like the world got turned upside down, and it did.  In that unfamiliar state, you are alert in a way you weren’t before, and you are present in the moment.

For kids, learning to ride a bike is a big deal for their growing up.  A new stage has been reached, a new identity even.

And just like a child can become a “big kid” in a moment’s time, just by riding that bike, a grown up can, in a small way, become a new person when they let go, lift off, and fly in one of these challenging yoga poses.

It is empowering, and that is one of the reasons why I encourage students to go for these poses.  Sure, there is fear, trepidation, or perhaps apathy or doubt to overcome.  But ask anyone who has gone through the process of learning to do a headstand: it’s worth working through those feelings.

I’ve never met anyone, in the yoga world or otherwise, who learned to do something challenging and new and then looked back and said, “I wish I hadn’t learned to do that.”

So work within a safe context, but take a risk.  Balance those apparent opposites.  Use your teacher to help you feel safe and secure (that’s what they’re there for), and challenge yourself to go one step (or one pedal stroke) farther into the unknown than you did yesterday.

This doesn’t mean dive in blindly and hurt yourself.  Just one step today, one small risk.  Another step and another small risk tomorrow.

If you have never done a headstand and want to nudge the boundaries of what is familiar and comfortable for you, I recommend talking to your yoga teacher and also doing some work/play with preparatory practices at home.

If you’re not sure where to start, below are some poses you can practice in order to build the strength and skills necessary for you to experience the magic moment of lift-off.

Before signing off, I want to tell you about my mom.  She inspired me to write this article.  She isn’t your stereotypical yogini doing headstands.  She isn’t young.  She has some injuries she has to take care of.  She is still fairly new to yoga, and she was slow to warm up to it.

But she did a headstand yesterday!  I can’t describe the feeling of watching it happen.  I can understand why a parent might choke up a bit when they witness their child ride a bike for the first time. Because it’s watching someone you love fly.

Here are some practices you can use to build up to headstand:

wall press

JSD wall press I

JSD wall press II

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With hands on the wall, lean forward, bringing your weight into your arms.  As you bend your elbows, keep them IN, very close to the sides of the body.  Keeping the axis from your head to your feet, press away from the wall, and repeat several times.

Make sure your low back isn’t collapsing, which would cause your hips to come towards the wall faster than the rest of you.  Doing this correctly, you will feel some necessary engagement in the abdomen. Don’t try to make this happen, but notice that it naturally happens when the body maintains its axis.

forearm dog

JSD forearm dogWith elbows shoulder-width apart (not wider), interlace the fingers and press away from the floor.  The lower body engages all the same actions as in downward facing dog, and like downward facing dog, it’s fine to bend the knees.

Your head will NOT be on the floor.  In fact, you can work toward pressing more through the arms, and at the same time using the legs to pull you back, such that your head comes gradually farther from the floor.

 

 

 

wall forearm stand

JSD wall forearm stand I

JSD wall forearm stand II

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once the previous two practices feel reasonably comfortable, back up very close to a wall, and come into forearm dog.  From there, walk your feet up the wall.  At first, just go up and come right back down.  Do this a few times.  Then you can work toward spending more time in the pose. When you come out, don’t stand up too fast!

Make sure that your low-back doesn’t bow. As you get used to this, you can bring your base closer to the wall. Child’s pose is nice to do after this sequence.