yoga seeds #23 – Flexibility and strength

My motto since I started teaching yoga has been

Your body, your mind and you – a balance between flexibility and strength, will and surrender, concentration and expansion.

I was listening to the latest Yogaland podcast in which Andrea Ferretti talks to Jason Crandell (These are my favourites. Highly recommended! Check out the link and the series.) and was reminded of the process that took me away from an I-just-can’t-get-enough-flexibility approach into also developing strength. After an accident I was left with a painful sacroiliac joint. A teacher at the time was trying to get me to stretch more and more with the idea that that would get rid of the pain, but this was not working. I later discovered that my SI joint was unstable and what I actually needed was strength to hold the joint in place.

A functional muscle is a muscle with tone. That means that it can both contract and relax, with a wide range between extremes. A healthy practice includes a balanced recipe of isometric contraction (the muscle contracts without generating movement), concentric contraction (the muscle contracts bringing its ends closer to each other), excentric contraction (the muscle contracts while its ends come away from each other – imagine you sit down while also resisting the pull of gravity, as if in slow motion), stretching and letting go. The way I see it, the ultimate aim of yoga is integration. Starting with the physical not only gives us healthy functionality but helps us progress towards integration and equanimity at the more subtle level of the psyche.

Thanks to all my students at Yoga Hub Berlin, who inspire me with their practice.

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yoga seeds #19 – Shaping the mind

Michal Lassmann, who participates in my classes, told me the other day that she had noticed how yoga was changing the way her mind worked and had found an interesting article that could explain this phenomenon. There are many ways in which our mind can be shaped by hatha yoga, which really means any physical approach to yoga:

  • We are putting aside a space and a time in which we come in relationship with ourselves, gradually building an inner home that offers stability and nourishment. As a result we can be less dependent and more healthily interdependent in our relationship with our environment.
  • We train being here and now, which are the only coordinates in which we can feel the joy of being alive.
  • We learn to recognize well-being, which can be a better compass than advantages/disadvantages lists for certain types of choice-making.
  • We subject ourselves to challenge while keeping a steady and calm breath, so we train equanimity in intense situations (more about this in the abovementioned article).
  • We are placing ourselves in the dynamic space between potential and limitation and learning to integrate the inspiration to go further with the acceptance of what is.
  • We practise focussing our attention and, as a result we are more able to place our mind where we need it to be, just like our limbs.
  • By spreading attention throughout the body and also focussing on specific points we develop plasticity between our panoramic and pin-point attention and the ability to zoom in and out of different aspects of experience. As a result of this plasticity we learn to become aware, not only of what is most intense, but of the whole picture, which is very useful in difficult life circumstances that we can do nothing about.
  • By paying attention to our breath/body sensations, emotions/energy and mind, we learn how they are connected and influence each other, and gain freedom to step out of spiralling states.

Now I’m giving you the floor! In what ways does your hatha yoga practice shape your mind?

Thanks Ruta for contributing the following!: “Maybe it’s the right side because our heart is on the left side and we don’t want to squeeze it either. We want to have an open, loving heart, and not a heart that’s suppressed.”

Thanks to all my students at Yoga Hub Berlin, who inspire me with their practice.

Visit the Yoga Seeds index to go straight to what you’re looking for.

yoga seeds #9 – The ups and downs of headstand

*Contains more than the usual daily serving of anatomic and physiological references. 100% useable. Does not contain traces of (being) nuts.

Inversions in general and headstand (shirshasana) in particular are controversial in the yoga community. On one extreme there are those who say they are the most important poses in yoga. On the other, there are others who see only dangers and no benefits and exclude them from the practice altogether. In order to find our place along this continuum I think it’s important to put aside unsubstantiated claims like “it purifies the blood” or “it cures diseases” and look at some facts:

Shoulder girdle

  • When we are standing up, the connection taking our weight to the ground is through our two hips, which are very stable joints. However, in headstand this connection is made through the shoulder girdle. This has in fact four joints on each side, providing greater mobility and less stability. In order to do headstand, we need to develop a strength and awareness for balance in our shoulder joint that we do not practice at all in our everyday life.

Neck

  • The spine is designed to take more weight at the bottom than at the top. Inversions challenge this logic and therefore call for precaution. Even if the vertebrae themselves can take the weight, bringing the spine out its natural curves with a heavy load on top can expose the intervertebral discs to injury. Thus, it is necessary to have developed precise propioception and strength to preserve the spine’s natural curves as we go upside down. In particular, any cervical discs that are already damaged will suffer.
  • On the other hand, moderate mechanical loading strenghtens all spinal tissues, including the discs.

Return circulation

  • Both lymph and venous blood return are supported in inverted positions. This allows for a better exchange of nutrients and waste products between cells and capillaries.

Blood pressure

  • In inversions the heart needs to pump harder, against gravity, to get the blood all the way around the body. This is counterindicated for people with high blood pressure, irrespective of whether they are on medication.
  • Increased pressure stimulates the very sensitive baroreceptors in the arteries supplying the head with blood. The result of this is a reflex decrease in blood pressure (however, this is not a cure for high blood pressure).

Diaphragm

  • The weight of the abdominal content encourages fuller exhalation and, therefore, renewal of the air reserve in the lungs (that is, better oxygenation) and stretching of the diaphragm.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing is encouraged, because chest breathing is restricted by the muscles required to hold the asana. Also, the weight of the abdominal contents on the diaphragm provide resistance, that is, extra exercise, that strengthens the diaphragm.

Eyes

  • The pressure in the head and, therefore, inside the eyeballs, increases. Increased intraocular pressure is one of the factors that can lead to glaucoma. There is also a relationship, although much weaker, to retinal detachment.

Mind

  • It is difficult to be distracted from the here and now when we are in a challenging position like this. However, it is easy to be distracted from the experience of how our body is doing and be carried away with the idea of making the asana ours.

Headstand is one of the iconic poses of yoga. It can be very seductive as a sign of progress, a measure of comparison and a trophy of accomplishment. We mustn’t forget, though, that hatha yoga is not merely a catalogue of body shapes (see post #7 – Progress). This practice is physical and can definitely open up more awareness, flexibility, strength and balance in our bodies. However, not only that. It can also open up more awareness (about what we need and can, as opposed to what we want), flexibility (to let go of ideas of what we should be doing), strength (to stay true to our course) and balance (to find middle paths that honour every single aspect of our beings). Full headstand is not for everyone. However, all the component parts that make it up can be made available to “every body” by means of alternatives or adaptations. The most important thing is not whether we do headstand or not, but to go for what serves us best and do away with the rest.

Thanks to all my students at Yoga Hub Berlin, who inspire me with their practice.

yoga seeds #5 – To meditate or not to meditate

The key to meditating is to do it :) Of course, given that we feel the inclination to meditate or we feel curious about it! It can often feel like we’re just sitting there in our usual thinking state and not meditating at all, but the difference is that we’re noticing what it’s like, we’re getting to know it. In our physical practice we can see the parts of our body and we have sensations to guide us. In meditation we are lacking such straightforward ways of knowing the “position” we’re in, so we need to develop a feeling for our mind and its processes. This can only be done by practising. Every second that we spend sitting with an orientation to meditate is part of this development. The path is curvy, hilly, spirally…

Thanks to all my students at Yoga Hub Berlin, who inspire me with their practice.