I’ve been chanting the Gayatri Mantra for quite a while. It was probably the first complete mantra that I learned. It is one of the oldest, and generally thought of as being the greatest and most powerful mantra of all. The ancient yogis believed the Gayatri is so powerful that it can protect you from harm no matter where you are or what the circumstances. The Gayatri is said to remove all obstacles on the path to increased wisdom and spiritual growth.
I love to chant it. I love the rhythm, the Sanskrit words, and the energy it produces, but somehow I don’t think I ever understood the full meaning. I never quite got it.
OM. Earth. Mid-heaven. Heaven.
Let us contemplate the most excellent splendor of Savitri
so that He/She/It may inspire our contemplation.
So we’re supposed to contemplate to inspire more contemplation; meditate on Savitri, (the life-giver and also the principle that illuminates the mind) and that is going to inspire more wisdom. Somehow, I wasn’t getting the download. (more…) read more
In Yoga Asana, balance poses are an ingenious way of challenging oneself both on a physical and mental level. However, there are many systems involved in balancing if we take a closer look.
The ability to balance depends upon sensory, muscular and motor systems as well as the vestibular system of the inner ear. Proprioceptive information which informs the body’s position in space enters visually, through the tiny little levels of the vestibular system, and through skin, joint and muscle receptors. Input from tactile, pressure and vibrational changes are necessary to stand, walk and detect the body’s relationship to gravity. The extrinsic and intrinsic muscles of the foot, meaning the muscles that begin in the shin and foot respectively create a ping-pong ball effect of support all over the body through these receptors to maintain a direct point of balance with gravity. In other words, balance is a series of falls and catches over and over again. (more…)
UTTARAYANAS / SVADYAYA
Winter Solstice / Self Study
Om asatoma sat gamaya
Lead us from the darkness to the light
The Yogins believe that each of us embodies an entire universe inside of us, -the sky, the planets, mountains rivers, seasons, - moving with the rhythm and flow of the cosmos. During the Fall Equinox, the days get shorter giving us longer periods of darkness and night. December 21st, the Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, but with it comes the celebration of the sun’s return. The nights will gradually grow shorter and the light of the day will return. This ebb and flow of the darkness and light brings us back to the balance and impermanence of nature. Yin and yang infinitely at play as we move from one extreme to the other; we are always brought back to the center. We come and we go, we inhale and we exhale, we give and receive. And so it goes, the ever-changing balance of life. (more…)
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” Alan W. Watts
Change can be scary. In fact the threat of looming changes can keep us awake at night full of anxiety, questions and resentment. These emotions can wreak havoc on the mind and body. These emotions can leave anyone feeling helpless and vulnerable. Why is all this negativity attached to change? Mainly, because there is an incredible degree of uncertainty that comes during a time of change, and we, with our five-year-plans, smartphone calendars and diehard attachment to social standards—we do not like to be left in the dark.
In a more positive light, change probably teaches us the most about the yogic principle of non-attachment. Consider one of the most challenging yoga poses: Shavasana (Corpse Pose). (more…)
The Transvers Abdominis (TVA) is the deepest and in my opinion the most important abdominal muscle. It literally forms a “corset” of support around the spine and internal organs. The TVA attaches to the inside of the lower 6 ribs to the top of the pelvis at the iliac crest and ASIS (or hip points). It wraps around the waist from the thoracolumbar fascia in the back of the body to the linea alba (or midline) in the front of the body forming a “support belt” around the soft belly. The TVA has fibers that interdigitate with the diaphragm (our main breathing muscle) and some of the fibers also blend with the fascia of the psoas. It is an extremely important muscle to strengthen for low back pain, diastasis (or separation of the linea alba, which can happen during pregnancy), and abdominal hernias. A healthy TVA is supposed to contract whenever we move, raise our arms, walk, lift our leg, twist our spine, etc. but several factors inhibit its function including a sedentary lifestyle and certain poor dietary habits. It is a respiratory aid that fires when we cough, sneeze, laugh, or forcefully exhale. One of the main reasons it is so important to low back health is that when contracted it decompresses the lumbar spine and acts as a spinal support by “stiffening” the intervertebral discs to sustain loading. The Transverse abdominis plays a key role in Uddiyana Bandha, or the “flying up lock”. The usual cue for Uddiyana Bandha is to draw the navel in and up but I would further that by saying draw the entire waist in and up. Try it: Engage your TVA by pulling the sides of the waist in towards your spine and away from your shirt. Put this idea in all your asanas, and your back will be protected.
Saying that my Guru, Baba Hari Dass, is “a man of few words” is a monumental understatement. The few words he “says” are written on a small chalkboard. Babaji has taken the “vox mauna”-a vow of silence and hasn’t spoken for well over 50 years. Whenever I mention this to my students, the reaction is always the same; faces filled with complete disbelief; foreheads scrunched into ? marks; and then the inevitable question- “BUT WHY?!” (I would imagine he is asked that question as many times as a vegan is asked-“But how do you get your protein?!”)
Ask Babaji himself, and you will be met with his sense of humor- “So I don’t yell at everyone!” I can’t begin to tell you how many crazy scenarios my fellow students came up with in order to coerce Babaji into saying he would speak under “these” circumstances. But he always managed to find another answer to the dilemma. (more…)
Society teaches us to bury the bad. Headache? –take a pill. Hard day?- eat some ice cream, have a drink, smoke a joint. Or in other words, bury it. From a yogic standpoint, using drugs (legal or otherwise) or food to alleviate pain only serves to cover it up, leaving the underlying cause of the pain to gravitate to some other place in the body. Like in our neck, shoulders, hips, or back-or to create some chronic illness.
Teaching yoga at the Veterans Administration has been an awe-inspiring experience that has afforded me the opportunity to meet many Vets suffering from PTSD. Recently I worked with one Vet whose PTSD has manifested in night terrors so extreme that he awakens in the middle of the night screaming, shaking, sobbing, with sheets soaked in perspiration. To heal this, he has been prescribed medication that completely erases all memory of the dream. So now, he awakens in the middle of the night screaming, shaking, sobbing, with sheets soaked in perspiration, with absolutely no recollection of why.
I realize I am no doctor, definitely no psychologist, but doesn’t this just bury the issue? Doesn’t this just push the issue down so deep that the root of the problem will never be confronted and the pain will continue to manifest as night terrors or maybe something even worse?
In yoga, we strive to master the concept of samatva, or equanimity, which basically means maintaining calmness even in the most difficult of situations. A balanced response to all situations rather than an emotional reaction, whether the situation is good or bad. Sometimes, you just don’t know. What’s good may not turn out so good and what’s bad may not turn out so bad. Yoga philosophy defines samatva as the sameness that underlies all phenomena; what remains when all activity ceases; a calmness; a union of the individual self with the inner (true) Self.
A consistent yoga practice will inevitably bring up the ”bad” that we have buried deep within our bodies-and I would imagine in terms of war, there could be some horribly horrendous things to bury. But allowing issues to surface also allows us to examine them, deal with them and then begin the process of healing. Examining the issues is difficult to say the least, for anyone, but all of our experiences, good or bad, are life lessons that are part of what made us who we are, a part of our growth, a part of our ability to transform. If we continue to bury them, they will forever have their hold on us. If we can find the strength to conquer them, we will then be able to let go; to find our true Self; to live in samatva.
Wrist pain is a common problem among yogis as we are often weight bearing on the arms. The pain can stem from a variety of reasons so if it is severe, it is important to understand what could be causing it in order to take proper action. If you’ve been taking a lot of classes lately and/or working on arm balances, handstands, planks and chaturangas for instance, the cause is most likely from overuse.
Here are some steps you can take to prepare your wrists for bearing the weight of the body with more ease:
- The Tennis Ball Squeeze: squeeze a tennis ball as hard as possible without causing pain and hold for 5 seconds. Repeat 10 times
- Wrist Curls with Theraband: take a theraband (preferably the bands that have handles on the ends but a regular theraband will do) and step on one end while standing. Hold the other end as if you are about to do bicep curls but instead stabilize your forearm at a 90 degree angle and hold forearm with opposite hand. Perform wrist curls isolating the movement in the wrist. Perform 3 sets of 8 in each of the following movements: flexion (with palm facing up), extension (with palm facing down), and lateral deviation (with thumb facing up/palm facing the midline)
- Stretching Flexors: Hold arm out in front of you at shoulder height, straight elbow with palm facing up. Take opposite hand and pull fingers and hand back until the wrist is in full extension stretching the flexors of the wrist. Alternative stretch: place hands in a prayer position in front of your chest and slowly lower the prayer down to the level of the waist without losing contact of your palms against one another. Hold stretches for 5 long, slow, deep breaths.
- Stretching Extensors: Hold arm out in front of you just below shoulder height, straight elbow with palm facing down. Take opposite hand and pull hand down so fingertips face the floor, flexing the wrist and stretching the extensors. Alternative stretch: come down onto hands and knees. One at a time flip the palm of one hand to face the ceiling and point fingertips towards your knees as you stretch the wrist extensors against the floor. Hold stretches for 5 long, slow, deep breaths.
- Twist Stretch: Hold both arms out in front of you at shoulder height, elbows straight with palms facing out. Cross right arm over left (now palms face one another) and interlace fingers. Bend elbows as you bring your interlaced hands towards you and flip them over the other way as the elbows extend away from you. Only lengthen elbows as much as your wrists will allow without pain. Hold stretch for 5 long, slow, deep breaths. Repeat other side.
- Extensors: Thoroughly massage the back of the forearm (a kneading action with opposite hand’s fingertips) from the elbow, down the fleshy part of the forearm, and down towards the back of the wrist. If there is a particularly tender spot, stay on it with static compression and hold until the intensity lessens.
- Flexors: Cross fiber the inside of your forearm (with opposite hand’s thumb) from under elbow crease down to wrist. If there is a particularly tender spot, stay on it with static compression and hold until the intensity lessens.
- Carpal Tunnel: Massage (with opposite hand’s thumb) the thumb pad and pinky pad of the palm near the wrist creases. This is where the little bones of your wrist reside which create your carpal tunnel. Many muscles attach to these bones so press in deep and search for tight spots. If there is a particularly tender spot, stay on it with static compression and hold until the intensity lessens.
Proper Biomechanics: Any time you are weight bearing on your arms it is important to distribute the weight all the way to the fingertips so as not to collapse the carpal tunnel. When palms are on the ground, spread fingers wide and press the finger pads into the ground as if gripping the floor. This will “dome” the palm and wrist slightly which is where the median nerve comes through. This action maintains the integrity of the carpal tunnel so the nerve does not become aggravated. Also if the wrist bends beyond 90 degrees, the carpal tunnel has less space for the nerve. Trying to work with a 90 or less bend in the wrist is ideal. Warm-up the wrists with wrist circles and the above strengtheners/stretches to prepare your body for bearing weight on your arms.
As always, listen to your body. The sensations your body gives you are signals. If your gut is telling you to back off, listen to it. If the wrists seem inflamed, in extreme discomfort, and/or omitting heat to the touch, there is an inflammatory process going on in which case REST IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING along with ice and natural anti-inflammatories like turmeric. If there is pain, tingling, and/or numbing down the arm there may be a nerve entrapment starting higher up in the brachial plexus. This kind of nerve entrapment is complicated to work out with self-massage, so call your Neurosomatic Therapist to clear up this issue.
Shila Tirabassi read more
Shoulder placement can be very confusing. We hear so many cues: drop your shoulders, pull them back, squeeze them together. When is it appropriate to perform these actions and why? And what the heck does “deepen your armpits” mean? I hope to answer some of these questions for you.
The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body, which means there are many options of where it can be in space. This could explain why it’s so confusing to place the shoulder in the correct position. Understanding how the shoulders should be placed when weight bearing on the arms is extremely important for the health of the shoulders. There are 5 joints in the shoulder but we’re only going to focus on two:
glenohumeral joint – where the arm bone, or head of the humerus, fits into the glenoid fossa, or “socket”, comprised of the lateral shoulder blade and lateral collar bone
scapulothoracic joint – which is where the shoulder blades are on the ribcage itself.
In neutral, the shoulders actually reside about 15 degrees forward of the midline, called scaption. This allows us to easily perform all our daily activities such as computer work, driving, cooking, etc., where all the action is in front of us. In tadasana however, we want to counter that action and open the heart center by drawing the shoulder blades slightly toward the midline using the rhomboids and middle trapezius. Relating our two joints’ actions; in the glenohumeral joint the arms externally rotate and in the scapulothoracic joint the scapulae retract, or “squeeze” towards the midline. There are a small percentage of these actions in tadasana and other neutral spine poses such as triangle, and a much larger percentage of these actions in big heart openers such as cobra, upward dog and bow pose.
However, when the arms are above the head the rules change. The movement in the scapulothoracic joint becomes that of upward rotation. Upward rotation is an important movement to understand. It is when the shoulder blade spins in the frontal plane (like turning a knob) and the bottom tips of the shoulder blades begin to face out laterally. What’s confusing is that the side tips of the shoulders do lift and rhomboids actually have to relax and lengthen. So pressing the shoulders down, or squeezing them together when the arms are above the head is actually a counter cue that is often misunderstood. If the arms were properly externally rotated in the glenohumeral joint, the heart will automatically be open, and if the scapulae are properly upwardly rotated in the scapulothoracic joint, “dropping the shoulders” when the arms are overhead doesn’t have to happen so long as the medial shoulders stay relaxed.
Scapular rotation happens very rapidly up to the first 90 degrees of lifting the arms “out to the sides and up”. From the point when the glenohumeral joint is at 90 degrees (arms out to a “T”) the arms do most of the movement to lift the rest of the way overhead.
When the arms are overhead, the movement in the glenohumeral joint is that of strict, unwavering external rotation otherwise there could be a pinching of the supraspinatus tendon and/or the subdeltoid bursae. This scenario could lead to muscle imbalance, pain, rotator cuff tear or frozen shoulder. The scapulae and humerus placement is crucial to understand when weight bearing on the arms in a neutral pose such as downward dog and even more so in heart opening poses such as full wheel. When arms are overhead such as urdvha hastasana, downward dog, or wheel, instead of “dropping your shoulders”, externally rotate your arms even more which screws them into the glenohumeral joint. It’s ok to lift the lateral sides of the shoulders, but not the medial side. The rhomboids and its neighbor levator scapulae need to relax in order to upwardly rotate the scapula, so to open the heart, press the entire shoulder blade forward into the back of your ribs which reinforces the stability of the scapulothoracic joint.
Remember that scaption, the neutral position of the shoulders, is about 15 degrees forward of the midline. The more the arms externally rotate, the more they must come forward, in order for the head of the humerus to rest more deeply and safely into the socket (glenohumeral joint).
From an outside perspective this action “deepens the armpits”. A flat armpit means your humerus is not in the glenohumeral joint and it is internally, not externally rotated. This could stem from very tight latissimus dorsi and/or pectoralis major but could also stem from the improper cue of having the “arm bones next to the ears”. My preferred cue is “arm bones next to cheek bones” which is again scaption, and allows for the arm to externally rotate even more, which is what we want, as it reinforces the glenohumeral joint. If you do have shoulder pain and/or tightness in your latissimus dorsi or pectoralis that prevent you from lifting your arms freely and deepening your armpits, you really should not be practicing downward dog at all. Your best bet would be to practice downward puppy and strongly work the external rotation of your arms while deepening your armpits. This along with specific stretches for your pectoralis and latissimus dorsi should get you towards a safer downward dog, or wheel with less pain and hopefully less confusion.
Although we may have to wait a month or two to actually feel the nip in the air, with the recent Autumn Equinox, we say goodbye to summer and it’s officially Fall. It’s the time to restore balance from the ever-changing shift from one extreme to the other.
According to Ayurveda, yoga’s sister “science of life and yogic healing” where the approach to life is based on living according to our seasons and surroundings, human energy is divided into several mind-body types, or doshas, which have both positive and negative effects. Balanced doshas create health and happiness, whereas unbalanced doshas create discomfort and disease. Fall is dominated by the Air element and brings out our “spacey” Vata traits. Our Vata dosha is the easiest to get out of balance, especially in the cooler and drier air of the Fall season. So if you’ve been feeling nervous, anxious, spacey, having trouble focusing, excessively thinking or worrying, or experiencing insomnia, you just might have a vata imbalance. Joint popping during your asana practice is also an indication of a Vata imbalance in Ayurveda. (In which case, with all the popping going on in my back, shoulder, and neck during my own yoga practice, I am extremely Vata deranged!)
One of the main principles of Ayurveda states: “like increases like and opposites create balance.” To balance “Vata”, (the dosha comprised of air and space; with cool and dry qualities) we need to stay hydrated, warm (avoiding cold foods and drinks), calm (maintaining a consistent breathing and meditation practice) and grounded (practicing slowly moving stable postures like warrior, balancing and back bending postures).
In last month’s newsletter, we talked about Yoga Sutra 1.12-1.14, and Abhyasa,-practice- which states we need a sustained, vigilant, persistent practice to attain and maintain a state of stable tranquility. Nothing could be more helpful than this for grounding a Vata imbalance. With anxiety attacks, sleepless nights and our minds running out of control, we need our yoga practice of both asana (postures) and meditation to bring us back into balance. However a Vata imbalance can also cause us to push ourselves too