just yoga, part 2

Part 1 is here….

Sigh.  Maybe it’s because this time of year is colder and darker;  maybe it’s because it’s that time of year when my  head is in India but my body is still here; maybe it’s because of the modern yoga scene in general.   But it’s the time of year where I turn even more inward and become philosophical.  Or ranty.  Take your pick.

Am I the only one who is not impressed by photos of people doing what’s called “acro yoga”?  You know….the photos of someone being hoisted skyward by someone with their legs in the air?  Sure it looks cool and fun and it catches my attention for about 3 seconds.  And yeah, I’d like to try it just like I would like to try flying through the air with the greatest of ease on a trapeze.  Once.  But for a studio to put it on their regular schedule?  Really?  Do studios actually make more dough with acro yoga on their schedule?  Or is it just another yoga fitness version of the Slide?  Something to catch our attention for 15 minutes because we’re never satisfied with doing JUST YOGA?

I taught a yin yoga class over the weekend at a place where I only teach once a month so I don’t build any type of student-teacher relationship with drop-in students.   A new woman came in and like I always do I introduced myself, asked if she had ever done yin yoga before (never), and asked about her injuries.  She told me she practices vinyasa and proceeded to give me a litany of her issues and then stopped and said, “I’m sure you don’t want to hear everything.”  I said, “yes I do.  that’s my job.”  So she gave me a few more and knowing she would fine with what we were going to do, I told her to take it easy, that the class is more about letting go than muscling in, and that I would keep an eye on her.

After the class I asked how she was and she said fine, that she liked it, but she had trouble with stillness because she moved all the time in vinyasa.  I shrugged and said, yes, people have a hard time with being still.  That’s just par for the course in yin classes with vinyasa practitioners who don’t know any other way to be their yoga.  Notice I did not say “do their yoga.”  Someone then complimented her on her vinyasa practice in spite of all her injuries and she began telling me again about all her injuries.  I just nodded and said, “well…sounds like you need some yin yoga to complete your practice.”  However, I really wanted to ask her, “why isn’t your yoga healing your body? ”   But more importantly I wanted to ask her, “why aren’t you even questioning whether the yoga you’re doing is right for you?”

I hoped she would return.  I intuited that she could really use a yin practice and not just on the physical level.  But rarely do students I meet in public classes seek out classes in my home shala to get the personal attention they deserve.

I read this blog today and thought it was entirely applicable to the student who was in my class:

Yoga is a healing modality that creates balance and transformation. Sometimes people may become obsessive about how to heal from a certain ailment or malady. They focus so hard upon what ails them and their energy becomes consumed in a downward spiral. By Yoga practice you expand your awareness to explore your boundaries. What is the mobility of my body? What is the capacity of my breath this breath in this position? In? Out? How long before the tendencies of my mind interrupt my silence? This expansion of awareness is akin to taking stock on all your resources or being the manager of all your systems and behaviors. Healing which really lasts comes from the intelligence provided by observing yourself and choosing those things which you intuitively feel bring you towards well-being.

An excellent, thoughtful article and one that makes me despair about the modern state of yoga with its myriad of styles.  So many people have asked me lately what “style” of yoga I teach that I want to run away screaming.  It seems like all that people know about modern “yoga” are labels and not the essence, a healing modality as the blogger above writes about.  More times than not, people (and I am talking about people who have gone to yoga classes) have no idea that yoga is a healing modality when I tell them I also do private yoga therapy sessions.

When people ask me if yin yoga is a style, I honestly say no, it’s not, at least not the way I teach it.  I tell people in workshops that it’s just another way to be your yoga, the asanas are the same, that there is merely a different emphasis on stillness.  Even when I teach vinyasa (and I am loathe to call it flow), my emphasis is stillness.

My website says that:

...“Metta” is a Pali word (maitri in Sanskrit) meaning loving-kindness, friendliness, benevolence. Yoga practiced in this manner is about befriending your body and becoming your own best friend.

Metta Yoga is the yoga of Awareness, a powerful combination of yoga, meditation, breath awareness, and intuitive healing.

It is yin (stillness) and yang (movement) yoga, blending softness and strength. You will be encouraged to compassionately explore your edge as you grow your practice, strengthen your body, expand your heart, and free your mind. You will be challenged and supported, but most importantly, reminded to bring your full attention to your body and to your breath, ending class with pranayama and mindfulness meditation.

I posted that on my Facebook business page today and a woman responded “this sounds like just what I need…are there classes near me?”

For some reason, her question made me very sad.

That’s all I teach.  Just yoga.

Come take a class with me and you’ll see.  Quickly.  Before I run away screaming and, as a friend has said, I take up residence in India.

Therapeutic Yoga Training

I am very happy to announce a new five day Therapeutic Yoga training, a collaborative effort with Mary Elizabeth Sheehan of Yoga Potential, Ft. Worth, Texas.

If you are a yoga studio, a retreat center, or a holistic center anywhere in the world, we will come to you — no destination is too far!  Contact either of us for more information.   This is an extraordinary training that combines three somatic modalites of yin yoga, trauma sensitive yoga, and Vedic Thai Yoga.

We are scheduling now for 2012 and 2013  –

“Each day will include lecture and discussion on the philosophy behind three somatic modalities, and body awareness practice via yoga, bodywork, and guided meditations. Both Linda and Mary Elizabeth will be in the classroom every day. Each day will last 8-10 hours including morning and afternoon breaks and a lunch break.”

Yoga connects!  Mary Elizabeth is a long-time reader of this blog and we finally met this summer.  Our energies and philosophies about yoga and healing clicked and after receiving Vedic Thai Yoga from her — and for those of you in the DFW area, Mary Elizabeth is an awesome practitioner — we decided to combine our modalities.   We firmly believe that these complementary modalities are very much needed in the world today.  Both of us would love to bring this healing to populations that can not get this unique training in their area.

This five day training will also be part of my Yoga and Spirituality Tour in the Himalayas to take place in March 2013.  The training will be an option to the 10 day package.  Stay tuned for details in 2012 — yoga studios who host my workshops in 2012 will receive “early bird” information regarding this tour.

“Linda was one of the first participants in the teacher training program my wife and I developed.   She has since participated in several others and we have corresponded on many issues about yoga, anatomy, and teaching.  I recommend her without reservation.” – Paul Grilley

Have yoga, will travel — contact us!

how yoga heals: yin yoga and ulcerative colitis

I believe that all yoga is healing if applied in the right manner. No one called Krishnamacharya a “yoga therapist” and you were surely not able to become certified as one back in his day. When I took my first two courses of study at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, we listened every day to the stories of private students about how the particular style of yoga that is taught at KYM is a healing path. I have experienced my own healing at KYM with the private yoga therapy that was prescribed for me, certain asanas that I still do.

My work with private students is a mixed bag, but I always use what I learned, and continue to learn, at KYM. I have heard that style of yoga called “old ladies yoga” because it is a slow, deliberate practice, breath-based and heart centered. Some believe that “the kind of yoga he [Desikachar] espouses is becoming, like the polar bear, something of an endangered species.” I can tell you that I met more than few astangis at KYM, some of whom studied directly with Jois in Mysore, who came to KYM to heal their bodies. They told me that the yoga practiced at KYM was like a light bulb going off over their head. As for myself, after my first month-long intensive in 2005, my practice and my teaching changed forever.

So I am never surprised when my students tell me their stories of healing. Below is a story written by one of my students who is only 22 and no longer has a large intestine. I felt that a yin yoga practice would be extremely beneficial for her condition and my intuition was right-on — as I said, I believe all yoga is healing if applied correctly, it does not matter what the style is. I asked her to write her story so that others can read about the true power of yoga. However, please remember that yoga is not one size fits all — your body is different from this student’s, so your mileage may vary…;)

This is why I teach, and I am blessed to have students like this. I couldn’t get a better Christmas present than that.

*************************************

“For the past seven years I have been dealing with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disorder of the large intestine. During these years I have been hospitalized and medicated to keep my symptoms under control. Since the doctors could not find a medication or therapy that would be sustainable for my treatment over the long term a full colectomy, the removal of the large intestine, was performed on me in May of 2008. After some complications, I had my second surgery in July of 2008 and was considered “cured.” I was doing well until May of 2009 when I developed autoimmune pancreatitis. Twice in two months I was hospitalized for this condition, the doctors supplied me with pancreatic enzymes to take whenever I ate. Because I developed another autoimmune disorder, I decided that it was time for a change in my lifestyle and mindset, time to learn how to deal with the stress that life brings. For me, that step was to start taking a yoga class.

It was the last semester of my associates degree and I needed one more P.E. credit and since yoga was an option, my counselor and I decided that it would be a great class for me to take. This was not a decision based on physical fitness, it was a decision based on a need for a new mindset. So, I bought my textbook, leafed through it, and went to my first day of yoga. I walked in exhausted, nauseous, and in pain from my latest autoimmune disorder of my pancreas. That class we went over the syllabus and did some breath work. Before class ended, Linda announced that if you had any physical conditions, to stay and talk with her after class, little did I know that the conversation we would have would end up being my cure.

So I stayed afterward, waiting for the people with bad backs and knees to let Linda know about their issues that could affect the different poses that we might be doing in class. I explained to Linda what I had been through and that my surgery scars bothered me when doing core work because of scar tissue issues I had. We delved into my ailments, and she had a thought. Linda explained a little to me about what yin yoga is and that she had a class that I could join. She thought that yin might be more beneficial to my issues than only doing the regular yoga. I was on a mission for change in my life and yin sounded like the idea that might help me.

The next Wednesday night I went to Linda’s house for my first yin yoga class. When I arrived I was terribly nauseous, so badly that I almost did not go that night. Linda decided to do a stress practice that focused on the stomach meridians. By the time I left that yin class, my nausea had dropped by about 80%. It was absolutely incredible to leave feeling as I was, I hadn’t had that lack of nausea for about 4 months. I was excited, but nervous that this might be a temporary fix and not long term. I left open minded and with anticipation for the next class. Reading my yoga text and taking that class simultaneously with my yin class was another benefit of the last 5 months. It was interesting to see how I felt if I missed a yin class one week, but still had my regular yoga class.

After a month of doing yoga, especially the yin, my symptoms had improved so much that I was able to stop taking my pancreatic enzymes. Also, I started to do my own yin practice on a daily basis. Everyday, whenever I could fit it in morning or evening, I do a full hero [supta virasana] for 10 to 20 minutes, then child’s pose for 5 to 10 minutes, and the downward facing dog for 10 to 12 breaths. This daily practice has given me days, and now months, free of nausea and pain. Accepting the realization that reality is reality and it is always changing and out of my control along with watching my breath, which has brought my mindfulness to a better level, has truly been a life-changing process and I can’t wait to continue on this journey. [emphasis supplied.]

From my first yin classes where I could feel my insides unwinding, to now where I can still feel my meridians winding out, I am 100% positive that yin has benefited my health in ways that I would have never imagined. I love doing my yoga practices, but my daily yin practices, focus on breath work, and the realization of what reality is, has been the most beneficial milestone is my life thus far. I am always looking forward to my yoga time and what I learn from it, and encourage anyone with autoimmune disorders to give it a chance, because such a simple thing can be so life-changing.”

yin yoga Q & A

After reading this post, Anonymous asked:

“How can it be a good thing to stretch ligaments? Fascia, I understand; I learned a lot about it in anatomy courses & totally get why it needs to be flexible. But I’m not clear on ligaments: don’t they hold bones in place, as in joints? Don’t people have problems with hyperextending in, for example, knees & ankles, when the ligaments are too stretched out & the bones “wiggle” all over the place? If stretching can cause this, can’t yoga also? Thanks for any clarification you can bring to this issue.”

Good questions, Anonymous, I will try to answer.

Your first misconception is that somehow ligaments are different from fascia. No; for the purpose of yin yoga “connective tissue” refers to ligaments and fascia, i.e, the broad bands of connective tissue that even extends into the innermost parts of each cell. I direct your attention to the website of the First International Fascia Research Conference that took place in 2007. My teacher, Paul Grilley, was invited to speak at this conference but did not attend. He believes that once this fascia research gets into the “mainstream” medical community, it will revolutionize medicine. From the fascia research website:

“Fascia, or dense fibrous connective tissues, nevertheless potentially plays a major and still poorly understood role in joint stability, in general movement coordination, as well as in back pain and many other pathologies. One reason why fascia has not received adequate scientific attention in the past decades is that this tissue is so pervasive and interconnected that it easily frustrates the common ambition of researchers to divide it into a discrete number of subunits which can be classified and separately described. In anatomic displays the fascia is generally removed, so the viewer can see the organs nerves and vessels but fails to appreciate the fascia which connects, and separates, these structures.”

In other words, Anonymous, don’t believe everything in your anatomy courses. Medical books sometimes are not updated for 20 years. Why? Too expensive.

“Don’t people have problems with hyperextending?”

If Mark Spitz could not hyperextend his knees by about 30 degrees, he would not have won 7 Olympic gold medals for swimming. If Michael Phelps could not hyperextend his joints, he would not have beaten Spitz’s record. If contortionists could not hyperextend their joints, there would be no Cirque de Soleil. You are believing an anatomical cultural myth that somehow hyperextension of joints is always inherently dangerous, and that’s just not true.

“when the ligaments are too stretched out…”

Your second misconception is that somehow a ligament is “inert”, that once “stretched” it will not return to it’s usual length. Many anatomists, doctors, and medical researchers still believe that connective tissue is not “alive” in the same sense that a muscle is “alive.” This is simply not true. It IS true that injured ligaments take a longer time to heal but that is not because they are “too stretched out”; it’s because they have less blood supply than, for example, a muscle.

So I would ask you, if ligaments get “too stretched out”, then why do people get so stiff in their old age? Stiff hips, stiff backs, stiff knees? Would that not suggest that the connective tissue is NOT inert, that it actually does continually lengthen and shorten, and in old age it can literally shrink wrap the joints if not therapeutically stressed as one therapeutically stresses their heart doing aerobics or the way you therapeutically stress your muscles when you lift weights? But don’t believe me — go ask an 85 year old in a nursing home how flexible they feel.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter “Isn’t Stretching the Joints Bad?” from Paul Grilley’s book, Yin Yoga: A Quiet Practice:

“Moderately stretching the joints is not injuring them any more than lifting a barbell is injuring the muscles. Both forms of exercise can be done recklessly but neither one is innately wrong or dangerous. Of course, if someone bounces into their joints they will hurt themselves sooner or later, but that is Yang activity and Yin connective tissue shouldn’t be trained that way.

Yin forms of exercise seem new to our way of thinking. People accept the fact that muscle tissue shrinks or grows in rsponse to exercise, but imagine that the connective tissue of the body is insert and unchanging. This is not true. All the tissues of our body are changing and adapting to the stresses put upon them, even our bones.

If we didn’t exercise them, our muscles would atrophy and weaken and as a consequence so would our bones. Not as obvious to us but just as undesirable is the slow shortening and stiffening of connective tissue throughout our body due to injuries, neglect and aging. If we never bend our knees or stretch our spines, then the connective tissue is going to slowly shorten to the minimum length needed to accommodate our activities. If we want to maintain our joint flexibilities, we must exercise them, but we cannot exercise them like muscles, we must exercise them Yin fashion.”

“If stretching can cause this, can’t yoga also?”

Anonymous, you must first understand the difference between yin yoga and other forms of yoga which are considered yang.

The fundamental difference between yin yoga and astanga or vinyasa, for example, which are “yang” forms of yoga, is that the poses in yin yoga are done on the floor and held for 3 to 5 minutes minimum (poses like pigeon, child’s pose, cobbler’s pose, forward fold, among others.) Connective tissue does not respond to rhythmical stretches the way muscles do, in fact, you would injure your CT if you worked CT like muscles. Connective tissue is tough and fibrous and stretches best when pulled like taffy, slowly and gently.

A football player tears his ACL because his knee snaps — that’s a yang movement, that is a hard and fast movement that certainly injures connective tissue.

Holding yin yoga postures for a few minutes with moderate stress is not going to pull the connective tissue to the breaking point. The CT is only going to stretch minutely and if you are consistent with a yin yoga practice, the body responds by growing CT a little longer and thicker, which is what you want for the health of your joints.

Thanks for reading this blog and for asking your question.

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interview: yin yoga — part 2

What do people need to know about their connective tissue? What is the relationship between connective tissue and yin yoga?

Usually the only time people think about their connective tissue — which includes our tendons, ligaments, and fascia that surrounds and intermingles with our muscles — is when we injure it, like a sprained ankle. However, what people do not realize is that the connective tissue of our bodies is all about our flexibility; our muscles are all about strength. The health of our joints is related to the health of our connective tissue. What will give us a sense of ease and comfort in our old age is not how much weight we can lift, but our flexibility and the health of our joints, like our hips, pelvis, and spine. People do not realize that if our connective tissue is not therapeutically stressed on a daily basis, that is, stretched in slow, long-held floor poses such as what is done in yin yoga, our connective tissue will literally shrink wrap our joints. This should be of great concern to women because the spine is surrounded by about seven layers of connective tissue and when, not if, the connective tissue begins to stiffen due to lack of movement, it can literally crush already thinning vertebra and thereby contribute to that “old lady’s hump”. It is not so much osteoporosis that causes the rounding of the back, it is the connective tissue of the spine shrink wrapping the vertebra. That is why forward folds with a rounded back and back bends are so important for the health of the spine. Doing paschimottanasana with a more rounded back helps to stretch the spine more, rather than doing it with a flat back.

In yin yoga the connective tissue of the hips, pelvis, and spine is worked slowly in a “yin” way. Other forms of yoga are more muscular and therefore more “yang”, that is, moving and rhythmic. The only way connective tissue is stretched is by relaxing the muscles and holding the floor yin poses for three to five minutes minimum. Again, flexibility has nothing to do with our muscles, it has everything to do with our connective tissue.

I believe that the ability to stay still for five minutes at a time has a lot more to do with our minds than our bodies. This is why yin yoga is also mind training, we train ourselves to be still in a world that is rushing out of control, and not that we can control it anyway. If someone values the quality of how they are living each moment, giving themselves time to turn off the movie that constantly plays in their mind and do some yin yoga, then they will begin to find more space in their life.

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interview: yin yoga

I’ve been interviewed for an article for the health and fitness magazine supplement to my local newspaper that will come out in January. I thought I would post some of the questions and my answers.

How does yin yoga balance the mind, body, and spirit?

Yoga was never meant to be a purely physical practice — the ancient yogis (the sramanas) knew this when they went into the forests thousands of years ago to use their own bodies and minds and nervous systems as laboratories for experiments in personal transformation. We are not just our physical bodies so whatever type of yoga is practiced will balance the mind-body-spirit.

All yoga styles work the energy body, however, I feel that yin yoga is in a sense a deeper practice because the emphasis is solely on the connective tissues, not the muscles. Both the ancient Indian yogis and the Chinese yogis (the Taoists) believed that the connective tissue houses energy pathways, called nadis by the Indians and meridians by the Chinese. These energy pathways contain our life force, prana as the Indian yogis called it, chi as the Chinese yogis called it. Our energy body (the total of all these energy pathways) tends to become dense or stagnate when we do not move our bodies outside of our habitual ranges of motion. This is why we do yoga. But by coming into a pose in a slow yin way and staying for many minutes at a time helps us get deeper within our natural ranges of motion in the joints of the hips, pelvis, and lower back.

Chi stagnation is what acupuncturists deal with so that is why yin yoga is also called “needleless acupuncture” because you can move and balance your chi via yin yoga postures by stretching and pressuring the connective tissues that house the meridians. Modern life is very yang, lots of movement, rushing around, no stillness — this causes stress and burn out. Yin yoga is a way of slowing down and going inward. Life is always about balance, the yin and the yang. Too much yang and you burn out; too much yin and you become a couch potato. Think of all the physical ailments that people have from too much stress and burn-out.

Because of my own personal yoga and meditation practice, I truly believe that combining a yin practice with a yang practice (such as a strong vinyasa or astanga practice) offers a complete yoga practice not only on the physical level but more importantly on the psychic level. I believe that working on these deeper levels is what what leads or our own personal transformation and that the changes we make to our soft tissue have a profound influence on the emotional, mental, and energetic levels. My own yoga practice deepened in a very potent way when I began to move away from an alignment-based, precision-obsessed practice.

There is also a whole psychosomatic level to balancing the energy body. Strong and flowing prana (or chi) is important because it affects the way we feel and the way we think. Blending the physical with the emotional levels expands our possibilities within a complete yoga practice.

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