Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Give It A Rest

One of my yoga students just returned from a long vacation to Central and South America and realized that after not “doing” anything—the gym, weights, yoga, etc.—her shoulders, which are in an almost constant ache, were pain free and supple.  A near miracle for her, to which she remarked, “Look at that, you don’t do anything and they get better.” 

There is great power in taking a break.  Even the breath has a natural “pause” at the top the inhale and bottom of the exhale.  In fact, this is perhaps the most important part of the breath.  This space, the moment of stillness, is the breath’s musical rest.

In religious traditions the Sabbath is the pause.  And as it turns out, there is a reason for a Sabbath, or Shabbat, as the Hebrew day of rest is called. The word "Shabbat" comes from the root Shin-Beit-Tav, meaning to cease, to end, or to rest. It is to be a day of celebration and joy, a time to set aside weekday concerns and focus on higher pursuits.

It is not easy to set aside time when everything around us insists that we respond on demand to a constant drum beat of activity.  In fact, many people seem afraid to stop “doing,” as if the sheer motion of activity gives meaning, focus, or identity.  In Hamlet’s Blackberry the author William Powers describes how his family takes an “internet Sabbath.”  The positive effect of these technology breaks he describes as having an impact long after the weekend is over.  Taking a break from activity, from technology, from our daily automatic behaviors can often prove to be the real path to finding the true self.   To realizing that we are already more than enough.

One place to practice learning to rest is on the yoga mat.  There is space there to listen.  It’s a place you can ask, “Do I need to push harder, or do I need to rest?”  If the answer is rest, consider a long savasana.  It’s also called “corpse pose,” but as a yoga teacher once told our class, “we won’t be staying there that long.”   Its benefits are many, including calming the brain to reduce stress and mild depression, reducing headaches, fatigue and insomnia, and helping to lower blood pressure.  Yoga Journal has five steps for savasana but mostly it involves doing nothing in a reclined position.  This can be frightening to many people, but give it a try.  Here’s how to establish a supported savasana:

Another practice is Yoga Nidra, also called yogic sleep.  It’s a systematic, progressive guided meditation while in savasana that provides total rejuvenation and healing.  It is said that practicing yoga nidra for 10 minutes is equivalent to three to four hours of sleep.  Use Rod Stryker’s “Relax into Greatness” CD to guide you through it.  According to Stryker as told to Yoga Journal, “We live in a chronically exhausted, over-stimulated world. Yoga Nidra is a systematic method of complete relaxation, holistically addressing our physiological, neurological, and subconscious needs."

Finally, if you want to learn more, read Chrystle Fiedler’s article from the Kripalu web site, “The Power of Rest: The Upside of Downtime”.  Now go and do nothing.

Monday, June 13, 2011

With Props, All Things Are Possible

The use of props in yoga is all about feeling supported. They can ease both physical strains and emotional fears—real or imagined. 

Props include blocks (sometimes called bricks) to help reach the floor, for example, in triangle or side angle poses.  Also straps, bolster, blankets, a chair, the wall, a fellow yogi, family member or friend, and anything else that provides stability and support. I’m also partial to the kitchen counter. 

In many styles of yoga, especially Iyengar, props help achieve various yoga postures, especially as the body is learning to find its way into the shape of an asana or when there are physical limitations.  For more advanced yoga practitioners, they may assist going deeper in a pose or facilitate a longer hold.  

And props are often the key to proper alignment, ensuring all the benefits of a pose are enjoyed.  Once there, the breath is unlabored and the aim of a pose, according to the Yoga Sutras (Verse II-46), can be realized: a steadiness (sthira) and ease (sukha) in one’s seat or situation, as well as in the mind (asanam).   

Here’s how props can make a yoga pose that might be inaccessible easily doable.  Sukasana, a simple crossed-leg seated position, can be challenging if your hips are tight (and that would be most of us).  If they are, when you sit on the floor in this pose the lower back tends to round and the knees pop up toward the ears.  Essentially, the pelvis is tilted back (which rounds the lower spine) rather than forward to achieve a more neutral spine.  It doesn’t look comfortable, and it’s not:

A simple remedy is blankets, a block, or even sitting on the edge of a chair.  To use blankets, stack them high enough until the pelvis begins to tilt forward and the inner thighs release allowing the knees to drop below the waist.  The spine is now in a neutral position where it is evenly balanced, and the top of the pelvis is neither tipped too far forward (arching the low back) or tilted back creating a rounded lower spine.  Here’s what it looks like:

Props can also provide emotional support in this same pose.  In a recent yoga class, the instructor suggested that we take sukasana at the wall and put a block between the wall and wherever on our back it would assist in holding the pose for several minutes.  I “assumed the position” and was sort of figuring out where to put the block when I found the Goldilocks spot. Then I closed my eyes.  After several breaths, I suddenly felt a wonderful lightness.  It was both grounding and liberating, as if someone “had my back.”  It was such an immense relief and release, I began to cry. 

A simple prop allowed me to access a deep emotional surrender.  The minute the body knows and feels it has a strong base, the barriers and fears in the mind let go, and the body can ease.  This same principle applies in life.  When we feel supported and nurtured, we can let go, we can do great things, we can be.  

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