Tag Archive: therapeutic yoga

On the Way Home from Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen Workshop at Willow Street Yoga

I came home from the workshop with much to explore in my own practice, and it was good to see old friends from the yoga community and make new acquaintances.

One of the things I appreciated were the demonstrations of therapeutic applications.  Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen noted that the first issue is survival, observing that since we were all safely together in a nice yoga studio, that we had survival covered.

The second thing, she suggested, before offering healing, is to make sure that both the person receiving and the person making the offering are comfortable.

I add to the latter that having both people be comfortable increases the likelihood that they will be able to stay present and mindful, which should increase the possibility of efficacy.



How Not to Wreck Your Body

The New York Times just published a lengthy article on “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.”  The response of one of my fellow certified Anusara yoga instructors was “duh!”  This conversation greets me as I am about to offer a free gentle and therapeutic yoga class at Willow Street Yoga to invite new and continuing students to discover the power of the Anusara alignment principles to heal and transform challenges of embodiment.  If I were not highly confident in the power of Anusara yoga to heal when practiced mindfully, I might be worried that the article would keep away potential students.  Instead, I welcome the “news” as a way to broaden the invitation to discovery.

As I have blogged about before, at an intensive, John Friend once compared advanced asana to digitalis–depending on dosage and circumstances of the individual digitalis is at once the deadliest plant in the garden and one of the most powerful medications to heal the heart.  We don’t read much about digitalis in the news, but we are constantly bombarded with contradictory news flashes about the health risks and benefits of lots of things — coffee, red wine, vitamins, running, anything that has been either held out as either a cure all or an evil that is ubiquitously practiced or imbibed.  Why?  I think it is because we in this society are hungry for panaceas, for effortless solutions, for the latest thing, for something to save us from emptiness and ill health, without actually having to work at it.  It is newsworthy that yoga bears risks precisely because we (the general societal we) wanted it to be a perfect solution without actually requiring any change how we live the rest of our lives (including diet, exercise, relationship to others) and to bring to yoga the mindfulness, determination, and steadiness that it requires to bring the peace, harmony, and healing it offers.


Discomfort v. Pain

My friend Reya posted a good blog entry today on pain.  What John Friend says of pain is that it is nature’s way of showing that we are out of alignment.  I am in full agreement with Reya that intentionally causing ourselves pain is not what brings the most gain.

We sometimes have to go into discomfort, though, to get out of pain, when we are practicing therapeutically.  What I tell my students, when they are seeking to use the physical practice of yoga to heal injuries, is that they want to practice mindfully enough to notice and back away from stabbing, pinching, tearing, or cramping sensations (you might think of other words to add to the list, but you get the idea).  On the other hand, intentionally embracing some level of therapeutic discomfort can be necessary to heal and grow.  An obvious non-yoga example is getting an operation to remove a tumor or fix something that is broken.  The operation is going to be a challenge, but it is better than not healing.

If we are not used to holding poses for a long time or balancing on one foot or on our hands, our muscles may think they would rather slouch on the couch–though slouching on the couch may be what precipitated injury or ill-health in the first place.  The discomfort of working muscles more than we usually do, but to the right degree and in alignment, is radically different than the pain of forcing our body to do something beyond its current capacity that exacerbates existing injuries or causes new ones and does not sufficiently heed proper alignment.

I invite you to practice slowly and with sufficient attention to know deeply whether you are just bringing on discomfort from right effort and changing old patterns that no longer serve or whether you are making yourself suffer for no real purpose.  No pose or distance or timing is worth injury, but healing and getting stronger and more flexible (as well as more courageous and expansive for what life brings to us) is most definitely worth some intentional discomfort.


Asana Practice and Digitalis

During last night’s yoga practice, we were exploring how advanced yoga postures such as headstand drop-overs could have therapeutic applications. If the practitioner is able to do the poses preparatory to the pose (for headstand drop-over to be accessible in a healthy way, the yogi should be able to do dwi pada vipariti dandasana and, of course, sirsasana, in good, easeful, steady alignment), then the pose can be integrating and healing for the shoulders and strengthening for the neck. For those with little cervical curve, really working to lengthen the side body, integrate the shoulders, and radically melt the heart (which is what is necessary to get into the pose), can help develop the cervical curve. Done out of alignment, the headstand drop-over risks the shoulders and neck–the very parts of the body that would be healed and strengthened if the pose were done in alignment–are at risk of injury.

Four or five years ago, I was at an advanced intensive with John Friend where he likened advanced asana practice to digitalis. Digitalis, which is a beautiful flower, is one of the most poisonous plants in the garden. Taken the wrong way, it can make you very sick indeed. Properly distilled and administered in just the right dose, digitalis is one of the most powerful and curative heart medicines available.

When we approach asana, especially the more physically challenging postures, with great respect, care, and discernment, we can not only benefit from its extraordinary healing and life-expanding powers, but revel and delight in dancing in our bodies. If we approach asana without honoring ourselves and the power of the practice, however, we put ourselves at risk and we fail to realize the benefits that are possible.


The Great Game: Afghanistan

I am writing this from the terrace area of the Shakespeare Theater, in between parts two and three of “The Great Game: Afghanistan.”. It is a testament to the quality of the writing, acting, and production that we still feel ready for the third set of plays. What “The Game” emphasizes, whomever authored the segment or what moment in history is being emphasized is that we are all connected and that if we do not learn from our history, we are destined to repeat ourselves and so suffer.

I am certain that there is little that I can do as an individual to prevent history repeating itself in Afghanistan (though I write letters to President Obama on occasion). I can, however, pay attention to the lesson here with regard to my own, individual life. I can strive to unravel and dissolve old patterns from my history and to create new patterns that will better serve me. In asana practice, I seek therapeutically to realign the physical body and the energetic body so that old pains and struggles do not continue to interfere with my living as fully, joyously, and expansively as I can in my body. Through meditation, I seek to know the true joy of being and to have the light of consciousness illuminate how I respond to people and events. When I can do this, I have the choice not to create new hurts and problems that are just like the old ones.

What I know from my own practice and life is that not repeating history is hard, but it is what gives the possibility of living in true freedom. Is it enough to work on just my own self not repeating history? Do we need to try and bring shifts to larger patterns to truly be of service? I do not know the answer to the latter question, but I do know that the duty to try and shift myself is not just for me, but extends beyond me, like the ripples extending out from a pebble thrown into a pond.


Heard on the Elevator (and intention for change)

The elevator I rode to my fifth floor office this morning was very full.  Several of the people in the elevator were wearing visitor badges.  As I walked on, I heard a woman say to a colleague, “…if you get a good one, they can do amazing things.  I had a frozen shoulder, and it was just incredible the change from the physical therapist.  I highly recommend [don’t remember the name].”  Her colleague, who evidently had extremely limited range of motion and a limp from something with his hip, said, “that would be great, but I don’t have time for something like physical therapy.”  They got off (slowly) on a lower floor, leaving me and someone I know who works on my floor.

“He obviously does not want to heal or change if he doesn’t have time for physical therapy for something that is debilitating,” I said.  “He would vehemently deny it, if you told him that,” replied my co-worker.  The reality is that if we want to change or heal or grow, we have to make an intention and then stick with it.  Whether it is healing an injury through therapeutic yoga and/or physical therapy or a more internal shift sought through yoga, we must be steady and committed to our intention.


Curvature Before Length

A key therapeutic alignment principle is “curvature before length.”  This in essence means that we want to get our skeleton into the basic form of its “optimal blueprint” before trying to create length or extension.  Making sure the spine has the four curves it is meant to have — the sacral curve is convex, the lumbar curve concave, thoracic curve convex, cervical curve concave — does not only alleviate issues stemming from the spine, but helps the thigh bones fit better into the hip socket and the arm bones into the shoulder sockets.

How do we get curvature before length?  It is just doing the Anusara principles in the sequence we are taught them:  inner or expanding spiral, as it takes the thighs back, out, and apart, enhances the curve in the lumbar spine.  We do inner spiral before outer spiral, which in addition to toning the low back and gluteal muscles, lengthens the low back.  We do shoulder loop, which in addition to integrative the shoulders and hugging the shoulder blades onto the back of the heart, provides curve for the cervical spine.  We only do skull loop, which lengthens the cervical spine, after we have done the integrating and curve-enhancing action of shoulder loop.

If you think about the shape of the body from that perspective, it makes perfect sense that you would want to shape and integrate before pulling, stretching, or extending.  It is very hard to create a curve or integrate something if it is already pulled or stretched to or beyond its limit.  In its broadest sense, “curvature before length” serves us the way “start with the foundation” serves us.  We get into the right space and shape before going full out.  With the open attitude fostered by “first principle” (remember, first principle is always first no matter what is the focus of your class, your practice, or whatever you are doing on or off the mat), the basic alignment must come ahead of striving to expand further into a pose.  With curvature before length, we heal and grow.  If we try length before curvature, we might feel stretched for a moment, but may feel worse afterwards or will only have temporary relief.