How Often Should You Practice Yoga?

One of the most common questions that students ask me before or after class is, “How many times a week should I practice yoga?”

As the medical field increasingly recognizes the benefits of moving with awareness and improving posture, more and more doctors are recommending yoga as a gentle yet effective exercise system. Many students are drawn to yoga because they are looking for strategies to help relieve stress, pain and tightness. It’s no surprise then that students want to know: How often should you practice yoga to aid recovery and maintain a pain-free lifestyle?

The effectiveness of yoga for change and healing is dependent on the quality of the teaching and the ability of the student to move in and out of the poses with awareness. Change can begin after your first class. However, new students often find that the mind and body are a little disconnected. Reintegration through repetition and practice is necessary before real change can occur.

The equation for change is Intensity (I) x Duration (D) = Force (F). In other words, the more frequently you practice yoga with focus (intensity), the quicker you will see results. Once a week is considered a maintenance level — not ideal if you are wanting change. Practice twice weekly over a 10-week period and you will see and feel a difference. Three times weekly over a 10-week period will provide the maximum benefit.

It is also best to mix and match your routine. Attend classes with a variety of teachers and different styles. If your time is limited, practice at home. A 20-minute practice will still help affirm the movements you learn in class. Add some restorative classes to your program too, as a decrease in stress can reduce your perception of pain.

Our bodies adapt to the way we move in gravity, and it is easy to fall into poor movement habits as we age. With so much focus on external stimulation in our society, we become disconnected from our body and mind. Yoga means “to yoke” — to join or reunite mind and body. With that union, anything is possible.

 

Cracking My Own Case

This week we’re featuring a guest post from Kim GalbraithYoga Nook teacher and creator of Little Dog Yogawhich offers yoga classes for athletes in competitive sports. Read on for Kim’s story about a rough trip to the dentist, playing “yoga detective,” and not being afraid to ask for a helping hand.

Having completed 500 hours of yoga teacher training at Yoga Nook, I am well aware that holding tension in my body will create contracted muscles. I am also aware that contracted muscles lead to imbalance and dysfunction in the body, which in turn create pain and discomfort.

So when I had dental work done and woke up with severe pain the next morning — not in my mouth, but in my shoulder! — I set out to solve my own case.

Why the heck does my shoulder hurt? Even just standing was painful. My collarbone (clavicle) felt as if it was being pulled down by a 100-pound weight. No matter how hard I tried to relax my right shoulder, the pain would not subside.

I wondered if this was the result of how I held my right arm during the procedure. So I channeled my favorite Forensic Files character and performed my own reenactment, sitting in the front seat of my car to mimic the reclined position at the dentist’s office.

How was my body positioned during the procedure? My right arm was bent at the elbow, and since the armrest was too low, I was holding the arm up and away from my body slightly by lifting my right shoulder. Since the IV was attached to the inside of my forearm, my knuckles were facing out, adding a degree of external rotation in the shoulder joint.

What muscles were responsible for helping me hold this position? Well, the biceps bend the arm at the elbow, while infraspinatus and teres minor help with external rotation. The trapezius and levator scapulae are the primary movers in elevation of the acromioclavicular (AC) joint, which connects to the clavicle; and pectoralis major and deltoid lift the arm away from the body.

Other factors: Since I’m a yoga teacher and I practice pretty much daily, I do a lot of Adho Mukha Svanasanas (a.k.a. Downward Facing Dog). I also broke my right clavicle and dislocated my right shoulder when I was a teenager, so I have some instability in that arm already. I tend to have tight pectoral muscles that try to do more than they should to keep me stabilized in arm balance poses.

So what did I do? I tried to think like Jeni! I implemented my own plan to release the muscles that I identified as tight and contracted. But after attempting this on my own, I wasn’t getting the results I needed. I wasn’t really able to add the resistance necessary to release the tight areas. I needed help.

Thankfully, after only two sessions with Jeni, my pain was 95% gone. Together, with her guidance and my focused awareness, we got those heavily contracted muscles to soften and relax.

The moral of the story? I realized that even though I’ve learned a ton about the human body through teacher training — knowledge that has empowered me to heal myself and support my students — we all need a little help sometimes from our friends and practitioners to promote the healing process.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it. And don’t wait until your pain gets worse — call Jeni!

 

Image credit: University of Liverpool Faculty of Health & Life Sciences via Flickr (CC)

Chakras on the Brain

I have a confession to make. I love brains! In my work as a somatic educator, I work with brains every day, and I’m always amazed at how they problem-solve, create and strategize.

Frequently clients laugh as I help them first recognize, then reeducate a deeply held pattern of movement. Sometimes the brain is so invested in a pattern, it takes awhile before it will let go of the habit. I have often felt emotional when we finally get a breakthrough and the pattern begins to change to make movement more comfortable and functional.

The chakras, taken together, are a philosophical tool to help us understand how we live in the world and how to balance ourselves. Through my research on brain function, I was inspired to investigate where the qualities of the chakras would be located if they were projected onto the brain.

I wondered if we could access those brain areas through visualization, movement and working with partners. Clearly we would need more time than a regular class would allow, so I created a workshop format for this interesting and informative journey, “Chakras on the Brain.”

This workshop is an experiential journey into your brain, helping you connect with different areas that govern emotion, movement, imagination, compassion and proprioception. A short lecture will give you some background about chakras and a comparison between the traditional view and this new and unique approach.

A large portion of the workshop is movement- and breath-oriented, but the pace is easy and gentle like an AIM class. It’s about your personal experience, so it will be very relaxing as well as informative.

I hope you can join me.

Chakras on the Brain Workshop
Saturday, July 23
11am – 4:30pm (30 min. break for lunch)
Yoga Nook @ Fifth
690 D Los Angeles Ave.
Simi Valley, CA 93065
$69

 

Heal Thyself

As I sipped a well-earned cup of tea in the Yoga Nook garden, I knew instantly I was coming down with something. I could feel it in my throat as I swallowed. That’s always the first place I’m aware of an infection. There’s some weakness in my constitution that leaves my throat vulnerable. I’ve suffered with it since I was a child.

I had spent a good part of Sunday cutting back the spring growth at the front of the Cochran studio, so for awhile I tried to imagine that it was just the dust and pollen. It would pass, I’d feel fine in an hour or so.

But by that evening, I knew that dust and pollen were the least of my worries. For two days now, I have laid around like a zombie — sleeping the day away in front of the TV, binge-watching between the dozing, completely unproductive.

This morning I woke late but brighter, and finally my throat feels better. But wait — now I have shoulder pain. Stiff and sore from no movement, my body’s complaining from the lack of mobility. As I dozed on the sofa, my left shoulder must have been tucked awkwardly under my torso. I can feel the pattern in the muscles under the shoulder blade and the unaccustomed stretch in my mid-back.

Somatic Educator, heal thyself!

The area around the scapulae is a common cause of complaint for many of the clients I see one-on-one. A large proportion of people suffer from scapular dysfunction as a result of improper use, poor posture or injury.

Because the position of the scapulae is vital to healthy arm movement, it’s important to organize this flat, highly mobile bone optimally on the back ribs. Scapular dysfunction can cause neck and shoulder pain, as well as upper back and arm discomfort.

Students frequently ask me for “stretches” for pain and discomfort in the shoulder girdle area. Aware of my own soreness, I can understand why they want to stretch. The problem is that stretching is not the answer. Indeed, stretching alone could create more damage and increase pain.

The answer is somewhat counterintuitive until you become familiar with the way AIM (Awareness, Integration and Movement) works. Contrary to the instinct to stretch, what is needed are contraction and slow release of the muscles that are causing the displacement, then reeducation of the muscles that are creating the irritation.

We are always attracted by the pain, thinking it’s where the problem must lie, but the area of pain is frequently the symptom, not the cause.

Even as I type this, I’m bringing awareness to my posture and to the displacement of my left scapula. I’m slowly contracting then releasing, and for just a few moments the irritation disappears, so I know I’m on the right track. It will take awhile to release and reeducate, but eventually I’ll be back to work with a better understanding of my clients and myself.

 

Related articles: 
The World on Your Shoulders
Correcting Poor Posture with AIM Somatic Movement
3 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Your Back Pain

Image credit: Dax Tran-Caffee via Flickr (CC)

 

Got the Back Pain Blues? Attend Our FREE Back Care Basics Workshop

So here’s the bad news: Your experience of pain is real. The good news is: You can reduce your pain.

Back pain is one of the most common reasons people visit the doctor’s office, second only to upper respiratory infections. Ninety percent of people suffer from back pain as a result of poor body mechanics, bad posture and lack of core strength. The road to recovery must include movement education, exercise and awareness. Yoga can help.

If you’ve ever suffered from back pain, you know how debilitating it can be. Pain as a result of movement will quickly teach us to avoid moving. We begin to limit our range of motion, and when we do move, we reach out for any stable object in an attempt to decrease pain. We lean on furniture, work surfaces, shopping carts — anything that will decrease the workload of the painful site in our backs.

We become our own worst enemy as we shift our center of gravity, causing other muscles to bear the load. Vulnerable and weak, we feel as old as the pain in our backs.

I see clients with back pain every week. Using AIM (Awareness, Integration and Movement) techniques, we gradually decrease pain levels, recover range of motion and discover what movements are actually the root cause of their discomfort.

Some pain resolves very quickly, while some takes more time as we slowly unwind many years of adaptation to less-than-functional movement patterns. The key to resolving pain is to not create it when you move, so any movement must be very small and slow to begin with. Releasing tight compensatory muscles is a major factor, along with reducing the effort involved.

During a private AIM session or group AIM class, I direct attention to how the movement is created: Where does it begin? Once we have established a pain-free range of movement, no matter how small, we begin to build sequences and patterns that remind the brain of different options for functional movement.

Gradually the body and brain are reeducated, and the client can enjoy pain-free movement. Once free of pain, Yoga continues to affirm the retraining as well as strengthen and stabilize the body, preventing the recurrence of pain and increasing the client’s body awareness.

Yoga Nook @ Fifth is holding a FREE workshop called Back Care Basics this Saturday, October 10 from 10:30-12 p.m. In this workshop, we will identify some organic causes of back pain and help improve range of motion using gentle AIM sequences. If you’re interested in attending or would like more information, please call 805-390-8175.

See you there!

 

Related articles: 
3 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Your Back Pain
Correcting Poor Posture with AIM Somatic Movement
The World on Your Shoulders

Image credit: Michael Dorausch via Flickr (CC)

The World on Your Shoulders

It’s much easier to click a mouse than to keep your shoulder to the wheel. These days we often delegate physical tasks, paying someone else to take care of them on our behalf rather than shouldering the responsibility ourselves. Technology, too, has replaced good old-fashioned elbow grease, significantly improving our lifestyles. But at what price?

With the burden of physical work reduced to a minimum, the average adult typically makes small, unloaded movements that only employ about 50% of the shoulders’ available function. The body gradually adapts to this limited range, the head comes forward and the shoulders round. Over time, the sculpted “S” shape of the spine becomes a “C” shape. With limited use of our arms and shoulders, we lose strength and stability, setting us up for injury.

Younger Generations Are Affected, Too

Today’s children spend more than 7 hours a day in front of a screen, whether it’s a TV, computer or mobile device. These excessive amounts of screen time are setting them up for head-forward syndrome way before middle age. Carrying overladen packs on their backs also puts unnecessary strain on young shoulders and quickly molds their spines into rounded “C” shapes.

It’s much easier to prevent a shoulder or back injury than to recover from one—so do your kids a favor by limiting their screen time, and encourage them to unload unnecessary weight from school backpacks. Your nagging now may save them a great deal of discomfort in the future.

The Shoulder Girdle and Rotator Cuff

The shoulder girdle, which comprises the shoulder blades, humerus, collarbone and sternum, literally floats on the torso, as it’s not attached to the spine. This balancing act relies on an intricate network of muscles, including a group of four muscles called the rotator cuff. This muscle group is responsible for rotating the upper arm bone outward and inward, and for swinging the arm away from the body (abduction).

Image via ShoulderCommunity.com

Professional and recreational athletes alike are prone to shoulder cuff problems, especially if the sport is centered on a biased movement, as in golf or baseball. The following series of exercises will awaken the rotator cuff muscles and remind the shoulders of their range and flexibility:

Shoulder Cuff Exercise

  • Lying down with the spine and head in neutral, move your arms out to a 90-degree angle from the spine. The biceps should face the ceiling.
  • Keeping the forearms in touch with the floor, bend at the elbows, creating a goal-post shape with your arms (right angles at the elbows). The palms should face the ceiling and thumbs point toward your ears.
  • Now move the forearms through 180 degrees, rotating the upper arm bone in its joint until the palms face down and the thumbs point toward the center of your torso. Try 10 slow reps.

Scapular Protraction and Retraction

  • Lying down on the floor with the spine and head in neutral, cover your ears lightly with your fingers as if you were supporting the head for an abdominal crunch.
  • Keep the head and torso in contact with the floor as you slowly bring the elbows together, then open up the elbows until they touch the floor. Try 10 slow reps.

Pullovers

  • Lying down with the head and spine in neutral, interlace your fingers and straighten your arms toward the ceiling.
  • Stretch the arms back over your head and then bring them back to the starting position. Try 10 slow reps.

If any of these exercises cause pain, STOP. Pain is a form of high-priority communication. It’s your body’s way of saying, “Hey, there is something seriously wrong here.” If you are suffering from a prolonged shoulder or neck issue, you should see your doctor before attempting this or any exercise program.

Related Article: 
Correcting Poor Posture with AIM Somatic Movement

 

Image credit: Britt-knee via Flickr (CC)

Correcting Poor Posture with AIM Somatic Movement

Do you sag in your office chair? Text as you walk? Watch TV in bed or play computer games while slumped on the sofa? Then you could be one of the millions of people affected by the Poor Posture Pandemic, or PPP, as I like to call it.

We can’t deny that technology is a wonderful thing. The world’s at our fingertips; we’ve reduced the burden of physical labor and increased productivity exponentially. Anything your heart desires is just a click away. It’s almost too convenient — micro-movements of thumbs and wrists are all we need to get anything we want.

After 3 million years of evolution, we stood erect, our spine a sculpted “S.” In just two decades, the PPP has converted young and old alike into a rounded “C.” Are we retrogressing? Will we be dragging our knuckles on the floor in another 20 years?

The human head weighs 10 to 14 pounds. As we sit stooped over a computer screen or handheld technology, our shoulders round forward and our heavy head responds to the ever-present pull of gravity. Even when we stand, the spine is so habitually slumped that it temporarily forgets the legacy of evolution. We walk as if we are still sitting down. Tucked buttocks, rounded shoulders and head forward are a kinesthetic recipe for pain and discomfort.

Fortunately, AIM (Awareness, Integration and Movement) can break us of these habits and help us learn more functional, less painful ways to sit, stand and move.

Awareness

“You have to know what you’re doing before you can do what you want.” –Moshé Feldenkrais, founder of the Feldenkrais Method of somatic education

How are you sitting as you read this? Are you stooped over a kitchen counter or slumped in a chair? Is your head forward, shoulders rounded? The first step back to the evolutionary highway is recognizing you have a postural problem. Engaging your body’s natural skills of perception enables you to notice your alignment during everyday tasks.

Integration

Once you have identified your postural habits by applying awareness, you can change. You don’t have to stop using technology — just get smarter about your posture while you use it:

  • Support your back in an “S” shape while sitting at your desk. You can use lumbar cushions or a rolled towel placed in the low back area — or even invest in an ergonomic chair.
  • Generally decrease the time you spend in front of a screen, especially one you look down at. Hold your phone up to your eyes instead of constantly looking down.
  • If you have to work 8 hours at a computer, set a timer to remind you to get away from your desk for a few minutes every one or two hours.

Movement

People often ask me how they should stretch their necks and shoulders to relieve pain. My answer frequently surprises them. The habitual “C” shape you’re developing is already overstretched — that’s why it’s often painful. Try gently contracting the sore, tight muscles instead, then slowly releasing. This helps reset the muscles’ resting length and reverse the effects of poor posture. Remember if any of these exercises cause pain, STOP.*

  • Let your arms hang by your sides, and shrug both shoulders to your ears. Hold at the top of the contraction, then very slowly release. Repeat 3 times.
  • Let your arms hang by your sides, and shrug both shoulders to your ears. Hold at the top of the contraction, and very slowly turn your head to the right and then to the left a few times. Slowly release your shoulders.
  • Resting your arms on your desk, draw slow concentric circles with your shoulder blades, first clockwise then counterclockwise.
  • Take 3 slow, deep breaths, concentrating on the exhalation.

Awareness, Integration and Movement (AIM) are the keys to postural reeducation, reduced pain and improved range of motion. AIM group classes and private one-on-one sessions identify your habitual movement patterns and offer alternatives, reminding the brain of more functional pathways to achieve the same action.

AIM group classes are relaxing, helping you de-stress while developing your proprioception and body awareness. During one-on-one AIM sessions, we use simple somatic movements that release tight muscles and increase range of motion, then offer gentle stretches that regain muscle length. The work is cumulative — gradual changes affirmed by a series of personalized exercises and group classes that build on positive results. AIM Somatic Movement classes are available exclusively at Yoga Nook in Simi Valley.

You hold the key to resolving your pain and enjoying a more active lifestyle. Step out of the pain cycle, and ask us how Yoga Nook and AIM can help.

*It’s beyond my scope and that of this article to diagnose pain, tingling or limits to ranges of motion. If you are experiencing these symptoms, seek the help of a health professional immediately.

 

Image credit: Ben Yapp on Flickr

3 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Your Back Pain

If you’ve ever suffered from back pain (and there are likely very few among us who can say they haven’t!), you know how difficult and debilitating it can be. Chronic pain can interfere with our ability to focus, accomplish everyday tasks and enjoy life. This much is obvious. But there’s a lot you may not know about what’s causing your back pain and what you can do to address it. For instance:

1.  Your spine is a superhighway for information going to your brain, and response coming from your brain. Sensors throughout the body alert the brain to adverse pressure, temperatures and inflammation.

Pain is highly subjective. Stress levels and the anticipation of pain affect your overall perception of pain. We can also become familiar with pain and either learn to ignore it, or look for it when it’s not immediately obvious — somehow reassured by its nagging presence.

2.  Pain is not always an indicator of the problem. Poor posture and dysfunctional or repetitive movement stress the body. Even slight misalignment of the spine has been shown to affect the general status of our health.

When the brain is alerted to an insult or injury, a flexion response (curling or rounding of the spine, as in the fetal position) or extension response (arching of the spine, as in the fight-or-flight response) is initiated. Muscles go into spasm or contract to limit movement. The brain receives pain feedback from the increased pressure caused by contracted muscles. We naturally want to stretch out the perceived tightness, even when it causes more pain to do so.

3.  Poor posture while sitting is a major contributor to spinal compression. Jobs that require static posture for prolonged periods, regardless of how comfortable you feel, are not good for your back. Neck pain, headaches, shoulder discomfort and low back pain can result.

But have you ever considered how your posture while relaxing might also be contributing to your pain? After a long day at work, we come home, slump on the sofa and watch TV, play games on the computer or check our emails. We are fatigued so we think we’re relaxing, while we are actually just affirming the poor posture we have endured all day. You can probably detect a self-perpetuating pattern here — a cycle of poor posture, fatigue and pain.

But there is hope: A 2013 integrative treatment study, which included yoga and mindfulness, discovered positive results for people suffering from chronic pain and the depression that often accompanies it. After following 252 patients for six months, researchers at UC San Francisco found a significant reduction in pain and depression, as well as improvements in mood, quality of life and work productivity, in those who had taken part.

“The biggest surprise was that our integrative approach to pain had a positive impact on so many other aspects of the patients’ lives,” said lead author Donald I. Abrams, integrative oncologist at UCSF. “Integrative medicine doesn’t just view pain as an isolated somatic symptom, but assesses it in relation to the whole person — body, mind and spirit.”

At Yoga Nook, we believe awareness is the first step. Becoming aware of how you use your body and defining its needs are key to resolving your pain. Next Tuesday, we’ll delve deeper into what’s causing our Poor Posture Pandemic (or PPP, as I like to call it). We’ll also look at how AIM (Awareness, Integration and Movement) helps us develop more functional ways of moving, sitting and being.

 

Image credit: Emily on Flickr (CC)

Blissful Bellies

Gym science and fitness marketing have successfully sold us a desirable model of hard-cut, washboard abs. In our culture this military archetype is firmly associated with health and vitality. People clamor for a stronger core and firmly believe it’s the answer to all their postural deficits.

On the other hand, if you have a soft, round belly, it’s considered unfit, unhealthy and unattractive. Fat accumulating around the midline is a health concern but equally, overtraining the front body can create imbalance. So before you embrace the idea of flat, tight stomach muscles, let’s consider what your abs of steel are really doing for you.

Abdominals assist in the flexion, rotation and lateral movement of the trunk. They contribute to our overall core strength and help maintain the lumbar curve by resisting sway back. Abdominals also play a role in the breathing sequence, acting as assistants to the diaphragm and contracting to compress the abdominal contents during exhalation. They help us eliminate, cough, laugh and give birth.

To accomplish this multitasking, the abdominals need to be toned but not overdeveloped or tense. Overly strong or hypertrophic abdominals can have an adverse effect on the body, locking us in the postural slump of flexion, reducing the effectiveness of digestion and restricting the breathing mechanism.

Studies have shown that our thoughts and emotions are influenced by the body’s “power center” or center of gravity, which lies just below the navel. Many Eastern mystical traditions consider the belly a center of energy and consciousness. This conscious area doesn’t think on a cognitive level, but like the brain, the gut produces more than 30 neurotransmitters (including serotonin, which influences mood). The ability to tap into our natural intuition, gut feelings or deep wisdom can be diminished by a wall of tense muscle.

By creating a hard center and projecting that to the people around us, we imagine we are coping with the stresses in our lives. Like a type of belly armor, our tight abdominals attempt to protect us from the fray.

Instead of sucking in your belly and pushing your chest out, try a softer approach. You can practice this through belly breathing: Lie down on your back and as you inhale, soften your abdominal muscles and breathe deeply into your belly. Notice how it inflates like a balloon as it becomes filled with breath; then simply release as you exhale, letting your belly melt toward your spine as you slowly empty the air. Keep this focus on your belly as you notice the breath flowing in … and out …

belly breathing
Practice belly breathing to cultivate a blissful belly.

 

Many yoga poses focus on a strong but fluid center, honoring the abdomen as a sacred place in our body while offering a balanced concept of core strength that includes lateral and back muscle stability. To keep the abdominals strong but flexible, it’s important to combine movements that contract the abdominals with poses that stretch them.

Try this short yoga sequence as you wait for class to begin or as a daily addition to your own yoga practice:

nose to knee slow release
1. Lay on your back, both feet flat on the floor, fingers interlaced behind your head. On an exhale, draw your belly toward your spine as you bring your right knee to your chest. Simultaneously lift your head, neck and shoulders off the ground. Hold for a count of 2, then slowly release the foot and head back down to the ground. Repeat 3 times on the right, then the left.

 

oblique nose to knee slow release
2. Draw your right knee into your chest, as you reach your left elbow across your body and toward the right knee to engage the obliques. Hold, then slowly release. Do 3 reps on each side, taking a full, relaxing breath between each rep.

 

side laying
3. Lay on your right side with your right arm resting on the floor and knees slightly bent. Cradle your head in your left hand. Firmly press the lower ribs into the floor and slowly lift your head and neck while shortening the left side of the body. Be careful not to pull your head up with your arm. Repeat 3 times on the right, then on the left.

 

prone extension 2
4. Lay on your belly with hands stacked on top of each other, forehead resting on your hands. Inhale, lift your head a few inches away from your hands, imagining that you are balancing a book on the back of your head so your face stays parallel to the floor. Hold for a count of 2, then slowly release your head to your hands. Repeat 3 times, allowing yourself to fully relax between each rep.

 

full body extension
5. Place your arms down by your sides, palms facing up. As you inhale, lift your arms, legs and head a few inches off the floor, coming into Locust Pose (Salabhasana). Hold for a count of 2, then slowly release to the ground. Repeat 3 times.

 

Consider your belly as your life source, abundant with creative energy. Cultivate bliss in your belly and your mind will also be blissful.

 

Image credit: LexnGer on Flickr