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)

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Food for Thought

One hundred and eight million people support the diet industry, 85% of whom are female. The average person makes four or more attempts at weight loss, helping the industry accrue $20 billion in annual revenue. Yes, that’s right, 20 billion dollars.

There’s the low-fat, no-carb, raw veggie, even the “skip breakfast and take a cold bath instead” diet (I’m not kidding) – all competing for our consumer support and paying up to $3 million for celebrities to sell the results in commercials.

This unfortunate phenomenon is a great example of the population seeking the answer outside of themselves rather than looking within. We think someone else can make a food plan for us that will provide fast, convenient, lasting results. We forget that in order to earn our way towards a better relationship with food, there has to be a shift in our state of mind.

A few years ago, I offered a program at Yoga Nook called Body WiZe. It was not a weight loss program, but rather a yoga, meditation and mindful eating workshop that focused on increasing the importance of food and slowing down. We encouraged participants to cultivate their intuition and self-restraint so they could make better choices without feeling deprived of foods they enjoyed.

Mindful eating brings you into the moment and reminds you to pause. In that pause, you can inquire: Are you standing in front of the pantry because you really are hungry, or because you are feeling anxious/bored/overwhelmed with your current activity and need a break?

Nourishing your body with food should take time. Primal man didn’t rush out, kill a bison and eat it on the way to the next hunt. A satisfying meal is one that appeals to all the senses – it is not only flavorful, but also looks colorful on the plate, smells tantalizing and feels textural as we eat it. Your whole body should be recruited into the meal, so every part of you knows you have eaten and becomes sated.

If we are in such a rush to eat that we are swallowing without even paying attention to what’s in our mouth, or so distracted as we eat that we forget we’ve eaten at all, how can we be satisfied or nourished by our food?

Here are some tips that we shared as part of the “Body WiZe” program:

  • Give yourself enough time to eat. Once prepared, a simple meal should take between 20 to 30 minutes to eat mindfully.
  • Reduce distractions. If you have to eat at work, turn off your computer – or even better, go for a walk to a local park bench. Just for the time you are eating, turn off the TV, radio or phone, and focus on nurturing your body with each mouthful. Experience the food fully.
  • Look at your food. As you prepare your food, keep in mind that it should be colorful and aromatic. Include a variety of textures to tantalize the tongue.
  • Chew more slowly. Put less in your mouth than usual and keep it there for longer, taking time to enjoy the flavors. Remember that digestion begins in the mouth.
  • Completely finish your first mouthful before you eat more. Your mouth should be empty between bites, ready to experience a new array of texture, flavor and temperature.
  • Remember: You don’t have to finish everything on your plate. Stop when you begin to feel full. You can also try using a smaller plate.

Practicing mindful eating is another way to bring yoga off the mat and into your life – mind, body and breath as one. Namaste.


Image credit: Thomas Hawk on Flickr (CC)

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Teacher Profile: Jessica Nilson

Every month, we’re featuring a different teacher on the Yoga Nook blog. We highlighted Yasa Rasakhoo for the month of April, and now we’re turning our attention to Jessica Nilson. Read on to learn more about Jess’ unique style, then come on in to Yoga Nook — all of her scheduled classes will be $10 community classes throughout the month of May!

Tuesday 8:30-9:45 a.m. — Classic Yoga 1 & 2
Tuesday 4:30-5:30 p.m. — Yoga in Mind
Friday 9-10:15 a.m. — Classic Yoga 1
3rd Friday of the month, 7-8:15 p.m. — Yin Stretch

What originally drew you to the practice of Yoga? How has your practice changed over time?

What drew me to Yoga was an opportunity to teach it in a gym setting. I was already a personal trainer and had taught group classes for years. I had a short training to get started, and I quickly realized that I needed more — more practice and more education.

I continued my education with Jeni Winterburn. I had been practicing with her for awhile and started taking workshops with her. This led to the first change in my practice: realizing that Yoga was so much more than the asana. Over the years, it has continued to evolve into a love of the movement, as well as the inward journey the practice continues to take me on. It is constantly changing me and giving me opportunities to grow, love and inspire … to be open and compassionate, and I am so grateful for that.

Why did you decide to become a Registered Yoga Teacher? What inspires your teaching today? 

I became a registered teacher because I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life! Giving and receiving the energy of the students, guiding them through a practice that is positive and healing, energetic and peaceful. I feel in my heart it’s what I was meant to do. It feels right, feels real.

How would you describe your teaching style? What makes your classes unique? 

My style is a combination of inspiration, honesty, compassion and finding progress without pain. I’m all for challenging students as well, encouraging work. However, Yoga should be fun and positive, not rigid. I like to invoke lightheartedness and humor in my classes from time to time. Intense and focused, or slow and soft, I try to bring a balance to each class.

Are there any particularly memorable or transformative moments from your practice or teaching that you would like to share? 

I would say my teacher trainings. In both the RYT 200 and 500, there were so many “aha!” moments that I wouldn’t have enough words to describe them all. I experience transformation and memorable moments each time I teach or practice. Each time is an opportunity for something new to arise — just like each day is a brand new beginning for us all.

What is your favorite pose, and why? 

Oh boy, there are so many, but probably Ardha Chandrasana, Half Moon Pose. I love the strong stability built in this pose and the gentle grace of the balance. There is also a charming mythical story behind the pose: the Hindu god Ganesha puts a curse on the moon to shine but once a month, which explains why the moon cycle exists. This story is one of my all-time favorites.

What advice would you share with a student looking to deepen his or her practice? 

I was reading some literature on Yoga when I came across a quote from a teacher named Sharon Gannon: “You cannot DO Yoga. Yoga is your natural state. What you can do are yoga exercises, which may reveal to you where you are resisting your natural state.”

I wasn’t quite sure what it meant at first. I read more, practiced more asana and meditation, and attended more trainings and lectures — which got me closer, but I’m still getting there. So my advice would be to keep learning about the practice through asana, self-study, and education, including lectures and teacher trainings. Even if you don’t want to be a teacher, it will deepen your practice in so many ways.

If you could choose one quote that best encompasses your approach, what would it be? 

“Remember, it does not matter how deep into a posture you go — what does matter is who you are when you get there.” –Max Strom


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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

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Teacher Profile: Yasa Rasakhoo

Each month, we’ll be featuring a different Yoga Nook teacher on the blog so you can learn more about their unique styles, personalities and inspirations. Plus, all scheduled classes taught by the teacher of the month will be $10 community classes all month long!

Today we’re getting a jump-start on April with Yasa Rasakhoo. Read on to find out why we love her, then stop by Yoga Nook to experience her classes firsthand:

Monday 6:45-8 p.m. — Classic Yoga Level 1 & 2
Wednesday 7-8 p.m. — Qi Gong/Chi Kung
Saturday 8:30-9:30 a.m. — Qi Gong/Tai Chi

What originally drew you to the practice of Yoga? How has your practice changed over time? 

I have always been interested in Eastern practices, especially Yoga, meditation, and Qi Gong. I have been meditating for 35 years and practicing Yoga to some degree for the same period of time. My newest love, Qi Gong, came into my life in the last five years. I studied Qi Gong at the School of Chinese Medicine and am amazed at the power it has to heal the body and mind.

Why did you decide to become a Registered Yoga Teacher? What inspires your teaching today? 

I decided to become a yoga teacher six years ago. I had no definite idea why, except that I wanted to further deepen my knowledge and understanding of anatomy and the philosophy behind Yoga. I am inspired by how Yoga evolved and is still growing and changing constantly. The sky is the limit.

How would you describe your teaching style? What makes your classes unique? 

I like to teach slow and steady classes because of my Qi Gong background. I use the ideology behind Chinese medicine, that using and warming up the joints gives us much more access to the poses and makes the practice pain-free, soft and easy, and enjoyable.

Are there any particularly memorable or transformative moments from your practice or teaching that you would like to share? 

Every class is unique and memorable. My teaching improved when I decided to be myself and not imitate other teachers or books, and I realized that this is the only way I can teach – by being myself.

What is your favorite pose, and why? 

My favorite pose is Side Angle (Parsvakonasana), because it is so beautiful and expansive. The technique of shortening one side to be able to lengthen the other side is very appealing to me. It is an awesome pose.

What advice would you share with a student looking to deepen his or her practice?

Be yourself. We are all unique in our own ways. Let your practice BE and not DO. Love what you do and enjoy the students. Know that we are all just one energy expressing uniquely.

If you could choose one quote that best encompasses your approach, what would it be?

“Connect to the breath.” Follow your breath, let it guide you through your teaching and practice. It will do magic for you.


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A Blinding Flash of the Obvious

One of my valued gurus, Judith Lasater, uses this phrase to describe the moments in life when we suddenly gain a newfound awareness of something that’s not new in the world, but is deeply relevant to us – an “aha!” moment that is recognizable as a whole-body experience. We have all felt these to a greater or lesser degree.

I want to share a blinding flash of my own, a revelation that changed how I think about meditation. It was a realization that allowed me to feel successful for the first time in a practice that had, until then, been fraught with discomfort and disappointment.

When I began to meditate about 20 years ago, I was filled with ambition. I wanted to be a great meditator and feel the bliss that my own teachers seemed to be experiencing. But the harder I tried and the more determined I was, the more frustrated I felt – and the further away from meditation I seemed to be.

Meditation is one of the eight limbs, or techniques, that make up the practice of Yoga. In just the same way you learn physical poses (asana) in a beginning class, it’s wise to begin a meditation practice with baby steps.

During my own teacher training, I was taught that the definition of meditation was 144 seconds of uninterrupted concentration, or a little over two minutes. While two minutes doesn’t seem long, it can feel like eternity if you’re uncomfortable, not at ease, or experiencing “monkey mind.”

One morning, as I attempted in vain to achieve two minutes of uninterrupted concentration, I had an epiphany, a blinding flash of the obvious. What if I went for a walk in my garden and walked with concentration for two minutes, my mind completely focused on the walking? Perhaps I could do some Yoga (asana) and move with mindfulness for two minutes, or be focused and completely present as I prepared the evening meal by chopping vegetables with full intent on the task.

The more I thought of applying mindfulness and meditation to everyday life, the easier it seemed to find activities I could do with 144 seconds of focused concentration. Once I gave myself permission to integrate meditation practices with everyday activities, I discovered multiple opportunities to practice.

Try these ideas to add mindfulness and meditation into your daily life:

1.  Rise early and take a short walk. Be mindful of each step you take, the nature around you, the temperature, and the sounds of the morning. Remember, walking is the meditation. Unlike walking for exercise, you’re not focused on a goal, outcome or destination; you are simply focused on the walking itself.

2.  Make a simple salad for lunch and eat with conscious awareness. Notice the way you chew your food, the texture, and its flavor. Take your time – each bite is an opportunity to practice being present.

3.  The next time you take a shower, bring your attention to your sensory experience. Notice how the water feels on your skin, the smell of your shampoo or body wash, and the sound of the water as it hits the ground. Just be aware of your experience as you cleanse your body and mind.

Blending mindfulness and meditation with movement, cooking or enjoying nature were the beginning steps I needed. Now I celebrate the start of every day by sitting for 30 minutes or so. Sometimes my eyes are open, sometimes closed, but my practice is always calming, quiet and blissful.


Image credit: Tomi Tapio K on Flickr (CC)

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It’s Meditation March at Yoga Nook!

To celebrate over one year of FREE community meditation classes, Yoga Nook teachers will be integrating a five-minute meditation in every class at Yoga Nook throughout the month of March.

The meditation may be a mindful movement portion of the class or a more classic seated experience, and will be included in every 75-minute yoga class regardless of the level.

Be Present Meditation Workshop

Join Pat VanBuskirk, Jessica Nilson and Jeni Winterburn for a FREE meditation workshop on Saturday, March 21 from 12-1:30 p.m.

Together we will practice simple seated concentration, mindfulness meditation, as well as meditation in movement. Learn how to bring greater mindfulness to your yoga poses and enhance your experience in meditation.

Beginners are welcome. Please call (805) 390-8175 to reserve your spot today.


Image credit: Brian Ambrozy on Flickr (CC)

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Get OFF Your Yoga Mat

I love Yoga. So why am I asking you to get off your mat?

Because in the West, we have a very narrow view of Yoga — we think it’s all about stretching. We celebrate flexibility as if it’s the only result Yoga can help us achieve.

I’m here to show you how Yoga can benefit you OFF the mat. Rooted in a history that’s over 5,000 years old, yoga techniques are as relevant in today’s world as they were to the ancient yogis and yoginis.

My intention for this blog is to show you how to apply these ancient techniques to your lifeI’ll be giving you practical tips, sharing my own yoga experience, and inviting you to comment on the posts.

I’ve been a Yoga teacher in Simi Valley for over 20 years, and Yoga Nook has been in business for 12 of those years. Our studio is built on a valley-wide reputation for excellence in teaching yoga classes, teacher training and somatic education.

Until now, the only way you could benefit from Yoga was to come in and take a class. That’s about to change. Now you can subscribe to our blog to receive two monthly posts that will shed light on how Yoga can help you understand yourself and the world we live in.

Simply enter your email address below to sign up. I invite you to share your insights, stories and comments. Join us and become part of the Yoga Nook community, living Yoga OFF the mat.

With gratitude,

Jeni Winterburn


Image credit: bradleypjohnson on Flickr (CC)

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