Yoga for lower back pain

Yoga for lower back

Back pain, and in particular lower back pain, is something I come across a lot as a yoga teacher. Lower back pain starts below the ribcage, in the lumbar section of our spine. The great thing about lower back pain is that it often gets better on its own. But it is proven that yoga can help and speed up this process.

Lower back pain can have several causes:

  • Heavy lifting, pulling or doing something that twists your spine.
  • Doing a work-out that was too intense (especially at the gym or playing golf).
  • Sitting at a desk all day (especially when your chair is uncomfortable and doesn’t support your back).
  • A heavy tote bag, briefcase, backpack.
  • A slouching posture, when the shoulders slouch forward the lumbar spine starts rounding and loses its natural curve.

All these lower back issues can be around the muscles, but can also cause sciatica and herniated discs. Both are extremely painful and have to be worked with a lot of caution; careful movements and consciousness of what is going on in the body are key.

People who are at risk are generally over 30 and either have a job where they have to lift a lot, or sit behind a computer for extended periods, they have an inactive lifestyle or are overweight.

The 5 lumbar vertebrae’s are able to do 4 different movements:

  • Flexion (60%) – forward fold
  • Extension (35%) – backward bend
  • Lateral (20%) – sideward bend
  • Axial (5%) – twist

No other part of the spine is able to do a larger forward fold than this low part of the spine. That’s why we so easily can hurt the lower back when we are carrying heavy stuff. It is also the part where our secondary curve, named lordosis, is. When we sit all day, we decrease the curve by bringing our tailbone in and under the body. This causes tension and pain over time.

The 9 poses in the pictures will help you relief tension in the lower back. You can weave them into a sequence or use them as separate poses. If you are suffering from lower back pain, check to see which ones work best for you. Try it out, maybe you can even create variations of the pose, in order to get a bigger relief.

Some basis rules when you perform the poses:

  • Make long, deep and controlled breathes through your nose. Focus on your breath going in and out while being in a posture. Try to make your exhale slightly longer then your inhale.  Stay in a pose for at least 3 cycles of inhales and exhales.
  • Let your breath initiate a movement. Inhale is a movement upwards, exhale is a movement downwards or a twist.
  • Work both sides of your body. Do every posture on the right side and then switch to the left.
  • While you’re in a standing pose always check your front knee. When it is bent, it makes a 90-degree angle with your ankle; however, it should never go over your ankle.
  • There is NO pose in yoga where we have our shoulders close to our ears. So when you are settled in a pose, always pay attention to your shoulders. Roll them backwards and down.

For further instructions of the poses, see below:

Picture 1: Marjaryasana / Bitilasana
Cat/cow pose. Come to your hands and knees. Knees in a 90 degrees angle with your hips, shoulders with the wrists. Inhale, look up and arch your spine. Exhale, look down and round your spine. Do this with a minimum of 5 times.

Picture 2: Malasana
Squat pose. Step your feet wider apart, at maximum as wide apart as the mat. Turn your feet out slightly. Separate your thighs wider than the torso and bring the hips down. Hugs yourself in between the legs. Keep your heels on the floor, or if necessary, roll up the mat under your feet. Press your elbows against your inner knees and bring the palms together in front of your chest. Hold it for a minimum of 5 cycles of breath.

Picture 3: Purvottanasana
Straight bridge. Sit down on the floor. Legs are fully on the mat and feet are hips distance apart. Place your hands on the mat, fingers pointing towards your feet. Your hands are straight under your shoulders (so next to your body). The hands are placed just behind the hips and thus behind your body. Inhale, push your hips up keep the legs straight. Feet stay fully on the mat, while you push your hips up as high as possible. It helps to squeeze your gluteus together. Stay for 5 cycles of breath.

Picture 4: Salabhasana
Locust pose. Start by having your whole body on the mat. Bring your arms back. On the inhale take both your arms and legs up. If this is too much to begin with, then start with only taking your chest off the mat. Second time only the legs. And third time both the chest (arms) and the legs.

Picture 5: Adho Mukha Svanasana
Downward facing dog: Come onto the mat on your hands and knees. Knees are 90 degrees with your hips, hands straight under your shoulders. Tuck your toes under and on an exhale lift your knees away from the floor. Keep them slightly bent. Stretch one knee, bend the other. Switch several times. Bend both needs slightly and push your sitbones up in the air, while you push yourself away from your hands. On an exhale push your heels towards the mat. Stay for a minimum of three breaths.

Picture 6: Adho Mukha Svanasana
Downward facing dog: Come onto the mat on your hands and knees. Knees are 90 degrees with your hips, hands straight under your shoulders. Tuck your toes under and on an exhale lift your knees away from the floor. Keep them slightly bent. Stretch one knee, bend the other. Switch several times. Bend both needs slightly and push your sitbones up in the air, while you push yourself away from your hands. On an exhale push your heels towards the mat. Stay for a minimum of three breaths.

Picture 7: Utthita Trikonasana
Extended triangle pose. Straighten your front leg, so both legs are straight. Have your torso similar to the Warrior 2 pose. Bring your body weight forward. Bring your arm down towards your leg. Either grab your thigh, lower part of the leg or ankle. Make sure your torso is parallel with your front leg. Stay for at least 3 cycles of breath.

Picture 8: Eka Pada Rajakapotasana
One-legged king pigeon pose. Come to a downward facing dog pose (picture 7). Bring your right leg up and bring it forward. Right knee goes to your right wrist. Your foot goes as close to your left wrist as possible. Your hips need to be open to do this, so you might want to walk your foot closer to your body. Place your hands next to your hips. Breathe into your chest and stay up straight. A possible next step is to bring your body forward on an exhale. Make a diamond of your hands (hands are on the mat) and place your forehead in the diamond space of your hands. Stay for 5 cycles of breath.

Picture 9: Reclining twist
Reclining twist pose. Lay on your back. Arms are out in a cross. Bring your knees towards your chest. Make a 90-degree angle with your hips and your knees and knees and ankle. Move your legs to the right, look to the left; keep both shoulders on the mat. If you want you can place your right hand on your knees, to add extra pressure.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in…

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Breathing is a thing in yoga, almost every yoga teacher will point out its importance. The breath initiates the movement, follow the breath, and generally speaking breathe in when you make upward movements and breathe out when you go down, backwards or twist.

The focus on breath stems from the ancient yogis who believed we were only given a certain amount of breaths in our life. So the longer you made them, the longer you would live. There is no evidence in favour or against this idea, but what we do know nowadays is that a steady & long breath and the awareness it creates in our mind and body can help us to improve our health. And therefore, maybe even prolong our lives.

Breath is ’smart’, as the quality of our breath tells us how we are doing during our practice. When you lose your steady and stable breath, then it is time to reflect within: why is this happening? Am I pushing myself too hard? Am I distracted? Is my mind wandering? It is a good point of reference, because often it is hard for people to really feel what is going on in the body and mind.

In yoga we breathe through the nose. One reason is because the nose helps you keep the dirt from the air out of your respiratory system. It also helps you to not directly breath in cold air into our lungs. It is this cold air, that increases our chances of getting a cold or cools down the body quicker that necessary, causing problem in the muscles.

There is also a wide variety of breathing exercises yogi’s practice, which I consider a very interesting subject to deepen your practice with. According to Krischnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, the breath was the key element to a healthy and long life. One of his long-time students A.G. Mohan wrote in his book about Krishnamacharya that his guru would say “ that the breath was controlling the inner functions of the body. (…) If you practice asanas with control over the breath and long pranayama (means: lengthen the breath or control the breath), your pulse rate should come down over time”. Which indicates a healthy heart and potentially a longer life.

But most important to Krishnamacharya was the fact that it helps you to control the mind. A.G. Mohan one of his favorite quotes from the master: “To cure the ills of the body, use the body. To cure the wandering of the mind, use pranayama”.

In other words, doing the asanas, the physical part of yoga, supports you in keeping a healthy, strong body, so we do not disturb our mind with illness. But when the mind is disturbed, the most powerful tool to use is the breath.
“There is no greater austerity than pranayama to remove impurities”. So breath is the key to a healthy body, a calm mind and potentially a longer life.

So when you go to a yoga class try to be aware of your breath, give it more attention then the physical outcome of the pose. Read your breath, learn what it tells you. But most importantly, learn your own rhythm. In many classes a teacher will tell you to inhale with a certain pose and exhale with another. This is based on the ‘fact’ that for most people this will support the outcome of the pose better. However, when it feels uncomfortable for you, don’t force yourself to breathe along. Find your own practice, your own rhythm. Follow the teacher when his/her speed and rhythm connects with yours, but don’t be shy to have your own.

Because in the end, yoga is about discovering yourself; Your own body, your own mind and your own powerful tool: the breath.

9 yoga poses to deal with cold weather

Yoga in cold weather

I wrote in my blog last week, yoga in cold weather has a lot of benefits. Especially if you can find the right poses that help you heat up your body, that protect and mobilise the joints, and that help you open your chest and strengthen your air passageways.

The following poses you can do in the order of the picture, you can make it into a sequence or you can cherry pick the ones that help you best. When you decide to make it into a sequence, then start with a short meditation, followed by a breathing exercise (see my previous blog for examples) and end the practice with Savasana (corpse pose).

Some basic rules for all poses in the pictures:

  • Make long, deep and controlled breathes through your nose. Focus on your breath going in and out while being in a posture. Try to make your exhale slightly longer then your inhale.
  • Let your breath initiate a movement. Inhale is a movement upwards, exhale is a movement downwards or a twist.
  • Work both sides of your body. Do every posture on the right side and then switch to the left.
  • There is NO pose in yoga where we have our shoulders close to our ears. So when you are settled in a pose, always pay attention to your shoulders. Roll them backwards and down.

If you have doubts about the poses, below you can find the basic ideas and adjustments per picture:

  • Picture 1: Gomukhasana (with arm variation)
    Face Pose. Legs: Bend your knees and put your feet on the floor. Slide your left foot under the right knee to the outside of the right hip. Then cross your right leg over the left, stacking the right knee on top of the left, and bring the right foot to the outside of the left hip. Try to bring the heels parallel next to the hips. Sit evenly on your sitting bones.
    Arms: Bring your right arm up and bring it behind your back. Swing your left arm backwards and try to grab your right hand. If this is not possible, reach as high as you can and grab your shirt with both your left and right hand. On an inhale bring your elbow up and backwards. Place the back of your head against your arm and push your arm (with your head) gently backwards. Do at least 3 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 2: Setu Bandha Sarvangasana
    Bridge pose. Lay down on your back, knees are up, feet are hip distance apart. Measure the positioning of your legs by bringing your arms next to your body; the tip of your middle finger needs to just barely touch your heel. Then interlace your fingers behind your back. Push your hips up as far as you can, roll your shoulders together. Breathe into your chest.
  • Picture 3: Halasana
    Plow pose. From the previous pose, shoulderstand, bring your feet down over your head. Make sure it is a controlled movement. Keep your arms in your back. Or if you want, interlace your fingers and stretch your arms out on the mat. If your toes can’t touch the mat, you keep your hands in your back – or you place blocks under your feet. Stay here for a minimum of 5 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 4: Dhanurasana
    Bow pose. Lay down on your belly. Arms beside your body. Bend your knees and reach with your hands backwards to grab your ankles or feet. Forehead is still on the mat (if possible). Inhale into your chest and bring your chest up. Kick with your feet against your hands and give a pressure with your hands on your feet. Try to bring your thighs of the mat. Stay for 3 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 5: Urdhva Mukha Savanasana
    Upward facing dog pose. Lay down on your belly. Place your hands next to your chest, fingers facing forward. On an inhale, push yourself half way. Then straighten the legs, the knees come of the mat. Next inhale, straighten your arms. Shoulders are straight over your wrists. Look forward or up.
  • Picture 6: Ustrasna
    Camel pose. Sit on your heels, knees on the mat. Bring your knees hips distance apart. Push yourself up, so you have your hips 90 degrees over your knees. Freeze this – your knees and hips remain 90 degrees throughout the entire pose. Tuck your toes under and place your hands on your lower back. Inhale into your chest and bring your torso backwards. If this is enough for a backward bend stay here. To continue, bring your hands down and reach for your heels. Look straight up, be aware of the 90 degree angle of knee and hips. Stay here for a minimum of 3 cycles of breath. To come out: bring your hands back on your lower back. Move your hips towards your heels. Your head comes back last. Go to child’s pose.
  • Picture 7: Eka Pada Rajakapotasana
  • One-legged king pigeon pose. Come to a downward facing dog pose. Bring your right leg up and bring it forward. Right knee goes to your right wrist. Your foot goes as close to your left wrist as possible. Your hips need to be open to do this, so you might want to walk your foot closer to your body. Place your hands next to your hips. Breathe into your chest and stay up straight. A possible next step is to bring your body forward on an exhale. Make a diamond of your hands (hands are on the mat) and place your forehead in the diamond space of your hands. Stay for 5 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 8: Salamba Sarvangasana
    Shoulder stand. Lay down on your back. Palms are facing down on the mat. Bring your knees into your chest. With the force of your hands push your hips off the floor. Place your hands in your back. Straighten your legs upright. Walk your hands closer to your shoulders blades. Stay here; wait until you can breath properly. If gravity is pulling you down, walk your hands closer to your shoulder blades and give yourself a lift. Stay for a minimum of 10 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 9: Matsyasana
    Fish pose. Lay down on your back. Place your hands under your hips, palms facing down. Breathe into your chest and bring it up. Place the top of your head on the mat. Make sure the weight is on your hips and not on your head. Stay for a minimum of 5 breath cycles.

Yoga for a good digestion

Yoga for digestion jpg

We can do yoga for many different reasons. Every sequence I post, you can do just because you want to do a good work-out, you want to calm your mind or because you need inspiration for your practice. However, I do like to focus on certain goals people want to reach. Therefore I always pick a theme for the sequence. This week: yoga for a better digestion.

To improve your digestion via yoga it is important to move the part where your food is being digested: the area of the abdomen. In general twists are good to detox your body and to help your intestines to squeeze, move and therefore digest your food. However, if you really have problems with digestion, only twists can also irritate this area and have a negative effect. So you need to balance your practice, as always, but stay focused on the movement you make and the pressure you put on the abdominal area.

This sequence can vary from 15 minutes up to 30 minutes, it depends on how long you hold the poses and how many repetitions you do. It is advisable to start the practice with 5 minutes of meditation, to calm the mind and be focused during the practice. End the practice with a Savasana pose (corpse pose) for a minimum of 10 breaths. Some basis rules when you perform the poses:

  • Make long, deep and controlled breathes through your nose. Focus on your breath going in and out while being in a posture. Try to make your exhale slightly longer then your inhale.
  • Let your breath initiate a movement. Inhale is a movement upwards, exhale is a movement downwards or a twist.
  • Work both sides of your body. Do every posture on the right side and then switch to the left.
  • While you’re in a standing pose always check your front knee. When it is bent, it makes a 90-degree angle with your ankle; however, it should never go over your ankle.
  • There is NO pose in yoga where we have our shoulders close to our ears. So when you are settled in a pose, always pay attention to your shoulders. Roll them backwards and down.

If you have doubts about the poses, below you can find the basic ideas and adjustments per picture:

  • Photo 1: Padmasana Twist
    Lotus pose twist. Remain seated in lotus pose (or just corssed legged). Inhale take both your arms up. Twist from your belly button towards the right. Left hand goes on your right knee, bring your right hand behind your back. Twist your head as last, to look over your shoulders. Stay for a minimum of three cycles of breath. Change side.
  • Photo 2: Setu Bandha Sarvangasana
    Bridge pose. Lay down on your back, knees are up, feet are hip distance apart. Have your arms by your side, palms are facing down. On an inhale push your hips up as far as you can, on an exhale bring your hips down again. Repeat for at least 3 cycles of breath.
  • Photo 3: Release pose.
    Release pose. Lay down on your back. Bring your knees into your chest. Place your hands over your knees. Make small clockwise circles. Make them bigger as you go. Come back to the middle and change direction. This pose helps you to release tension from your lower back, by massaging it.
  • Photo 4: Reclining twist
    Reclining twist pose. Lay on your back. Arms are out in a cross. Bring your knees towards your chest. Make a 90-degree angle with your hips and your knees and knees and ankle. Move your legs to the right, look to the left; keep both shoulders on the mat. If you want you can place your right hand on your knees, to add extra pressure.
  • Photo 5: Marjaryasana
    Catpose. Come to your hands and knees. Knees in a 90 degrees angle with your hips, shoulders with the wrists. Inhale, look up and arch your spine. Exhale, look down and round your spine. Do this with a minimum of 5 times.
  • Photo 6: Plank pose
    Plank pose with one knee forward. Make it look like you are a straight plank. Have your hips aligned with your body, so not high in the air or close to the ground. Shoulders are 90 degrees over your wrists. Contract your abdominal muscles. Bring your right knee to your right elbow. Try to stay here for 5 cycles of breath.
  • Photo 7: Salabhasana
    Locust pose. Start by having your whole body on the mat. Bring your arms back. On the inhale take both your arms and legs up. If this is too much to begin with, then start with only taking your chest off the mat. Second time only the legs. And third time both the chest (arms) and the legs.
  • Photo 8: Adho Mukha Svanasana
    Downward facing dog: Come onto the mat on your hands and knees. Knees are 90 degrees with your hips, hands straight under your shoulders. Tuck your toes under and on an exhale lift your knees away from the floor. Keep them slightly bent. Stretch one knee, bend the other. Switch several times. Bend both needs slightly and push your sitbones up in the air, while you push yourself away from your hands. On an exhale push your heels towards the mat. Stay for a minimum of three breaths.
  • Photo 9: Virabhadrasana II
    Warrior 2 pose. Turn your back foot to a 45-degree angle. Open your hips towards the side. Roll your shoulders down and back. Look over your front hand. Stay for at least 3 cycles of breath.
  • Photo 10: Utthita Trikonasana
    Extended triangle pose. Straighten your front leg. Have your torso similar to the Warrior 2 pose. Bring your body weight forward. Bring your arm down towards your leg. Either grab your thigh, lower part of the leg or ankle. Make sure your torso is parallel with your front leg. Stay for at least 3 cycles of breath.
  • Photo 11: Parivrtta Trikonasana
    Revolved triangle pose. Straighten your front leg, have your legs similar to the extended triangle pose. Have your arms out wide, bring the back arm forward and place it on the outside of your front foot. Look up to your hand. If necessary use a block to stabilize. Stay for at least 3 cycles of breath.
  • Photo 12: Utthita Parsvakonasana
    Side angle pose. Your front foot is pointing straight forward and your back foot is at a 45 degree angle (pointing slightly inwards). So your legs are as in the warrior 2 pose. On an exhale place your hand on the outside of your front foot and the other arm goes straight up or overhead. Open your hips to the side. If it is possible bind the pose: bring your lower arm, via the inside, underneath your front leg. Your upper arm goes backwards and embraces your back. Grab with the lower hand the hand that wraps around the back. Stay for a minimum of 3 cycles of breath.
  • Photo 13: Parsva Balasana
    Thread and needle pose. With an inhale take one arm up, look towards it and then bring it through the hole of your knee and hand. Shoulder and ear to the ground. Try to keep your hips aligned.
  • Photo 14: Marichyasana 3
    Sage Pose. Sit on the mat, both legs forward and back straight. Bend your right knee and place your heel close to your hips. Have a fist distance between your leg and your heel. Inhale, take both your arms up. Twist from your belly button towards the right. Left hand goes on your right knee, bring your right hand behind your back. Twist your head last, to look over your shoulders. Stay for a minimum of three cycles of breath. Change side.
  • Photo 15: Halasana
    Plow pose. From the previous pose, shoulderstand, bring your feet down over your head. Make sure it is a controlled movement. Keep your arms in your back. Or if you want, interlace your fingers and stretch your arms out on the mat. If your toes can’t touch the mat, you keep your hands in your back – or you place blocks under your feet. Stay here for a minimum of 5 cycles of breath.
  • Photo 16: Salamba Sarvangasana
    Shoulder stand. Lay down on your back. Palms are facing down on the mat. Bring your knees into your chest. With the force of your hands push your hips off the floor. Place your hands in your back. Straighten your legs upright. Walk your hands closer to your shoulders blades. Stay here; wait until you can breath properly. If gravity is pulling you down, walk your hands closer to your shoulder blades and give yourself a lift. Stay for a minimum of 10 cycles of breath.
  • Photo 17: Matsyasana
    Fish pose. Lay down on your back. Place your hands under your hips, palms facing down. Breathe into your chest and bring it up. Place the top of your head on the mat. Make sure the weight is on your hips and not on your head. Stay for a minimum of 5 breath cycles.
  • Photo 18: Reclining twist
    Reclining twist pose. Lay on your back. Arms are out in a cross. Bring your knees towards your chest. Make a 90-degree angle with your hips and your knees and knees and ankle. Move your legs to the right, look to the left; keep both shoulders on the mat. If you want you can place your right hand on your knees, to add extra pressure.

The happiness of doing something for another

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Me with my 2 yoga teachers minutes after I finished my teacher training. Such happiness!

This blog is a very personal one and I decided to write about it, because lately I have been experiencing more and more happiness.

Great, right? But I, the person as I am, started wondering. Why am I so much happier then I was before? I still live in the same city, I still live there under the same circumstances, I have the same friends (although a few more) and my family and friends in Netherlands still miss me – and vice-versa.

And one moment it just hit me. The happiness I experience is not happiness of the moment, it is not temporarily happiness, it is a happiness to stay, caused by something that did change in my life: my career. As a yoga teacher I am now really, truly helping people.

Funnily, I tried to battle this ‘need to help others’ for years. When I worked as a consultant, there was a moment where I wore myself out because I always tried to help others at the cost of myself: wanted or un-wanted help. The company gave me a very good counselor and we worked on how to deal with this ‘problem’; how to stop this urge of helping others and focus just on myself.

How wrong I was at that point I only realise now. Honestly, the best moment of each yoga class I teach is the moment where the student comes out of Savasana (relaxation pose) and sits there still, at ease, connected with the self. The moment they open their eyes, that is beyond the best: it shows gratitude, happiness and a peace they did not have when entering the room.

During classes I can have doubts about what poses to do next, if I am making the right choices for the student in front of me. It makes me nervous and insecure at times. But when they open their eyes and I see that look in their eyes – I know! I know that I did it again.

And that creates that feeling of happiness that multiplies each time I see it. That feeling is the thing that shows me I did something bigger, something that reached further than myself. I feel genuine happiness because I did something for someone else. And this happiness is sustainable; it is one that is there to stay.

The pose begins when you want to leave it

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In yoga we try to balance in the poses, we balance strength with flexibility, we balance left with right and we’re trying to sense what’s going on in our body. We need to sense in our body how far we can move into a stretch. However, often we have lost this type of connection with ourselves, because we are so used to pushing over our boundaries or not pushing them at all. This article focuses on those who push themselves over their boundaries.

The title of this blog is a famous quote of Eckhart Tolle, who is considered one of the most spiritual people of the moment. This quote never had a real significance to me, until I (re)stumbled upon it recently. This simple quote started to make a lot of sense, because I had experienced the effects of not leaving a pose, but also, I often see that yoga practitioners try to get out of a pose whenever they start feeling discomfort.

This is exactly the interesting contradiction of what I am writing about. Practitioners prefer to leave the poses when it gets uncomfortable, but on the other hand, we often push over our boundaries as if it is nothing.

To explain this concept, I prefer to use my own experiences. Ever since I was little I used to push myself in various ways; I always wanted to be better, do more, achieve more and be some kind of super woman. When I was in university I was studying for my Masters Degree, enrolled in a Full-Time board function for a student organization, working in the weekends to make money, meeting up with friends every night and I was trying to be the most amazing girlfriend ever. Nothing was less important, all had to be done, I always felt like there was no option. Until my body and mind had made the choice for me: it shut down, so I went from all to nothing. For months I was so tired, walking on egg shells, not enjoying the good things in life, because it always felt like I had no option, like it was another task on my to do list.

What this example shows is how pushing over your limits goes beyond uncomfortable. And what it also shows is that boundaries can be moved, but only if you do it for a short period of time. On the long term it will get back to you.

That is also very true for yoga. When people come to class, they often come from work, are on their way to another activity and have a mind that is racing. That is because we live in a fast paced world, where we all want results quickly. This short-term focus causes that we push ourselves further than we can. However, in yoga we are supposed to do the opposite, we slow down. We don’t go for quick results, but we build everything up slowly. So when we go too fast and we are not aware of what is going on in our body, we will hurt ourselves. And all we do is a simple exercise routine that we can do in every gym around the corner.

In yoga we sense, we connect our breath to the movement, we create space in our body, we discover where our boundaries are, we show respect to our body, we don’t let our mind control us, but we let our body tell the story. We don’t go for the quick wins, but we train for a marathon. So the moment we realize we get uncomfortable in a pose that is the moment where we can learn, because in that exact moment all our automatic responses and habits come into place. And instead of giving in to our mind, we give ourselves the gift of breaking down our old habits. And that is what yoga is all about.

How to look at your own body?

Different bodies

Just as in most sports, in yoga our body is the instrument we use to practice. Using it as an instrument helps us to become aware of our body and its boundaries. In some other sports the breath is also used as an instrument to practice. In yoga the breath is just as key as the body itself.

In fact, if you start investigating the meaning behind yoga you come down to the following: yoga means to unite, to connect. It means the union between mind, body & spirit. And to reach this we perform postures (asanas) with our bodies and we make an attempt to control our inner patterns of breath. In other words, we connect our movement with the breath. This is particularly true for Vinyasa yoga, the type of yoga I teach and practice.

So why is this important to know when I am writing about ‘how to look at your own body’? There are many ways to discover your own body. The most obvious one is something we do on a daily basis: looking at ourselves in the mirror. We get to see a reflection of our external self, we get a chance to see our body from an outsider perspective. When using a mirror, we usually only see the front of our body and we choose the angle by which we see ourselves, pretty or unflattering. However, the back remains un-known, or we don’t like the sight of what we are seeing, so we prefer not too look at it at all.

Another way to get to know our body is letting another explore it. This could be a doctor, investigating your body to find what is wrong. But it can also be your partner discovering every part in a more intimate way. This way you can discover your body through the eyes of another person. What is good, what is beautiful, where you are healthy & where you are sick. An interesting catch about this way of discovering your body, is that you are the only one also feeling what they do. You add an extra dimension that no one else can have while exploring your body. If you close your eyes, you can feel their touch and so you discover your body from the inside too.

Discovering your body from the inside is a very powerful tool to really understand what is going on with you, to really understand who you are. A simple technique to do this is used in Vipassana meditation and various therapies:

  • Close your eyes, lay down or sit still
  • Take a few deep breaths into your belly. Follow your breath in and out through your nose (as if you are meditating)
  • Start scanning your body: bring your awareness to your toes and feel them from the inside.
  • Slowly make your way up, from your toes, through your ankles, calf muscles, knees, thighs, hips, etc., all the way to the top of your head.
  • Scan your body up and down, down and up.

When you take a few minutes in your bed, or behind your desk, to scan your body with your eyes closed, you will notice that you can control your energy and your thoughts.

Leslie Kaminoff, the breathing guru of this moment, explains this action as follows: You are now piercing your body with a sharp instrument from the inside, your awareness. Instead of cutting it with a sharp instrument from the outside, a knife, we use our own sharpest instrument, our awareness. This instrument is really connected to you, and will therefore be able to make you really look at you own body and see it in a complete context.

In yoga we use the breath to deepen this piercing of your body. We can use the breath to discover the boundaries of our body, to calm our mind and gain self-knowledge. When you synchronize the yoga movements (called asanas) with the breath, you will notice how you can create space in your body with an inhale, and you will learn to let go on an exhale. Your breath can go to every part of your body, as long as you use your attention and awareness to the area that needs the breath.

If we learn to look at our body from the inside, with our awareness and with the breath, we get a completely different understanding about what are bodies need, what they look like and how we have to take care of them. Instead of having the outside view about how tight your clothes are, you can go inside and discover if we are healthy or not. You learn to feel how to feed your body: what are your cravings and what is a necessity to remain healthy and happy. You will also learn how your mind tricks you into being lazy before exercising, how it tricks you into eating fatty and sugary foods and how it changes your self-perspective. When you know your own tricks and when you really know your body, then you will learn to love it, with all its uniqueness, perfections and imperfections.

How yoga can help in difficult times

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As I am a Dutch person, born and raised, the news of last week’s plane crash, of the MH-17, hit me hard. 298 beautiful souls were killed in a plane crash of which 193 Dutch citizens.  Not that it should make any difference, every person on that plane had its own story and leaves behind family and loved ones, but all of a sudden a tragedy like this came a whole lot closer.

The day after the crash I went to my regular yoga class, I dedicated my class to these people, and it was then when it hit me. And instead of calming down, I noticed I started feeling more and more upset about this insane injustice. When I came home I felt the need to share some thoughts, which I did via Facebook:

” I am literally lost for words and sick to my stomach reading about the crashed plane. Shooting down a passenger flight with 300 people, for what exactly? To claim your land, to get what you want, to show who is the boss? It brings me to tears to know that this is the world we live in today. We kill innocent people to enlarge our ego’s, we kill innocent people over grudges we hold, we kill innocent people because we believe we own things. And the saddest part of it all is, that nobody owns anything. We all live on a piece of this earth, with our families, friends, neighbors, animals & plants. This land belongs to the earth and everybody that lives on it. Because in the end, when you die – like these 300 beautiful souls – we don’t leave behind what we own, that is not important anymore, we leave behind loved ones & memories. And they would turn in whatever you ‘own’ to get you back. So let’s take a lesson from this: let’s be extra good to each other, spend extra time with the people you love, be kind to your neighbors, connect with the nature around you and really see who else lives on that space you call ‘mine’. Share it with them and everybody else who comes along. I know I will <3″

I decided to see what yoga has to say about these occasions, these disasters, and this kind of suffering. And what I found was compelling and interesting to me. In yoga there is a word to describe this: Dukha, which means suffering.

In one of the oldest scriptures of yoga; the Yoga Sutra’s, there are some interesting insights.

Sutra 2.15: Parinaama Taapa Sanskaara dukhaihi guna vrittivirodhaascha dukhameva sarvam vivekinah

This sutra basically describes that every event causes some sort of pain. Suffering is in our lives, always, because we are on a constant search for happiness. The pain is caused by the amount of joyfulness we experience, because we will start craving for more. Because however joyful something is, there is a moment that it will end. And the greater the joy it created, the greater the pain when it ends.  The memories of this pleasure bring pain. The fear over losing it causes pain. Love creates pain, especially with separation.

So losing a loved one, is extremely painful, it causes a lot of Duhka, suffering. Losing a lost one over such a useless act makes it even worse.  The grief and the grudges we feel can create deep wounds. Wounds that will shut you down, wounds that will make you forget that you are alive – you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you have actual physical pain in your body and muscles.

Nothing can take this pain, disbelief and injustice away. However, there are some things we can practice to help us try to come to a state of mind where we can learn to accept, where we can learn to find a place for what is happening.

In this case, from the perspective of yoga, we can do the following:

  1. Calming our mind through breathing
  2. Practice compassion

Breathing

Breathing exercises practiced in yoga can help to calm our minds, create more clarity and create space. Through breathing we can stop our mind from lying to ourselves and give in to this suffering. We can stop repressing it and express it through our bodies.  We can start on the path to not undo what has been done, fight against the loss, but transform ourselves. Find strength and new different perspectives that can help us come out of our misery. Of course this can not all be done through breathing, but I believe it is a starting point.

Compassion

When we have found our way to calm our mind and work on coming out of our misery, there is a way to practice compassion. Even though in this situation it feels like an impossible act to practice compassion against the ‘bad guys’, we can practice compassion with our close surroundings and ourselves. The yoga sutra’s say the following about this:

Sutra 1.33: Maitri karuna mudito pekshanam sukha duhkha punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam

In our lives we see people that are happier then we are, but we also see people who are less happy, people who suffer even more. Whatever our attitude is towards these people and their actions, if we can be pleased with others being happy and compassionate to others who are unhappy, joyful towards the things that are praiseworthy and remain undisturbed by the mistakes others make, our mind can stay calm. This way we can develop traits in ourselves such as love (maitri), helpfulness (karuna), friendliness (mudita) and eveness of emotions or temper / calmness (upekṣa).

I believe that when everyone practices more compassion, the world will become a better place. We will share love with our loved ones, neighbors, strangers in the street, nature and animals. By simply smiling to each other we create a different atmosphere and we can make a small change in this world.  Practice to not judge, but taking time to listen and by staying close to our own emotions and feelings. By being compassionate we stop fighting violence with violence, but instead we choose for compassion and love. Does this mean that people can get away with horrible things they do (to others)? No! Justice will find its way to these people, one way or another. But by calming our mind, creating clarity in our thoughts and by practicing compassion and love, we do not let these 300 un-necessary deaths go to waste. We honor these 300 beautiful souls, by changing our direct environment, and with that the whole world.

And so, this blog will end as I closed off my Facebook post:

So let’s take a lesson from this: let’s be extra good to each other, spend extra time with the people you love, be kind to your neighbors, connect with the nature around you and really see who else lives on that space you call ‘mine’. Share it with them and everybody else who comes along. I know I will ❤

 

NOTE: I found it extremely difficult to write about this subject, since I am very deeply touched by the downing of MH-17. If I have offended anyone with my writing I sincerely apologize. I merely tried to share my opinion and my thoughts for what it all means and how to deal with such a tragedy. 

Yoga for stiff guys

Yoga for stiff guys sequence

“Yoga is not for me, I am not flexible”. This is probably the sentence I hear the most from male clients.

Let me first clear up the biggest misconception about yoga. Yoga is not about being flexible; it is about your state of mind while performing the poses. Yoga is training your body left and right, bottom and top and in different challenging postures while trying to keep your breath steady and calm. It is training your mind to not give in when it becomes challenging and it is training nurturing your soul because we try to deal with emotions that come on our way. By practicing this, we get to know our body, the boundaries of our body, but most of all, we get a calm mind. And that is what yoga is all about, calming the mind.

So for all these guys who feel like yoga is not for them, because they are too stiff, I’ve set up a yoga sequence especially for you. This sequence will help you get more flexible in your hip area, shoulders and lower back. You can do the postures by looking at the photos, going from left to right and down (as if you read a book). If you have any doubts about the postures, here are some basic rules and/or explanations.

Basic rules for yoga for stiff guys

  • Make long, deep and controlled breaths through your nose. Focus on your breath going in and out while being in a posture. Try to make your exhale slightly longer then your inhale.  Stay in a pose for at least 3 cycles of inhales and exhales.
  • Let your breath initiate a movement. Inhale is a movement upwards, exhale is a movement downwards or a twist.
  • Work both sides of your body. Do every posture on the right side and then switch to the left.
  • While you’re in a standing pose always check your front knee. When one is bent, it makes a 90 degree angle with your ankle, however, it should never go over your ankle.
  • There is NO pose in yoga where we have our shoulders close to our ears. So when you are settled in a pose, always pay attention to your shoulders. Roll them backwards and down.

If you need some guidance for the poses, below you can find the main adjustments per picture

  • Picture 1: If you sit down make sure your knees are not higher than your hips, that will become very uncomfortable quickly. Preferably, use a block, blanket or pillow to sit on. Make sure your back is straight and your shoulders are low. Breathe in deeply to your belly and breathe out slowly.
    If you want to know more about meditation, read this blog entry
  • Picture 2: Mountain pose: Use a block between your legs to make sure your legs are active. If you don’t have a block, pull up your toes, which will have a similar effect. Roll your shoulders back and down and contract your abdominal muscles, feel both your feet on the mat, your weight is equally divided over both feet. Stand firm.
  • Picture 3: Standing forward bend pose. Hang forward with your knees slightly bent while holding your elbows. Feel how, due to your head hanging down, the vertebrae’s in your neck are getting some space. Stay in this pose for at least 5 cycles of inhales and exhales.
  • Picture 4: Plank pose, so make it look like you are a straight plank. Have your hips aligned with your body, so not high in the air or close to the ground. Shoulders are 90 degrees over your wrists. Contract your abdominal muscles. Try to stay here for 5 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 5: Cobra pose. When you come on the mat, first lay down your whole body. Place your hands next to your chest and with an inhale you press yourself up. Arms are still slightly bent.
  • Picture 6: Locust pose. Start by having your whole body on the mat. Bring your arms back. On the inhale take both your arms and legs up. If this is too much to begin with, then start with only taking your chest of the mat. Second time only the legs. And third time both the chest (arms) and the legs.
  • Picture 7 & 8: Catpose. Come to your hands and knees. Knees in a 90 degrees angle with your hips, shoulders with the wrists. Inhale, look up and arch your spine. Exhale, look down and round your spine. Do this with a minimum of 5 times.
  • Picture 9 and 10: Thread and needle pose. With an inhale take one arm up, look towards it and then bring it through the hole of your knee and hand. Shoulder and ear to the ground. Try to keep your hips aligned.
  • Picture 11: Warrior 1 pose. Come to the front of your mat, standing. Step backwards with one leg.  Knee is 90 degree over your ankle, hips point forward, arms are up, shoulders are down.
  • Picture 12: Warrior 2 pose. Turn your back foot to a 45 degree angle. Open your hips towards the side. Roll your shoulders down and back. Look over your front hand.
  • Picture 13: Side angle pose. Both feet are pointing straight forward. Place your hands under your face. Inhale, lengthen your spine, exhale fold forward. Stay here with a minimum of 5 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 14: Tree pose. Put all the weight on one leg. Place the other one in your thigh or on your lower leg. Never on the knee!! Focus on a point in front of you and don’t let it go. Stand up tall. Hands in prayer in front of your chest. Minimum of 5 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 15: Sit on your knees. Have them hip-distance apart. Take one leg to the side. Place your arm of the bend knee onto the mat, other arm over head. Feel the side stretch of your body.
  • Picture 16: Bridge pose. Lay down on your back, knees are up, feet are hips distance apart. Measure the size of your legs by bringing your arms next to your body and try to touch your heel with the tip of your middle finger. Then interlace your fingers behind your back. Push your hips up as far as you can, roll your shoulders together. Breathe into your chest.
  • Picture 17: The crow pose. Bend your knees and come as far down with your hips as possible (butt not touching the floor). Place your hands on the mat, open your fingers as wide as you can. Bring your knee in your arm pits or on the outside of your upper arm (not below the elbow). Push with your knees against your arm. Contract your abdominal muscles. Come to the tips of your toes and move your body weight forward. Try to lift one foot, then the other and then both. Balance on your arms as long as you want.
  • Picture 18: Child’s pose. Sit on your heels. Take both your arms up. Bring your hands in front of you on the mat. Rest your forehead on the mat. Breathe deeply into your belly. Let your body come to a rest.

 

 

How does yoga benefit you physically?

Benefits-of-Yoga-Infographic

Yoga, as a movement and lifestyle, has really grown in the past 10 years in the Western world. It went from an almost women-only activity to a common good for both men and women. It went from fluffy and hippie to hip and a necessity for our mind and body. Basically it went from underground to mainstream. To me it feels great to realize that so many other people have seen and felt the benefits of yoga.

However, I still often get the question: what is different about yoga when compared to other sports? Or: How is yoga better for you than sport X? To be honest, I prefer not to answer this question. For the simple reason that yoga is no better than any other sport, just like no person is any better than another person. What I can answer are the known benefits of yoga and how it helps me.

There are different categories to answer this question: mind, body and spirit. In this blog I focus on the body and how that works technically, where possible I will share my own experiences.

Body
As I started doing yoga I noticed that my body transformed. It got more lean and fit. In yoga we spent a lot of time stretching, flexing and strengthening our bodies. We always put an equal effort on the left and right side of our body, as well as to the top and bottom.

Flexibility
Most beginners tell me, I won’t be very good at yoga, because I am not very flexible. First of all, yoga is not about flexibility, but about your state of mind while performing your poses, or when you meditate. Having said that, when I started doing yoga the first improvements I noticed were in my flexibility. The first class I found it a struggle to touch my toes, or even worse, do a backbend. Doing these stretching exercises weekly quickly showed me progress. My body was loosening, because I was able to breath to the discomfort and therefore able to let go of the tensions in my body (mainly my hip area). The pain and aches were diminishing as I was gradually becoming more flexible. Nowadays we don’t stretch and flex our bodies often. We spend our days behind our computer, shortening our muscles around the hip, we then get into a car, or on our bikes, to then sit down behind the tv or to have dinner. We need to deliberately stretch our bodies, we need to put in the effort. A great thing is that we can exactly feel where we need the most attention. As soon as we start stretching, our body hurts and aches, in that moment and the days after. It also gives quick results, giving us the energy and power to continue.

Strength
In yoga we strengthen our bodies with our own body weight. Usually I see women having an easier time with the flexibility, men have more strength. Same goes for me. Building strength is still my main focus. In life we need both, strength and flexibility – this needs to be equally developed. If you only have flexibility you are like a twig, fragile and easily imbalanced. With only strength you are like a Michelin doll, pumped up with no space to move your body.

I am part of the first category, I have too much flexibility. And even though that allows me to elegantly do the poses (asanas), I really learned that I often need to take a step back and simply squeeze. The squeezing helps to build strength and because of that I have become a lot stronger. I am better in balance poses, headstand, handstand and poses on one leg. This is due to my core muscles (the muscles around your hips, belly and sacrum).

Healthy joints
In yoga we go through a full range of movements: forward bends, backward bends, twists. All movements are being done on both the right and left side of our body.  Not a single part is neglected. By moving the joints you keep the joint cartilage elastic and lubricated, this is the only way for your cartilage to take in the nutrients it needs. This is extremely important to ensure that your cartilage will not wear out, which prevents bone-on-bone action. This counts for every joint: ankle, knees, hips, elbows, shoulders, neck and the vertebras of the spine.  Doing yoga on a daily basis, for me means a lot of joint movement and a lot of possible injuries.  To warm up my joints before a class I do a rolling the joints session (credits go to my beloved teacher David Lurey), to prevent myself from getting hurt.

Circulation of blood and oxygen
Yoga helps to improve your blood circulation and it increases the amount of oxygen to our cells. By making a forward-bend, we rush blood to our head, which helps us to release headaches and sinus infections because the ‘old’ blood is replaced by new oxygenated blood once we come back up and we are able to release the built up pressure.  By twisting we wring out venous blood from our organs and by releasing we allow new, fresh oxygenated blood in. Inverted poses reverse the direction of all the fluids in our body. Blood from the legs and the pelvis makes it way to our heart, which in turn has to work harder to pump the blood the other way around, and to get new fresh, oxygenated blood into our lungs. Because the oxygen in our blood cells helps against blood cloths swelling, yoga helps to decrease the risk of heart attacks, swelling in your legs and kidney problems. My direct experience with the circulation in my body is that the circulation in my fingers and feet improved tremendously. I used to always have very cold fingers, especially in wintertime they sometimes turned blue and seemed almost dead. This problem has completely disappeared.

Immune System
Yoga helps to boost immunity at a cellular level. It helps to boost our overall health, since we increase the amount of oxygen in our body, we take good care of our skeletal system (bones and joints) and we improve the circulation of our body, which helps the organs to function at its best. I used to be sick at least 3 times per year. Flu, fever, cold, you name it. Good years 3 times, bad years countless times. Now, I am hardly ever sick. Obviously I have days where I can clearly feel my body is fighting a flu, but it rarely happens that I actually get it, and it usually doesn’t last longer then a day.

Changed nerve system
Back in the days, when offices did not exist, we 0nly had two responses to stress: fight or flight. Nowadays, we cannot fight against our boss, neither can we run away from them. By focusing on your breathing while doing challenging yoga poses, you can learn to slow down your breath and to remain focused and present. This lowers our heart-rate, blood pressure and increases the blood flow to our intestines and reproductive organs. In other words, you create a mechanism in your body to calm down and restore your body. My reactions in stressfull situations have changed a lot. When I notice I get stressed, I also notice I need more meditation and yoga. Which sometimes proves to be more difficult, less time available means less time to do my practice. But these are the perfect practices to work on my nervous system and to calm myself down. In Vipassana it is said that when you get into stressful and difficult situations you cannot do it all good in once, but what counts is the time you get stuck in your emotion. You work on decreasing that time. And that is what I am doing, decreasing my moments of stressed and intense emotions.

Lymph drainage
Drainage of your lymph nodes is caused by the contraction and stretching of the muscle and by massaging our internal organs through twisting the body. This helps your system to fight infections, to drain the toxins in our body and to destroy dangerous (cancer) cells.

 There are many more physical benefits to describe, but these are the once I know of and am able to explain and describe. The next blog I will go more in-depth in the benefits for the mind and spirit.