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Yoga + Meditation

The Gift of Compassion

Gabrielle Stratton

Its an insidious notion within spiritual practices - the harder or more efficiently I practice the more perfect I will become. Often time Yoga teachers and yogis alike are looked upon to be a template of health, dedication and steady balance. Sure we all strive for this, and in the age of social media, it’s more often than not difficult to separate the notion of happiness with perceived happiness.

Yoga is oft looked upon as an “easy” / surefire approach to enlightenment, to deal with flare up of emotions and to hold fast the idea of compassionate listening and understanding. The truth is we suffer, we suffer a great deal and if we use our practice appropriately we are intimately aware of this suffering

Cultivating Mobility for Deeper Backbends

Gabrielle Stratton

 

Taking a yoga class, one can almost guarantee there will be some version of a twist included in the practice. Twisting, in general, is great as a neutralizing pose, a beautiful way to keep the spine healthy, and often times a challenge pose. Typically, we find that most of our twisting is centralized in the low back - which for the most part is great for low back health. The problem with twisting over and over in a generalized area is that the less mobile parts (i.e. thoracic area) tend to stay immobilized. Overtime this can have negative implications on the the low back and neck. 

So, you might be thinking - I’ve been doing it wrong this entire time. That’s definitely not the case here. Mobility through your lumbar and cervical spine are a great way to keep the spine supple, but with a little bit of mindfulness you can actually work to create the most optimized movement for a more dynamic and structurally sound practice. Let’s take a quick look at the structure of the spine to help us understand and mindfully apply movement toward the middle/ upper back region. 

Anatomy of the spine

The spinal column is made up of 33 individual bones, split into five regions (we’ll be focusing on the top 3). Its surrounded by ligaments and a sound muscular structure that helps to keep the spine aligned and the bones stacking on top of one another. The spinal column is our main support and as so helps us to stand upright, bend and twist. The cervical spine, thoracic spine and lumbar spine make up the 3 largest regions of the spine. 

The seven cervical vertebrae (the neck region) make up the most mobile part of our spine and its main duty is to keep the head supported. The thoracic region is made up of twelve vertebrae and houses the structure to protect the heart (the rib cage). The last 5 vertebrae are referred to as the lumbar spine (the low back) and bear much of the weight of the body. 

It is important to note that while creating mobility is optimal,the thoracic spine is naturally limited in its range of motion because of its direct connection to the rib cage. 

Building a Mindful Practice for the Thoracic Spine

Applying a bit of mindfulness to a specific area will always help you to hone in on your intuitive movement, this is no different for the thoracic spine. One of the most important things to remember is to utilize the surrounding structure to increase mobility through the upper and middle back. For the most part you will find that if done correctly your abs will be firing; activating your abdominal structure will help to support your low back. Here are 3 cues to keep in mind:

1. keep your chin over your heart

2. plug the shoulder into the shoulder socket and move as an entire unit, rather than a singular structure.

3. if your are twisting to the right, keep twisting the navel to the left

Connecting the movement to the knowledge

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to go through a Spinal Immersion with Yoga Medicine. I picked up a few tricks, specifically for the thoracic spine. Below are my 4 favorite poses to emphasis movement through the thoracic spine.  I recommend doing them in sequential order as each one builds upon the other. See if you can apply this idea to bigger postures like revolved triangle. 

Start by grounding yourself 

1. Lie in savasana and allow yourself to observe your natural breath. Become aligned and integrated with the natural cadence of your breath. Slowly begin to deepen your breath and turn on your ujjayi breath. Think about sending your inhalation to the base of your lungs first and allowing for the breath to travel upwards rather than starting in the chest. On your inhalation see if you can begin to create space between each rib set, beginning to activate and stretch the intercostal muscles. With each exhalation see if you can retain that lift of the rib cage but gently settle deeper into the posture. If you find yourself gripping or tightening in any place, just back off a little. 

2. Lying on your back - bring your knees over your hips and “T” or cactus your arms out toward the side. Find a twist by gently taping your knees to left side and letting yourself relax here. Think of turning your navel toward the right and breath into the lateral lines on the right side body. This is a simple twist, but with a bit of targeted thinking you can begin to develop movement through the thoracic spine

3. Standing in a Uttanasana (Forward fold) feet hip distance apart plant your left hand in between your feet (may need a block if your hand does not reach the ground) try to keep a micro bend in the knees. Inhale to bring the right elbow to the right side waist - think pulling back a bow and arrow. Keep that elbow hugging toward the midline as you begin to open your arm toward the ceiling. Keep your chin over middle of your chest to keep the movement centralized. Take 5 breaths here and repeat on the other side. 

4. Come into crescent lunge. Find a steady foundation with an emphasis on squaring off the hips. Think navel toward the spine to keep the low back steady. Inhale to raise the arms toward the ceiling, palms to face each other. Exhale your hands in front of you keeping your torso long. As you inhale slide the right arm past the mid line of the body coming into an open twist. Keep the chin over the chest and the tail bone slightly tucking forward and up to protect the neck and low back. Take 3 breaths here. 

 

 

 

Coax Yourself Into Happiness

Gabrielle Stratton

A friend recently asked me to shed light on the idea of moving or releasing negative energy or anger in ones yoga practice. As a teacher and a student, ultimately I am intrigued by the idea that yoga can be used as a healing modality for both physical and mental ailments. This got me thinking about the bigger picture, not just the idea that certain asanas may release anger. 

Anger is both a physiological and physical obtrusion in the body. This indicates that anger can have a huge negative impact on your mental and physical state. Those with stored up anger have the risk of causing high blood pressure, heart disease and are often more susceptible to depression along with a myriad of other ramifications. 

One of the most powerful parts of yoga as a medicine, are its implications to actually coax the body into a state of ease and particularly in this case a sense of calm. Physiologically speaking this comes from the idea that we can help to regulate our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) through the act of awareness, mindfulness and our exhalation. 

 

The PNS is part of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) comprised of our Parasympathetic and our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). The PNS functions as the part of our nervous systems that helps to stimulate the rest and digest response. The SNS works as an arousal factor and is heavily used in the notion of anger. The SNS floods the system with stress hormones, particularly adrenaline (hence flight or fight reaction). PNS acting as a counter to SNS releases a hormone called acetylcholine which helps to calm the body down. 

The PNS’s main squeeze is the Vagus Nerve. Think of the Vagus Nerve or the the 10th cranial nerve acting as commander in chief, who helps to regulate functioning of his employees (i.e. PNS). It helps the PNS to send out signals to most of our internal organs allowing them to perform functions or not. The movement, specifically exhalation, helps to stimulate the PNS response. The natural cadence of your inhalation and exhalation and its relation to heart rate is also directly related to your ability to respond to situations. Hence, yoga. 

In yoga, we typically stress the importance of maintaining your breath and this isn’t just some cultish thing we all want you to be a part of. This is actual science working with you. In order stimulate the vagus nerve practice pranayama that emphasizes your exhalation. Deep diaphragmatic breathing is a great way to coax the vagus nerve and poses like sarvangasana (shoulder stand) and halasana (plow) should be added in a practice to stimulate the vagus nerve. Because the vagus nerve runs through the neck it is directly stimulated by shoulder-stand, just make sure you are not compressing or tensing the neck. Do a more restorative version with 2 - 3 blankets at the edge of your shoulder. Chanting is also a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve through vibration.

Take this practice into your daily life, when you feel rapid succession of breathing or feel yourself tensing take 3-10 deep breaths, emphasizing the exhalation. 

Practical Application: Ease into your morning

Gabrielle Stratton

Make the decision to wake up and do something great for yourself. 

Having a cheery disposition is easier for some in the early morning hours, but for most we could use a little engine revving in the morning. I find when I take a little time to meditate and stretch my muscles in the morning, it can be better than coffee.

We've all had it happen, we go to sleep the night before with the intention to wake up and kick ass. But when morning comes and our alarms go off, 5/10/15 more minutes of sleep seems like a better decision. So for those stiff mornings or unmotivated days I find waking up and doing a few stretches is a great way to get the ball rolling. 

The anatomy of it all: For a lot of us we wake up feeling a little tight in our lower back (lumbar spine area) and a bit tighter in our hamstrings. This is because over night your spinal discs are actually rehydrating themselves, causing a bit of swelling in your discs which causes that initial few moments to be a little less comfortable. That's why it is important to take it slow in the morning and not just pop straight out of bed. 

I like to roll over onto one side pressing my palm into the mattress and gently push my way to a seated position. 

First: Once I've found myself on my mat or even on the ground I begin in balasana (child's pose position) toes to touch knees spread the width of your mat and sitting back on your heels hands stretched in front of you. Depending on where I am feeling tight I tend to take different variations. Finding moments of stillness allowing me to take the ease of my sleep into the ease of the pose. Maybe walking my hands over to right, finding the length in my side (breathing into my ribcage) and then back to center and over to the right for one variation. if my shoulder are feeling especially heavy I take my hands overhead leaving my triceps on the ground and rest my hands on my back.

 

Second: Rooting palms into the mat, I find myself in a table top position to push myself back into downward facing dog. Taking a moment to check in with my alignment, finding length from my sacrum to my cervical spine and allowing my neck to dangle. This might be a bent knee down dog or straight leg, allowing my body to make that decision for me. Inhale my right leg into the air stepping forward (foot between hands) drop my back knee onto the the mat. Either keeping my knee on the mat or raising it off the ground I plant my left hand on the mat and inhale my right arm into the air, finding a nice twist in my spine. (repeat both sides)

Third: Walk my feet up to my hands and find myself in tadasana (mountain pose). Feet to touch, hands by my side shooting grounding energy from my limbs, I take a few moments here to breath and maybe set an intention. Inhale I come up into chair pose (utkatasana), drop my belly onto my thighs and swing my arms behind me, allowing my legs to fire on and my lower back to relax. From here I typically fold forward and move through a vinyasa or Im scrunched for time I just find myself in a seated position. (not pictured)

Fourth: take a small bridge. feet hip width apart relax your glutes, turn on your abdomen and press your pelvis toward the ceiling. maybe interlace hands underneath you. Come down and find your feet in supta baddha konasana (reclined bound angle) soles of the feet to touch knees out in "butterfly" From here I either take a spinal twist and move into some sort of meditation or find a few seconds of savasana and begin my day. 

Hope you enjoy!  

 

Practical Applications: Hip Flexibility

Gabrielle Stratton

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If you’ve ever practiced yoga whether you’re a novice or an advanced practitioner you are aware of the importance of hip flexibility and within that hip stability whether you know it or not. As one of the single most important aspects of a strong asana (hatha) practice the topic is glanced at over and over. The problem isn’t that you aren’t aware of the fact that yoga postures derive from strong hip stability/flexibility, but as a layman practitioner maybe you aren’t aware of the importance to your own body.

First, Id like to address the notion that hip flexibility is the cause of your inability to work into many postures and cautiously advise to look at hip flexibility as rather a result (see hip stability). This is why working into postures with correct alignment and awareness of your anatomical structure is extremely important. And when I say your, I strongly stress the notion of you as every bodies body is different. 

So here my objectives are in two fold - how can you improve hip joint mobility itself while lengthening the muscular structure that forms that line of resistance. In a beautifully written article by Tiffany Cruikshank she addresses the importance of not dumping into your flexibility (i.e. hyper mobility) which can be the cause of permanent damage and injury and can found in many practitioners (myself included). http://www.yogajournal.com/article/yoga-101/anatomy-101-understand-your-hips-to-build-stability/ 

The point here is basically that when we are working with any sort of joint mobility and stability it is of utmost importance to be aware of our limitations. Ultimately this means we must be conscious of what our limitations are produced by, i.e. muscle, ligaments or bony stops. This doesn’t require a high degree of study just some basic mindfulness of your own body. So, yoga. 

Overstretching of areas through the ligaments can ultimately cause destabilization. As Tiffany points out, ligaments are not elastic, they do not stretch and bounce back. We must also recognize that our bone structure is part of the plan of our body - our body sets its own limitations for us and it is incredibly important to listen to that. 

So what does that mean for people who are building up to a posture or even further for those who are deep into a posture and want more? Focus on the stability of the muscular structure - take a moment to listen to your body and rather than pushing further to feel that stretch take a moment to recognize what other parts of your body are asking for attention. Let’s take myself as an example. For me pigeon has always been pretty easy to pop in out of - so what I take notice of is how my quads and my knee are reacting to the pose. Quite often in pigeon my hips will be perfectly aligned but my knee will feel like somebody is tearing it in opposite directions so rather than dig deeper into that hip stretch I work on strengthening the muscular structure of my knee by doing a pose like supine pigeon and virasana. Poses like pigeon are extremely weight bearing and should be slowly worked up to. 

One of my favorite ways to check in with hip stability is to take a pose in Utkatasana (chair/lighting pose). 

1. Stand with feet together and sit back as if you are sitting deep into a chair. 

2. Slightly notice the firing of your glute muscles and take a moment to check in with your lumbar (lower back) - if you find your self having a banana back slightly tuck your tailbone under by engaging your core (belly button back toward spine) and tilt your tailbone slightly.

3. Making sure the weight is evenly distributed through both feet, begin to send your energy and rooting toward you left foot and without lifting your hips begin to move your right foot away from your midline until you find a nice lateral leg extension (bring it back in and switch sides). 

4. Notice how when you are not engaging your standing hip automatically wants to sink down and out of the socket. Keep engaged and stay in correct alignment. Take this with you in your physical postures. 

Working on hip openers in inversions is a great way to stay away from weight bearing postures and for the extreme novice I suggest working in a supine position (laying on the back face up). 

One of my favorite forward folds to work into hip flexibility is Janu Sirsana (head to knee pose). This is a great pose to stretch the hamstrings while protecting the lower back and working with left/right imbalances as it is an asymmetrical pose. 

Simple Meditation Tips

Gabrielle Stratton

 

Simple Meditation Tips

Its my own personal belief that every person can benefit from meditation. 

There are many methods to meditation and each person finds their own that fits their personal style. For my personal practice, I try to meditate in the mornings and when I'm feeling hesitant in the morning or am in a rush I try to practice before I lay my head down at night. I also try to use yoga as a moving meditation. 

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Tight Hamstrings? Try this.

Gabrielle Stratton

Tight Hamstrings? Try This. 

For most of us when we think flexibility we automatically think of the hamstrings and for good reason too. Our hamstrings play a major role not only in the stretching of our forward folds but in the stability and mobility of our pelvis. While it is very important to create length in your hamstrings it is just as important to strengthen (good news runners) those muscles in order to prevent injuries.

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