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“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” ~~ Helen Keller

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Photo Courtesy of The Yoga Blog

Many of us begin a yoga practice with little awareness of the muscles of the middle and upper back. We spend so much of our time hunched over computers and Smart Phones, and we feel the effects (a collapsed chest), but we lack the knowledge about how to reverse this condition.  

Thankfully, yoga gives us many poses that encourage us to use the muscles of the middle and upper back to open the chest, which opens the heart center. The best poses to open the heart are backbends, and these poses are not only great at opening the chest, and strengthening the upper and middle back, but they also provide an emotional experience for many.

This week in class, we’ll be working on poses to open the chest, and strengthen the upper and middle back. Be ready for lots of backbends, but not all of them will be. Some things to think about if you can’t make it to class:

  • When in Mountain Pose, draw the shoulder blades in towards each other and then down. As you do this, notice how these movements open the heart center. Then raise your hands to the sky, palms touching…try to keep those muscles active and engaged, so that the heart center continues to stay open.
  • In Warrior 1, try doing the same thing as in Mountain, first with your arms raised up by your ears, then with your palms touching. Keep those upper and middle back muscles fired up by constantly focusing on drawing the shoulder blades in and down. You can do this same action in other poses, like Chair Pose, Crescent Lunge, and many others.

If you can get the action as described above, THAT’S what it should feel like in any backbend you do. Whether it be Cobra, Upward Dog, Dancer’s Pose, Camel, Wheel…any backbend you do should be using those upper and middle back muscles in the same way to open the heart center.

You’ll notice that by practicing this action diligently, your posture will improve, your breathing will improve, and so will your attitude. These heart opening poses are known for boosting our moods and energy levels, so be ready to shine this week.

B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the most well-known yogis in the world, said, “If you keep your armpits open, you won’t get depressed.” When he refers to armpits, he is talking about the area where your arm connects to your torso. If you stop and think about it, the posture of a typical depressed person is head hanging, chin drooping, and shoulders rounded forward…this closes off the heart completely. Try that posture yourself and see how you feel. Then try rolling your shoulders up and back and lifting your head. Feel the difference?

One thing to note. Since these poses can be very energizing, it is best not to do too many right before bedtime. If you’re practicing in the evening, make sure to counter them with forward-folding poses to even out your energy.

Hope to see you in class this week!

Namaste,

Melanie

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“Life is about balance. Be kind, but don’t let people abuse you. Trust, but don’t be deceived. Be content, but never stop improving yourself.” ~~ Nishan Panwar

In most every yoga class I’ve ever been to, we spend some amount of time focusing on balancing poses. Tree, Crow, Balancing Half Moon, Dancer, and many others. Ever since I began practicing yoga, WAY back in 1999, these poses have never ceased to challenge me. When I went through teacher training, I thought maybe I’d learn some ancient secret that would help me to move into these poses effortlessly and be able to hold them without holding my breath. But here I am, all these years later, still finding myself challenged more often than not.

It used to frustrate me, not being able to hold these balancing poses for very long, if at all. However, the whole point of yoga is to be OK with where you are at the present moment. On the mat of off, you need to be OK with whatever NOW is.

Think about it. We are always working to find balance in our lives. We get so caught up in our daily “stuff” that we forget to take time for relaxation and taking care of ourselves. We dwell on the past or focus so much on the future, and we forget about what life is RIGHT NOW.

If you don’t take the time to balance things out in your life, you may feel stressed, flustered, “off center” and unsteady. Just like you probably feel when you can’t find your balance in a particular pose in class.

There is a reason we practice balancing poses in yoga, and it’s not just so we can strengthen our core and hold funky positions for a long time. It’s to help us get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and to work towards a more meaningful and balanced life. Taking a risk, focusing, relaxing, being OK with failure, and trying new things…these are the things that will help us master these challenging poses.

Think about it. When you’re on the mat, working on a particularly challenging balance pose, you’re taking a risk, right? If it’s a pose you’ve tried already and have fallen in, you’re risking falling again. And if it’s a new pose for you, you’re taking a risk by venturing into unknown territory. But you need to test your limits, or else you’ll never know what you’re capable of achieving. Take that leap of faith, trusting that your body will do what it needs to do. If you fall, it’s OK. Just get back up, dust yourself off, and try again…maybe by modifying things in order to work your way there in a more appropriate way.

Kind of like life, right? It’s difficult for many of us to face change or to deal with something new. Many of my friends and co-workers are going through some big stuff right now…job changes, job losses, new babies, divorce. You name it, and it seems like I know someone going through it.

So this week, we’ll be focusing on balancing poses in class. Notice how your body adjusts, how your mind focuses, and how your breath flows…all in an attempt to help you find the pose. And then see if you can take that with you into your life, helping you find the balance and happiness you so greatly deserve.

Namaste,

Melanie

 

The eye is the jewel of the body.” ~Henry David Thoreau

If you’ve been practicing yoga for any length of time, you may have heard the word “drishti”. In Sanskrit, drishti means gaze. We use drishti in our yoga classes to help us with our ability to focus and concentrate in poses, especially ones that are challenging.

However, drishti also means vision, point of view, and wisdom. It’s how you see the world. In the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, it is said that we practice yoga in order to lift the veil of misperception, to remove the various mental obstacles that make us see things in a false light. With practice, we achieve a clear and true perspective of the world.

In every yoga pose, there is generally a prescribed drishti which assists concentration, aids movement, and helps orient your energy. Different styles of yoga may have differences in what the drishti is for each pose, but in general, it’s a point where you can gaze softly and focus your attention. Since we can easily become distracted in our poses and let our eyes wander all over the place, it’s important to find a spot in each pose where you focus your eyes, feeling steady and energized. Where our gaze is directed, our attention follows.

We’ll be working on the practice of drishti in class this week. But remember, the point of attention is not merely a physical spot in the room. It is also everything about the present moment you are experiencing, and being able to see yoga in all its aspects (mind/body/breath).

Namaste,

Melanie

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“For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.”  ~~ Sanskrit Proverb

Many people, when first beginning a yoga practice, want to know about the breathing. Their yoga teachers are constantly reminding them to breathe throughout class…breathe in the positive, breathe out the stress…breathe in and out through the nose…inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. It’s a lot to think about, especially when we usually don’t give breathing much thought in our normal lives. It’s something we just DO. So it’s no wonder that, when forced to start putting so much attention on the breath all of a sudden, people want to know more about it. Breathing is probably the thing I get asked about the most by my students, and in my opinion, it’s the most important thing we do in our yoga practice. After all, it’s the first thing we do when we come into the world as babies, and it’s the last thing we do before we leave the world when we die.

The kind of breathing generally practiced in most hatha yoga classes is called Ujjayi breathing (pronounced oo-jai), which loosely translates as “victorious” breathing. It has a steadiness, resonance, and depth to it. I’ve heard many teachers refer to as “Whisper breath” and “Ocean breath”, because of how it sounds. I jokingly refer to it as the “Darth Vader breath”, because it always reminds me of what Darth Vader sounds like when he has his mask on in the Star Wars movies.

Whatever you decide to refer to it as, practicing Ujjayi breathing is beneficial for a variety of reasons. This breath helps us with focus, which helps harness the mind when it wants to wander off in a million directions. Maintaining a steady and even Ujjayi breath during a vigorous physical yoga session is not easy; therefore, being able to do so will improve the strength and capacity of our lungs and heart. This breath also regulates heating of the body, heating up the core from the inside, which makes stretching safer and more effectively detoxes.

Before practicing Ujjayi breathing, first figure out what your breath is like in its natural state. Take some time to lie down or sit comfortably somewhere, and notice the rhythm, pace and sound of your breath. Notice the length of your inhales as compared to your exhales. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with your normal breathing pattern, start to make the subtle adjustments that are needed for the Ujjayi breath.

Start by breathing through the nose and making sure the length of your inhales matches the length of your exhales. Once you have that evenness, start to deepen the breath just a little, but not to the point where you feel strained or forced…you don’t want to come away from your practice more stressed than when you began. Continuing to breathe through the nose, start to focus your attending to the space at the base of your throat, right where the soft spot is between the collarbones, and start to breathe there as well…this will change the quality of the breath by making it throatier and more audible.

That last piece seems to be the hardest part of the breath for most people to master. It’s hard to imagine what that feels like or what it should sound like. When I teach this part of the breath in class, I usually compare it to what you do when you try to fog up a window or mirror with your breath…only this time, try to mimic that action with the mouth closed. And in terms of it being audible, it should be audible to you, but not to anyone who is more than a few feet away from you.

It’s a lot to think about, isn’t it? So don’t get frustrated if you don’t get it right on your first try. We’ll be working on fine-tuning this breath in class this week. If you’re not able to make it to one of my classes, try practicing on your own by following the instructions above. There are also a variety of free videos available on the Internet. I really like this one, which I came across on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8O2zheeES0

Happy breathing!

Namaste,

Melanie

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