The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

Focus: Why Yoga? – Healing Physical Injuries August 19, 2010

One year ago, I couldn’t raise my right arm above my head.

I’d started teaching at Past Tense Studio when it opened last July.  Just before that, I’d jammed my right shoulder and neck while bracing my fall, tripping up some stairs at my dad’s house.  As usual, I went straight to the chiropractor and started rehabbing the damage.  Then, about a week after we opened Past Tense, I tore my right rotator cuff while grabbing a guard rail, slipping down a flight of stairs.  (It was a bad summer for stairs.)

During this same time, I was teaching percussion at a summer camp, which meant lots of drumming, tambourine-ing and shaker-ing – and therefore, lots of shoulder stress.  Plus, I was busing tables at a pizza joint, which meant lifting stacks of heavy white Italian plates.  (It was a good summer for work.)

For that first month at Past Tense, I was in excruciating pain while teaching.  I would wince when raising my arms to start a Sun Salutation.  Demonstrating Warrior 2, my right arm would weakly sink to my side.  Cleaning up the studio after class, I couldn’t lift the blankets to pile them atop the storage shelf.

Little by little, with lot of ice, chiropractic, massage and conscientious yoga practice, the injuries started to heal.  While this combination of therapeutics was important, the daily – all-day – awareness and application of yoga’s alignment principles brought the most ease, decreased the pain and supported the healing.  The wonderful lessons learned from structural yoga teachers like Sumi Komo (also an Alexander Technique expert – http://www.alexandermovingarts.com), Megan Davis (yoga therapeutics wonder – http://www.yogaforliberation.com) and Dr. Steven Weiss (chiropractor and yoga teacher – http://www.alignbydesignyoga.com) gave me everyday tools for feeling and getting better.

When camp ended in August, I took off for an Alexander Technique and Yoga workshop taught by Sumi.  This was the beginning of my healing through yoga.  Later in the Fall, I attended an Anatomy and Physiology Teacher Training with Dr. Weiss.  His fine-tuning of the shoulder area reinforced that healing.  And thankfully, a library of structural cues was stored in my mind from so many past classes with Megan.

(For more background on these teachers and their modalities, check out their websites, plus my “Why I Spend So Much Time On Alignment” post from February 2010, and, “Alignment Principles in Tadaasana” on the Tips-n-Tools page of this blog site.)

Increasing mobility was the first step in using yoga to heal my injuries.  Rather than focusing on the strengthening benefits of Asana, I stuck with the safest versions of every pose – for example, tracing the mid-line with my palms during a forward fold vs. doing a swan dive, and, doing knees/chest/chin vs. Chaturanga.  I avoided shoulder stand completely and did wall-based alternatives.  In Downward Facing Dog, I paid special attention to the pressure between my thumb and forefinger, and gently curled my upper arms down and inward toward my face.  I moved slowly and deliberately – even in fast-paced Jivamukti classes!  This took a lot of patience!

But it paid off.

After a few months, my mobility had returned and the pain had decreased immensely.  Now it was time to strengthen the muscles.  Chaturanga became my best friend!  Thankfully Dr. Weiss taught us a really cool strap prop trick to guarantee proper alignment in that pose.  In addition, I attended a Shoulders Intensive workshop with Emma at Past Tense, where her simple use of a block and my own two arms subtly brought the power back to my rotator cuff.

I won’t lie, the healing took an entire six months of rehabilitation.  And lots of patience.  By January, I was in top form.  I’ve heard through the grapevine, “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.”  Not only did I rise-up from my injured state, I was prepared to impart my experience to the Catholic University Swim Team and an infielder for the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor league system.  I shared how to prevent and rehab shoulder problems, and, was not limited by my own injury while teaching.

Someone once told me that, when I talk about the benefits of proper alignment in yoga, I sound like a Volvo ad!  Indeed, following the alignment principles maximizes mobility, power and safety!

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

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Let Your Heart Bloom Open January 13, 2010

Hunched and hidden hearts, don’t let the cold weather shut you down!

Our Bi-Monthly Focus for January/February yoga classes is HEART.  For the 1st month, we’ll focus on the Anatomy & Physiology of opening the heart center despite our tendency to scrunch up during the winter.  For the 2nd month, we’ll explore and perhaps counteract the emotional/psychological consequences of that classic winter shut-down.

Despite your tendency to shrug forward against the bitter cold, let your heart bloom open.  How?  Start by wearing a warm hat and scarf!  Then, take a brisk walk to your closest yoga class and give the following four heart-opening tips a try.

TAKE IT FROM THE TOP

To have an open heart, one must first have a good head on his or her shoulders.  What I mean is, you must float your head above your neck so your ears hover directly over your shoulders (vs. in front of the shoulders due to a jutting or downward-tilting chin).  Think of the Alexander Technique direction to “free the neck” then allow the crown of the head to extend out of and up from the spine.

The crown of the head is that flat-ish spot in the center-top of the skull where you would place your King or Queen crown so it doesn’t fall off.  This is different from where you would place your tiara (toward the hairline) or a yarmulke (toward the back of the skull) – although I always suspected that the Jewish yarmulke (pronounced “yamaka”) plays the same role as any prayerful head wrap, protecting the 7th chakra energy and also maintaining humility; so I feel a little confused why we place it so far back on the head.

Anyway…

Anatomically, the crown of the head is the point where your spine would pop out if it continued through the top of your skull. Any profile in a basic anatomy book can illustrate this.

To begin our heart-opening process, please stand in Tadaasana (Mountain Pose) with your arms resting at your sides.  Begin your deep three-part breath (aka Deergha Swaasam, described on the Tips-n-Tools page), remembering to let each exhale be long and thorough, all the way down and out of the lower lobes of the lungs and belly, and your inhales strong and complete, through the rib cage and up to the collar-bone.

Now, inhale and reach the crown of the head toward the sky, hovering your ears over your shoulders.  Maintaining that alignment, relax on the exhale.

BAD TO THE BONE

Gliding our way down the cervical spine, we then broaden the collar-bone to create space for the upper lobes of the lungs and top ribs.

To do this, stand in Tadaasana with arms resting down, and press your palms into the sides of the thighs.  Line up your middle finger with the seam of your pants – or where that seam would be if you had one on your yoga capris.

Inhale and continue to press the palms flat.  On the exhale, curl open the upper arms.  Biceps curl out and away from the ribs while triceps tuck under and toward the side body.  As you exhale thoroughly to the belly, the shoulders and collar-bone will naturally broaden and you will feel like a proud yoga soldier.

FILL UP THE BARREL

Next, we have to create space for the heart’s doors to open wide.  They are swinging doors and like the rib cage, they need room to move forward, sideways, backward, all around.

I like to describe the rib cage as a big barrel, imagining myself actually filling up a big cavernous barrel as I breathe through the Deergha Swaasam.  The lungs also expand forward, sideways and backward.  Plus, they are longer than most realize – beginning as low as the upper abdomen, expanding through the ribs and reaching up to the collar-bone.

So let’s fill up the barrel!  Inhale into the belly, ribs then collar-bone.  Hold the breath in the rib cage and explore the expansiveness surrounding your precious little heart.  Then exhale, maintaining that expansiveness, particularly in the side body.

THAT SINKING FEELING

Fourth and finally, we return to the most simple instruction for opening the heart.

Inhale and reach the crown of the head toward the sky.  On the exhale, move the shoulder blades together then down the back. With the head high, the collar-bone wide and the side body long, the blades easefully sink into place.

BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE…

…but you don’t have to hunch the winter away.  Hold your warmly capped head high, wrap that scarf around your perfectly aligned neck and follow your heart down the street.

See you in class.  OM Shanti.

(Jan/Feb Heart Focus instructions are archived on the Tips-n-Tools page.)