About artemisia shine

Artemisia Shine is an Intuitive Healer, Counselor, Yoga Therapist, Reiki Master and coyote medicine maker. Love is one of her greatest superpowers and she’s here on the planet to find, be in and create more of that force of magic. Her professional focus is on being a transformational ally for other healers, empaths, givers, change-makers and highly sensitive people as they connect with their innate body-wisdom and power. She can’t wait to be your cheerleader as you come home to yourself and actively seek to live a better story. Her joy filled mission is to support the awakening of ever more sri (radiance, splendor and beauty) in the hearts of all those she encounters. In her free time she can be found trying to snuggle her teenage son, successfully snuggling her rattie-love Cinder, pedaling barefoot thru the streets of San Luis Obispo, bending her body into unusual shapes and falling madly in love with random animals that cross her path. At the time of this writing, she still contends with being human and has to put on her tights one leg at a time.

30 Days of Gratitude – Day 1

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30 Days of Gratitude – Day 1

Feeling super grateful and inspired – Bodhi & I committed to 40 minutes of meditation (15 for him) for 40 days along with others from around the world participating in the Winter Feast For The Soul. Spurred by wonder woman Lori Snyder, I am going to be journaling 10 things I am thankful for each day for the remaining 30 days of the soul feast.

Today I am grateful..:

1. that i have this beautiful little man sleeping in the bed in the next room – i love him with all of my ♥
2. for all i have learned in my connection with Seth Hadaway. I like who he is and our bond has forced my heart to grow and heal and get stronger and softer all at the same time.
3. for Peggy Profant and all the inner riches her friendship has nurtured within me.
4. for the Universal Principles of Alignment! Yoga ROCKS!
5. to work at such and amazing place as Om Shala Yoga. 🙂
6. for healing conversations with people i care for – getting through discomfort and difficulty to meet on the other side with love.
7. to have the luxury of resources to share these thoughts like this. We are truely privileged.
8. for meditation – and the space to drop in.
9. for the small family alter that blesses the space between bodhi’s room and mine – creating an energetic bridge and sacred container that reminds me to be soft.
10. for breath.

Feel free to add your own gratitude to the list. ♥

Asteya: The Practice of Non-Stealing

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Asteya: The Practice of Non-Stealing
by: Artemisia Shine ♥ January 2011

“You are quaffing drink from a hundred fountains: whenever any of these hundred yields less, your pleasure is diminished. But when the sublime fountain gushes from within you, no longer need you steal from the other fountains.”  ~Jelal ad-Din Rumi

 

The Yamas and the Niyamas comprise two of the eight limbs of Classical Ashtanga Yoga as first written around 200CE by Patanjali Jois in the Yoga Sutras. Yama is the Sanskrit word for “abstinence” and the five Yamas are a set of external disciplines we can apply in our lives to help align more harmoniously with the Universe. Niyama translates as “observance” and the five Niyamas are a set of internal observances that help us align more fully with our highest Self.

The third Yama is Asteya, or non-stealing. We all can recognize the more palpable forms of theft and can easily refrain from pinching our neighbor’s bicycle seat or taking lunch money from the kid down the street.  It is the more intangible ways we rob from others and ourselves that require active discipline.

Stealing may not crop up in the more obvious forms of shoplifting or credit card fraud but may lurk in the deeper recesses of our minds. Do you secretly long for another’s job, lifestyle, relationship or physical form? These lusts are stealing your happiness and sense of contentment not to mention pilfering the present moment. Look within for riches and find fulfillment in your internal wealth rather than looking beyond yourself for satisfaction. This will moderate excessive desire for objects coveted by the senses — ideas, effects, energetic attention from others, status, power, or recognition. Practice asteya by recognizing the gifts you already possess. As Carl Jung asserts, “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” Cultivate the patience, strength and courage to bring your inner dreams to life!

Do you sometimes wish you had the hamstrings of the girl on the mat next to you when her forehead gently kisses her ankles in Paschimottanasana? Where the mind goes, the attention flows. Practice Asteya in every asana. Focusing on your limitations robs you from reveling in the beauty of the divine manifestation of life that is expressed through your unique form.

Are you regularly behind schedule for appointments or commitments? Do you arrive after class has already started or hold your yoga students for a few extra minutes of savasana?  When we are late we are stealing time from others.  Take a critical look at what is behind this chronic lateness. Could you be clinging to every moment, trying to wring all that you can from life? Are you packing too much into your day? This is a form of hoarding – insatiability collecting stolen moments for the fear of being in lack.  Hoarding is a form of theft. Asteya proscribes respect for the time and energy of others.

Have you taken a look at your ecological footprint lately? Granted we live in an industrialized nation, but do your consumption patterns border on over-indulgence? What is your fair share? Take a moment to bring mindfulness to your next shopping trip, be it at the local grocery store or retail center. Is that purchase extracting clean water, livable wages, health or ecological diversity from another? Can you meet your needs without deleteriously impacting the needs of others?

There is no need to steal.  Trust that all you truly need is present in the universe and available to you.  It is written in Yoga Sutra 2.37 “When one is established in refrainment from stealing, all jewels manifest.”

~ Artemisia Shine

Neuroscience, Hatha Yoga and Creativity: A New Paradigm for Teaching

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Neuroscience, Hatha Yoga and Creativity: A New Paradigm for Teaching

Source: Yoga Chicago Magazine • Michael McColly •January 2010

The Brain–is wider than the Sky —
For–put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease–and You–beside —
~ Emily Dickenson

Advances in imaging technology, neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and a host of converging fields have brought us to the brink of unlocking the biological basis of consciousness itself. Neuroscience is discovering that the brain is an evolving organ that matures as we respond to our environment, our genes, and our physical, emotional and mental experiences. Scientists have learned that patients with brain injury or sensory impairment can recover brain function with sustained retraining regimens, facilitating the brain’s natural capacity to adapt and compensate–not only creating neural pathways that circumvent damaged areas of the brain, but also triggering the growth of new neurons. In other words, the brain, when confronted with challenge, becomes creative.

Sustained mind/body disciplines such as Hatha yoga, Buddhist mindfulness practices, and contemplative prayer focus and entrain the mind in ways that are helpful in cultivating this natural plasticity in the brain. As a result of this increasingly clear link between the benefits of mind/body practices and recent discoveries in neuroscience, many psychiatrists, psychologists, and educators are studying the applications of meditative practices in classrooms, therapy, and correctional institutions. Some of the key parallels that mind/body disciplines share with these recent discoveries in neuroscience include the concepts of awareness, focus, imagination, and empathy. This article will explore each of these concepts with regard to their relationship to corresponding discoveries in neuroscience and their application through mind/body practices.

Attitude, agency, and information

Attitude is everything. Framing the mind with a positive intention and staying focused are not just clichés you hear in sports advertisements; they’re how the brain works most effectively. For instance, Richard Nesbitt, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, gave an experimental group of middle school students a special tutorial on how their brains worked, reinforcing the basic idea that it was their own work habits and ability to learn–not their family income or parents’ educational background–that determined their academic success. Testing showed that the students given the tutorial not only outperformed other students in their school, but also exceeded national averages for their age.

Daniel Siegel, interpersonal neurobiologist and professor of psychiatry at UCLA, is exploring the same basic techniques used on the middle school students, but instead with psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and their patients. Siegel advises therapists to use actual models of the brain in therapy sessions to help patients visualize and understand what is happening in their brains when they are depressed or emotionally troubled. Patients are relieved to know that their frustrations are a brain processing problem rather than a lack of will or emotional strength. Afterwards, the therapist teaches patients an easy mindfulness exercise to calm them down when these frustrations and emotions emerge. Educating people on how their brain works and offering them tools to change attitudes make a difference. Why? Because those people are then actively and consciously involved in changing the wiring of neural pathways in their brains.

The phenomenon is similar in mind/body practices such as Hatha yoga. The framing and focusing of the mind begin with calming the mind. Patanjali begins the Yoga Sutras with the famous basic premise to guide the yogi: “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuating patterns of the mind.” In Hatha yoga and Buddhist meditation practices, the practitioner first learns to observe the mind as it cycles through patterns of thought and emotions. When the waves of thought begin to subside, a positive intention is then introduced. I always begin my yoga classes with breathing exercises and a short mediation; but before I do, I ask students to think of an intention for their practice. This ritual of quieting the mind and then framing it helps students to focus and engage emotionally. Throughout their practice I ask the students to consider this intention–reminding them that the poses they are practicing are strengthening and challenging not just their bodies, but their nervous systems and brains as well.

Awareness and perception

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, is also interested in how meditation affects brain function. He wired several Tibetan monks and novice practitioners to compare the activity within their brains as they meditated. What he discovered was that the monks could reach unprecedented low levels of brain activity (i.e., quieting the mind), and meditation enabled their brains to synchronize brain waves so as to attain efficient and balanced states from which to integrate information.

What the monks revealed so beautifully was the limitless potential we have to train the mind to affect states of consciousness and well-being. But their skill came from a long series of learning experiences in which interconnecting groups of neurons were forged as newly formed neural pathways were used over and over again. The first step in this process, which occurs through the development of a meditative practice, is to actually calm the mind in order to focus. Once the mind is calm, the real work of meditation begins, as practitioners begin to first observe and then feel what it means to influence their own thoughts.

When we are focused, we enable the brain to carry out its primary function: to process or integrate information into the various centers in the brain necessary in order to learn. The stronger the signals, the stronger the memory for the next time we practice. Awareness is registered in both the conscious and unconscious mind. As we practice yoga, we begin to cultivate deeper and deeper levels of sense perception.

World-renowned yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar speaks of involution when he describes the learning process of yoga; in other words, we develop our practice by working from the outside of the body, learning from our five senses (particularly touch and balance) and progressively moving deeper into muscles, organs, and energy centers in the core of our body. When we practice, we use several layers of perception: the exteroceptors (the five senses and balance), the interoceptors (the feeling of the organs as they function), and proprioceptors, which regulate effort and the feeling of muscles and joints as we move or hold a pose. Perception is a feedback mechanism–the brain processes each experience to create more elaborate sets of maps in the brain. It is important, then, in a yoga class to remind people that what they are learning is not just how to perform a pose, but how to feel it.

This same process occurs in meditation. As we sit, we are not only psychologically challenged as we observe countless patterns of repetitive thoughts and emotions, but also learning to pay close attention to sensations coming from the body. In particular, when we are first learning, we are focusing on the feeling of our lungs and the muscles associated with breath. But as we develop the skill and stamina to sit for longer periods, we can begin to notice our awareness dropping from the buzzing in the mind downward to the core and energy centers of the body. The frequent practice of meditation allows practitioners to repeat this process with greater speed and efficacy as they progress, as Davidson’s monks demonstrated.

Imagination, visualization, and metaphor

As a writer and teacher of writing, I’ve found that one of the most compelling findings of neuroscience has been in the area of imagination and language. I’ve long suspected that the creative work of an artist provides pleasure in a profound way, not only because it simply inspires us emotionally and intellectually, but also because the work engages our imaginations deep within the unconscious. And this is exactly the case, as many brain researchers are discovering. Imagery and metaphors trigger a complex process in the brain as memory, emotion, cognition, and the imagination collectively recreate what we read from our own experience. When readers remark that they were so involved with a book that it felt as if the events described were happening to them, they may be surprised to know that, according to their minds, it actually did happen to them. They must work to translate what they read into some semblance of it with their own mind. Artful expressions and imagery not only prime and expand the imagination, they also demand that we become artists ourselves as we appreciate and process what artists present to us.

Imagination has become one of the areas I have begun to explore in my practice and teaching. I have often employed metaphors referring to nature such as flowering and rooting to help guide me in a pose. Boulder, Colorado-based Richard Freeman, one of America’s most respected scholars and teacher of yoga, often uses “flowering,” “rooting,” and other metaphors of classic poetry that refer to nature. But, as I’ve come to understand, metaphors aren’t just pleasing figurative language; they are like mandalas, or symbols, that engage the imagination in order to entrain the mind and cultivate deeper states of awareness. By telling students to imagine the bottoms of their feet spreading and setting down roots into the earth in the mountain pose, the teacher encourages the students to direct their focus to their feet; the students, through this focus, will feel the sensations more intensely within their feet and thus develop a deeper sense of balance.

Empathy and mirror neurons

Finally, one of the more fascinating discoveries over the past few years is the neurobiological explanation for how we are affected by the movement and sensations of other bodies around us. Have you ever wondered how a flock of birds instantaneously sets off in flight because of one bird’s response to a predator? Or why we unconsciously yawn or smile when we witness someone else doing the same? Italian neuroscientists Rizzolati Giacomo and Vittorio Gallese have found that animals and humans are equipped with an adaptive mechanism in their nervous system called mirror neurons. They wired macaque monkeys and watched where neurons fired in their brains when they engaged in complex motor movements such as reaching for food, pulling a lever, pushing a door. What was incredible to the scientists was that these same neurons fired precisely in the same areas of the brain when these monkeys watched other monkeys perform the same actions. Mirror neurons are triggered in the body unconsciously as we perceive not only the actions of others but also their facial gestures and emotions.

Students in a yoga class attune to one another’s focus and physical awareness, thereby heightening the therapeutic effect for everyone in the class. This phenomenon occurs in a variety of group interactions where there is a collective focus on a goal or shared purpose. As social animals, we have evolved to be highly sensitive to the needs and emotions of others in our group. Researchers are beginning to understand the profound capabilities we have to feel empathy and how important interpersonal skills are to our health and survival.

In his studies of interpersonal neurobiology, Daniel Siegel recognizes that humans often cannot access deep emotional patterns alone but require the presence of another witnessing and actively feeling the emotion along with them. He trains therapists to develop a keen awareness of both the body of their patient as well as their own body as they listen and offer feedback. Siegel believes that therapeutic skill is both a verbal and nonverbal art. By teaching therapists to use mindfulness and breathing techniques, Siegel hopes therapists can in turn help patients to trust their own bodily sensations as they relate narratives or speak about difficult emotional issues in their lives.

It’s not surprising that we are seeing a renewed interest in the benefits of mindfulness, yoga, and other practices that involve integrating the mind and body. Our times are fraught with anxieties that we feel we have little control over, be they the world economy, war and terrorism, global warming, or the fecklessness of government. The scientific exploration into the mysteries of how the brain functions comes at a crucial time. We cannot continue to act as if our brains and bodies can increasingly absorb or process empty bits of information without thinking they have an effect on our health or that of the earth. Mind/body practices are real pragmatic applications for cultivating the potential of all of the body’s many forms of intelligence. The excitement of these new scientific discoveries, however, will mean little if the billions of dollars given to research institutes do not translate into the ability for people to learn how to cultivate the wisdom they already possess. It is my hope that, together, these ancient and modern systems of knowledge can learn from each other to help us all unlock the potentials of the human mind.

….

Michael McColly teaches creative writing at Northwestern and Columbia Universities. He offers workshops and teaches at Yoga Now. You can read more about his work on his blog: michaelmccolly.vox.com. His last book, The After-Death Room: Journey Into Spiritual Activism , chronicled his reporting and reflections on the creative and compassionate work being done by people working at the epicenters of the AIDS pandemic in Asia, Africa, and  in Chicago.

B.K.S. Iyengar celebrates his 93rd birthday

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B.K.S. Iyengar celebrates his 93rd birthday

Photo: Courtesy IYNAUS

 

Source: Las Vegas Yoga Examiner • DK Howe • December 14, 2011

In 1934, when the famed yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar was 14 years old, he moved in with his sister and her husband Sri. T. Krishnamacharya in Mysore, India, and soon thereafter began his studies in yoga asana with his brother-in-law, a yoga teacher and revered scholar of philosophy and Sanskrit. Four years later, at age 18, Krishnamacharya dispatched him to Pune, India, to help spread the teachings of yoga. To this day, which just happens to be Mr. Iyengar’s 93rd birthday, he is still instructing students in the art of yogasana.  He has been teaching for 75 years and is, without a doubt, the most respected living yoga master.

Mr. Iyengar is a recognizable man.  His eyebrows are bushier and wilder than Andy Rooney’s and his white and gray hair is combed back off his forehead and cascades softly to his shoulders. His chest is large and open and his shoulders fall comfortably back, further than imaginable. His hands are graceful and his fingers are long. In his ninth decade, he walks straight and tall.

Mr. Iyengar is known for the precise instructions he belts out when he teaches.  He has students hold poses for minutes while he tells them how to place their toes, their heels, their shins, their knees, their skin…every inch of their body.

Mr. Iyengar’s way of teaching is just the opposite of how he was taught. Krishnamacharya may have been a scholar, but he left his students to figure out on their own how to accomplish poses. When the young Mr. Iyengar asked his guru for help, he was told, “Rectify it yourself.”  “It took me a long time to correct it,” said Mr. Iyengar who in his youth spent hours each day navigating his way through the poses he had been assigned.

As much as Mr. Iyengar is known for his lessons in precise alignment that open and move energy through every cell in the body and mind, he is infamous for his harsh temper.  Fire and fiery are words often used to describe the manner in which he teaches.  Do a pose wrong and the volcano will erupt.  In his latest book Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom (Rodale; 2005), Mr. Iyengar defends his volatile actions. “I am strict but I am not harsh.  I use my anger to free a student from his pattern.”  He told a room filled with Iyengar students at the Iyengar Intensive at Estes Park presented by Yoga Journal, “I lose my temper when people do wrong in order to see that they don’t waste their time.”

“He [has been] an intense and fiery individual his whole life,” Manouso Manos, one of only two Advanced Senior Iyengar teachers, told examiner.com last year. Manos met Mr. Iyengar when the teacher was in his 50s. “He was…a ball of fire then, as he is still today…”

“I have never met anyone more intensely fiery than Mr. Iyengar,” states senior Iyengar teacher John Friend in Kofi Busia’s book Iyengar: The Yoga Master (Shambala; 2007). “When instructing students to give their full effort in a pose, his eyes often spark and his words are hot like lightning.”

But Mr. Iyengar loves his students.  You can see it in his eyes and hear it in his breathy hardy-har-har laugh.  “My attachment to my students is so much,” said Mr. Iyengar at Estes Park.

Mr. Iyengar is also known for his use of props.  He uses blocks, belts, ropes, bolsters, blankets, chairs and benches to help the body open into areas that are blocked.  When going into paschimottanasana, a belt strapped around a students thighs prevents their legs from falling out of alignment and a backbend done over a chair while holding onto a strap with the arms extended overhead opens the chest and shoulders in a way a person couldn’t do without assistance. Mr. Iyengar tells students the props are their gurus.

Iyengar has been criticized by some for being too physical, more concerned with asana and alignment than with the spiritual.  But Iyengar was a sickly child who suffered with malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis and he used yogasana to build his body.  It was only after he gained his strength that yoga became a spiritual quest. It is Mr. Iyengar’s belief that one cannot meditate or achieve greater heights in yoga until the body is made strong. “Technically speaking, true meditation in the yogic sense cannot be done by a person who is under stress or who has a weak body, weak lungs, hard muscles, collapsed spine, fluctuating mind, mental agitation, or timidity,” states Iyengar.

At the ripe age of 93—an age that finds most Americans in wheelchairs or slowly ambulating with the support of a walker—Mr. Iyengar travels less than he used to. His last, and probably final, visit to the U.S. was in 2005 for a five-city tour to promote Light on Life and to teach at the Estes Park Intensive. (His first visit to the U.S. was in 1954.) But he still teaches at his Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) in Pune, albeit it’s usually from the sidelines.

“He still teaches every Wednesday and every Saturday.  He’s conducting the women’s class,” said Manos.  It’s been called ladies’ class or women’s class for decades. It was that way when I first got to India in ’77. He is conducting. Although he’s not standing in front of the class shouting out instructions like he did years ago, he’s in his own practice, he’s doing asana and describing to the students in the class what they should be doing and it’s brilliant.  It is still with the same kind of intensity and layering of instruction that I’ve seen him do for nearly 40 years now.”

Tonight, according to the Daily News & Analysis, Mr. Iyengar will address his students at RIMYI between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m.  Unfortunately, the man who was named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2004, hasn’t caught up technologically with the rest of the world, as has the Dalai Lama, and there will be no live broadcast available on the internet.  Only those fortunate enough to be in attendance in Pune will be able to hear the magical words he has to impart.

The Neurobiology of Bliss–Sacred and Profane

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Source: Scientific American • by Nadia Webb • Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Image: Abel Mitja Varela

In studies that observe the brain in action, the right hemisphere seems to be the sexy hemisphere. It lights up during orgasm—so much so that, in one study, much of the cortex went dark, leaving the right prefrontal cortex as a bright island. New research suggests the right hemisphere is also hyperactive amongst the “hypersexual,” a symptom of brain injury loosely defined as groping, propositioning or masturbating in public without shame.

What is surprising about this is that pleasure is classically thought of as the province of the left hemisphere, not the right. The left is most active when recalling happy memories, meditating on love for another, and during the expansiveness of grandiosity or mania.

The left hemisphere is even preferentially more active among people free of depression and less active among the unhappy. If the brain were a simpler and more cooperative organ, the left hemisphere would be lit up like the Fourth of July during an orgasm. Instead, it is surprisingly silent. Why might this be so?

Until eight years ago, neuroscience had little scientific basis from which to comment on bliss, sexual or otherwise. Despite our public fascination with things sexual, as researcher, Gemma O’Brien put it, “orgasm is not impersonal and third person enough for the sciences.” Neuroscience was hobbled by the avoidance of such squashy topics, even if it meant setting aside important parts of human experience. However, a clearer portrait of pleasure is now emerging. Bliss, both sacred and profane, shares the diminution of self-awareness, alterations in bodily perception and decreased sense of pain. And while the left frontal lobe may be linked to pleasure, the other three characteristics are bilateral.

Absence of pain is predictably akin to pleasure, but the other two—losing a sense of identity and of bodily limits—are less obvious. Self-awareness, apparently, is no picnic. William James described the self as that kernel of consciousness that persists throughout various experiences and sensations. The self is divided between the stream of consciousness and an internal observer—except in those rare moments when we dissolve into mysticism.

Self-awareness exists as a running critique organizing conscious experience. Telling stories to ourselves (often about ourselves) is the cognitive default.

Escaping continual self-observation seems an underappreciated pleasure. Roy Baumeister wrote an entire book devoted to the premise that self-awareness is frequently a burden. Across cultures, we blunt awareness with alcohol, drugs, auto-hypnotic rituals and when times are dire, suicide. Meditation offers relief from this self-preoccupation and one of the few tools for creating a durable boost in happiness—perhaps by dampening activity in regions implicated in judgment, comparison, planning and self-scrutiny. Left prefrontal cortex activation correlates with happiness and Tibetan Buddhist monks have created the greatest measured spike in activity in this region produced by simple thought when meditating on compassion. The reported depth of meditation also corresponds to activity in the brain’s pleasure centers, such as left forebrain bundle, anterior insula and precentral gyrus. This overt pleasure is accompanied by a shift in emotional self-regulation; meditators are more aware of thoughts and feelings conceptually, but less emotionally disrupted by them, according to one study. Both hemispheres are involved in self-observation.

Pleasure is also linked to a loss of awareness of the boundaries of our body, and this, too, involves both sides of the brain. Orgasm and meditation dissolve the sense of physical boundary, but the activation patterns are distinct. Meditation does so in a somewhat cerebral way, altering bodily self-awareness by enhancing activity in specific brain regions, such as right angular gyrus—regions that become most lively during attempts to imagine ourselves from a stranger’s perspective, during out of body experiences or déjà vu, and in a neurologically obscure disorder in which patients lack awareness of their own paralysis or bodily infirmity.

But during orgasm, the cerebellar deep nuclei and vermis, also in the cerebellum, glow. The cerebellum used to be thought of as the “motor bit” tacked onto the back of the brain. The deep nuclei are mysterious, but they seem involved in planning and initiating movement, motor learning, rhythm, synchronizing and smoothing of movement. The vermis tracks the movement of the body through space outside of conscious awareness. Unlike meditation, orgasm seems a heightened sense of being within one’s body rather than the sense of being outside of it. The disconnected awareness meditation (“I am not my thoughts, I am not this experience”) is antithetical to the self-forgetting of sex in which wallowing in the experience, and the relationship, is precisely the point.

Yoga’s Stress Relief: An Aid for Infertility?

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Yoga’s Stress Relief: An Aid for Infertility?

Source: The New York Times • Catherine Saint Louis • February 4, 2011
Tracy Toon Spencer teaches yoga to Jessica Tabibnia, left, and Kimberly Soranno, at the N.Y.U. Fertility Center.

KIMBERLY SORANNO, a 39-year-old Brooklynite undergoing an in vitro fertilization cycle as part of her quest to become pregnant, had gone to her share of yoga classes, but never one like that held on a recent Tuesday night in a reception area of the New York University Fertility Center. There were no deep twists or headstands; just easy “restorative” poses as the teacher, Tracy Toon Spencer, guided the participants — most of them women struggling to conceive — to let go of their worries.

“Verbally, she brings you to a relaxation place in your mind,” Mrs. Soranno said, adding, “It’s great to do the poses, get energy out and feel strong. But the most important part for me was the connection to the other women.”

Besides taxing the mind, body and wallet, infertility can be lonely. Support groups have long existed for infertile couples, but in recent years, “yoga for fertility” classes have become increasingly popular. They are the latest in a succession of holistic approaches to fertility treatment that have included acupuncture and mind-body programs (whose effectiveness for infertility patients is backed by research); massage (which doesn’t have specific data to support it); and Chinese herbs (which some say may be detrimental).

No study has proved that yoga has increased pregnancy rates in infertility patients. But students of yoga-for-fertility classes say that the coping skills they learn help reduce stress on and off the mat. For many, it’s a support group in motion (or lotus).

“As important as the yoga postures was the idea that women could come out of the closet with their infertility and be supported in a group,” said Tami Quinn, the founder, with Beth Heller, of Pulling Down the Moon, a company with holistic fertility centers in Chicago and the Washington area. “If you say come to my support group, women going through infertility are like, ‘I don’t need some hokey support group’ or ‘I’m not that bad.’ But with yoga they are getting support and they don’t even realize it.”

Holly Dougherty, 42, didn’t want to talk about her drug-infused slog through fertility treatment that began seven years ago. “I didn’t tell anyone,” said Ms. Dougherty, with the exception of her parents.

This changed after she started going to yoga-for-fertility classes taught by Ms. Spencer at World Yoga Center in Manhattan in 2005. The gentle poses helped take her mind off her setbacks, and each week, she found the community that she hadn’t realized she needed.

“Being able to open up in a safe environment with support and encouragement of others on the journey, everyone became each other’s cheerleader,” said Ms. Dougherty, now a mother of two who still socializes with students from Ms. Spencer’s class. “I learned to become so open about it.”

SMOKING, alcohol, caffeine and some medications can hurt fertility, as can being overweight or underweight, said Dr. William Schoolcraft, a medical director of theColorado Center for Reproductive Medicine, whose main branch is in Lone Tree. As for improving one’s chances with massage, diet or yoga? “That’s where the data gets murkier,” he said.

“We will never promise that you will get pregnant by doing yoga,” Ms. Quinn said. “We can tell you many women who have done yoga have gotten pregnant. But there’s no clinical data supporting the fact that yoga increases conception rates. The last thing we would want to do is give false hope.”

Stress, however, has been shown to reduce the probability of conception. Alice Domar, who has a Ph.D. in health psychology and is the director of mind-body services at the Harvard-affiliated center Boston IVF, said of yoga: “It’s a very effective relaxation technique, and a great way to get women in the door to get support. It’s a way to get them to like their bodies again.”

A handful of prominent medical centers have partnered with yoga teachers to offer classes. Pulling Down the Moon now holds its $210 six-week Yoga for Fertility programs at Fertility Centers of Illinois in Chicago (since 2002), and Shady Grove Fertility in the Washington area (since 2008.)

Recently, Dr. Domar, a psychologist whose research has shown that participation in a mind-body program can positively affect fertility, joined with Ms. Quinn and Ms. Heller to take wellness programs, including yoga and acupuncture, to infertility clinics nationwide. They have formed a new company, Integrative Care for Fertility: A Domar Center, and plan to open seven branches this year.

In 2009, the New York University Fertility Center in Manhattan brought in two yoga instructors to help patients. “We really do push it,” Dr. Frederick Licciardi, a founding partner of the center, said of its wellness programs that include mind-body work and acupuncture along with yoga. “We put it up front. We know they are doing it anyway. We want to show we are supportive that they are doing it.”

Some infertility clinics advise patients not to do vigorous exercise like running for fear of twisting their drug-stimulated enlarged ovaries. (This excruciating condition, called torsion, is rare, but surgery is often required if it happens with the possibility of losing the ovary, said Dr. Brian Kaplan, a partner at the Fertility Centers of Illinois, who advises his patients to limit exercise while taking stimulating drugs.)

But Dr. Domar, the executive director of a namesake center for mind-body health in Waltham, Mass., has found that some women are loath to give up their daily anxiety-relieving run during infertility treatments, or are “freaked out about gaining weight on fertility drugs.” In some cases, yoga is her bargaining chip. She tells those patients, “you can do hatha yoga and stay fit and toned, and give up your run.”

Ms. Spencer explained in an e-mail that for many patients, “There is a feeling of walking on eggshells and also that one false move may throw off the chances of success.” A class like hers lets them move and blow off steam, students said. “It’s like a can of worms,” she said in an interview. “You can’t stop women from talking to one another.”

But the relief can be quiet as well. Elaine Keating-Brown, 38, an elementary-school teacher in Manhattan who is in her last trimester after in vitro fertilization, found the yoga classes she took with Laura O’Brien, then at N.Y.U., helped her silence a tireless negative voice in her head. Her fertility-related worries felt endless, from “What happens if it doesn’t work?” to “financially, it’s not exactly cheap,” Mrs. Keating-Brown said.

But “once you’re in the yoga room, you haven’t got all that anymore,” she said, “you’re concentrating on you, and put those thoughts aside, put your body in a good place, and come out of class feeling a real feeling of relaxation and it’s going to be O.K. If it isn’t, it isn’t.”

Lori, a 32-year-old management consultant who asked that only her first name be used for privacy, lived with “the chatter in the back of her mind” so constantly after losing twins and suffering two miscarriages that she named that voice Constance in a yoga class she took at Pulling Down the Moon. After learning meditation techniques in class, Lori, the mother of a newborn, said she could observe, but not succumb to her negative thoughts. “I’m aware I feel that way,” she can tell herself when an anxious thought surfaces, “but I’m not going to let it overwhelm me right now.”

Ms. O’Brien summed up the infertility roller coaster this way: “You have to get screened all the time. You have to take certain drugs. You’re at the mercy of everyone telling you what to do and when to do it.” Now teaching $72 four-week fertility and flexibility workshops at Devotion Yoga in Hoboken, N.J., Ms. O’Brien added that loss of control is challenging, “especially for people in this part of the country, if they have a goal and work hard, they get it.”

“This throws that whole mentality out of whack,” she said. But yoga, she contended, helps type-A’s to learn that “you cannot control what’s happening to your body, but you can control how you feel about it.”

In 1998, when Brenda Strong first starting teaching fertility-focused yoga at the Mind Body Institute in Southern California, she said, “people were so ashamed and so isolated because no one else was talking about it.” In her classes, she facilitates conversation among yogis. “In yoga, suffering is caused by attachment to a result or by resistance,” said Ms. Strong, the actress who is the narrator on “Desperate Housewives” and herself has struggled with infertility. “There’s nothing that brings up these two things more: you’re attached to wanting to get pregnant and you’re resistant to the fact that you can’t.”

Medical acceptance of yoga as a stress reliever for infertility patients is slowly growing. In 1990, when Dr. Domar first published research advocating a role for stress reduction in infertility treatment, “I wasn’t just laughed at by physicians,” she said. “I was laughed at by Resolve, the national infertility organization. They all said I was perpetuating a myth of ‘Just relax, and you’ll get pregnant.’ ” At the last meeting for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Dr. Domar, now on the national board of Resolve, gave multiple talks, including one about how to help the mind and body work together in infertile couples.

On March 17, Resolve will host a tele-seminar on “Yoga for Fertility” led by Jill Petigara, who teaches in the Philadelphia area. “A lot of people want to boil it down to ‘If you relax, it will happen,’ ” Ms. Petigara, a former in vitro fertilization patient who adopted a son, wrote in an e-mail. “I absolutely feel that yoga can have a very positive impact on infertility, but infertility is a lot more than ‘just relaxing.’ ”

Yoga Gets into Med School

Aside

Yoga Gets into Med School

Students learn to relax patients, and themselves

Source: BU Today • Leslie Friday 12.08.2011
BU medical students hold a position called downward dog. Photos by Vernon Doucette

 

Emily Holick thought yoga was for sissies. But as a graduate student hoping to reduce stress, she gave it a try. And hated it. What irked the former college tennis player most was her inability to do a move that everyone else had perfected—the wheel, a complex pose that contorts the body into an upside down bridge. Holick says it was only her competitive spirit that kept her going.

Four years later, Holick (MED’14) believes that yoga has transformed her life. Although her first year of medical school was brutal, leaving her depressed and questioning whether she wanted to be a doctor, her yoga practice helped her cope. Then a curious string of events pulled her out of the abyss.

Holick took a healing arts class with Robert Saper, a School of Medicine associate professor of family medicine and director of integrative medicine, known for his research involving yoga and lower back pain relief. He recommended that she meet Heather Mason, a yoga therapist and trainer interested in creating a class for medical students, an idea Holick had toyed with herself.

“We met in a coffee shop in Cambridge and started dreaming,” Holick says. “It was amazing to meet someone who independently said this is something that medical students need.”

That java-infused dream has become a reality since, as Mason, Holick, and a team of medical students lobbied for its creation. Starting spring semester, MED will offer an elective called Embodied Health: Mind-Body Approaches to Well-Being. Mason will lead a weekly hour-long yoga session, followed by a half hour discussion of the practice’s medical benefits. The class will also be part of a research study led by Saper, Mason, and Allison Bond (MED’14) that will attempt to document changes in the students’ mental health. A pilot of the elective, called MED Yoga, or Mind-Body Education and Development Yoga, ran this semester, quickly attracting a following of 30-plus students.

While yoga sessions for med students are not unique (the University of Connecticut Medical Center and Georgetown Medical School both offer them), teaching students about yoga’s physiological and neurological effects is. Saper, who will be one of several guest speakers addressing issues from positive thinking to the neurobiology of stress over the 11 weeks of class, says the class “targets the unique challenges and stressors medical students face as well as offers a fairly advanced level of intellectual content appropriate for the medical students.”

And there are stressors: according to a 2009 study in Academic Medicine, nearly 25 percent of medical school students will be depressed at some point during their education. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in 2010 showing that the empathy medical students feel decreases as they progress through their four years.

Yoga therapist Heather Mason leads a breathing exercise before a yoga session designed for medical students at the School of Medicine.

 

Mason believes that yoga can be a powerful antidote. On a recent Wednesday late afternoon, she tinkered with speakers that send a low chime through the airy space of the MED student lounge where the class was meeting. While she adjusted the sound, nearly three dozen students unfurled yoga mats toward a bank of windows facing the setting sun. Some had come directly from cramming at the library for a pulmonology exam the next day.

Mason, a petite 35-year-old brunette, spent three years in Southeast Asian monasteries as an out-of-the box method of battling chronic depression. That experience led her to earn master’s degrees in Buddhist studies and psychotherapy, and another now in progress in neuroscience.

The New York native paces methodically as she leads the class into a rhythmic ujjayi breath, a diaphragmatic breathing technique. “The chime is like an anchor bringing you back to the breath,” she says. “Inhale, lift, and open your heart center.”

Some students stumble from move to move; others slide into position as if into a second skin, eyes forward, bodies steady. After an hour, Mason directs them to close their eyes, lie down, and relax. Their limp bodies rest on a rainbow of yoga mats.

Mason asks them to count their breaths per minute. She knows that the ideal count of five or six has been shown to increase heart rate variability, which can ameliorate problems like depression, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, and cardiac disease.

Breaths counted, Mason segues from the practice of yoga to a short dissertation on the neuroscience of yoga, something that has been studied by Chris Streeter, a MED associate professor of psychiatry and neurology. In one study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Streeter used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to explain why yoga practitioners report a greater improvement in mood and a decrease in anxiety than people who simply walked for relaxation. Streeter found that the yoga group had higher levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-amino butyric acid, or GABA, the likely cause of positive mood changes.

Mason explains to the class how the ujjayi breath and the chiming work together, medically, to bring about a healthful biological balance of breath, heartbeat, and other functions. When the lecture ends, Mason bows, and thanks her class with a namaste, a customary gesture on parting.

Mason says the first goal of MED Yoga was to let doctors know how yoga could help their patients, but then she realized how it could help the doctors themselves.

That message resonates with Holick, who says she is no longer depressed and has renewed faith in her career choice. The past year has “made me realize that I can make medicine my own thing,” she says. “It’s an amazing profession that I really can help people in. Sometimes I really lose sight of these bigger things.”

Satya: The Art of Truth

Aside

Satya: The Art of Truth
by: Artemisia Shine ♥ November 2011

“I AM IGNORANT of absolute truth. But I am humble before my ignorance and therein lies my honor and my reward.”  – Khalil Gibran

 

The Yamas and the Niyamas comprise two of the eight limbs of Classical Ashtanga Yoga as first written around 200CE by Patanjali Jois in the Yoga Sutras. Yama is the Sanskrit word for “abstinence” and the five Yamas are a set of external disciplines we can apply in our lives to help align more harmoniously with the Universe. Niyama translates as “observance” and the five Niyamas are a set of internal observances that help us align more fully with our highest Self.

The second Yama is Satya. Sat is the sansrit root word for “being” or “existence.”   Satya is the observance of truthfulness – with ourselves, with others, in our thoughts, words and actions.  To practice Satya is to place oneself in alignment with reality as it truly is, beyond the illusions of our ego-mind, desires, biases and false perceptions.

Satya is a practice of speaking the truth and abstaining from non-truths.  Non-truths encompass slanderous comments, gossip, and malicious thoughts or actions. When we act in ways untruthful, we are shrouding our divine nature.  When a friend acts in a way you don’t enjoy do you flippantly claim, “I don’t care. It’s cool.”  Do you play strong, cool and detached while harboring resentment for quite some time? When a baby is upset, it shares an instant and honest reaction and then moves on.  We could learn much about Satya by observing an infant.

Satya challenges us to seek out the essential truth of our being-ness; to reveal the essence of who we really are.  Who are you when you cease identifying with titles that only exist in the physical world? Who are you when you dispense of thoughts such as “I am a student, a single mother, a teacher, a farmer, a wildlife biologist, a child?” Who is left when you are no longer  “skilled” in one arena or “not good enough” in another?  We are each radiant expressions of the divine, the central luminous essence that is the inner-connected fabric of life. Our consciousness is way beyond our physical forms. Unhappiness comes from forgetting this fact.

Are you living in alignment with your true spiritual nature? Satya calls us to evolve our actions to bring us into harmony with our fundamental Self. Do you allow time to silence the mind and uncover your unique path of growth? Although this honest observation cause discomfort, when we practice Satya we see through “strengths” and “limitations” as simply what is, free from judgment.

When you are on the mat do you force yourself beyond the limits of your body? Does your ego throw a party when you’re in the “perfect pigeon pose?”  Albert Einstein once said, “A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.” Our yoga practice serves as an opportunity to honestly dive within.

– Artemisia Shine

What Science Can Teach Us About Flexibility

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What Science Can Teach Us About Flexibility

In recent years, biomedical research has begun to investigate and appreciate what yogis have known for centuries: Stretching keeps us limber, youthful, and healthy.

Source: Fernando Pagés Ruiz • Yoga Journal Issue 209

If you’re already practicing yoga, you don’t need exercise scientists and physiologists to convince you of the benefits of stretching. Instead, you’d probably like them to tell you if there’s anything in their flexibility research that can help you go deeper in your asanas. For example, when you fold into a forward bend and are brought up short by the tightness in the back of your legs, can science tell you what’s going on? And can that knowledge help you go deeper?

The answer to both questions is “Yes.” A knowledge of physiology can help you visualize the inner workings of your body and focus on the specific mechanisms that help you stretch. You can optimize your efforts if you know whether the tightness in your legs is due to poor skeletal alignment, stiff connective tissues, or nerve reflexes designed to keep you from hurting yourself. And if you know whether any uncomfortable sensations you feel are warnings that you’re about to do damage, or whether they’re just notices that you’re entering exciting new territory, you can make an intelligent choice between pushing on or backing off—and avoid injuries.

In addition, new scientific research may even have the potential to extend the wisdom of yoga. If we understand more clearly the complex physiology involved in yogic practices, we may be able refine our techniques for opening our bodies.
Why Stretch?

Of course, yoga does far more than keep us limber. It releases tensions from our bodies and minds, allowing us to drop more deeply into meditation. In yoga, “flexibility” is an attitude that invests and transforms the mind as well as the body.

But in Western, physiological terms, “flexibility” is just the ability to move muscles and joints through their complete range. It’s an ability we’re born with, but that most of us lose. “Our lives are restricted and sedentary,” explains Dr. Thomas Green, a chiropractor in Lincoln, Nebraska, “so our bodies get lazy, muscles atrophy, and our joints settle into a limited range.”

Back when we were hunter-gatherers, we got the daily exercise we needed to keep our bodies flexible and healthy. But modern, sedentary life is not the only culprit that constricts muscles and joints. Even if you’re active, your body will dehydrate and stiffen with age. By the time you become an adult, your tissues have lost about 15 percent of their moisture content, becoming less supple and more prone to injury. Your muscle fibers have begun to adhere to each other, developing cellular cross-links that prevent parallel fibers from moving independently. Slowly our elastic fibers get bound up with collagenous connective tissue and become more and more unyielding. This normal aging of tissues is distressingly similar to the process that turns animal hides into leather. Unless we stretch, we dry up and tan! Stretching slows this process of dehydration by stimulating the production of tissue lubricants. It pulls the interwoven cellular cross-links apart and helps muscles rebuild with healthy parallel cellular structure.

Remember the cheesy ’70s sci-fi flick in which Raquel Welch and her miniaturized submarine crew get injected into someone’s bloodstream? To really grasp how Western physiology can benefit asana practice, we need to go on our own internal odyssey, diving deep into the body to examine how muscles work.

Muscles are organs—biological units built from various specialized tissues that are integrated to perform a single function. (Physiologists divide muscles into three types: the smooth muscles of the viscera; the specialized cardiac muscles of the heart; and the striated muscles of the skeleton—but in this article we’ll focus only on skeletal muscles, those familiar pulleys that move the bony levers of our bodies.)

The specific function of muscles, of course, is movement which is produced by muscle fibers, bundles of specialized cells that change shape by contracting or relaxing. Muscle groups operate in concert, alternately contracting and stretching in precise, coordinated sequences to produce the wide range of movements of which our bodies are capable.

In skeletal movements, the working muscles—the ones that contract to move your bones—are called the “agonists.” The opposing groups of muscles—the ones that must release and elongate to allow movement—are called the “antagonists.” Almost every movement of the skeleton involves the coordinated action of agonist and antagonist muscle groups: They’re the yang and yin of our movement anatomy.

But although stretching—the lengthening of antagonist muscles—is half the equation in skeletal movement, most exercise physiologists believe that increasing the elasticity of healthy muscle fiber is not an important factor in improving flexibility. According to Michael Alter, author of Science of Flexibility (Human Kinetics, 1998), current research demonstrates that individual muscle fibers can be stretched to approximately 150 percent of their resting length before tearing. This extendibility enables muscles to move through a wide range of motion, sufficient for most stretches—even the most difficult asanas.

If your muscle fibers don’t limit your ability to stretch, what does? There are two major schools of scientific thought on what actually most limits flexibility and what should be done to improve it. The first school focuses not on stretching muscle fiber itself but on increasing the elasticity of connective tissues, the cells that bind muscle fibers together, encapsulate them, and network them with other organs; the second addresses the “stretch reflex” and other functions of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. Yoga works on both. That’s why it’s such an effective method for increasing flexibility.
Your Internal Knitting

Connective tissues include a variety of cell groups that specialize in binding our anatomy into a cohesive whole. It is the most abundant tissue in the body, forming an intricate mesh that connects all our body parts and compartmentalizes them into discrete bundles of anatomical structure—bones, muscles, organs, etc. Almost every yoga asana exercises and improves the cellular quality of this varied and vital tissue, which transmits movement and provides our muscles with lubricants and healing agents. But in the study of flexibility we are concerned with only three types of connective tissue: tendons, ligaments, and muscle fascia. Let’s explore each of them briefly.

Tendons transmit force by connecting bones to muscle. They are relatively stiff. If they weren’t, fine motor coordination like playing piano or performing eye surgery would be impossible. While tendons have enormous tensile strength, they have very little tolerance to stretching. Beyond a 4 percent stretch, tendons can tear or lengthen beyond their ability to recoil, leaving us with lax and less responsive muscle-to-bone connections.

Ligaments can safely stretch a bit more than tendons—but not much. Ligaments bind bone to bone inside joint capsules. They play a useful role in limiting flexibility, and it is generally recommended that you avoid stretching them. Stretching ligaments can destabilize joints, compromising their efficiency and increasing your likelihood of injury. That’s why you should flex your knees slightly—rather than hyperextending them—in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), releasing tension on posterior knee ligaments (and also on the ligaments of the lower spine).

Muscle fascia is the third connective tissue that affects flexibility, and by far the most important. Fascia makes up as much as 30 percent of a muscle’s total mass, and, according to studies cited in Science of Flexibility, it accounts for approximately 41 percent of a muscle’s total resistance to movement. Fascia is the stuff that separates individual muscle fibers and bundles them into working units, providing structure and transmitting force.

Many of the benefits derived from stretching—joint lubrication, improved healing, better circulation, and enhanced mobility—are related to the healthy stimulation of fascia. Of all the structural components of your body which limit your flexibility, it is the only one that you can stretch safely. Anatomist David Coulter, author of Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, reflects this in his description of the asanas as “a careful tending to your internal knitting.”

Now let’s apply this physiology lesson to a basic but very powerful posture: Paschimottanasana. We’ll begin with the anatomy of the asana.

The name of this pose combines three words: “Paschima,” the Sanskrit word for “west”; “uttana,” which means “intense stretch”; and “asana,” or “posture.” Since yogis traditionally practiced facing east toward the sun, “west” refers to the entire back of the human body.

This seated forward bend stretches a muscle chain that begins at the Achilles tendon, extends up the back of the legs and pelvis, then continues up along the spine to end at the base of your head. According to yoga lore, this asana rejuvenates the vertebral column and tones the internal organs, massaging the heart, kidneys, and abdomen.

Imagine you’re lying on your back in yoga class, getting ready to fold up and over into Paschimottanasana. Your arms are relatively relaxed, palms on your thighs. Your head is resting comfortably on the floor; your cervical spine is soft, but awake. The instructor asks you to lift your trunk slowly, reaching out through your tailbone and up through the crown of your head, being careful not to overarch and strain your lower back as you move up and forward. She suggests that you picture an imaginary string attached to your chest, gently pulling you out and up—opening anahata chakra, the heart center—as you rotate through the hips into a seated position.

The image your teacher is using is not just poetic, it’s also anatomically accurate. The primary muscles at work during this first phase of a forward bend are the rectus abdominis that run along the front of your trunk. Attached to your ribs just below your heart and anchored to your pubic bone, these muscles are the anatomical string that literally pulls you forward from the heart chakra.

The secondary muscles working to pull your torso up run through your pelvis and along the front of your legs: the psoas, linking torso and legs, the quadriceps on the front of your thighs, and the muscles adjacent to your shin bones.

In Paschimottanasana, the muscles running from heart to toe along the front of your body are the agonists. They’re the muscles that contract to pull you forward. Along the back of your torso and legs are the opposing, or complementary, groups of muscles, which must elongate and release before you can move forward.

By now, you’ve stretched forward and settled into the pose completely, backing off slightly from your maximum stretch and breathing deeply and steadily. Your mind focuses on the subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) messages from your body. You feel a pleasant pull along the full length of your hamstrings. Your pelvis is tilted forward, your spinal column is lengthening, and you perceive a gentle increase in the spaces between each of your vertebrae.

Your instructor is quiet now, not pushing you to stretch further but allowing you to go deeper into the posture at your own pace. You’re getting to know the posture and getting comfortable with it. Perhaps you even feel like a timelessly serene statue as you hold Paschimottanasana for several minutes.

In this kind of practice, you’re maintaining the posture long enough to affect the plastic quality of your connective tissues. Prolonged stretches like this can produce healthful, permanent changes in the quality of the fascia that binds your muscles. Julie Gudmestad, a physical therapist and certified Iyengar instructor, uses prolonged asanas with patients at her clinic in Portland, Oregon. “If they hold the poses for shorter periods, people get a nice sense of release,” Gudmestad explains, “but they aren’t necessarily going to get the structural changes that add up to a permanent increase in flexibility.”

According to Gudmestad, stretches should be held 90 to 120 seconds to change the “ground substance” of connective tissue. Ground substance is the nonfibrous, gel-like binding agent in which fibrous connective tissues like collagen and elastin are embedded. Ground substance stabilizes and lubricates connective tissue. And it is commonly believed that restrictions in this substance can limit flexibility, especially as we age.

By combining precise postural alignment with the use of props, Gudmestad positions her patients to relax into asanas so they can remain long enough to make lasting change. “We make sure people aren’t in pain,” Gudmestad says, “so they can breathe and hold a stretch longer.”
Reciprocal Inhibition

Along with stretching connective tissue, much of the work we do in yoga aims to enlist the neurological mechanisms that allow our muscles to release and extend. One such mechanism is “reciprocal inhibition.” Whenever one set of muscles (the agonists) contracts, this built-in feature of the autonomic nervous system causes the opposing muscles (the antagonists) to release. Yogis have been using this mechanism for millennia to facilitate stretching.

To experience reciprocal inhibition firsthand, sit down in front of a table and gently press the edge of your hand, karate-chop style, onto the tabletop. If you touch the back of your upper arm—your triceps muscle—you’ll notice that it’s firmly engaged. If you touch the opposing muscles, the biceps (the big muscles on the front of your upper arm), they should feel relaxed.

In Paschimottanasana the same mechanism is at play. Your hamstrings are released when you engage their opposing muscle group, the quadriceps.

David Sheer, an orthopedic manual therapist in Nashville, Tennessee, uses the principle of reciprocal inhibition to help patients safely improve their range of motion. If you went to Sheer to improve your hamstring flexibility, he would work the quadriceps, developing strength in the front thigh to help relax the hamstrings. Then, when the hamstrings have achieved their maximum range for the day, Sheer would strengthen them with weight-bearing, isometric, or isotonic exercises.

At the Yoga Room of Nashville, Betty Larson, a certified Iyengar instructor, uses the principles of reciprocal inhibition to help yoga students release their hamstrings in Paschimottanasana.

“I remind my students to contract their quads,” says Larson, “lifting up the entire length of the front of the leg, so the back of the leg is loosened.” Larson also includes backbends in her classes to strengthen her students’ hamstrings and backs. She feels it’s extremely important to develop strength in the muscles you are stretching. Like many teachers, Larson is using ancient yogic techniques that apply physiological principles only recently understood by modern science.

According to Sheer, she’s doing the right thing. He claims the best type of flexibility combines improved range of motion with improved strength. “It’s useful flexibility,” says Sheer. “If you only increase your passive flexibility without developing the strength to control it, you make yourself more vulnerable to a serious joint injury.”

Let’s return to your Paschimottanasana. Imagine that this time, as you pivot from your pelvis and reach your trunk forward, your hamstrings are unusually tight. You can’t seem to move as deeply into the pose as you would like, and the harder you try, the tighter your hamstrings feel. Then your instructor reminds you to continue breathing and relax every muscle that’s not actively engaged in sustaining the pose.

You give up trying to match your personal best. You relax into the posture, without judgment, and slowly your hamstrings begin to release.

Why are you able to gradually bring your head toward your shins once you stop straining? According to science—and many ancient yogis—what was limiting your flexibility most wasn’t your body, it was your mind—or, at least, your nervous system.
The Stretch Reflex

According to physiologists who view the nervous system as the major obstacle to increased flexibility, the key to overcoming one’s limitations lies in another built-in feature of our neurology: the stretch reflex. Scientists who study flexibility think that the small, progressive steps that allow us to go a little deeper during the course of one session—and that dramatically improve our flexibility over a life of yoga practice—are in large part the result of retraining this reflex.

To get an understanding of the stretch reflex, picture yourself walking in a winter landscape. Suddenly you step on a patch of ice, and your feet start to splay apart. Immediately your muscles fire into action, tensing to draw your legs back together and regain control. What just happened in your nerves and muscles?

Every muscle fiber has a network of sensors called muscle spindles. They run perpendicular to the muscle fibers, sensing how far and fast the fibers are elongating. As muscle fibers extend, stress on these muscle spindles increases.

When this stress comes too fast, or goes too far, muscle spindles fire an urgent neurological “SOS,” activating a reflex loop that triggers an immediate, protective contraction.

That’s what happens when the doctor thumps with a small rubber mallet on the tendon just below your kneecap, stretching your quadriceps abruptly. This rapid stretch stimulates the muscle spindles in your quadriceps, signaling the spinal cord. An instant later the neurological loop ends with a brief contraction of your quadriceps, producing the well known “knee jerk reaction.”

That’s how the stretch reflex protects your muscles. And that’s why most experts caution against bouncing while stretching. Bouncing in and out of a stretch causes the rapid stimulation of muscle spindles that triggers reflexive tightening, and can increase your chances of injury.

Slow, static stretching also triggers the stretch reflex, but not as abruptly. When you fold forward into Paschimottanasana, the muscle spindles in your hamstrings begin to call for resistance, producing tension in the very muscles you’re trying to extend. That’s why improving flexibility through static stretching takes a long time. The improvement comes through slow conditioning of your muscle spindles, training them to tolerate more tension before applying the neuro-brakes.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation…What?

Among the recent developments in Western flexibility training are neurological techniques that retrain the stretch reflex, promoting quick, dramatic gains in flexibility. One of these techniques is called—take a deep breath—proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. (Fortunately, it’s usually just called PNF).

To apply PNF principles to Paschimottanasana, try this: While bending forward, just short of your maximum stretch, engage your hamstrings in an isometric contraction—as if you were trying to draw your heels down through the floor—lasting approximately five to 10 seconds. Then release this action, and see if you can move a little deeper into the forward bend.

The PNF method manipulates the stretch reflex by having you contract a muscle while it’s at near-maximum length. When you engage your hamstrings, you actually ease the pressure on your muscle spindles, and they send signals that it’s safe for the muscle to release further. In a seeming paradox, contracting the muscle actually allows it to lengthen. If you engage and then release your muscle fibers in this way, you will probably discover more comfort in a stretch that was near your maximum just seconds before. Now you’re ready to open a little more, taking advantage of a momentary lull in neural activity, deepening the stretch. Your nervous system adjusts, affording you greater range of motion.

“PNF is as close as we’ve come to scientific stretching,” physical therapist Michael Leslie says. Leslie uses combinations of modified PNF techniques to help members of the San Francisco Ballet improve their flexibility. “In my experience it can take weeks of static training to achieve the gains possible in one session of PNF,” Leslie says.

As of yet, yoga has not focused systematically on PNF-type techniques. But vinyasa practices that emphasize careful sequencing of asanas and/or repetition of asanas—moving in and out of the same posture several times—tend to promote neurological conditioning.

Gray Kraftsow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute and one of the most highly respected teachers in the Viniyoga lineage of T.K.V. Desikachar, likens Viniyoga to PNF. “Alternating between contracting and stretching is what changes the muscle,” Kraftsow says. “Muscles relax and stretch further after contracting.”
Prana & Flexibility

Kraftsow also emphasizes the importance of the breath in any kind of neurological work, pointing out that breathing is a link between our consciousness and our autonomic nervous system. “It’s this quality of breathing,” Kraftsow says, “that qualifies it as a primary tool in any science of self development.”

Pranayama, or breath control, is the fourth limb in a yogi’s path toward samadhi. One of the most important yogic practices, it helps the yogi gain control over the movement of prana (life energy) throughout the body. But whether viewed through esoteric yoga physiology or the scientific physiology of the West, the connection between relaxation, stretching, and breathing is well established. Physiologists describe this mechanical and neurological correlation of movement and breath as an instance of synkinesis, the involuntary movement of one part of the body that occurs with the movement of another part.

While you are holding Paschimottanasana, breathing deeply and steadily, you may notice an ebb and flow to your stretching that mirrors the tide of your breath. As you inhale, your muscles tighten slightly, reducing the stretch. As you exhale, slowly and completely, your abdomen moves back toward your spine, the muscles in your lower back seem to grow longer, and you can drop your chest toward your thighs.

It’s obvious that exhalation deflates the lungs and lifts your diaphragm into the chest, thereby creating space in the abdominal cavity and making it easier to bend the lumbar spine forward. (Inhalation does the opposite, filling the abdominal cavity like an inflating balloon, making it difficult to fold your spine forward completely.) But you may not realize that exhalation also actually relaxes the muscles of your back and tilts your pelvis forward.

In Paschimottanasana, the musculature of the lower back is in passive tension. According to research cited in Science of Flexibility, every inhalation is accompanied by an active contraction of the lower back—a contraction in direct opposition to the desired forward bend. Then exhalation releases the lower back muscles, facilitating the stretch. If you place your palms on your back, just above the hips, and breathe deeply, you can feel the erector spinae on either side of your spinal column engage as you inhale and release as you exhale. If you pay close attention, you’ll also notice that each inhalation engages the muscles around the coccyx, at the very tip of your spine, drawing the pelvis back slightly. Each exhalation relaxes these muscles and frees your pelvis, allowing it to rotate around the hip joints.

As your lungs empty and the diaphragm lifts into your chest, your back muscles release and you are able to fold into your ultimate stretch. Once there, you may experience a pleasant, seemingly eternal moment of inner peace, the pacifying of the nervous system traditionally considered one of the benefits of forward bends.

At this point, you may feel especially in touch with the spiritual element of yoga. But Western science also offers a material explanation for this experience. According to Alter’s Science of Flexibility, during an exhalation the diaphragm pushes up against the heart, slowing down the heart rate. Blood pressure decreases, as does stress on the rib cage, abdominal walls, and intercostal muscles. Relaxation ensues, and your tolerance to stretching is enhanced—as well as your sense of well-being.
Short Cuts to Flexibility?

But not every moment in yoga is peaceful. At the extreme end of hatha yoga achievement, practitioners can experience breakthroughs that may involve a degree of pain, fear, and risk. (After all, hatha does mean “forceful.”) You may have seen the photograph in Light on Yoga of B.K.S. Iyengar poised in Mayurasana (Peacock Pose) on the back of a student in Paschimottanasana, forcing her to fold more deeply. Or perhaps you’ve watched a teacher stand on the thighs of a student in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). Such methods might appear dangerous or even cruel to an outsider, but in the hands of an experienced instructor they can be remarkably effective—and they bear a striking resemblance to cutting-edge techniques in Western flexibility training that focus on reconditioning neurological mechanisms.

As I researched this article, a friend told me about a time he accidentally engaged one of these mechanisms and experienced a surprising breakthrough after years of trying to master Hanumanasana (a pose better known in the West as “the splits”). One day, as my friend attempted the posture—left leg forward and right leg back, hands lightly supporting him on the floor—he stretched his legs farther apart than usual, allowing almost the full weight of his torso to rest down through his hips. Suddenly he felt an intense warmth in his pelvic region and a rapid, unexpected release that brought both his sitting bones to the floor. My friend had triggered a physiological reaction rarely encountered while stretching, a neurological “circuit breaker” that opposes and overrides the stretch reflex. While the stretch reflex tenses muscle tissue, this other reflex—technically, it’s known as the “inverse myotatic (stretch) reflex”—completely releases muscular tension to protect the tendons.

How does it work? At the ends of every muscle, where fascia and tendons interweave, there are sensory bodies that monitor load. These are the Golgi tendon organs (GTOs). They react when either a muscular contraction or a stretch places too much stress on a tendon.

The huge, state-sponsored sports apparatus of the former Soviet Union developed a neurological flexibility training method based largely on manipulating this GTO reflex. “You already have all the muscle length you need,” argues Russian flexibility expert Pavel Tsatsouline, “enough for full splits and most of the difficult asanas. But controlling flexibility requires control of an autonomic function.” Tsatsouline makes the point by lifting his leg up on a chair back. “If you can do this,” he says, “you’ve already got enough stretch to do the splits.” According to Tsatsouline, it’s not muscle or connective tissue that’s stopping you. “Great flexibility,” asserts Tsatsouline, “can be achieved by flicking a few switches in your spinal cord.”

But exploiting the GTO mechanism to enhance flexibility entails certain risks, because muscles must be fully extended and under extreme tension to trigger a GTO reflex. Implementing enhanced methods of flexibility training—like the Russian system or advanced yoga techniques—requires an experienced teacher who can make sure your skeleton is correctly aligned and that your body is strong enough to handle the stresses involved. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s easy to get hurt.

If used correctly, though, these methods can be extremely effective. Tsatsouline claims he can teach even stiff middle-aged men, with no prior flexibility training, how to do the splits in about six months.
Applied Physiology

By now you may be asking yourself, “What do these Western stretching techniques have to do with yoga?”

On the one hand, of course, stretching is an important component of building the yoga-deha, the yogic body that allows the practitioner to channel ever more prana. That’s one reason why the major hatha yoga schools base their practice on the classic asanas, a series of postures that illustrate and encourage the ideal range of human movement.

But any good teacher will also tell you that yoga isn’t just about stretching. “Yoga is a discipline that teaches us new ways of experiencing the world,” Judith Lasater, Ph.D. and physical therapist, explains, “so that we can give up the attachments to our suffering.” According to Lasater, there are only two asanas: conscious or unconscious. In other words, what distinguishes a particular position as an asana is our focus, not simply the outer conformation of the body.

It’s certainly possible to get so caught up in pursuit of physical perfection that we lose sight of the “goal” of asana practice—the state of samadhi. At the same time, though, exploring the limits of the body’s flexibility can be a perfect vehicle for developing the one-pointed concentration needed for the “inner limbs” of classical yoga.

And there is certainly nothing inherently contradictory about using the analytical insights of Western science to inform and enhance the empirical insights of millennia of asana practice. In fact, yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar, perhaps the most influential figure in the Western assimilation of hatha yoga, has always encouraged scientific inquiry, advocating the application of strict physiological principles to the cultivation of a refined asana practice.

Some yogis are already embracing this synthesis enthusiastically. At the Meridian Stretching Center in Boston, Massachusetts, Bob Cooley is developing and testing a computer program that can diagnose flexibility deficiencies and prescribe asanas. New clients at Cooley’s stretching center are asked to assume 16 different yoga postures as Cooley records specific anatomical landmarks on their bodies with a digitizing wand, similar to the ones used in computer-aided drafting. These body-point readings are computed to make comparisons between the client and models of both maximum and average human flexibility. The computer program generates a report that benchmarks and guides the client’s progress, spelling out any areas needing improvement and recommending specific asanas.

Cooley uses an amalgamation of what he sees as the best points of Eastern and Western knowledge, combining the classic yoga asana with techniques similar to PNF. (An eclectic experimenter, Cooley incorporates Western psychotherapeutic insights, the Enneagram, and Chinese meridian theory in his approach to yoga.).

If you’re a yoga purist, you may not like the idea of a yoga potpourri that mixes new-fangled scientific insights with time-honed yoga practices. But “new and improved” has always been one of America’s national mantras, and blending the best from Eastern experience-based wisdom and Western analytical science may be a principal contribution our country makes to the evolution of yoga.
Resources

Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain (Eastland Press, 1993).

Yoga Poses for Better Sleep

Aside

Yoga poses for better sleep

Struggling for a few hours of sleep every night? You should give yoga a shot.

Restorative yoga is regarded as one of the best cures for insomnia as it helps relax your mind and body to induce better sleep. Moreover, the deep breathing techniques and gentle stretching helps better regulate your body’s systems. This improves the supply of oxygen and blood to your brain. However, be sure to consult your physician prior to adopting any yoga session for insomnia in case the root cause of your sleep-related problem is deeper than mere stress or anxiety. So, here they are – 7 yoga postures to help you sleep better.

Corpse body or savasana: This may look simple but Savasana is a very important yoga posture to attain total body and mind calmness. All you need to do is lie flat on your back on a yoga mat. Allow your hands and feet to splay outwards with your palms facing up. With your eyes closed, allow your mind to drift from the top of your head to the tip of your feet. As you do this, allow each part of your body to relax completely while you focus on that part. This technique can be performed during any part of the day for around 5-6 minutes per session.

Adho mukha svanasana: This technique is popularly known as the downward facing dog. Place your palms and knees on the yoga mat with your knees aligned directly under your hips and your hands a little ahead of your shoulders. This posture should be such that your toes are facing upwards. Now, exhale and slightly lift your pelvis away from the floor. Do not allow your head to dangle freely and hold it firmly in between your arms. Maintain this posture for minute or two and then relax. Repeat this for a total of 5-6 times per session.

Uttanasana or standing forward bend: This posture is very useful for soothing the mind and promoting stress relief. Besides this, it also facilitates an intense extension in your spine and legs by releasing the hamstrings. To do this posture, stand in front of your bed with your hands on your hip. Inhale deeply and while exhaling, slowly bend your body from your hips until your head rests on the bed. If you face any kind of stiffness initially, use some pillows on your bed. Take a deep breath again and lift your kneecaps up. Maintain this posture for as long as possible. However, ensure that you do not over arch and strain your back.

Viparita karani: This posture is alternately known as Legs-up-the-wall pose. With your back on the yoga mat, gradually extend your legs up the wall. Keep your arms on the floor with your palms facing upwards. Close your eyes and then gently stretch your heels by extending it towards the ceiling. Ensure that you take long and steady breaths while performing this technique.

Sarvangasana or shoulderstand: This posture should be done only after a person has achieved a certain amount of flexibility. Any kind of uncomfortable sensation and you should immediately skip this step. To do this posture, inhale and then with a moderate sudden movement, lift your legs up in the air. Use your hands to stabilize your hips as you perform this. In case you find this difficult, you can even use the walls for extra support. You can also start initially with a half shoulder stand of about 45 degrees and then proceed to the full posture.

Pranayama: Usually this is done in a sitting posture and involves steady-controlled breathing. However, you may also start with a lying posture as this will enable you to really feel your breath moving through your body due to the floor contact. The sitting posture is done in a comfortable, cross-legged position. Start the natural inhalation-exhalation process and try not to engage your mind in different thoughts. Always keep in mind to inhale only though your nose without involving your mouth. On inhalation, fill your belly with air and then gradually exhale using your nose. Repeat the process for around 5-6 breaths and then relax.