There's a story line I hear quite often as a yoga teacher -- "I'd like to do yoga, but I'm not flexible or strong enough and I have a bad back." In my early days of teaching, I'd engage in these conversations and offer anecdotes and summaries of research-backed trials to persuade the listener that they needn't be strong or flexible to try yoga. Sometimes, they'd hear me out and try a class. But mostly they learned never to bring it up in conversation with me again. Later, when I was feeling a bit burned out, I'd listen while people gave me that same story line and just nod. "Maybe you're right," I'd say, not having the energy or desire to encourage them to come to class. I was enjoying teaching those who already practiced yoga - it was easy to do as these students needed no convincing. But having no one question my teaching proved to be boring, and I slowly began engaging once more with the nay-sayers and non-believers. Here's what I have to say now:
Strength and flexibility are by-products of yoga practice, not pre-requisites.
I get it. Learning a new task can be hard. With yoga, there's a new vocabulary, a new set of tools, a new culture in the studio. It can be daunting to dive in when you feel unprepared. I'm here to tell you, though -- you can't mess it up. Starting to practice yoga is taking the first step on a journey, and who knows where that journey will lead you. Maybe it won't lead you far, and you'll decide not to embark on it fully. And that is totally ok. But at least you took the first step. I can tell you personally that I never imagined the strength I would gain from yoga - especially because it can feel so easy to practice (at times)! I credit my ability to maintain a high-intensity career without back pain to the strength benefits I receive from yoga and physical therapy. It isn't why I started the practice, though -- it truly is just a nice benefit (and once that I have come to rely on).
Flexibility - well, that is also quite the benefit that will serve you in the long-run. Younger, more flexible people tend to be easily drawn to yoga, and of course they will reap the benefits of the practice, but the true "success stories" are those who show up with stiffness and learn to ease into a more flexible way of living. They may never be flexible enough to touch their toes, but who cares!? If you gain the flexibility to be able to reach into the high shelf on the closet without shoulder pain, or down into the low drawer without triggering a back spasm, you will understand the boon of flexibility that yoga can provide.
When we feel physically safe in our own body, yoga is easier to understand
The fundamentals of yoga are simple - yoga is ease, yoga is peace, yoga is "cessation of the fluctuations of the consciousness (see Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by BKS Iyengar)." The trouble comes in understanding these axioms by both the brain and the body. For some people, who have been living with chronic pain or have learned to retreat from the sensations of the physical body (read Matthew Sanford's Waking for an illuminated story on this concept), the work of understanding/conceptualizing/feeling the lessons of yoga is easier first for the brain - but the body is a whole different task. For others who already live in their body, like athletes and avid exercisers, understanding the physical benefits of yoga is easy, but the work comes with comprehending yoga for its impact on the mind.
The emerging research on yoga's impact on physical, emotional, and mental stability is intriguing and fascinating to study. Recent theoretical work suggests a processing roadmap of yoga's benefits to the brain, laying down a guidebook for future research in neuroscience to follow to uncover the ways we have yet to tap into yoga's healing modalities (Gard et al., Potential self-regulatory mechanisms for psychological health, 2014). In many ways, this research highlights the adages that yoga teachers have been professing for centuries - there just hasn't been much scientific proof to actually back them up. Imaging studies and randomized control trials are at the forefront of changing this paradigm, and it's one I believe needs to be changed. The health care we deliver by and large misses the mark for many people - take low back pain, for example. Despite new technologies, new musculoskeletal understanding and techniques, and new pharmaceuticals, the number of people with chronic low back pain fails to decrease (Meucci et al., Prevalence of chronic low back pain, 2015).
The goal of yoga is to ease suffering, not attain a certain pose
This is incredibly important to consider when determining where to practice yoga, if you are ready to take the dive. If you currently struggle with chronic pain, have any other health-related issues, or have an acute injury, it would be wise to begin with a consultation from a Physical Therapist. They can educate you on what is safe for you personally, and some may even have recommendations for yoga studios and teachers that encourage healing and transformation instead of rote exercise. The beauty of yoga's boom in the west is that a studio is not hard to find - though it does make finding the right teacher for you a little more challenging. Consider these questions when you are looking into studios:
I'd love to help you on your yoga journey. Comment below with questions, stories, or reactions!
Sandbags can be one of the most physical ways to explore the sensation of "grounding." Placed on specific areas of the body, they help to ease muscular tension by applying steady pressure for a prolonged time. The grounding sensation is not just physical, though, as these props function similarly to a weighted blanket to encourage a quiet mind and state of being. Here are a few of my favorite ways to use sandbags. Enjoy!
This seems to be the favorite sandbag location for so many of my students - I think that is because they come to class overworked, exhausted, and carrying heavy burdens. Resting with the sandbags on the tops of the shoulders can be a powerful tool to opening up the (typically too-tight) chest and releasing tension throughout the neck and shoulders. This is especially helpful for those needing help externally rotating the arms (which, nowadays, seems to be pretty much anyone who spends any time on a screen). If your shoulders and neck are especially tight, you'll want to start slowly and keep the bags on for just a few minutes at a time. Always remove the bags if you feel numbness or tingling in your hands. Eventually you can work up to 10 minutes in this pose.
Notice the way Margie's palms face up when the sandbags are placed on the shoulders - this is essential to creating space in the chest and upper arms.
Only have one sandbag? You can do this pose one shoulder at a time, or place the sandbag horizontally across your chest and allow the sand to fill the ends of the bag evenly.
Sometimes adjusting the shoulders doesn't quite alter the wrist position, and those who do a lot of typing or caring for a newborn will benefit from support on the forearm and wrist to encourage supination. The eyebag in her palm offers gentle pressure and can feel very supportive and calming. Keep the pressure off of the carpal tunnel and remove the sandbag if you experience and numbness/tingling in the hand.
The belly is one place that many people who practice yoga often have hardened and have difficulty softening. 10 or 20 pounds directly placed on the abdomen can help accomplish this release. An added bonus here is that the weight of the bags can put pressure on the illiopsoas muscles, which tend to shorten with prolonged sitting and contribute to low back pain. Releasing these tense muscles for just 10 minutes can have benefits that you'll feel for days.
This one can be a little tricky to figure out, but once you've done it a few times you will be a pro! In legs-up-the-wall pose, bend your legs and place the sandbag on your feet. Gently slide both legs up the wall simultaneously and you'll notice a grounding sensation that helps guide the tailbone down to the floor. This can be relieving for tired and tight legs. If your hamstrings are particularly tight, make sure you are far enough away from the wall so that your tailbone isn't hanging in the air - there should be contact onto the floor if you don't have a bolster underneath your low back.
There you have four of my favorite ways to practice with sandbags! Of course, there are so many more creative ways to use them - on the low back in child's pose is another classic, or over the hips in baddha konasana. What are some of your favorites?
Restorative classes are live! Join me on Sundays from 11 - 12:30 on Zoom for guided meditation and relaxation. This is a great way to get to know your props, or get creative with items around your house to fill in as props! No experience is necessary.
How it works: register for class online at https://stpaulyogacenter.com/schedule/
An hour before class begins, I will email you a link to the Zoom information so that you can join in. I'll open up the class about 15 minutes beforehand for those who like to arrive early.
It's easy and the feedback I've received so far has been positive! Some students are enjoying the practice from the comfort of their own home so much that they like it better than the old way of showing up for class! We shall see what the future holds.
Here are a few helpful hints for class:
As I enter the second trimester, I'm reminded how important my bolster was to me during my first pregnancy. I even brought it to bed when I was too uncomfortable to sleep! Here is a sample sequence of my all-time favorite poses while pregnant.
First off, side-lying savasana. Sooooo good. The bolster here supports my leg from the knee to the ankle, which maintains stability for the pelvis while off-loading the lower back. Sometimes I'll put a small roll under my arm, or a pillow to snuggle in front, but in this picture I'm just taking some quality time to connect with my babe while I relax. The brown bolster behind me provides stability, which you can recreate with the back of a couch or a wall if you've only got one bolster.
Next up, queen pose. Supta baddha konasana - my preferred position for meditation. I spend a bit of time connecting with the sensation of life within me, then switch my focus to breath, quietude, and observation....for as long as I can without being interrupted
And then of course there's child's pose. I have definitely fallen asleep in this pose because my back felt so good here. A lavender eyebag can be lovely to have resting on your neck.
I also like to end with some version of Legs Up the Wall. This picture demonstrates a pose I learned from the delightful Judith Hanson Lasater, which she calls Instant Maui. This variation is a great relief for low back pain, and when you put your legs on a chair you don't have to worry about tight hamstrings stealing the show! Tight hip flexors are relieved with this restorative version of bridge pose, setubandha sarvangasana, shown on the right.
Even just finding 10 minutes to practice one or two of these poses can be so rejuvenating. I find that I am kinder, more creative, and more energetic after a little silent self-care, and my body feels so much better for the rest of the day!
I consider this pose the ultimate restorative pose. When set up well, your entire body is supported with props for ultimate muscle release. Keeping your chest elevated will make pranayama, breathing exercises, much easier. Of course, it's an absolute bonus if you can share your practice with another living being, especially one small enough to act as a sandbag on your belly.
So...what's the best set-up?
Well, like so many restorative poses, it all really depends on your preferences. Some people love a big arch for their low back, while others prefer something subtler.
Once you have your bolster set up, make sure your arms and legs are supported and comfortable. You can use blankets or blocks, or even folded pillows.
Of course you can place an eyebag on your eyes, but for added ease and comfort, place one in each palm.
Practice the pose for as long as you are comfortable. If you are extremely fatigued or overwhelmed, set a timer and allow yourself to sink deeply, maybe even to the point of falling asleep. Some days you will be able to practice a calm, slow, meditative breath, and other days you can practice letting go of focusing on anything at all.
Setting this pose up takes a little time and effort, but it is well worth it. This is a lovely way to begin or end your practice.
Props involved: in the picture, there are several! A bolster is well placed to support the hips and lower back (while allowing the tailbone to drop down behind the bolster). If the bolster is too high, place a folded blanket underneath under back length-wise, making sure to support your head. Use an eyebag to block out the light and ease tension in your face with the light pressure of the flax. Arm rests are optional, and are fabulous options if your neck or upper chest feels tight.