Building a Strong Core -- Be Ready for Life

When you think about how you can increase your core strength, you probably think sit ups, crunches and leg lifts, right?

Many people understand that core strength gives your physical body support, but it is important to also know that this physical component is also the structure that supports your journey toward freedom in your emotional and spiritual self.

It is true that there are many wide-reaching physical benefits of core work. One example is strong abdominal muscles, which ultimately support your lower back and help prevent back pain and stiffness. Strength in the core also helps to prevent the effects of age and gravity on our bodies. Toning of the abdominal wall helps to keep the organs pliable and supplied with a fresh flow of blood.

But while core work may seem at first like simple “physical therapy,” the results slowly begin to include an assessment of your life’s core: your beliefs, your strengths, and your ability to find balance. 

During the first few years of a regular yoga practice you will find yourself working through layers of your physical self, melting away tension, realigning your spine and strengthening areas of your body that have been neglected. After peeling off a few layers, sometimes without even noticing it’s happening, you become more confident and able to live your life with direction and purpose. Yoga is about learning to pay attention: attention to your movements, your breath, and your reactions in particular poses. With practice, you can learn to pay attention to engaging your core in a way that will strengthen not only your back and abs, but your emotional understanding of yourself as well.

Imagine if you went to your first yoga class and the teacher instructed you to sit in one position and mediate for an hour. Most of us would feign sudden illness or sit through the hour in pain, both mental and physical! The practice of asanas (the physical practice of yoga postures) meets you at a place that is visible and tangible. The physical postures are presented first because this is where one can actually see alignment and feel a muscle stretch and release tension.

Next, attention is placed on learning to breathe fully and deeply—in and out without strain. Each new technique that is added to the practice moves the practitioner to a deeper level of conscious awareness. This awareness allows us a glimpse of the moment as it is, applying no judgment, past experiences or expectations.

Technique/Preparation

To fully engage your core, you must first bring awareness to the muscles of your pelvic floor and learn to use these muscles to bring energy upward and inward towards the spine. Lay your thumbs on your navel and make a triangle with your thumbs and index fingers. Beneath your index and middle fingers is the second area involved with engaging the core. As you exhale, draw this area of the lower belly in toward your spine then bring this lifting sensation up the front of your spine, so that you increase the space between the front of your pubic bone and your heart center.

With practice, your breath becomes smooth and you will perceive a slight pause between your thoughts, and also between your inhale and exhale.  In the space your breath has created comes the capacity for compassion, understanding and a willingness to accept this body and mind as they are, right now, at this moment.

As your yoga practice evolves, your understanding of your thoughts and feelings sparks a transformation within. When you are able to observe your feelings in a calm and objective manner, you may notice that they are often intangible and fleeting. Just as you practice holding a difficult posture in class and learn to breathe through it, you will also learn to hold your pose in life—to breathe and integrate the techniques you practice on your mat to bring awareness to your core both mentally and physically.

Practice

Incorporate the following pose into your practice to deepen your understanding of using the core, both physically and mentally.

Side Plank Pose – Vasisthasana

To begin, do a few rounds of Sun Salutations to warm up the hamstrings and the spine. From a Downward Facing Dog pose, step your right foot a little closer to your left. Roll to the outside of your left foot and try to stack your right foot on top of your left so your feet look like they are flat on the floor. Spread through the fingers of your left hand and be sure your elbow doesn’t lock and hyperextend. Create an invisible but straight line from your left hand to your left foot and align your hips along this line. Reach your right arm up to the ceiling for balance, creating an open chest and a smooth breath. Lift the outer right hip toward the sky to avoid any sagging in the waist, maintaining integrity in your core. For an easier variation, place your left shin on the floor so your toes are pointed toward the back of your mat. Or to challenge yourself, try raising your right leg up off the foot or grab the right big toe and extend the knee straight. Variations are endless, but a steady breath is the key to comfort in any pose.

Yoga, Strength, and the New Year's Resolution

It is the time of year when many people are working to stick to resolutions and maintain personal growth for the year ahead. Commitment to your goals is not always easy, and there will be moments of challenge and temptation where you might feel like giving in and reverting to old ways. We all struggle with these moments, but if you have a clear concept of where your strength comes from, you will be ready to face obstacles with a sense of power and determination.

So, where do we find this strength in times of weakness?

Let’s begin by reflecting on the past year. Make a mental list, or jot some thoughts down, of the things you are thankful for in the past year. Notice that some of the things you may not have been initially thankful for, such as losing a job or going through a difficult break up, may be the things that you ended up being most thankful for. Change is difficult, no doubt, and no matter how much we try to deny it, life involves suffering. The best we can do is to keep coming back to the moment, breathe ourselves through just this moment, and then keep breathing through to the next moment, knowing at some point, the going will get easier. You may even want to post a copy of this list on your refrigerator or bathroom mirror so that each morning you remember what you are thankful for before you start your day.

Now, the next question is this: How do we get through the moment without breaking down and giving up? Let’s approach this question from a yoga pose perspective. I often hear people tell me that they could never do yoga because they aren’t flexible. The poses are meant to gradually increase your flexibility, not force yourself into the pose on the first try. While in a pose we practice being present by focusing on the sound and depth of our breath, resting our eyes in one place and engaging our core muscles to stay centered and balanced. All of these seemingly physical techniques draw our minds to a place of stillness so that we can just be in the pose without our inner critic starting to babble. We learn to find a place in the pose where we balance sthira and sukha, comfort and effort. When we take this practice off our mats we find that in times of stress we can stay calm and focused so we can make better decisions aligned with our beliefs. So, in the same way we learn to remain in a yoga pose and breathe, try to gradually increase your mental flexibility as you hold your state of mind in the present moment, and breathe right into the next, noticing how your anxiety dissolves and you find a clear mind with which to react from.

Your yoga practice offers many ways to strengthen your body as well as your beliefs. Your practice also offers ways you can find more compassion for yourself and others. Now is the perfect time to clear out old ways of thinking, and maybe even the old ways of exercising! Consider adding a few new poses to your regular morning routine and give yourself time to breathe and notice the positive changes these techniques can add to your life.

Try the pose below for inner focus and stability, as well to stretch and strengthen the body.

Natarajasana: Dancers or Natarajas Pose - Begin by standing about an arms length away from a wall. Place your fingertips on the wall to steady yourself and hold your right ankle with your right hand. Breathe here for a moment while you straighten your spine and find balance by lifting your chest to keep your spine tall. Gently begin to press your foot into your hand so that your heel moves away from your buttocks and you get an easy stretch in the front of your right shoulder. Then, remember to lift your chest again, pause and breathe. Each time try to push your foot into your hand a little bit more, lift your chest, keep your gaze forward rather than down at the floor, and breathe. With practice you will be able to start to take the fingertips away from the wall and eventually move away from the wall completely. This pose combines leg and foot strengthening, a thigh stretch, shoulder stretch, twist and inner focus to find the stability needed to maintain balance.

Moon Cycles and Our Yoga Practice

"The Moon is Magic for the Soul and Light for the Senses..."

Moon cycles and the yoga practice: what is the link? Is this a yogi myth, or does the moon actually hold some type of mysterious power over all of us? I suppose the answer could be a combination of both options. Understanding the impact that the moon’s cycle has on our bodies, minds and spirits is really a personal undertaking, but experience shows that it may actually help us make important decisions about how and when we practice yoga to best suit our energetic and emotional needs.

It is common knowledge that the moon affects the Earth’s tidal rhythms—and because we, too, are composed of up to 70 percent water, it makes sense that we are also affected by the changes in the moon’s cycle. For example, many people report experiencing a dip in energy levels around the time of a new moon, with rising energy as we approach a full moon. To balance these extremes, it could benefit us to adjust our practices to incorporate a more heating, or dynamic practice when the new moon is rising, and to soothe ourselves with a cooling and calming practice at the time of a full moon. Try observing your own energetic rhythms as they pertain to the cycle of the moon, and check out one of our Full Moon Yoga classes - listed on our workshops page. See you on the mat!

Simple, healthy, Ayurvedic!

Changing your diet for the season, for health reasons or to lose a few extra pounds need not be difficult or expensive. You probably already have many of the spices and ingredients in your cupboard already. Cinnamon, ginger, cumin...lemon, bay leaves...rice, chick peas. What IS important is discovering your dosha, or particular body type, so you know which of these spices to use, which oils to use internally and externally, what type of exercise suits you best, etc. In our upcoming workshop with Iris Kish, she will explore the constitutions (doshas) and reveal which are dominant in your body. With this information, she will assist you in creating a lifestyle plan that fits your life and allows you to fall in sync with the cycles of nature. Follow the link below for two delicious samples of recipes from the book Iris recommends: "Eat, Taste, Heal" http://www.eattasteheal.com/ETH_recipes.html

Ayurveda dosha chart at a glance

Not sure what dosha (Ayurvedic body type) you are? Here's a quick chart to help you figure out what you might be. Iris will go more in depth in her Ayurveda 101 workshop this October!

Ayurveda is an ancient holistic healing system as well as a complete way of life. The system is composed of diet, yoga, massage, detoxification, herbal remedies, meditation, and daily lifestyle to improve a person’s health and well being.
‘Ayurveda provides guidelines to help us identify our constitutional nature, enabling us to choose and live wisely on Earth.’ - A Life of Balance

In the Ayurveda 101 workshop you will develop a clear understanding of Ayurveda. We will explore each constitution and reveal in which dosha each of us resides. From there we will create lifestyle plans that fit each of our unique lives which will allow us to fall in sync with nature as originally intended.

Tips for Managing your Holiday Madness!

Tips for Managing your Holiday Madness!

The season of celebration is upon us.  The days leading up to the end of the year can be packed with shopping and family gatherings, in addition to managing your regular routine.  These added activities can increase stress levels and limit time on your mat.  Instead of falling victim to the holiday madness, try the following techniques to clear your mind and relax:

 1). Take 5 minutes out of your day to practice Pranayama.  Focus on a small object or point in space and consciously breathe. Don’t get caught up in doing it right, just follow your breath in and out of your body with focused attention. The break from a busy day will help reframe your mind and, if needed, cool down your emotions. 

2). It's okay if you don't have time for a 90 minute practice.  What DO you have time for?  If 15 minutes is all you can spare, roll out your mat for some Sun Salutations, or just roll around on your mat and be spontaneous!  Any time spent on the mat has benefits both mentally and physically.

 3). Follow the Golden Rule.  This is the premise behind Ashtanga's first limb, Yama.  Try to take a step back from a stressful situation, remember to breathe, and conduct yourself in a manner that respects both you and those around you.  


Find your happy place this holiday season!


Learn a few tips to find peace and calm in your daily life,

 and stay balanced through the busy days ahead.

As we transition into autumn and move closer to the holiday season it becomes increasingly difficult to find quiet time for ourselves. Keep a yoga mat handy in a closet or chest and when you have a few minutes between activities, roll out your mat and do a few poses or breathing exercises. If you find practicing at home difficult, grab a friend and go to a class where distractions are removed and the time spent with your friend is rewarding as well! Get out in nature and take a walk in the woods, listen to birds, allow your vision to extend far to the horizon and take a few deep breaths. You can almost feel the tranquility wash over your body and mind when you take a little time to disconnect from your phone, computer and other responsibilities that we feel so drawn to rush through and complete.

For some, sitting meditation is a way to connect with stillness and to focus on qualities you would like more of in your life. This increasingly popular technique is now used in many hospitals and rehabilitation centers including our own Lehigh Valley Hospital. Sometimes called mindfulness meditation, the attention is gently brought back to the breath when the mind begins to wander to thoughts, feelings and emotions. The practitioner learns to sit with the present moment, becoming aware of reactions and emotions that arise and learning to accept them, without judgment, as part of the human experience. These techniques help relieve stress but also have other effects such as learning to relate to pain differently, a deeper more satisfying sleep and reduced blood pressure.

 While you prepare for bed, consider giving yourself a few extra minutes to lie in bed and become aware of your breathing. Take full deep breaths into your abdomen, hold the inhale for a moment, and then release a long slow exhalation. Be aware of the sensation of the breath entering the body, expanding the lungs and notice how far down in the body you can feel the breath. You may notice that you drift off to sleep easier than normal, and then if you awake during the night, use this technique again to take yourself back to Dreamland!

Connect the dots at Emmaus Yoga:

Introduction to Buddhist Meditation Workshop Nov. 8 Noon-2 pm.