Saturday, August 25, 2012

Why I am not registered with the Yoga Alliance

Ok, so I have mixed feelings about the Yoga Alliance in general but I don't really want to get into that debate here. So please don't take this post to be a structured or informed discussion on the YA - it's just my personal perspective.

So yes, although I am a yoga teacher, I am not registered with the Yoga Alliance. I used to maintain my registration, but recently I let it expire and decided not to renew it or update my membership with my 500hour certification.

Most of my reasons for this are practical: I don't run any courses or offer any certificates, I'm not employed by a yoga studio or anyone else who requires or prefers their teachers to be registered, and since I don't teach yoga for money (I collect donations through my classes, and those go to charity), I don't need professional insurance. Even if I did, I don't think that YA registration is a requirement to teach yoga or be insured for it - certainly not where I live!

So from a practical perspective, I don't see the point. Why should I pay the YA $80 per year so that I can have a few letters next to my name? What do I get out of it?

The YA, on their website say that I should register to "enhance my credibility" as a yoga teacher, since their "designations are the premier forms of recognition for Yoga teachers".  According to their criteria posted online, if I were to register, I could call myself an "E-RYT 200, RYT 500", which sounds pretty impressive and gives me a momentary ego-boost, but that's really about it. Oh, except they will send me a graphic image that I can use on my marketing materials. Ooooooh.

What bothers me is that there's no method of really verifying those certifications and what they mean. So while I support the notion of having set standards for yoga teacher training, what good is a standard if it's not upheld?  Yes, I have to scan and upload my YTT certificates, but nobody verifies the quality of those teachings or the standard of my knowledge. I would also have to log my continuing education hours, which are also unverified, and finally, my teaching hours, which, again, nobody has to verify. So I could easily pretend that I have tons of continuing education and thousands on teaching hours, even if this weren't true. Now I know we expect all yogis to be honest, but let's be honest - not everybody is!

This strikes me as a pretty big problem for something that claims to be the international industry standard in yoga teaching.  Of course, as yoga becomes more widespread, I suspect we will see more state or country-based regulation of yoga teachers, as in some countries already, which has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. But in the meantime, I don't think I'll be re-registering with the YA anytime soon.

The only thing i can think of that would make me change my mind would be if I wanted to teach on courses or offer my own trainings, in which case I think itis only fair to give students the option of registering with the YA themselves. Of course, I might think differently if I were employed by a studio or trying to teach full-time - what do you readers think?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Taking Yoga (Injuries) Seriously

I usually don't weigh in on the heavy yoga debates, and I'm not about to start now. I have the curse of always being able to see both sides of an issue. But this article about how a woman quit yoga after an injury has been making the rounds and caught my attention.

A few bloggers have criticised the author of the article for quitting, but personally, I don't see that as an issue. Yoga is a personal practice, not a panacea. It's not right for everyone and not everyone will like it. Some people will quit.  So what? The author of the article made her choice, learned something about herself in the process, and found a physical practice that she thought suited her better. It sounds like a happy ending to me.

The issue that I have is that this woman was medically diagnosed with high blood pressure and was not aware, or made aware, of the potential impacts, or told that she shouldn't be doing inversions, especially not intense inversions like headstand and handstand.  The resulting injury she suffered led her to quit yoga, rather than to quit inversions - which is her personal choice and it's really not my place to judge, opine, or argue with that. It's a free world, as they say.

From my perspective, reacting to tales of yoga injuries by denying them, defending yoga, or attacking the injured person or their teacher is not a constructive response. Yoga-asana is a physical discipline and the possibility of injury is always there. Find me one yoga practitioner who has never felt the twinge of over-stretching a muscle, fallen over while attempting a balancing pose, received a bad adjustment, or simply wound up feeling dizzy or nauseous while practicing. I think it's our responsibility to acknowledge that the risks are there and to do our best to become safe and knowledgeable practitioners and teachers. We need to remember that the principles of Ahimsa (non-harming), Aparigraha (non-grasping), and Satya (being truthful), among others, are more important to a yoga practice, or teaching yoga, than the asanas.

Being a pragmatist, I have tried to draw out some lessons from this story, and here are a few that I can think of.

1. If you have a medical condition, discuss it with your doctor and your yoga teacher, and do your own research, so that you can make safe choices - and then make them! (Ahimsa!) Don't make the mistake that this woman made, of keeping silent about her new medical condition and finding out the hard way what the consequences were. If neither of them know what to tell you, find a new doctor or a new teacher! And of course, do the research yourself - including drawing on your personal practice - so that you can make safe choices. Everyone is different - it's ok to explore and test your boundaries and find out where your personal limits are - but don't ignore them (Aparigraha - let go!).

2. If you are a teacher, know your contra-indications and always state them. (Satya!) In the reality of teaching large-group classes, we can't always know the medical histories of each and every one of our students. But we can take 10 seconds to make sure we talk about the contra-indications of the classes we are teaching and the poses we are instructing.  Especially with "higher-risk" poses like inversions. [I say higher risk because in a person with untreated high blood pressure, holding a long inversion could potentially lead to serious medical complications, possibly even a stroke. And that deserves to be taken seriously.]
  • Because students often come in late, what I have found best is to make a short announcement after the opening meditation or when I bring the class to standing for the first time. I talk about the level of the class, and if it's a physically demanding class (as I usually teach), I warn people that it might not be appropriate if they are pregnant, or have medical conditions or injuries. 
  • When I talk about contra-indications, I often say "please". As in, "were going to do shoulderstand now, but if you have high blood pressure, please don't go into this pose straight away - just relax until I can come around to you".
This also means learning about conditions that might affect your students as they age - more and more people are practicing or even starting yoga in their golden years, and it's worth the extra study to find out about osteopenia/osteoporosis, high blood pressure or Type II diabetes, for example.

3. If you are a teacher, create a safe space, and actively encourage people to acknowledge their bodies' limitations and explore alternatives.  This doesn't mean you can, or should, force people to stay within artificially drawn boundaries. But you should be able to set the foundation for your students to make informed choices, and create an atmosphere where nobody feels pressured to go too far. (Ahimsa again!)

I'd love your comments and thoughts... Readers, from your experience, what would you add to these suggestions?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: Warrior 3

This week's Yoga Tip is about Warrior III - a challenging standing balance.  Once again, one of the keys to finding a safe & stable expression of this pose is to engage the core muscles and keep the pelvis stable so you support your lower back.

The fundamentals of the pose are to stand on one foot and extend the other leg straight out behind you while bringing the torso parallel to the floor. Already this is pretty tough - it requires strength in the quadriceps and quite a bit of flexibility in the hamstrings to extend the lifted leg straight out. And as if that wasn't tricky enough, in the full expression of the pose you also extend your arms out in front of you.

Whether coming up into this pose from Warrior I or coming down into it from standing, I usually like to approach this pose in two phases: getting the standing balance, and then extending the arms.

Since this is a challenging pose, it can take a long time to find a steady, comfortable expression - they aren't called Warriors for nothing! But no matter where you are with this pose, when coming into the standing balance, here are 2 "don'ts" to watch out for:

1) Don't let the raised hip 'float' up

Since this is an asymmetrical pose, it's almost instinctual for the hip on the raised leg to 'float' open a bit.  This is also an "escape valve" if your hamstrings are tight.

When the hip lifts (external rotation), the pelvis  - and therefore the torso - twist, the standing thigh internally rotates, and this puts pressure more on the knee (and to some extent the ankle), which is supporting the whole weight of the body.  Since the knee is stabilised by ligaments, and since ligaments are connective tissue and can't stretch, putting too much strain on them is a bad idea, and can lead to injury.

Counter the floating hip by:
  • Dropping the raised hip down by flexing the toes and pointing them towards the floor (which internally rotates the thigh); and strongly pressing through the lifted heel. 
  • Engaging the standing quadricep and adding some external rotation to counteract the body's tendency to let the thigh - and therefore the knee - work inwards;
You might feel an increased hamstring stretch as you do this but will also have more stability as you bring the pelvis back in line. Remember not to lock the standing knee!

2) Don't over-arch the lower back

With the combined motion of extending the arms and the back leg, it's easy to give in to gravity and let the front of the body pull downwards, increasing the arch in the lower back. Furthermore, we usually tend to crane our necks to look forward and up in this pose, which exaggerates the arch even more.

  • Keep the tailbone lifting as you lift the belly button strongly upwards and 
  • Bring your neck in line with your spine. 
  • Imagine extending between the heel of the raised foot and the crown of the head so the spine lengthens and the arch in your back is minimised. 
The strong core is, eventually, what you will need to hold your arms out in front of you as well.  Remember that your lower back is naturally curved, so we are not trying to eliminate a curve, just to make sure that we are not putting too much strain on the

  • Do the pose with your hands in prayer, hands stretched out behind you, or even with arms entwined, (it makes for a nice vinyasa up to Eagle pose!)
  • Do the pose with your palms pressing into the wall
  • Do the pose with your back heel pressing into the wall
  • If your hamstrings are too tight, allow your knees to bend while trying to keep the rest of the alignment of the pose.
What are your thoughts, challenges, creative modifications or vinyasas of Warrior 3? 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Simple Stretches for Ankles and Calves

A commenter left a note on my blog recently asking for some stretches for the "tight calves and stiff ankles". Since I love writing these little therapeutic posts, here is my response!  I recommend doing these exercises at least once a day for maximum benefit.

I hope that these stretches will be helpful... And as always, I love hearing from my readers and am happy to respond to any ideas or suggestions that you'd like to see a post on. Namaste!

Exercises for stiff ankles

Since the ankles are a joint - and a pretty complex one - the main focus of exercising the ankles is on moving the joint through the full extent of their possible movement. This can be done sitting in a chair, or sitting on the floor as shown in the photos below. Repeat each of the following exercises about 5 times.  It doesn't hurt to do this more than once a day, especially if you spend a lot of time sitting.

Extension / flexion
Sitting on the floor with straight legs (sit up on a pillow if that's not comfortable), point and flex your toes.

Inversion / eversion
Next, bring the soles of your feet towards each other, and then press them away from each other.

Do circles with your ankles, trying to get as wide a circle as possible. Don't forget to do both directions!

Stretches for tight Calves

The main calf muscle is called the gastrocnemius muscle (say that three times fast!!), which originates at the back of the knee, and attaches to the heel via the Achilles tendon. Tightness in the calf muscle can limit the extension of the knee, and it's fairly common among anyone who practices bent-knee sports like running or cycling, or among people who spend a lot of time sitting down.

The best way to get good results with the calf muscle is from a straight-legged position, using a technique of facilitated stretching, which means alternating active engagement and passive stretching of the muscle.  Here are a few ways to do that.

Standing lunge

Stand about an arm's length from the wall and place both hands on the wall. Take a step forward with your left leg, keeping both feet pointing towards the wall. Make sure your right foot stays flat on the floor.

Now, press the ball of your right foot into the floor, using about 60% of your maximum effort, and keep pressing for 3-5 deep breaths.

Then, relax your right foot and lean forward, bending your left leg, until you feel a stretch in the back of your right calf.  Keep the right foot flat on the floor. Hold the stretch for 6-10 deep breaths and then repeat on the other side.  Do each side 2-3 times.

Standing foot press

Stand about half an arm's length away from the wall. Bring your right foot forward and place the ball of your right foot on the wall, with your heel still touching the floor.

Now, strongly engage the calf muscle as if you wanted to draw your toes back and up towards your body. Keep engaging the muscle for 3-5 deep breaths, using about 60% of your maximum effort.

Then, relax your leg as much as possible and lean your torso into the wall, bending your elbows and lifting the up the back heel. Find a level of stretch that you can hold and stay for 6-10 deep breaths. Then repeat on the other side. Do each side 2-3 times.

Seated inner calf stretch

This pose uses the basic set-up of Janu Sirsasana (nose-to-knee pose), but instead of making it a forward bend, we are going to use the posture to get a nice deep stretch to the inner calf.

Begin by sitting on the ground with the right leg straight and the left knee bent. If you have tight hamstrings, sit up on a pillow (or several blankets) until you can get your leg comfortably straight, since the stretch won't work unless your right leg is straight.  You might also want to support your left knee. Then, take a towel, bathrobe belt or yoga strap and loop it around the ball of your right foot, like this:

Now gently pull the ball of your foot back towards your body as far as it will naturally go. Keep your back straight and your shoulders relaxed.

Next, keeping the tension in the strap and the angle of the foot constant, press the ball of your foot strongly into the strap and extend through the heel.  Use about 50-60% of your maximum effort, and keep pressing for 3-5 deep breaths.

Then, let your leg relax and keep it relaxed while you gently pull the ball of your foot further towards your body. Find a nice stretch and stay there for a few breaths. Repeat this 2-3 times for each foot.

Seated outer calf stretch

Yogis will recognise this posture as paschimottanasana, where typically we focus on forward bending. However, as in the previous pose, in this variation we're going to focus just on stretching the calves.

This is exactly the same as  the previous pose, except this time sit with both legs together. Loop your strap over the balls of both feet.  Using the strap, gently pull the balls of your feet back towards your body as far as they will easily go.

Next, keeping the tension in the strap and the angle of your feet constant, press the balls of your feet strongly into the strap and extend through the heels.  Use about 50-60% of your maximum effort, and keep pressing for 3-5 deep breaths.

Then, let your muscles relax as much as possible and carefully  pull the balls of your feet further back towards your body until you feel a deep but not uncomfortable stretch. Hold for 6-10 breaths, and repeat if you like, starting from your new maximum stretch position.

Downward-facing dog (modifications)

Downward-facing dog is the ultimate calf stretch - but only if you have the flexibility in the hips, shoulders and hamstrings to allow you to get into the proper pose.  Since many of us don't have that ability, here are some ways you can modify the pose to get a better stretch.

a) Do the pose with your heels against the wall, allowing you to press through the heels and stretch your calves.

b) Do the pose with some height under your hands (yoga blocks are good, or even a low coffee table) allowing you to stretch the heels towards the floor.

c) Get a friend to give you the following assist in the posture: when you are in downward facing dog, get your friend to stand behind you and loop a towel or strap around the tops of your thighs. Have your friend stand in a wide, stable stance with knees slightly bent, and gently pull the strap upwards and back. They may even be able to lean their weight back into the strap, giving your hamstrings and calves a nice, deep stretch.

An all around leg-restoring inversion

(Pic from Yoga Journal)

Anyone dealing with stiff ankles and tight calf muscles or hamstrings can hugely benefit from this simple, highly effective pose, called (creatively) "legs up the wall" pose. Practiced 5 minutes a day, this pose allows "stale" blood to return to the heart and when you are done, new, oxygen-rich blood flows into the legs, rejuvenating the muscles.  It also helps reduce swelling and varicose veins.  Here's how it works:

  • Lay down some padding on the floor next to a wall.
  • Sit sideways against the wall and lie down on your side
  • Gently bring your legs up the wall as you roll onto your back.
  • Play some gentle music, cover your eyes, and relax.
  • For an added calf stretch, get (or make) some sandbags and rest them on the soles of your feet.

To come down, first gently bend one knee and then the other to restore a bit of circulation.  Then slowly roll off to your side. Take your time coming back up so you don't get a head-rush!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: Utkatasana (Chair Pose)

I have always found chair pose (utkatasana, or "fierce pose") to be a challenging posture for me, and every couple of years I realise that I have been doing different elements of the pose incorrectly. In my recent YTT, I worked on this pose quite a bit, and here is what I have come up with.

First, start working your alignment from the foundation.
  • Your feet should either be together, or a small distance apart (i.e. aligned underneath the sitting bones);
  • Your weight should be evenly distributed between the heels and balls of the feet - don't rock back onto your heels or lean too much into your toes;
  • When you bend your knees, look down along your nose: you should be able to see your toes over your knees.
Once the foundation is set up, move your focus to the pelvis and lower back.  Here we continue in the spirit of my post about pelvic alignment in the transition from plank to upward dog, and apply the same fundamental principles.

Remember that a lot depends on the natural alignment of your spine, in this case of your lower back and pelvis.  There is no one-size-fits-all rule for spinal alignment because we are all starting from very different places! So:
  • If you naturally have a pronounced lumbar curve, you will probably need to tuck your pelvis and reduce that curve; 
  • If you naturally have a very flat lumbar spine, you will want to encourage your pelvis to tilt forward a bit and allow your back to retain some curve;
  • If you have a pretty "neutral" spine and pelvis, then you don't need to do much except maintain that neutrality.
Next, move upwards from the pelvis:
  • Engage the abdominals and draw the belly button towards the spine;
  • Lengthen the sides of the torso and lift the collarbones;
  • Drop the shoulders back and down;
  • Engage the arms as if they could lift you higher in the pose! I have tight shoulders so I keep my hands shoulder-width apart. If even this causes too much tightness, you can also practice the pose with your hands in prayer
Finally, bring your attention to the top of the spine:
  • Keep your neck and head in line with your spine (it feels like you are tucking your chin slightly, instead of craning your neck forward);
  • Keep your gaze (drishti) straight down along your nose.
  • Smile!

I'd love to hear if anyone has tips or stories to share about this pose. :)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Photos from a homeland

Sorry for my absence, dear readers - I took a last-minute trip to my 'homeland' for my Grandma's 90th birthday, and have been playing catch-up ever since. Lots of little posts in the making, don't worry.
In the meantime, a few photos of beautiful Vancouver island in summer. I find few places  as peacefully breathtaking as the temperate rainforest in British Colombia. It's funny how after all these years of living overseas, in some ways that part of the world still feels like 'home'. It's an area where I spent many summers as a child, sailing up and down the coast, playing in the ocean and camping the forests. Looking back, I'm so grateful to my parents for having given me that early education about the natural world - the rhythms of nature, the creatures of the land and sea.  I remember encounters with deer and racoons, and then there were the expeditions to the beaches and tide-pools, which usually resulted in my sister and I bringing back buckets full of crabs, limpets, starfish and even gooey jellyfish. I am still fascinated by all the ocean's creatures, but nowadays I prefer not to bring them home!

Before you ask, no, I didn't practice yoga in that forest or by that lake - but walking around them in the company of loved ones was as good as any yoga practice - and I did get lots of good practice in. Jet-lag (and a 4:30am sunrise) is great for early-morning yoga!