If you think you could use a little less stress in your life, but you have no interest yoga studios, yoga culture or calling yourself a "yogi," then Yogawalla NYC is for you. This space is all about stress-free living. No acrobatics. No mystical bullshit. Just useful, practical tools to make life easier.


Relieving Low Back Pain: Part 2 - Stretching the Spine

In Relieving Low Back Pain Part 1 we took a look at how the pelvis need to be aligned because it is the foundation on which the spine rests. In this post, I give you some passive stretches you can do to lengthen the muscles around the spine itself. The poses should be relatively relaxed as gravity is doing most of the work for you, but if you have a limited range of motion, you may feel some intensity in the stretches. Remember to breath deeply and try to hold each pose anywhere from 10-30 breaths. Just a reminder: if you are dealing with a low back injury or condition be sure to get clearance your doctor of physical therapist before attempting any of these poses.

Relieving Low Back Pain: Part 1 - Hip Openers

     There is a strong connection between the hips and low back pain. Because the lower part of your spine rests on the top of the hips, if there is an imbalance in the muscles surrounding the hips, such as tightness in a particular muscle, that imbalance can be transferred to and amplified in the lower back. Below are six stretches that target the muscles surrounding the hips to help you relieve low back pain. Warning: these poses are not intended for those suffering from structural issues (herniated discs, spinal stenosis, SI injuries, etc.) that have not yet received clearance from a doctor or a physical therapist. These poses may be helpful for some of those conditions but only after the initial healing phase and with modifications appropriate to the condition. That said, let's get stretching!

What Does Yoga Have To Do With Spirituality?

As a yoga instructor, I often take it for granted that my students know the connection between the yoga we do together and the spiritual meaning of it all. But recently, I’ve found that even though many people know that yoga is connected to spirituality, they don’t always what that connection is.

If you are wondering what the connection is between yoga and spiritual practice, we should first clarify that the goal of all the yoga practices is to bring us closer towards enlightenment, aka Samadhi. It is a state of constant connection to the Greater Source and sometimes described as an experiential realization of or awakening to the true nature of the ourselves and the world.

The second thing you should know is that doing the physical exercises done in most yoga classes (asanas) is just one of several practices prescribed in yoga (practices that include living by a moral code, exerting control over the breath, meditation, etc).

While most yoga practitioners aren't having their spiritual awakening to the true nature of all life anytime soon, there are still many spiritual benefits to doing yoga poses on their own. Listed are 8 ways in which asanas and spirituality are connected.

1.     Asanas allow the body to be healthy enough to sit for long periods of meditation. In order for our bodies to sit up straight for hours with ease and without the distraction of joint stiffness or muscle pain, we must have a reasonable amount of strength paired with a reasonable amount of flexibility. Yoga poses are designed to give us just that.

2.     They provide a lens through which to understand our emotions. The body reflects what is happening on a deeper level. We store a lot of emotions in our body. When are feeling down in the dumps, we tend to hunch. When we are happy or proud, we stand up tall. When we are stressed we tend to feel tightness in the neck, shoulders or hips. By aligning our bodies, we can influence our mood/state of mind.

3.     Moving the body everyday creates a practice of discipline. Sometimes, just getting to yoga class is an act of discipline, amiright?

4.     Moving our bodies into alignment allows energy to move through them more efficiently. Our daily habits (sitting too much, hunching forward, walking/running, right-handedness/left-handedness) can create misalignments in our bodies over time. By consciously moving our bodies into correct alignment, we allow energy to flow through us more efficiently.  For example, if we can sit up straight with our spine in optimal alignment, we avoid damaging or obstructing our spinal cord. In yoga, energy is often equated to life force or consciousness. So the freer the movement of energy through the body, the more easily we can connect to the “Greater Source” of energy in the universe.

5.     When you do yoga, you begin to understand your own habits and reactions. Are you the type of person that gets bored during the warm-up? Or maybe you are silently cursing the teaching in pigeon pose? Do you feel compelled to do that 20th chaturanga even though you previously had a shoulder injury? All of your decisions/reactions during class reveal something about you, and once you know what they mean, you can start to bring about real self-transformation.

6.     Doing advanced yoga poses required a deep level of concentration. Concentration is the one of the most important skills needed to get to advanced meditation and when you are in an arm balance or inversion, boy, do you need a lot of concentration!

7.     Doing yoga poses requires control over some the subtleties of the body and over our breath. Learning these skills is a precursor to having complete governance of ourselves, which is really the point of enlightenment. Moving towards enlightenment really means that we stop doing things on autopilot, subconsciously and instead do things consciously, with intention. For example, when you have an itch, do you automatically just scratch it? What would happen if you didn’t? Yoga helps us to understand this idea. When you have an itch in headstand, you definitely don’t scratch it.

8.    Asanas help us stay healthy. I think it is safe to say that if you have a healthy body that doesn't experience much pain or illness you likely to be happier, nicer to those around you, more self-sufficient and more fulfilled than if you had a body that experienced greater illness and/or pain.

Now that you know how asanas help move us embody our spiritual selves,  let me just emphasize that doing yoga poses alone is probably not going to turn you into the Buddha. Poses are just one part of yoga practices and meditation might arguably be the most important practice. But doing yoga poses is an easy way to begin accessing and understanding your inner Self. 

How to Bring Self Love Into Your Yoga Practice

Self love is always a good place to start. Like the well-known airplane line about putting on your own oxygen mask first tells us, we can't really take care of others if we don't care for ourselves. And since we are in the dead of winter, a time for introspection, the next few weeks are an especially good time to put these words into action. While I already listed some tips on how to bring self-love into your everyday life via my newsletter, here are some ways in which you can bring loving kindness towards yourself into your yoga practice.

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1.     Set the intention. In those first few moments on your mat, while you are starting to tune inwards and deepen your breathing, set an intention that you will choose to be kind to yourself for the duration of the session.

2.     Be honest about where you are physically.  If you are tired, then take that child’s pose or svasana. Or maybe even take that yin or restorative class! Go for the arm balance only if you have a lot of energy and are properly prepared (you ate a good meal beforehand and have had enough time to digest, you got enough sleep, etc).

3.     Be careful with your thoughts. If you can’t do a pose or stay in it “long enough” or are otherwise frustrated with yourself in some way, be sure the narrative in your mind hasn’t turned into a self-defeating, self-deprecating or otherwise negative one.  Let yourself have a deep breath and consciously take control the narrative to be one of kindness or positivity towards yourself.

4.     Listen to your body first and foremost. If your teacher instructs you to do something you are simply not comfortable with, then don’t do it. Her instructions are guidelines and suggestions, not gospel. Which also brings us to..

5.    Use props. Sure maybe you don't need the blocks or props, but ask yourself this: "why not?" Do you have a really good reason? If not, then go for the props.

6.    Stop comparing. The easiest way to be unkind to your self is to compare yourself to other people in the room. Everyone has their own struggles and problems so comparing is a fruitless activity. Close your eyes if you need to or just refocus your attention on your breath.

7.     Check in with yourself at the end. Take the last few moments before final savasana to really evaluate your mind/body and take any last pose you need, regardless of the teacher’s instructions. Or maybe you sit in meditation instead. Do whatever you need in order to feel you've completed your practice.

8.     Take a really long savasana. Savasana is where your body calms down so you can leave the class feeling relaxed. Sometimes being in savasana feels great and sometimes our minds can't be still. If you are having trouble stilling your mind, then do an active savasana where you scan your body part by part and actively try to let go of any tension you are holding on to. For example: Wiggle out your toes and then relax them completely. Shake out your ankles and then relax your feet. Release any holding in your calves, soften the backs of your knees, relax your thighs...etc., etc.

Give Planking a New Meaning

One of my favorite poses to practice on myself and with my clients is the classic plank pose – also known as the push-up position. Personally, I feel this pose is often overlooked in yoga since it is used more as a transition than as an actual posture in and of itself. But there are so many benefits to holding a plank pose, and if practiced correctly, can be a total body workout. It strengthens the wrists, arms, shoulders, back, core, legs and even the glutes. It goes a long way towards improving posture and it is a perfect pose to practice daily since it is a foundational pose that will make mastering other poses much easier. If you are looking to build towards arm balances, inversions, those elusive chaturangas or other balancing postures, having a solid plank practice can go a long way to getting you there.

So how can you get the most out of your plank pose? 

  1. Begin on hands and knees, placing your hands directly under your shoulders, spreading the fingers nice and wide (middle fingers pointing forwards). 
  2. Step your feet back, one at a time until you are balancing on the balls of your feet and pushing back into your heels (this may mean pushing forward through the crown of the head).
  3. Take 5-10 deep breaths, breathing all the way into the abdomen and pulling the belly button towards the spine on each inhale. Gradually increase the amount of breaths you can hold the pose for. I like to aim for at least 50 breaths but set a goal that works for you.

To get even more out of your pose, remember to push out of your wrist and shoulder joints instead of collapsing into them and to engage your quads by lifting them up towards the ceiling. Bonus points if you can engage your pelvic floor!

Happy planking!