“Am I doing this right?” A few thoughts on alignment

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“Am I doing this right?” 

It’s a question we have all wondered at some point in our yoga journey: Am I doing this pose right?

I asked this question often in my first few years of yoga, craning my neck to get a better view of my yoga teacher in hopes of making my body into the same shape as hers. I cranked myself into all sorts of shapes in those first few years, even if they felt terrible. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized the poses that looked “right” or properly aligned were not always best for my body. I also noticed that making the same shape as my teacher didn’t always mean I felt what she was trying to get me to feel. In pigeon pose, for example, I rarely felt the “hip opening” of the forward outer hip. I mostly felt a general sense of discomfort in my hip flexors. I was making the shape, but not really feeling the intended benefit of the pose. 

Realizations like this led to a sense of curiosity. I learned more about anatomy, taking an online course, populating my bookshelf with books in yoga and the human body, and listening to podcast after podcast on movement and yoga.

I learned that the answer to the question “Am I doing this right?” is “It depends.” It depends on your particular bone and muscular structure, your day, your movement practice, what you’ve had to

eat, whether you’re hydrated, how long you’ve been doing yoga, and what kind. (If you’d like to nerd out about why this is the case, you might look into Your Body Your Yoga by Bernie Clark, Stretching Redefined by Jules Mitchell, or the work of Jenni Rawlings and Francesca Cervero.)

Now I would say a better question than “Is this right?” is “How does this feel?” or even “Where am I feeling this?” The answers to these questions change day to day, and possibly from moment to moment. We have all, for example, experienced that wonderful sense of familiarity that comes with doing a pose twice in a class. A pose that seemed daunting at first might seem easier the second time around as the mind and body relax into a known path. The more we practice yoga, the more familiar the path comes each class—even when there are new twists and turns. 

Ultimately, I believe we practice yoga to become more in tune with our bodies, and to respond appropriately with movement that nourishes, challenges, or both. If we’re doing that, we can rest assured that we’re doing yoga “right.”

Four low or no-cost gifts to give yourself during the holidays

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We spend much of December thinking up gifts to give family, friends, and coworkers — but what about ourselves? Because we all need a little TLC, I’ve come up with a few easy gifts you can give yourself. No need to break the bank on these presents — they are all free or low in cost. Enjoy!

Time.   Time may seem hard to come by in the busyness of the season, but that’s exactly why it’s so important to pause and take time to connect to yourself. Give yourself at least five minutes a day to enjoy a cup of tea, walk outside, journal, pray, or meditate. Be fiercely protective of this time, and make it non-negotiable. You probably wouldn’t skip brushing your teeth on a busy day, and neither should you skip self-care — with benefits for your mental and physical well-being, self-care is arguably just as important to your health as your daily brushings.

Mindfulness.   Mindfulness, which is the practice of being present in each moment, is a gift we can enjoy all year long — and this moment is the perfect time to start. Being present can be as simple as reminding yourself, “I am here,” writing a gratitude list, or paying attention to your breath for a few minutes. If mindfulness seems like an overwhelming task, try reading Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, or The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Han. These books  offer bite-sized tips for enjoying mindfulness daily and are likely available at your local bookseller or library.

Aromatherapy.   Familiar smells can be wonderfully calming when our schedules are full and our holiday cheer is fading. I love drinking a cup of fragrant chai tea, or putting a few drops of clove-infused essential oils in my diffuser. Baking spiced breads or lighting a naturally scented candle may also bring you a measure of calm by way of your senses.

Yoga.   This wouldn’t be a yoga blog without mentioning yoga, right? But seriously, enjoying a little yoga can help you melt away physical tension and become better equipped to walk through mental stress. If you can’t make it to a full class, try a few minutes of flowing at home (I have a couple of videos — both under 35 minutes — that you can try).

As you make your way through December, try not to edge yourself off your gift list.  Pause to enjoy the season, and savor all the joyful moments that come with it.

Parenting in a Fear-Based World

I recently wrote a post for the Center for Congregational Ethics about good parenting in a world where fear, bullying, and intimidation can sometimes overwhelm our media feeds. Spoiler alert: I don’t always get it right, but I’m learning that I don’t always have to.

Question: My husband and I have three school age children. We are struggling with how we can rear them in the cultural context in which we find ourselves now–where fear, intimidation, win-at-any-costs are the driving dynamics–with a sense of better values shaping them. Any suggestions you have would be deeply appreciated.

Response:

Yesterday, I found myself yelling at my kids again. We were running late — a common occurrence with three children — and I yelled at one of them for playing a game instead of getting dressed. One person’s actions, I told my child, could mean that everyone in the family was late. But, as I looked at my child and the ears budding in their eyes, I was forced to examine my own actions. What was I teaching my child by shouting my point?

When I see the raging, bullying actions of others in the media, I shake my head in disappointment. But when I truly examine my actions, I see that I too rely on fear and intimidation. It’s easy to do. After all, intimidation has often served as a way for societies to reign in chaos. Fines, jail time, and public shaming are all methods used to cultivate order. These methods can be effective, because they present consequences for negative or dangerous behavior.

Is it any surprise, then, that we parents use similar methods to maintain order in our households? Docking allowance, enacting time outs, and shaking our disappointed heads are time-worn methods of parenting. Though such methods may work at a societal level, they don’t always create the values we want on a familial level. In fact, we may inadvertently communicate to children that threats and punishment are the only ways to encourage desired behavior, and that avoiding punishment is the only reason to act kindly.

If we want our children to have more intrinsic motivation for their actions, we can start by modeling our desired values at home. This way, maybe our households and actions can serve as alternatives to the shouting and name calling we see on television shows and in the news.

Whenever possible, we can choose to explain our decisions, and to teach empathy. Instead of angrily yelling at my late child, for instance, I could have calmly expressed my disappointment and explained the importance of considering others. When I eventually did this, and apologized for yelling and losing my temper, I hoped to demonstrate that a person could be disappointed, and even frustrated, without resorting to blustering and shouting. This lesson was just as important as the one I was shouting about considering others.

We don’t have to be perfect. I’ve already evidenced that I am not. Still, despite our imperfection, our children often learn to choose a righteous path. Recently, I was at a pediatric clinic with one of my kids because of a broken wrist scare. The clinic was implementing a new computer system, and major delays resulted. After about 15 minutes of waiting to check in, and with no end in sight, I could feel my expression harden and I found myself taking several audible sighs of exasperation. Then, my child — the one with the hurt wrist — helped me remember what my values are.

“If we’re frustrated,” she said looking toward the frazzled administrative assistants, “just imagine how frustrating it must be for them.”

Her words reminded me to choose the path of kindness and empathy whenever possible. They reminded me that rudeness and bullying aren’t qualities I want to embody. Most importantly, though, her words also helped me remember that we parents don’t have to raise our children perfectly, and we don’t have to be perfect ourselves. If we model our values, our children can help us remain attuned to them — even in a society that sometimes doesn’t.

Three wall-based poses for relaxation

I love a good restorative yoga session, especially after a long, busy day. The point of restorative yoga is to rejuvenate the body through deep relaxation and steady breathing. For that reason, you exert little to no energy in the poses and allow gravity to do most of the work.

Try the restorative yoga poses below to ease tension on tired vertebra, knees, legs, and feet. If you feel yourself straining to remain in the pose, try a modification or rest quietly on your back. Remember to keep your breathing smooth and your mind as relaxed as you can. Enjoy!

Legs-up-the-wall

Try this grounding pose to relieve stress and ease pressure off the spine and legs.

Sit next to the wall with your left hip touching the wall. Turn around so that your back is on the floor and scoot toward the wall until your sitting bones are on the wall. Extend your legs up and rest them on the wall. If you like, bring one hand to your chest and the other to your belly to help calm your breath and connect to your body. Stay here for a few breaths or up to five minutes.

Modify: If legs-up-the-wall is uncomfortable or your legs become tingly, try separating your legs a few inches, bending your knees slightly, or both. If the tingling remains, come out of the pose.

Butterfly pose

Another grounding posture, this pose offers a gentle stretch for your inner thighs.

From legs-up-the-wall, slide your feet toward your hips and bring the soles of your feet to together. Rest the outer edges of your feet on the wall and stay here for a few breaths or up to five minutes.

Modify: To de-intensify the inner thigh stretch, take your hips farther away from the wall, and use your hands to support your legs. Additionally, keep your feet raised higher rather than sliding them all the way to your hips.

Restorative frog pose

Use restorative frog pose to help relieve pressure from tight hips in a gentle, calming way.

From legs-up-the-wall, scoot your hips away from the wall a couple of inches. Separate your legs about a foot, bend your knees, and bring the bottoms of your feet onto the wall; turn your toes outward about 45 degrees or so. If it feels comfortable, separate your feet a little more. Remain here with your arms by your sides, or with one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Stay here for a few deep breaths, or for two to three minutes.

Modify: If this pose feels too intense on your hips, take them farther away from the wall, and support your legs with your hands or with sturdy blocks. You can also hold your legs with your hands for gentle support.

Reclined Cow Face Pose

 

 

After writing my last post on seated cow face pose, I thought about how that version is sometimes inaccessible to me. On those days, I prefer this pose reclined. So, I thought it’d be helpful to offer a brief tutorial on reclined cow face pose, which has many of the same hip-opening benefits of the seated version, but with less pressure on the hips and knees. Try it out and let me know which version works best for you!

Reclined Cow Face Pose

  1. Begin on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor.
  2. Cross your left leg over your right leg so that the back of your left knee stacks, or nearly stacks, above the right knee.
  3. Use your hands and abdominal muscles to bring your knees closer to your chest. Rest your hands on your shins, and use your hands to guide your knees as close to your chest as feels comfortable (see bottom photo). You can also gently pull the shins away from each other.
  4. If you want a deeper stretch in the outer left hip, hold your feet rather than your shins (see top photo); you may need to lift your upper body to reach your feet. If you still want a deeper stretch in the outer left hips, take the feet farther away from the hips.
  5. Remain in the shape you’ve chosen for five to ten breaths, then repeat the steps on the other side.

Cow Face Pose

Cow Face is one of my least favorite poses. So, why am I highlighting it here? Hips, for many of us, are the seat of emotions; we clench our glutes and hip flexors when we feel scared or anxious as our fight-or-flight response kicks in. The result can be tension that causes discomfort in the hips as we move around, or tension in the hamstrings or back even when we’re at rest. Cow face pose helps to release some of this tension. The pose also helps stretch the shoulders and triceps, easing tension there as well. Move slowly as you approach cow face pose; move an inch and then consider how that inch of movement affected your body. Then, consider whether you want to move an inch more or remain still.

1. Begin with your legs outstretched. If you like, elevate your hips on a block or a folded blanket; this is excellent if you have tight outer hips. If you aren’t sure, then try this pose on a block first.

CowFaceWithBlock

 

2. Bring your right ankle to your outer left hip, so that your bent right knee rests above the left knee, or nearby. Remain here, or bring your left ankle to your right hip. Experience the shape you’ve chosen. Even out the weight between the sit bones.

 

3. Raise your right arm straight up and then bring your right palm to your low neck. There’s a tendency to bow forward here; instead, bring the shoulders over the hips, engage the low belly, and point your right elbow straight up. 

Next, bend your left elbow and bring the back of your left hand to your mid back, with your left palm facing outward. Remain here, or allow both sets of fingertips to drift toward each other. A strap or towel can help close this distance. Again, recommit to a straight spine, engaged belly, and open chest.

 

4. Remain for a few breaths. To feel a deeper stretch in the outer right hip, reach the chest toward the floor. If you still don’t feel the stretch in your outer right hip, bring your feet farther away from your hips. If you like, release your hands to the ground. Breathe a few slow and controlled breaths. Rise up.

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5. Unwind the legs and shake them out a bit. Repeat all the steps on the other side.

Repeat on the opposite side.