Yoga for the Bones

The skeletal system of the human body makes up 206 moveable bones in an adult designed to support movement of the muscles, ligaments, and connective tissue and organs. The bones of the spine, of which there are 24 moveable vertebrae plus the tailbone (sacrum made of 5 bones fused together by age 30) and the cranial bones (fuse by age 2), are designed to protect the nervous system; the spinal cord and spinal nerves which animate and coordinate every function of the human body.

 

Our bones are made up of a hard shell on the outside, but the inside of the bones are spongy, porous, living tissue that is constantly making red blood cells and rebuilding itself. Bones also store minerals such as calcium, phosphorous, and magnesium. Important vitamins to take for bone health include Vitamin D 1,000 IU per day and magnesium 220mg/day for women and 330mg/day for men. It is not recommended to take calcium supplements as excess calcium can be deposited in arteries and lead to narrowing of blood vessels or can lead to blood clots.

 

As humans age, bone density tends to decrease and it’s well known that weight bearing exercise, such as yoga, is important for bone health to increase density. It’s good to have a variation of weight bearing exercise such as walking, weight lifting, and yoga. However, the importance of yoga in keeping the joints and spine flexible should not be underestimated. As a person ages, when they stop bringing the joints through all the ranges of motion regularly, the tissues will harden and tighten. Eventually there will be a decrease in both strength and mobility, leading to more pain, injuries, and a lower quality of life. A regular yoga practice throughout life will help keep the tissues flexible, the nervous system adaptable, increase the life force energy in the body, as well as increase bone density and joint mobility.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Photo Credit: Mikail Nilov

Meditation; the 7th Limb of Yoga

“There is no peace in the world. If there is any peace, it is only in meditation. At first everyone does false meditation. But this false meditation turns into true meditation by regular practice.”  ~ Baba Hari Das

 

Most people who I talk to about meditation simply say they cannot do it.  Such a simple thing, and yet the majority of people struggle with it.  Let’s examine why this is, and some suggestions to help ease this struggle and reap the benefits.

Why is it important to learn to meditate properly?  When you have the skill to calm your own mind and reconnect with the essence of self and the universe, it’s invaluable.  It’s the most fulfilling thing one could experience in life.  It’s one of those things that one can truly only experience, and the attempts at describing it will always fall short.  Much like love. Meditation is like love in this way.

There is much research on the benefits of meditation for stress relief and experiencing deeper levels of rest.  It does this through shifting the brain waves from alpha brain waves (8-12 Hz) or Beta waves (12-30 Hz), which we experience during waking states, to delta or theta waves, which are much slower.  Shifting the brain waves into delta or theta allows the nervous system and body to achieve a state of deep stillness. From this place of stillness, we can access more of our human potential.  A great yogi, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, said in one of his principles of life, that “Rest is the basis of activity”.  What this means is that when we are able to really experience states of stillness, our actions in the world become more grounded, more creative, more inspired, more fruitful.  This type of stillness is so different from sleep. It is an experience of restful alertness, meaning we are conscious and yet the mind is still.

In yoga, Dhyana is the sanskrit word for meditation. It is the 7th limb of the 8 limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.  It is the final skill one must master to experience the 8th limb, Samadhi, higher consciousness. The skill of Dhyana actually comes from the 5th and 6th limbs of yoga, Pratyahara and Dharana, meaning withdrawing the mind from sense perception and concentration, respectively.

Pratyahara is practiced by repeatedly pulling the mind from outward objects, inward to the self.  Methods of pratyahara include the yogic practices of mantra (uttering of sacred sounds), nada (listening to inner sounds), japa (repetition of a mantra), puja (worship), trataka (gazing), kirtana (chanting), mudra (sealing of energy in the body), nyasa (projecting the divine principle onto various parts of the body), arati (worship by light), and hand mudras.

Dharana, or concentration, happens after pratyahara has been accomplished.  It is the focusing of attention on one point. It is derived from the word, dha, meaning “to hold, carry and support”. It refers to the holding of an object in the mind. Some of the important points to hold in the mind are sixteen points within the body (shodhashadhara): thumbs, ankles, knees, thighs, foreskin, genitals, navel, heart, neck, throat, palate, nose, middle of the eyebrows, forehead, head, and Brahmarandhra (“hole of God”, another name for mula, located at the coccyx). Other objects used for concentration can be a picture of a deity, a chakra, one’s breath, a visualization, a candle flame, or a mantra.

When we have used the methods of Pratyahara and Dharana, we then experience Dhyana, true meditative states.  Dhyana is derived from the word dhi, meaning “intellect”. Meditation is the channelling of the intellect, the channeling of the mind to one point.  It is the unbroken, uninterrupted focus of the mind. When the mind achieves this type of focus, there is a sense of connection to self, to all of creation, to the world, and subtle energy is awakened.

When the mind is trained repeatedly in this way, meditation becomes easy, natural, effortless.  This is the way it should always be practiced, without forcing.  I have found the most effective way to achieve these states is through a simple mantra meditation.  By focusing the mind on a mantra, twice daily for 20-30 minutes, one will experience the benefits of meditation. It’s helpful to find a good meditation teacher to guide you in the beginning.  As with any skill, it requires practice and consistency to learn. The benefits for the body, mind, and soul are so worth the effort! 

Most people struggle with meditation for these reasons:

  • They practice inconsistently
  • The technique is incorrect
  • The body hurts
  • Thoughts keep coming and they don’t know what to do

Let’s address these problems.

Inconsistent Practice

As with any skill, like learning to play an instrument or becoming good at a sport, becoming “good” at meditation, where you are able to still the mind fully and achieve deeper states of consciousness, takes practice. Choose a time each day, for example 6:00 in the morning, where you dedicate to practicing daily.

Incorrect Technique

Learning the proper methods for meditation is important. How to sit, what to do and what not to do, and the techniques to use, all make a difference. Try different techniques and learn from different teachers to find what works for you. But, choose one technique and stick with it for several months to see it’s effects before trying something else. A good teacher is invaluable and the technique matters.

The Body Hurts

When the body is in pain or one is struggling with health issues, it can be hard to sit comfortably.  Find ways to support the body with pillows and sitting with the back supported if necessary. Practicing asana is designed to make the body strong and balanced so sitting in meditation becomes easier. Commit to practicing asana regularly, and finding a good teacher to support you.  This will help meditation become easier.

Thoughts Keep Coming

When this happens it tells me that the technique or instructions are not adequate and you need support.  The purpose of a technique is that it helps to quiet these thoughts.  When thoughts arise, as they will, we go back to the technique.  This is the cycle of meditation practice, until eventually the thoughts become less and less.  This is part of the growing process, which can be “painful”, much like when you start exercising a new muscle. Don’t give up, you will get past this, and thoughts coming are a natural part of the process.

Keep it up and good luck with your practice!

“It’s hard to be responsible for our own progress. We always seek for someone to carry us and put us on some higher level. We have to understand that our progress is based on our own efforts.”  ~ Baba Hari Das (teacher to Ram Das)

Source

 1.) Ashtanga Yoga Primer. Baba Hari Das. Sri Rama Publishing, 1981.

Utthita Hasta Padangustasana

Pronounced: utt-HEE-tuh AH-stuh PAH-DAHN-goo-St-HAH-suh-nuh

This pose is a powerful one, and one I always anticipate when doing the primary series.  It’s the first posture that requires 3 things of the body; strength, flexibility, and balance.  It’s the pose that distinguishes the regular practitioners and the casual student.  It tests your will, a way to triumph over the current circumstances of your body and life.  When one can do this pose well, there’s a real feeling of “I can do anything”.  It is a practice of discipline, like many of the most beneficial yogic practices are. The purpose of which is to train the monkey mind and help us attain moksha – liberation from suffering.    

Utthita Hasta Padangustasana comes from the following sanskrit words: 

  • Utthita meaning extended
  • Hasta meaning hand
  • Pada meaning foot
  • Angusta meaning big toe
  • Asana meaning posture  

The full English name of the pose is Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose and it has 4 distinct parts, A, B, C, and D, all performed in order without dropping the lifted leg. It requires stabilising and balancing on the standing leg through all four parts, while keeping the lifted leg flexed with the knee extended (if possible).   

The standing leg 

The standing leg requires first rooting the foot firmly into the floor and distributing the weight of the body evenly across the ball of the foot and heel.  To create balance, contract the gluteus maximus and the quadriceps femoris (muscles above the knee) while straightening the knee joint. 

The lifted leg 

When first starting out, expect to wobble and have to drop the lifted leg. To practice balance, start with Vrikshasana (Tree Pose).  With the leg lifted, many muscles are engaged including the core muscles (transverse abdominus), the hip flexors (Iliopsoas muscles), anterior leg muscles (Quadriceps) are contracted and the posterior leg muscles (hamstrings) are stretched.  

Instructions

Part A

  1.  Stand at front of the mat in Tadasana.
  2.  Shift weight to left leg. Exhale, bend right knee to chest and catch big toe with index and middle fingers of right hand. Place left hand on left hip. 
  3. Distribute weight evenly across ball of the standing leg foot and heel.  Straighten standing leg, engage the muscles above knee (the quadriceps), firm the outer hip, engage gluteus maximus.
  4. Inhale, straighten lifted leg while bending right elbow. Engage quadriceps of lifted leg, dorsiflex the foot, slight internal rotation of the femur of lifted leg. 
  5. Hold 5 deep breaths.  Lift the sternum while gazing forward. Drishti is nose tip. 

Part A

 

Part B

  1. From part A, Inhale, extend the right leg to the right side of the room. Straighten leg if possible (see variations)
  2. Drishti is corner of the left eye while looking to the side of the room
  3. Hold 5 deep breaths

 

Part B

 

Part C

  1. From part B, Exhale, bring the right leg back to centre. Grab the right leg or foot with both hands and pull the leg towards the sternum.
  2. Hold 5 deep breaths. Drishti is toes.

Part C

 

Part D

  1. Exhale, release the leg from C, keep the leg lifted and knee extended with hands on hips.  
  2. Engage core and slight engagement of Uddiyana bandha, point the toes. Raise the sternum. Lift the foot higher.
  3. Hold 5 deep breaths. Drishti is toes.

Part D

 

Variations 

Use a strap on the lifted leg, or keep the lifted leg knee bent through the pose.  Alternate version is to hold the knee instead of the toes.

Variations of Part A

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Variations of Part B

Bandhas

Mula bandha (slight engagement)

Benefits

  • Strengthens and stretches legs and ankles
  • Strengthens core muscles
  • Improves balance and posture
  • Stretches arm muscles, adductors, and hips
  • Improves concentration and focus

Enjoy your practice!!

The Somatics of Yoga

Practitioners of yoga in modern times may start yoga with simple reasons such as toning, keeping fit, developing more flexibility, or as a way to help deal with stresses of life.  These are all good reasons to start yoga, and yoga will deliver all this, and so much more.  If one will let it. 

In the past 5 years, there has been increasing awareness of somatic work and trauma-informed models of care. The recognition that past traumas are imprinted in our nervous system and stored in the body to be dealt with at a later time.  When we are exposed to an event or circumstance that is too much for the person to deal with, the primitive brain takes over as a form of protection. This results in the body storing that trauma as physical blockage, postural distortions, spinal or muscular tension, and reduced breathing.  It can also result in the person living with anxiety, poor sleep, fear, feeling disconnected from self and community, and being out of touch with their true self.  These walled off parts of oneself are there to protect us, but eventually can stop a person from living their best life.  At worst, it will lead to health breakdowns over-time when this stored trauma is stuck in the system. 

Why does this happen? The brain is designed to keep us alive, that’s it’s job.  The brain is constantly receiving messages from the environment and making decisions about whether you are safe or at risk from harm.  When you are in a safe environment, the brain can relax and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in.  When the body is in safety, breathing deepens, digestion, rest, and growth happens.  The body is able to repair and regenerate itself.

However, when there is a threat, whether it’s a real threat to physical safety or a perceived threat from an unsafe emotional environment, the brain’s trauma response kicks in.  This is referred to as the Fight/Flight response, and now it is recognised that there are actually 5 trauma responses; Fight/Flight/Freeze/Flop and Friend.  The chart below can help you identify if you may be in some of these trauma responses in the future, or have been in the recent past.

 

Response Common Thoughts & Feelings Common Behaviors
Fight “It’s all your fault!”, feeling anger or rage Talking back, storming out, showing aggression towards self or others, showing defiance, blaming others
Flight “I’ve got to get out of here!”,

 Feeling anxious or overwhelmed, feeling the urge to flee

Leaving the class unexpectedly, spacing out or seeming not to listen, being intentionally or unintentionally distracted, missing class or work
Freeze “I can’t”, 

Feeling panicked, overwhelmed, or numbed out

Giving up quickly, spacing out/seeming not to listen, showing frustration or overwhelm
Flop “It’s all my fault” or “It’s not worth it”,

 Feeling sad, depressed, hopeless, apathetic

Appearing disengaged, showing little emotion, missing class or work
Friend “Please help me! I can’t do it.”

Feeling helpless or powerless, low confidence

Not taking responsibility for oneself, relying on others to help solve problems

 

Yoga, when practiced with regularity and dedication, will liberate these parts of oneself that have been walled-off, stuck, and blocked.  Over time, with regular practice, these trauma responses will dissolve and a person will experience re-integration and wholeness. Yoga, which includes the practice of physical postures, deep breathing and breath retention practices, chanting sacred sounds, meditation, purification techniques, and a philosophy of life – will cleanse a person physically and emotionally, and discipline the mind. Yoga, when practiced correctly, will re-connect a person with life energy.  It will awaken both internal life force energy (prana or chi) and connect one with the forces that make up all of creation.  Ultimately, this re-connection, or remembering, leads to experiences of joy, and bliss, and the ultimate goal, inner peace or self-realisation.

 

Yoga Sutra 1.2, is; åraddhâ-vîrya-smëti-samâdhi-prajõâ-pûrvaka itaresam 

åraddhâ = faith 

vîrya = energy, vigor 

smëti = memory, mindfulness 

samâdhi = oneness, integration 

prajõâ = wisdom 

pûrvaka = preceded by 

itaresam = others 

Which means, “For all others, faith, energy, mindfulness, integration, and wisdom form the path to realisation.” Healing oneself takes time, and often it starts with a real feeling of helplessness.  All it takes is starting, showing up with humbleness to practice, and a willingness to break these patterns.  Yoga is a system that can take you there, to help a person develop faith in themself and the world, to cultivate energy in the body/mind system, to live with more mindfulness, to integrate all parts of one’s being, to live with wisdom by listening to the subtle inner workings of one’s soul, to bring you back home to the wholeness of you.