R U OK Day 2019 - My thoughts on Depression

As part of R U Ok Day (suicide awareness) which falls on September 12 this year, I decided to write a blog on my thoughts on depression.

The word ‘Depression’ is unfortunately still very much misunderstood amongst people these days. It’s often confused with mere sadness, some people just think it’s a plain cop out, laziness or an inability to ‘suck it up’. Maybe it’s because mental illness doesn’t always have physical symptoms the way, other illnesses and conditions do. People often feel more sympathy towards those who are blind, are confined to wheel chairs as they can see the physical evidence there in front of their eyes. I even once had someone tell me they thought depression was made up and just for an excuse lazy people use when they can’t be bothered doing things like going to work. It’s not until someone suffers from depression themselves, has someone close to them suffer from it or they study it in their psychology or medical degrees, do people become more empathetic towards those suffering from it. This is often the case with most mental health issues.
Lately there have been a few key celebrities and well known business people here in Australia admitting to suffering from depression, and I’ve read people’s comments about how could someone so rich be depressed? Quite easily, as depression isn’t sadness, it’s much, much more than that! It doesn’t just target the poor or the people on average incomes. The only difference with these celebrities is that a lot of them have more money to spend on the best of care, yet have the additional pressure of living in the spotlight and being criticised harshly.

For this reason, a lot of people keep their diagnosis to themselves, so they are not judged, bullied and discriminated against.  I am one of those people, as I‘ve suffered from bullying and being discriminated against as a teenager and an adult when working in the public service.

I’ve suffered from depression for the past 26 years (since the age of 11) due to post traumatic stress disorder while on an overseas school trip, which resulted in amnesia, major depression and anxiety. It’s something that’s very much a part of me and that I’ve learned that I will always have and I need to practice self-care on a daily basis so that it doesn’t get the better of me. When I fell pregnant for the second time last December, the change in hormones led to a relapse and resulted in me being bed ridden for nearly 48 hours.  Luckily, so far I haven’t suffered from post-natal depression, but it’s definitely something that’s on my radar and the people I’m closest to.  I am a different person due to the PTSD than I would have been had it not happened. I am one of the lucky ones who has gotten the care that I need. My cousin Garry wasn’t so lucky. He had suffered from his own trauma with his brother dying in a tragic motor bike accident and losing his father to cancer and as a result turned to drugs and alcohol which exacerbated his depression. His mother told him she was worried that if he didn’t turn his life around that she would find him dead in his house one day, unfortunately that was exactly what happened to him.  It happened during my first Yoga Teacher training in Bali in 2012, and greatly saddened me as he didn’t get the help he needed and deserved. This is tragic in itself and all too common in the world today.

Dr Timothy McCall medical doctor and yoga therapist and author of Yoga as Medicine describes clinical depression as persistently sad, hopeless and sometimes agitated state that profoundly lowers the quality of life, and which if untreated can result in suicide. He also says that when physicians use the word depression they don’t mean feeling disappointed or blue, or grieving a loss as these are normal moods that everyone experience from time to time.
From my studies with Dr McCall, I’ve learnt about the difference in western medicine where they use reductionist techniques versus yoga and traditional Chinese medicine where they use holistic techniques. Holism is the idea of looking at the whole (considering every aspect of the person; body, mind and spirit) and favours gentler, natural remedies, but when necessary, selectively uses the best reductionist tools too such as prescription medicine. Reductionism, in distinction is the effort to reduce the complexity of a disease process to one or sometimes a few elements, which can be studied and then treated one at a time. The crucial thing to understand is that reductionist approaches are generally riskier than holistic ones.  As they can be powerful and often work more quickly, where as holistic ones are gentler and slower. However, Dr McCall is not against using anti-depressant etc when it’s absolutely necessary.

How would I describe Depression? Numbness, being completely overwhelmed with one’s life and the world around. At its worse it can cause a person to attempt to take their own life, to harm them self so that they can feel something other than numbness, or maybe it just means that having the will power and energy to get out of bed is just too much!

There are many causes of depression other than PTSD, hormonal changes, food intolerances, candida, low amino acid profile, vitamin B 12 deficiency, chemical imbalances, low iron, gut flora issues, stress, insomnia and the list goes on!
My biggest gripe with medical doctors today, is that they most of them treat the symptoms rather than the cause with a reductionist approach. They hand you over a prescription for an anti-depressant and that’s it, maybe some counselling if you’re lucky. This is what happened to my cousin and it wasn’t enough. Anti-depressants can sometimes make things worse and yes they can sometimes be necessary and be an absolute godsend! I would love to see a world where doctors take a more holistic approach to mental health. For example, run blood tests and see if there are any vitamin and mineral deficiencies, use counselling, yoga, exercise and a healthy diet as part of the treatment plan. Perhaps consult with a yoga therapist and a naturopath, who can help with this.

In yoga therapy we divide depression into two types, Tamasic Depression and Rajasic (anxiety/stress fuelled) depression which is different to how it’s treated in western medicine. If one patient has tamasic depression and the other rajasic, your approach as a yoga therapist may need to be very different.

Amy Weintraub who is a pioneer if the field of Yoga for mental health, founder of LifeForce Yoga and the author of Yoga for Depression and Yoga Skills for Therapists (as well as other yoga teachers ad therapists) have given many of us other resources for treating depression. I am so grateful to these people as it has improved my wellbeing beyond my expectations.

My self care plan other than prescribed medication, consists of the following: daily Lifeforce Yoga practice (asana, pranayama/kriya, meditation), amino acids (when not pregnant and breast feeding) such as NAC and L-Tryptophan, Vitamin B 12 supplement (as I’m deficient and this can cause depression), daily fish oil supplement,  nutritious diet that is predominantly gluten free as gluten has been shown to exacerbate depression, improving gut flora with probiotics, collagen and tolerated fermented foods, avoiding alcohol, getting adequate sleep, physical activity other than yoga.

So, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask someone R U Ok? Try not to judge and see depression as a cop out either, if you’ve never suffered from it, how would you know how it feels?

Below is a photo of books I recommend on depression.

Namaste, Liz

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The Value of Yin Yoga Teacher Training

Yin Yoga is unlike some other forms of Hatha yoga in that it is not a copyrighted style and people therefore legally don’t need to do formal training to be licensed to teach this style of yoga. But does this mean it’s safe or okay to teach yin with little knowledge of what yin yoga essentially is?

I myself, didn’t start teaching Yin until after my first Yin training as this was a condition of teaching it at the studio where I wanted to teach it at, which is fair enough as I didn’t feel I knew enough anyway. This training was with Sarah Powers (the yogi who gave Yin its name) in 2014 and very different from the other 3 yin trainings I’ve done with Bernie Clark and Jo Phee, it had a focus on mindfulness and meridians which was a great complement to the other trainings I did. I then trained with Jo Phee in 2017, Bernie Clark in 2018 and again with Jo Phee in 2019. Each of these Yin courses have benefited me greatly.

I spoke to a Bikram teach several years a go who said it wasn’t necessary to do training since it isn’t copyrighted and all she did was read ‘the book’ on it. I was quite surprised at this comment as I don’t think yin is simple to teach and which book was she referring to, there are many? It is also a very different style to teach to Bikram which is a very Yang style of yoga with a set sequence and mandatory dialogue.

I like to attend other teachers Yin classes for my own practice and to see how others teach and to enhance my own teaching skills. In one of these classes I came across a teacher who was a highly trained Ashtanga teacher who didn’t believe it was necessary to do any formal yin training in order to teach yin. This teacher didn’t believe yoga bolsters should be used in yin (as this would make the poses too comfortable and restorative), the only props which were allowed were yoga blocks and tennis balls. There was no mention in this class of the 3 Tattvas (principles) of how yin should be practiced (appropriate depth – stillness – holding for time) and no mention of the muscles needing to be relaxed to allow the yin tissues to be stressed and targeted. The class was mostly in silence, with no mention of where the target area was for each of the poses (where we should be feeling it), alternative options if that pose didn’t suit our anatomy or exacerbated an injury and in among this were some random sun sulatations with Chaturangas. Was it a safe class? No class is ever going to be 100% safe no matter how much training a teacher has done, but I do believe a teacher who educates their students about the 3 principles of Yin Yoga and understand skeletal variation will offer a safer class than one who has not got this knowledge.
This was one aspect of a teacher teaching regular yin classes without training.
On the flip side, I also attended a beautiful yin class at a studio I used to work at with a teacher who had not done any formal training much to my surprise. I really enjoyed this class. This teacher was a huge fan of Bernie Clark and had spent many hours studying his comprehensive website and reading his books, which helped explain her knowledge. Would she benefit from doing formal yin training, I’m sure she would, unfortunately it’s not always feasible to do it immediately.

I have been in the lucky financial position to be able to do over 1000 hours of yoga teacher training in the past 7 years, most people are not in this position especially when that training is in 4 different countries, it costs a lot of money and most of us yoga teachers don’t earn a lot of money to begin with. With this has come criticism of having done too much training, I don’t think it’s possible to do too much training. You just need to give yourself time to absorb what you have learnt and then implement it. All I know is I’ve had these opportunities and I am very grateful for them as I have benefited a great deal from them.

Below are some of the key things I have learnt from my yin training:

The 3 tenents of yin yoga and how important it is to talk about this in the first pose especially when there are newbies in the room.


How and why props (bolsters, blocks, blankets, straps, sand bags, tennis balls, twin balls) are used in yin yoga. Props are used very differently in yin to other styles (especially restorative yoga). We use props for many reasons, including; to increase the stress in the target area; to reduce the stress in the target area; to change the target area; to make a pose available to you that wouldn’t be available without props; to help the muscles relax by providing support; to make a pose safer; and to create length and space;

The importance of calling the poses by their yin names not their yang equivalent. When we call Caterpillar, Pachiomottanasana instead this can often confuse students and they then go into their Yang autopilot and start practicing a yin pose in a yang way which can be dangerous.

Educating students to practice yin in a yin way, and yang in a yang way to stay safe. i.e relaxing muscles as much as they can, not dorsi-flexing their ankles and activating the quads in caterpillar for 3 – 5 minutes. It doesn’t matter if the feet fall outwards or inwards, this is just torsion through the tibia and is natural.

Educating students about what the target area is for the pose and if they can’t feel it after making some modifications, they may just need a different pose.

Educating students that yoga poses are like penicillin, one may be medicine for you, but poison for your neighbour as we are all unique and that there is no such thing as mastering a pose. The poses are meant to be therapeutic not to wreck your ego!  Understanding skeletal variation and that there’s no pose that is safe for everyone (even savasana) and that it is important to give students alternative poses.

Compression versus tension, what’s stopping my student’s going further in a pose?

Educating students that if they’re feeling it in the target area and not feeling bad pain, then the pose is correct and it doesn’t matter if they look different to the person next to them.

Cultivating mindfulness, tolerance and patience in the practice through various tools.

Incorporating pranayama (conscious manipulation of the breath) in the yin practice.

Educating students that yin is not better than yang, they complement each other and nothing is pure yin or yang.

How to sequence effectively and in different ways.

How to have a theme for a class.

The importance of the rebound.

How to sequence according to the meridians.

The importance of the meridians and how Yin can remove blockages in them.

How Yin is a form of myofascial release and how to incorporate Myoyin into classes.

Why fascia is important and how to look after it.

What ‘Creep’ is and why it matters in relation to when is the right time to practice yin and how this changes sequencing, especially for a Yang/Yin class.

It’s not safe for everyone to practice saddle pose by placing the bottom between the feet and that some people have to sit on their feet instead as some people have very little internal rotation through the hip joints and sitting this way could be injurious.

How Yin can be beneficial for sciatica and why sleeping swan pose is not always a good pose for this condition.

In summary, in my humble opinion, if you’re going to teach yin on a regular basis, it’s best to do a formal training to serve your students better, once you have this opportunity. This usually involves 40 hours plus of training. It’s also fairer on the teachers who have invested in training and fairer of the studios to use teachers who are yin trained over teachers who are not.

If you don’t have the opportunity immediately, Paul Grilley, Bernie Clark, Sarah Powers, Norman Blair, Biff Mithoefer, Stefanie Arend (currently in German, available in English in August 2019) and Magdalena Mecweld, have all written books on yin which are invaluable for any yin teacher. Paul and Sarah have also produced DVDS through Pranayama Media which are invaluable, Paul Grilley now has an online training through them as well and Bernie Clark has a wonderful website called yinyoga.com which is full of research, videos, information and even a forum and teachers directory.

Namaste,

 

Liz

 

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Why I Believe Anatomy is an Essential part of Training for both Yoga and Pilates Instructors

I felt compelled to write this blog after learning that there now exists registered training organisation (s) that are now stating that you don’t need to learn anatomy to be able to teach Pilates! That, in fact learning anatomy will make you a less effective teacher. I was absolutely horrified to learn of this as was my physio who is also a Pilates instructor as were some colleagues of mine too who teach Pilates and ones who teach yoga or work in the fitness industry. I’m not sure if this exists in the yoga world, but I do know that some yoga teacher trainings place less emphasis on anatomy than others. In my humble opinion, anatomy is an essential part of training.
Yes, Pilates and yoga instructors don’t need to have the anatomy knowledge of a physiotherapist or an orthopaedic surgeon as our scope of practice is different in that we don’t diagnose medical conditions/injuries, but if we did have the same knowledge it would make us better teachers not worse. We still need to know the basics and the fact that people are unique and that one yoga pose/pilates exercises doesn’t suit everyone same as one style of meditation and pranayama (breath work) doesn’t suit everyone. Just like personal trainers need to have an understanding of basic anatomy and physiology, we do too!

Yes, Yoga is mainly a spiritual practice but it is also a physical practice that can be dangerous. Yes, thousands of years ago, yoga teachers probably didn’t study anatomy, but thousands of years a go, it was not a litigious environment and yoga teachers didn’t attend mass teacher trainings and be given the right to teach yoga after a mere 200 hours training, they spent hours and hours with their guru being mentored and then eventually were allowed to teach.

Here are my issues about teaching with no anatomy knowledge:

First let’s look at Pilates:
1. If I have no understanding of anatomy, how on earth am I to understand one of the main principles of Pilates of Neutral to my clients? How do I check that they’re in neutral if I don’t understand basic anatomy?  How do I justify the importance of a neutral or imprinted spine?

2. I have a client comes in and tells me she’s got lower back pain due to a dysfunctional SIJ and that the physio said it’s fine for her to do reformer, but not to do anything that will shear at the SIJ further. First of all hypothetically if I haven’t done any anatomy training, I’m not going to even know what SIJ stands for and what it is and why it can cause lower back pain. I’m also not going to know which exercises on the reformer will aggravate the SIJ, so I won’t know how to modify for this client.
(I’m not saying I know every little medical condition/injury) but if an instructor has done training, they’re more likely to be comfortable modifying for a client and understand a medical report from a physiotherapist or surgeon). Plus I am more likely to know when a client needs to be referred to see a physio.

3. I have a woman come into my Reformer Cardio (jumpboard) class who admits discretely that she’s 6 weeks pregnant and will it be okay to do the class.  Because hypothetically I haven’t done any anatomy training I don’t understand how unsafe this is for her pelvic floor among other things, “I’m like yeah you’re only 6 weeks pregnant, can’t be that harmful!’. Luckily this is not the case for me, and I would simply not let her jump on the jumpboard and would give her other exercises on the reformer that are safe during the first trimester.

4. I have a client who comes up to me with her boyfriend (who has totally different posture to her) who has excess lordosis and kyphosis and complains that her lower back is tight and that her hips are tight but her boyfriend never gets these problems, why is this. If have done no anatomy training, I’m not going to understand there are different postural types and that people who have excess lordosis are prone to tight lower backs due to there being so much pressure in the erector spinae muscles and tight hip flexors as well. I’m not going to have the knowledge to tell her that it’s because her posture is different to her boyfriends and what exercises could help and make this worse.

Now Yoga:

5. I have a client come in and tells me she has sciatica. I freak out as in this hypothetical situation I don’t know what the heck sciatica is (it’s pretty common by the way). What do I do? Do I pretend to know what she’s talking about or do I say, ‘Oh, I don’t know what yoga poses you shouldn’t do as I don’t know what sciatica is as I was told in my teacher training anatomy and physiology aren’t important!’
Luckily in reality, because my training in yoga and pilates has taught me about anatomy, I would actually say to the client. Ok, no problem, what caused the sciatica (discogenic, piriformis syndrome, or another reason), how acute is it? What makes it feel worse? What makes it feel better? Then I would know what poses are going to be contraindicated for that client.

5. A client comes up to me and says her back hurts when she flexes her spine and that she herniated a disc in the lumbar region a few years a go. First of all, if I haven’t done any anatomy training, I’m not going to now what spinal flexion is and know which area of the spine is lumbar which is pretty basic anatomy. What do you think my client is going to think of me since they know this pretty basic stuff and I don’t, do you think they’ll want to come back to my class, will they feel safe. I’m also not going to know how the reasoning behind using props to help this person in seated forward bends.

6. A male student comes up to me who can’t sit cross legged and never has been able to comfortably, even as a child he couldn’t, but he really wants to be able to do Padmasana (lotus pose) and meditate in this traditional pose. Because I have not done any anatomy training, I think everyone should have the hips and knees capable of doing this challenging pose, so I tell him just keep trying and forcing the body and your hips will eventually open up enough to sit cross legged and then go on and do Padmasana.  So he listens to my terrible advice and come back a few weeks later and tells me he has torn the menisus in his knee! In reality, I would tell that person not to force it and that if he could never sit cross legged comfortablt, then I very much doubt his hips have the range of motion to every be able to practice Padmasana pose anyway and no yoga pose is essential and not to force things as it could damage his knees in the process.

7. Final example because hypothetically my yoga training has included no anatomy training and Sirsana (headstand) happens to come easily to me in this hypothetical situation, I decided to instruct everyone into sirsasana by the wall as I’m being safe using the wall as no one can fall over as the wall will hold them up. I haven’t learnt in my yoga teacher training that everyone’s anatomy and history are unique and that the majority of people shouldn’t practice sirsasana as they don’t have the core strength (lots of transversus abdominus activation) plus a lot of shoulder strength or the right anatomy to practice the pose safely and not reach compression in upper body. It doesn’t’ occur to me that if a person’s humerus is shorter than their cervical spine and head then it’s going to place a lot of pressure on their neck and do a lot of damage, especially if their shoulders and abs aren’t superbly strong. In fact if I wouldn’t even know what the humerus bone is in this situation!!!
In reality I have only ever taught sirsasana preparation in my classes (where the head doesn’t touch the ground and I only do with some clients) as from my studies with Jo Phe and Bernie Clark, I have learnt that Sirsasana is a high risk -low reward pose!

On a final note, do I consider myself an anatomy geek? Nope! I wish!! But I do have more than an average person’s knowledge. Does anatomy fascinate me? Yes! Do I hope to learn more? Yes which is why I read up on it and attend additional trainings on it. Should we try to speak to our clients in simple terms they understand as most don’t have much anatomy and physiology knowledge, yes, this can help for sure!

‘Working as a Pilates instructor, you will come across a wide range of clients with injuries, postural issues and muscle imbalances. As a result, it is incredibly important that you have a strong grasp on the Anatomy of the body to ensure you are able to assist your clients in their recovery and avoid causing any further injury.’ Studio Pilates International

 

Is Restorative Yoga Good for Anxiety?

I’ve been seeing quite a few things lately on the internet which promote restorative yoga as a treatment for anxiety and I’ve been asked in the past this very question, is restorative yoga good for anxiety? My answer is, yes, no, maybe, it depends! We are unique, so the answer is never going to be, “yes it’s good 100% of the time for EVERYONE”! Has it always been helpful for me if I’m anxious? No!

For those of you who aren’t aware of what restorative yoga is, I’ll quote one of the most highly respected restorative yoga teachers in the world in how she describes it:
’Restorative yoga is the use of props to create positions of ease and comfort that facilitate relaxation and health.’’ Judith Hanson Lasater (Restore and Rebalance – Yoga for Deep Relaxation).
Restorative yoga is similar to yin in that the pace of the class is slow as the postures are held for long period of time (sometime 30 minutes for 1 posture)!

So now imagine, you’re extremely anxious and have just suffered a panic attack and a friend says to you, “I have the perfect fix to help you feel better, I’m going to take you to a 75 minute restorative class (most restorative classes are over an hour sometimes 2) where you will lie back in positions of comfort, not talk and just be still and silent and learn to relax!”
Can you even contemplate being still when you’ve just suffered a panic attack and are barely managing to hold it together? I know I wouldn’t be able to if I was that anxious as I would feel anxious at the thought of just trying to be still and not focus on all the things that are currently causing me anxiety! So maybe in this situation, a restorative yoga class could actually make things worse. Has this happened to me?  Yes! I’ve gone to a class under these circumstances and I struggled during the whole class, I was restless and I couldn’t wait for it to be over as I simply was too anxious and up tight to be settled for a restorative class.

It yogic terms this can be classed as Rajas, the emotional quality of energy, movement and awakeness. Rajas can be broken down further though:
Rajasic Tamas which is an energised lethargy. The body is exhausted, but the mind is active. This person may be able to cope with a restorative class, as long as the mind is given a bone and has something to concentrate on to stay centred.
Rajasic Rajas however is the yogic description of frenetic energy, where a panic attack may occurred or a person suffered from OCD or an anxiety disorder.  This is when the person also has a lot of physical energy, too much energy that will prevent him or her from being still in the body.  This person first needs to burn this energy off, for example with some exercise or sun salutations.
Sattvic Rajas a person who has an energised balance, being on a high after an exercise session.

One of the many things that I love about the LifeForce Yoga protocol is the fact that it is recognises that we must first meet our (if It’s a self practice) or our client’s mood (current energetic state) before we balance our or their mood back into a state of Sattva (balance). For example, if a person is Rajasic Rajas then a restorative yoga class is not going to meet their mood, as they first need to burn off the excess energy before they can slow down. The same can be said for the depressed mood (in extreme cases Tamasic Tamas). When a person is in this state, they feel numb and every movement is a huge effort, so much so that people who become very depressed often struggle to get out of bed! So what do you think their response would be if you said to a very depressed person who was half asleep in bed would be to “let’s get up and go to a hot power yoga class to lift your mood?” It would most probably be overwhelming and seem impossible, you would need to meet their mood first with something slow like stair step breath in bed to even get them energised enough to get out of bed and up to start their day off, a hot power yoga class may not be on the cards that day.

So, this explains why my answer is not a simple yes. We humans, are not simple, we are unique. So if you’re considering a restorative class, practice some svadhyaya (self study) first and make sure you aren’t in such a rajasic state that being still will become agitating and make you feel worse. Or perhaps if you think that is the case, you may need to burn off this physical energy first before the class.

Namaste

Liz

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Yoga and Sleep

It’s a common misconception that yoga is always good for sleep.  Yes, it can be good for sleep, but sometime it can cause insomnia!
I’ve never been a good sleeper and these days I rely heavily on my daily yoga practice to ensure a good night’s sleep. 
I discovered that yoga isn’t always good for sleep when I went to a my first ever Bikram yoga class in January 2011. I was excited to try it as it was the original hot yoga and it was known for detoxification and calorie burning and at the time it was new to Canberra.  For those of you haven’t tried it, it’s a set sequence that runs for 90 minutes and is made up of two types of pranayama (breath work) one at the beginning and one at the end, and in amongst this are 26 postures.  The class was the most challenging yoga class I’ve ever experienced due to the 40 degrees celsius heat that I wasn’t accustomed to, the whole time I was thinking, when will this torture be over? However, after the class I felt AMAZING! I was high on yoga! The flipside was I couldn’t sleep as I was so wired from the heat, the deep backbends and the kapalabhati pranayama (breath work).  This was the start of my yoga journey and to this day I still practice Bikram yoga about 2 -3 times per week when I’m not travelling. In my opinion Bikram yoga is a very powerful style of yoga that is great for the tamasic mood (for most but not all) and I experience great benefits with it uplifting my mood, stretching my muscles, detoxing and the moving meditation that it is.  However these days’ I mainly practice it in the morning or early afternoon (4pm) as otherwise it affects my sleep, plus if I practice in the early afternoon I have to ensure I have a longer yin and LifeForce yoga style practice before bed to be able to relax into sleep.
Does this mean that everyone will experience insomnia after Bikram? Nope! As Paul Grilley says “Always is always wrong.  Never is never right”. It just depends on you, and so it means you need to experiment to see what works for you as we are all unique. I’ve known people to practice Bikram Yoga in the evenings and sleep easily.
This experience made me curious to delve deeper into why yoga could potentially cause insomnia that I did some research and ran a workshop in Canberra while I lived there and I am running another one next month on the 26th August. Plus, I continue to experiment with other yogic tools that might help me sleep at night as you never stop learning!

Namaste

Liz

Yin and LifeForce Yoga Teacher Training in May 2018

Last month I was lucky enough to travel to Vancouver Canada and Tuscon Arizona USA to attend two more Yoga teacher trainings. Both of these trainings had been on my list for sometime now.
I will always be a student, so I soak up as much knowledge as a I can when given the chance! Not that yoga teacher trainings are the only avenue for this, but they are one avenue.

Vancouver saw me at Semperviva Sea Studio spending a week with over 40 other enthusiastic Yin Yogis studying with world renown yin yoga and anatomy expert Bernie Clark and his long term colleague Diana Batts. Bernie Clark has given so much to the yoga community with his studies in the science of yin and yoga anatomy. His website yinyoga.com is the arguably the most comprehensive website on yin yoga in the world and one of the most comprehensive on yoga itself.

This training reinforced the need to teach functionally due to every single person in the world being unique. Rather than assuming that everyone should be given the same alignment instructions in a pose, look the same in the pose and forcing them to adhere to these instructions even if they find it painful or simply can’t get their body to do it!  It’s reinforced me to lose the dogmatic application of aesthetic alignment me and asking a student how they are feeling and where are they feeling it, if I see something that I might think is unsafe and. For instance, the ‘W sitting position’ (Virasana) was discussed and one of the yogis there could easily stay in this pose wither her feet pointing outward and could easily bring her feet further away from her knees. Most yoga teachers would be horrified about this and would order her to come out of the pose as she will injure herself. Bernie asked her how it felt, and she said fine, it feels natural! This is because this yogi had a large range of internal rotation in the femur and no twisting at the knee was required to get into this position. Does this mean everyone could do this? No and that includes me, I have better external rotation than internal rotation in the femur.
The answer to things is seldom black and white, which is why Bernie’s answer was often ‘yes, no, maybe, it depends’. This quote from Paul Grilley was instilled in me during the training:
‘Always is always wrong. Never is never right.’

After just under a week of rest and sightseeing in Atlanta. I flew to the desert where I was surrounded by cactus trees and rattle snakes!


Ever since reading Amy Weintraub’s first book Yoga for Depression I wanted to study with her and become a LifeForce Yoga practitioner. I was lucky enough to do this in Melbourne a couple of years a go where the passion for this field of yoga adapted specifically to meet and balance the mood grew!
The course was run by Rose Kress who is the owner and director of LifeForce yoga (since 2016) and another yoga therapist called Randy Todd.  Amy came in one of the days to guest teach before flying off to the other side of the country to facilitate another training session. I came out of the course with more awareness of trauma specific yoga teaching, LifeForce Yoga and increased self confidence in my own teaching and knowledge as a yoga teacher.  It meant the world to me when Rose Kress said to me ‘you know more than you think you know’ and ‘you’re a beautiful teacher’.

Both courses gave me confidence in my abilities as I was given positive feedback in both of these courses, which brought this thought to mind:
‘Surround yourself with people who lift you up, instead of people who knock you down.’

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Why Pranayama (breath work) is an important part of my yoga practice, classes and private sessions

In the yoga sutras of Pantaji (widely regarded authoritative text on yoga) the second chapter describes 8 limbs of the actual practice of yoga. The 4th limb is manipulation of the breath.  Prana means lifeforce, vitality, energy or strength and ayama means stretch, extend, regulation, restraint or control.

In my studies with the LifeForce Yoga Institute I have learnt the importance on manipulation of the breath and how it affects a person’s health (specifically mental and emotional health).

The human body is made up of 3 different blood gases, nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide.When we inhale, we are activating the sympathetic nervous system by bringing more oxygen into the physical body, and vice versa for the exhale which activates the para-sympathetic nervous system which is our rest and digest nervous system. Therefore, a deep breath in which the inhales and exhale last for the same amount of time, facilitates a balanced (Sattvic) emotional state.
Hypoventilation (under breathing and shallow breathing) causes a lack of oxygen entering the physical body and a build up of carbon dioxide, which causes a Tamasic (melancholy) state.
Whereas hyperventilation (over breathing) causes excess oxygen to enter the physical body causing a Rajasic (excitable, anxious, agitated) state. The ancient yogis understood that to get out of a Tamasic state into a Sattvic state you needed to have a Rajasic practice and Tamasic practice to reduce Rajas to come into balance and end up in a Sattvic state.

Which nostril that you breath out of also affects your mood as it affects which hemisphere of the brain is dominant! When the right nostril is dominant, we tend to be more energetic and even sometimes Rajasic. When the left nostril is more dominant we are calmer, sleepier and maybe sometimes even depressed.
A lot of these pranayama practices can be enhanced with mudras (hand postures).

I use the following Pranayama and kriya (cleansing breath) practices in my practice and in some of my classes and with private one-on-one sessions to balance the mood after the mood has been met (as per the LifeForce Yoga protocol):

For the tamasic mood (depressed, low mood):
All of these practices encourage more breath (oxygen)to enter the body, by making  the inhalation longer or encourage rapid breathing which is what is required to rebalance back into a Sattvic state from the Tamasic state:
- Breath of Joy   
- Power Hara (this also stimulates Manipura Chakra to help improve self esteem)
- Surya Bheda (right nostril breathing that should be balanced off with Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing) afterwards
- Bhastrika
- Kapalabhati (skull shining breath through the nostrils that also stimulates Manipura Chakra)

For the Rajasic mood (anxious, agitated):
Where excess oxygen needs to be removed, which is why all of these practices encourage excess breath to exit the body by increasing the exhalation:
Chandra Bheda (left nostril breathing) that should be balanced off with Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing) afterwards.
- Brahmari (bee breath) with Shanmukhi mudra
- Khumbaka (breath retention for a long period) with Adhi Mudra
- Breath to stimulate the nerves

For the Sattvic mood:
- Dirga Pranayama (yogic 3 part breath)
- Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing)
- Ujjayi
- Stair step breath

To aid sleep at night:
- Shetaali (cooling breath) and;
- Chandra Bheda (lying on the right side while lengthening the exhalation and counting the - --breaths backwards)
- Brahmari (bee breath) with Shanmukhi mudra

I also encourage Dirga Pranayama  (yogic 3 part breathing) and Ujjayi (or a combination of both) during an asana practice (especially Vinyasa) to encourage a more mindful and calming practice. A yoga asana practice without breath awareness is simple just exercise!

Please note: some of these Pranayama practices have contraindications for conditions such as mania, pregnancy, asthma, high blood pressure, vertigo and sinus congestion and this needs to be considered before practicing any of these if you have any of these conditions to see which ones have the contraindications for the condition (s) you have.

Please also note: The Lifeforce Yoga practices of Bhastrika (bellows breath) and Kapalabhati are different to other styles in that they are practiced slower. For instance, Bhastrika is done with two breaths (inhale in 1 second as the arms go up, exhale for 1 second as the arms go down), in addition to this the arms go up and down to keep the breath in the upper chest, making it a safer version of Bhastrika and suitable in a yoga class.

Breathing is the most accessible resource you have for creating and sustaining your vital energy’. Donna Farhi

Pictured: Bee breath with Shanmukhi Mudra

References:
Donna Farhi ‘The Breathing Book’ 1996 New York St Martin’s Griffin
B.K.S. Iyengar ‘Light on Pranayama’ 2010 New York The Crossroad Publishing Company
Amy Weintraub ‘Yoga Skills for Therapists’ 2012 New York W.W Norton
 

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Why sometimes you shouldn’t listen to your yoga teacher in class!

This may seem strange to you, but there are occasions where you need to listen to what your body is telling you more so than what your teacher is. It’s your yoga practice and no one else’s, plus you know your body better than anyone else does. Not sure what I mean? I’ll give you an example. Several years ago during a Bikram yoga class I was in Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada- paschimotthansana (standing separate leg stretching pose) which is a standing forward bend with the legs wide (other schools call this Prasarita Padottanasana).

The teacher in the class could see that my head was close to the floor so she stood there and urged me to get my head to the floor while everyone listened. I felt like I had gone far enough as I could feel the stretch down my whole posterior chain (especially my hamstrings) but I made the decision that the teacher knows best and to pull harder and get my head to the floor. I managed to get it to the floor but as I did I felt this ‘twang’ like a guitar string break and I thought this isn’t good. Turns out that in the process of getting my head to the floor I irritated my sciatic nerve and gave myself sciatica and I’ve had issues ever since…I am now very careful in that pose, and don’t force it too much. A lot of Bikram teachers have said to me the pose is good for sciatica when I have told them about this. Well that depends on what your symptoms are and how acute. If you have pain shooting down the leg, the pose is far too neural as nerves don’t like to be stretched (floss them instead) so this will just aggravate it. If your symptoms are just lower back pain, this may offer some pain relief since it decompresses the spine, but again you don’t want to stretch too deeply if this lower back pain is sciatica as you could make it worse the way I did. I believe this pose is beneficial for people who have lower back pain that is not caused by sciatica. That day, was a good reminder of Ahimsa (non-violence or non-injury) which is the first of the Yamas which are the moral and ethical guidelines for yoga practice. This is just one of the many examples of Ahimsa in yoga practice. No one else can feel what you’re feeling within your body, so if your yoga teacher urges you to go deeper or try a harder pose, don’t do it if you feel it is harming you. Yoga should be joyful, not painful! A good yoga teacher will respect the fact that it is your practice and no one else’s. Do what we say in a yin practice, go to that first edge of stretch that is within your natural range of motion, don’t force it further. It still happens to me in yoga classes that teacher urge me to go deeper or practice backbends in a way which I don’t feel is safe for my body, especially for my sacroiliac joint, and I politely say no thanks or I just don’t do the pose at all if I know that the teacher is quite pushy and won’t let me do a more passive backbend. However, most of the time yes please do listen to your yoga teacher, especially if she or he tells you that the way your practising the pose is not safe and that it could potentially harm you or that you’re not quite ready to stand on your head yet! More about that in another blog though. Namaste Liz

Don’t I have to be flexible to do yoga?

I have lost count of how many times I have people ask me, if they have to be flexible to do yoga or tell me that they don’t do yoga because they’re not flexible! My father was one of those people who said this to me a few years ago as part of his excuse not to come to one of my classes. I said to him that is like me saying to you after going to the gym, “I’m too dirty and sweaty to bother having a shower!” I get that people are intimidated by being surrounded by people in a yoga class that bend like pretzels, but at some point we have to lose our ego and just think of the journey we are on, not the end result. The other thing is, flexibility is not the goal of yoga! It’s just one of the many physical benefits of yoga. Patanjali described yoga as Chitta Vritti Nirodaha (to calm the fluctuations of the mind or to steady the mind). The essential purpose of yoga is to reduce Avidya (misconception of true reality), so that we can see things with complete clarity and transparency. I went to a Bryan Kest workshop a few years ago at Power Yoga Canberra (at one of the studios I teach yin at) in which he talked about flexibility and yoga and I got a lot out of his words of wisdom in that, being able to touch your toes isn’t what yoga is about and even if you can do it, it’s not going to necessarily make you happy or solve all your problems! A good intention to bring to a yoga class is to lose your attachment to how deeply you go into a pose and to lose the attachment about worrying about what our neighbours are doing on their mat. It’s about your practice, not theirs!

'Yoga is not about touching your toes. It's about what you learn on the way down.'
- Judith Hanson Lasater

Namaste!

Liz