Opening the Heart Chakra: Practicing Back Bends

Backbends; they may seem exclusive to contortionists, but not only can you practice them, you should be practicing them as they’re extremely beneficial! If you’ve read my Welcome page, then you may know I have back problems; six slipped discs to be exact! Because of this, backbends are definitely my weakness in yoga class but instead of avoiding them, I try to practice as much as possible because every backbend brings tons of benefits!

Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Upward Facing Two-Foot Staff Pose) - Om Shanti Life

Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Upward Facing Two-Foot Staff Pose) – Om Shanti Life

There are three types of backbends; traction, contraction and leverage. Traction backbends are when you use gravity to pull you into the bend, your front body remaining active. Ustrasana (camel pose) and urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose) are great examples of traction backbends. Contraction backbends are the opposite. Usually, contraction backbends occur while you are laying on your stomach, your back body activates pulling you off the ground. Salabhasana (locust pose) is a contraction backbends. Finally we have leverage backbends. Leverage backbends are named so because you use the strength from your limbs to help further pull you into the bend, such as danurasana (bow pose) and bhujangasana (cobra pose).

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) - Om Shanti Life

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) – Om Shanti Life

Salabhasana (Locust Pose)  - Om Shanti Life

Salabhasana (Locust Pose) – Om Shanti Life

Now that you know about the different types of backbends, you’ll want to know why you should be practicing them! It’s a fact of life that we spend a lot of time hunching and turning inwards. We’re sitting at our desks looking at screens, craning our neck down to play iPhone games on our daily commutes, curling inwards to avoid the cold winter, most of the day is spent hunched forward! It may seem natural for the spine to move into forward bends, but a daily backbend reverses the effects of this hunching, opening us up and making us available to the world around us. All that hunching means that most of us are walking around with some sort of pain, regularly practicing backbends can alleviate that back pain by bringing a rush of new blood and flexibility to the affected areas. Backbends aren’t only beneficial physically but mentally as well. BKS Iyengar believed back-bending to be a remedy for depression and would recommend them not only as cure for sadness, but also would suggest them to open up the front body and heart. Stretching the heart (as we naturally do in a backbend) releases all kinds of tension and emotion and even releases a flood of natural painkillers into the bloodstream! Backbends not only help to improve posture and ease pain but they build lots of strength in the back body, stretch the hip flexors and chest, build flexibility in the spine, ease symptoms of insomnia to let you sleep and help with mood disorders such as anxiety and stress!

Ustrasana (Camel Pose) - Om Shanti Life

Ustrasana (Camel Pose) – Om Shanti Life

When we bend backwards, we naturally broaden across the chest and open up the heart chakra. The heart chakra (or anahata) is the fourth chakra, located in the middle of the chest. When the heart chakra is blocked you can feel shy, unworthy of love and alone; pretty unpleasant feelings! Opening up the heart chakra opens you up to the idea and possibility of love! Clearly backbends open us up to a flood of emotions. It is not uncommon to find a wild release of anger, frustration, sadness when working within a backbend practice. This is natural and you don’t want those feelings bottled up inside anyhow!

Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog Pose) - Om Shanti Life

Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog Pose) – Om Shanti Life

Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose) - Om Shanti Life

Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose) – Om Shanti Life

Backbends are great to practice because spinal health is such an important thing! Though backbends are an excellent and important addition to your practice, it is always important to work within a pain-free range (especially if you have back problems!) Pushing or pulling or forcing yourself into poses that you aren’t ready for is a recipe for disaster. Be safe! Make sure you are ready to backbend before jumping into them! And speaking from experience, make sure your mat is nice and sticky! (I attempted urdhva dhanurasana while breaking in my new Manduka Pro mat, it was too slippery and I fell on my head!) Always begin a back bending practice after your body is nice and warm! Practice some cat/cows, twists and gentle back bends before trying more advanced poses. Remember also to have fun!

Namaste.

(Note: If you are new to the practice or new to backbends, work with a yoga teacher and check with your doctor. Though I’m starting my teacher training in May [!!] I’m not a professional [yet]. Be safe! Listen to your body! Have fun!)

Quick Healthy Tip: Morning Yoga

Today I thought I would share with you one of my favourite Quick Healthy Tips; Morning Yoga.

We spend much of our lives hunched over screens, whether at work or at play, we can become reliant on constant distraction and can easily become stagnant. One of the best ways to combat this is to start a morning routine that doesn’t involve immediately turning on the tv, scrolling through Instagram or checking email. My favourite way to do this is with a quick morning yoga routine.

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Starting your day with a little light yoga can really benefit you in ways you will not realize. Starting off with stretching, using your muscles and focusing on your breath can shift your focus and mindset into something positive. There is no such thing as the “waking up on the wrong side of the bed” if you wake up and take the time to yourself. Morning yoga isn’t the time to work on your hardest arm balances or deepest stretches, it is the time to move with your breath and be mindful.

When practicing morning yoga, you can choose to create your own routines or you can search “Morning Yoga” on YouTube and sift through the videos until you find a favourite. The videos range from 5 minutes to over an hour, meaning that you can find something no matter how much time you have! I love using Yoga with Adriene‘s channel to find morning videos and especially love her Travel Morning Routine for an under 10 minute routine to start my day!

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Do you have a regular morning yoga practice? How does it help you start your day? Start today and let me know how it goes!

Namaste.

Yoga@Home: Yoga by Candace

Do you ever have those busy (or let’s be honest… lazy) days where you just can’t make it to your yoga studio for your regular class? I’ve had a hard time this week scheduling in my classes so I started doing something that I used to do all the time; yoga flow YouTube videos at home. Full disclosure: before I started a regular studio practice, I practiced at home with the help of these videos several times a week, they are incredible! I have had multiple friends ask me which online teachers I liked because I moved from never having done yoga, to beginner, to intermediate and then playing with advanced poses all through YouTube videos! Because of this, I thought it may be fun to begin a new series called “Yoga@Home” where I could introduce you to all my favourite online yogis!

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Yoga by Candace – Screen-grabbed from: 50 Minute Power Yoga Class for Upper Body and Arm Balances (http://youtu.be/ad6NwWNjLGg)

Today’s channel is the amazing Yoga by Candace. The Yoga by Candace YouTube Channel is full of incredible and fun routines! Candace is one of my favourites lately because her routines tend to be fast paced and challenging! Her YouTube playlists are extremely well set up as she separates her routines not only by length (depending how much time you have), but also by body part, time of day or type of yoga you are interested in practicing. Because of this it’s extremely easy to find something no matter what you are looking for! Candace is a great teacher because she thoroughly explains poses so that you don’t feel confused or risk the chance of injuring yourself. Candace reminds you to “move within a pain free range” and always encourages you to remember that every day is different, to find your healthy edge and not get discouraged if you find yourself struggling one day more than another! Her flow sequences are super creative and different, meaning you don’t feel like you are going through the motions of the same class over and over. Candace provides thoughtful and interesting routines that will revitalize your home practice regardless of your yoga “level”.

Do you practice yoga at home? Are you looking forward to the Yoga@Home series? Let me know how you enjoy Yoga by Candace!

Namaste.

Meditation Proclamation!

When my yoga practice became a daily one and restorative yoga became such an important part of my practice, it was only natural for the next step in my routine to be a daily meditation. From the rhythmic breathing through asanas in flow classes to the five minute savasana, yoga and meditation go hand in hand.

I began my daily meditation with the coming of the New Year. Though I practice restorative yoga at least twice a week, I never thought to slow down and meditate… I just didn’t think that I would be able to do it as my mind travels a mile a minute. However, with meditation becoming a booming presence throughout the world and the health benefits showing up in magazines, on television and obviously in the yoga studio, I felt that it was time for me to get into the swing of things.

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As it turns out, meditation isn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, I just needed to find my way of meditating. There are numerous different ways of beginning a meditative practice; mindfulness, repeating mantras, focusing on the breath, practicing a body scan or guiding the mind through imagery. Mindfulness is the focus of the mind on the present. Instead of worrying about the past or fretting for the future, you pay attention to the now. Repeating mantras can be done with mala beads (Buddhist/Hindu prayer beads with 108 beads, used to count the number of times the mantra has been repeated) or simply to oneself. Mantras can be whatever you need for the day, you can say “I am strong”, “I am focused” or “I am light” or you can simply chant (“Om/Aum”, or another mantra of your choosing). Focusing on the breath is just as it sounds, you pay attention to the breath entering and leaving the body. Body scans and guided imagery can both be practiced by following a recording (there are many apps, albums and YouTube videos available to help guide you through these meditations) or you can practice by oneself. I practice body scan meditation in a guided restorative class on Saturday mornings, but most of the time I have found that breath focus and mindfulness are the meditative practices that work the best for me! You can test out all these different types of meditation to discover which one(s) work the best for your practice!

The key to beginning a daily meditation is to start small. My personal goal is to be meditating for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes before bed, however that is definitely not where I am starting. I began my meditation with 5 minutes in the morning. That’s it! You can do it too! Afterwards, we build from there. After practicing daily for 5 minutes in the morning, I will work to 5 minutes at night, then to 6 minutes each, 7 minutes… Adding a minute every other week until I have worked up to my goal! It is so simple and not threatening if you break your goal into baby steps!

Another thing to remember when starting a meditative practice is that the mind will wander. While the “goal” of meditation is to be free of thought, do not worry if the mind floats from thought to thought, gently guide it back to the practice that you have chosen and you are succeeding at meditating!

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Once you have decided to bring meditation into your life, it is time to set up your meditative space! As you can see mine is quite simple, a couch cushion on my yoga mat after my morning yoga practice. You do not need anything fancy, though if you feel that you would like something a bit more special, there are numerous websites to purchase beautiful meditation cushions online! Once you have found a quiet place to meditate, you want to sit as comfortably as possible. You can sit on the ground, in a chair, wherever you feel that you will be able to sit calmly for your designated amount of time (it helps to keep a timer so that you are not constantly opening your eyes to check the clock). I choose to sit on the floor in half lotus position with my hands upright on my knees if I need help receiving energy, facing down if I need grounding or upright in a mudra (Buddhist/Hindu ritual gesture of the hands and fingers, common in meditation) if I need something a little bit more that day! Once you are comfortable, sit up straight, gently close your eyes or soften your gaze, unclench your jaw, peel your tongue from the roof of your mouth and focus on your chosen type of meditation. Breathe in and breathe out. Great! You’re meditating!

There are numerous benefits to meditating that range from physical to mental to spiritual to all around lifestyle! Physically, meditation improves heart health (by lowering blood pressure, cholesterol and the risk of cardiovascular disease) and benefits immune health. Meditation also works as an anti-inflammatory which in turn decreases tension pain, providing relief for such problems as insomnia, muscle pain and even headaches! A regular meditation practice can soothe chronic problems such as allergies and even asthma by improving air flow into the lungs! By improving blood flow throughout the body and systematically slowing the heart rate and relaxing the nervous system, meditation causes the body to go into further levels of physical (and mental) relaxation, meaning less energy wasted while moving about your day! Less energy wasted means more strength, energy and improved performance in your day-to-day and even your yoga practice! Finally, meditation aids the body physically by coordinating the endocrine system (responsible for hormone control), balancing weight and slowing the aging process!

Though meditation can do a lot for us physically, the mental benefits to meditation are even more fantastic! A continual meditation practice will work wonders against stress! Stress is a monster to the body and mind and meditation both removes stress from the system and prevents it from re-entering. There is a decrease in overall anxiety (including a restless mind and constant worry) when practicing meditation regularly, as meditation lowers levels of blood lactate! Meditation also improves concentration, mental clarity, emotional stability, creativity and overall happiness and sense of well being! Meditation will also help you develop will power (some have used mindful meditation as a way to kick a cigarette addiction!), strengthen your intuition, memory (by fortifying the communication pathways between brain hemispheres), focus, listening skills and even empathy! Meditation can also lessen the need for sleep! Though I strongly believe in the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep a night, meditation can help you function if you tend to oversleep and has even been shown to help cure insomnia!

Overall, meditation is definitely something phenomenal! There are many improvements that you won’t necessarily be able to “see” but there are so many changes that will be made to your everyday lifestyle! Meditation will help encourage you to make other healthy choices in your life! Meditation will improve your base levels of happiness, increase your self-awareness, tolerance and maturity! You will have a much easier time keeping things in perspective (no more frustrated anger when something doesn’t go your way!). Meditation will help you look inwards, you will feel a sense of one-ness, an understanding of yourself that you perhaps didn’t have before you started a daily meditative practice! You will also have a higher understanding of those around you, you will feel a change in attitude, perhaps a feeling of being enlightened! Meditation unites all parts of oneself, the body, the mind and the spirit just as yoga and moving in the asanas does!

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As you can see, the benefits to developing a daily meditation practice are many and guess what? There are absolutely no side effects! Meditation is free, you need no fancy equipment or things, you just need yourself! There is no “right” or “wrong” way to meditate, there is only your way!

I have fallen in love with meditation as it naturally goes hand-in-hand with my yoga practice. Together, these practices have benefitted my life in a way that I could not explain in one post. I enjoy meditating because it allows me to be mindful in the everyday. When I find myself anxious for the future, or upset about the past I remember to live in the moment. That those moments have either happened, or won’t and that happiness is in the here and now! Yoga and meditation have helped me see my purpose, they have helped me feel a harmony in my life and have greatly improved my self confidence and sense of self!

I greatly encourage you to try meditating if you have not already! You will not regret it!

Namaste.

Heart Over Head: Practicing Inversions

Inversions are probably one of the most interesting and difficult types of asana that one can practice in yoga. Thinking about inversions may lead you to think of crazy yogis balancing on their head, hands or forearms, bending into poses that you think are unimaginable! However, not only can you do them but practicing inversions regularly is an extremely beneficial for overall health and wellness.

You may be thinking, “That’s great, but what is an inversion anyway?” Inversions are asanas where the heart is placed higher than the head. They can be gentle such as downward dog, legs up the wall or standing forward bend or they can be heating and advanced like wheel pose, headstand, handstand, forearm stand or shoulder stand.

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There are numerous benefits to practicing inversions, both physical and mental. Physically, one of the largest benefits provided by regularly inverting is increasing blood flow back to the heart and giving the heart a break. As you know, the heart is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body, quite a taxing job! Inverting causes the blood from the lower extremities to flow back into body. Being upside down also improves digestion, drains mucus, benefits the nervous system and increases immunity by reversing the lymphatic system and the movement of lymph in the body (liquid that carries cells that fight infection and disease). The tremendous blood flow to the brain even improves concentration, cognitive function and gives memory a boost all while promoting a calm feeling in the brain. Practicing inversions can strongly benefit the cardiovascular, lymphatic, nervous and endocrine systems by encouraging proper flow throughout all four systems.

As previously mentioned there are two types of inversion; energizing/heating inversions (these tend to be more advanced such as head-, forearm- and handstands) and relaxing/cooling inversions (these are more tame, such as downward dog, happy baby, legs up the wall) and they both benefit the body in different ways. As one can imagine, energizing inversions can give you quite the boost! These advanced inversions increase blood flow to the brain at a faster rate than cooling inversions and can be as effective as an afternoon cup of coffee for a pick-me-up! Relaxing inversions do the opposite, not as many muscles are involved which benefits the nervous system and encourages the parasympathetic nervous system to activate, calming the body and mind. Some of these inversions even massage the thyroid (legs up the wall, plow pose, shoulder stand) which boosts metabolism and boosts thyroid function.

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Inversions, especially advanced inversions, are fantastic at building strength, lengthening the spine and improving balance. It takes an incredible amount of core strength to lift the legs above the head and balancing with the legs in the air greatly improves upper body strength!

Not only are inversions excellent for the physical body, but they’re great for the mind as well because balancing on the head, forearms or hands greatly shifts perspective! You’re literally upside down! Inversions build confidence; nothing feels as good as accomplishing something that you didn’t quite think was possible! Inversions are fun! You’ll fall and struggle, but you’ll find yourself laughing and trying again and again!

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Inversions are an important, entertaining practice but it is crucial to go over a few things before jumping into a handstand! Always check with a Doctor and/or your yoga teacher before starting an inversion practice. Inversions should not be practiced if you’re pregnant or menstruating, have glaucoma, a detached retina, high blood pressure, slipped disc, cardiovascular or kidney disease. However, once you have the go-ahead from a professional the fun can start! While you may see some fun shapes to try on Instagram or in class by your favourite yogis, there is absolutely no shame in starting by a wall! (I learned my headstands, and am working on handstands that way!) Work carefully and move within your own body and your own boundaries. Balance is different from day to day so if you’re falling out of headstand, instead of getting upset move onto a different asana and come back to it tomorrow, they’ll always be there! And remember, most importantly to have fun!

Have you practiced inversions? Do you have a favourite pose? Let me know if you’ll be trying to add some inversions to your practice (or if they’re a regular part of your practice) by leaving a comment below!

Namaste.

(Note: Do not add advanced inversions to your practice without first running it by your Doctor first! They’re fun but safety is always first!)

Five More Deep Breaths

We are living in a time when everything is very on the go. People often pride themselves on being busy and having a full schedule, and you can feel lesser than if a friend has a lot going on and you don’t have as much on your plate. I’m sure you’re aware that stress is a huge issue in this day and age because people never just stop and give themselves time to digest what is going on in their lives. People are running around from issue to issue without really understanding or giving 100% to any particular thing.

Often when introducing someone to yoga, they immediately think of the physical aspect of the practice. They can think that it is just an exercise full of weird poses; “You want me to put that leg where?!”, but yoga is much, much more than that. After an individual has been practicing, they will learn that yoga is so much more than just the asanas, it is also a strongly mental practice and is often spiritual as well.

In our busy lives, we often think that if we are not using every moment completing something, then we have failed. Even in the yoga studio, I can find myself pushing through a vinyasa when the option to stay in Downward Dog and rest is right there. This “go-go-go” attitude stresses why restorative yoga is so very important.

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There are numerous benefits to restorative yoga and a regular restorative practice is essential to optimal physical and mental health! Unlike Hatha and other Flow practices, restorative yoga involves very little to no muscular effort. You will use a combination of props (blankets, blocks, bolsters and straps) to support you in your asana (pose), where the goal is to be as comfortable as possible to fully immerse yourself in a meditative practice. In restorative yoga, instead of flowing through poses or holding them for a few breaths, you will stay in the deeply supportive asanas for up to 20 minutes. In a recent restorative practice, we stayed in a supported heart opening pose for 30 whole minutes! The goal of restorative yoga is to allow oneself to focus on being receptive and to immerse yourself in being fully in the now.

So why practice restorative yoga? Can you remember the last time that you had time to yourself to do absolutely nothing? Not watching tv or reading a book, but just sitting in a moment and really being there? I bet it’s hard to remember! Even when you are sleeping you are not fully resting and restorative yoga allows the body and mind to 100% let go and relax. Holding the comfortable and supportive asanas for long periods of time allows the relaxation response to kick in which calms the central nervous system. You may not know that the body does not know how to differentiate stress from a work or school deadline from the stress of being in a dangerous situation. So while you may mentally understand that the stress from the daily grind is different from being chased down a dark alleyway, the body does not and can cause a multitude of problems. The relaxation response lowers stress levels and calms the “fight or flight” feeling, which in turn helps emotional healing, enhances resting mood state and improves immune function.

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While there are numerous mental benefits, there are even more physical benefits to restorative yoga! We already know that restorative yoga balances the nervous system, but it also helps optimize digestive health and flexibility in the joints, muscles and the spine. Because a restorative yoga practice is so deeply relaxing, it benefits all internal organs, reduces blood pressure, lessens blood sugar levels, increases good cholesterol, aids in regular elimination, decreases muscle tension and improves insomnia and daily fatigue.

In a Hatha or Flow practice we tend to move through poses rather quickly, whereas in a restorative yoga practice you may only move through five asanas by the end of the practice. You never want to push or pull yourself into a pose, especially in a restorative yoga practice As previously mentioned, each asana will be very comfortable and instead of being held by the earth, you “bring” the earth to yourself by padding your pose with as many props are necessary. For example, instead of the standard Savasana, one may choose to place a bolster or two under the knees, and pad the head with a blanket. Each asana is very gentle to promote the optimal comfort and relaxation to increase the amount of benefits.

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In restorative yoga, you will move through similar types of asanas as Hatha or Flow classes, such as heart openers and back bends, they are just much more gentle to allow them to be held for 5-10 minutes (or longer)! A favourite restorative yoga asana is legs up the wall (you literally hold your legs up a wall, or pad the bum with a bolster and raise the legs in the air), an excellent inversion! Inversions are especially important because they enhance heart function by allowing the blood to flow back into the heart and stops lymph fluid blood from pooling around the extremities.

In short, restorative yoga is a highly meditative practice that is extremely important for healing both the body and the mind. Restorative yoga is a real treat! It is important to value yourself and to give yourself the time to just “be”. To allow yourself to lay down in a comfortable asana and allow any thoughts that come to your mind to come and go without putting any feeling or investment into them. If you read this post thinking, “There is no way that I can find the time for this!” then you are the ideal candidate to practice restorative yoga! Living without rest is not living at all! Make the time for yourself, make the time to heal your body and your mind. You deserve to take a moment to yourself! You will love how restorative yoga makes you feel!

So after reading this, let me know… Have you ever practiced restorative yoga before? Did you do it at home or go to a studio? If you haven’t, have I convinced you to take the time to practice? I’m sure you’ll love it!

Namaste.

(Note: I am not a certified yoga teacher. I practice Restorative Yoga twice a week and I love it!)