Samskaras and Pain

Pain is an interesting word. We all know that pain means we hurt. Sometimes the reason we hurt is obvious….an injury for example. Other times the source of pain is not apparent. But how does pain develop? Pain can occur when there’s tissue damage….i.e. a broken limb. It is also true that pain can be severe even when there is no tissue damage. Pain is the brain’s response to trauma. This response can take place even if the area has healed.

Physiologically this works through neural pathways. The brain receive a signal from muscles and other organs. If the message is that there may be danger (think touching a hot surface) the brain sends it’s own painful signal via the nerves to pull away quick. All this happens in seconds. This is an important response that is designed to protect the body from injury.

This response can become a habitual one that occurs even when the danger passes. So the brain interprets a signal that previously was associated with danger, and it sends a signal of pain to protect from tissue damage. It seems a little screwed up, right? However, if the brain did not respond to touching a hot surface with pain, you may leave your hand on a hot surface and suffer 3rd degree burns. The problem occurs when the brain gets into the habit of sending pain signals when there is no danger to the body.

There is a yogic term for these habitual patterns. It is a samskara…a  learned response or pattern of behavior. Samskara can refer to emotional, social or physical behavior. The physical aspect of a samskara is the learned response of the nervous system to some sort of action or stimulus. Sometimes this happens quickly. A good example is practicing a balance pose. The first side often feels more shaky than the second side. Sometimes there’s a physical reason for this, such as strength differences between the two lower limbs. However, it is often a samskara. The brain and nervous system has already learned what to do from practicing the posture on the first side. Therefore side number 2 seems easier.

Samskaras can also contribute to chronic pain. The neural pathway signals for pain to occur in response to danger. Sometimes something occurs that has indicated danger in the past. Even though there is no current danger (i.e. no tissue damage) the brain still signals the nerves to respond with pain. This can  become a vicious circle because pain can increase stress which can make nerves more sensitive and thus more susceptible to pain.

It’s important to note that there is no one size fits all approach to reprogramming your samskaras or your pain. The first step should always be to visit your doctor, physical therapist or other healthcare practitioner. In addition to medical care it is useful to reduce stress levels and shift your focus away from the pain. Yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness practices can help to resolve painful samskaras.

If you’d like a personalized sequence or an individual session focused on your health goals, please drop me a line at lorie@wellnesswithlorie.com. You can also join me for one of my classes. See my offerings on my schedule page.

For more tips on pain relief and injury prevention through yoga and physical therapy, sign up for my newsletter here, or follow me on social media on FaceBook @yogalorie, Instagram Wellness_with_Lorie, or LinkedIn yogalorie

Magical Breath

What do you always carry with you that has the power to alleviate pain, release stress and promote a healthy heart? It may seem like the answer is a magical amulet or potion, but the answer is our breath. It can do these things and so much more. However, many of us do not use the simple tool of Pranayama (Breathing Techniques) to help us improve our health.

Being able to control our breath is important. With each inhale we bring oxygenated air into the lungs. Oxygenated red blood cells travel through the blood  to all areas of the body. The oxygen then converts glucose to energy, thus supporting physical activity and keeping tissues healthy. As this is occurring, the de-oxygenated blood cells become the waste product of carbon dioxide and exit the body through the exhale. So much is happening at once from one simple breath, it’s really quite miraculous!

The pace and rhythm of the breath is a good gauge of where our mind and body is at. Shallow, quick breaths may occur after running a distance, or indicate an anxious mind. Practicing Pranyama is a wonderful way to establish inner focus and slow the heart rate. Additionally, it  can reduce stress or anxiety, and help manage pain.

Pranayama is absolutely something you can do at home (or anywhere) on your own. Try starting with these simple techniques and let the magic of the breath help you with your wellness goals.

5 Second Breath:

  • Take a slow breath in through the nose for 5 seconds
  • Exhale to another count of 5 seconds
  • Repeat 5-10 times

Double the Exhale:

  • Inhale to a count of 4
  • Exhale slowly and smoothly to a count of 8
  • you can do this with any count, as long as the exhale is double the length of the inhale
  • Repeat 5-10 times

Inhale/Exhale Count:

  • Breath normally, but count each inhale until you reach a count of 10
  • After you get to 10 inhales, repeat by counting 10 exhales
  • This is great for calming the mind

I love to use the exhale to allow the body to relax. Lately I’ve been closing my yoga classes with two inhale/exhales through the nose, encouraging relaxation and release on each exhale.

If you’d like a personalized sequence or an individual session focused on your health goals, please drop me a line at lorie@wellnesswithlorie.com. You can also join me for one of my classes. See my offerings on my schedule page.

For more tips on pain relief and injury prevention through yoga and physical therapy, sign up for my newsletter here, or follow me on social media on FaceBook @yogalorie, Instagram Wellness_with_Lorie, or LinkedIn yogalorie

Yoga for YOU!

When I tell people I practice (and teach) yoga, I often hear someone tell me that they tried yoga once but quit because “I’m just not flexible.” I truly believe that yoga is for everyone. Yoga meets you where you are. Many people think that yoga is off the table for them because they can’t bend into the same shapes they see the instructor or other students achieve. Others come to yoga class and tough it out….trying to make their body go beyond its limits to get to what they believe yoga should look like. I’ve even had clients who have injured themselves in yoga classes by exceeding their body’s limits. This belief that we need to achieve a certain look, or go further into a posture is, in my opinion, simply not yoga. Yoga is not about looks, or doing what everyone else is doing. There is no way to be the “cool kid” in a yoga class. We are all cool, because we are all doing yoga.

Yoga is a strictly personal endeavor. True, the instructor guides us through a postures and gives cues to help with alignment and prevent injury. However, how your body and mind interact with a yoga posture is entirely individual. The best gauge of how successful yoga class is lies in how it makes you feel. Even when a posture is challenging, you should be able to feel stable and supported in it. Sometimes this requires realigning the feet or other body parts. Engaging the core muscles also helps with stability. Whatever posture you’re in, you should be able to find ease in your pose and breathe consciously and comfortably.

If you’ve taken yoga in the past and felt inflexible or uncomfortable, I encourage you to try again with an open mind. Try a virtual class at home, or step into a yoga studio, gym or rec center. Remember to make the class truly your own and approach the yoga postures the way your  body would want you to.

Whether you’re a new yoga student, or someone who’s been practicing for many years, ask yourself the following questions next time you take a yoga class.

“How does this make me feel?” and  “Can I find ease in this posture?”

If  you’re feeling discomfort or pain, The the next question should be, “What can be adjusted to alleviate the tension?” If you’re at an in person class, don’t be shy…ask the instructor for a variation. If you’re practicing with an online class or video, start by adjusting the feet (in a standing posture) and see what stance feels the best.

“What is my breath doing?” Breath tells us a lot. When we are stressed or anxious, our breath is rapid and our heartbeat is fast. When we are in pain, we may unconsciously hold our breath. Sometimes finding ease in a pose can be achieved by altering the breath. Breathing slowly lowers the heart rate and blood pressure. It helps the body release muscle tension that may be causing tension or interfering in relaxing into a yoga posture.

Listen to your body, but also listen to your heart and your mind. This can be the difference between an enjoyable experience (not just in yoga, but in general), and one of discomfort or pain.

If you’d like a personalized sequence or an individual session focused on your health goals, please drop me a line at lorie@wellnesswithlorie.com. You can also join me for one of my classes. See my offerings on my schedule page.

For more tips on pain relief and injury prevention through yoga and physical therapy, sign up for my newsletter here, or follow me on social media on FaceBook @yogalorie, Instagram Wellness_with_Lorie, or LinkedIn yogalorie

Walking The Labyrinth

Recently I made a small rock labyrinth in my backyard. Many people think of a labyrinth as a circular maze. However, a maze is like a puzzle that you have to solve. In a maze, you run into obstacles and have to turn around, or perhaps even start over. It can be quite frustrating. In contrast, a labyrinth has one clear path to the center. If you follow the path…..you find the center. This makes a labyrinth perfect for a walking meditation.

My labyrinth is made up of stones that sometimes get knocked aside (I suspect my dog has something to do with this), so sometimes while walking I place the stones back where they belong. Some days I walk to the center and directly back out, and other days I sit in meditation when I reach the center. Walking a labyrinth is about the journey, not the destination. You can walk quickly, slowly, pause during your walk, replace stones, coax your dog out of the path, etc. The only real rule is that you follow the path. How you follow it, is up to you.

When you walk a labyrinth it initially looks like you’re going straight to the center, then the path turns and takes you to the outer edges of the labyrinth. It turns again and you are on your way to the center again. It’s a lot like our path in life. Sometimes you’re heading towards what you feel is central and meaningful, then your path takes you another way. Then the path turns again towards the center. This is can be compared to the twists and turns we have in life. We may be headed somewhere, only to have to go in a different direction. Another turn or two brings us back to our purpose, our center.

Overall, adding the labyrinth as an option for meditation has been a wonderful way for me to start the day invigorated, or end the day with a sense of serenity. I highly recommend taking a little time to yourself outdoors focusing on breath, even if you only have a few minutes. This pause in your day may bring you to your center, or just allow you to follow your path in the direction you need to be.

If you’d like a personalized sequence or an individual session focused on your health goals, please drop me a line at lorie@wellnesswithlorie.com. You can also join me for one of my classes. See my offerings on my schedule page.

For more tips on pain relief and injury prevention through yoga and physical therapy, sign up for my newsletter here, or follow me on social media on FaceBook @yogalorie, Instagram Wellness_with_Lorie, or LinkedIn yogalorie

Winding Down

For the first time in over a year, I’m not teaching my “Unwind the Spine” class on a Friday night. I have mixed emotions about this. First, I welcome the opportunity to spend more time with my family. I’m looking forward to pouring my energy into creating a delicious Friday night Shabbat meal for family and close friends. However, I’ll miss spending time with my family of yogis as we welcome the weekend, and let go of tension from the week.

“Unwind the Spine” was a lovely class that started just before the pandemic forced us all to rethink where and how we do yoga. When I first started this class I was excited to use foam rollers and other props that were available at Refresh Studios. Since foam rollers, blocks, bolsters and the like are not always available to students in their homes, I had to shift my teaching style to find household items to use as props. The homemade towel roll bolster was born! I found that simply folding a bath towel in four and rolling it from the short end can work wonders to unravel tight areas of the spine. One day I’ll teach “Unwind the Spine” again. Until then, roll up your towel and try these tips to loosen up some of your tightest areas:

  • To relieve upper back tension:
    • Place the towel roll horizontally on your yoga mat and lie down with the roll across your shoulder blades
    • Bring your arms out to a Cactus/Goal Post position
    • Take 10 (ish) slow breaths in and out through the nose. Try to release and relax with each exhale
    • Next, on the inhale bring your arms (with elbows bent) toward each other
    • As you exhale lower the arms (still with elbows bent) to or toward the floor
    • Repeat this sequence 5-10 times
  • To release lower back/hip tension:
    • Place the towel horizontally on your yoga mat and lie down with the roll under the small of your back
    • Make sure your tushie is supported and touching the floor
    • Bring the legs a little wider than hip distance apart and let the toes point inward toward each other
    • Take 10 (ish) slow breaths in and out through the nose. Try to release and relax with each exhale
    • Now bend the knees and place feet flat on floor, lift the hips and move the roll downward so it is under the hip bones
    • As you exhale lower both knees toward the right until the left hip raises slightly off the towel roll
    • Inhale knees to center, then exhale both knees to the left
    • Repeat this sequence 5-10 times
  • Alter the position above by lifting hips and moving the towel roll to the right. Now only the right hip will be on the towel, while the left hip comes to the floor.
    • Lift the right foot off the floor with the knee bent
    • Keeping the knee bent, make slow circles with the right leg
    • You can leave the left knee bent with foot on floor, or extend it and let the leg rest on the floor (extending the leg will intensify the massage)
    • After you’ve made 5-10 circles on the right, repeat on left side.

One day, I hope to bring “Unwind the Spine” back. Until then, try the above towel tricks or join me for one of my weekly offerings. I teach Hatha Yoga (Sundays 5-6 pm MT), Yoga 1 (Mondays, 5:30 pm MT) and Healing through Yoga (Wednesdays at 5:30 MT).

If you’d like a personalized sequence or an individual session focused on your health goals, please drop me a line at lorie@wellnesswithlorie.com. You can also sign up for a class or private session by clicking here. For more tips on pain relief and injury prevention through yoga and physical therapy, sign up for my newsletter here, or follow me on social media on FaceBook @yogalorie, Instagram Wellness_with_Lorie, or LinkedIn yogalorie

Wrist Watch

Two years ago I had carpal tunnel surgery on both wrists. Not at the same time…..that would have been crazy! I recovered from the first (mostly), and had surgery on the second soon after. As you might suspect, it really messed with my yoga practice. I never really thought about how many downward dogs were in a yoga class until I struggled with this kind of discomfort. Many yoga practitioners have asked me how to prevent wrist pain while in postures like table, plank and downward dog. The first thing to do is to have the pain checked out by your doctor. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, when left untreated can lead to permanent problems, such as decreased muscle strength and function, or lack of sensation. But enough gloom and doom. The big question for yogis is what to do during a yoga class to prevent pain and avoid further injury.

Let’s first take a peek inside the wrist to get an idea of what’s going on in there. Which is actually quite a lot! Although there may be other causes of wrist pain, I’ll focus on the carpal tunnel since this is such a prevalent problem in our society. The carpal tunnel is a space between structures on the anterior (palm side) of the wrist. This space is like a pipeline for the median nerve and a bunch of muscle tendons as they go from the arm to the hand and fingers. The median nerve supplies muscles in the forearm, palm and fingers of the hand. It has the job of making the muscles of the thumb, index finger and middle finger move. It’s responsible for us being able to grasp objects, so it’s pretty important. Repetitive motion and continuous pressure on the anterior wrist can cause inflammation in the muscle tendons. The pipeline (carpal tunnel) gets clogged in a way, and then compresses the median nerve. Compression often causes tingling or pain in the fingers (thumb, index and middle), can reduce the ability to grasp objects, or cause one to drop objects. By the way, If you start to drop objects…..it’s definitely time to go to the doctor.

Because of pressure on the wrists, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome can also cause pain or discomfort in the above mentioned yoga postures. To avoid this discomfort check your alignment when you’re in postures with weight on your hands. Try the following tips when in table, downward facing dog or plank pose:

Table:

  1. Come onto your hands and knees and align your wrists under your shoulders and knees under your hips
  2. Spread your fingers wide
  3. Internally rotate your forearms inward so that the insides of the elbows face toward each other instead of facing forward
  4. Finally, press the mound under the base of your index finger into the earth. This will take pressure off your thumbs and wrist
  5. Try to have the weight equally distributed between the hands and the legs

Downward Facing Dog

  1. From your position in table, tuck your toes under and lift your hips up
  2. Now rotate your forearms outward
  3. As in table, press the mound under the base of your index finger into the earth. This will take pressure off your thumbs and wrist
  4. Evenly distribute your weight between your hands and your feet so that not all the pressure is on the hands.

Plank

  1. Start in Table
  2. Extend each leg back and tuck the toes under to find your plank posture
  3. Rotate forearms inward and press down through the index finger mound
  4. Finally, press your heels back toward the wall behind you to distribute the weight more evenlyHopefully these tips will help make these three postures more comfortable and accessible during your yoga practice.

For a yoga class to help all your body parts feel better, try one of my weekly offerings. I teach Hatha Yoga (Sundays 5-6 pm MT), Yoga 1 (Mondays, 5:30 pm MT) and Healing through Yoga (Wednesdays at 5:30 MT).

If you’d like a personalized sequence or an individual session focused on your health goals, please drop me a line at lorie@wellnesswithlorie.com. You can also sign up for a class or private session by clicking here. For more tips on pain relief and injury prevention through yoga and physical therapy, sign up for my newsletter here, or follow me on social media on FaceBook @yogalorie, Instagram Wellness_with_Lorie, or LinkedIn yogalorie

Lovingkindness for India

I’ve practiced yoga for over twenty years. I started when I was pregnant with my oldest child (now a young woman of 22). Yoga has gotten me through difficult times, as well as life’s daily challenges. It brings me joy, serenity, strength and enhanced physical health. Yoga also led me to become a physical therapist assistant, and without my daily meditation sessions, I would have never made it through school. I don’t believe I’m alone in this. Yoga has the ability to lift people up when they need it most. It is a meaningful, ancient practice that comes from India, a vibrant, diverse culture.

Sadly, this diverse, vibrant culture is hurting under another horrific surge of Covid-19. Even though I’ve never been to India, I find this heart wrenching. The United States is beginning to turn the corner as more people get vaccinated, and there’s even talk of things getting “back to normal.” India’s new normal is that of not enough hospital beds, oxygen, medicine, medical staff, supplies…..the list goes on and on. Yoga originated in India. And since yoga has so enriched my life, I feel that it’s time to give back to this country in their time of need.

India needs help! India needs lifting up….and they need it from us. In an article in the blog Lion’s Roar called “Help India Breathe” the author outlines ways in which we can help. The range from spiritual support, such as a Metta (Lovingkindness) practice, to ways to donate to help India. Give however you are able, either financially or with prayer, meditation or other spiritual practices. However, If you are also able to help financially, here are a few organizations that are helping with efforts in India:

  • Oxygen for India. This GoFundme campaign is trying to raise 1 million USD to deliver 3000 oxygen concentrators to India at a record cost of $350 per concentrator. 
  •  Coronavirus Relief Fund (Ketto): This portal hosts many individual fundraisers for supporting individual families in dire financial need.
  • The Mission Oxygen (accepts donations from non-Indians) initiative under this Ketto Fund was started by a group of respected Indian entrepreneurs who post regular updates on the progress of procuring concentrators for India.
  • Goonj: This respected disaster relief organization is providing essentials (includes food, supplies) for communities across India.Their initiative ‘Rahat’ was started last year. Their immediate and long-term support measures in cities and villages are addressed to families who due to paucity of resources and livelihood options were badly affected by the pandemic.

I am also excited that this weekend there is a yoga and meditation marathon via Zoom to help India with Covid relief. This marathon features yoga teachers from around the world coming together to help the country that has a place deep in all our hearts. You can donate whatever you can to participate. If this interests you, click here to register.

Wishing much peace, health and happiness to you, your friends and family! May you be happy, healthy, and free from harm.

Svavasana is the Autumn for the Soul

I love this time of year! It’s filled with beauty and comfort. The trees display their many colors, and it’s great to snuggle up with a cup of hot tea, cocoa or red wine as the evenings grow cooler. This time of year the bounty of the harvest (whether it’s delicious apples and vibrant pumpkins grown at local farms, or homegrown tomatoes & zucchini) is celebrated and enjoyed. The plants (and their growers) have put forth hard work to bring us sustenance for the body and the spirit. This is a time that plants begin their dormancy in preparation for a rebirth and regeneration in the spring.

In yogic terms I liken Svavasana, pronounced Sha-VAH-suh-nuh, to the season of Autumn because it gives us an opportunity to regenerate our minds and bodies. It is typically done at the end of a yoga class, but it can certainly be done at the start of class or even on it’s own during the day. Svavasana, also known as Corpse Pose is traditionally done lying on one’s back with the feet a little wider than hip distance apart, and the arms resting at the sides of the body with palms facing up. The goal of Svavasana is to achieve deep relaxation for the body and the mind.

Quieting the mind and relaxing the muscles go hand in hand. Muscles are controlled by the neurons, nerves that send messages from the brain to all areas of the body. When the neurons send lots of signals to a muscle, the muscle contracts and tightens. This leads to body movement and muscle strengthening. When the neurons are quiet, muscles can begin to relax. Yoga practice is a wonderful place to increase and decrease this neuron activity. Initially the mind focuses on moving the body with conscious breathwork. Neuron activity increases and muscles contract. As class comes to a close, the body slows down then comes to rest in Svavasana. Now the neurons become quiet and the muscles begin to release into relaxation. This release is important for regeneration. Just like the plants of the harvest, we work our bodies in yoga class and now settle into our Autumn rest.

Many have found that they are more able to face tough daily challenges after yoga class. This is the regeneration (think springtime with flowers springing from the earth) that we receive after the Autumn of our Svavasana. For more tips on Svavasana and spinal health, subscribe to my newsletter, or join me for a class or private instruction.

Just Breathe…

Breath is a vital component to yoga classes. Yoga instructors (myself included) guide students in breath exercises (pranayama) and instruct when to inhale or exhale with movement. Why is the breath such an important part of yoga, and how does it help with overall health?

First let’s understand what happens when we breathe. Simply put, as we inhale we bring oxygenated air into the lungs. Oxygen then goes through the blood via red blood cells to all areas of the body. The oxygen then converts glucose to energy, thus supporting physical activity and keeping tissues healthy. Carbon dioxide, which is the waste product in de-oxygenated blood, then leaves the body through the exhale.

Increasing the oxygenation in the body helps increase energy to the muscles and decrease pain, it also decreases the chance of injury. Exercise and movement increase red blood cells (remember they carry the oxygen throughout the body). To increase oxygen going to the muscles, one needs to engage in aerobic activities, such as dancing, running, or cycling.

Yoga does not get the heart pumping like these activities, but it still can give you great benefit in this process because it strengthens the capacity of the lungs by toning core muscles and the muscles that help with respiration.

So get up and do the aerobic exercise that speaks to you…..run, dance, hike or whatever. But first, try toning the respiratory muscles in yoga class or with these practices:

  • Table Breath
    • Come to all fours in Table Pose with knees under hips and wrists under shoulders
    • Curve the spine up (like a Halloween cat)
    • Take a deep breath in to the torso, feeling the breath expand the ribcage and shoulder blades
    • Hole for a count or 5-10. Repeat 3-5 times.
  • Prone Diaphragmatic Toning
    • Lay on your belly and rest your head on folded hands
    • Take a breath into the ribspace
    • Hold for a count of 5-10. Repeat 3-5 times.

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When the Heart Goes Pitter Pat….

Go, go , go….this is our modern mantra. We rush here, do this, do that, then rush on to the next thing.

All the while our breath matches our movements….shallow and fast. Sometimes after running around and feeling stressed, I have trouble getting my breath back to a normal pace, even with meditation and pranayama (breathwork). There seems to be a disconnect between my brain and my body, in particular my heartbeat.

But is it really a disconnect? After so much movement (of both the brain and the body) the brain isn’t ready to settle down. Since the nervous system controls muscle action (which includes the muscle fibers of the heart, lungs and other internal organs) it’s not surprising that the heart continues to beat fast, and we may feel breathless. We must calm the mind to calm the heart.

The magical solution to this is slow, mindful yoga. When you slow movements down and match the breath to the movements, the nervous system (specifically the parasympathetic nervous system) signals the body to “rest and digest”. This results in reduced heart rate, decreased blood pressure,  better digestion, and a reduction in inflammation. The benefits of yoga to calm down the nervous system has been likened to getting a massage or spending time in nature.

So next time you’re feeling stressed, take some time to practice slow, yogic movements matched with breath. Your body will thank you!

P.S. My “Unwind the Spine” Fridays at 4:30 at Refresh Studios https://www.refresh-studios.com/classes  practices these principles of slow mindful yoga.