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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Is Sitting the “New Smoking”?

Skeleton at Desk

Perhaps you’ve heard this phrase designed to demonstrate the problems that sitting for long periods of time can cause to our bodies. Is this an exaggeration? Can sitting compete with smoking as far as causing permanent harm to your body? There’s no doubt that the more you sit, the less you move, and even moderate levels of movement contributes to good cardiovascular health. But what about the spine? Why are we so achy after a long day of work at a desk? More importantly….what can we do about it?

First lets talk ergonomics and body mechanics. Generally, when sitting at a desk the spine is misaligned. Often the pelvis tilts under and more pressure is put on the vertebral discs and the deep muscles of the back. These muscles then need to work against gravity to keep the spine erect all day long. No wonder they get tired and achy! Additionally, the shoulders and head may hunch forward. The muscles of the neck already do a lot to hold up our heads, so when we bring our heads forward to look at a computer screen for example, they have to work even harder and get tight. As if that’s not enough, sitting can also lead to tight hip muscles and weaken the gluteus muscles The glutes help support the low back and knees, and help us with balance.

So what do we do about this? Obviously if work involves a desk, sitting is just a part of life. Here are some suggestions:

  • Use a small, folded towel (think hand towel) under the sitting bones at the back of the chair to elevate your hips slightly. This can help you sit without rounding your spine and tucking your tailbone. Thus, taking a little pressure off the low back.
  • Take breaks during the day to move. Get up every now and then and do 10-20 heel raises. Going up and down on your tippy toes will increase blood flow and strengthen the calf muscles.
  • Stretch your outer hips with the Figure Four Stretch. Sit toward the edge of the chair and cross your ankle over the opposite thigh the lean forward (hinge at the hips) with a flat back.
  • Throughout the day squeeze the shoulder blades together and hold for 5 seconds. Repeat 5-10 times. This will help reverse when you hunch your shoulders forward.
  • Find a good Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, or Stretching class to help relieve pressure and strengthen muscles.

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Don’t Wear Your Shoulders As Earrings

“Don’t wear your shoulders as earrings.” I remember this phrase uttered by one of my instructors during my yoga teacher training. The shoulders seem to want to get chummy with the ears, thus contracting muscles of the neck and upper spine. This leads to tension in the neck and upper back. The shoulders don’t seem to understand that it’s not always their turn to do the work. Sometimes I feel like saying, “Not everything’s about you!” or “Settle down!” as they hunch up during a warrior pose. The muscles of the neck, upper and mid-back are hard enough workers as we conduct our lives at computers and cell phones.

So what can we do to alleviate tension that happens in the neck from hunching our shoulders on a regular basis?  Here are some ideas:

  • Be conscious of your posture. Think about Tadasana (Mountain Pose) whether you are sitting or standing.
    • Standing:
      • Feet are hip distance apart, Knees aligned over ankles, hips over knees (with a slight pelvic tilt), shoulders over hips
      • Let the shoulder blades fall down the back and the shoulders and arms relax
      • Tuck the chin slightly to align the ears over the shoulders
    • Seated:
      • Feet flat on floor with knees and hips at right angles
      • Shoulders aligned over hips…shoulder blades relax down the back
      • Tuck the chin slightly to align the ears over the shoulders

Aside from stretching and strengthening (always a good idea and something I strive for in the classes I teach), it’s important to adopt these good postural habits. When, despite all your good intentions, you end up with tight muscles in the neck and upper back, you can reverse some of that with the following yoga postures.

    • Eagle Arms
    • Thread the needle
    • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold)
      • You can also clasp your hands together on back of skull to provide a little for the neck…be gentle with this though
    • Sphinx Pose
    • Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)
    • Shoulder & neck rolls

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The Strength and Structure of Brooklyn & Golden Gate

If you’re looking for a yoga pose that can strengthen your entire spine, increase mobility, and just plain old feels good….look no further than Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose). I often use it in my yoga classes because of it’s many benefits. This pose is also widely used in physical therapy because it has so many benefits for the low, mid and upper back. Among its benefits are:

  • It opens the heart space. We spend much of our time hunching forward (thus leading to bad posture, neck and shoulder pain)
  • Can help reverse herniated discs of the low back
  • Increases flexibility in the spine
  • Increases strength and endurance of the hip and leg muscles
  • Lengthens the muscles on the front of the body (abdominals and front of chest)

Here are a few tips to get the most out of this pose, while feeling safe and supported:

  • Before pressing up into the pose, actively engage the deep abdominals (on an exhale bring the belly button towards the spine)
  • Then press into the feet and lift the hips. Resist the temptation to overarch the lower spine at this point, we are looking for balance of upper and lower spine in this backbend.
  • Next, move the shoulder blades closer to each other and arch the upper back. The lower spine will also arch, but the balance of force will not be solely on the low back.
  • Squeeze the glutes (tushie muscles) together. This takes the work off the hamstring muscles and distributes it to the glutes instead.
  • If you wish, you may also clasp your hand together under your spine to further open the heart.

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Knee Pain and Yoga

“Listen to your body.” Yoga students hear this phrase time and time again. I tell my student to back off if they feel discomfort. It’s apparent to do this when one has a sore, achy low back, hips or shoulders. However, sometimes the body part speaking the loudest is not the spine and hips, it’s the knees. These knobby appendages are prone to discomfort. Many yoga practitioners find that certain yoga poses are not friendly to the knees. Why is this? The answer to this question is not simple. The knee seems like a simple joint….it bends, it extends, and has a slight amount of rotation……what could possibly go wrong?

In fact, the knee gets more than its share of misfortune. Positioned in the middle of the leg it absorbs weight from the hips and upper body, bears the brunt of postural misalignment, suffer when the feet become unstable or quickly change direction. Plus knees are prone to many sports injuries.

So, what’s a yogi to do? First of all, if knee pain is a persistent problem visit your doctor or physical therapist for an evaluation. Barring any injury to the knee joint, I can offer you the following recommendations:

First, watch your alignment in standing and kneeling postures. Take a look down at your front foot. You should be able to see your big toe, and part or all of the second toe. This will prevent the knee going too far past the ankle or in toward the mid-line of the the body.

Next, Strengthen ALL the hip muscles. This includes the quadriceps (front of thigh), hamstrings (back of thigh), inner thigh (adductor group) and outer thigh (abductor) muscles. There are several yoga poses that can help you achieve this. I suggest to try holding these poses. Start by holding for 5 breaths, then progress to hold for 10-15 breaths. If there’s any soreness release and re-align. A few poses to try are:

Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
Strengthens the quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors & abductors.
Take care to place weight more in the heels than the front of the foot, and also avoid allowing the knees to flare out the the sides. Sometimes tight lats (a muscle on your back that connects to your upper arm) can make it difficult to raise the arms while coming into this squatting position. Try this pose first by keeping the arms in a cactus, or goal post position, then progress to extended arms.

Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I)

More hamstring and quadricep strengthening in this pose.
You can get a nice stretch on the front hip crease if you slightly tuck your tailbone under. Don’t forget to keep an eye out to make sure your knee doesn’t go past the ankle. For additional stability consider widening your stance.

Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)

Be careful not to hyperextend your front knee. Instead try to engage the hamstrings by having a soft bend in the knee. With the weight of your body forward over your knee, you can easily over-stress the knee joint leading to pain and injury.

Vrksasana (Tree Pose)


Standing balance poses such as this one help strengthen those outer hip muscles, which are so important for the health of our knees. In addition, Vrksasana strengthens the external rotators, and the glut max (the tushie muscle). Try to press the raised foot into the standing thigh while pressing the thigh into the foot. This will help with balance, and strengthens the inner thigh.

Last, but absolutely not least, strengthen your core abdominal muscles. If these muscles are strong, they allow us to move our limbs with strength and stability, thus avoiding possible pain and injury. For more info on how to do this, see my previous post Awakening the Sleeping Giant. http://wellnesswithlorie.com/2018/01/16/awakening-the-sleeping-giant/

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.

Awakening the Sleeping Giant

If you want to really see the roots of core strengthening, follow a baby through  his or her milestones. The first time they roll over, the core abdominal muscles awaken. They don’t even use their arms or legs….it’s all abs working to move them from the back to the stomach.

Most yoga classes I teach have some component of core strengthening. Recently one of my PTA colleagues and I were having a conversation about this and he said that in his opinion core strengthening seems to be the answer for everything. Really I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I remember when a young patient was evaluated by a PT for ankle strengthening after spraining both ankles doing sports. Although ankle and calf strength was a major component of her home exercise program, the PT also gave her exercises to strengthen her core to avoid future problems.

Why is this? The deep abdominal muscles support the low back, which in turn lend stability and support the pelvis, hips, knees, and even the shoulders and arms. The biggest player in this repertoire is the transverse abdominus muscle (I’ll call it the T.A. for short). The T.A. is in the abdomen and  lies under the rectus abdominus (commonly know as the 6-pack). It is a giant, powerful muscle that wraps around the torso and attaches to the vertebrae. Because of this, when the T.A. is strong it stabilizes the spine. This minimizes the possibility of injury occurring when we move our arms and legs (think….walking, sports, even everyday tasks).

Unfortunatley, this  muscle does not get strong with the  average work-out. This T.A.  is like a sleeping giant, it lays around lazily and lets others (i.e. the 6-pack muscle, hamstrings, low back muscles, etc.) do the work . However, with focus and consistency you can awaken this sleeping giant. Then it can keep all your muscles and joints strong and healthy!

So how do you rouse this muscle and use it to bring strength to the low back and other key parts of your body? Try the following exercises to get the T.A. to kick in.

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Place your hands on the front of your hip bones, then move your fingers about an inch in, towards the center of the body, and press with slight pressure.
  • Now cough or laugh. When you do this you should be able to feel a little wiggle or jump of the T.A. muscle.
  • Now that you’ve figured out which muscle to engage, you can start strengthening the T.A.
    • Keeping your fingers on the T.A. muscle take an inhale (the belly will expand), then exhale and tighten the muscle by bringing the belly button towards the spine.  (You should be able to feel the muscle tight under your fingers)
    • Continue to engage the muscle as you take a few breaths. This is by far the hardest part of the exercise. Intuitively we want to hold our breath.
    • On an inhale relax the muscle, then repeat this 10 times.
    • Once you learn how to engage this muscle with breath, try to lift one foot a few inches off the floor.
    • Lower the foot, then lift the other a few inches off the floor.
    • Continue to alternate while you’re engaging the T.A. (This is like marching with small steps). This will train the T.A. muscle to to engage with movement.

Consistent training of the T.A. will reward with less incidence of low back pain or injury of the extremities.