Traci Jo Lee | Alison Lewis
A wise man once said, "The breath is the greatest gift of all. It is the first gift we receive when we come into this world, and it is the final gift we give back when we leave."
Fortunately, breathing isn't something we think much about. Pause for a moment, receive a breath in and let it go. There is the miracle of life, flowing in all on its own. The mind communicates to the body automatically, without us even being conscious of it, to breathe. In. Out. In. Out.
Breathing is a complex and fascinating bodily function in that we are able to control it, unlike our digestion or cardiovascular systems. It’s impacted by whatever activity we’re doing at a particular moment, or by our emotional states. It’s one thing we have the ability to harness, and the effects can be incredibly healing.
We often don't breathe deeply enough as most of us are in a sustained state of stress. We hold our breath out of fear. We take shallow sips of air because we're upset over a fight with our partner or a mistake we made at work. We deprive our body of the nourishing, cleansing benefits of a full, deep breath. But if we are able to slow down and fully utilize our entire respiratory system--from diaphragm to lungs--we can allow our nervous systems a much needed break.
This ultimately guides our bodies and minds to a naturally more relaxed state, enabling us to face the daily challenges of life with ease. To breathe through the discomfort so we are able to revel in the joy. At a fundamental level, the state of our breath reflects the state of our mind. As we cultivate awareness of the breath, we begin to experience a state shift through conscious and deliberate breathing.
The human body is made from cells. Cells form organs, organs form systems. At the cellular level, we take in oxygen as we take in air, and this oxygen nourishes our cells. This nourishment is digested and metabolized, keeping what is nourishing and eliminating what is unnecessary or toxic. Or perhaps not. In yoga, this process of inhalation and exhalation, giving and receiving, is essentially referred to as prana and apana.
This breath charges every cell in your body. With each movement you are literally breathing life force, or prana, throughout. Breath is life. Receive it. Allow the fullness to reach the darkest places, the ones that haven’t moved or are perceived immovable. Be a yes for apana, the outward flow of energy. On the subtle level, apana eliminates not only physical wastes but anything undesirable or threatening to good health. It supports the immune system and helps keep the mind free of destructive forces. When apana is weak, the integrity of the mind-body complex is also weakened, and we become susceptible to illness, fear, doubt, confusion, insecurity, and loss of purpose; when it is strong and balanced, apana roots and grounds us, providing the foundation for a healthy body and a flexible positive outlook on life.
Yoga is centered around this very gift, the breath. The word “yoga” itself means to unite or integrate the body with the mind and breath. A vinyasa yoga practice, for example, synchronizes each posture, or movement, with every inhale and exhale. This awareness and attention on the breath creates steadiness and ease in the body and mind as it calms the nervous system and takes us into the flow state. Moving in the equanimous state of effortlessness makes even the most difficult poses manageable simply because you are focusing on the breath.
As we actively engage the process of breathing, expanding the abdomen and thoracic cavity, we are then able, not only to make space in our bodies and minds, but to unwind and unravel old patterns. To become undone. We actually are seeking out tension with the aim to soften, release and dissolve what is held, bound and limiting us, whether in the body or mind. Remember, the breath is a reflection of the mind, thus, where the mind goes, the body follows. This is a practice. It sounds simple, however, it is not easy. It’s why we go to the mat daily, it’s why we sit for meditation daily.
The research is very clear that breathing exercises like pranayama breathing can enhance parasympathetic tone, calm nerves, improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, decrease the effects of stress, and improve physical and mental health.
This is yoga. This is what we are doing at studios, gyms, and parks all over the world. We breathe to move, we move to sweat, we sweat our prayers, then we let it all go and trust that life giving breath and The One who breathed it into us to take care of it all. Jump into a class near you. Grab a teacher that can teach you to breathe. Give yourself permission to shift your state. Your power is in your presence. Get curious. Be all in. You were given that breath of life for a reason. What are you going to do with it?
“The Science of Breathing: https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/Breathing.html”
Suggested Reading: Light on Pranayama by BKS Iyengar,
Suggested lectures: Leslie Kaminoff, founder of The Breathing Project
The Antidote to Sitting
Traci Jo Lee | Alison Lewis
We’re already familiar with the headlines: “Your desk job is killing you” or “Sitting is the new smoking.” It’s no secret that our modern sedentary lifestyles aren’t conducive to our health and wellbeing. The solution to this epidemic is pretty simple: move more and often. But there’s another issue at play here with us being crouched over computers for eight hours a day and hunched over our smartphones and steering wheels (hopefully not simultaneously) for the remaining eight hours that we’re awake. There’s a little something referred to as “tech neck” that has a big impact on our spine and overall health.
Consider this—the average adult human head weighs around 12 pounds. If your posture isn’t perfectly aligned so your head is fully supported, this has a dangerous effect on the rest of your spine. For every inch your head creeps forward and out of alignment, that is like adding an extra 12 pounds of weight to your spine! Think about those moments you’re trying to decompress after a long day and you zone out scrolling through your Instagram feed. Are you focusing on maintaining good posture? No way! You’re entranced by that beach sunset picture your friend just posted, literally leaning into the photo as if doing so will transport you there. You wake up the next day with a stiff neck and still not at the beach.
But there’s good news! Aside from being more mindful of your posture in all situations—and hopefully reducing the amount of time you spend glued to screens—there are some extremely beneficial yoga postures to counteract all that stress on your spine. Perform this sequence several times a week to keep your spine strong and healthy.
Down dog: This opens muscles along the backs of the legs and shoulders, strengthening your limbs and back muscles. Done properly, down dog lengthens the spine while preserving and integrating its natural curves. Come onto all fours with hands slightly wider than shoulders, knees under hips and spine in neutral position. Spread the fingers evenly and root through knuckle mounds one and two. On an inhale, engage the muscles from your hands to your shoulders, keeping arms straight as you then exhale, drawing the shoulder blades into your back. On your next inhale, curl the toes under, lift the hips and lengthen back through the spine and hips. Straighten legs, drawing heels toward the ground to achieve the full posture. Hold this for 5-10 breaths and follow with child’s pose. Contraindications: carpal tunnel, high blood pressure or headache.
Modifications: If you need a break, this is the least “active” downdog alternative and offers you a chance to truly catch your breath and rest. Starting on all fours (hands and knees), bring your big toes together. Separate your knees as wide apart as is comfortable for you, and sit your hips back on your heels. Walk your hands toward the top of your mat as you fold forward over (or between) your thighs. Reach your hips toward the back of your mat as you lengthen your spine forward and rest your forehead on the mat. Vary the posture by lifting arm bones and hands to finger tips. To make the pose more active, if your arms are overhead, come up onto your fingertips and press down into them to engage your arms, lifting your elbows off the mat as you continue to stretch back through your hips and lengthen forward through your spine.
Cat-cow: This pose encourages a full range of motion and alternately engages and stretches muscles in the back and abdomen. Start by coming onto all fours with hands under shoulders and knees under hips. Spread fingers evenly and press the tops of feet flat, shins to the ground. Inhale, lengthening from hips to armpits, lifting the base of the skull, neutralizing the spine. Exhale while pressing the ground away and rounding the spine with tailbone tilted down and chin to chest. Inhale, moving spine in the opposite direction with pelvis tilted upward and head lifted. Repeat this exhale/inhale sequence for 5-10 breaths and come into child’s pose, resting with hips on your heels. Contraindications: carpal tunnel syndrome.
Modifications: If you have wrist pain and are unable to place weight on your wrists during the pose, you can drop down to your elbows and rest your forearms on the floor as you do the poses. If you have neck pain, keep your head in a neutral alignment with your spine during the poses and do not raise or lower your head.
You can roll up a yoga mat or towel and place it under your knees for support. This can alleviate pressure and pain in your knees while on the ground.
Cobra push-up: Cobra is an amazing, energizing counterbalance to the forward-leaning posture of sitting. It builds strength in the muscles of the spine, buttocks and back of the legs and arms. Lie on your belly. Place hands under shoulders with fingers pointing forward and elbows bent, forehead on the floor. Inhale and bring your chin forward to rest on the ground. Exhale while you press hands down, lengthen the sides of the body and lift the head and arm bones away from the floor, drawing shoulder blades down the back. Press the tops of feet and shins into the ground. Engage the muscles from the feet into the core of the pelvis. Inhale and press hands down, lengthening from the waist to the armpits. Lift the torso up and draw arms and shoulders back. Keep neck long and sides of throat back; draw the neck back to look up. Hold for 3-5 breaths and come to rest on the belly. Repeat this 3-5 times, then rest in child’s pose. Contraindications: pregnancy, high blood pressure, and severe spinal or neck injury.
Modifications: To reduce strain in the low back: A) Increase the bend in the elbows, or B) Walk the hands further forward.
Variations: Use Sphinx pose(elbows under shoulders, hands, palms flat) as an easier variation to Cobra.
Bridge: Where do we begin with the benefits of bridge pose? This posture provides a deep opening of the shoulders and chest, extends the thoracic (upper) spine, energizes the leg muscles and lengthens hip flexors. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet parallel and hip width distance apart. On an inhale, press feet into the ground and lift hips. Lengthen the tailbone and extend from pelvis through the knees. Clasp hands under waist, squeezing shoulders underneath and drawing shoulder blades down onto the back. Press the feet into the floor and lift hips higher as you inhale. Unclasp the hands and shift body weight side to side, placing hands under lower back for support. Do this for 5-10 breaths and gently release hands and lower body slowly to the ground. Rest with feet wide and knees together. Contraindications: neck, shoulder or wrist injuries.
Modifications: Use a yoga block under the hips to support your weight.
Variations: Interlace the hands together behind your back, walk the shoulders in and press down with the arms and shoulders.
Supine twist: This move rotates the spine, stretching the spine and hips to ease neck and back tension. Lie on your back, draw your left knee to your chest and twist it across your body with your right hand. Lengthen your outer left hip away from the left shoulder. Keep your left shoulder anchored to the floor and allow your head to roll until your left ear is resting on the ground. Hold this for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the right side for 5-10 breaths. Contraindications: high or low blood pressure as well as menstruation.
Modifications: Place a folded blanket under the bent knee to support it. Rest the left hand on the right knee adding more weight for gravity to pull the knee down.
Yoga for Athletic Performance
Alison Lewis | Traci Lee
What do LeBron James, the Seattle Seahawks, the US Women’s Soccer team and golf pro Annika Sorenstam all have in common? They’re all tremendous athletes, yes, but there’s something else. Give up yet? Yoga. They all practice yoga as part of their training regimens. The LA Clippers even have their very own yoga instructor on staff, the only one in the NBA. That’s how vital many top athletes and sports organizations are realizing yoga truly is to athletic performance and overall wellbeing. Whether you’re a weekend warrior, daily Crossfit devotee or like to lace up and hit the pavement to blow off steam after work every day, you too can improve your performance and longevity with a regular yoga routine.
On the mat, you are constantly working detailed alignment and functional movement. Through increased self-awareness you’re able to shift subtle stuck energy into fluid patterns, and continuously refine your body’s movement within each session. How could this not translate over to other types of body movement and physical activities? With a consistent yoga practice, you will discover increased strength, mobility, balance and focus, whether you’re an athlete or not. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the benefits you can reap from this ancient practice:
Strength: By practicing consistently, a steady series of varied yoga postures will improve muscle tone and strength. Many of the asanas (or postures) in yoga can awaken muscles that have been dormant for some time. It’s not uncommon to wake up the next day after a yoga class and feel muscle soreness. Activating these muscles on a regular basis will build lean and strong muscles as well as endurance. You are challenged to hold postures that involve supporting your own body weight, often for an extended period of time several times during a yoga routine. This has a similar muscle-building effect to lifting weights at the gym, but unlike weight lifting, yoga tones muscles all over your body in balance, whereas weight lifting involves isolating individual muscles.
Mobility: It almost goes without saying, but committing to growing and deepening your yoga practice will invariably increase your joint and muscle flexibility by leaps and bounds.This increased range of motion is desired for every endeavor, from something as simple as getting up from your chair to swinging a golf club. With yoga, you maintain fluidity of the spinal column. A strong and flexible spine allows you to enjoy the vitality of youthful upright posture and freedom of movement. It provides a perfect counterbalance and complement to many of the repetitive movements you experience in activities such as running, swimming and other sports. Put simple, fluid muscles and joints move more efficiently and recover more quickly.
Balance: How important is balance? Let’s just say you’d have a pretty tough time going about your day without it, let alone try to play a sport or compete. No matter how unsteady you think you may be, you can improve your balance with a variety of yoga postures that will transform how you carry yourself throughout your day, including challenging physical activities.
Mental focus: Yoga is a path toward stilling the mind, and while the physical benefits of yoga cannot be ignored, quite possibly the greatest benefit is the mind-body connection that it facilitates. Yoga is deceptively challenging and simultaneously rewarding. Whether you’re trying to clear your mind through meditation or hold a difficult pose, you’re challenged to bring stillness to the mind and to focus, to breathe through the discomfort. To do what you never dreamed you were capable of doing. It brings focus so you can crowd out the noise and look only at what’s right in front of you, much as a basketball player does when he’s standing at the line for a foul shot, hundreds of opponents’ fans screaming to throw him off.
As you can see, yoga is so much more than “stretching and breathing,” as is a common misconception. Beginning a yoga practice may seem daunting when you’re already dedicated to your existing workout routine. Our bodies are amazing and allow us to create the life we want, so it’s important to care for them with great intent. By learning proper alignment and mechanics through a committed yoga practice, you can carry these principles from the mat to the courts, the track, the gym and beyond. The key is a sustained and consistent practice.
1. Source: https://www.gaiam.com/blogs/discover/can-yoga-replace-strength-training/
2. Source: http://www.muscleandfitness.com/workouts/workout-tips/5-ways-yoga-can-boost-performance-athletes