Monday, November 27, 2006


‘Tis the season. The abrupt changes in weather, coupled with holiday stress and travel, make it the perfect time for getting a cold. You probably already have a few favorite remedies for the usual symptoms of runny nose, stuffy head, coughing, and weariness. There are also a few yoga poses you can add to the chicken soup and cough drops that help relieve some of these aches and pains.

Often a bit of gentle exercise will help move a cold through your system faster and make you feel better. The “neck-check” rule can help you decide whether to hit the mat or stay in bed; if the majority of your symptoms are above the neck (nose, sinuses, throat) moving around could help—below the neck (lungs, stomach, gut), you should just rest. Of course, if you feel completely crummy, sleep is probably the best remedy of all (or calling your doctor, but if you feel that bad you shouldn’t even consider yoga).

Here are some poses to try. Be gentle and always chose a supported version of the pose. Stay hydrated (hot water—“silver tea”—can be very soothing) and don’t practice for very long. Your system is still working to fight the cold germs and shouldn’t be overtaxed.

Yoga Poses for Colds

Adho Mukha Svanasana
(Downward –Facing Dog) - Believe it or not, this favorite pose can be very helpful when you have a cold. By inverting the upper body, you can release some of the pressure in the sinuses by helping them drain. If you’re head-achy, you can support your head with a tower of blocks or do the pose halfway on a chair and resting your head on the seat (come out of the pose if you feel dizzy). An even gentler version is to rest your hands on the wall at hip height and step back until your hips are over your ankles. Let your head hang down and release the upper back. Come out of the pose and into Balasana (Child’s Pose) and rest your head on a block or blanket.

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)- If Dog feels like too much, just simply bending forward with the knees bent and hips resting on the wall can help release pressure in the sinuses and tension in the neck. If you want a little stretch in the legs you can slowly straighten them by pressing the backs of the thighs towards the wall. Bend your knees to come back to standing and unfold slowly.

Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand) - If you have a bit more strength, a modified headstand can really open the sinuses and also move the blood around to give you a bit more energy. Set the arms and hands in a tripod, as for your usual headstand, but once you place your head in the cradle of the hands, just walk the feet forward but don’t kick up. Concentrate on supporting the neck and head by pressing into the forearms and keep the breath even. When you are ready, fold back down to Child’s Pose.

Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) - If you’re congested, sometimes just a simple chest opener and focused breathing can help open the lungs. Sit in Bound Angle with the back against the wall and open your palms on your thighs. Press your upper arms to the wall behind you to open the chest. Close your eyes and count breaths—starting at 4, then counting each exhale down to 1 and repeating for as long as you like. You will help release tension in the back with the leg position and counting helps calm the mind so this is a very soothing pose. It may help you settle before going to sleep.

Savasana (Corpse Pose)-Like Bound Angle, Corpse is very calming and you can pile up blankets or pillows to lean against, so you aren’t flat on the floor. This is more comfortable if you are congested. Try to let your shoulders relax and open the arms to the side to get a bit of chest opening. The angle of the blankets and the open arms often allow some draining, which relieves pressure in the sinuses. Have tissue handy! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Online Yogis

This past month, an extra-curricular activity of mine has been writing an article for Yoga Journal's online newsletter for teachers. It is called "Online Yogis: Expanding Your Teaching into Cyberspace" and it was published today. Here is the link (you will have to register to read it, but it is free and you can always unsubscribe when you are done).

I did a number of interesting interviews, and there is a lot to think about regarding the effect of the Internet on yoga. This is pretty much a how-to piece for setting up blogs and websites and there are some nice links to the sites of my interviewees. Give it a look.

Enjoy the holiday and try to stretch a bit in between courses. Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Bound Angle Pose) and Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero Pose) both aid digestion by stretching out the tummy. Just make sure you rest on a nice pile of pillows or blankets so you can really relax. And digest.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Thighs of Relief…

I’ve been swapping fitness skills with a friend at the Y; she’s a physical trainer with tight hips and I’m a yoga instructor with (shall we say) loose hips. So we meet once a week to lunge and squat and lift for half an hour, and then we do Trikonasana (Triangle),Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2) and Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) for another half an hour. It’s interesting to see how the practices differ because Connie’s workout is all strength and sweat and mine is intense and quiet. I think we’re learning a lot from each other and it’s made me especially aware of the thigh work involved in hip openers.

Actually, it’s made me painfully aware, so today I’m posting a series of stretches to help open up tight or overworked thighs. Try these after any running or walking or even yard work, to see how they can get the blood moving through tired legs.

Thigh Stretching Sequence

Sukhasana (Easy Pose) - Bring your awareness to your thighs as you sit cross-legged. Try to release any tension in the hip joints and thigh muscles.

Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)-Lie on your back and breathe deeply into the back of the legs as you draw your foot towards you with the belt and press the back of the thigh away. Try to keep the pelvis balanced (there will be a curve at the lower back). Lower the leg to the side and rest the thigh on a block so you can concentrate on opening the hip joint instead of tipping over. Repeat on the other side.

Virasana (Hero Pose) - Lower your hips between your ankles (or onto a block), trying to keep the knees together. Keep the lower spine long and make sure the tailbone points down. Try to hold the pose for awhile and, if you can, lower your hips closer to the floor to deepen the stretch. This may work better with a folded blanket than a block under the hips. You could add a stretch to the arms, such as Namaste to the back or Gomukhasana (Cow’s Head Arms).

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) - Come onto your hands and knees from Hero and then lift up into Dog. As in Hand-to-Big-Toe, lengthen though the side ribs and press the thighs back. Don’t try to press your heels down; the pressing of the thighs back will eventually release the feet towards the floor.

Thigh Stretch at Wall- This is a pretty intense stretch, so move into it slowly. Come to your hands and knees, with the feet at the wall. Then bend one knee so it is on the floor and stretch your shin up the wall. You may want a blanket under that knee. Bring the other foot to the floor, start lifting the torso, and come to a mini-lunge at the wall. Lengthen the front of the wall hip to relax and open the thigh muscle. Hold for at least 10 breaths, and then switch to the other side.

Paschimottanasana (Relaxed Forward Bend) Come back onto the floor, with the legs in Dandasana (Staff pose) under a chair or stool. Relax the upper body onto the support of the chair and breathe into the stretch in the backs of the legs. Try to keep releasing the legs in this comfortable position and maybe you can fold further forwards.

Savasana (Corpse Pose) - Extend onto the floor and try and keep your legs and hips totally relaxed. Hold for as long as you like. ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Of all the (synovial) joints in all the towns in all the world…

When the oil light comes on, it’s time to stop the car and call the tow truck. Driving without the proper amount of oil lubricating the engine means the car will soon shut down and repairs will probably be expensive. Unfortunately, we don’t have our own set of dashboard lights (where would they go?) to warn when vital fluids are low or cold or sluggish, but you get the message soon enough when you try to move or stretch without proper lubrication.

I want to talk about joints a little bit today…synovial joints. I want to talk about the connections between the various long bones in your appendages and the joints that allow you range of motion in your arms, legs, hips and shoulders. These hinges are key points in your mobility and keeping them flexible and healthy are important, especially as you age, so you can continue to reach up and bend over in your daily activities.

The diagram shows how these joints are constructed. The ends of the bones, connected by ligaments, are covered in a layer of cartilage to prevent wear and tear on the bones themselves. The joint is contained in a housing of synovial membrane that secretes the “oil” of the joint, called synovial fluid. This fluid is essential to the health of the joint; too little and the bones grind against each other and wear off the cartilage, too much from inflammation (or foreign material like pus or blood) can cause the joint to swell painfully. Even the natural settling of the fluid from non-use overnight can make you stiff until you start moving again in the morning.

For the most part, keeping your joints healthy and your fluids flowing is as simple as regular use (some forms of arthritis and other injuries heal with rest rather than use, so make sure your doctor approves of your regimen). One of the reasons yoga is such a great part of your routine is that is requires extensive work from all joints; you bend and flex in many directions that you wouldn’t during regular use, so the synovial fluid washes over all parts of the joint and is kept warm and moving. Various studies have demonstrated how exercise is beneficial to the overall health of these important hinges—although, if you are a regular practitioner of yoga you already know this.

During your next yoga sequence, pay special attention to the work and range of motion in your joints. Notice the directions they bend easily and be aware (and careful) of the ways the movement is more difficult. Whether bending forward in Uttanasana (Intense Forward Bend); extending the legs to the side in Trikonasana (Triangle); crossing the legs in Garudasana (Eagle); or extending back in Virabhasdrasana I (Warrior 1), you can’t help but marvel at the engineering of these hinges…and that’s just the hips. So be kind to them, use them regularly, and don’t bend them in the wrong direction. Here’s looking at you (and your joints), kid!
©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 12, 2006

It’s Hip to be…Triangular

A pose that fascinates me is Utthita Trikonasana or Extended Triangle. It is such an odd position, and so unnatural, that it takes a long time for the body to remember how to do it. Feet turn at odd angles to one another, thighs roll out to keep the knees lined up with the shins, the torso tips to the side while trying to twist below the ribcage, the neck twists even more to look at the sky. Beginners usually don’t like the pose, at first, because it feels so ungainly and doesn’t make much sense. However, I have had a number of students with hip issues who are amazed at how nicely the pose stretches and opens that area of the body.

There is an extremely complicated explanation for what the various muscles of the hips and thighs are doing in this pose. To massively paraphrase H. David Coulter, in Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, “it puts unusual asymmetric tensions on the hip joints and muscles of the thighs”; in other words, because you are rolling the thighs out to keep the hips even and squared and then stretching to the side, there is a high level of engagement going on around the pelvis to keep you aligned, but also to keep you from tipping over. One side of the body lengthens into a stretch, while the other side tries to support the weight of the body and keeps you cantilevered over the floor.

I think it is a “magic” pose, because it does so much for the body despite the awkward arrangement of limbs to torso. You stretch the backs of the legs, open the hips, massage the torso with the twist, open the chest and stretch the lengthened arms. As your body becomes used to the position, you can also work on your breathing—trying to keep the breath full and even as you continue to subtly twist the center and stretch the extremities.

Here’s a short sequence to get you prepped for a nice, long triangle. Challenge yourself to stay in the pose for awhile, and notice what effect it has on your body.

Triangle Sequence
Sukhasana (Seated Easy Pose)
-Concentrate on lengthening the side ribs to create space in the lower half of the torso. Balance the pelvis so you are resting on the center of the sit bones, not rolling forward or back. Starting in the lower back, start twisting gently to the right, then move the twist into the rib cage then the shoulders. Hold for a few breaths and then repeat on the other side.

Dandasana with Namaste Arms (Staff Pose) Maintain the length you just established in the spine, while adding the stretch of the feet forwards and the arms behind the back in the prayer position. Keep the spine long and the pelvis balanced so the lower back doesn’t overarch or slump backwards. Stretch your elbows back and slightly down to open the chest.

Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Big Toe Pose) Concentrate on keeping the back of the hips grounded as you stretch the right foot towards the ceiling (the left foot stretches to the wall in front of you, as it did in Staff pose). Then lower the right leg to the side with the hips still evenly pressed to the floor. You are essentially in a reclined Triangle now. Open the chest, keep the pelvis level and press the souls of the feet away evenly. Repeat on the left side.

Tadasana with Hastasana (Mountain Pose with Overhead Arm Stretch) Come to standing, with the body aligned and the spine stretching up to the ceiling as the tailbone points down. Press the palms overhead, while keeping the shoulders away from the ears. Feel the stretch along the side body and the rotation in the shoulders.

Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose) Now, come to Triangle, emphasizing the work you’ve done in the previous poses. Feet are grounded evenly, the hips are square, the tailbone points down and the side ribs lengthen. As you start to lean to the side, begin the twist low in the back and then move it to the chest and shoulders. The arms stretch away from each other as you lower to the shin or thigh. Finally, the head turns to look at the ceiling as you keep your neck long. Keep adjusting the pose as you hold it and try to breathe deeply and evenly. Switch sides. ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


I just finished an article in this week’s New York Times Magazine (“Cyber-neologoliferation” by James Gleick ) about the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary. This is a dictionary, in its third edition, that is trying to include every single written English word that has been in use for at least five years. This third edition may only ever exist on a computer, because the list is getting so long and the task of updating so demanding. (The second edition was 20 volumes long).

The article states, “Like the printing press, the telegraph and the telephone before it, the Internet is transforming the language simply by transmitting information differently. And what makes cyberspace different from all the previous information technologies is its intermixing of scales from the largest to the smallest without prejudice.” You can’t finish a list of English words, because new words are springing up faster and faster these days on the internet.

They are in the Ps right now.

If there was ever a case for needing to “be in the present,” it would be when you are compiling the Ps and know that any blog posting, any text messaging abbreviation, any YouTube video at anytime could be the source of the next really popular O word. I think it would be extremely hard not to get overwhelmed by the scale of it all. Keep your focus on your exhale…

I’ve been thinking about yoga online a lot lately and what the implications for the practice are. To me, yoga is a living language and is constantly changing and adapting depending on who is practicing, how it is being taught, what it is being used for. So if we start connecting yogis around the globe with the internet, how will this change yoga? Will we start moving away from an asana-based practice and start to work on the other limbs (Pranayama, etc.)? Will it become a more private practice, if you don’t go to a studio for class? More public, because you can connect with more people online? I dunno, but I love to think about it.

What do you think about it?
©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Why of Yoga...

So, we already know the benefits to a regular yoga practice—more strength and flexibility, better sleep, a clearer head, stronger immune system, lower stress, etc., etc. But, a good question is WHY does yoga and meditation give you these benefits? What chemical reaction is happening in the brain and muscles to create all this good feeling and better living?

Here’s a chance to listen to a clinical psychologist describe the latest research on the body’s physiological reaction to meditation. On Monday, November 7, in connection with Beloit College’s Buddhism at Beloit lecture series, post-doctoral fellow, Donal MacCoon, will be speaking about “Mindfulness Research: A Collaboration Between Science and Spirituality.” Mindfulness is an approach developed by John Kabat-Zinn; it combines aspects of guided meditation, yoga and awareness as a tool for stress reduction. Studies done at the Health Emotions Center at UW Madison have proven a connection between practicing Mindfulness and increased immune levels. This study was completed in 2003, so hopefully this lecture will discuss continuing research.

The talk will be held in Richardson Auditorium in Morse-Ingersoll Hall on the Beloit Campus, starting at 7:00p.m. I hope to see some of you local folk there! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved