Thursday, December 28, 2006

Welcome to 2007!

So, as we head towards New Year's Eve our thoughts turn to resolutions and vows of how the next year is going to be better. While it's fine to consider areas that need improvement, try to include resolutions that make you happy--drinking a really nice glass of wine on the weekends, planting some exotic flower in the garden or taking a ceramics class. It will be a lot easier to keep those ones than the plans to loose 40 lbs. or be less sarcastic or buy fewer shoes.

I have a couple of Yoga resolutions that I thought I'd share--you all can keep me on task. Plus, once I've published them, I'll have to follow through, right?
1. I want to do one yoga pose every day for 5 minutes, each side. It's always easy to let the home practice slide when you're teaching, so this resolution will help me reconnect with why I like doing yoga so much. Maybe I'll share a few revelations...I've got to discover something during 10 minutes of Trikonasana!
2. I'd like to explore audio-blogging. I know the written practices and pictures are helpful, but I suspect it would be easier for people to do the sequences if they could just download them to their computer or ipod and listen as they practiced. I have the software and the digital recorder, I just have to play around with it. Stay tuned!
3. I hope to continue posting at least twice a week. I got a little behind over the Xmas vacation, but now I don't have any holiday preparations as an excuse.

So, have fun and enjoy this last weekend of 2006 before we all have to start behaving again.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 15, 2006

15-Second Vacation

When we were in grad school (MFA ’96, UTexas at Austin…lo, those many years ago), my friend Polly had a great stress-relieving technique. When the work started to pile up and deadlines loomed, she whipped out a little picture of a tropical beach and took a “15-second vacation.” Soon, all the costume-design grad students had little clipped views of beaches, waterfalls and mountains taped to our lockers. The photos of luxurious resorts were a little silly, and probably exacerbated any money-issues we had, but they made us smile and lowered the tension for a little while.

Give it a try. Right now the combination of end-of-semester/holiday/family gathering/winter demands are enough to freak anyone out…especially if you find yourself not having time to do yoga (horrors). Find a picture of some place lovely—without any people, so you can imagine yourself there—and post it near wherever you get the most stressed. These days, you could even make it a screen saver if you need to “vacate” before you start working on the computer. Visualize yourself in the scene, doing whatever you find relaxing and invigorating, and shut out the here and now for 15 seconds. If you can fit in a quick breathing exercise, even better (see July 4, Breath and the Ball Gown). Try and savor the escape and when you return, keep the positive energy flowing as you move into your next task. It won’t make the to-do list any shorter, but it might make it feel less oppressive.

I like to visit La Peruse beach in Maui. Wherever you go, Have a Great Trip! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Our Friend, The Spine

I always like to see diagrams of the spine, because it reminds me of what an amazing feat of engineering it is. A straight back really isn't straight at all, but a series of gentle curves that creates a "spring" that acts as a shock absorber for us bipeds. Imagine how jarring each step, stumble or jump would be if the back was as straight as a pole. We would have to walk around with our legs continually bent so that we wouldn't topple over every crack in the sidewalk.

Of course, remember that these curves are gentle. Any time you exaggerate these curves for too long, you are guaranteed a backache because the disks in between each vertebrae get squished unevenly, aggravating the nerves in the spinal column. When you slouch in a chair or hunch over a computer, the various sections of the spine get compressed and that's what leads to a sore back at the end of the day (exaggerating these curves continually will eventually cause your back muscles to stretch in a way that holds the spine in that position permanently, and that will really hurt). One good solution is to find a chair that supports the spine evenly; another is to keep the back aligned and work the muscles to encourage that alignment (ahem, regular yoga practice).

Twists are a great way to work on this alignment and get the blood flowing into the muscles that support the spine. They are a really nice end a long day of standing on your feet or sitting at a desk. Try this sequence while visualizing your spine in each pose and notice how much more open and loose the back feels at the end. (I'm away from my camera this weekend, so I'll post accompanying photos on Wednesday).

Twisting Sequence
Sukhasana (Easy Pose) Sit tall, lining up the ears, shoulders and hips and balance the upper body over the lower. Relax the shoulders and try to lengthen the spine without arching the lower back or jutting the chest out.

Dandasana with Hastasana (Staff Pose with Overhead Arm Stretch) Maintain the alignment of the torso, while pressing the backs of the legs down and pressing the soles of the feet away. Keep the knees from locking by engaging the thigh muscles. Stretch the palms away from the chest and then overhead, keeping the neck long and the shoulders away from the ears. When you lower the arms, try to keep the lift in the side ribs.

Seated Twist Come back to Easy Pose and realign the spine. On the first exhale start turning at the lower back; on the next exhale move the twist into the chest; on the third breath twist across the shoulders and, if you want, the head. By moving into the twist slowly, you originate the movement in the lumbar spine (the least flexible part of the twist) and move it throught the thoracic into the cervical spine (the most flexible). Change the cross of the legs and repeat the twist to the other side.

Tadasana with Hastasana (Mountain Pose with Overhead Arm Stretch) Come to standing and realign the torso. Again, lengthen without exaggerating any of the curves in the spine. Stretch the arms overhead (fingers crossed with the other index finger on top) and find length in the side ribs without lifting the shoulders or arching the lower back. Keep the lift as you lower the arms.

Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) Begin with the feet apart and the arms overhead to lift the side ribs, then lower the arms to shoulder height. Turn the feet to your Triangle stance and stretch over the right leg, keeping the side ribs long. As you breathe into the back, try to deepen the twist with each exhale by starting in the lumber spine and moving up to the neck as you did in the seated twist. Come up and repeat to the other side.

Prasarita Padottanasana (with a twist) (Wide-Legged Forward Bend) Step the feet apart another foor or so from your Triangle stance and make sure you are grounding evenly through the soles of the feet and keeping the inside ankles long (don't let the feet collapse to the outside edge). Lift the arms overhead to lengthen the side ribs and then lower them to your hips. Folding from the hip crease, bring the torso parallel to the floor and support the body with the hands on a block or the floor. Move one arm so that hand is beneath the breastbone. Start twisting towards the other hand and stretch that arms toward the ceiling so you are looking to one side and the shoulders are lined up over the hand to the floor. Then return to center and switch sides.

Supine Twist-Lie on your back on the floor and bring the knees to the chest and then roll both knees to one side as you ground the back of the shoulders to the floor and stretch the arms to the side. Look towards the opposite shoulder from the knees, if you want a deeper twist in the upper back. Repeat to the other side.

Savasana (Corpse Pose)-Release the knees and stretch your legs out. Take a minute to realign your whole torso, so the neck is long and the head is lined up with the tailbone. Sink into the support of the floor and concentrate on letting all muscles relax. Thank you, Spine! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Dog, Plank, Dog, Plank, Dog

In the category of “if you only have 10 minutes” yoga, I’d like to add a sequence that’s great for the abs and upper body. It’s sort of a yoga push-up without the push. The Dogs are (almost) the resting poses, and the work comes from the Plank and the movement between each pose. Try to move slowly and with control. It’s also a good series to pull out if you are feeling cold and sluggish; the Dogs will energize you and the Plank will get the heart pumping.
1. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing Dog) Start the series in a well-measured dog. Begin in Balasana (Child’s Pose) with the arms stretched in front of you and then lift up to your hands and knees. Your outstretched arms should now be placed with the heels of the hands beneath the shoulders. Lift the hips up and back, with the knees bent to get the upper body aligned and then press the thighs back to begin straightening the legs. Don’t worry about pressing the heels to the floor--as you lengthen the backs of the legs the heels will start to sink. Hold for 5 breaths.

2. Plank Pose On the next exhale, slowly lower your hips so that the body is now in a straight line: ears-shoulders-hips-ankles. The heels of the hands should still be directly under the shoulders. Keep the neck long and the breath even. Don’t let the lower back sag or the hips lift up. Lower a knee if you need to support the lower back. The majority of the work in this pose will be in the chest and abdominal muscles. Hold for 5 breaths.

3. Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-facing Dog) On the next exhale, slowly lower your hips down until the legs are straight and the torso is upright. If this is too hard on your lower back, slightly bend the knees and rest them on the floor and uncurl the toes; the lower body is supported by your legs on the floor. Keep the neck long and open the chest by drawing your shoulder blades slightly together in back. The heels of the hands are still under the shoulders and you are pressing the hands evenly into the floor. Hold for 5 breaths.

4. Plank Pose On the next exhale, lift the hips back to the straight line and try not to drop the head. Hold for 5 breaths.

5. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog) On the next exhale, lift the hips back to your Down Dog position. Try to lengthen the side ribs so that the arms are fully extended and the sit bones lift to the ceiling. Breathe deeply and don’t let the shoulders sag. Hold for 5 breaths then repeat the sequence at least one more time.

6. Balasana (Child’s Pose) Release onto the floor in a fully-supported Child. Rest your head on a block if your heart rate has come up and let your breath slow and deepen. Relax your arms alongside the body and feel yourself sink towards the floor. Hold the pose for as long as you like. ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Lake Geneva Conference

Now we are digging out from the 6-8” of snow that dropped in southern Wisconsin early Friday morning. Luckily it is December, not March, so the snow is welcome and very pretty--an appropriate way to start this month.

That being said, it’s a little early to be longing for the warmth of spring, but I wanted to alert you to an event in May that requires some pre-planning. Yoga Journal is has now opened registration for its Lake Geneva conference being held May 4-7, 2007 at the Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva, WI. The main conference is over the weekend, May 5-6, but there are various intensives offered on that Friday and Monday. I went two years ago and really enjoyed it. There are tons of classes with well-respected teachers such as Roger Cole, Sean Corne, Judith Lasater, Shiva Rea, David Swenson, Rodney Yee, and Patricia Walden, so you can sample a variety of yoga styles and teaching approaches. This year there seems to be more discussions on such topics as yogic philosophy, Hindu deities and vegetarian cooking, so you can exercise your brain, as well.

I recommend registering early (there’s an early-bird discount until the middle of March), because this conference attracts a lot of people from around the Midwest and fills quickly. If enough of my Beloit students are interested, we can register as a group (at least 10) and get a discount. Take a look at the conference details. I highly recommend this event and am planning to be there all weekend. Check it out!