Walking Might Be the Best Exercise There Is

Yoga linked to lowered blood pressure with regular practice

By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – Adults who practice yoga with breathing and relaxation exercises at least three times a week may have lower blood pressure than people who don’t, a research review suggests.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from 49 trials with a total of 3,517 participants who were typically middle-aged, overweight women and men who already had high blood pressure or were close to developing the condition. These smaller trials assessed blood pressure before and after participants were randomly assigned either to doing yoga or to a control group without exercise programs.

Overall, the people in the yoga groups experienced average reductions in systolic blood pressure of 5 mmHG (millimeters of mercury) more than those in the control groups, and diastolic blood pressure was reduced by 3.9 mmHG more with yoga.

When people with high blood pressure did yoga three times a week in sessions that also included breathing and relaxation exercises, they experienced average decreases of 11 mmHG more than control groups in systolic blood pressure and 6 mmHG more in diastolic blood pressure.

“Our results not only showed that yoga can be just as, or even more effective than aerobic exercise to reduce blood pressure; but also quantitatively showed the importance of emphasizing yoga breathing techniques and mental relaxation/meditation along with physical forms during practice,” said lead study author Yin Wu, a researcher in kinesiology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

“So, yoga, among other lifestyle interventions (such as diet and smoking cessation) should be adopted early on even when the blood pressure is still relatively low, and should be continued along with medication when blood pressure is relatively high,” Wu said by email.

Yoga appeared beneficial, but less so, when people practiced regularly but didn’t focus on breathing and relaxation or meditation. Under these circumstances, yoga was associated with average drops of 6 mmHG more in systolic blood pressure and 3 mmHG more in diastolic blood pressure compared to the groups doing no exercise.

In adults, a normal or healthy blood pressure reading is considered to be 120/80 mmHG or lower.

People in the study started out with average blood pressure readings of 129.3/80.7 mmHG. This suggests the reductions associated with yoga might be enough to return some people to the normal range.

The first number in the reading, known as systolic blood pressure, is the pressure blood exerts against artery walls when the heart beats. The second number, known as diastolic blood pressure, represents the pressure between beats when the heart is at rest.

One limitation of the study is that researchers lacked data on the intensity of yoga practices, including how long people held poses and how rapidly participants transitioned from one position to the next, the study authors note in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

And while yoga with relaxation techniques appears to be beneficial, a separate study in the same journal offers a reminder of the potential risks for some in a review of records from 89 patients with injuries caused primarily by yoga.

The study looked at the types of injuries that occurred and found that 66 people had soft tissue injuries including pain from overuse, and six had discomfort or mobility limitations around a rotator cuff in the shoulder. In addition, 46 people experienced aggravation of pain from degenerative joint disease, while 13 had compression fractures.

These observations only included injured people, researchers note. The study wasn’t designed to determine whether or how yoga might directly cause injuries.

“In general, yoga improves balance, strength and flexibility, but trying to be extremely flexible with fragile joints can cause problems,” said senior study author Dr. Mehrsheed Sinaki, a rehabilitation specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“Also, if a person is 70 or 80 and does too many hip-opening movements or hyper extensions, they may develop hip pain,” Sinaki said by email.

While most people can practice yoga safely, older people with osteoporosis (thinning, brittle bones) should be careful, agreed Dr. Edward Laskowski, coauthor of an accompanying editorial and co-director of Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine.

“Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, an individualized exercise prescription which takes into account a person’s unique medical history and personal goals should be considered,” Laskowski said by email.

Gymnastics, contortion and social media are changing yoga – and not in a good way

 By Melanie Swan

You wouldn’t know it to look at Instagram, but yoga is an ancient art designed to prepare the body for meditation. Yet these days many people associate the practice with extreme flexibility and the perfect handstand. In the age of social media, the lines between yoga, gymnastics and contortion have definitely blurred. So what has happened along the way?

Australian Simon Borg-Olivier, who will visit Lifestyle Yoga Dubai from March 27 to April 1, is a decades-long practitioner and lifelong student.

He has studied under some of the yoga greats, including Ashtanga Vinyasa creator Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar. He also believes that modern yoga has lost its way, becoming separated from both its essence and original philosophy.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, people perceived yoga to be boring, as meditation,” he says. “I wanted to show people it could be a bit exciting, but in retrospective it went a bit out of control. I knew at the time that asana was a small part of it but I thought I could at least attract people.”

Borg-Olivier is partner in Yoga Synergy, a yoga school in Sydney that has been running since 1984. His spinal flow, inspired by Asian martial arts and his background as a physiotherapist, is designed to be a pain-free way for people to move while gaining all the benefits of the yogic tradition.

“We’ve swung from one way to the other,” he explains. “People do want fitness and long-term health, but what’s being taught now is short-term gains with long-term potential damage to the nervous, reproductive and immune systems.”

Much of the yoga being taught now, what Borg-Olivier calls “the aerobics of the 2000s,” is having a negative impact on the musculoskeletal system. And Iyengar, with his obsessive attention to alignment, and Jois, who encouraged practicing all of yoga’s eight limbs, would likely not approve.

“There are so many people teaching nonsense yoga,” says Borg-Olivier. “It’s taken the place of aerobics. If you practice in a way that causes pain, injury and stress, you’ve missed the point of yoga completely.”

The packed classes of today are a world away from the way Borg-Olivier learned, during a time when teacher-student relationships were sacred and maintained for years.

“The teacher-student relationship was lost years ago,” he says. “You can’t have it in a group class. How can a teacher have a one-on-one relationship in a class of 50-plus?”

One of the biggest flaws in the system are the plethora of too-short teacher trainings that enable the newest of practitioners to be qualified in a sacred art.

“You can’t learn to teach in 200 hours, you can’t even learn yoga in 200 hours,” he says. “It’s an insult to real yoga teachers to give them a certificate and say, ‘Here you go, you can teach along with everyone else.’ We’ve got to know what yoga is. Most people don’t know. It takes decades to even get a hint of what it is but people are trying to do this with just a brief amount of experience.”

The massive emphasis on promotion through social media also doesn’t help — “It’s not about knowledge.” He continues: “It doesn’t matter if the posture isn’t fantastic, provided the picture is nice.”

Cristian Brezeanu Dubai
Cristian Brezeanu, Olympic gymnast

Cristian Brezeanu, a multi-medal-winning Olympic gymnast who competed for Romania and South Africa and is based in Dubai at Fly High Fitness DXB, agrees that social media has been a powerful force – and not always for good.

“In this age of Instagram and social media, people are looking for quick, shortcuts to fame, fortune and publicity,” he says. “There are yoga teachers out there trying to attract followers, publicity and in order to do that, there is this reaching for more and more visually impressive skills. Whether these skills are gymnastics or extreme flexibility, borderline contortion, they tend to focus on the physical aspect because they think it’s a quick and easy way to attract attention.”

Many people are moving into yoga from dance or gymnastic backgrounds, easily adapting to the flexibility and contortion aspects, he says.

“The other yoga teachers have begun to almost compete with this, as if bending into a pretzel or doing a perfect handstand makes you a good yoga teacher,” he says. “It’s become a game of ego.”

Along the way people have become confused about what it means to be a good teacher, or even a “good yogi,” which is another matter altogether, he says.

“Those skills have nothing to do with how they live their life or their ability to safely teach others — how to achieve such skills,” he says.

All this showing off on social media – which for a lot of people has become a primary source of information  – creates a misguided perspective for those who want to practice. There is a big responsibility on teachers to convey the right message, at a time when many of the misconceptions are being conveyed by the teachers themselves, he says.

“You’re so bombarded with this information, there is to some extent a sense of confusion about what yoga is,” says Brezeanu. “It’s very intimidating for many people. For the people spending time in studios, working with good teachers, they’re the ones who realize how much more to it there is.”

Melissa Ghattas yoga Dubai
Melissa Ghattas teaches at Zen Yoga. Photo: Katie Vickers

Melissa Ghattas, who has 500 hours of training and teaches at Zen Yoga in Dubai, has experienced the influx of teachers from the worlds of yoga and dance. That is mixing up the yoga world in other ways, too.

“You have these pretty, aesthetically gorgeous girls who can do these amazing things with their bodies, and we have created this culture that is no different to what we spoke about in the ’80s with skinny or airbrushed models, as if this is the role model for young girls,” she says. “Yoga is supposed to be a holisticapproach to life.”

Instead, an ancient healing system that is supposed to be good on a physical as well as mental and emotional level is doing the opposite, by emphasizing handstands and contortion.

“Not only do such extreme postures have nothing to do with yoga,” says Ghattas, “the average person can’t do these things with their bodies.”

It is this deeper level of yoga that Ghattas strives to teach and embody. It’s also what helped her get over bulimia, during 15-year journey that took her down many avenues in her quest for healing.

“Yoga was the only thing that actually penetrated a deeper level of my consciousness, to have this healthy relationship with food,” she says. “This is what yoga is about. It helped me discover self-love and self-acceptance. I’m not an ex-gymnast or dancer, so for me it’s been about the journey and the realities that your body doesn’t necessarily move that way.”

 By Melanie Swan

Melanie has been practicing yoga for 11 years and teaching for nearly six. She discovered the practice at a time when work life-balance was at its lowest, living a busy life in London working for national newspapers. She teaches at Fairmont The Palm and Zen Yoga Dubai Media City.

YogAlign – Pain Free Yoga From Your Inner Core

In YogAlign, we actively seek out positioning, alignment and movement that reflects how we move in daily life. We avoid uncomfortable, unnatural, and compressive positions that restrict deep breathing or that cause spinal compression. When we are aligned with the spine in natural curves, the body connects naturally as a continuum and we feel relaxed, balanced, secure and peaceful. We attain a comfortable and natural state of being, connected to our true essence.

YogAlign encourages proper body alignment, builds strength, and increases mobility.

YogAlign can add longevity to your life by providing a template for the body to follow, allowing it to be functional and highly mobile well into old age.

YogAlign emphasizes maintaining natural body positions and the natural curves of the spine, and only utilizes positions that mimic functional movement

The basis of the YogAlign practice is to create and maintain posture in natural alignment and therefore the emphasis in on posture, not the poses.

What  differentiates YogAlign from other practices is its focus on rewiring of real-life movement patterning, rather that confusing the body with poses that do not necessarily stimulate real-life function or movement.

Capture me

The practice of YogAlign is centered on eight principles:

  1. Create the Foundation with SIP Breathing.
  2. Learn to Activate the Psoas Muscle-“The Core of Your Core.
  3. Establish Spine Alignment.
  4. Learn Concentric/Eccentric PNF Neuromuscular Postures.
  5. Free Your Fascia and Know Your Anatomy.
  6. Learn Self Massage and Sensory Body Awareness.
  7. Practice Presence and Awareness Now.
  8. Know Your Bodies Authentic Needs.

The Core SIP Breath or Structurally Informed Posture inhalation creates an extension in the body, and an engagement of your waist muscles deep in your core. When you exhale in YogAlign you will practice keeping this length in your spine and waist rather than letting the contraction movements of exhalation collapse your waist and pull your sternum and breastbone down.

With your awareness, each inhale and exhale can be used to traction, align and strengthen your spine and the muscles that act upon it. Using this breathing process can support you in achieving natural alignment that will free your neck and shoulder muscles from the constant strain and overuse that occurs when breathing and posture are less than ideal

The Psoas Muscle ~ The Core of Your Core ~ What does that mean? In YogAlign the psoas is just one of the four muscle we will be referring to as the core muscles. The psoas major joins the upper body with the lower body. It forms part of a group of muscles called the hip flexors, whose action is primarily to lift the upper leg towards the body when the body is fixed or to pull the body towards the leg when the leg is fixed. If constricted and weak, the psoas can not only cause back and hip pain, but can also engages the fight or flight nervous system, likely creating feelings of anxiety, Why is it important to learn how to engage, activate, lengthen and relax this muscle/ group? To live pain-free from your core.

Establishing and supporting your spines alignment and your natural curves in YogAlign practice is yet another way to live a pain-free life. Since spine alignment is a major determinate of your overall health and quality of life, you should practice yoga postures that support and engage the natural curves of your spine. This is why in YogAlign practice all yoga poses stimulate good posture and functional, real life movement. Good health can be regained painlessly and quickly by addressing posture and breathing habits, in order to attain natural alignment during yoga, fitness, and life’s daily movements.

Learning and practicing Concentric/Eccentric PNF Neuromuscular Postures is simply tightening what feels tight. PNF is an acronym for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. It is a technique where you are activating a specific muscle in order to relax the muscles around a joint so you can decrease the stiffness around a joint.  In YogAlign practice we refer to this as resetting the tension. The PNF essentially outwits your habituated stretch reflexes, and resets resting muscle length, which determines your level of flexibility. By consciously tightening a muscle past its normal contraction, or tightening what is already tight, during normal exercises, the nervous system throws a switch that opens you up to more flexibility. PNF allows you to become strong and flexible at the same time, and this occurs quickly with no pain or strain to muscles or joints.

Freeing your fascia and knowing your anatomy are topics that are woven throughout the entire YogAlign practice. A basic knowledge of anatomy will grow as you begin to relate the yoga poses and their benefits to your body. Fascia is a band or sheet of connective tissue, primarily collagen, beneath the skin that attaches, stabilizes, encloses, and separates muscles and other internal organs. YogAlign uses the inner movement of deep breathing to bring blood flow and fasciareleasing where it would be otherwise impossible to palpate or massage your structure. The YogAlign combination of SIP breathing, self massage and yoga postures can be very effective in freeing your fascia. Don’t forget to drink lots of water to keep your fascia hydrated and pliable. After all we are mostly made up of water and space.

Sensory Body Awareness and Proprioception in YogAlign practice allows you to pay attention to the sensations of tension and/or release in the muscles, a feeling of where the body is in space and time and become aware of the kinesthetic sensations while moving through your yoga poses. Sensory Body Awareness and Proprioception will support you in practicing presence and awareness in the now ~ staying in the moment.

Gradually, as you practice YogAlign, you attain the innate muscle memory that allows you to stay in natural alignment without thinking about it-moving gracefully and easily from the core center of your body-with a toned, flexible spine and strong, stabilized joint functions. Showing up to YogAlign practice will allow you the time and space to get to know and support your bodies authentic needs.

YogAlign was created by Michaelle Edwards on the Island of Kauai

“Hey Doc. I’ve lost my core”. Spinal Stability explained.

Article written by Healthfocus Physiotherapist Dr Mandy Hobbs PhD.

Have you ever been told that you need to work on your “core” by a health professional or fitness instructor? Does your “core” just disappear because you didn’t know it was there in the first place or did you just misplace it one day?

So what does the term core stability mean? Like so many terms related to health, it has various meanings to different health professionals.  Some clients with back pain will roll their eyes when I suggest using an exercise approach to low back pain.” I’ve done it all before and it doesn’t work” they lament.  What can be difficult, is determining what they have been shown as exercise  previously and how this relates to their particular back problem. Whilst no one approach to back pain works for all people, understanding the concepts used to treat low back pain is useful.

The concept of spinal stability has evolved  through the 20th century.  Joseph Pilates devised his “Pilates” system of exercise , that emphasised control of movement, in the first half of last century. The idea  of spinal pain resulting from  poor control of spinal stability, developed in the 1970s. This suggested that repetitive microtrauma damages spinal tissue because the spine looses stability. In the 1990s Manohar Panjabi, a researcher in the US described a system of spinal stability that further enhanced this knowledge .

If the spine is considered an unstable stack of bones that buckles without muscle control, Panjabi’s spinal stability theory relies on 3 subsystems that all work together .

The first known as the  passive system is the bony and soft tissue structures including the ligaments and discs, and joints of the spine that keep the spine together particularly at the extremes of movement.

The muscles that act on the spine, know as the active system, is  the second. Muscles can generate forces that control how the spine moves. This however is only as good as the computer that drives it. Relying on the third system known as the control system, muscles can only work when receiving correct messages from the brain.

Confused? You’re not alone. But essentially, a break down in any one of these three systems can lead to poor spinal control and potential damage and pain. So what can we do to improve this when things go wrong and can exercise help?

One approach is to identify which muscles are not working  well and then retrain them so that they return to doing  their job of controlling the spine. Because in the “normal” healthy  spine  these work on automatic pilot without us thinking about them, learning to turn them on during activity is not necessarily easy. It is not a case of just bracing everything and hoping for the best. Too much force and pain can actually increase, and mobility can be lost.

Thorough assessment by a physiotherapist can identify those muscle that have stopped working , and those that may be overworking because the brain has identified an error in the system and has started to recruit the incorrect  muscles. Technology such as  real time ultrasound can be utilized to accurately  visualise  how the deep muscles are working. This can  assist in prescribing the correct exercise program for each individual.

So for those of you that are lucky enough to not have back pain, breathe a sigh of relief that this wonderful, complex system of motor control continues to work and protect your spine without having to think about it too much.

Fear of Silence

While we can connect to others more readily than ever before, are we losing our connection to body and mind? A Zen master thinks so, and offers a nourishing conscious breathing practice as a remedy.

By Thich Nhat Hanh


I have the impression that many of us are afraid of silence. We’re always taking in something—text, music, radio, television, or thoughts—to occupy the space. If quiet and space are so important for our happiness, why don’t we make more room for them in our lives.

One of my longtime students has a partner who is very kind, a good listener, and not overly talkative; but at home her partner always needs to have the radio or TV on, and he likes a newspaper in front of him while he sits and eats his breakfast.

I know a woman whose daughter loved to go to sitting meditation at the local Zen temple and encouraged her to give it a try. The daughter told her, “It’s really easy, Mom. You don’t have to sit on the floor; there are chairs available. You don’t have to do anything at all. We just sit quietly.” Very truthfully the woman replied, “I think I’m afraid to do that.”

We can feel lonely even when we’re surrounded by many people. We are lonely together. There is a vacuum inside us. We don’t feel comfortable with that vacuum, so we try to fill it up or make it go away. Technology supplies us with many devices that allow us to “stay connected.” These days, we are always “connected,” but we continue to feel lonely. We check incoming e-mail and social media sites multiple times a day. We e-mail or post one message after another. We want to share; we want to receive. We busy ourselves all day long in an effort to connect.

What are we so afraid of? We may feel an inner void, a sense of isolation, of sorrow, of restlessness. We may feel desolate and unloved. We may feel that we lack something important. Some of these feelings are very old and have been with us always, underneath all our doing and our thinking. Having plenty of stimuli makes it easy for us to distract ourselves from what we’re feeling. But when there is silence, all these things present themselves clearly.

Practice: Nourishing

When feeling lonely or anxious, most of us have the habit of looking for distractions, which often leads to some form of unwholesome consumption—whether eating a snack in the absence of hunger, mindlessly surfing the Internet, going on a drive, or reading. Conscious breathing is a good way to nourish body and mind with mindfulness. After a mindful breath or two, you may have less desire to fill yourself up or distract yourself. Your body and mind come back together and both are nourished by your mindfulness of breathing. Your breath will naturally grow more relaxed and help the tension in your body to be released.

Coming back to conscious breathing will give you a nourishing break. It will also make your mindfulness stronger, so when you want to look into your anxiety or other emotions you’ll have the calm and concentration to be able to do so.

Guided meditation has been practiced since the time of the Buddha. You can practice the following exercise when you sit or walk. In sitting meditation, it’s important for you to be comfortable and for your spine to be straight and relaxed. You can sit on a cushion with your legs crossed or on a chair with your feet flat on the floor. With the first in-breath, say the first line of the meditation below silently to yourself, and with the out-breath say the second line. With the following in-and out-breaths, you can use just the key words.

Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.
(In. Out.)Breathing in, my breath grows deep.
Breathing out, my breath grows slow.
(Deep. Slow.)

Breathing in, I’m aware of my body.
Breathing out, I calm my body.
(Aware of body. Calming.)

Breathing in, I smile.
Breathing out, I release.
(Smile. Release.)

Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment.
Breathing out, I enjoy the present moment.
(Present moment. Enjoy.)

From Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise by Thich Nhat Hanh.

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold ~ when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade”. ~Charles Dickens

Inner Breath Yoga YogAlign Kauai Hawaii

New Class

Hot Yoga Princeville

Wednesdays 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM

Investment $15

Mats and blocks provided

Please bring a towel and water

5-4280 Kuhio Hwy suite b-201,
(above Bank of Hawaii and next to Pawriffic)
Princeville, HI 96722

Cancellation Policy: Hanalei Bridge Closure will result in YogAlign Class cancellation. Hanalei River Gauge Level

Private classes also available for more information please contact: renee@innerbreathyoga.com  / 909-747-4186

Saving The Hip Socket


I for one am starting a campaign to save the hip socket! I’m wondering if I am alone in this cause?

No one that I know has written one word about saving the mighty hip socket. Nary a Facebook friend (my “friends” are amazing professionals in a variety of health & fitness fields) has voiced their concern or lamented the loss of the human hip socket. The value of keeping one’s original hip sockets has not been discussed, which is unfortunate as there are many benefits (such as financial savings) that are connected with never needing surgery. But then I’m reminded that we are currently under the cultural spell of thinking that the human body is an object; mechanizing living systems still rules. People assume that the hip socket similar to car tires, need replacing. Better to just update to the newest bionic model then consider why they became unhealthy in the first place and how we might avoid and/or recover from such a breakdown. I might be alone in this campaign but I want to grow old with my hip sockets intact. I don’t believe bionic is better. So I ask you this: with all this talk about the importance of connective tissue and the recent focus on the Psoas, is it not time we offer our clients and/or students a guide for maintaining healthy, functional hip sockets for life? Can we ponder (and teach) about how to keep one’s hip sockets healthy and the movements that will maintain this health? If you are with me on this please share…

4 Simple Ways To Save Your Hip Socket For Life by Liz Koch (author of The Psoas Book)

1) NOURISH: When it comes to having healthy hip sockets for life, use them or lose them is the name of the game. Nourishing your hip sockets means stimulating them through an array of functional and fluid movements. The hip joint provides important skeletal and muscular organization that helps us feel safe, balanced, and centered. When we articulate our hip-sockets through subtle and full range motion, these dynamic joints are bathed in precious life-enhancing nourishment.

2) PROTECT: Hip sockets need loving care from wear and tear. Avoid abrasive force by supporting good skeletal positioning and buoyant rebound. Man-made surfaces, such as cement, are brutal on our hip sockets. The pounding our hip sockets take when walking on cement contributes to the literal wearing away of bone. Avoid wearing thin, hard, and/or rigid soled shoes that not only restrict healthy foot movement but also lack gravitational rebound. When encountering harsh walking surfaces, choose shoes that not only are flexible and bend in half, but also are made with a buoyant responsive sole.

3) SUPPORT: Offer your hip sockets global skeletal support by sitting and standing on balanced bones. Sitting on top and slightly in front of the skeletal pelvic tuberosity (sits bones) articulates the pelvic basin, which is vital for differentiating the torso from the leg.  A balanced, centered pelvis and articulated leg relieves unnecessary tension around the hip socket. Avoid or adapt car seats, office chairs, and typical seating that are bucket style as these strain the hip sockets. While standing, stop tucking your tailbone. Doing so interferes with a skeletally balanced, free-floating pelvis. Interrupting skeletal balance invariably calls upon the psoas. Called upon to counterbalance poor sitting choices, this tissue (which directly flows over the ball and socket joint) becomes dry and eventually shortens, which further disrupts movement and limits circulation in the hip sockets. Choose a seat that provides a firm, flat surface for sitting on top of the pelvic bones (not the back of the sacrum). Doing so encourages healthy blood flow within the socket joint and throughout the leg and foot. Further improve circulation by sitting on top (and slightly on the front) of the tuberosity with your knee slightly lower than the pelvis and your foot fully planted on the floor.

4) VALUE: Scar tissue disrupts the coherency of the global connective tissue and is known to disrupt functional movement. Pulled and compressed tissue can also cause nerve pain and may distress organs. By avoiding surgery we not only keep our functional hip sockets, but also we maintain our healthy connective tissue, protecting our juicy, expressive Psoas. During hip socket surgery, connective tissue is cut and the delicate Psoas may be pinned, cut, or slashed  in the name of release. When scar tissue forms, this juicy tenderloin loses its dynamic integrity. But that is a whole other subject: how best to prepare and recover when the hip sockets have become obsolete.

A Manhattan Yoga Studio for Bad Backs

By Natalie Shutler

In the era of hip-hop yoga and handstands on Instagram, it’s easy to associate yoga with impossibly lithe and limber young people. Those with chronic back pain, arthritis or a bum hip might not feel so welcome in a power vinyasa class.

But Samamkaya Yoga in the Flatiron district caters to practitioners with aches and pains.

Hour long classes are slow and methodical, focusing on therapeutic movements that strengthen alignment. Students usually complete just four or five poses, achieved with the help of slings, belts, blocks and other props.

Barry Koski, 67, a retired educator with a pronounced thoracic spinal curve, said his “back and spine feel as healthy as they have ever felt.” He credits his well-being to Deborah Wolk, 56, a wiry co-founder of the studio, which is run cooperatively by all of the teachers.

Ms. Wolk is obsessed with precision in movement.

She had the walls of the studio painted in a grid — broad stripes of salmon, gray, yellow, blue and hot pink — and there are vertical and horizontal axes on each yoga mat to help focus students on their body alignment. Chairs, blocks and bolsters are stuffed into shelves and corners, but during each class, the studio becomes littered with them, as they are used to support a modified downward-facing dog or child’s pose. Sydney, an articulated plastic skeleton, is often hauled out of his corner for anatomy demonstrations.

“It is hard for students with scoliosis or long-term injuries to know where they are in space,” Ms. Wolk said. “Lining oneself up with yoga props helps guide students closer to their center, into balance, and they experience less pain.”

Karla Silverman, 49, said it was this emphasis on careful positioning that made her feel safe. A former dancer, she has considerable back and neck pain and has found that a lot of exercise “can overstretch your already overstretched places, while keeping the weaker areas tighter.”

On a recent Saturday, Ms. Silverman and Mr. Koski hung upside down from rope slings, letting their spines draw down toward the floor, opening the spaces between their vertebrae. At various other points in the class, students lay peaceably on the floor with their legs against the wall, or stretched their hamstrings by leaning over chairs piled with blankets and bolsters. After explaining and demonstrating each pose, Ms. Wolk would flit among individuals, coaxing students into deeper stretches or pointing out a shoulder that looked too scrunched.

The personal attention is a major plus for Helen Pearlstein, 70, a native of Brooklyn who has severe scoliosis. She said she appreciated her teachers’ knowledge of her back pain.

“I feel very comfortable trying new poses because I know the teachers would never let me hurt myself,” she said. “And my doctors are amazed by the movement I have.”

6 Exercises to Stretch Your Hands and Feet


You probably know that it’s important to stretch your legs, arms, back, core – but did you know that your hands and feet need stretching, too?

The purpose of stretching is to maintain full range of motion around a joint. When we have full range of motion, we’re less likely to compensate and alter our movement patterns. Altered movements can lead to muscle imbalance, distorted posture, and can lead to injury.

So, think about your feet and hands and how often they are in a flexed position throughout the day – your feet flexed as you walk or stand, your hands flexed while driving or typing. It’s pretty easy to see that we’re not usually moving our hands and feet through their full range of motion. I thought I’d share some of my favorite stretches for hands and feet that help to reduce unwanted tension (often, tension we didn’t know was there until we stretch!) and possibly prevent injury.

Stretches for hands:

  • Start seated in a comfortable position. Extend your arms out to your sides. With your index finger and thumb of each hand, make an “O” shape. Tap each finger to your thumb (on the same hand), making the “O” shape as round as possible with your fingers. After you’ve done each finger, tap each finger to your thumb again, trying to keep your fingers as straight as possible.
  • Extend your arms out to your sides again, then wrap your thumb into your hand and the rest of our fingers around your thumb. (So you’re making a fist.) Keeping your fist clenched, angle your fingers, down towards the floor, feeling the stretch on the inner part of your forearms and wrists.
  • Place your fingertips on the floor towards your body (so the top of your hand is on the floor) then gently press your palm towards the floor. This is a great stretch to open up the tops of the wrists that are so often flexed and shortened.

Stretches for feet:

  • Sit in a comfortable chair and place a towel on the floor in front of you. Use your toes to grab the towel, and maybe lift it off the floor an inch or two. Hold it here for 3 deep breaths, then release. This stretch is especially helpful for those who experience plantar fasciitis.
  • Stand, holding onto something sturdy like a countertop for balance. Bring your weight into your left leg and slightly bend the knee. Lift up your right foot, and put it back down (top of your foot to the floor); press your toenails into the floor and try to get as much of the top of that foot onto the floor as you can. Take a deep breath and slide your right foot forward 2-4 inches. You’ll feel an amazing stretch on the top of the foot, opening up the ankle that’s so often flexed.
  • Still standing, using a tennis ball or small soft ball, gently roll each foot on top of the ball. When you find a spot that feels particularly sticky, hold it here for a few breaths.