By Renee’ Fulkerson
By Renee’ Fulkerson
- Am I able to take a full deep breath in this posture?
- Does my spine and sacrum maintain their curves and integrity?
- Does this posture simulate functional movement, am I comfortable and stable?
We have been exploring in my public YogAlign practice that some folks do not and have not ever felt comfortable and stable in a forward lunge. A lunge is a lower-body exercise that works several muscle groups at once. The targeted muscles include the glutes in your hips and butt along with the hamstrings and quadriceps in your thighs. The calf muscles in your lower legs, your abdominal muscles and your back muscles act as stabilizers during this exercise.
Not feeling stable in the forward lunge restricts deep breath, alignment and there for is not comfortable or stable. The solution is simple we have placed a yoga block under the back foot which has a double duty purpose. One it allows the student to get alignment from the foot to the hip, raises the heel to a comfortable level and creates the stability the student was lacking and once they are in a stable lunge everything else falls into place.
I have also had students lunge with the assist of the wall. Placing their right foot forward big toe close to the wall be not touching, left foot back on a block or heel lifted once they feel stable (foot in alignment with hip) I have them check to see if the back of the head the Occipital bone and the sacrum are in alignment creating even more stability and bonus proper alignment. Next when alignment and stability are solid we sink into the front knee and place the pads of our fingers (fingers open to turn on the arm muscles) against the wall upper chest height and start our SIP breath (structurally Informed Posture- informs our body of how to be in good posture by aligning from the inside out). Allowing this core breath to stabilize the body along with drawing the shoulder blades together creating even more stability.
When properly aligned in a posture with effective breathing and feeling stable and comfortable then and only then will we reap all the benefits the posture has to offer. I would say the above described YogAlign Power Lunge is sustainable for the human body as it ticks all our boxes.
If we are moving through a yoga practice that is harming or damaging our human body what would be the point? Although sometimes this may happen and we do not even realize it is happening. Be careful when an instructor cues a posture is supposed to be painful and to breath through the pain. That may be somewhat true for a person who has had a debilitating accident and is in recovery (physical therapy) and even then I would question the motive and benefits.
We can create a happy healthy mind, body and spirit well into a mature age by putting our body in breathable, aligned, functional, comfortable and stable yoga postures.
Now go out and use your sustainable body for good!
See you on the mat.
By Renee’ Fulkerson
You might be thinking what does sitting in a chair haft to do with an ocean’s reefs? I would be thinking the same thing if I had not made the connection personally on my last adventure out snorkeling.
A little back story:
Last year in the middle of April 2018 Kauai received 50 inches of rain in 24 hours that devastated the island. The north shore communities of Wainiha and Haena were cut off from the rest of the island due to countless mudslides that covered the only two lane road in or out of these communities. It took over a year to repair the road to a safety standard that would allow all non Wainiha and Haena residents to re-enter the area.
During this one year period the only folks allowed in and out of the above mentioned communities while massive road repair was taking place were the full time residents. As a full time resident living in Haena I saw with my own eyes the land transform.
Myself and many of the locals had an opportunity of a lifetime to spend time on the secluded and empty beaches. We began to see the fish returning, turtles nesting that had not been there since folks could remember and the reefs were coming alive again.
This is when I began my regular snorkeling adventures!
During this time I continued teaching and practicing YogAlign – pain-free yoga from your inner core. I began realizing much of my movements in the water reflected my movements in YogAlign. Not to mention breathing through the snorkel replicated the SIP breath in my practice. Like snorkeling a full body activity we too in YogAlign engage the entire body in practice and view the body as a whole.
The primary muscle groups engaged while snorkeling include:
Hip flexors, ham strings, upper and lower abdominal’s, quads and gluteul muscles
A fair amount of flexibility in the ankle region as well as the ability to point the toes like a dancer is necessary (if you prefer to avoid leg and foot cramps).
A strong core (abdominal, Oblique and back muscles) help to create a stable platform for legs to kick as well as a balance in your front and back leg strength.
Here is were the sitting in a chair comes in as none of the above mentioned muscle groups are engaged during sitting – it is quite the opposite. (the average American spends 7.7 hours a day sitting)
Having said that you take an average person who sits 7.7 hours a day in a chair and he or she decides one day to go snorkeling chances are the ocean reefs (fragile underwater ecosystem) and themselves are going to suffer.
How because he or she would be expecting their bodies to preform in a way it is incapable of preforming. The primary muscle groups that need to be engaged while snorkeling have amnesia from sitting. Flexibility in the ankles and pointing of the toes would be limited – due to the shortening and tightening of the front line while sitting. Their core would be void creating an unstable platform for their legs to kick not to mention the unbalance between the back and front leg muscles.
How does all of this effect the oceans reefs?
On my last snorkeling adventure I realized I had gained greater endurance, strength and stamina (all supported by my regular YogAlign practice). However when I looked all around me as far as my eye could see people were STANDING ON THE REEFS! Why? Because they were tired and or had leg/ foot cramps and difficulty breathing (and yes I asked).
I swam up and said do you realize you are standing on a fragile underwater ecosystem that has had a years gift to repair itself from the endless years of damage it has received? Usually the response was I was so tired I could not get back to shore or I was having trouble breathing and got a leg cramp. lol
I encourage everyone to get out and get moving including snorkeling however, not at the sake of our ocean reefs (fragile underwater ecosystems) or their safety. #getupstandupforyourlife
See you on the mat!
by Renee’ Fulkerson
We are always looking for an external sign (including myself) to solidify our answer to whatever question is at hand.
Lately I have been pondering alone and with students in YogAlign class the idea and simplicity of trusting our own gut. Literally trusting our own guts aka internal organs.
Which brings me to a recent topic that was brought up by founder of YogAlign Michaelle Edwards. “Do any of you feel there is a difference between yoga pose alignment and postural alignment”? The above question sent me down a rabbit hole of thoughts and research before I could answer the question.
The obvious answer to me was yes I do see a difference between the two. Yoga pose alignment is taught to you and postural alignment is programmed in your brain etc. Having said that Yoga poses taught to a student feel external (judgment and opinions from outside yourself) where as postural alignment comes from within be it programmed (a habit) you have your own judgment and opinion.
I started thinking about how the external and internal judgement affects us be it in our yoga class or pose and how we see ourselves our body image in general. How a yoga practice can support us in letting go of our own judgment (ironic).
I then started thinking about body images and body shapers aka Spanx or corset. I personally have never worn a body shaper myself and do not judge others if they have however, this topic too goes back to trusting our guts. From my research on body shapers men and women alike wear them under their garments for many reasons however, lets face it mostly for vanity.
Body shaper enthusiasts have written about the pros and cons of wearing this type of garment. Some say how they feel more confident, sexy and are made aware of their bad posture habits and adjust themselves accordingly or rely on the garment to keep them in proper posture. Others say the garment felt okay at first but by the end of the day it has cut into their skin, cut off circulation and they cannot imagine another minute in the garment. One comment in particular caught my attention I quote “3. Pro: I’m aware! Because I’m being held in I am naturally holding myself more upright. I consistently think about contracting my core–giving myself a subtle abdominal workout ALL. DAY. LONG! My posture is more erect”.
This is where the GUT comes in aka internal organs brains, lungs, liver, bladder, kidneys, heart, stomach and intestines. The obvious answers delivered directly to us from our guts is simply comfort or discomfort. Michaelle Edwards founder of YogAlign goes on to ask what is a correct pose? To which I give my two cents “I want the body to move as nature intended. “Everything thing has a place and everything is in its place”. Bones properly aligned which then allows muscles, joints and ligaments to follow and preform as intended. Allowing space for the vital organs to function properly keeps the nervous system happy – resulting in creating a sustainable body.
If you guts aren’t happy it cannot possibly be the correct pose. Which brings me back to the body shapers if your guts are not happy it cannot possibly create favorable conditions for your mind, spirit or body. The most likely bodily response you are going to achieve from holding your core in all day is exhaustion. Exhaustion of the sympathetic nervous system responding to the squeezing of your guts triggering the fight or flight response. Not to mention relying on a body shaper to keep you in good posture is counter productive as well as an illusion.
Bringing me to my conclusion trusting our GUT is the bodies way of communicating its yay or nay answer with comfort or discomfort. As my teacher always says “you are never going to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. See you on the mat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Ian Aldrich
At the University of Vermont, an unusual initiative wants to help students discover the benefits of well-rounded healthy living. Is it working?
The tattered, brain-shaped football immediately begins flying around the classroom. It’s just past 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday in early September, and Dr. James Hudziak, a professor of child psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Vermont, tosses the foam ball around his auditorium like a quarterback marching his team down the field. Deep throws. Quick slants. Lasers down the middle. Seemingly every one of the more than 200 first-year students get a hand—or, in some cases, a face—on the object. Even those who sit directly in front aren’t spared the good doctor’s aim.
On it goes. Hudziak’s marksmanship and occasional wobbles are accompanied by a soundtrack—a little Frank Sinatra, some Billy Idol—that belts from the room’s speakers. As students find their way to their seats to the growling tones of “White Wedding,” the atmosphere feels more like a playoff contest than a college course.
“This is the most unusual class I have,” says a student sitting next to me while she scans the room for friends and unexpected flying objects. Then it gets quiet.
Hudziak, a barrel-chested man with a penchant for quoting movies like The Jerk and Pulp Fiction, instructs his class to put away their phones and notebooks before turning the room over to the yogini, who leads the group in a five-minute meditation. It’s standard stuff—a closed eyes, deep breaths, embrace-the-present kind of session. With a seeming flip of a switch, this collection of fidgety pre-meds and confident Division 1 hockey bros sits still. The 75-minute lecture will end the same way.
These meditative breaks are an essential component of Hudziak’s “Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies” course, which goes deep into the science and benefits of clean living. This class is the signature component of the university’s three-year-old Wellness Environment (WE) program: an incentivized health-promoting substance-free community, founded by Hudziak, that motivates first- and second-year students to engage in various healthy behaviors. The doctor’s lectures are fast-paced and heavy on the science, and he doesn’t allow his students to take notes. A calmer mind, the thinking goes, is a more focused mind.
On this hilltop campus in Burlington, Vermont, Hudziak is making a preemptive strike against the lifestyle issues—booze, drugs, lack of sleep—that exist at schools across the country. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in four U.S. undergraduates report academic issues as a result of drinking, and some 1,800 college students die from alcohol-related injuries each year.
“What we’ve been doing isn’t working,” says Hudziak, who received a $1.8 million grant in July from the Conrad Hilton Foundation, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit that funds social programs around the world. “Universities around the country have a five-year graduation rate below 50 percent, [a ton of] kids are getting hurt every year at universities because of alcohol, one in five women experience negative sexual interaction, almost all due to alcohol and drugs. That’s why we’re doing this.”
In WE, students sign a contract to not introduce drugs and alcohol into their dorm. In return, they’re given free access to classes on meditation, mindfulness, yoga, cooking, and nutrition, and even music lessons. Gym passes are free for those who commit to working out 40 times a year. So are Apple Watches for students who file nightly reports on things like what they’ve eaten, how much they’ve slept, and whether they worked out. The WE course catalog reads like a lesson plan for better living: “The Science of Happiness,” “Adversity and the Brain,” “Sex, Love, and the Neuroscience of Relationships.” It’s science-meets-lifestyle stuff with everything built around Hudziak’s “four pillars” of health: exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, and mentorship.
“We can all change who we are, and we can change who we are by changing our brain,” says the 60-year-old neuroscientist, who has authored more than 180 peer-reviewed papers and holds professorship positions at the University of Washington at St. Louis and Erasmus University in the Netherlands. “The way we change our brain is by changing our environment.”
Universities are often allergic to quick pivots, but during its short existence, WE has grown from a niche program of just 120 students into one that welcomed nearly 1,200 first- and second-year students this past September. A majority of them live in a new, $55 million residential building that’s exclusive to WE students. It features a gym as well as yoga and meditation rooms on each of its seven floors. The neighboring dining hall allows WE members to eat locally sourced food and learn to cook. On-demand fitness is available throughout the day, and each student is given a violin for the year and offered free lessons.
In WE, Hudziak has built something that’s integrated into his students’ lives. There are iBeacons, for example, throughout the WE buildings that allow students to seamlessly check in at the dining hall, gym, and yoga studio via a custom mobile app. The tech allows WE participants to monitor their activity while also pushing the data, anonymously, to Hudziak so he can study WE’s impact. The students’ participation in WE activities earns them virtual WE coins to buy program swag like sweatshirts and hats. These may sound like cushy perks, but there’s a science behind the offerings.
Hudziak’s launch of WE was borne out of the same anxiety many parents face when they first send their children to college. A Chicago native, he attended medical school at the University of Minnesota and completed his residency program at Washington University in St. Louis, where his research included studying the effects of genetics and environment on 450 sets of twins. He and his wife, Theresa, moved to Burlington in 1993, and Hudziak started work at UVM’s Larner School of Medicine. There, he launched the Vermont Family Based Approach, a child psychology practice that incorporated much of what he later used in WE. Hudziak worked with parents on navigating their own stresses and helped their children dial back their use of medications and steered them into music, yoga, and meditation.
But it wasn’t until Hudziak, who has four daughters, saw his second-oldest child fail to secure space in one of UVM’s limited substance-free dorms that he turned his attention to the lifestyle issues affecting college students and their particular period of brain development. The more he researched, the more he wondered if he could apply his findings to this age group.
In the late fall of 2014, Hudziak sat down with Annie Stevens, UVM’s vice provost of student affairs, and Dr. Jon Porter, the school’s director of the Center for Health and Wellbeing, and outlined how he wanted to bring the Vermont Family Based Approach to UVM’s undergraduate population. At a university consistently listed in Princeton Review’s “top party schools” in the nation, Hudziak’s ideas dovetailed with the university’s recent efforts to roll back student drinking. In the spring of 2014, Hudziak taught his first “Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies” class. That fall, WE officially kicked off.
The program’s success stems in part from Hudziak’s sheer will. He is both WE’s visionary and its biggest booster. He’s part professor, part doctor, part football coach. A stroll through the dining hall becomes a round of check-ins with his students, most of whom he knows by name. Popular phrases include “Are you building community?” and “Win the week.” His enthusiasm is infectious, and rather than getting eye rolls from skeptical students, Hudziak is greeted with high-fives and handshakes. They comfortably interrupt his lunch to ask a question (“So when are those Apple Watches coming in?”) or update him on their WE progress.
“His passion, his personality, his genuine care for students—those are the things I think helped us change so much so quickly,” says Stevens. “He would remind us if it feels hard, it’s because we’re changing systems. We’re not just changing residence hall environments, but changing the systems around those environments to make this work.”
While UVM is on the vanguard of student wellness programs, in recent years an increasing number of colleges and universities have incorporated more healthy practices into campus life. In September, NYU launched the Wellness Initiative (WIN), a small program loosely based on WE’s tenets. At Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, students can take advantage of nutrition counseling and massage therapy. Yoga, tai chi, and qigong classes are offered at Bowdoin College in Maine. And in 2013, Spelman College in Atlanta went so far as to scrap its athletic department in order to fund yoga, Pilates, and swimming programs. As WE has taken shape, Hudziak has had conversations with fellow neuroscientists and psychologists at universities like Georgetown, Tulane, and Virginia Commonwealth about replicating his program.
But before any of that happens, Hudziak has some grand ideas for expanding the WE program at UVM. There’s talk of more classes and other extensions, like a WE run, WE triathlon, and a WE a capella group. Eventually, Hudziak would like to spread the program’s tentacles beyond first-year students, even to those who live off campus. And then beyond. He envisions building a WE institute to help other schools bring the program to their schools.
Big plans, to be sure, but the neuroscientist in Hudziak believes that by giving students a better understanding of who they are, how their brain works, and the reasons they’re feeling the way they feel, WE is helping them embark on a life after college that is much less likely to include common American ailments like obesity, diabetes, and depression.
And between the perks, lifestyle choices, and the academic curriculum, students have embraced all angles of Hudziak’s program. “I wanted something beyond an alcohol- and drug-free dorm,” says Cameron Digiacomo, a first-year student from New Hampshire, as he prepares to do some squats at the WE gym with his friend and fellow first-year student Halle Sullivan. “It offers an incentive to stay healthy and have that college experience,” he adds. “I’ve always been academically and athletically competitive, and I wanted to keep that going.”
Sullivan, who grew up outside of Boston, nods her head in agreement. “You hear about people going to college and eating pizza all the time, the freshman 15 or whatever, but here it’s so different,” she says. “WE makes it so easy to sustain your health goals.”
Just across the room, Solenne Kriner, a second-year German student who returned to the program this fall to work as a residential assistant in the new dorm, is in the middle of an arms and back session. “[WE] was probably the biggest thing for me for feeling at home here,” Kriner says. “It also taught me to step back in moments that feel super stressful, like an exam, and say to myself, ‘This is not as important as my health and personal well-being. I’m going to be fine.’”
These aren’t isolated success stories. Returning rates among WE first-year students are 6 percent higher compared to UVM students not involved in the program. And coupled with programming the university already had in place, such as incorporating more substance-free events during high-risk drinking weekends like Halloween, WE has helped drive down student-reported binge drinking by about a third over the past five years. Overall, UVM officials see WE as being a crucial component in reducing undergraduate alcohol consumption and diminishing the university’s well-established reputation as a party school.
“Promoting health is far more powerful than preventing illness,” says Hudziak. “The transitional age brain—we think of it as this incredibly toxic space. Drug abuse, depression, suicide, horrible accidents. But my response to that is to think of it as a reactive space. And if you’re reacting to health-promoting things, it’s like the greatest opportunity for positive health outcomes.”
Maybe that sounds overly optimistic, but it sure seems like it’s working.
By Laura Kupperman
Ample scientific literature supports the benefits of yoga for cancer care, pointing toward improvements in quality of life, well-being, sleep, strength, and energy. Studies also show diminished anxiety, depression, stress, PTSD symptoms, heart rate, and more. (If you’re interested in the research, this is a great place to start, and yogatherapy.health lists relevant studies, too.)
What I’d like to share with you here, though, are the benefits I’ve witnessed, and experienced, personally. Since 2005, I’ve offered yoga to hundreds of women and men diagnosed with cancer, as well as trained other teachers how to do so safely. Over and over, I’ve been awed and humbled by the positive effects of integrating yoga therapy into cancer care. And as a 15+ year cancer survivor myself, I’ve also been on the receiving end of everything I’m sharing with you.
Here then, are my top five benefits of incorporating yoga therapy into cancer care.
- Befriending and supporting your post-diagnosis body. The physical side of cancer treatment may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, transplant, hormone therapy, and immunotherapy. Even under the best of circumstances, your body likely will have been poked, prodded, and cut, resulting in asymmetries, imbalances, weakness, and tightness. Yoga therapy can help you gently explore your body’s “new normal” so you can safely begin to address these side-effects.
- Breathing deeply. Breath is a central pillar of yoga therapy, and the breath is never more important than when you’ve received a life-changing diagnosis. When you breathe deeply you massage your internal organs, improve lymphatic flow, and help calm your nervous system, among other benefits.
- Standing up straight. This one sounds basic, but think about it: If you’ve ever had a bad cold, all you want to do is curl up in the fetal position and lie on the couch. Multiply that by 20 with a cancer diagnosis and by 100 if you’ve had surgery in your chest, and you may end up walking around like Quasimodo. Adopting a slumped, heart-protective posture is totally normal under the circumstances, but your organs and glands function best when they’re not mushed together. Chemotherapy and other treatments exact quite a toll on many body parts, and we need to support their health by giving the
m the space to work. There’s a reason the “Wonder Woman Power Pose” (shown to increase confidence and pain tolerance) involves standing up straight, and yoga therapy can you help experience this power for yourself.
- Paying attention to the present moment. If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer you may be spending a lot of time in your head. Pondering treatment options and incessantly thinking about “what if” can both create stress and rob you of the present moments that are still yours to enjoy. Yoga therapy can teach you how to mindfully engage with what is actually happening in the present moment, and take a vacation from mind chatter.
- Making peace with whatever is, or isn’t. Yogic philosophy is rooted in helping practitioners find peace of mind. One of the best definitions of yoga I’ve heard is “the ability to make peace with whatever is or isn’t happening in your life.” Let’s face it—cancer sucks. Nobody asks to be dealt that hand of cards. But it’s also true that there are ways of experiencing an illness that can increase suffering, and other paths that can help decrease suffering. Yoga therapy is a terrific path for learning how to decrease suffering.
Many students I’ve worked with over the years began their yoga practices after completing chemotherapy or other treatment, and the one comment I repeatedly hear is, “Why didn’t I start this sooner?!” So regardless of whether you’ve tried yoga before, my encouragement to you is DON’T WAIT. If you want individualized support from a caring professional who has the tools to help you start feeling better now, it’s time to check out yoga therapy.
Laura Kupperman, MA, C-IAYT, is a yoga therapist specializing in yoga for people with cancer. She also trains others to work with cancer survivors, presents at medical conferences on the benefits of yoga for cancer wellness, and serves as a business coach for other wellness professionals.