Yoga

I teach and practice yoga as embodied presence. I offer one on one yoga instruction at my office, either to supplement the Rolfing or as a standalone practice. Read through the topics below for a taste of what we may explore in a session.

I teach and practice yoga as embodied presence.  The primary exploration is one’s relationship with awareness. For example we practice Interoception, self sensing, or being with the whole body at once.  I encourage cultivating a way of sensing in which all of the atoms, molecules and cells of the body are self-aware.   Moving from this space of presence, all is meditation.  
In a yoga session we can speak to the parasympathetic nervous system (dominant in healing and grace). This is done by constant mindfulness of the body, this allows us to notice when we are tensing certain key structures of the body, and noticing this we can choose to soften.  In a sympathetic nervous system response (dominant in fight or flight) there is a tightening of the jaw, eyes, tongue, and pelvic floor.  With clients I am often speaking to and working directly with the nervous system, teaching us to stay open and relaxed while being engaged and playful.
In the latest research from Vladimir Yanda (Bhowmick et al J leukoc Biol 86 (2009)) he discovered a relationship between strong sympathetic nervous system activation and fascial tonicity. Sympathetic activation leads directly to fascial stiffening through production of TGF-beta-1 protein. So with long term sympathetic nervous system overactivity is the development of a tight fascial matrix.  
“Let the immense earth carry the weight of your body.”  Sensing into your weight as it interpenetrates the earth, simultaneously rooting you while lifting you up and drawing you into your center.  Gravity is our omnipresent physiological reminder that we are being supported by the universe.  We are always supported!  Cultivating a habit of sensing into this paradoxical feeling simultaneously cultivates a psychological feeling of Okayness.  Our nervous systems are hungry for this feeling, of being supported, of the sensation of the ground, reaching up through our bones and organs.  If we don’t feel it arising as support, when the feeling of being pulled gracefully into the earth is Unconscious then we create what Hubert Godard calls a “character knot”.  This is the body’s way of both physiologically and psychologically (because physiology and psychology are Co-arising) creating a sense of stability, by tightening in response to this loss of ground feeling.  So we tighten somewhere in the body, maybe the shoulders, the jaw, the chronic holding places, really the tension is in the whole body, and we hold that until we feel deep support and can let it go. “Before we move, before we build a perception, the background to all our actions is gravity orientation, the way in which we locate ourselves in space and on Earth, is necessary to organize the movement of the senses and the movement of our body.  Rolf referred to gravity as, “the most potent physical influence in any human life.”   When SI (or Yoga) assists a body to recover postural schema integrity, and to integrate a person’s life with his or her postural orientation settings, change occurs at a deep level of movement intelligence.”  Kevin Frank, “Body as a Movement Sytem, A premise for structural integration.”  
The subtle body refers to the movement of awareness-energy throughout the body. The wisdom traditions of the world have different names and approaches to subtle body work. My experience comes mostly from practicing Tibetan Buddhism, Qigong, the Diamond Approach, and Pranayama.  Attuning to the movements of subtle energy in our practice adds a richness to life.  My primary focus for guiding students into subtle body experience is through the belly center or hara, and the central channel.

The subtle body sounds esoteric and hidden.  It is often hidden to most people, but not because it is extraordinary, we just haven’t been paying enough attention to sensation.  Subtle body practice is basically just paying attention to sensation.  As the capacity to feel your own body sensations deepens, more and more “subtle” phenomena arise.  A simple progression might be from sensing a numbness in the belly, to a small amount of feeling, to a deeper richer more grounded and stable sense of feeling.  Each of these feelings relate directly to your emotional state or state of presence.  The richer the belly sensation is, the more there is a sense of “I am here, steady, ready.”  That has a definite emotional quality to it right?  This emotional state is grounded in a feeling sense in the body, and what’s more is you’re more likely to notice when something knocks you out of the steady present feeling.  Then you can see what happens on the level of sensation when you get disoriented.

The path of cultivating the habit of sensing all of one’s body and the movements of sensations in the body is central to yoga, meditation, and psychology (body, heart, mind).

Nervous system health, coordination and posture, and emotional intelligence all rely on awareness of sensation. They are all profoundly influenced and depend on lucid sensing for the feedback process leading to growth and integration.

Your nervous systems healing and regulating response depends largely on what sensations it is receiving.  If you can’t feel your feet or anything below your head or waist for example, there is a direct correlation to your nervous system knowing it is safe and ok to rest and relax.

See my paper on the science and practice of embodied mindfulness (blog entry titled embodied mindfulness) for relation of sensation to coordination and posture.

Within the context of yoga, the guiding principle within this context is to unite opposites. We have up and down in the body, these two poles of heaven and earth. When the pelvic floor and palate are both released as if they were saying Ah (like getting a joke or a profound idea), there will be a peak experience of the two poles of the body uniting. The uniting of opposites within the body results in the unifying experience of the central channel. Likewise when inside and outside are dissolved into one (aided by a soft gaze) then the sensations release into a feeling of openness and expansion. To this inquiry we can add psychological and emotional material. Sensing into the heart, you can learn to gather the information that is presenting there, heart ache, excitement, sadness, whatever is there. As this material gets processed and resolved the sensation can open up into the Feeling of a resolved heart, a heart that is free of constraints. The actual process of resolving the emotional material is a little more sophisticated, but the importance of the capacity for sensing and staying with sensation is paramount to effective healing and integration.

The central channel, called Shushumna Nadi in the yoga and buddhist tradition, is a way of making conscious the movement of subtle energy up and down the spine and throughout the body.  Gathering and channeling the stray energy in this way has numerous benefits, perhaps the most important is the way it settles the mind, preparing for deep meditation.  In my practice I use the central channel as a way of coming to know the energetic core of the body. Sustained attention to the movement of Prana or Life Force that crests as waves in the energetic spine can eventually bring about periods of blissful illumination. In this state we can know the body as light, sensing the body of light somatically.  The central channel is an entrance to states of complete embodied openness.

Embryology has a lot to say about the central channel.  During days 15-18 of human embryologic development something mysterious happens, a nonmaterial, nonphysical field of influence arises in the form of a midline.  This midline becomes the reference point around which development organizes itself embryologically.  This field or force drives our orientation not only for primal development but throughout our adult life.

Before the primitive streak arises there are only two layers of embryonic stem cells, the ectoderm and the endoderm. The endoderm layer comprises most of the organs and the digestive system from the anus to the mouth.  The ectodermal layer forms the nervous system including the brain, spinal cord and deepest skin layer.

The movement of the primitive streak creates the third layer of embryonic stem cells called the mesoderm.  The mesoderm layer becomes all of our connective tissues, bones, blood, tendons, ligaments, muscles and fascia.  All three layers are equally affected by the orientation of the midline.

The ends of each layer forms important landmarks for sensing and consciously aligning with the central channel.  For the endoderm this is the mouth and the anus.  For the mesoderm it is bony tip of the coccyx and the center of the sphenoid bone in the cranium (the roof of the palate).  In terms of sensing the mesoderm, it might be easier to begin with sensing the sacrum and occiput.  The two ends of the ectoderm are the membrane that covers the base of the spinal cord at the coccyx, and the third ventricle, a fluid filled cavity in the center of the brain.

I recommend using these anatomical structures as reference points in your central channel meditation.

I incorporate alignment based yoga in my yoga and Rolfing work. This method is a great way to find balanced posture.  To dissect the holistic nature of alignment a bit, we could look at several major joints in the body, and their capacity to distribute weight in a way that allows the weight to travel evenly through to pour into the ground, without getting caught up and held in the joints.  This is a lens of Rolfing as well, and I heard from Tom Meyers, that Ida Rolf used to get people into yoga poses in order to read their structures better and know where to work next.  I also employ this method in my Rolfing practice.  The anatomical subtleties of this approach are too many to go into here, this is best done one on one with a qualified practitioner.

While all bodies are patterned differently, there are certainly ways to intelligently guide a group of students with greatly varying physiological patterning into optimal alignment.  The challenge to help students find healthy alignment grows with the size of a class.  This is why I highly recommend yoga practitioners, even those who have been practicing for years, to go through a couple of foundations series, or individual instruction which will insure that they have a great understanding of their individual patterning and how best to practice.  In your average drop in class there is usually an unfortunately high percentage of students that would be much better off with this kind of preliminary instruction.    

I’m more interested in promoting an aligned body than a flexible body.  Although flexibility is important and has its usefulness, too much flexibility can be problematic.  There are many people who have ligaments that are too loose, which poor alignment will only exacerbate.  Once ligaments are overstretched, the road to rehabilitation can be long and difficult.  Instead of too much of an emphasis on flexibility or the perfect pose, we can cultivate our somatic sensing and embodied mindfulness. These skills coupled with an understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses in alignment is a lifelong practice that will keep a body young and adaptive. Alignment, like enlightenment, is much better understood as a verb. There is no final state of enlightenment, it is a process of wisdom and unity unfolding, likewise with alignment, there is no final state you reach, ah and you can rest there now you are perfectly aligned! It is a living intelligence, a way of being, aligning with gravity and the graceful flow of energy in your body.
Aligning is accessing our body’s native wisdom, like the tree that roots into the ground, while reaching into the sky, without concept, without effort. When we use the mind to help with aligning the body, it is best done through imagination, “imagine extending roots of feeling into the earth beneath you, while your spine simultaneously grows taller like a sunflower reaching for sunlight.” The movement brain, our bodies self sensing coordinative system, responds best to imagination, rather than following some static rules of posture. I believe this is because, in imagination, it is much easier to start inside the experience of the body, feeling what it’s like, for example, to grow towards sunlight, as opposed to moving an object around; “lift your head higher”. This second example has a more disjointed effect, we are just moving the head, rather than sensing the whole organism moving and feeling at once. This in an important distinction, relating to the body as lived experience of presence, versus as an object to be manipulated by the mind.  
Before integration there must be differentiation. “Oh, when I tilt my pelvis this far forward, I lose contact with the line of gravity.” Embodied Mindfulness creates differentiation. Notice, what’s happening in my body now? What if I make a change in orientation: soft gaze, relaxed jaw, sensing the whole body all at once, letting go of any grasping. Now what is happening in my body? If we approach yoga in this way, as a way of extending presence into the whole body, with this as the first step in all of our poses, then our yoga practice will develop a deep mindfulness simultaneously. Then our practice becomes self-fulfilling, we stop tensing towards some future moment or accomplishment.
Extending presence into our body in this way may have the surprising effect of transforming our notion of our body as a solid thing. Each time we sense, there is something new, each time we feel into our sacrum for instance, it is different and even as we stay with the sensation it is changing! Living on a planet spinning roughly 67,000 miles an hour within the solar system (this number grows exponentially as we consider increasingly large size scales) means that everything is in constant movement.
Through observing a persons yoga and movement I am able to see clearly which structures of the body need further differentiation and integration, thus making the rolfing sessions more efficient.  
We are made up of about 70% water!  In our practice we can notice where we are frozen, and where we have flow.   Continuum Movement is a somatic practice that teaches us to move as the water that we are. I have studied Continuum with Bonnie Simoa in Eugene, and the founder Emily Conrad, and bring what I’ve learned from these amazing teachers to the practice.
The latest research on fascia shows that what is happening during stretching and Rolfing alike is that the tissues are actually being rehydrated through fascial manipulation and stretching. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miIIGLLmXIc)  
The movement brain is the latest scientific theory being used to understand why Rolfing works to make abiding improvements in peoples structures, coordination and lives. The movement brain adds a new dimension to the notion that the Rolfer is like a tailor fine tuning the human suit of bones and connective tissue that makes up the structure of a persons body. The movement brain is the proprioceptive and coordinative intelligence of your living body, the expression of your structure in relationship with ground and space.

When we include the movement brain, the question becomes more than “what’s the chronic holding pattern of the connective tissues in the shoulder girdle?” We instead ask the question “how has the whole system’s ability to reorganize in relationship to environment become uncoordinated?”. My job as a Rolfer and Yoga teacher is not only to release the tissue but to integrate practices that stimulate the movement brain. Like our physiology/psychology, our structure and function co-arise. Understanding the movement brain can help us sustain improvements and advance more smoothly. Some of the methods are outlined in Ground, Soft Gaze, and Orientation to Space. My mentors Kevin Frank and Blakeslee have written much more on this concept: http://resourcesinmovement.com/?page_id=2105, http://www.sandrablakeslee.com/books.php#

“The movement brain concept reduces focus on the fascia as something to reshape. Fascia becomes, among other things, a portal of communication”. -Frank, Kevin

Our visual consciousness often dominates our experience. Visual consciousness, along with thinking, can easily be the primary lens through which we experience reality. This is especially true for those who work with computers daily and develop a lot of tension and strain around the eyes. This tension can cut one off from sensing our whole body at once, and it can also suppress a healthy parasympathetic nervous system tone. The practice is to cultivate a soft focus, where the eyes relax and the gaze is receptive, allowing space for the visual field to arise, without straining in relation to it. This is done both in the context of asana practice, as well as throughout daily tasks.  
A simplified explanation of yin yoga is that it aims to access and heal the deeper “yin” tissues of our joints, ligaments and bones. It is a much slower form than hatha, poses are held for 3-5 minutes each, with a low level of intensity. For more detail on this practice see www.yinyoga.com.

We aren’t too concerned about overstretching ligaments in yin yoga because this usually occurs through fast abrupt overstretching.  We are doing very slow methodical stretches that get into the ligament and strain them in a way similar to weight lifting.  The ligaments are going through micro tears and are rebuilding as stronger more open structures.  That said, if you know or suspect you have loose ligaments (for instance if you are Very flexible, and don’t stretch often) then some poses may be destabilizing for you, and it is best to speak with me or another guide who can help you understand your structure and what you need.

According to a study on the relative importance of tissues in joint stiffness (Johns and Wright (1962): Relative importance of various tissues on joint stiffness, Journal of applied physiology, 824-828), the joint capsule and ligaments represent 47% of joint flexibility/ rigidity, and the muscle and its fascia contribute 41%.  Now this is extremely relevant because Yang yoga (modern hatha, pretty much anything not called yin or restorative) works primarily on muscle flexibility and strength while Yin works with muscle and ligament flexibility.  So for a well rounded practice we want both styles.

I teach restorative yoga as guided meditation.  First we invite the body into a comfortable yoga position that has healing benefits for the body, and then lead a guided relaxation meditation.  This practice is very restorative and combines some of the health benefits of yoga with an emphasis on mindfulness and relaxation.  
The range of motion of a given joint has two restraints, the first are the connective tissues, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, the second is the anatomical or bony limit.  The connective tissue limits to our range of motion are what we can affect through yoga.  The bony limits are reached when two bony structures compress against one another, and are a limit we can’t work beyond.  You can usually feel the difference.  The Connective tissue limit is felt as tension pulling away from the direction of the movement, what we commonly feel as a stretch.  Generally we don’t have to worry about the bony limit as most of us have so much tissue resistance that we are a long ways away from it.

According to a study on the relative importance of tissues in joint stiffness (Johns and Wright (1962): Relative importance of various tissues on joint stiffness, Journal of applied physiology, 824-828), the joint capsule and ligaments represent 47% of joint flexibility/ rigidity, and the muscle and its fascia contribute 41%.  Now this is extremely relevant because Yang yoga (modern hatha, pretty much anything not called yin or restorative) works primarily on muscle flexibility and strength while Yin works with muscle and ligament flexibility.  So for a well rounded practice we want both styles.      

Our bodies are fluid and constantly reorganizing in relation to their environment.  As you are drawn into the earth, the earth gives its support back, lifting you up.  Notice when there is a sensation of grasping, either in the body or in your relationship to the world. From this awareness, find the middle ground, without moving towards the world aggressively, collapsing inward or ignoring the world. Rest openly as awareness. Trust the world will still be there, you don’t need to strain in relation to it.  
These occur when the front of a disc is compressed with too much pressure too many times.  By bending forward without engagement of the transversus abdominus, (see entry on core) repetitively and especially by lifting things in this way, we can rupture the jelly donut like disc that provides a cushion for the vertebrae.  The disc may then push back into the spinal cord causing pain.

If you have been diagnosed with a bulged or herniated disc you were probably told to avoid flexion of the spine, i.e. stay away from forward folds.  You may be able to do flexion of the hips however, and keep your spine from rounding with the use of props in poses like caterpillar and butterfly.  Check with your primary care provider before attempting yoga asana.  The sphinx pose can be effective at helping people with bulged discs. It’s also extremely important to strengthen the transversus abdominus to provide ongoing support for the spine.

The most common source of disk herniation is at L5/S1 and L4/L5. This is why understanding your own pelvis dynamics is so important! If we habitually sit off of our sit bones, flattening our lumbar curve we will likely eventually lose the structural integrity of this vital support.