Do I Need to Be Flexible to Do Yoga?

“I’m not flexible.  I can’t touch my toes. I’m  not suitable for yoga.”

With yoga expect to touch your toes – often in the very first class. toesGive your body some loving care by lubricating and activating core muscles, hips, and hamstrings. Yoga awakens the body to its optimal capacity.

My first yoga teacher Kaila Kukla drew inspiration from Erich Shiffman, an early Western student of yoga.  Shiffman writes “People often ask me how I became interested in yoga and whether or not I was flexible when I first started. Yoga is not merely touching your toes, standing on your head, or folding yourself into a pretzel. It’s about how you do what you do, and how you live your daily life on a moment-to-moment basis.”

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Five Ways to Feel Amazing with Yoga, Meditation and Gratitude

Every day is Christmas, and every night is new years eve. Sade

Feel amazing! Happiness. Feeling really fine. Often such feelings can seem elusive. With yoga, meditation and gratitude you can find happines.Below are five ways to make yourself feel great.

Think of a Happy Moment

Remember a day or moment when something really amazing happened.Recall how you felt during that moment.  Where in your body do you most feel that good sensation as you recall the feeling and moment ? Maybe in your head or across your heart?  Spend a few moments enjoying that feeling and recreating that great emotion.

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Music Makes the People Come Together. Madonna

Listen to Music
Music heals. Sound awakens the senses.  Music connects us individually to greater emotions and also connects us with other people.

Listen to your favourate song or artist.

Listen to something which makes your move or dance.

It is gratefulness that makes the soul great.  A.J. Heschel

Write a Gratitude List
When we feel disconnected we can forget the many blessings we have.  You might start with writing a daily gratitude journal of at least 3 things each day for which you are grateful. Studies show that if we actively choose to focus on gratitude we will feel happier. This is not just hocus pocus or woo woo.

A 2003 study had one group of people keep a daily gratitude list and a second group listed daily hassles or neutral events. After ten weeks the first group felt more life satisfaction than the second group.

Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.  John Lennon

Breathe and Meditate

Start by taking some deep breathes.  You can start with five ujai breathes.  This is the deep breathing used in Ashtanga yoga and the technique Danny Paradise taught people like Sting, Paul Simon, Bob Weir, and many of his other famous students.

It can be easier to learn meditation in a supportive group with a teacher and the energy of other students. If you are in Toronto drop by one of Fireflow’s meditation offerings, try the Monday night Consciousness Explorer’s Club meditation downtown which attracts an amazing group of younger seekers, try a course at the Shambala Centre at Bloor and Christie, try out a Thich Nat Han Meditation downtown on Monday and Friday evenings, or in west-end Toronto try Fireflow’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Eight Week Course.  Free intro session Tuesday, January 12th, 2016 at 7.30pm.  Register here.

The more efficient your body, the better you feel and the more you will use your talent to produce outstanding results. Anthony Robbins

Exercise

Get yourself moving.  Almost any kind of movement will help and this is especially true if you have a desk job and work on a computer every day. Thirty to sixty minutes of exercise a few days a week will help you feel amazing.  Prolonged movement releases feel good chemicals in the brain and decreases negative feelings.

Yoga is a great way to move to both balance and strengthen the body and mind.

It makes you feel amazing, stay young, and brings you a sense of balance and ease.

Start today with any drop-in class.

For even better results try the Four Part Absolute Beginners Workshop.

No time to get to a studio or class ?  Make your own schedule.  Set up in-studio series of private coaching and yoga or bring us to your house or office.

Six Days of Silence in the Desert

I sat in silence for six days in the desert. It was two hours northeast of Los Angles in a unpopulated, sparse landscape surrounded by mountains, bunny rabbits, birds, and sand.

The first fews days were brutally boring and dull. We did not do anything. Reading and writing is not allowed. No swimming. No speaking. Lots of meditating. Eating. Walking. When you arrive they ask you to hand over your phone. After two days I was frustrated and numb from doing nothing. After six days I felt a sense of wonder, appreciation, gratitude and greatfulness for the experience.

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I didn’t exactly rough it, at least physically. Driving there from LA Google suggested the back route. We did not even pass a Starbucks. When you drive near Joshua tree they have vegan roadsite cafes but the Lucerne Valley is different. We passed Route 66 and much deserted landscape.The retreat took place in a valley surrounded by mountains. The place itself was one of the most stunning spaces I have ever visited. The grounds fill with stunning landscaped gardens, fountains, nooks, and fine creature comforts. The rooms were unexpected luxury, the vegetarian food was delicious, and the sunsets, distant mountains, and nature all provided a very special backdrop.

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Why sit in silence ? To many it sounds ridiculous.  They express disbelief and disdain at the thought.  If you mention you are off to climb Mount Kilmajoro they must express a shared excitement.When I told a few people I was off to sit in silence in the desert it was a conversation stopper.

I shared the ride there with Tanya and Rachel. Tanya, a late 40’s mother of teenage kids, college literature teacher and community worker, lives in a university town in Oregon. She wanted six days of silence away from the business of her everyday experiences with everyone depending on her. This was her third retreat in the past 6 years. Rachel, a 27 year old psychologicst from New York, was about to start an internship and wanted the silence to check in with herself. I was there looking for insights. I know of the feeling of gratitude and joy but many days are spend with bouts of anxiety and depression. I have always known these feelings but only labelled them in the past few years. The silence provides a space  to evoke inside ourselves a feeling of wonder and joy.cacti

James, a 40 year rabbi, father of three and recent Phd recipient from the University of Chicago, led the retreat.  He lives with his his family in a one bedroom house on a kibbutz in the Negev, Southern Israel. He began meditating twenty years ago listening to tapes of Jon Kabbat-Zin. It was during a time when he lost movement in his lower body. His body fully recovered.

He explained during the retreat we are not looking for a single truth or idea to believe in. The aim is to find comfort with the dynamic groundlessnes or impermanence surrounding life itself. From that place we can live the fullest.

In private and group meetings during the retreat he provided unabashed guidance and wise techniques to overcome the individuals issues each person experiences while sitting with themselves. Many things can come up. Emotionally charged memories, experiences, histories, and feelings all arise from the mind. In his opening statement he stated that everyone had come for something  they wanted to resolve.

I meditated a few times at age nineteen. Nothing happened. I did not get it. It was boring. I was a spiritual seeker looking for ways to connect but meditation never worked for me. In Toronto I attended a two day seminar on the Kabbalah by Rabbi Phillip Berg. He provided a spiritual language I did not have.Years later Madonna and other celebrities would flock to Rabbi Berg so I may have missed something. It left me intellectually curious but did not provide any practices.In Jerusalem I sought out mystical masters to give answers. I met some people who had amazing glows around them and whose eyes shined of a great light. I never experienced ways to reach the source of their light.

I first experienced a silent retreat in my early twenties. I was doing a film about my spiritual journey. Rabbi Arthur Green suggested I attend a conference at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. The small gathering had people such as Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg speaking about what brought them to meditation and Buddhism, and why they didn’t find relevance in Jewish practices. Goldstein and Salzberg are pioneers of bringing silent retreats and meditation practices to Westerners. Back then I had never tried meditation and did not think of it as a spiritual path. I was still looking for Jewish practices – the “true” way.

The Insight meditation society has a retreat center and a conference center.  I arrived at the retreat center. I walked inside. It seemed weird.  It was lunchtime. The tables were full but there was a strange silence. I asked a few people where I could check in. The first two did not reply. The third person pointed to the sign on the wall saying that they were in silence. The people looked crazy. Twenty years later I attended my first silent retreat.

I imagine how my life might have changed had I done a silent retreat back then.

The mind is a complicated thing. The silent retreat is one way to focus the mind and reboot it, like rebooting a stuck computer. It’s an unclogging of the brain towards our natural inclination to appreciate the wonders of life, the world, and experience gratitude.

With meditation we learn to watch our thoughts and not be reactive to them. The benefits of being able to do this are quite huge.

I teach meditatoin to new students. After sitting in silence for fifteen minutes we discuss the experience. Many remark that they never noticed how many thoughts randomly enter their minds. They are quite stunned by this observation.

Keeping track of the thoughts and focusing the mind becomes a muscle one learns to use. The results of this use promotes overall well being, reduce anxiety, depression, and make us happier, healthier, and maybe even kinder. A study showed that after an 8 week meditation course people acted more generously towards others.

The first two days of the retreat were the hardest for me. It was boring, very boring. You just sit on your cushion all day and focus on your breathe, or some other meditative technique. In between you also do walking meditation walking very slowly for thirty minutes. Like sitting around waiting for two days at a bus stop with no sign the bus will ever come. Each minute seems like ten, and the mind become restless. What is that sensation that happens when you become restless ?

At a retreat you have both personal and group meetings where you speak with the teacher and discuss issues which arise. In my first group Cheryl, a 29 year old woman from Oregon explained she was bored. She did a retreat the previous year with her father and brother. She was missing them not being there and was tired from a long plane ride and drive to get there. She was sleeping through the first two days both to battle the boredom and her already tired state. She came looking for some kind of epiphany but could not get past the tedious sitting and silence. I checked in with her at the end of the retreat and indeed after a few days her boredom lifted and she had her insights.

At another meeting a few days later one woman mentioned she felt guilty skipping some of the meditation sessions. She has been told it was alright to miss some sessions but she felt guilty breaking rules. James recommended that after the retreat she should try and break as many rules as possible to get over her fears. He mentioned she must take into account still being moral and not getting jailed – but it was a pretty wide open suggestion. He mentioned someone he knew who broke into cars just to break his fears – with no intention of causing damage or stealing anything. Another woman spoke about great unease she felt about religious rules and not obeying some of them. Her body gets nervious and she feels tense and uneasy. He worked with her through a short body scan to locate the place in the body where she felt the most tension. In a few minutes he helped relieve her discomfort and guided her to continue the same practice by herself whenever such unease begins to arise.

By the third day you pick up momentum. Like a burst of energy after the first ten minutes of a run you build the equivalent of an adrenalin rush. The boredom recedes. The brain switches gears. Perceptions shift slightly. For me the meditation sits never get easy but the overall effect starts to take hold.

It’s not like a magic pill. You must be open to it. At the desert retreat there was a 33 year old man from Los Angeles who achieved great success with a social media tool he helped create.This was his fourth retreat in the past year. He brought his father, uncle, and some friends with him. Joe’s father, a mathematician at UCLA, left unconvinced. He told one of Joes’s friends this was something for nineteen year olds searching for meaning and not for sophisticated, mature adults. He came in a skeptic and left a skeptic.

What happened for me after my time on retreat ?

I didn’t have any epiphanies. The days following the retreat felt rich and full of great life. I felt more generous.

Four days later I was back in Toronto at a baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Clevand Indians. The game lasted over three hours. They Jays finally took the lead in the bottom of the eighth. I do not remember ever feeling so connected and enthralled at a July baseball game in a long while, if ever. I did not want it to end. Often after ninety minutes I go for peanuts and anxiously wait for when we can leave. Every pitch, hit, and catch had great drama and life to it. They told us the immediate effects of the retreat last the same amount of time as you are on retreat. I think I was able to enjoy the ball game as much as I did because of my recent days of silence in the desert. Whether that is the case or not I was very grateful to be at the game and for the Blue Jays to win in such an exciting way.

James mentioned he was not concerned so much about how much people enjoy the retreat as much as how they can use the skills and tools to evoke gratitude, wonder, and be more caring in our day to day lives. When people asked what they might do to tell their family and friends about their experience. He suggested only telling those who showed any interest and really showing them the effects of the retreat by being more attentive, caring, and present.

“Where focus goes, energy flows.” Tony Robbins

Each afternoon of the retreat we did a lovingkindness meditation.

May I be happy and free from suffering
May I be healthy and free from harm
May I be peaceful and full of ease
May I be free

The words seems simple like meditation itself. I do believe if I fill my head with such thoughts of lovingkindness i will be closer to manifesting this from day to day.

I spend six days in the desert in silence. I survived. I left more alive, alert, and awake.

Reducing Running Injuries by Increasing Hip Stability

Written by John Davis –
http://runnersconnect.net/running-injury-prevention/hip-strength-and-stability/

As a high school track and field coach, I get to work with athletes with a huge range of abilities.  Some are very talented and naturally strong, able to take to any new sport or form of exercise with ease, while others are somewhat uncoordinated and weak when it comes to general strength and athleticism. Surprisingly, good runners come from both groups!

Strong evidence exists that connects poor strength and coordination in the hip stabilizer muscles to IT band syndrome and patellofemoral pain syndrome or “runner’s knee,” two injuries that are quite common both in recreational runners and the high schoolers that I coach.

Two tests for hip strength and stability
Since the effect of hip strength on your running mechanics is a combination of strength and muscle activation, it can sometimes be tricky to assess both.  You can be strong, but not quite coordinating your hip muscles right, or you can simply lack hip strength entirely—both can increase your risk of injury.

Fortunately, with the help of some scientific research, I’ve been able to identify two tests for hip stability and strength that are quite good at identifying the kinds of deficits that can lead to knee injuries.

In my own informal testing with my high school athletes, these tests have been pretty good at indicating who’s at risk for knee injuries and what the source of the problem is in runners who’ve already got ITBS or runner’s knee.

Test 1: The Glute Bridge
The first is a test for hip strength.  By doing a “glute bridge” exercise, then slowly lifting up one leg, putting it down, and then lifting up the other, you can check how stable your pelvis is when it must be supported by your hip abductor and external rotator muscles.

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In strong, healthy runners (particularly those who do hip strength exercises often), the pelvis will barely move when you lift up one leg.  But in runners with hip strength deficits, there will be a marked “dip,” with the pelvis tilting down on the unsupported side.  This is easy to spot by yourself, but can also be confirmed by an observer.

What’s the evidence for this exercise?
A 2013 study by David Selkowitz, George Benneck, and Christopher Powers identified the single-leg glute bridge as one of the best exercises for hip stability, meaning it directly stresses your hip abductors and external rotators while minimizing the activation of other muscles which can help you “cheat” while stabilizing the hip.
And the static (or “isometric” in sports-science circles) nature of the exercise mimics the static portion of the running stride where your hip is supported by one leg.

Your hip will also dip to one side when you are running if you’ve got weak hip muscles—a phenomenon informally called “hip drop”—but it’s harder to see by yourself.

Test 2: Single Leg Squats
The second test evaluates the coordination of your hip stabilizer muscles during a dynamic activity.  For this test, simply do five or 10 single-leg squats, being sure to keep your torso upright and your knee about even with your toes.

While you are doing these squats, glance down at your knee.  Is it pointing straight ahead, or is it buckled or rotated inward? If your hip stabilizers are weak, or if they simple aren’t very well coordinated, you’ll find these single leg squats quite difficult to do without allowing your knee to wobble around or buckle inward.

single-leg-squat
What’s the evidence for this exercise?
Biomechanical research has connected the same mechanical motions observed in poorly-done single-leg squats (an unstable, wobbly, or inward-buckled knee) with knee injuries.

A 2011 study by Reed Ferber and colleagues at the University of Calgary found that runners with patellofemoral pain syndrome displayed significantly reduced variability in knee mechanics—basically, less “wobble” at the knee—after completing a hip strengthening program, and a 2010 study also headed by Ferber, this time with colleagues at a number of universities, connected excessive knee internal rotation and hip adduction in women (an “inward-buckling” knee) with IT band syndrome.

Another 2011 study by Crossley et al. directly tested the single-leg squat as a measurement of hip muscle function.The researchers had 34 healthy patients perform single leg squats, with three different clinicians rating each subject’s squats as “good,” “fair,” or “poor.”  The classifications between each evaluator were quite reliable, and more so, these findings correlated very well with direct measurements of hip muscle activation and strength using electromyography and dynamometers: those who had good hip strength and activation tended to be able to perform single-leg squats quite well, and those with deficits struggled with the single-leg squats.

The best part about these two tests for hip strength is that they also function as good exercises to improve it! Whether you struggle on one, both, or neither of these tests, they are both good exercises to improve hip strength and coordination, hopefully preventing or at least reducing your risk for knee injuries.

The Four Part Absolute Beginners Workshop teaches tool and techniques to stabilize your hips and build core strength.   Using yoga as a cross training tool serves to improve performance, reduce injuries, and will provide a deep relaxation as an added benefit.

Yoga for muscle stiffness and pain.

Ever wonder about muscle stiffness and where it comes from? Or how about joint pain?

You are twenty-five and play an intense game of tennis. Thte next day feel back pain and can hardly walk. You are thirty-nine and play your Sunday hockey game.You alwayss feel like you can’t move the next morning. You are forty eight and feel low back pain. In the mornings you wake up with your body feeling stiff.So often we assume it’s a natural result of getting old. That is only partially true. If you do you can be fully active and feel fine the next day, walk around without back pain, and feel as good as ever.

At Fireflow Yoga, our Toronto Yoga studio, we focus on providing active yoga helps you increase mobility, flexibility, stiffnes, soreness, and pain.

Like all good machines, the body needs some tender loving care to bring it back to its shiny, agile nature. Whether you are in your twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, or sixties, you have the ability to bring your body towards optimum health. Yoga is a process to both energize and bring your body back to shape, like a car after a good tune-up and oil change.Yoga also works to reduce injuries, reduce stress, and provide mental focus. The one caveat is you must be doing the pose right, with correct alignment, otherwise you just reinforce bad habits. So you do need a good teacher.

Yoga works for both men and women.Many men thing yoga is only for women.Before starting yoga Sting thought yoga was something done by little old ladies in leotards.

Yoga was created by men and originally done by men.It’s an interesting shift that in the West yoga is definitely practice by more woman than men. Many people then assume it’s a practice for women, particularly flexible one. Yoga works for both women and men. It is a way to bring your body towards optimimum mobility through precise poses and movements.The more inflexible you are the most yoga can work for you.

Each night when you go to sleep, the interfaces around your muscles potentially grow fuzz. When you wake up and stretch the fuzz melts.

Natural fuzz buildup is one way of viewing stiffness and aging. Every night fuzz accumulates in your body. It’s real. In the fuzz speech below, Gil Hadley shows what this actually means. Fuzz build up is something which happens every night as we sleep.

Body work (like yoga) introduces movement manually to tissues that have been fuzzed over.

Yoga serves as a great way to remove even long-standing fuzz which may have been building up over years or even decades.

Building Core Strength with Chaturanga

Building core abdominal strength provides many benefits. It helps posture, relieves back pain, and helps create the six pack. We often begin a class warming up with Sun Salutations. One of the poses in that sequence is Chaturanga Dandasana, Four Limbed Staff Pose. But just doing the pose like most people do in classes does not build abdominal strength and can be harmful. Along with headstand, handstand and shoulder stands chaturanga has been labelled a dangerous yoga pose. I still struggle to unlearn patterns developed from years of doing chaturanga in a way which perpetuates patterns in the shoulders and upper back which leads to stress, neck pain and overall discomfort.

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When I break down the pose in class often people react that they can’t figure out how to generate the movement from their core muscles. After a few attempts many suddenly activate the core. They laugh and grin and remark that it’s so much harder then they ever knew. Some come into the pose for one breath and then quickly come down. Doing chaturanga wrong is still work – and can make you sweat. I have learned over time there is no relation between sweat, work and endorphins and overall balance and alignment. Only with precise work can you begin to use the abs in this pose. It’s not natural and it is quite difficult, but it is achievable and feels amazing once you begin to find it. In the video below Darby demonstrates two ways to prepare for Chaturanga.

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Forearm Balance

Lie down on your stomach.
Come onto your forearms and make a fist of your palms.
Curl under your toes and push out through your heels.
Lift your ribs, then lift the waist.
Hold for 10 breaths.

Slowly Finding Chaturanga

Lie down on your stomach.
Bring your hands back underneath the elbows, not the shoulders.
Lift your shoulders to the same height as your elbows.
Press the palms down to stabilize the upper body.
Lift the waist.

There’s a tendency to further lift the neck or upper body and shoulders instead of the waist since that’s a lot easier. Try and keep the upper body stabilized and just lift from the waist. Feel the difference.

How’s your chaturanga? Try practice this exercise 3 to 5 times a week for a few weeks and feel how much your chaturanga can change. It will effect not only your chaturanga but basic standing, walking, and almost every pose. Try it!