Is Your Yoga Practice SAFE?

Is Your Yoga Practice SAFE?

Alyana Ramirez, E-RYT 200
Alyana Ramirez, E-RYT 200

North America’s yoga industry has grown exponentially in the past 10 years. Over 36 million people practice yoga in the United States – a number that has doubled since 2012.   Doctors are recommending yoga for everything from Parkinson’s Disease to PTSD. Even at social gatherings, groups of yoga enthusiasts can be found discussing how amazing they feel after their first month of yoga classes. With this increase in popularity also comes a plethora of new yoga teachers and classes. With so many new teachers and studios popping up on every corner, practitioners have more choice than ever. Yoga is a broad term for a very complex and varied practice. It’s difficult to know what you’re walking into when you walk into your new neighborhood studio, or even a class taught by a different instructor. When presented with so many different choices, it becomes clear how essential it is to offer a yoga program which creates an inclusive and safe environment for every practitioner. SAFE Yoga (Sensitive Approach For Everyone) is a yoga program which honors the heart of yoga practice.

At its heart, the practice of yoga is a practice in meditation – an effort to create more connection between mind, body, and the present moment. In application, the importance our culture places on physical appearance, fitness, and youth has pressured many yoga teachers to modify classes so that the physical benefits of the practice are emphasized. With classes named CorePower Yoga and teachers encouraging students to “push to your edge”, “burn off your Thanksgiving dinner”, or “do more, reach further”, the practice becomes unrecognizable. While there’s nothing wrong with taking care of our bodies, making this the primary focus means that practitioners find themselves walking into yet another self-improvement course. The yoga classroom becomes one more place where we aren’t good enough, strong enough, flexible enough, or young enough, as opposed to the mindful, self-compassionate practice that it was originally intended to be.

When a healthy individual goes into a class described above, it can be frustrating but probably won’t have lasting negative effects. They might still receive some level of benefit from the practice, enjoy the movement and breathing, and receive some inspiration. But what about an individual who comes in with an injury, body dysmorphia, or depression? In these cases, asking them to push harder, do better, or burn more calories can actually be dangerous.

Every person that walks into a yoga class is an individual in the truest sense of the word. We all are coming in with a different body type, background, fitness level, and mental and/or physical health concerns. While it is common for a yoga teacher to make adjustments for visible injuries or limitations, many people will walk into an open class with a concern that is not easily visible. Over 3 million people are diagnosed with a herniated spinal disc every year. 1 in 5 Americans struggles with mental illness annually. At any given time, almost 10% of the U.S. population is dealing with anxiety, major depression, or bipolar disorder, and over 31 million people have struggled with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Additionally, between 10-15% of the U.S. population suffers from an eating disorder.

Even for individuals who aren’t coming into class with an identifiable physical or mental health issue, the Western approach to yoga can have the opposite of its intended effect. Orthopedic surgeons report an increase in the need for hip replacements on younger patients who are also yoga teachers, and also note that it is not uncommon to see devoted yoga practitioners coming in with chronic pain in their shoulders, elbows, and necks. It’s easy to see how hot yoga, an extremely popular style, can be dangerous when practiced in a 104 degree room, possibly leading to dehydration or overstretched ligaments.

This doesn’t mean that the benefits of yoga aren’t real. Many individuals do experience real healing through yoga. But when practitioners are pushed by their teachers to do things that aren’t appropriate for their circumstances, real damage can occur. Making sure a teacher is well informed on the different mental and physical conditions that may require modifications in the practice is one step to reducing this risk. Of course, it isn’t possible for teachers to be aware of the unique needs of every single practitioner in their group class, nor would it be possible for them to modify the class in a way that works for everyone in it. Therefore, it is essential that teachers learn how to encourage their students in a different way, empowering them to do what is most compassionate for themselves in the moment.

If we can make mindful meditation the guiding focus of classes again and recognize the uniqueness of every individual, yoga becomes more accessible for populations that can deeply benefit but may have avoided the practice due to misinformed or insensitive instruction. And isn’t accessibility really the point? Non-harming and compassion for self and others is a core tenet of yoga philosophy. If we want to promote this practice as a source of healing, peace, and strength, we need to do everything possible to make yoga accessible to everyone who wants them.

Alyana Ramirez has been studying the integration of yoga, health, and human behavior for over 10 years.  She has trained in trauma sensitive yoga, is certified in yoga for mental health, and has had students of all ages and abilities.  She has seen firsthand how thoughtful, intentional movement, when built on a foundation of mindfulness, can be the first step to more positive relationships – with both ourselves and the world around us.

Post-Election Thoughts: Refraining from Judgment

Contributor: Madelyn D.

The U.S. presidential election is over, and now we find ourselves reflecting on the process our nation has endured this year. It can be tempting to form judgments about people whose political views are different from ours. Whether our candidate won or lost, we may be feeling disillusioned about our fellow Americans after this contentious ordeal.

I was born and raised in a kind of political bubble, surrounded by people who mostly agreed on a set of accepted views. Then I moved away from my hometown, and I found myself in a place that was culturally different from what I’d known. Eventually, I married a man whose family believed– and voted– in ways that were polar opposites to my own choices.

Yet, my in-laws have accepted, loved, and supported me for two decades. They welcomed me into the family with open arms, even though I am so different from them. Religiously, politically, and personally, it would seem we have nothing in common. But if I were to focus only on these differences, I would miss the deeper similarities we share.

My in-laws and I share an important set of core values. When I look deeply into their reasons for voting and believing as they do, I see these values operating. They care about protecting their families and innocent children. They care about the safety and freedom of our country. They want to see economic prosperity for Americans, and they hope to live in a kinder world. They believe in charity and lending help to those around them.

I may not agree that their voting choices will support the values we share. I have my own opinions about what policies would best serve our common goals. Still, I have respect for the people I’ve come to love so well.

Amid all the name-calling and shaming, it can be nearly impossible to have a productive conversation between people with different views. My relatives are not racists or misogynists, and they are deeply offended when people apply those ugly labels. How can they hear anyone’s opinions when they’re being belittled that way? How can any of us keep an open mind, when we’re being judged and attacked?

If I spend my energy judging others, I create suffering for myself. I choose to focus, instead, on the common values most of us share, deep down. We all want to be free, happy, safe, and prosperous. If we remember this truth, we can disagree respectfully and hear each other more clearly, We can use our power and our voices to make things better.

Because I’ve learned from loving people who think so differently, I choose to trust in the basic goodness of my neighbor. I believe that’s the way forward for all of us.

Reflections on MBSR – Conclusion

MBSR is concluding. There are only two weeks left and I feel terribly sad that I won’t share this particular space with these particular people on Wednesday mornings. I also feel slightly nervous about continuing practice without such intensive guidance. What will my practice look like on my own? Can I “drop in” to meditation without Dr. Shutt’s assistance?

Prior to participating in the program, my meditation practice was fledgling.   I was very attached to a certain way of meditating and I often fell asleep very quickly. MBSR has taught me one of the key principles of non-attachment. My meditation practice doesn’t have to look a certain way. I am just as capable of controlling my thoughts as I am herding cats. External stimuli will always exist.

Instead of being bothered by what is uncontrollable, I have embraced open awareness. I can allow thoughts and sensations to pass through like clouds in the sky. I can embrace sounds and movements as energy, and even incorporate them into my meditation. The sounds of birds chirping, dogs barking, or even a lawn mower can become anchors in my practice.

Mindfulness and meditation have allowed me to slow down. Instead of reacting, I THINK. Is it True, Helpful, Intelligent, Necessary, or Kind? Developing mindfulness has allowed me to develop compassion for others. I often remind myself that others may be more reactive or stressed. By practicing mindfulness, I can extend patience and compassion to everyone I meet.

MBSR has undoubtedly improved the quality of my life. I no longer feel obligated to make instant decisions, rushing through my life with resentments or regrets. I can choose to make each day intentional. This intentionality is extended to my body, breath, observations, and movements. I can renew myself each day with quiet time for myself, or lift my arms in combination with my breath, feeling life course through me. I reflect on my MBSR experience, and am reminded of a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh in The Art of Power:

“Our society is founded on a very limited definition of power, namely wealth, professional success, fame, physical strength, military might, and political control. My dear friends, I suggest that there is another kind of power, a greater power: the power to be happy right in the present moment, free from addiction, fear, despair, discrimination, anger, and ignorance. This power is the birthright of every human being, whether celebrated or unkown, rich or poor, strong or weak.”

If you are looking for an alternative, MBSR is a great beginning.

Reflections on MBSR: Silent Retreat

MBSR alumni have discussed with great enthusiasm the silent retreat, which takes place during week six.   The retreat has taken on a mythical quality. Until one experiences the retreat, it remains an elusive and unknowable experience. There are many layers to this special time. It is such an amazing experience to just spend a day completely devoted to looking inward. No communication and minimal eye contact with others. The idea is to cultivate a space of self-awareness and non-judgment, not comparing or striving to emulate others.   By creating an external space of silence, we facilitate the ability to look inward.

With this sacred space created, we start the retreat with a short meditation. We set our intention for the day.   Our group transitions to yoga, which helps facilitate the mind-body connection. Thinking about participating in yoga has brought me the most anxiety, yet I am pleasantly surprised by how good each movement feels in connection with my breath. By savasana (corpse pose), I am completely relaxed. It would be fine if we just lay on our mats for the remainder of the day. That’s not on the agenda, though.

We gather into a circle and begin another short meditation, before participating in the walking meditation. The conference center where the retreat is being held has two labyrinths.   According to the Duncan Center’s website, the labyrinth “is a path and spiritual tool for growth, discernment, prayer and healing”.

We pace our starts and slowly start the winding way toward the center. Some walk somberly while others gently dance with the path. My own pace is slow. I find myself distracted by my other classmates. A large palmetto bug scurries across the path toward the middle. My instinct is to scream and run, but instead I continue walking toward the middle – symbolically walking toward my fear. I will later share this insight during our closing, attempting to turn the bug’s presence into something significant. (As an aside – most of us started from the wrong direction and did not end up making it to the center correctly. An excellent time to practice non-judgment!)

After the labyrinth, we have the option of either journaling or sitting quietly until lunch. I take that time to write down my reflections in my notebook. I don’t have any discomfort in not speaking with others. It is normal for me to keep to myself. What comes harder for me is giving up the niceties of daily living – offering someone a chair, blessing them when they sneeze, or using please and thank you in interactions.

It is those interactions that are most missed when we break for lunch. It is strange to splinter off from everyone else and eat lunch in silence. Even those sharing the dining room with our group sense our dedication to mindfulness. I choose a table that is tucked away in a corner. As instructed by Dr. Shutt, I really take a moment to observe the shape and color of the food before me. My inclination is to tear into the warm, buttered roll before me. Instead, I start with my salad. In between bites, I set my fork on my plate. I meditate on the softness of the chickpea, the fleshly qualities of my raisin, and the creaminess of blue cheese dressing. I honestly don’t think I could eat like this everyday; however, I vow to myself that I will try to eat at least three mindful meals per week.

After lunch, Dr. Shutt leads us through one of my very favorite meditation practices, metta (compassion) meditation. We start by extending compassionate thoughts to ourselves, expanding to those who we love, our friends, acquaintances, and eventually those we find challenging. I visualize my husband, my dog and cats, family members, the great people I call my coworkers, the kindness of random strangers, and that one cousin who really gets on my nerves. During the practice, I see the color purple surrounding everyone. Superficially, purple is my favorite color. It represents the women’s movement and I identify with it strongly. Purple also is the crown chakra color, and is symbolic of spirituality, reconciliation, and balance. Whatever the significance, my meditation is colored in various shades of violet.

Gathered in our circle, we finish the day by breaking silence and sharing our experiences. I really am sad for the day to end. I can easily see myself participating in a future ten-day retreat. I don’t want to misrepresent the experience as easy. Meditation and silence is extremely challenging and it forces you to sit with your inner turmoil. I have been on both sides, and I can tell you that I would rather sit in silence than react in fear. I am grateful to share this practice with such amazing people.

Reflections on MBSR: Week 5

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” – Exodus 20:8

Many balk at the idea of observing a biblical commandment. In fact, a recent Pew study showed that most Americans are becoming less religious, choosing not to affiliate themselves with any one particular faith.  While many have developed skepticism towards the Bible and monotheistic religions in general, I can’t help but view the Bible’s essence as spiritual – a spiritual expression of ancient peoples attempting to explain their world.

Viewing the Bible as a spiritual book rather than a doctrine allows us to incorporate its wisdom into our daily lives. One of the teachings that I often reflect upon is the separation between ordinary and holy, work and rest – doing versus being. Exodus 20:8-11 teaches us that we observe the Sabbath, “to keep it holy”, by refraining from work.   The definition of what constitutes work has resulted in volumes of biblical commentary. It isn’t so much the work aspect that is of any interest, nor a particular day of observance. Rather, in an increasingly hectic world, how do we define what is holy? How are we creating sacred spaces for ourselves?

Prior to discovering meditation, my own answer to the above question would have included occasionally going to synagogue, lighting Sabbath candles, or journaling. While all of these activities do create a sacred space, I never felt truly rested or separate from the activities of daily life. Going to synagogue or making a Sabbath dinner was always a mad dash from work to the next activity. My journaling always seemed to focus on what wasn’t working, lacking perspective for all of wondrous blessings of my life.

It is only through regular meditation and MBSR that I discovered my own interpretation of Exodus 20:8. If I interpret the text through my Jewish experience, I use the Sabbath to refrain from social media, news, comparisons, and other activities that do not promote mindfulness. Instead, I may begin the day with breathing and meditation. I can choose to read a spiritual satisfying text, create a piece of art, or savor the delicious flavors of a Shabbat meal. I may listen mindfully to my husband, friends, or family.

MBSR has also taught me that this holiness can be carried with me throughout my week. I can intentionally carve out a sacred space for each day. Through meditation and mindfulness practice, I am able to strengthen my own religious practice. I meditate, often reflecting on Psalm 19:14, “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in Your sight, Adonai, my strength and my Redeemer.” MBSR allows me the space to reflect on what is holy in my own life, and to live with gratitude.

 

 

 

New Happenings at Sacred Treehouse

We have lots of fall excitement planned at Sacred Treehouse!  We are pleased to announce the following dates:

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

Begins Saturday, September 26, 12:30 – 3:00 p.m.

Free Introduction & Orientation sessions will run throughout September:

Wednesday, September 9th, 5:30 p.m.

Friday, September 11th, 1:00 p.m.

Tuesday, September 15th, 5:30 p.m.

Saturday, September 19th, 11:30 a.m.

Wednesday, September 23rd, 5:30 p.m.

CALM: Teen Mindfulness Workshop

Starting Saturday, October 24th, 3:30 – 5:00 p.m.
Orientation Required – call for details

Eat Happy Cooking Workshop for Kids presents Fall Fun!

Saturday, October 10th, 10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.

If you would like to register, please click here or call 561-278-6033 for more information.

Reflections on MBSR: Week 4

Our MBSR group is varied. Represented are retirees, professionals, a graduate student, and yours truly. Dr. Shutt encourages us to practice non-judgment with ourselves. Unlike other social situations, MBSR doesn’t focus on titles or achievements. In a world that is driven by seeking external approval, we are taught to go inward, truly feeling whatever comes up for ourselves.

At times, MBSR feels like a voyage to Shambhala. I can hear Three Dog Night playing in my mind and I think to myself, “Yes, this is it. I have found the answer.” Meditation sometimes makes me feel as light as a feather. I feel empowered to surrender, relax and go with life. Other moments come with greater difficulty. I go inward and see my character defects, my incessant striving, and disappointment with myself. I get trapped in the narrative of past failures, missed opportunities, and constant comparisons.

Four weeks into the class, I find myself comparing and striving during meditation and discussion. I feel inadequate. My shared thoughts feel so cumbersome in comparison to my classmates’ insights. I’m not in graduate school. I have neither produced children nor achieved any kind of success valued by our society. I have often felt like I am going nowhere in life.

As I began my descent into the darkest corners of my mind, one of my classmates brought me back to the present with a clever anagram. He shared that meditation refocuses you from nowhere to now here. Everyone stares ahead or looks behind; each generation strives for perfection. The thinking and wishing and regretting leads us nowhere. The solution is to settle the mind, connecting to the here and now.

How is success measured? Many have written books and dissertations on the subject. Although I may never measure up to what society has deemed as successful, on most days, I feel fairly confident that my greatest happiness will be obtained by learning how to live with great compassion and connection to the present moment. Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes in The Little Prince:

“Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead, they demand: ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’”

Mindfulness is teaching me how to look beyond the figures. The “essential matters” are the entirety of mindfulness – sounds, colors, feelings, sensations, etc. By anchoring ourselves to the present, we can learn how not to live as grown-ups, but truly grow up.