Yoga Helps Foot Pain!

As the daughter of a podiatrist (a foot doctor) and someone born with collapsed arches and over-pronating feet (very flat feet with no arches) I am no stranger to foot pain and bunion prevention.

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My entire life I’ve tried to prevent/delay the formation of bunions and relieve some of my foot pain by wearing orthotics, or inserts, in my shoes daily.

This is a bunion = NOT FUN

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These insoles create an artificial arch in my feet. They help tremendously. If you have foot pain and flat feet, please see a podiatrist and get some custom orthotics made.  Also…keep reading…

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It wasn’t until I started a strong and serious yoga practice however, that I learned how to stand barefoot, without orthotics, yet STILL maintain an arch in my foot. The muscles in my feet and ankles are now so strong as a result of yoga standing poses, that even the orthopedic surgeon that I saw a couple years ago was blown away by my ability to stand and hold up the arches in my feet.

When practicing standing poses in yoga, your feet are truly put to the test!. If you have flat feet, you will likely collapse into your inner arches, which over time, will cause knee or hip pain. My favorite Iyengar Yoga cue for correcting collapsed arches in those with flat feet is “draw your inner ankles to your outer ankles.” My teacher Gabriel cues this all of the time, because as any yogi knows, the structure and position of your feet affect your knees, which in turn affects your hips, which then can affect your back.  As I practice poses such as Warrior 1, 2, and 3, I constantly remind myself to do this.

Essentially, over all, to reduce pain in your body, you should always start with an evaluation of your feet by a foot doctor. Chances are you either have flat feet, high arches, or you are walking in a way which mis-aligns your knees and hips. Additionally, please take a look at this wonderful article that was just published in Yoga International:

http://yogainternational.com/article/view/9-poses-to-prevent-bunions-relieve-bunion-pain

Finally, read below for the foot cues that I give to my students in tadasana.

TADASANA

This is me in Tadasana, or mountain pose. This is the best standing pose to begin to practice your foot positioning.

To my students in this pose, I will often cue:

“Lift your toes and shift your weight back into your heels. Feel grounded. Then, lower your toes and root down through the four corners of the feet.”

OR, I’ll say:

“Spread your toes, but don’t grip them. From the center of the foot to the heel stretch back, and from the center of the foot to the toes lengthen forward. Maximize the length and width of your feet for a firm, grounded stance. Finally, if you have flat feet, draw your inner ankles to the outer ankles to keep a healthy arch in the feet.”

Now, if all else fails, find one of those asian foot massage places (we have a bunch in Chicago) that charge $30 for an hour foot massage. They are AMAZING.

There are just so many paths to happy feet. I hope you find yours!

XOXO

Lindsay

Neti Neti: I am NOT my illness (and YOU are not YOURS)

Today, in yoga class with Rod Stryker, we practiced a technique that he referred to as “Neti Neti.”  Neti Neti is a ancient yogic aphorism that means “not this, not this.”

imagesThe practice involved me sitting VERY close to and directly across from a complete stranger in class. Then, we were to look into each other’s eyes. (This was very uncomfortable…already a challenge!)  The person across from me was instructed to ask me over and over”who are you?” Each time, I was instructed to answer what I am NOT. The answers were to come spontaneously.

DriversLicense

Stranger:”Who are you?”

Me: “I am not my job”

Stranger:”Who are you?”

Me: “I am not my money”

etc, etc, until…

Stranger:”Who are you?”

Me: “I AM NOT MY ILLNESS”

This nearly brought me to tears. It hit my ego where it hurt.

There’s a fine line between feeling something and identifying with that feeling. Do you often feel ill, or do you believe, deep down that YOU are sick? Do you experience anxiety, or do you believe you are an anxious being?

The danger in identifying with a feeling or condition (especially with chronic pain), is that when it’s time to give it up,  even when you start feeling better, the ego will be resistant towards doing so. The ego will do everything to keep things the status quo – to keep it’s clasp on your made-up identity. You may even feel great for months at a time and catch yourself complaining to someone about how you have an illness. Western medicine does not help the issue by providing us with diagnoses – even ones that mean “we have NO idea what is wrong with you” (i.e. fibromyalgia in my case).  I cannot tell you how quickly my ego grasped on to that word! (Don’t get me wrong- diagnoses are extremely helpful, but they are also detrimental in a lot of idiopathic cases and conditions – or whenever we become attached to them as our identity).

As I get healthier and healthier now,  I catch myself all the time describing to people how sick I am or that “I have fibromyalgia”, when in reality, I am a being who happens to have sick days. Perhaps my sick days are more frequent than your average person…but I AM NOT SICK. I am not my illness. Who/ what “I am” is much, much deeper than that.

1534bd567cef9544ef9f9ce0c1f79d48My true nature is radiant and pure, peaceful and whole- AND SO IS YOURS. This is what yoga teaches us and meditation allows us to access.

Have you ever known someone who was miserable and remained miserable for long periods of time, even years? You soon begin to realize they have found comfort in misery – identification with the pain that it brings.

Stay present and aware as you experience pain, illness and negativity in your life. Presence will prevent your ego from latching on to it. Awareness that YOU ARE NOT YOUR PAIN will keep you free.

What does “advanced” mean, in yoga?

Do you aspire to be “advanced” in your practice?

The most advanced yogis know when to hold back, when to take care and when to slow down. They savor the breath for the life it brings and use it to harness energy.

The most advanced yogis know how to rest in their own awareness.

The most advanced yogis can sit in meditation, and abide in their true blissful nature. 
They accept that their body is just a temporary vehicle which will inevitably age and break down, but the spirit is ever lasting.

The most advanced yogis feel secure in vulnerable situations, and steady in unstable conditions.

Is your practice moving you towards greatness?

How Eckhart Tolle Squashed my Ego (and can squash yours too!)

“Give up defining yourself – to yourself or to others. You won’t die. You will come to life. And don’t be concerned with how others define you. When they define you, they are limiting themselves, so it’s their problem. Whenever you interact with people, don’t be there primarily as a function or a role, but as the field of conscious Presence. You can only lose something that you have, but you cannot lose something that you are.”

– Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth


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In this book, Eckhart Tolle discusses the phenomenon after which people who experience tremendous loss in life (i.e. loss of good health) will experience happiness, gratitude and sense of peace.  He explains that this is because after great loss, one learns to recognize their ego, which he describes as  “identification with form.”  For example, form can mean a job title such as “I am a yoga teacher,” or a role in your family such as “I am a wife.” Once that form has been taken away due to unforeseen circumstance, identification with it (the ego) is also dissipated. When that happens, one is able to experience the joy of just BEING.

I experienced this with fibromyalgia. When I could no longer work full time, I was crushed. My entire adult life since college had been focused on building a solid and successful career. I was 27 years old, a manager for a pharmaceutical company and making six figures. I was a go-getter and nothing in the world was going to stop me from moving up the corporate ladder…until illness came along.

After leaving my job, my title became “stay-at-home cat mom” (as I jokingly would say, lamenting the loss of my successful career). However, after about a year or so the sadness began to subside.  I began to accept that I was not my career; I was not my success. I even learned to accept that I am not my body or the pain I was experiencing. Eckhart Tolle is right in line with yogic philosophy when he explains that we are not to identify with anything that can change in this lifetime.

After a year of fighting reality, I gave in to just being. I surrendered to what is as opposed to holding on to what was.   From there, I began to find happiness once again. Today I am actually grateful for all that I’ve been through and continue to experience (as hard as that can be at times).

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This is how I spent (and still spend) many of my days with fibromyalgia. While it’s frustrating to deal with, at least now I don’t lay there sad that I am no longer able to work full time. I don’t feel that loss of self that I felt when I first had to leave my sales career behind. (Doesn’t it look like I’m wearing a George Washington wig in this picture? It’s just a sheet. I also have no idea when I took this sick-selfie, but I found it on my computer and thought it fit the post).

 As I continue to build my yoga teaching schedule (since I feel a bit better these days), I have to continuously and consciously return back to that place of ego-lessness. It takes effort to remind myself that my ego that wants to identify with the fact that I am a yoga teacher, when in reality that is just my current role. Who I  am at my core, my “Self” as we would say in yoga, is much deeper than that.  Without the job of a yoga teacher, I would still be that underlying consciousness, the witness to it all. The Self never changes.

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Me, on much better day, like a warrior in front of my nap spot.

If this seems too esoteric, I completely understand…it’s hard to summarize this all up in a few paragraphs. To make sense of it all, I highly recommend reading A New Earth or The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, whether you have chronic illness or not (but ESPECIALLY if you have chronic illness). It will teach you how to truly find happiness, lasting happiness, from within.

Pranayama, All Natural, Legal in 50 States!

If I told you that there is something that….

– can help relieve symptoms such as anxiety, depression, pain, and insomnia

– is free and very safe (as long as you follow proper instructions /precautions)

– has very few, if any, unwanted side effects

– is  already in your possession

….WOULD YOU USE IT?

I am hoping you said yes. Congratulations, you are about to learn about pranayama.

Pranayama is a Sanskrit word which essentially means “breath work” or “yogic breathing exercise.” Sansrkit is a beautiful ancient Indian language. Specifically, pranayama means….

PRANAYAMA  =         PRANA                       +         AYĀMA

PRANAYAMA   =   “vital energy / life force”  +  “extend/ draw out”

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Without the breath there can be no life. Breath is with us from the very start when we come out of the womb, and is there with us until the very last moment before death. Ancient yogis celebrated the breath, appreciated the breath and created a whole science around the manipulation and harnessing of this source of vital energy. They even gave it a cool rhyming name like pranayama! Typically, the only active manipulation of the breath that Westerns partake in is holding their breath in public restrooms or on the NJ turnpike. Sad, but true….I’m from New Jersey. Oh yes, and it’s also sad that Westerners as a whole don’t know much about pranayama. But that’s about to change – for you!

Give it a Whirl!

To understand the basic effects of pranayama, try a very simple technique called samavritti (another Sanskrit word). It simply means “same breath.”

1.Sit upright in a chair or in a cross legged position. Long spine, chest lifted, chin slightly tucked.

2. Place your hands on your lap. Know that you look pretty fancy right now.

3. Now breathe in and out of the nostrils, making your breath last 4 counts on the inhale and 4 counts on the exhale. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you count, but the ratio of 1:1 inhale to exhale length needs to remain the same.

4. On the inhale feel your chest expand like a balloon, and on the exhale feel the navel draw in towards the spine.

3. Repeat at for at least one minute.

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Butters and I looking fancy in our pranayama positions (you can do either one; cute puppy not necessary, but recommended)

I bet just from doing that you are feeling more calm and balanced (…even just a little bit)? We aren’t done yet….to understand why you feel so good right now read on:

LIKE A SHOT OF ESPRESSO! **

Each time you inhale, energetically, you are inviting fresh oxygen and prana (energy) into your lungs, cells and bloodstream. If you close your eyes and just notice the sensations you feel upon a deep inhale through the nose, you would probably observe that you feel refreshed, awake, alive. This is prana baby! Soak it in! This is why pranayama techniques focusing on the inhale, or hold after the inhale, can often help to build energy in the body.

re-energized

LIKE A GLASS OF WINE! ***

Each time you exhale, from a physical and energetic standpoint you are letting go of carbon dioxide and energetic waste; releasing tension from the body. Hence the phrase “sigh of relief.” When you sigh (take a long exhale) after being frightened or worried, you are letting go of those unpleasant feelings; which instantly results in a relaxed and happy state. It’s easy to see then how breathing techniques with long exhales can help soothe the nervous system!

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Why doesn’t everyone do pranayama then?

Because you don’t see ads for yogic breathing techniques on television. Pharma sales reps are not pushing doctors to recommend “the breath” to their patients (I know, I used to be a pharma sales rep…shh…don’t spread that one around). Fact is, there is no money to be made from pranayama- not even cool accessories (I mean, at least lululemon can sell mats and clothes for asana! Breathing clothes wouldn’t be as sexy of a sell). As the Western world becomes more attuned to holistic practices however, more and more people are turning to yogic techniques such as pranayama to help their ailments. It’s up to us to experience it and spread the word!

You Go Girl! (or Guy!)

WELL WELL WELL, look at YOU being avant-guarde and ahead of the curve! Now be-gone with your bad self and check out a pranayama workshop at your local yoga studio!

(If you are in Chicago, check out Gabriel Halpern’s pranayama workshops, he’s the go-to pranayama guy!)

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Image above is not Gabriel Halpern.

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**, *** I am not condoning or discouraging the use of said substances.

Also, note that pranayama should ideally be done under the guidance of a trained yoga teacher for maximum effectiveness and safety.  If you have any questions, let me know!

A Yogic New Year: Reflect and Project

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

Nelson Mandela

 The start of a new year is a special opportunity to reflect back on the ways in which we have altered in order to appreciate what lies ahead of us on the blank slate of 2014. Every day we are a different person than we were the day before, and every day is a new opportunity to manifest, learn, and develop into the person we have the innate capacity to become. I often remind students of this is my yoga classes after savasana. I ask them to observe how they feel after practice versus how they felt at the start of practice. This simple exercise in observation allows you to understand that we are never the same; each moment is an opportunity to be at peace with who we have become as a result of our action, or lack of action.

 That being said, who will you be by the time 2015 rolls around? What actions will you take this year to move closer to your dharma, or full potential?

 To have a better idea, one should set a sankalpa; the yogic version of a New Year’s resolution. At the beginning of class, your yoga teacher may ask you to “draw to mind your sankalpa.” Lucky for you, you are reading my blog and now you won’t think they are referring to some obscure body part or Jewish potato pancake.

 Sankalpas differ from New Years resolutions however. For instance, your New Year’s resolution may be to “stop eating so many sweets.” However, to turn this into a sankalpa, you must change that into a positive affirmation that expresses your true desire. For example, “I eat healthy and value my wellbeing.”

 Now that you’ve taken the time to reflect on the past and project into the future, get yourself to a local yoga class to help bring you into the present moment!

“May I feel this pain so others don’t have to”

Today, for me, is a “bad” day of fibromyalgia. I am not writing this for sympathy or pity, I am writing this in the hope that someone out there will read this and be able to relate.  I hope they will read this and understand that they are not alone. When you have chronic illness, you often feel as though the rest of the world is moving around you in a swirl of productivity, as you lay dormant with time standing still in a haze of sleepiness and pain. Sometimes, you aren’t looking for pity, and you aren’t looking for hope. You simply just want to know that someone else out there truly understands what you are going through. This is for you.

I just woke up. It’s a weekday at 12 pm. My hair is a mess, and I’m still in my pajamas. I have a migraine again. My temples ache and I feel nauseous if I move my head to quickly. The rest of the people in my world are about to eat lunch, and have already accomplished lots in their day. My to-do list, once again, remains a “things to-do when I feel better” list. My heart is heavy, my head is throbbing, and warm tears gently roll down my cheeks every few minutes. Fighting them doesn’t help, but neither does feeling sorry for myself.

Now, as I type this my hands, as usual, are starting to feel pain and go ice cold. Soon they will feel as frigid as the ground outside and my hands will be weak and in pain all day. Ah, yes, the other built-in barometer that I have been graced with. Do too much and you are punished with hand pain and a migraine.

I will also fight to find inspiration. I will fight to harness this pain into wisdom that I can pass on to others. I will get dressed, and go outside to breathe fresh air. I will hope that others out there are not suffering like me. Perhaps the pain I feel, in some grand karmic scheme will somehow be enough for all of us.  I will practice Buddhist Tonglen meditation, in which I pray “may I feel this pain so that others don’t have to.”

I’m not sure of the exact reason for this suffering, but instead of endlessly searching for meaning in this pain, I have actively decided to use it to help relieve the suffering of others. What better way is there to utilize my precious time here on earth, especially when I have less waking hours than most others to use each day?

If you reading this and suffer from chronic pain or illness as well, know you are not alone and you are loved. Our productivity may be less than others, but it always helps to remember that no one appreciates a day of feeling well like we do.  Keep smiling, and doing your best, whatever that looks like, for you.  As I type these words I am also telling them to myself.  Here’s to better days ahead, for all of us!

Q: I’m new to yoga. How do I find the studio that’s best for me?

A.

First, ask friends and family for recommendations. Then, search http://www.yelp.com for studios near you and read reviews for each studio. Look for studios that offer the styles of yoga that you like / need.

Then, my recommendation is that you try two different studios and 2 different teachers from each studio, within a 1-3 weeks time frame. Don’t commit to a class package right away at either studio; wait until you pick one.

After 4 total classes you will:

– Have a great idea as to which studio environment you feel most comfortable in, since every studio has a unique vibe.

Do you prefer a large studio with many class offerings, exciting workshops from famous teachers and a diverse teaching staff? Or, perhaps you will gravitate towards a smaller studio with a more intimate feel and a small teaching staff that you adore?

– Find at least one teacher that you want to study with further.

Also recognize that teachers have their off-days as well. If there was a teacher you feel on the fence about, take their class again, you may be surprised to find you truly love their style after all.

– Be more likely to keep doing yoga because you will start to feel the benefits!

Don’t spread your “trial” classes out too thin over a long time period (why I recommend 4 classes in a 1-3 week time period). The effects of yoga are cumulative; the more you do it, the better you feel!

Ode to My Local Teachers

Although pain is my greatest internal teacher, I am grateful for the many inspiring yoga teachers I have here in Chicago. This is who I study with most often (in no particular order) and how they’ve helped me cope with pain and continue to heal.  If you ever have the fortunate opportunity to practice with one of them, take advantage. Perhaps their insights can help you, too.

Gabriel Halpern, Iyengar yoga

When I first started practicing regularly, he reminded me, “Do a little yoga, get a little. Do a lot of yoga, get a lot.” This has more or less become my mantra. Being in Gabriel’s presence feels like home to me. I am truly blessed to be able to study with someone who has such a vast knowledge of anatomy and therapeutic yoga, penchant for story telling, passion for ritual, and zest for life.

Gabriel is the owner of The Yoga Circle, an Iyengar studio in Chicago where he leads fabulous therapeutic/gentle classes on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. He also teaches at Moksha and does teacher trainings therapeutic workshops at studios throughout the Chicago area.

Marcelyn Cole, Tantric Hatha Yoga

A couple years ago, I took her class and ended up having to take child’s pose most of the time. Feeling embarrassed, I apologized to her after the class, explaining I wasn’t feel great that day. She simply replied that she could tell I was an advanced yogi for honoring my body and taking a rest. I will never forget how encouraged I felt when she said that, and she has remained one of my main teachers today. My teaching style most closely resembles that of Marcelyn.

Marci teaches at Moksha, Tejas and Nature Yoga in Chicago.

Daren Friesen, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

He taught me how to share this beautiful practice with others and continues to stoke my inner fire and passion for teaching today. Throughout training, he constantly reminded me to apply less effort within the poses to soften my nervous system and reminded me to breathe to increase the flow of prana in my body and control chitta vrittis (the incessant thought patterns that run through our heads). His passion for yoga is contagious and kept me motivated to practice even when I was at my worst health-wise, throughout teacher training.

Daren is the owner of Moksha Yoga Center (where I teach) and director of teacher training. 

 Kim Wilcox, Hatha Vinyasa Yoga

Kim taught me that yoga doesn’t need to be fast and repetitive to be effective. She made me feel accepted in every class, in every pose, no matter what my health condition that day. Kim always reminds her classes that being able to, or not being able do a pose “does not make you good or bad at yoga.” She emphasizes that the lessons learned from the journey, not the feeling of achievement from reaching a destination (or achieving a pose) is the point of a yoga practice.

Kim moved to Michigan, but will return to Moksha periodically to teach workshops throughout the year.

Rich Logan, Mindful Vinyasa Yoga

Years ago, after one of his classes in which I had to do the majority of it from a sitting position in a chair, I approached him crying in frustration that I couldn’t do the poses I used to be able to do. He reminded me that “this won’t last forever” and gave me the one of the most compassionate, loving and encouraging hugs I ever had. He was right – my knee pain healed and now I am able to do yoga without a chair again. Rich’s famous hugs continue to heal me each time I see him.

Rich teaches at Moksha, Yoga Now and Nature Yoga in Chicago.

Three Key Things to Understand About Chronic Pain

Chronic pain rearranges your life – but did you know that it also rearranges your brain? Gaining a deeper understanding about chronic pain will help you to help yourself, and/or others to overcome it.  Below are three key things one should understand about chronic pain:

1. Chronic pain causes your mind-body response to become over protective.

Acute pain is a natural response that alerts your mind as to when there is a threat to the body. It coordinates the mind-body response so that you can protect yourself. We need acute pain! However, chronic pain can occur even when there is not an imminent threat to the body.  More often than not, chronic pain is the result of your mind-body response becoming overprotective, and it has learned not to shut off.  In reference to chronic pain, Doctor Kelly McGonigal states in her book ‘Yoga for Pain Relief,” “The brain can actually become more likely to interpret situations as threatening and sensations as painful, producing pain responses that are out of proportion to any real danger.”  Unlike acute pain, chronic physical pain can start in the brain and then spread to the body.

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2. The nervous system gets better at pain over time

This is due to neuroplasticity, the body’s ability to learn in response to experiences. The more you experience pain, the more likely the body will illicit an emergency response consisting of pain and stress to, stimuli. Activities and experiences that were once perceived as harmless to the body will subconsciously be perceived as a threat.  The nervous system gets better at detecting threat and producing the protective pain response (Petersen-Felix and Curatolo 2002).

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3. A vicious cycle: Chronic pain makes it harder for a person to handle other unrelated stresses of daily life, and the stresses of daily life makes chronic pain worse.

Due to neuroplasticity, chronic pain makes you more sensitive to any kind of physical, emotional or social stress.  Repeated pain experience leads to increased sensitivity of the areas of the brain that detect not only pain sensations, but all kinds of conflict and threat (Zhuo 2007; Goncalves et al. 2008).  Likewise, chronic stress can make you more sensitive to physical pain (Lariviere and Melzack 2000). This is why many people with chronic pain end up having to go on disability or changing careers (like me)! The physical pain makes changes your brain so that your threshold for handling stress is lower, and the stress of work actually triggers more physical pain in the body.

The silver lining?

Yoga helps turn the neuroplasticity tables in your favor. If your body and mind learned chronic pain and a heightened stress response, it can learn to feel good and to strengthen your body’s relaxation response!

Sources:

McGonal, Kelly. 2009. Yoga for Pain Relief. California: New Harbinger Publications

Lariveiere, W.R., and R. Melzack. 2000. The role of corticotropin-relesasing factor in pain and analgesis. Pain 84:1-12

Petersen-Felix, S., and M. Curatolo.2002. Neuroplasticity- an important factor in acute and chronic pain. Swiss Medical Weekly 132:273-278

Zhuo, M. 2007. A synaptic model for pain: Long-term potentiatio in the anterior cingulated cortex. Molecules and Cells 23:259-271