What Yogis Can Learn from Prize-Winning Pumpkin Farmers

Recently, while internet surfing for a weekend activity, I came across a list of Giant Pumpkin Festivals. Giant pumpkins are a vegetable phenomenon that can weigh over 1,000 pounds.
One farmer grew a pumpkin, on a single vine, which matured to a weight over 2,700 pounds. That’s more than a ton of gourd! However, size is not the only factor taken into consideration when awarding a ribbon to a giant pumpkin. Color, shape and overall health are all considerations in determining prize winners.
Giant pumpkin farmers work hard at their craft and have developed best practices for gaining the most return on their efforts. Looking at the process that these farmers use to develop massively successful vegetables, it occurred to me that yogis can benefit from the recommendations of prize winning pumpkin farmer’s as we seek to grow our practice.
The Pumpkin Plan for Yoga:
1. Prepare your soil. 
Smart pumpkin growers begin composting, tilling and fertilizing their soil during the spring before planting season. Yoga takes root in your heart and mind and then grows out into your physical practice. Even if your first experiment with yoga is on the mat, you will come back because of something that resonated with you at a deeper level than your biceps.
Looking at what, in the practice, struck you – the peace and calm; the opportunity to care for you; the “Ah-Ha” moment; the flash of self realization. Identifying what struck you early in your yoga practice, will help you see where you need the most fertilizer and consideration in your life.
2. Grow the pumpkin you’re passionate about. 
There’s a wide variety of breeds to choose from. You might as well grow the pumpkin you love. There is a yoga teacher and style that is right for everyone. However, as you change, what calls to you may change.
I started my practice with diligent alignment and focus in the Iyengar tradition. In my 20s, I found freedom in power yoga. In my 30s, I fell in love with the flow of vinyasa. In my 40s, I started combining everything I was passionate about into the style I teach today. Every style of yoga has value, benefits and purpose. When you find the one that lights your fire, your growth will be self sustaining.
3. Develop your root system. 
Pumpkin vines grow a long way, so enriching your whole garden will help secondary vines grow strong. As your practice develops you will start to see its roots infiltrating your daily life. Your yoga quickly becomes more than the hour you spend on the mat.
You will find its influence in the other 23 hours as well. Through your mat practice, you learn to study, and increase yourawareness of, thoughts and reactions in your mind-body. As you apply techniques to manipulate your breath and observe your whole self, you gain control over your ability to generate focus, calm or strength as you need it. These skills intertwine and expand into your family and work life. Once it’s thriving, your root system of tools and skills will support you in your challenging moments and amplify your joyful moments.
4. Prune and weed. 
Giant pumpkin farmers are ruthless when they find something that doesn’t belong in their garden. Weeds and disease spread quickly. To keep the patch healthy, farmers must be diligent at detection and removal of potential problems.
Thoroughly weeding out bad habits, and harmful thought patterns, prevents disease in your body, your mind and your yoga practice. You will naturally bring negative auto responses, such as judgments and criticisms, with you onto your mat. Systematically weeding out what you don’t need (before it takes root) creates new space for your practice to flourish.
5. Mindful, steady growth yields better results than fast growth. 
Pumpkin damage is often caused by the plant’s own rapid growth, which causes splits and cracks that can lead to rot. If you rush through any part of your yoga practice, you steal the benefits of the process from yourself.
Rewiring your mind, growing mentally and physically, takes time and attention. For example, imitating a pose to achieve an immediate result without developing the understanding that comes inherently through practice, proper alignment and steady progress doesn’t build power. Fast growth only looks good for a brief moment before the damage becomes apparent.
The Pumpkin Plan for Yoga will yield the type of unique and inspiring success that wining giant pumpkin farmers achieve. When you practice the yoga you are passionate about, and cultivate its growth from a strong foundation with care and control, your achievements will be massive – if not 2,700 pounds.


4 Easy Shortcuts to Happiness

“Happiness is on the rise. Not only has the average amount of happiness risen over the last 30 years but, due to rising longevity, the number of happy life years has increased spectacularly.” ~World Database of Happiness

I’m not a trendy type, but this seems a trend worth jumping on. I’ve been happy and I’ve been unhappy. Happy is better and it’s often a few quick choices away from the alternative.

1. Choose your facts.
“I’m freezing, the weather is awful today,” he said.
“It’s not raining or snowing it’s nice out today,” I replied.
“It’s so windy, I hate this weather,” he confirmed.
“The sun feels wonderful,” I said as I walked away.
This was a conversation I had this morning. We were both standing on the same corner, at the same time, experiencing the same weather. Neither of us was delusional, or lying to the other. There are always hundreds of facts in front of you. You get to choose which ones you focus on.

2. Re-evaluate you’re network.
Remember the excitement of a play date? As children we intuitively understand that we’re happier when we interact with other people every day. For most of us, even with the advent of digital social networking, this remains true throughout life. However, your happiness quotient can also be significantly impacted by who you choose to interact with. When I was in high school and learning to navigate a diverse group of friends, my grandmother warned me, “You are only as good as the people you hang with.” My grandmother’s motivation was to keep me out of trouble, but the same theory of networking applies to how you feel about life. Every grouch that latches onto you will drain your happiness, and every joyful person you hang with will boost it.

3. Purge some angst.
To unearth your bliss, remove some of the guilt and anxiety that’s piled on top of it. At the time you chose to dive into the chocolate chip cookies, treat yourself to a second Marguerita, or buy that Mercedes it seemed like you were taking a shortcut to happiness. Regrettably, the next day when these choices result in more things to worry about, your joy is being pushed farther out of reach. When we worry about things like our finances, our job, or our health, we are not equipped to simultaneously tap into our happiness. Going on a budget, a diet, or making a career change may seem like undesirable transitions, but that’s not always the way it works. Paying off the credit cards, and making healthy lifestyle choices, makes you happier by eliminating some of the problems that keep you weighed down.

4. Go natural.
I was talking with a man who came to the US from his native country Columbia. He told me the people in Columbia are the happiest of any people in the world. When I asked why, he gave me two very logical reasons. First, he told me the weather is like spring every day so the people are always outside. Second, home grown, natural fruits and vegetables are easily accessible and make up the majority of the Columbian diet. This is a transferable recipe for creating joy anywhere in the world. In any weather, a walk outside is an instant mood booster, and there’s good reason that a big juicy bite of a delicious orange makes you smile. A regular dose of sunshine, fresh oxygen, and fresh food yields a deep sense of well-being that’s generated from being connected to the earth and the universe around you.

Your outside circumstances will never align perfectly to create bliss. Therefore, creating your happiness needs to start with a choice.




Kim Shand is a nationally-renowned yoga expert, on-air personality, and founder of Rethink Yoga. She travels nationally on a mission to inspire people to take control of their health, how they think, and how they age, through yoga. She motivates her students to find their power, their joy and to be “All In. All the Time.”  Follow Kim on Facebook, on Twitter, and on YouTube.



Practice Makes Perfect

The universe doesn’t know the difference between what we want and what we don’t want. The universe only knows what we focus on and invest our energy in. It assumes we want more of that. Therefore, whatever we decide to practice is what we will become good at.

What are you practicing today? If the answer is anxiety, worrying, or negativity you’re going to get good at it. Would you rather practice empowerment and abundance instead? If you believe in judging and beating yourself up, you are practicing the art of hurting yourself and you will become a master at it. It reminds me of the unattributed quote, “If our strengths are not determined to be valuable, we spend our lives shoring up our weaknesses.”

Notice what you’re focusing your energy on and choose what you want to become good at.

Here's The Question That Changes Your Life…..

We all want to be happy, healthy and strong.  Taking this train of thought a step further, you could probably add the desire to be more at peace, less reactive, and more balanced to the list.  Creating these qualities in ourselves can seem like a daunting task.  You know what you’d like to have and who you’d like to be, but how do you get there?

In the new movie “The Avengers”, Thor is one of the superheroes who have pledged their lives to fight the bad guys.  (There’s no need for a spoiler alert here, I’m not giving anything away.) Unfortunately, the biggest bad guy is Thor’s brother, a circumstance that causes Thor some conflict.  At one point in the movie Thor is confronted with the question, “What are you prepared to do?”

As a yoga teacher, I often see students experimenting with yoga as a way to achieve some very admirable goals.  They come to the mat, and go through the physical motions of a practice.  Then they wait to feel their bodies and lives improve.  What these students often don’t realize is that they can make a choice to take a more active role in achieving their goals.  You have a say in how you view yourself and your experiences.  You can choose your level of conviction and commitment.  You can decide how you act, and how you react, to the circumstances in your life.  You can make the choice to be a bystander or an active participant.  But, “What are you prepared to do?”  What are you willing to step up on, to have your feet held to the fire on?

Transforming yourself and your health isn’t about becoming someone new.  It’s a process of revealing who you really are when you’re not playing it safe, or pretending, or trying to please other people.  On the mat, when you put yourself into a new pose and you stick with it, even though it’s uncomfortable and foreign to you, you learn how to change your body.  Once you learn that you can transform your body, you realize that you can do the same thing with the way you think, your habits, and your perspectives.

The happiness, balance, peace and health that you want are available to you.   Sit down, find the time and space to be truly honest with yourself, and to listen.  When you’re ready to be honest, radically honest, ask yourself “What are you prepared to do?”

You Don't Need Permission!

At the end of a long day and a longer week in which I worked hard and accomplished a lot, I came home and poured myself a glass of champagne. The reaction from my houseguest was curiosity as to what I was celebrating. My answer, “nothing in particular, everything in general”, gleaned more suspicious looks.

Why should the champagne stay in the fridge? I don’t wait for special occasions to give myself what I like. I don’t keep my silk PJs in the back of my closet, and I wear my favorite high heels whenever the mood strikes me – even if I’m just going to the drugstore. I’d rather wear them out from overuse than never get to enjoy them because they’re being “saved” inside bubble wrap.

If you don’t treat yourself like you are worth it, who will? You don’t need permission! What are you waiting for? Here are some suggestions in honor of the fact that you are totally worth it. Think up some to add and share with me.

– Use your best crystal glasses to drink your water everyday
– Break out the china, especially when you’re eating alone
– Wear perfume just to hang around the house
– Use your best jewelry
– Forget the sweat shirt, grab the cashmere sweater
– Light that fabulous scented candle
– Light the fireplace
– Never take a bath without bubbles
– Give really big hugs
– Say “I love you” as often as possible. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Are You in Need of a Digital Diet?

12 clues that you’ve moved from a healthy use of all things tech to digital addiction.

One night last week both of my twenty somethings, my husband and I all made it home for dinner. In celebration of the uncommon occurrence, we dusted off the kitchen table and sat down for a meal. After which, we deposited our tired selves in the family room where my husband and I shared space on the couch with the dog. The offspring lounged across the room in comfy chairs.

Sounds very Norman Rockwell, right? The difference is in the details. The TV was on. Four cell phones sang, buzzed and dinged from various tables. And each one of us fired up our laptops and started scanning, scrolling, and typing communication to the universe outside of the house. This is a family that is fully and completely plugged in.

I’ve read the studies claiming the internet is re-shaping our brains and shrinking our attention spans. I’m familiar with the warning that anxiety disorders, insomnia and panic attacks can be linked to the overstimulation inherit in our society’s information obsession. Maybe because we are not a family of anti-social introverts, gamers, or a techno-geeks; I haven’t felt the studies were talking about us personally. However, I’m willing to admit that I might be overly fond of my cell phone and my daily verbal interaction to texting ratio is often stilted toward the latter. So, over the next few days, I started to take note of our household digital behavior to get a handle on whether we are, in fact, in need of a digital detox.

My personal study yielded the following list of clues that you and/or your family have catapulted across the divide between compulsive technology use and full-blown digital addiction.

1. While at a party you pretend to be looking for pictures of your family vacation to share with the group, but you’re really checking your email/twitter/Facebook.

2. You’re out to diner with the girls but only half participating in the conversation occurring realtime while you hold a texting conversation.

3. You’re so used to having earbuds in your ears, you don’t notice when they’re not attached to anything.

4. You tell your spouse you are putting your blackberry on the bedside table to use as an alarm, but you really want to have it handy to check email if you wake up in the middle of the night.

5. When you wake up in the morning you check your email before getting out of bed.

6. You keep Facebook open and running in the background of your PC because you might miss a critical post in the lag time of opening and closing the app.

7. You have a clutching sensation in your stomach and an increased level of anxiety when you hear the words “The cabin doors are now closed. All electronic devices must be turned off.”

8. As the theater lights are dimming and the movie previews start rolling, you shrink down into the space between the seats trying to get one last email out.

9. Setting the table for dinner means putting out plates, glassware and silverware
with enough space in between for everyone to plop down their cell phone.

10. You adjust your wardrobe to accommodate carrying your cell phone.

11. You’ve acquired phantom ring tone disorder – You hear your cell phone going off in your purse and scramble to retrieve it, only to discover it wasn’t ringing.

12. The only articles you’ve read about the need to unplug from technology have been online.

Yoga And The Ugly Christmas Sweater

While there may be someone out there, I personally, do not know anyone who doesn’t have some form of an addiction. Our addictions can take a variety of shapes ranging from an addiction to a paycheck, a process, a person, food or chemical. As we prepare ourselves, and our homes, for the holidays two addictions that often surface are competitiveness and perfectionism. In my house the drive toward both was at full speed as we prepared for the neighborhood Ugly Christmas Sweater Party.

I first noticed the competitiveness between the four of us as we covertly acquired our ugly Christmas sweaters, refusing to admit where we were shopping or give hints on available inventory. I chose cyber shopping to find my brightly colored, dizzyingly busy item. I was particularly proud of the fact that it was a previously used and repurposed purchase! While good naturedly boasting to my daughter of my fashion find, and hoping for an extra points for the eco-friendly add-on, she advised that I cover my tracks by deleting the website from “history” on the family desktop. That was an early sign that our family had successfully cleared the bar for standard competitiveness and was racing toward cutthroat.

Perfectionism is so deeply rooted in many of us that some people describe themselves as “born perfectionists”. I realized The Ugly Sweater Party was triggering my husband’s obsessive compulsive disorder desire for thoroughness when I caught him sneaking glue, tinsel and a strand of Christmas tree lights upstairs. Not satisfied with his off-the-shelf gaudy sweater, he set about embellishing it with a resolve that comes from having stepped onto the slippery slope toward compulsiveness. With intimidating determination he spent his afternoon rigging his sweater with flashing lights and gluing tinsel to inappropriate places on Santa’s reindeer.

Perfectionists and those with a strong need to be the best, often set unrealistic standards for themselves and when they fail to meet these standards, they beat themselves up. The holidays offer plenty of opportunities for these tendencies to be triggered and enhanced. As the craving for perfectionism invades the holidays, our ability to take pleasure in family and friends can be overlaid with anxiety. Our enjoyment can be dampened by a sense of dissatisfaction and striving. The Ugly Christmas Sweater party was a great laugh, but our approach toward our preparations reminded me of the necessity to not let the fun of the holidays be overshadowed by those qualities that only bring tension. Softening our approach and allowing ourselves, our homes, our gifts, and our meals to “be as they are” invites everyone around us to also be comfortable with what is.

Fashion Week and The Statement You're Making

This week was Fashion Week in NYC.  A city full of people took a break from their normal lives to focus on what their style statement is, and to determine if their style is representing them the way they want it to.  Personally, I love the creativity and artistry of fashion.  I also believe in the impact of a style statement.  However, our style statement isn’t the only announcement we make when we walk out into the world.

Our thoughts, our presence, and our emotions make an energetic statement about who we are that is felt by everyone around us.  This statement makes an impact that is much less transient than our style statement.  It affects the way others interact with us, it influences the way we feel about ourselves, and the events we draw into our lives.   However, it is more difficult to remain conscious of our energetic statement than it is to choose the color of our jeans.

Bringing your best self into everything you do is a steep challenge.  It’s something that you will naturally fall out of and have to consistently re-check.  For example, when you find yourself: in a conversation where your body is present, but you’ve mentally checked out; waiting in a long line becoming angry and agitated; maintaining a relationship while simultaneously keeping an eye out for the exit door.   At these times the statement you’re making is not an accurate reflection of you really are, or want to be.  The results that are created, the energy and reactions that will be reflected back to you, will not be what you want either.   Consistently reconnecting inward to consider if the statement you’re making in the moment is your best self, transforms your life from a discovery process into a creation that you can control.    In his book Conversations with God, Neal Walsh wrote “There is only one reason to do anything, as a statement to the universe of who you are.”

Learning the Street Value of Letting Go

Yoga has changed a lot about how I interact with the people around me and how I react to situations.  It’s very fulfilling to realize I’m not taken off balance in a moment when I might have become fearful or angry in that past.  However, there are other times when I find myself to be decidedly un-yogic.  Hurricane Irene gave me a week without lights, air-conditioning, internet access or hot water.  Living in a town with huge, old, oak  trees that loose branches in wind, rain and snow storms; we’ve had plenty of power failures.  In the past we’ve been dark for 10 minutes to 2 days.  A week is a record.

My immediate reaction when the lights went out was to sit and wait for my world to re-illuminate.  Any minute now.   Ten minutes later, resignation set in and I followed through on the preparations I’d made: grab the flashlights, light the candles, pretend to read Yoga Journal…..but my real focus was on waiting for the lights to come on.   Surprised that the lights were still out when I went to bed, my first cogent thought the next morning was, “I HAVE to have power today.”  The next two days became a pregnant pause of tension.  A void of waiting, and thinking “I HAVE to get power this morning.”     “ I’m sure I’ll get power this afternoon.”   “ Pleeeease let me get power tonight.”   “It’s not possible that I’d have to take another ice cold shower today.”  As each deadline passed without success, I felt my non-yogi nerves fray.   Finally, on the third day I stopped resisting.  The fact that the power was not coming on in my timeframe, and that I had no control over when it would come on, sunk in and I accepted it.  Immediately, the tension melted and I could get on with the details of life without lights and hot water.

It occurred to me after the fact that I had just re-experienced an old lesson.  It wasn’t the lack of electricity that had caused me to feel frazzled and frustrated.  The tension was the result of my resistance.  Every moment spent wishing things were different caused anxiety, discomfort and suffering.  When I finally settled in, and accepted the situation, I could move through each day, making whatever adjustments were necessary, and still feel centered.  Another opportunity to break-through.

Is Silence Always Golden Or Is There a Place For Music In Yoga Class?

I was sent a link to a blog submitted to the Toronto Body Mind website by an author listed as “Gary Empty Book Justice”.  The blog, titled Using Silence in Yoga Classes, http://torontobodymind.ca/blogs/gary-empty-book-justice/using-silence-yoga-classes, expressed Gary’s opinion that music is a distraction to the mindfulness practice of a yoga class.

While Gary makes some excellent points, and I agree that silence can be one means of finding a sense of presence during yoga class, I am also an avid proponent for the use of other tools – including music.  Mindfulness and presence are beautiful components of a practice.  However, as a yoga teacher, I also strive to create an environment, and a catalyst, for each student to find something new.  Sometimes they discover they have been holding a limited view of their capabilites.  Sometimes they uncover a new understanding of how they think and react.  Sometimes they tap into a personal power that had been buried and forgotten.  Sometimes they find a new stillness and balance.  Whatever it is that they discover, it will make a change and, for me, it doesn’t matter if that transformation is sparked from my words, energy, the sequencing of asanas, silence, or a resonance with the music.  I’m happy to use whatever entry is available to facilitate that growth.

As with any tool in the toolbox, the use of restraint can add value.  I always try to remember that the class is about the yoga, not the music.   Through my mistakes and my successes in using music as an enhancement to class, there are some lessons I’ve learned.  Following are a few that might be of interest:

  • The flow of the class, the intention, and the asanas all dictate the music that I play.  Rethink Yoga is a form of Power Vinyasa, which has a very distinct arc that ascends fairly early in the class, holds on a plateau until it peaks and then descends slowly.  The music compliments that arc, but doesn’t dictate it
  • By the same token, I am the only teacher in the class, the music doesn’t teach.
  • The music that I play is specific to the class I’m teaching.  I am personally a big fan of classical, heavy metal, rock and roll, and hip-hop music.  However, the tunes I choose to play in a class are not what I happen to be listening to on my iPod that day.
  • I don’t play music straight through class from beginning to end.  It’s on when it will add something and it’s off when it won’t.

I think to use music effectively you have to love music and be willing to spend a fair amount of time preparing class mixes.  To effectively hit the points above, it’s not possible to throw a CD into the stereo, hit play, and call it a day.  If that were the only option, I might agree with Gary’s position that no music is better.  Since that’s not the case, I think the lesson here is to learn how to use your tools well – as many, varied tools as you can.

Sun, Singing, and Seat Dancing

On a recent sunny afternoon I was driving with the top down in my car, enjoying the fresh air and sense of freedom.  The radio blasted a Darius Rucker song titled “This” and I found myself paying close attention to the lyrics.  The song portrays a man grateful for where he is in life. Darius sings his acknowledgment that the twists and turns of his life’s path, while not always pleasant in the moment, have landed him in a place of happiness.  As I seat danced and sang my way down the highway, I felt completely in tune with Mr. Rucker – not vocally – but definitely emotionally.  In that moment I was deeply content, and filled with the warmth of gratitude.  I realize I’m sounding uncharacteristically “Woo-Woo”, but the sensation of being hardwired directly to the universe, connected to everyone and everything, is powerful and possible.

A gratitude practice is a simple, although not always easy, endeavor to implement.  It offers tremendous benefits including an overwhelming sense of well being.  Unfortunately, a gratitude practice can seem irrelevant when you are continually in problem-solving mode.  As parents, householders and employees, we are trained to notice what isn’t working and devise ways to resolve it.  On the surface, this can seem like a positive attribute.  The truth is there will always be something going wrong.  Reducing your day to a series of identifying and responding to problems is not everything you want out of life. Your life doesn’t start at some point in the future when nothing is going wrong, you have money in the bank, you’ve located your soul mate and you are at your ideal weight.

One of the challenges to a implementing a gratitude practice is what your center of attention is.  Your mind doesn’t know the difference between what you want and what you don’t want.  It only knows what you focus on, and it assumes you want more of whatever you are focusing on.  This presents a conundrum for most people whose attention is drawn to what goes wrong in their day, rather than what goes right.  Your attention gravitates to the people and events that fall short of what you think they should be.  Unfortunately, by focusing on your let downs, not only do you attract more of the same, but you become prone to overlooking your blessings.  Mindfully shifting your attention to what is, rather than what is not, is a great starting point for breaking this pattern.

Next you’ll want to look at your expectations.  You expect your alarm clock and your car to work.  You expect that your lights will go on when you flip the switch. You expect your loved ones will care about you. Once you come to expect something, you take it for granted.  You are not grateful for the things you take for granted.

Another challenge to a gratitude practice is feeling entitled. When the gas station attendant fills your tank, the mailman delivers your mail, or the cashier bags your groceries you probably don’t feel grateful.  These people are paid to deliver a service.  It’s their job.  But the fact is, regardless of their motivation, you are benefiting from their efforts. Developing gratitude in these types of situations is part of the practice.

Finally, make sure that you have created a distinction between a gratitude practice and the feeling of helplessness generated by your mother telling you to eat your brussel sprouts because there were children starving in India.  A gratitude practice is not an excuse to become self defeating, passive or accepting of those things that you know should be changed.  There is a potential danger in messages such as: “These things are wrong, but we should be grateful for what we have,” and “Compared to these people, look how much better off we are.”  These statements can become excuses for not taking action to change social injustice, or stand up against unfair situations.  A gratitude practice is not a justification for being submissive.  On the contrary, as you become more adept at acknowledging your blessings and developing a mindful approach to gratitude, you will likely find that you have a heightened sense of caring for, and connection to, other human beings.

Lyrics to Darius Rucker’s song “This” (seat dancing optional)

Every stoplight I didn’t make,
Every chance I did or I didn’t take,
All the nights I went too far,
All the girls that broke my heart,
All the doors that I had to close,
All the things I knew but I didn’t know,
Thank God for all I missed,
‘Cause it led me here to this…

Your Energy Is a Magnet

August nights in NJ are my favorite.  The warm weather often draws my family outside after dinner.  Last night I was hanging out in my backyard watching fireflies.  Although I no longer think they’re fairies, I still find the same enjoyment in fireflies that I did as a kid.  Their burst of energy is inspiring.  Fireflies use their light to attract their mate.  In other words, their burst of energy draws what they what to them.

Typically, we think of turning our attention inward during our yoga practice in an effort to find balance and create change. However, our inner and outer worlds are connected.  We can also create the life we want by looking outside of ourselves.

During your mat practice, in each asana, you send out a burst of energy.  If your mental dialogue turns to “I hate this pose.  I can’t do this pose”, a negative energy is created which will not only impact your present moment, but can continue to echo around you when you step off the mat.  On the other hand, when you bring your best self, your best energy, into your poses the reverberation will be felt immediately and will continue long after your mat practice ends for the day.  Every time you come to the mat, the opportunity exists to impact change in what is happening inside of you as well as what happens outside. While yogis are frequently thought of as turtles, drawing energy and focus within.  The expansiveness and reach of the firefly’s energy offers a beautiful alternative approach.  Challenge yourself to shine your best light – to grow, expand and to draw the positive energy you want toward you.

The Strong Medicine of Yoga

Half of the people who start a new exercise program will drop out before they hit the 6 week mark.  This statistic is particularly concerning for people suffering from the pain and immobility brought on with arthritis.  The less an arthritic joint is used, the more immobile it becomes.  The more immobile the joint becomes, the less it is used.  I had a very frustrating front row seat to this downward spiral as I watched my aunt’s world shrink to the periphery of her living room chair as the arthritis in her spine stole her physical freedom.  Yoga is strong medicine for people facing a future similar to my aunt’s.  In large part due to its holistic approach to improving not only the body but also the mind, practitioners tend to stay with their yoga practice over their lifetime.  It is this potential that gives yoga the greatest possibility for improving and preventing chronic disease.

When I started teaching yoga for seniors, I fully expected I would be working with people facing conditions similar to my aunt’s.  However, over my years of teaching, I’ve been surprised by the number of students in their 30s and 40s that have approached me after being diagnosed with arthritis.  Yoga, in general, is one stop shopping for people with chronic health issues such as arthritis.  A regular yoga practice offers patients an improved quality of life, increased strength, flexibility and balance, enhanced immune system, cardiovascular conditioning, emotional and mental steadiness.

There are four different styles of yoga that I have found particularly helpful in improving the state of affected joints, enabling patients to reduce and sometimes eliminate their dependence on drugs, often avoid surgery, and in general improve their outlook.  Where surgery is a medical necessity, these yoga styles offer a comprehensive recovery plan and a holistic approach to the prevention of future decline.  In addition many patients, in an unconscious reaction to arthritic pain, will start to hold their bodies in ways that create imbalance, muscle tension and compound future problems.  A yoga practice of any style enhances your awareness of how you sit, stand and move your body so that your joints are properly aligned and muscle strain is corrected.  Combining three or four of these styles can offer the greatest physical and emotional benefits.

B.K.S. Iyengar initially came to yoga because he suffered from numerous chronic ailments.  After studying yoga, and significantly improving his own health, Iyengar developed a self named style of practice that uses blocks, blankets, pillows and straps to modify poses.  The ample use of props, and the slower pace of an Iyengar practice, make this style very accessible for students with restricted mobility and limited flexibility.  Emphasis is placed on the very specific alignment of muscles and bones in each pose.  This is especially useful where misalignment, poor posture and damaging movement habits have exacerbated the erosion of the cartilage that cushions joints.

Gentle Vinyasa Yoga strings poses together so they flow from one to the other.  Vinyasa, meaning flow, offers continuous slow movement that is especially friendly to people who have a hard time keeping their minds still unless they are “doing” something.  Each pose can still be modified to accommodate individual students’ current abilities, and props are used occasionally.  Over time, the emphasis on breath work that comes from coordinating every movement with an inhale or an exhale strengthens mental concentration and lowers blood pressure.  Although there is less attention paid to the precise alignment of each pose, vinyasa offers the added benefit of cardiovascular work.

During times when you are particularly weakened, tired, stressed or run down Yin Yoga is a ideal restorative solution.  Yin Yoga is a Chinese style of practice in which poses are held for extended periods to invite a meditative state of mind and a deepening into the posture.  Yin Yoga’s long static stretches are particularly useful in lubricating, strengthening and lengthening connective tissue, ligaments and tendons.  Also, because a pose can be held for as much as 20 minutes, the physical and mental emphasis of Yin is on releasing and relaxing.

The fourth modality that I’ve found effective when working with arthritis is Chair Yoga.  While not typically classified as a specific style of practice, chair yoga can be mixed into any of the other styles, or done on its own.  Almost any pose can be modified and approached from a seated position. This is less intimidating for beginning students who worry about being asked to turn themselves into a pretzel.  Chair yoga classes are growing in popularity in gyms, mixing a social ingredient into the yoga experience.

Unlike western medicine, yoga does not assume a lack of pain means you are healthy.  Yogis define health by looking at the condition, and interaction, of every system in the body including circulation, digestion, respiration, and muscular/skeletal.  In addition, yoga focuses a great deal on the condition of the mind and how the mind directly impacts the health of the body.  I do not believe, however, that yoga is a substitute for all that western medicine has to offer.  What I have seen is that yoga is a very effective collaborator with traditional medical regimens. For example, the breath work and mental focus practiced in yoga reduces anxiety, nervousness, and stress.  This in turn decreases many patients’ dependence on medications normally prescribed for these conditions.  Smaller doses of medicine equates to a lower incidence of side effects, which in turn improves physical and mental health.

While yoga, as a physical venue offers tremendous benefits to arthritic joints, the most dramatic value that I’ve witnessed in my students lies in the psychological areas of the practice.  By taking an active role in the improvement of their condition, arthritis patients gain a sense of control, confidence and empowerment.  Depression subsides as pain subsides and, because they feel less like victims, I often see dramatic and quick improvements to these people’s outlook toward the future.  With these results it is not difficult for yogis to commit to a consistent practice that lasts, and enhances, a lifetime.