A regular yoga practice can strengthen, tone, and relax the heart in amazing ways.

A healthy heart is a stress-free heart.  While this may be challenging to achieve in the often disquieting nature of modernity, there are many ways to combat the habitual stresses we experience.  Yoga is one of the most powerful ways to deal with stress on our minds, bodies, and namely our hearts.  For the circulatory system, yoga works wonders.  In standing poses, the lateral wall of the heart is completely stretched and toned up so that there is healthy blood flow on the walls.  Inverted poses allow the lymphatic system of the legs and muscles that help in pumping the blood upward to rest.  Horizontal ones reduce blood pressure since the heart and lungs are rested, rejuvenated, and well-ventilated, while bending postures, when done mindfully and without strain, can improve blood supply to the myocardium and will tone up the cardiac muscle.  Yoga can also be cardiovascular in nature depending on the pace at which you travel through specific poses.  The sun salutation, for instance is an excellent series of poses linked together that will get the heart pumping and blood flowing.  Let your breath guide you through these poses, as the deep inhalation and exhalation relaxes the mind and greatly reduces stress to the heart.

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The Power of Dance and Movement

“The Power of Dance and Movement”

The fact that there has always been dance compels us to accept it as an old and deeply rooted human activity whose foundations reside in the nature of being human. It will continue as long as the rhythmic flow of energy operates, and until humans cease to respond to the force of life and the universe. As long as there is life, there will be dance.

-Margaret N. H’Doubler

For as long as I can remember, I have danced; for as long as I can recall, few things in life have brought me greater joy. My journey through movement began at the age of three, studying the Western styles of jazz, tap, and ballet. In the high school years I explored modern dance and my passion for creating an emotional picture inspired by the canvas of enchanting music. Years later, I found myself in New Orleans, steeped in the rituals of African Dance and the primitive beat of the drum. I also joined a samba troupe and samba danced down St. Charles Avenue during Mardi Gras. After an adventure in India, yoga became an integral part of my daily life. Presently, the intoxicating rhythms of Flamenco feed my soul and spirit every day.

Along my expansive and continuing journey through dance and movement, it has from an early age served as a powerful tool in my development and sense of self. It has provided me with a means to explore various cultures, traditions, and rituals that I may have not otherwise come to understand. It has helped maintain my physical health, and has become one of my most beloved means of spiritual practice, thereby enhancing my overall mental, emotional, and spiritual growth.  Whether a seasoned dancer or not, every one of us can benefit immensely from various forms of dance and movement.  May the following information inspire you to further explore the great joys of your body as a vehicle for self-expression and fulfillment.

Dance Therapy

Dance scholar Margaret N. H’Doubler, author of “Dance: A Creative Art Experience”, once said, “if all children in every school from their entrance until their graduation were given the opportunity to experience dance as a creative art, and if their dancing kept pace with their developing physical, mental, and spiritual needs, the enrichment of their adult life might reach beyond any results we can now contemplate.

Dance is an extremely potent tool in the development of self. Suzie Tortora, a dance therapist in Cold Spring, New York, observes, “from the beginning, each baby develops his or her own personal communicative dance to express how he or she perceives and experiences his or her surroundings.”  In the early years of one’s self development, it is through movement that young children discover the world. It is also through movement that they communicate with their surroundings and let the world know how they feel. Dance therapists can get a feel for a child’s experience by observing his or her nonverbal communication. In time, a therapist helps a child discover more varied movement, which eventually enhances and expands his or her repertoire. This, in turn, expands a child’s ability for self-expression in the world and enables greater interaction with others.  This approach can be highly beneficial for any and every child, regardless of their stage in emotional, mental, and physical development.

Dance Therapy is a powerful vehicle for mental, emotional, and physical healing. Based on the principle that body and mind are interrelated, dance movement psychotherapy is defined by the American Dance Therapy Association as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement as a process which furthers the emotional and physical integration of the individual.”  According to dance therapy, the qualities of movement and postural structure of an individual are a reflection of a person’s emotional expression. Suzie Tortora adds, “for me, the word dance has come to symbolize all nonverbal expression which has the potential to be communicative. The goal of my work-from individual psychotherapy sessions to parent-child counseling to teaching creative dance is to help the participants learn how their nonverbal actions accompany and add meaning to their verbalizations. Understanding the role movements and gestures play in our interactions facilitates greater awareness of self and others.”

Yoga

There are a myriad of mind-body practices to explore. Yoga asana is one of the most popular and beneficial forms of therapeutic movement, and one of my favorites. Asana is defined as “posture,” its literal meaning is seat.  Asanas are more than just stretching as they open the energy channels, chakras, and psychic centers of the body.  Yoga has served as a calming oasis in my own life for the past nine years and continues to teach me how to slow down, meditate, and  move my body in ways that other types of movement fail to explore. While traveling, yoga grounds and centers me. It is an ideal form of healing movement while traveling through life, literally and metaphorically, because it needs nothing but the body and the breath. Yoga helps me to connect with the spiritual world, as it has done for so many humans around the globe for thousands of years.

The benefits of yoga as a form of healing and expressive movement are great. From a physical aspect, yoga strengthens muscles, increases flexibility, improves endurance, and calms the mind and body. Yoga is a wonderful form of meditation in motion. It also focuses on the power of breath, which helps to maximize one’s inner energy source while allowing it to flow through the entire body, bringing much healing and a sense of calm.

Alexander Technique

Another life-enhancing form of movement therapy is the Alexander Technique. The basic teaching of the Alexander Technique is that when the neck muscles do not overwork, the head balances lightly at the top of the spine. As this relationship between the head and the spine is of critical importance to health, how we manage this relationship is directly related to the rest of the body. In fact, it determines the quality of the entire body’s coordination.

A teacher of the Alexander technique helps a person see what his/her movement style is, and how it fosters reoccurring problems like a bad back, chronic neck or shoulder pain, or any limitation in executing physical activities. By implementing the technique, students learn to rid the body of many harmful habits, heighten self-awareness, and use his/her own thought processes to restore poise to the body and graceful, natural movement-the way we were meant to move.

Pilates

The Pilates Method is a physical fitness system developed by Joseph Pilates in the 20th century. Joseph Pilates, a boxer, circus performer, and self-defense trainer of English detectives, was interned at a camp in Lancaster with other Germans as ‘enemy aliens’ during WWI.  It was here where h spent much of his time to further develop his exercise techniques.  Pilates called his method Contrology, referring to its emphasis on using the mind to control the muscles. Pilates focuses on the core postural muscles that are essential in keeping the body balanced and providing spinal support. The exercises also teach awareness of breath and alignment of the spine. They strengthen the deep torso muscles, which help to prevent and alleviate back pain. While following the method, one learns how to control body movement through a series of exercises (with names like swan or mermaid,) while keeping the mind focused on the task.

The method attracted the attention of dancers George Balanchine and Martha Graham, two legendary dancers and choreographers of the 20th century. Dancers are drawn to Pilates because of its deliberate movements, controlled breathing, and emphasis on alignment. These techniques are believed to improve strength and flexibility throughout the entire body without building bulky muscles. Research and theories in motor learning, biomechanics, and musculoskeletal physiology help support the phenomena and overall health benefits experienced by those who practice this particular therapeutic movement method.  These benefits include the developing of the deep muscles of the back and abdomen, the creation of length, strength, and flexibility in muscles, and the greater support given to the spine by the exercises which give awareness of neutral alignment of the spine and space between each vertebrae.

Feldenkrais

The Feldenkrais Method, another form of body movement, believes that the body is the primary vehicle for learning. With this particular approach practitioners help people to expand their repertoire of movements. The method also enhances awareness, improves function, and enables people to express themselves more fully. Through movement sequences that bring attention to the parts of the self that are often ignored, the technique addresses the question of how to facilitate the learning that is necessary for organizing the whole self and recovering excluded and unconsidered movement patterns or actions.

Feldenkrais is expressed in two main forms: Awareness Through Movement and Functional Integration. The first form is made up of verbally directed movement sequences presented primarily to groups of people in a classroom setting. Several hundred hours of Awareness Through Movement lessons are to be taken to achieve the best results. The lessons make one aware of his/her habitual neuromuscular patterns and rigidities and expand options for new ways of moving, while simultaneously improving efficiency and increasing sensitivity. Functional Integration is a hands-on form of tactile, kinesthetic communication. Through gentle touching and movement, a practitioner teaches a student how to move in more expanded motor patterns.

Gurdjieff Movements

The Gurdjieff Movements center around movement exercises and sacred dances developed by GI Gurdjieff.  The technique also focuses on inner practices of attention, sensing, breath, awareness, feeling, and mental imagery.  Patty Kane Horrigan, a teacher in the Gurdjieff style of movement therapy in NewYork reminds us that most of the population is not as aware of our bodies as we can and should be.  In reference to the Gurdjieff movements, she says that the movements were designed to keep us focused on just that-what the right hand and the left hand are actually doing.  “Many of the gestures are contradictory to what we expect-they’re not very fluid.  In fact, they’re immensely angular, they require divided attention.  Each part of the body may have a different tempo, and you’re doing them in a group where people are traveling in all sorts of directions.  There’s not time to do anything except be there and try to find a way to manage all the different elements.  If ever there was an activity that showed the uselessness of negative emotion or empty thinking, the movements are it.  You can’t waste a second on doubt, criticism, idle thoughts or any of the million other activities that go on inside our heads.”

She continues, “Making the efforts to do these movements can be humbling.  It doesn’t take long to see how little knowledge, let alone control we have on our own bodies.  But when we try, it can be glorious.  There’s something so powerful about experiencing the body we live in, about feeling its connection to the world.  Movements are ultimately a very emotional experience.  They open up feelings at a very different level.  These movements are part of a spiritual tradition that teaches that we work on so that we can ultimately work with and for others and can be of service to the universe.  But for those who are interested in that journey I can’t think of a better place to start than the body.”

Dance Ruminations

Trishki Doherty, a modern dancer explains how dance has enriched her life in boundless ways.  “Dance became a way for my deep inner self to speak and thus helped me establish my identity, a sense that I am someone, and this helped me transcend mental illness.” For forty years dance has played a center stage role in her life, and continues to each day.  On a physical level, Trishki notes that it has given her a strong body and a much straighter spine, as it cured her scoliosis to a point where it was no longer a major problem.  “Dance gave me good posture and a beautiful body (previously I had a very weak spine, and was “top heavy” and not in proportion.)  It has helped me have a strong and healthy body as I approach my elder years – probably helping me live longer and have a better quality of life.  Dance has also helped me appreciate all different kinds of music – for as I dance to different music, it seems to open up the channels to really hear and experience it.”

Jacques D’Amboise, a former principle dancer with the New York City Ballet and founder of the National Dance Institute once said, “It’s your pulse, it’s your heartbeat, it’s your breathing. It’s the rhythms of your life. It’s the expression in time and movement of happiness and joy and sadness and energy. It’s a venting of energy. It’s extraordinary, and that’s common to all cultures and it’s common to all individuals.”  Dance, like language, is found in all human societies. It is one of the only universal forms of expression. One of dance’s universalities is the use of the human body itself as a vehicle for self-expression and intercommunication. All dance is charged with power. It serves as an emblem of cultural identity, an expression of religious worship, an expression of cultural mores, and a medium of cultural fusion. Dance is a means of social order, and is perhaps the art form whose dynamics are most closely related to the dynamics of life. It is ever-changing, ever-flowing, with every body that moves, from one corner of the planet to the next.

I spoke with my flamenco teacher, Miel Castagna as to how flamenco dance has affected her life.  “When I think about how dance has enhanced my life, my mind becomes overcrowded with words. I think when you are a dancer, there is somehow no other option of how to be or what to be.  Dance IS your life.”  She explains that for seventeen years she has tried to get a “real” job and find a “normal” profession, but aside from becoming a mother, flamenco is the only thing that fills her heart with such complete and intuitive passion.

I agree. If I eliminated dance from my life, my existence would be less rich. I can even say it would feel like an integral part of myself had died.  I absolutely adore flamenco because of the utter amount of emotion it entails. It embodies sorrow, love, joy, honor, and even death. Like other forms of ethnic dance, the meaning behind the dance is paramount. It tells a story, a feeling, and often times translates an entire history of a particular culture.

The desire to know oneself and express one’s deepest feelings using the body is an incredibly humanistic, primal instinct, which crosses barriers of language.  When I am moving my body through a dance or through a yoga asana, I experience a divine sort of freedom: an ability to express myself from the heart, which awakens a natural intuition and a feeling of connection to the rhythms of the universe. Dance becomes prayer, and movement becomes life.

This piece was originally published in Chronogram magazine.

five pillars of yogic balance

The five pillars, as developed by the Sivananda yoga school teach us to embrace these essential elements for a balanced lifestyle.

  1. right exercise is achieved by practicing regular yoga and other forms of exercise that make sense for your body
  2. right breathing this is developed by working towards awareness of the breath at all times and re-establishing the deep, natural breathing of a child, which energizes your entire body
  3. right thinking this means decluttering your mind of its scattered thoughts to gain a sense of clarity and calm and cultivating a positive attitude
  4. right nutrition be aware of what you feed your body with-a good range of healthy, fresh and seasonal food in moderation while eating slowly and mindfully
  5. right relaxation by taking time out to balance all the activity in your life with proper rest to maintain physical, emotional and mental relaxation throughout your day

Easy Seated Meditation

prayer flags

Alternate nostril breathing 

 

Nadi Shodana is said to balance the two major nadis (energy flows) of the pranayama kosha (energy body), which are a bit like the outward or active and the receptive or passive sides of our nature. It also balances left and right brain function, improving mental clarity. 

Sit in a comfortable position. Hold your right hand in front of your face with your middle and index fingers curled toward your palm.  Place your thumb next to your right nostril and your ring finger next to your left nostril. Use your thumb to close your right nostril and inhale, slowly and deeply through the left. Pause. Release your right nostril and use your ring finger to close the left nostril; exhale slowly and fully. Pause, keeping your left nostril closed; inhale slowly and deeply. Pause. Release your left nostril and close your right nostril; exhale slowly and fully. This is one full round of nadi shodana. Start with five to ten rounds, and increase as your comfort level grows. 

Yoga for headaches

Our headaches are usually a result of muscle tension in the back of the neck due to postural problems. For most people, restorative yoga poses and breathing techniques can relieve and help prevent the onset of all types of headaches.

Mountain pose is an active standing posture. Stand tall with the outer edges of the feet parallel to each other. Lift the kneecaps while engaging the thigh muscles. Press your shoulder blades together and then release them down the back. The neck is long, chin is parallel to the floor, eyes are soft.

This asana can help eliminate bad postural habits and serve as a reminder to lift the head up and away from the shoulders rather than crunching it into the neck.

Downward Facing Dog. Begin by kneeling with the hands and knees on the floor, hands under the shoulders, fingers spread wide, knees under the hips, spine straight. Push the hips upward, moving the body into and inverted V-shape. Legs and arms are straight, the elbows are engaged and the shoulders are wide and relaxed. The heels move toward the floor and the tummy can be engaged while the head and face are relaxed. Take several slow deep breaths and repeat as many times as you like.

Stretching and strengthening the muscles in the upper torso during this pose can also help relieve tension in the neck and head.

Bridge Pose. Lie on your back with the feet planted close to your buttocks, palms on the floor. Breathe in, and with an exhale, press the feet into your mat to lift the tailbone. Clasp your hands together underneath you and walk the shoulder blades closer together so that your weight rests on the posterior shoulders and feet. Lift your hips upward. Hold for several breaths and then slowly roll the spine down to the ground, one vertebra at a time.

This calms the brain while opening the chest and rejuvenating tired legs.

Wrapping the head with an Ace bandage while in restorative postures can also be helpful and the sensation it creates can be quite comforting.