Sunday, December 28, 2014

Yoga and the Christmas Spirit: Faith and Hope

christmas spirit
By: Virginia Iversen, M.Ed

Once again, the Christmas season is in full swing. This beautiful season brings with it a sense of lighthearted festiveness, as well as an underlying hope for the redemption of us and for our communities at large. According to many theologians, hope, faith and charity are the essential three virtues of Christmas. Christians believe that with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth any personal missteps they may have taken are rectified within the eyes of God. This deep sense of hopefulness keeps the heart and mind focused on the many blessings that surround us. 

In terms of practicing Yoga or teaching classes, maintaining a strong sense of hopefulness is critical to making progress on this ancient spiritual path. Additionally, by having faith that a Yoga practice will bear fruit in our lives, most of us are much more willing to invest the time and energy necessary to truly make progress on this ancient path. As the founder of Ashtanga Yoga, Shri K. Patthabi Jois, so succinctly stated, "Do your practice and all is coming. " In other words, by having faith in the system of Yoga and applying yourself in a dedicated fashion to the practices, you will reap the fruits promised to you by the ancient sages.

However, it is not uncommon for many Yoga practitioners to become frustrated with their apparent lack of progress in their practice. If you find that you are at such a crossroads, by continuing to engage in a dedicated fashion to practicing on a regular basis, you will reap the fruits of this ancient method of creating and sustaining health, vitality and a strong connection with the divine. By connecting with the Christmas virtues of faith and hope in your practice and in the way that you teach Yoga classes, you will also harness the power of resiliency when you encounter obstacles along the way. 

One technique for connecting with the power of faith on the mat is to allow you the time to periodically engage in a free flowing and intuitively inspired Yoga practice. In other words, by allowing yourself an hour on the Yoga mat in an unstructured fashion, when you allow the movement to arise from within your own being, you will cultivate a deep sense of faith in the inherent wisdom flowing through your own body and breath. 

There are several well-known Yoga teachers who have modeled for us the beauty and wisdom of following an intuitive sense of how to engage in a Yoga practice or class. For example, Vande Scaravelli is a Yoga teacher who practiced a free form flow of Yoga postures, depending on her own intuitive wisdom of what her body needed at any given moment. In doing so, she was able to construct a practice that truly uplifted her life and kept her healthy and active into her early nineties. Erich Schiffman is another well-known Yoga teacher who espouses the beauty of an intuitive flow of Yoga postures. 

Although I really enjoy practicing with a number of online Yoga teachers, sometimes the best way for me to really tune into my own intuitive sense of how I need to move my body is to put on some music that I love and simply commit to being on my mat for a set period of time. Most of the time, I allow myself a full hour to explore the unfurling of the asana practice from within my own being. When I allow myself this amount of time to practice Yoga, I usually feel that I have fully engaged in the practice. 

Sometimes an intuitive Yoga session for me will consist mostly of Sun Salutations and standing postures. At other times, my body simple wants to rest for extended periods of time in restorative poses, such as Supported Balasana. By allowing myself the freedom and flexibility to practice Yoga in the way my body is specifically asking for on that day and within the framework of a dedicated hour "on the mat," I find that my practice is more deeply effective at releasing tension and revitalizing me than many of the preset Yoga sequences that I often follow. 

Virginia Iversen, M.Ed, has been practicing and studying the art of Yoga for over twenty years. She lives in Woodstock, New York, where she works as a writer and an academic support specialist. She is currently accepting Yoga and health-related writing assignments and may be contacted

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Yoga and the Christmas Spirit: Embracing Generosity

By: Virginia Iversen, M.Ed

You may recall from your childhood the unfortunate stories of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch who Stole Christmas. Both of these fictional characters encounter great duress during the Christmas season because of their own stingy nature. The lack of generosity that Scrooge and the Grinch displayed truly made them both completely miserable! This misery enveloped their entire lives. Once they realized the pain they were suffering from their own stinginess, they began to extend their generosity and goodwill to those around them in the true spirit of Christmas.

The traditional virtues of Christmas include faith, hope and charity. In addition, many Christmas stories honor the virtues of forgiveness, joy and wonder.  Charitable acts during the Christmas season are often undertaken by numerous church and community organizations, in order to alleviate the sense of poverty and loneliness that many people experience during the holidays. If you find that you are moved to give to those around you in a charitable fashion during the holidays, increasing your own sense of well-being and boosting your energy level will help you to extend your goodwill to others.

As we all know, when you feel better, you will be more able to offer your love, support and generosity to those around you. By doing so, you will be increasing the light and the love that is exemplified during the Christmas season. Practicing supported, restorative Yoga postures during the holiday season can help to relieve stress, recharge your batteries and bolster your mood. Restorative Yoga postures also help to relieve tension, quell anxiety and reduce the frequency and severity of headaches.

The practice of Yoga offers many tools to increase your well being, enhance equanimity and generate abundant levels of energy. In particular, engaging in your Yoga practice in such a way that you are not holding back when you are in the postures is one of the keys to expanding your ability to enter deeply into the practice. Additionally, by allowing yourself an ample amount of time to practice Yoga several times a week, or even daily, you will be generously allowing yourself an adequate amount of time to truly benefit from a well-rounded practice of Yoga postures, pranayama exercises and other complimentary Yoga practices, such as meditation and chanting.

* Salamba Shavasana or Supported Corpse Pose 

Salamba Shavasana is a very nourishing and refreshing Yoga posture, which helps to relieve fatigue, reduce stress, relieve headache pain, and support a restful night's sleep. The supported version of Corpse Pose is usually practiced at the end of Yoga class in lieu of the practice of regular Shavasana. To practice Supported Shavasana, you will need a Yoga bolster and a rolled blanket. It is also quite nice to cover yourself with an additional blanket and to have a warm pair of socks to put on, while your rest in this restorative Yoga postures. 

When you're ready to practice Salamba Shavasana, roll the blanket lengthwise and place it at approximately the height of the bottom of your shoulder blades horizontally across your Yoga mat. Position the Yoga bolster horizontally across your mat at the height of your knees. Gently lie back on your Yoga mat as you drape your knees over the bolster and support the back of your heart with the rolled blanket. If you like, place the extra blanket on top of you for warmth and remember to put your socks on if your feet are cold. 

As you rest in Salamba Shavasana, imagine a golden yellow sun filling your heart with warmth, light and energy. Allow the Sun within your own being to fill you with resplendent light. Rest in Salamba Shavasana for 5 to 10 minutes, and then roll to your right side and gently sit up in Easy Seat. Before closing your Yoga practice, take a moment to set an intention to offer an act of generosity, regardless of how large or small, to somebody in your day-to-day life, in order to honor the true spirit of Christmas. Ultimately, of course, this generosity of spirit will uplift you and bring abundance into your own life, just like Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Virginia Iversen, M.Ed, has been practicing and studying the art of Yoga for over twenty years. She lives in Woodstock, New York, where she works as a Yoga and health-related freelance writer and academic support specialist. She is currently accepting Yoga and health-related writing assignments and may be contacted

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Yoga for the Winter Blues: Supported Fish Pose

winter blues
By: Virginia Iversen, M.Ed

With each passing day, we are growing closer and closer to the heart of the holiday season. Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice and Christmas are just around the corner. The holidays can be a time of great festivity, fun and full of the warmth of family and friends. The holidays can also be a time of sadness for people who have lost loved ones or who are separated by circumstance from their loved one. This can be particularly true if you have lost a loved one at this time of the year or if the loss is recent.

In addition, it is not unusual for Yoga students and teachers to experience a dip in their mood during the winter season, particularly if they live in the Northern Hemisphere, where the days are quite short and the hours of sunlight are brief and fleeting. Although the holidays can be very fun and heartwarming, they can also accentuate feelings of sadness, loss and frustration for many people. There are number of ways to boost your mood naturally if you are experiencing depressive symptoms such as sadness, hopelessness and heightened anxiety. 

Remaining socially engaged and physically active are two ways that help to keep your mood optimistic. One very effective way of boosting serotonin levels in the brain, which helps to ameliorate symptoms of depression, is by regularly engaging in aerobic exercise. Researchers have found that exercising in a moderately aerobic range will help to diminish symptoms of depression and improve your cardiovascular fitness. Engaging in a balanced practice of Yoga postures performed in a flowing style, breathing exercises, chanting, and meditation techniques will help to keep your spirit and heart light and positive throughout the year.  

* Supported Fish Pose 

Fish Pose, or Matsyasana, is a profoundly effective back bending posture that can be practiced by most Yoga students. There are a number of benefits to practicing Supported Fish Pose, some of which include expanding the chest cavity fully, releasing constriction in the throat chakra, releasing tension throughout the thoracic spine, and increasing the capacity to breathe deeply. All of these benefits help to alleviate symptoms of depression. When Fish Pose is practiced in a supported fashion, even beginning Yoga students can benefit fully from practicing this asana.  

Supported Fish Pose is usually practiced towards the end of a Yoga class. It is often performed as a counter pose to Shoulderstand and Plow Pose and just prior to Shavasana. To practice Fish Pose in a supported fashion, you will need a Yoga bolster or a rolled blanket. These Yoga props will help to expand your chest by gently supporting the back of your shoulder blades. If you are using a Yoga bolster or a rolled blanket, place the prop horizontally across your Yoga mat at approximately the height of the bottom of your shoulder blades. 

With your next exhale, lie gently backwards and position the prop underneath your shoulder blades. Place the palms of your hands flat on your Yoga mat next to your hips and snuggle your arms underneath the end of either the Yoga bolster or the blanket. Keep your legs together with your feet slightly flexed and pressing against the floor. If this position feels too intense for you, you may bend your knees and place your feet flat against your mat and in line with your hips. 

When you are comfortable in Supported Fish Pose, with an exhale gently drop your head back as you elongate your throat. If you have any pain in your neck, please do not drop your head back but continue to look straight ahead at a drishti point just beyond the end of your Yoga mat. Continue to breathe deeply and fully as you apply gentle pressure against your Yoga mat with your elbows, legs and feet. Hold Supported Fish Pose for three to five breaths, and then release the posture, roll to your right side and gently push yourself up to Sukhasana or Easy Seat.

Virginia Iversen, M.Ed, has been practicing and studying the art of Yoga for over twenty years. She lives in Woodstock, New York, where she works as a Yoga and health-related freelance writer and academic support specialist. She is currently accepting writing assignments and may be contacted at:

Friday, December 05, 2014

Yoga for the Winter Blues: Breath of Fire

By: Virginia Iversen, M.Ed

If you live in the northern hemisphere, at this point in the year you may be experiencing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder or low-grade depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder is precipitated by the lack of sunlight during the dark winter months, particularly in areas that receive little sunshine during most of the winter. As the days become shorter and the hours of sunlight drop to a bare minimum, you may be experiencing a similar drop in your own mood. This is quite understandable because the amount of sunshine that you receive each day directly impacts the level of serotonin in your brain. 

Serotonin is one of the “feel good” neurotransmitters that keep your mood bright and optimistic. If you are particularly sensitive to the lack of sunlight during this time of year, you may be experiencing a clinically significant amount of depressive symptoms or a low-grade form of malaise, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. There are different types of depression. One of the most common types of depression is marked by a pervasive sense of lethargy, hopelessness and a generally pessimistic outlook on life. 

This lack of energy and lethargy is often promulgated by a dysregulation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When the sympathetic nervous system is down regulated in conditions such as depression, even small daily tasks can feel monumental. By practicing vigorous Yoga poses and energizing breathing exercises regularly, a Yoga student can balance and regulate the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When the nervous systems are balanced, your level of energy and sense of optimism will increase dramatically, even with the lack of sunshine during the wintertime. 

Breath of Fire is it Yogic breathing practice that can profoundly energize both your body and mind. This pranayama practice also has the ability to regulate the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems. Additionally, with steady effort and practice on a daily basis, this Yogic breathing exercise can help to balance the entire endocrine system. When the endocrine system is balanced and healthy, you are much less likely to be dramatically affected by the lack of light during the darkness of the winter months. 

* Breath of Fire 

When you're ready to practice Breath of Fire, come to an easy sitting position on your Yoga mat. If your hips are tight today, place a folded blanket underneath you for support and comfort. Place your hands palms down on your knees as you sit in Easy Seat on your Yoga mat. The practice of Breath of Fire invigorates you by increasing the circulation of fresh oxygen and vital nutrients throughout your entire body and mind. This invigorating Yogic breathing exercise will fill you with a fresh vigor for life. 

When you are ready, begin the practice of Breath of Fire by inhaling smoothly and exhaling with moderate force, as you pull your belly button in toward your spine. As you inhale, gently push down on your knees with your hands, in order to expand your heart and allow your diaphragm to expand more fully. You may wish to focus on your solar plexus as you do this Yoga breathing practice. Visualize a cheerful yellow light pulsating in your solar plexus and filling you with the warmth of the sun’s rays with each inhalation and exhalation. 

If you are new to the Yogic breathing practice of Breath of Fire, begin with three rounds of 10 breaths. When you are more experienced with this pranayama exercise, you may wish to increase your practice to three rounds of 30 breaths.  If you have high blood pressure or heart problems, please check with your doctor before practicing Breath of Fire. When you have completed your practice of Breath of Fire, pause for a moment or two to feel the scintillating pulsation of energy throughout your entire body and mind before continuing on with the rest of your Yoga practice or the rest of your day.

Virginia Iversen, M.Ed, has been practicing and studying the art of Yoga for over twenty years. She lives in Woodstock, New York, where she works as a yoga and health-related freelance writer and academic support specialist. She is currently accepting writing assignments and may be contacted