Thursday, December 24, 2015

Teaching Stress Relieving Holiday Yoga Classes: Meditating on Spaciousness

holiday classes
By: Virginia Iversen M.Ed.

The holiday season is replete with many different festive celebrations, including Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve. If you are currently teaching Yoga classes during this busy season of the year, you probably have noticed that many of your students are feeling quite stressed out about all of the personal errands they need to accomplish, before the annual holiday celebrations begin. Although this time of year can be quite exuberant and uplifting, it can also add to your students’ stress levels because of the additional responsibilities they may have to manage, including giving gift, preparing holiday meals and attending various social engagements.  

By offering Holiday Yoga Classes that are geared towards relieving stress, you will support your students in maintaining a state of clarity and equipoise amidst all of the activity. There are a number of ways to creatively sequence your Yoga classes, so that the stress relieving benefits of this ancient practice are enhanced. For example, you may want to include calming and soothing breathing exercises into your classes. You may also want to teach a slower-paced vinyasa class, than you would normally teach to a multilevel group of students. Another effective way to increase the stress relieving benefits of your Yoga classes is to include a dedicated period of meditation into the practice, either at the beginning of class or at the end of class. 

If you set aside a dedicated period of 5 to 10 minutes during your Yoga classes to guide your students through a meditation practice that is focused on creating internal spaciousness, the stress relieving benefits of the practice will be substantially increased. When your students experience the internal spaciousness of their own beings, their minds will begin to quiet and their levels of stress and tension will naturally begin to dissolve. Ultimately, the simple act of knowing how to withdraw their senses from the external world and rest their minds on the internal spaciousness within will serve them in their lives, both on and off the Yoga mat. 

Meditation on Spaciousness

This meditation practice that is geared towards creating a sense of internal spaciousness, is most effectively practiced after engaging in a balanced series of Yoga postures and breathing exercises. The physical postures of Yoga help to release stress and tension, which is frequently held in the large muscle groups in the body. By guiding your students through a comprehensive practice of asanas and pranayama exercises, before engaging in this meditation practice on spaciousness, your students will be able too much more easily drop into a state of equipoise and simply “being,” or in Buddhist terminology, calm abiding. 

When you are ready to lead your students through a meditation on spaciousness, ask them to come to a comfortable seated position on their Yoga mats. If any of your students have very tight hips and need some additional support, encourage them to place one or two folded blankets underneath them for support. You may want to begin the meditation practice by reading a brief passage from a spiritual or scriptural text, poem or uplifting contemplation. This will serve as a transition from the more physically active portion of your class, into the quiet, contemplative part of the practice.  

At the beginning of any meditation practice, it is usually helpful to take a few minutes to practice a soothing pranayama exercise, such as the Relaxation Breath or Alternate Nostril Breathing. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, or Alternate Nostril Breathing, is especially helpful for balancing out the right and left hemispheres of the brain. During this busy time of the year, many of us experience dominance in the left hemisphere of the brain, where day-to-day planning is most pronounced. By practicing Alternate Nostril Breathing for 3 minutes with your Yoga students before meditating, your students will be much more able to slide seamlessly into a thoughtless state of spaciousness within the field of their own consciousness.

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 orders and may be contacted at:

© Copyright 2015 –Virginia Iversen / Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division

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Teaching Stress Relieving Holiday Yoga Classes: Relaxation Breath

relaxation breath
By: Virginia Iversen, M.Ed.

As I sit down to write this article, the holiday season is firmly underway. Many local Jewish families have just completed their celebration of Hanukkah, which marks the power of the light to penetrate the darkness. Additionally, many Christian families are now preparing for the annual celebration of Christmas with festive lights, gift giving and memorable gatherings with family and friends. Of course, during this time of year, there always seems to be an endless assortment of tasks to accomplish before the holidays are actually upon us; including buying gifts, preparing beautiful meals and making travel arrangements if you are going out of town to spend time with family and friends. 

With all of the additional demands on our time and energy during the holiday season, this festive time of year can increase stress levels. Many Yoga students and teachers often feel that there is an almost endless stream of tasks to be completed during the holiday season. Additionally, as we all move through our lives, there may be time periods when the holidays elicit great sadness or longing for loved ones, who are either no longer in our lives or who have passed on. If this is the case for you personally, or for any of your Yoga students, gentleness, patience and self compassion  will help to assuage the sadness that may accompany your celebration of the holidays. 

Of course, if you are teaching a regular series of Holiday Yoga Classes, you may also notice that many of your students may be quite rushed and at times almost frantic to complete their "to do" list in preparation for the celebrations ahead. During your professional Yoga teacher training course of study, you will have learned many ways to tailor your classes in order to address the fluctuating needs of your students, including supporting your students during specific times during the year. One way to creatively sequence your Holiday Yoga Classes in order to relieve stress, is to incorporate soothing and calming pranayama exercises into your classes. 

* Relaxation Breath

One of the most basic and easily learned calming breathing exercises is the Relaxation Breath. The beauty of the Relaxation Breath lies in both its simplicity and profound effectiveness. Essentially, the practice of the Relaxation Breath entails elongating the exhalation portion of the breath to double the count of the inhalation. For example, if you are inhaling for a count of 4, you simply exhale at the same pace for a count of 8. 

By doubling the exhalation, a Yoga practitioner's parasympathetic nervous system is automatically triggered, which means that cortisol levels will drop, the heart rate slows down and feelings of jitteriness and anxiety are quelled. If you dedicate 3 to 5 minutes during a Yoga class for your students to practice the Relaxation Breath, they will feel much calmer and more grounded at the end of their practice. This calming breathing exercise can be practiced either at the beginning of a Yoga class or at the end of a class, just prior to Shavasana. 

When you teach your students the Relaxation Breath pranayam at the beginning of a Yoga class, they will feel more centered and grounded for the practice ahead. If you lead your students through the practice of Relaxation Breath during the final portion of a Yoga class, your students will feel calm, quiet and peaceful when they complete their practice. By incorporating the practice of a calming and cooling pranayama exercises into your Holiday Yoga Classes, you will offer your students the opportunity to rest and rejuvenate. You will also offer your students the opportunity to release any anxious, frenetic "holiday" energy, as they rest in the calm spaciousness of their own being.

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 orders and may be contacted at:

© Copyright 2015 –Virginia Iversen /  Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division

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Friday, December 11, 2015

A Laban Movement Analysis Primer for Yoga Instructors, Part II

By Kathryn Boland

Have you noticed certain emotional qualities in different ways of moving, or moving in different places? Have you wondered how this might apply to your work as a yoga instructor? Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) is a system for understanding and discussing space as it relates to movement, one that can be useful for yoga instructors and practitioners. In a prior post, I discussed how certain qualities of movements (as LMA defines as “Efforts”) play into yoga practice and instruction. Here I will discuss those considerations with space.
LMA defines three main planes of movement, the same we also learn about in standard anatomy education (which yoga instruction includes). These are the Sagittal (up and down and back to front), Horizontal (front and back and side to side), and Vertical (up and down and side to side) Planes. In Laban’s system, movements in the Sagittal Plane have a quality of action – of doing and achieving. For instance, picture someone determined to be on time, walking quickly down the street. The Horizontal Plane connects to communicating with others. This makes sense when visualizing someone holding his/her arms out and open, inviting a loved one in for a hug. The Vertical Plane connects to self-presentation and personal identity. Picture excited young students raising their hands, nearly jumping out of their classroom seats, each dying for the teacher to call on him or her for the answer.

In yoga instruction, it can be useful to apply these same socio-emotional connections to certain postures. For instance, backbends take place in the Sagittal Plane. If practitioners keep in mind that reaching for achievement, they can more likely achieve the ideal amount of muscular engagement, in the right locations (such as lifting of the sternum). In these postures, it could also help practitioners extend up through the spine as much as possible, and thus keep the low back safe – as well as challenge themselves to reach the greatest backwards arch that their bodies can safely achieve.
In the Horizontal Plane, there are postures such as Child’s Pose (when thinking of it as a spreading out of the body sideways on the mat, reaching expansiveness that way). If practitioners can more fully release into this pose, they can call upon an openness that helps us instructors to more clearly recognize their needs. That could help us to make adjustments such as lightly pressing the lower back downwards and forwards, to help them find an even deeper release into the mat. Even something as simple as having the palms facing up, the backs of their hands resting gently on the lower thighs, while sitting in Easy Pose (Sukhasana) can evoke a similar openness. This placement sends a message that we as practitioners are open to the grace of practicing in the community we are in. Physiologically, that palms-up action actually opens up the chest and heart area. Hence, more of yoga’s powerful body-mind connections! We as instructors can guide students to take such mudras, and the powerful effects of such openness can unfold in our yoga communities.
Considering the Vertical Plane, standing with palms forward and at full height in Tadasana  (Mountain Posture) certainly puts forth that sense of self-presentation. This posture can therefore be a laboratory for students to find the state in their bodies with which they can present themselves joyfully and proudly, yet without hubris. Physically, qualities such as having the chin parallel to the floor and the collarbone as open and wide as possible can significantly lead to that feeling. Being there in one’s body can lead, before long, to one feeling open and settled in oneself – in all one’s strengths and growth areas – enough to bring that personal authenticity out into the world.
LMA also defines how movements take on certain qualities in space. For instance, Spoking movements travel on straight, pure lines. We can encourage our students to find that straight, strong, “spoking” (as in the parts of a wheel) feeling with the top arm in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), for example. Carving movements encircle another object or person. It might help practitioners to sink more deeply into binds, or fold further into postures such as Malasana (Garland Pose) if they can visualize carving around their own bodies. 
As another aspect of LMA Shape theory, Shape Flow describes small, more internal movements that may or may not even be visible to others. Observing this type of movement in oneself can help to tune into one’s internal state on a given day. This way of defining such internal movements can help us as instructors guide students to more closely observe the “flow” that may or may not be happening in their bodies. These “check-ins” can be particularly beneficial in class openings and closings, or in resting moments during mid-class/session. Water imagery can aid in that self-investigation – after all, by percentage, our bodies are more water than solid!

If you might be interested in learning more about Laban Movement Analysis, online and text resources abound. We as instructors of course benefit from keeping current as possible on knowledge within our own field - and there are only so many hours in a day, and so much our brains can absorb at one time. On the other hand, other perspectives can have immense value for us, as well!  As with anything, as yoga also helps us to learn, it’s all about balance. With that, I encourage you dear readers to keep an open mind and learn all you can. You never know what type of knowledge could grace you on any given day, to support the daily work of your unique dharma. I feel as if learning about Laban Movement Analysis has helped that happen for me. As always, please share your thoughts and stories that are related to the topic below. Om Shanti!

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Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Laban Movement Analysis – A “Primer” for Yoga Instructors

By Kathryn Boland

Are you aware of the many types of systems for observing, understanding, and communicating about human movement? Have you ever studied any of these, to find it can offer insights that can be beneficial in your yoga instructor work? Laban Movement Analysis (“LMA”) is one such system. Like yoga, it regards people as complex systems of emotions, thoughts, physical qualities/tendencies, and more – all aspects that are engaged in constant interaction with one another.

Rudolf Laban was a German choreographer and movement theorist in the early 1900’s. During WWII, he analyzed factory workers’ movements to determine ways in which they could perform their daily work more efficiently – and thus increase their output. From this, and further investigations, he created a system for analyzing, classifying, and modifying human movements. The result is Laban Movement Analysis, a large body of work that fields such as concert dance, Somatics, and Dance/Movement Therapy call upon. What might it contribute to yoga practice and education?

If yoga instructors and practitioners have a basic knowledge of LMA’s rudimentary principles, they have more tools for understanding and describing certain aspects of yogic practice (in asana, pranayama, and the physical placement aspects of meditation). I will describe the applications of the Effort System in this article, and space considerations (including socio-emotional meanings of movement in separate planes) in a separate article.

Laban’s 4-part Effort System can offer a unique way of finding new dimensions in movement. Those can help to deepen one’s yoga practice, or simply lead a yoga practitioner find the qualities that are more in tune with their needs (physical, spiritual, mental, et cetera) on any given day. One’s sense of Space can be on a spectrum from Direct to Indirect. Direct space is the quality one has when zeroing in on someone across the room whom one was looking for. In contrast, a feather or leaf floating to the ground travels in an Indirect manner. Such images can guide practitioners to have a clearer, stronger drishti in balance poses. Conversely, in Mountain Pose, we often guide students to close their eyes or keep a “soft” (Indirect, as another way of thinking about it) gaze. That gaze can have that same quality of a floating leaf or feather.

One’s quality of Time can vary from Quick to Sustained. Rushing down the street, late for an appointment, one moves in a Quick manner. That same person walking more slowly (yet continuously), such as when strolling on an unhurried Sunday, moves in a Sustained quality. We can encourage students to have a more Sustained quality – with more ease and flow – in asana practice, through guiding them to finding subtle movements of expansion and grounding. Those include finding length in the spine on inhales, and depth further into postures on exhales. Moving in a Sustained quality can also help practitioners to not move so fast that they lose connection with their body’s initial reactions to certain postures, and any adjustments that they make to those postures. In the worst cases, such lack of awareness can lead practitioners to injure themselves.  On the other hand, thinking of certain pranayama exercises as Quick, with corresponding images (as described), could be a useful mental framework. Those include Dog’s Breath and Kapalabhati (“Skull Shining”) breath.

 One can have a quality of Weight ranging from Light to Strong. As with all these Effort system “spectrums”, is it about one’s relationship with weight – managing to resist gravity’s pull or giving in to it. For instance, a child skipping through a meadow – seemingly just about ready to float to the sky - has a Light quality. A parent telling him that it’s time to leave, her crossed arms and rooted feet showing her frustration, will have a Strong quality. Yoga students can feel more grounded in standing postures through visualizing having strength through their feet and legs. At the same time, they can find more expansion in the upper body through imagining having lightness in their torsos.

One’s sense of Flow can range from Free to Bound. Free defines relative lack of muscular effort, and Bound conveys its presence. On a day off, without significant pressures, we likely move in a Free manner. Back in another stressful workday, however, tension leads us to move in a Bound quality. For the most part, a balance between Free and Bound qualities can support yoga practitioners in executing asana practices that have clear alignment and necessary muscular engagement, yet lack limiting tension. It could be a useful way for yoga students to conceptualize that balance as where they are “free” from muscular effort that does not serve them in their practices, such effort as something that they do not have to be “bound” to – not without their consent! Maybe, just maybe, they might find that quality on their mats - and then be able to bring more of it into their lives off of them.

A key part of the system is the fact that at any given point, we move with a certain level of each of these qualities in combination – to result in our overall movement and self-presentation at that time. If we can see that a student has an effective balance of Free and Bound Flow, but could benefit from a more Sustained quality as they transition from asana to asana, we might have clearer and more helpful language with which to guide him/her to a more fulfilling practice. As always, dear readers, I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic, and if you have further questions about Laban Movement Analysis. Stay tuned for a following article on special considerations of LMA’s Space theory in yoga instruction. Namaste! 

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