Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Socio-Emotional Territories in Yoga Instruction, Part II – Boundaries and Listening

By Kathryn Boland

In a prior article, I discussed how many individuals have “issues in the tissues” – ways that their bodies have absorbed and held challenging (and even traumatic, in some cases) experiences. I offered some initial guidelines for handling these situations, with the example of a private student of mine who often cries in our sessions. Such tools include active listening, creating a non-judgmental atmosphere, and appropriate humor.  

With another student, getting into the Heart (Anahata) and Solar-Plexus (Manipura) Chakras activates emotional release. She has a good amount of excess tension in those areas, which I think causes her chronic shoulder pain. I believe that she tenses and closes those areas at her job as a public transit bus driver. In any case, when we do heart-opening poses, such as backbends, she seems to lose concentration and focus; her eyes start to focus far off into the distance, she gets quiet, and doesn’t seem to hear my next cue (and when I repeat it, she gives some form of “What? Oh, yes, sorry”).



At other times, she’ll talk off on a tangent, telling me about something difficult that happened to her that week.  It went deeper at another point, her describing to me how “everything changed when my father passed away”. These two chakras relate to close relationships, the love that we give and receive, our senses of action in the world, and self-efficacy. In all of these cases, I listen, offer a short bit of validation (such as “Yes, that must be hard.”), and give other indicators of my openness and listening (such as with body positioning, facial expression, and eye contact). I am a Registered Dance/Movement Therapist, and I have  training as a mental health counselor. In the context of yoga instruction, however, I know that that’s not my role. Sometimes something in me wants to go deeper into these things with her, but I hold my tongue and move on to the next posture or flow. As I said before, I think that it’s very important for us instructors to be clear on what is and isn’t within our responsibilities.

I think that it’s also vital for us yoga instructors to show non-judgement in these ways when students get emotional. If they fear emotional release, or a negative reaction that we might have to it, what yoga could help them release will remain eating at them inside. On one hand, it’s not typically a primary focus in yoga instruction to help students release emotional “baggage”, and oftentimes it takes extra training – such as that to be a certified Yoga Therapist – to be fully competent at safely handling such release. On the other, we can expand what yoga can offer our students if we allow them to release what they need to under our guidance. In addition, I don’t think fear should be involved in the teacher/student relationship. There’s just no reason for it, and it could be very unhealthy.



If, however, you are working with a student privately whose emotional issues you believe are beyond the scope of your expertise, there’s always the option of referral to another professional. That could be to a Yoga Therapist (as mentioned), a pyscho-therapist, a psychiatrist, or another yoga instructor who has more experience handling mental health concerns. I think that it’s a good idea to have a few of each of these types of professionals in your network, to be able to offer to your students as referrals if need be.

All in all, we yoga instructors hold the role of guiding students in yoga practice, a science of overall, holistic wellness. That includes emotional wellness, as it inevitably intertwines with physical, spiritual, and all other types of health. When difficult memories and emotions surface during this journey of yoga practice, we can most beneficially support students by offering a reassuring and welcoming presence as this process of emotional release unfolds. After that release, the world will have a little less hurt, a little less heavy baggage – at least for a sweet moment or two. What a gift that is to be able to offer our world, I think! 

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Socio-Emotional Territories in Yoga Instruction, Part I

extended pigeon posture
By Kathryn Boland

Have you ever heard the phrase “issues in the tissues”? Have you seen this phenomenon play out in your yoga instruction work? Our bodies are present, and often actively engaged, as we go through various difficult times in life. As such, our bodies have ways of remembering – and even storing, in some ways – the effects that those times have on us. In yoga, we delve into various muscles, joints, fascia, and other tissues. This occurs through folding, bending, twisting, and more.

Through these actions we often access things that lay dormant in our bodies in everyday life tasks, and even in other physical activities such as running and cycling (as healthy as those things can be). The result is that yoga practice can unearth pent-up memories and emotions. Those are things that we – as leaders of practice when we teach – must, at some level, hold and healthfully channel. We must keep things safe and (relatively, at least) controlled, for all involved, when challenging emotions emerge. 



I have personally seen this play out most significantly in private yoga instruction. In this format, students might feel more comfortable talking freely, and revealing their emotions in other ways, than they might in a class setting. For instance, one student I have has an emotionally taxing job as a special education teacher in a low-income high school, as well as underlying family-of-origin complications. Nearly every lesson, she cries at some point. These aren’t loud sobs with a river of tears flowing, but the heavy breath quality and misty eyes are there.

It happens most commonly when we work into hip-opening postures (such as Lizard and Pigeon). We’ve talked about the issues that might be there for her as a woman who’s never had children of her own. We’ve discussed the issues that might be there for women in general, the area as the site of childbirth (or lack thereof), sexuality, and a sense of freedom in one’s own skin (or lack thereof). As yoga instructors, I think that it’s important to be aware of the possibility of such issues surfacing when working in such postures (those that target that second Swadhistana Chakra) with women – not to say that men don’t also sometimes have “issues in the tissues” in that area as well.   

Sometimes she apologizes to me for getting emotional, and I reaffirm that it’s nothing to feel sorry for. At another level she completely understands that releasing her “issues in the tissues” is completely natural, and has described to me her own process of becoming more comfortable with it. She told me that the first time she cried while practicing yoga, she was in a full class, and was “so embarrassed!”.



Nowadays, if she doesn’t apologize, we sometimes somehow find some humor in it (in an appropriate way of course, not laughing at what she’s going through but as a way to add lightness and further easing of tension to the situation). That can be productive way to handle emotional release in yoga practice. In the psychology and counseling fields, humor is sometimes known as a “mature” coping mechanism (versus an “immature” – or unhealthy – one, such as avoidance). Humor can lighten the mood, increase full breath, and help make channeling difficult emotions easier. 

Please stay tuned, dear readers, for a following article in which I’ll discuss further examples of emotional release in yoga instruction, and suggest ways for us yoga instructors to keep everyone involved, feeling safe, and accepted, in those cases. When we can hold the space effectively in these cases, so to speak, we can offer our students something that many in this world vitally need – a way to release difficult things that their bodies have stored. That’s something that our culture unfortunately often stigmatizes. Thank you and Om Shanti! 

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Thursday, May 05, 2016

Can Yoga Help Sacroiliac Joint Pain?

Sacroiliac Joint
By Gopi Rao

Yoga is often regarded as a panacea for a number of bodily discomforts. A quick web search will produce yoga “prescriptions” for almost any malady. Sacroiliac (SI) joint pain is no exception, but SI dysfunction and yoga have a tenuous relationship.

What are SI Joints?

The SI joints are located near the base of the spine where the sacrum and ilia meet. When we stand, ligaments stabilize the sacrum wedges into the pelvis between the ilium bones and these SI joints. The sacrum lifts out of its wedged position when we sit. Bone misalignment or over-stretched ligaments lead to pain.



Men and women can suffer from SI joint pain, but it is a more common problem for women. Hormonal shifts and structural differences in the pelvis related to childbirth cause this predisposition. Advanced yogis are also at a higher risk for having SI joint pain because they are more likely to hyperextend the ligaments that keep the SI joints in line. Poor posture while standing and sitting can cause SI joint problems. Sleeping on the stomach or without proper support can also be problematic.

Can Yoga Help?

In the case of SI joint pain, yoga can help or harm. In yoga, we celebrate opposition. This opposition holds our concentration and contributes to the power of the practice. In the case of SI joints, we must be cautious about how we use opposition.



Yoga as a Cause

Since the sacrum and ilia separate when we sit, we are more likely to send them out of alignment in seated postures. Bound Angle Pose, Head-to-Knee Pose, and Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend present the greatest risk for inducing SI problems. Standing postures that can allow for potential separation and misalignment of the SI joints includes: Wide-Legged Forward Bend, Warrior II, and Extended-Triangle Pose. Any posture where abduction and forward bending occurs is a recipe for SI joint issues.

As is often the case in yoga, it is not just what we do, but how we do it. The aforementioned asanas can be performed safely, but they must be done with care to protect the SI Joints. To avoid sending the spine and pelvis into opposition, awareness is essential. Taking one’s time rather than cranking into an asana goes a long way toward ensuring a safe practice.



Yoga as Treatment

If an SI joint misalignment is identified, some asanas can be used to work the joints back into alignment. This therapy should be undertaken at the advisement of a physical therapist or chiropractor. Reclined Leg Stretches, especially with the aid of a strap, can encourage the SI joints to realign. Taking a Modified Bridge Pose, which focuses on abdominal engagement can also help to strengthen muscles surrounding the SI joints. Yoga may be used alone, or it may be prescribed with other medications or injections depending on the severity of the SI dysfunction.

Yoga for Prevention

In addition to causing and correcting SI joint dysfunction, yoga can also be used as a preventive measure. The best postures for this are: Triangle Pose, Bow Pose, and Extended Side Angle Pose. These postures engage the powerful muscles surrounding the SI joints. Strong gluteal and rotator muscles can avert misalignment.




Each asana has inherent risks and benefits. Mindful practice can prevent a host of problems from arising due to poor form or forceful execution of a posture. For those afflicted by SI joint pain, yoga can be a safe and noninvasive treatment. All yogis could benefit from undertaking practices to prevent misalignment from occurring in the first place.

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Sunday, May 01, 2016

Can Yoga Help People with Depression?

people with depression
By Sangeetha Saran

Depression symptoms can range from mild to severe. You can take medications for depression, but they can have side effects, and, they do not always work. Studies have shown that yoga can help relieve depression, and keep depression from returning.

The Signs and Symptoms of Depression

Occasional depression is normal, a rainy day, a sad movie, or certain situations can cause someone to feel sad and depressed. Depression becomes a health issue when it starts to affect their daily activities and lasts for days on end. The signs of depression include the following symptoms:

   Sad and depressed moods
   Loss of interests in friends and work
   A change in sleep patterns
   Loss of energy and fatigue
   A worthless feeling
   Brain fog
   Suicidal thoughts



Get Moving to Relieve Depression

When depressed, a person does not feel like moving let alone accomplishing anything in their daily lives. The best way to relieve depression symptoms is to make healthy lifestyle changes, and the first step is to get up and start moving again.

Yoga is the perfect lifestyle change that incorporates movement, quieting of the mind and a real sense of accomplishment. Considering that a person who is depressed does not even feel like moving, starting out with just three or four simple yoga poses each day can be of great help.



Studies Show Yoga Can Help People with Depression

When a person suffers from depression, their breathing can become shallow. Yoga teaches proper breathing, and learning to breathe the proper way can ease the symptoms of depression.

Studies conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience in India; found a 73 percent success rate in treating depression with yoga. This research focused on the yoga breathing technique known as pranayama.

Other studies found similar positive correlations between yoga and good mental health. A 2005 German study found that after taking yoga classes for 90 days, the participants reported a 50 percent improvement in depression scores, and a 65 percent increase in overall well-being. In addition, yoga was found to reduce stress, fatigue, and brain fog, consequently boosting mental and physical energy.



If you suffer from depression, consider taking yoga classes. Yoga is not hard to learn and with the help of a yoga instructor, you will be well on your way to getting rid of depression.

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