Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a place far, far away... a brilliant Yoga Therapist by the name of Mukunda Stiles offered the world this simple and effective template for joint movement. I try to share this series with all of my students on a regular basis, because I believe in the concept of use it or lose it. Our bodies are designed to move. And to achieve optimal results, we need to move our bodies often, with care, in a healthy range of motion, to optimize function.
Do you dry brush? Do you know what it is? It's become a lot more popular in the last 10 years or so... probably along the same lines as the Neti pot and tongue scraping, Dry Brushing is an Ayurvedic practice that belongs in the maintenance category of our healthy habits. It's literally the practice of brushing your whole body with a natural, soft-bristled brush.
I've been dry brushing my skin since 2006. I had never heard of it before then, but for many years after learning the technique, I dry brushed daily. It doesn't take long. It doesn't cost much. It has numerous health benefits, that include lymphatic drainage; improved skin health & appearance; stress reduction; and increased energy levels.
Around this time of year, when my skin starts to look slightly more reptilian... I'm reminded to get my brush & oil out and give my skin some TLC.
As part of your morning rituals, before you hop into the shower, take your natural, soft-bristled dry brush and start brushing your skin in small, vigorous circles. Start at your feet and work your way up your whole leg, towards your hips. Don't forget your glutes! Big circles around the glutes and into your low back... then big, clock-wise circles around your belly. Smaller, gentler circles around your collar-bones and upper chest... then from your hands, along your forearms and upper arms, to your shoulders. You can do the back of your neck, from the base of your skull, downwards. (If your brush has a long handle, you can more easily brush your back... otherwise, you've gotta have pretty open shoulders to reach behind your back! Thank goodness for yoga!)
The goal is to move towards the heart... or armpit area... thus increasing the movement and drainage of the close circuit lymphatic system.
I like to make circles around the joints (ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows, shoulders) and longer, more sweeping strokes up & down the longer bones (legs, thighs, arms). Gentle circles where the skin is more sensitive and more vigorous movement as you gradually become accustomed to the technique.
Now... as my teacher explained to me when I was first learning how to dry brush... you don't need to brush any areas of your body that would naturally have hair on it... or any area that is naturally more sensitive. Do not brush skin that is cut, bruised or burnt.
The brushing should take no more than a few minutes. After which time, you can either hop right into your shower... OR... follow up with a generous amount of oil all over your skin. I highly recommend sesame seed oil or sweet almond oil... but you might have a preference for a different oil, like coconut or jojoba oil. (Heads up, if you're using sesame seed oil... it's not the cooking oil, it's the massage oil. Learned that the hard way!)
If you do choose to oil your skin, start at your feet and work your way up, following the same pattern used to brush your skin. Ideally, once you've applied the oil, you give yourself 10 - 20 minutes of rest, to let the oil sink into the skin. This might be a good time for you to meditate. Or catch up on emails... or have a big glass of water while you wait.
When you're ready to hop into the shower, feel free to lather your hair with shampoo and wash what needs washing with soap... but instead of soaping up your whole body, only soap the hairy bits, as my teacher told me. I always think, unless my arms and legs are covered in mud, why should I dehydrate them with soap after I've hydrated them with oil?
When it's time to get out of the shower and towel off, gently pat your skin dry. Notice how soft and smooth it feels. You don't have to do this every day... start with once or twice a week and see how you do.
Oh Boy! I just ran my first 5 km in forever.
How do I feel, you ask?
Amazing. I'm going back out this morning.
What are my top 5 stretches for a post run release, you wonder?
Here you go:
1. Downward Facing Dog
It stretches out the whole back side of your body. Take it easy. Bend your knees... a lot! Push your heels to the floor, alternating sides. Externally rotate your upper arms and create space for your ears by pulling your shoulder blades away from your neck. Do it.
2. Bent knee lunge... into a runner.s lunge
Why BKL & RL?
BKL helps to stretch the front of the back thigh (hip flexors); as well as the calf muscles on the front leg. Right? Can you feel that?
RL gives the hamstrings on the front leg a stretch... try to keep your quadriceps contracted (pull up on your knee cap). Play with foot placement: pointing the foot stretches the front of the shin / top of the foot; while pulling the toes towards the knee, increases the calf stretch; pushing into the floor with the heel of the front foot and isometrically pulling it towards your hip will enhance the hamstring stretch. How's that?!
3. Wide-legged forward fold (hands clasped, arms over head)
Why prasarita padottanasana?
It's not just a fun thing to say, it's also a great way to stretch... and strengthen your legs! Make sure your feet are parallel to one another. Practice pulling your feet towards each other (isometrically) to strengthen your inner thighs (and core)... practice pushing your feet away from each other (isometrically) to strengthen your outer hips. You can also bend one knee and drag your hips over to that side of your mat (inner thigh stretch) and then bend the other knee.
Hands clasped - arms over the head? Why not? It's an awesome way to stretch the shoulders and the pecks after a run, wherein the front of the body, arms and shoulder are in a contracted position. Open up your heart!
Another fun one to say: eka pada rajakapotasana
I mean, really, who doesn't love pigeon? I'm almost certain that it's our favourite pose, collectively. If you have a bum knee - stop running!!! - or a bum hip, you can do a variety of figure 4 options, lying on your back, standing at a wall, sitting in a chair. Pigeon is a pretty versatile stretch... do it in a way that's safe for your body.
5. Supine twist
I'm all over windshield wiper twists... but I also enjoy a classic supine twist, where one leg is straight and the top knee is bent; one hand on your knee to support the twist and the other arm open to counter act the twist. You can also opt for a cross of the legs; an ankle over a knee; knees stacked... twists just feel good and they help stretch out the hips and low back. What's your favourite twist?
Doesn't matter if you run a little, or a lot... or not at all. Make sure you stretch after you exercise. Yoga makes everything you do better... but remember: everything you do, makes your yoga practice harder! Stay limber!
There's no irony in this, at all. I actually miss going to the gym. In all the years that I had free and unlimited access to some of the best gyms in the city, I barely went. At some point in mid November, I bit the bullet and bought a 10 time drop in pass to the City gym nearest me. I ate that 10 pass for dinner!
I had no idea how much I would enjoy the restricted version of working out at a gym: I had to book and commit to a specific time; I could only stay for 60 minutes; there was a limit on how many people could workout at the same time. The gym gave me an excuse to get out of the house once a day... and it made me feel great. I downloaded a bunch of upbeat tunes; bought myself new running shoes; and a set of wireless earbuds... and all sorts of new socks!
After those initial 2 weeks, I upgraded my commitment to an unlimited drop in pass... and went almost every day. I mean, who doesn't have an hour to spare these days?!
Now, don't get me wrong, being at the gym isn't exactly my natural habitat. I made zero eye contact. I turned up, tuned in, got my sweat on and left. It was a perfect compliment to my otherwise yoga-centric life.
And then lockdown. December 12 was my last day at the gym. Then Christmas. And New Years. My Birthday. So many reasons to eat, drink, be merry. I don't feel as good as I did back then, in my gym phase of the pandemic.
So, I've finally brought my new running shoes in from the trunk of my car. I've charged my earbuds. I've joined a community outdoor fitness group. And I've decided to go back to running. Outside. With a new friend who's also struggling with exercise. Wish me luck. We start tomorrow at Fish Creek for an intro trot together. Oh boy!
Beyond yoga, how are you staying active? What motivates you to move? How has you activity regime changed since last March?
There's something magical this year about the darkness. It naturally draws me inward, slows me down, invites introspection. Although the days are very short, it feels like I have twice as much time on my hands and in many ways, I am taking full advantage of that.
My morning ritual seems to last much longer than usual: sitting on the couch with Maggie, drinking my coffee and planning my day until the sun rises... at 8:30 this week! I mean, that's a lot of time, a lot of coffee, a lot of sitting... and I savour every minute of it!
After yoga, I usually walk the dog... and get on with the rest of my chores. Errands, the house, the teenager, the dog again... next thing I know, it's 4:30 and the sun is moving on. Dinner is usually on by then and I'm ready to get back to my couch or my books, and one last walk around the block with Maggie before bedtime... which sometimes happens as early as 7:30 these days! Not the most exciting schedule... but what feels like a natural rhythm.
I know that soon, time will bend in the opposite direction and the sun will lift its head much earlier and my time on the couch in the morning will be much shorter. I so enjoy the privilege of perspective.
Reflect on how your schedule changes with the Seasons, with Light & Darkness, Warmer Weather and Cold?
Well, you know you're in for a treat when a dosha discussion arises. The doshas are a cool way of describing our physical and mental constitution. Even though we're all very unique and completely different in our many and complex ways, the doshas invites us to consider our common attributes and qualities.
The doshas originate in the science of Ayurveda, the world's oldest holistic healing system. There are 3 doshas derived from the 5 elements that make up the Universe and everything in it:
Ether, Air, Fire, Water and Earth
The elements of Nature combine to give us the 3 doshas as follows:
Ether + Air = Vata dosha
Fire + Water = Pitta dosha
Water + Earth = Kapha dosha
You can easily go online to take a dosha quiz to find out what your constitutional makeup is. My favourite resource for all things Ayurveda is The Ayurveda Institute. You can take the Dosha Quiz on their site for h(om)e work.
So, what does it mean to be Vata or Pitta or Kapha... and why should we care? Good questions! Like all things yoga, the more you know about yourself, the better you are at making informed choices that support your health and well-being.
Figure out your Dosha and you'll have a better understanding of who you are in the World.
Put your hand up if you know what Karma means? Most of us associate the word Karma with two other words: good & bad. Sounds familiar? When actually, karma only really means action. That's a pretty common concept, that our actions are either good or bad, tainted by their outcome: positive outcome = good Karma... negative, bad.
I'd like to offer a different perspective on Karma and add a piece of behind the scenes info to adjust our understanding of the Universe. This was a very significant lesson for me to learn and I look towards this model of reality on a regular basis to make sense of my life and the World around me.
So, Karma. Is it good? Is it bad? Think about this for fun: you do well in school, you go to university, get a degree in English Literature & Language, get an office job (which you hate, BTW), and then you end up teaching Yoga for a living... is that bad karma? Of course not. It's chance. It's Luck... it's what we call Lila.
Karma is all action. And there's more to Life than action. There's also the randomness of the Universe, this idea that anything is actually possible... and sometimes the least likely outcome is what the Universe offers us. I never thought in a million years that I'd be a yoga teacher. Teacher, maybe, but embarking on my university studies, I thought maybe I'd write or teach or play Scrabble with my mom for the rest of my life. But never yoga. It wasn't a possibility... or was it?
So what's the deal with Luck? In Yogaland, it's called Lila and it refers to chance, randomness, playfullness. It's the opposite of lining your ducks up in a row and expecting them to quack. It's the unexpected possibilities. It's the ducks barking instead.
Oddly enough, you're probably familiar with the idea of good & bad luck. Similar to Karma, Lila is neither good nor bad. The Universe is seen as completely indifferent to the notion of goodness or otherwise. The Universe simply operates under the guise of potential. We choose to label the outcome, once again, not the possibility itself.
So, in a nutshell, you can do all the right things and still end up in a totally different circumstance than the desired outcome. That's Karma & Lila.
Think of a time when you put in the effort but didn't get the result. How did that feel? What did you learn about yourself? About the Universe? Was it lucky or unlucky?
Let's start with the basics:
The first steps on the traditional path to creating a yogic lifestyle, are a set of 10 principals that create moral guidelines to living a good life. You could literally spend the rest of your life working on anyone of the following concepts... or you could dedicate a day or a week to any of them on a regular basis and see how they impact your being.
The first 5 are called the Yamas. They refer to set of social ethical rules for right living. The Yamas are guidelines to achieve moral integrity and harmony in relationships with others. They are:
Non-harming, non-maliciousness, non-violence, loving kindness to self & others, compassion, kindness, mercy.
Truthfulness, being genuine and authentic, having integrity, honesty, being honourable, not lying, not concealing the truth, neither downplaying or exaggerating.
Non-stealing, not taking what is not yours - money, goods or credit; not robbing people of their own experiences and freedom; non-desire for another's possessions, qualities or status.
Moderation. Less is more. Relating to others with unconditional love and integrity, without selfishness or manipulation.
Non-attachment, greedlessness, non-grasping, non-receiving, non-possessiveness, voluntary simplicity, non-covetousness.
The next 5 moral restraints are the Niyamas. They exist to create harmony with Life and the Universe on the whole. The Niyamas deal with our way of being, how we present ourselves, our speech, thoughts and actions. The are:
Purity, cleanliness, orderliness, precision, clariy, balance; internal & external purification.
Contentment, equanimity, peace, tranquility acceptanceof the way things are.
Dedication, commitment, heat, self-discipline, willpower, austerity, patience.
Self-study, self-inquiry, mindfulness.
Belief in something bigger than yourself (the Universe, Nature, God), surrender to the Universe, open-hardheartedness, love, devotion.
Together, the Yamas & the Niyamas provide guiding principles to help establish an ethical & spiritual framework for asana practice. They are about setting and maintaining an intention to remember and to honour the higher purpose of practice.
Choose an intention for your day or for your practice that aligns with one of the 5 Yamas or 5 Niyamas. Do this regularly. Go through all 10, slowly. Let me know how they impact your practice... on & off you mat.
We all know there's more to Yoga than the poses. But how much more? And what more? And where do we get it? Do we really need more? Why?