Whether you’re a seasoned yogi or getting ready to roll out your mat for the first time, here you’ll find a variety of useful tips from local yoga instructor Katie Hoener.
Namaste, Katie —
I walk ALL over campus with a lot of text books in my backpack, and my shoulders ache every day. Though I have been going to a gentle yoga class, I am struggling to find any postures that I can do when I get to class, or at home, to relieve that tightness on the front of my shoulders. Any pointers?
Jesse, Ann Arbor
Oh, I remember those days well! In fact, I am living them again with my computer bag. Anything that adds weight on the shoulders can cause tension in the muscles. One common reaction to carrying weight on a consistent basis is to round the shoulders as we lean forward to balance the weight. We hollow out the front of the chest, which shortens the pectoralis muscles and can lead to the tightening of the jaw and neck as a way to attempt to balance the body.
When you take off your backpack, take a moment to do a few shoulder rolls. It is important to identify the area of need. Though we often make assumptions that this type of pain or discomfort is stemming from the chest, try to be mindful and aware of where the pain may be truly coming from. Inhale, let the shoulders float toward the ears, and on the exhale, draw the shoulder blades together and drop them down the back.
In several yoga poses, we interlace the fingers behind the back while the shoulder blades are grounded. Weaving the fingers together, with the palms facing up (if this is available to you), draws the chest open. Breathe into that space. If you’d like more of a stretch, you can allow the hands to float away from the back. If you are feeling more room to explore, you may couple this with a forward fold, gaining additional openings for the front side of the chest. As mentioned, if bringing the hands together is challenging, try stacking the arms behind the back, with the shoulders moving toward each other. Some days this is enough. Enjoy these moments and allow for length through the shoulders.
Namaste, Katie —
Lately, though I recognize this is not a new concept, I have been hearing about the “third eye” — in movies, music, even comic books. I had a friend tell me this is a yoga term which is discussed in her class on a regular basis. Can you elaborate?
I certainly can, and I love, love, love when ancient yogic teachings make their way into our general way of life! It certainly gives people a sense of familiarity when they are in a class that may feel uncomfortable, and suddenly they hear a word or phrase that is recognizable, as you said, from TV, or a book. Anything that allows us to access yogic teachings works for me.
The third eye references the Ajna Chakra, or the sixth chakra. These energy centers in the body are all thought to have different properties, and the third eye is thought to be the witnessing self. When purified energy moves up through the five chakras and reaches the third eye, we are able to witness ourselves and our actions from a removed perspective. In many tellings, our actions are merely the playing of a movie, from which we can remove our minds at any time, back to their rightful place of peace. The numerous references to the third eye in pop culture you’ve noticed are touching upon this spiritual connection beyond the physical body to something greater than ourselves.
Namaste, Katie —
I am new to yoga. I have been to a few different classes and tried different types, and think I have found a style that I like. My question is, what do I need? There is so much out there, there are so many clothes, props, and things with the OM symbol on them. I mean, do I need mala beads? Do I need a salt lamp? Do I need socks with grippers on them? Help, please!
Holly, Ann Arbor
You raise a great question. Yes, yoga comes with a wide variety of props and accessories. Some of these I would call essential, and others, I would call optional. One great place to start would be to ask a teacher at your place of practice. Different styles of yoga do rely on some different props, so your teacher would be a good resource. He or she may also inform you about what your studio has available and what would be the most important to purchase for your home practice.
Personally, I think a yoga mat is essential. If you practice regularly (a few times per month or more), I would invest in a rubber mat. To find one, you will need to visit a specialty store. Rubber mats generally cost more than $50, but, in my opinion, they are worth every penny. Rubber mats are no-slip, and you can sweat on them, so there is no need for a towel or additional mat cover. They are also long-lasting. I’ve had mine for seven years, and I practice three times per week on average. Plastic mats, which are available just about everywhere these days, are great in a pinch, and are cost effective. However, they are a bit more challenging to work with.
Blocks, straps, blankets, and bolsters are the most commonly used props in more traditional classes. Bolsters are the most expensive item in that grouping, though if you have a steady home practice, you may enjoy having one. Generally, a few stacked blankets can be used in its place, or a couch pillow. For a strap, you can use an old neck tie as a quick substitution.
Last word — for clothes, wear what feels comfortable to you. Find pants that have a stretch so you can move freely. What they look like and have on them is really up to you. As I have said before, and will say again, this is your practice. If you like mala beads to meditate, or because of the way they look, get them, but, at this stage of your journey, they are likely not necessary to further your practice. In the next issue of CW Journal, I’ll explain a great meditation chanting breath technique where you only need your hands. Stay tuned!