Monthly Archives: July 2012

Clam Pose in Five Easy Steps

Clam Pose is a wonderful upper body twist that also stretches that hard-to-reach area behind the shoulder blades.  It’s a perennial favorite, and probably the most frequently requested pose in my drop-in yoga classes. (Well, next to Pigeon Pose, that is.)  But Clam Pose doesn’t appear in yoga books, and web searches for “Clam Pose” come up with something entirely different. Where did this wonderful movement come from, anyway?

I learned this two-pose yoga flow when I studied prenatal yoga with Margaret Pierce at The Pierce Program in Atlanta.  Margaret uses this slow, gentle, upper body twist to help her prenatal students link movement and breathing in a uniquely meditative way.  But rest assured, non-prenatal students enjoy Clam Pose as much as their expecting counterparts.  Thank you, Margaret, for teaching me this lovely movement.

Clam Pose in Five Easy Steps, with Photos Below!

  1. Rest on your right side, with your knees bent at approximately a 90 degree angle.  Place a thick pillow or folded blanket under your head, so that your neck and shoulders can relax in a neutral position.  Reach your arms straight out from your torso and place your palms on top of each other.
  2. As you inhale, reach your top (left) hand past your bottom fingers, gently stretching the area behind your left shoulder blade
  3. As you Exhale, open the “clam shell” by reaching your left arm up toward the ceiling and over to the floor on the left side of your body.  Turn your head so that your gaze follows the movement of your fingers. Mid-way through this movement, your fingers should be pointing up toward the ceiling. When you finish the movement, your left hand will rest on the floor on the left side of your body, and your head will be turned toward the left.
  4. Remain in this open position and inhale, relaxing your left shoulder down toward the floor and stretching the muscles along the front of your left shoulder.
  5. As you exhale, close the clam shell and return to the starting position, touching your palms together again.

Repeat the above flow several times, then stay for a few breaths in position 4 (open clam), if desired.  Then roll to your left side and repeat steps 1 – 5 with your right arm.

The photos below show a student in all three positions of Clam Pose.

I hope you enjoy integrating this moving meditation into your personal practice. If you’d like me to highlight other Viniyoga poses in this blog, please e-mail me at



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Why I love Viniyoga

I admit it. I’m a Viniyoga snob. I won’t practice any other style of yoga, and I certainly won’t teach any other style. But I didn’t start out that way. Like most people, when I took my first yoga class I didn’t even know different types of yoga existed. I thought all yoga was the same, and honestly, I thought all yoga was a little weird.

My first yoga class changed all that, even though it wasn’t Viniyoga; it was Iyengar-influenced Hatha yoga. If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry. Neither do most of the people down-dogging next to you. Suffice it to say that Hatha is an umbrella term for the physical practice of yoga, and Iyengar is a specific style, focused on holding poses with exact alignment.

I liked my first yoga class. A lot. In fact, I liked it so much that I was afraid if my yoga teacher knew how much it was hurting me, she might not let me attend anymore. She knew of my injuries, but even though she was a well known and very experienced yoga teacher (she even co-authored a yoga book!) she didn’t know how to adapt yoga for my body. But that didn’t matter to me. All that mattered was the incredible peace of mind I received from practicing.

Then that teacher went on a month’s vacation.

Determined to keep up my practice, I went to a number of studios in the Seattle area and tried a variety of styles. Luckily for me, one of those styles was Viniyoga. I didn’t know why at the time, but for the first time, I left a yoga class feeling not only mentally, but also physically, better. Over time, I continued to experiment, but I kept coming back to Viniyoga. And then one day I knew: I was destined to teach this wonderful lineage.

Flash-forward 12 years, and I can now explain what makes this style so unique. My teacher calls it The Four Key Differentiators of Viniyoga:

  • Linkage of Breath and Movement: Viniyoga links movement with the breath, which makes each movement more powerful, mindful, and structurally integrated than non-breath-centered movement.
  • Use of Movement and Stay: Viniyoga students move in and out of poses before staying in them. Movement systematically prepares the body to hold a pose by warming the muscle groups that will be taxed in that pose. Movement also helps reprogram habitual movement patterns, so students move more functionally, even in non-yoga activities.
  • Adaptation: Viniyoga adapts poses to the practitioner, rather than assuming there is one “right” way to do a pose. The goal is to achieve the function of a pose, instead of its form.
  • Sequencing: Viniyoga teachers carefully design classes so that each pose prepares for or erases strain from the poses before and after it.

But I’ve found something even more powerful in Viniyoga—community. Viniyoga emphasizes the teacher-student relationship. With no “one size fits all” approach, a Viniyoga teacher must be present with her students, get to know her students, even care about her students to be effective. I came to love practicing Viniyoga for what it did for my mind and my body. I came to love teaching Viniyoga because it made me a more observant, caring part of my larger community.

More than anything else, that’s why I love Viniyoga.



Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle!

Research Proves it! Yoga Provides Benefits Greater than Western Exercise

Let me start this blog article with a disclaimer.  I love yoga, but I’m equally fond of other forms of exercise.  I regularly ride an exercise bike, and my puppy-girl walks me about 20 miles every week.  My yoga practice has always been more about by calming my brain than firming my bottom, so to speak. It would never even occur to me to choose between the two.  But for those of you who think I’m crazy or whose schedules force you to choose, recent research shows that yoga may have increased benefits when compared to more Western forms of exercise.

Brittanie DeChino, an instructor at The George Washington University’s School of Public Health, recently presented her research at the 58th Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine and 2nd World Congress on Exercise is Medicine®. Her research is noteworthy because of its focus. Although many studies have examined the short-term physical and psychological benefits of yoga, hers is one of the first to examine how long-term yoga practitioners compare to long-term exercisers.

Brittanie and her team surveyed 163 participants from yoga and fitness centers across the Washington, D.C. area.  Participates ranged in age from 18 to 65, and were approximately 80% female. According to Ms. DeChino, her team found the following:

“We surveyed the participants on psychological well-being, as measured by anxiety, depression, coping, mindfulness, perceived stress and general health symptoms. Interestingly, the two groups – yoga practitioners and habitual exercisers – were similar with regard to self-reported symptoms of anxiety and depression.

However, the yoga practitioners reported lower prevalence of joint pain and headaches than those who engaged in cardiovascular exercise and weight training. They also had higher scores for mindfulness and coping skills, and lower scores for perceived stress, compared with the exercise group.”

The joint pain reductions are intriguing. Many people practice yoga specifically because yoga is a low impact exercise, which means that people with pre-existing joint pain are likely to be over-represented in the yoga group. In spite of that, yoga practitioners reported less pain than participants in other forms of exercise.  Even more encouraging, this study supports the Aetna study that showed practicing Viniyoga reduces work-related stress.

I’m also not surprised by the comparative levels of anxiety and depression.  Yoga can help significantly with these two conditions, but the most effective yoga practices for anxiety and depression incorporate pranayama (breath work) and meditation, combined with physical postures.  Typical American yoga classes focus almost exclusively on the poses.  Check out my prior blog articles and  for breath practices that may help with anxiety and depression.

I’d love to continue highlighting yoga research in this blog.  If you hear about other yoga studies, let me know!



Savasana (Corpse Pose): A Time to Rest or a Time to Become Fully Awake?

I can almost hear the collective sigh of relief when I tell my students it’s time to transition to the period of rest at the end of each yoga class called Savasana, literally translated as “Corpse Pose.”

As each student settles in, I offer softened lights, peaceful music—even neck pillows and bolsters to put under their knees.  Experienced students often cover their bodies with blankets and their eyes with eye pillows.  I tiptoe around the room and verbally guide each student into a quiet place where they can hopefully find, even if for just a moment, a place of internal peace.  I’m rewarded for doing so.  As my students relax, I feel the energy of their tranquility. I sometimes even hear a soft snore or two as they melt away into oblivion.

I don’t think we can underestimate the power of that quiet time.  In our busy world, we rarely take the time to relax and let our minds just be free.  Practiced this way, Savasana provides a time of inner peace. A moment of relief from the information overload of our always-busy lives.

But I sometimes wonder if we’ve missed the point.  According to the teachings, Savasana isn’t really about relaxation.  In fact, I’ve heard Savasana described as the most difficult of all yoga postures.  A posture in which, bodies completely still, we are challenged to keep our minds focused.  The pose is named “Corpse Pose” for a reason. We are to act as if our bodies had dissolved away—as if were already dead, so to speak.

When practiced this way, Savasana is a powerful tool.  It can help us momentarily become less identified with our bodies and less attached to the trappings of our lives. In those last minutes of class, we can reconnect to the pure, perfect essence that already exists within each of us.

I’d like to offer you a challenge. The next time you rest in that final yoga pose, try not to simply melt into rest and oblivion.  Don’t fall asleep, either literally or figuratively.  Instead, stay truly awake, in a sort of resting meditation.  Lie still, in complete silence, present with the sensations of your body and completely aware of the random thoughts of your mind.  Use that time to connect with the beauty and perfection that is already within you.

It won’t be easy.  It might not even be as pleasant as that ten-minute nap you were anticipating.  But finding that quiet place within yourself will be well worth the effort.



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Staying Balanced when Teaching Yoga–Response to a Student Question

I look forward to answering your questions in this blog.  Please feel free to leave a comment or e-mail your questions to

A Whole Life Yoga teacher training graduate asks: Is it possible for a teacher to absorb the energy of her students? I recently worked with a client who is currently in an emotionally dark place. She felt better after our session, but I felt worse. I even cried later in the day, for no apparent reason. Have you experienced this, and if so, how do you protect yourself?

The short answer is, yes! Yoga tools impact the human energy system, and in teaching them, we open ourselves up to our students’ energy fields. This feels great when students are in a balanced place. It can be challenging when their energy is stressed or sad.

Private work is even more problematic. Private clients allow themselves to be much more intimate and vulnerable than students in group classes. As a yoga therapist, I’ve worked with clients struggling with severe debilitating diseases, clients recovering from trauma, even clients who were in the end stages of terminal disease.

To say, “It isn’t easy” seems more than a little trite. But honestly, I don’t have a simple answer. When I started this work, I actually felt guilty. I thought I should feel worse about my clients’ situations. But I quickly realized that I can’t do this work unless I keep some distance. Otherwise I’ll be on a quick path to burnout and depression. I had to give myself permission not to take on my clients’ pain. The Yoga Sutras agree. According to the sutras, yogis should practice active compassion without joining the suffering. Once we take on the pain of our clients, we’re of no good to anyone, especially our students.

The best way for a teacher to keep that needed distance is to actively practice yoga and meditation herself. That seems obvious, but for some reason, teachers often stop practicing. They even kid themselves that teaching is their practice. Wrong answer! When we teach, we should be 100% focused on the students in front of us. Our personal practice, on the other hand, should be all about us. So if you aren’t currently practicing, start.

Second, I firmly believe yoga teachers should take periodic breaks from teaching. I take a six-week teaching sabbatical every summer. I still work at the studio, but I refuse to teach a single yoga pose. Instead, I focus on filling my own energy well. How full is your energy well? If it’s sucking mud, maybe it’s time for a break.

Third, sometimes our reactions to people around us are symptoms of something already happening within us. I recently wrote an article about Daurmanasya (Depression), which is one of the symptoms of an inner obstacle. So is Svasaprasvasa, which means disturbance of the breath, including uncontrolled crying, as you describe. The sutras list a number of actions you can take when you’re up against an obstacle. Review sutras 1.32 – 1.39 and consider adding one or more of those tools to your daily practice.

Finally, remember to spend time doing things that make you happy. If you’re sensitive to negative energy, you’re likely sensitive to positive energy as well. Nothing picks me up like time spent with puppies or upbeat friends. Others are refueled by playing with children. Still others by gardening. Spend time re-connecting with the touchstones that bring you joy. Allow them to refuel you, just like you do your students.

I hope that helps!



More information about Whole Life Yoga’s teacher training program can be found at our web site:  Yoga Teacher Training at Whole Life Yoga.