Category Archives: Student Questions

Can Yoga Wreck Your Body? 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 tracy@wholelifeyoga.com.

A student asks:   Do you have a response to the New York Times article  article called “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body?”   As a yoga teacher, how can I be safe in my own teaching and practice?  A link to the article is below.

How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body

Thanks for the question.  I’ve been forwarded this article several times in the past 24 hours.  Let me start with a qualification to my response:  I teach in a lineage, viniyoga, that is known for its conservative approach, and even within that lineage, I am known as a conservative teacher.  I have long been concerned about the injury rate and what I consider negligent practices in many public yoga classes. So I can’t really disagree with much of the article.

However, the article also makes me sad, because it lumps all asana practices together into one bucket.  Although I do believe most lineages have similar philosophical teachings, our physical practices differ considerably.  So to say the injury rate is the same among all is a gross oversimplification—and just plain incorrect.  When I read the specific practices the article cited as being unsafe, I kept saying to myself “But I would never teach that.”

Many public yoga classes do, however.  For example, the head of my lineage has specifically asked that we never teach headstand in group asana classes, due to the unacceptable level of risk.  Therefore I do not, nor do I allow headstand to be taught at my studio, unless it is part of my yoga teacher training program.  However, I’ve had many students tell me they were taught headstand in beginner classes at other venues.

I believe this is a mistake.  Many, most even, of the benefits of yoga can be achieved in simpler, safer poses than the ones seen on the cover of Yoga Journal.

All that said, I find it interesting that the teacher in the article claiming to be a proponent of safer yoga said to his class, “I make it as hard as possible. It’s up to you to make it easy on yourself.”  This is, in a word, wrong.

I firmly believe it is up to us as teachers to teach a class that isn’t as hard as possible.  But to teach our students how to be mindful and aware of how their body is served when it’s not working “as hard as possible.” Our work is to teach our classes in a way that is accessible and safe.

Now no physical practice, including yoga, will ever be 100% risk free.  Neither is walking down the street.  We can never guarantee a student won’t suffer an injury in a yoga class.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything in our power to keep our classes safe.

Which comes back to your question.  What can we do as teachers?

First, get training.  Then get more training.  Study a lineage, like viniyoga, that focuses on understanding the physical issues of a student and adapts the practice of yoga to that student.  This involves not only teaching mindfulness in practice, but also using physical adaptation of postures and specific sequencing principles that maximize the benefits of yoga while minimizing its risks. Shy away from teachers and yoga styles that believe “one form fits all” regardless of the physical structure of the student.

Second, understand the level of your students and teach to that level.  Not your own level.  Not what your students wish was their level. Not even what your students think is their level.  You will lose some students this way.  But you will gain others.

Just yesterday I had two new students in my class.  They didn’t know each other, and they had different yoga experiences in the past.  Both of them came up to me after class and thanked me for making my “all levels” class accessible to them.  They told me they had been frightened to take a yoga class again, after having been asked to do things beyond their level in other “all levels” yoga classes in other venues.

“All levels” classes should be accessible to all levels.  Not taught to experienced students with the assumption that beginners and students with injuries will know when something is unsafe for them and choose not to do it.  And beginner’s classes should be beginner’s level.  Period.

Finally, if you don’t know how to keep a student safe in your class, don’t teach to that student.  There are cases in which a given class is not appropriate for a student.  We can’t be shy about letting him or her know that.  The more training and experience you have, the more you will be able to accommodate a wide variety of students.  But even with the highest level of training, group yoga classes aren’t appropriate for everyone.  Know when to say “no.”

I hope that helps!

Tracy Weber

Tracy Weber

          A Killer Retreat

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle, and check out Tracy Weber’s author page for information about the Downward Dog Mysteries series.  A KILLER RETREAT is available for preorder now from Whole Life Yoga. MURDER STRIKES A POSE is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  and book sellers everywhere! 

Yoga Poses to Strengthen Knees

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

Barbara asks:  What are some knee strengthening exercises and/or exercises to strengthen the muscles around the knees?

This question, like most, has many facets.  Yoga postures can help improve some knee issues.  The trick is figuring out how to do those poses in a way that doesn’t further harm the knee while we’re trying to heal it.  This challenge isn’t unique to yoga.  When I met with a surgeon over 20 years ago to determine whether my own knee condition warranted surgery, he told me that physical therapy exercises for knees had changed, because some of the traditional exercises damaged the “good” knee while rehabbing the injured one.

Therefore, when we work therapeutically with knees, we first must obey the old adage “do no harm.”  This sometimes means adapting poses so that the practitioner doesn’t perform poses in a kneeling position.  Chair adaptations work wonderfully for this.

Then we must make sure that the practitioner uses proper body alignment for her own structure.  Contrary to some yoga philosophies, there is no “right” standard of alignment that can be universally applied.  It must be discovered via observation and experimentation with each individual.

Beyond that, the goal is to make sure the muscles that support the knee joint are balanced: that the hips, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves are flexible and strong in a balanced way.  Simply strengthening one muscle group over another may do more harm than good, especially if we ignore the opposing muscle groups and don’t pay attention to overall flexibility.

That said, below are a couple of my favorite postures for strengthening the quadriceps and hamstrings.  Please be aware, however, that unless I work with a client one-on-one and observe their specific condition, I can’t know for sure what is needed to help this complex and surprisingly fragile joint.  Therefore, proceed with caution and please discontinue these postures if they cause any discomfort in your knee or anywhere else!

Strengthening poses for knees:

Note:  Please remember that Viniyoga is a dynamic practice.  Even though the pictures below show static postures, each should be repeated dynamically, and each repetition should be connected with the breath.

Half Squat Against a Wall: This pose strengthens the quadriceps, hamstrings and hips.  When doing this pose, please stand on a non skid surface.  As you move into the squat, make sure that your knees track over the center of your feet and do not extend beyond your toes.  Also make sure to keep your hips higher than your knees.

Bridge, gently squeezing a blanket or ball between the knees: This pose also strengthens quadriceps and hamstrings, along with other muscles.   As with the squat, do not let your knees go behind your toes.  Squeezing the blanket engages the inner thigh muscles and promotes correct positioning of the feet.  Always keep both edges of the feet and all ten toes on the ground.

Cobra, bending the knees: This back strengthener also promotes mobility in the knee join and builds strength in the hamstrings.  You can either bend one knee at a time or both.  Flexing the foot as you bend the knee and imagining that you are wearing an ankle weight deepens the work.

Thank you for your question, and I hope this helps!

Namaste

Tracy Weber

          A Killer Retreat

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle, and check out Tracy Weber’s author page for information about the Downward Dog Mysteries series.  A KILLER RETREAT is available for preorder now from Whole Life Yoga. MURDER STRIKES A POSE is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  and book sellers everywhere! 

Can Yoga Reduce Belly Fat? 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 tracy@wholelifeyoga.com.

A WLY student asks:  I’ve found that as I age, my abdomen has gotten larger.  It sometimes gets in the way when I do yoga poses.  Any ideas on what to do about this, and can yoga help me reduce the size of my belly?

This question has a number of facets.

First, yoga and weight loss.

Studies have shown that yoga does indeed, help with weight loss.  But its effects can’t be explained via our Western models of exercise.  The actual calories expended during a yoga class are relatively minor compared to, say, exercise biking or jogging.  The yoga teachings say that certain poses have a “Langhana” or reducing effect.  Twists and forward bends are examples.  These would be the kinds of poses we would target for weight loss, not necessarily the ones that burn the most calories.  Likely these poses help improve digestion and reduce stagnation of food and other toxins in the body.  I believe, however, that yoga’s biggest weight loss impact comes from the mindfulness that it creates.  When we are in tune with our bodies and in harmony with our spirits, we tend to eat more appropriately.  For many this results in weight loss.  For me, it actually resulted in a weight gain to a more healthy weight.

Second, yoga and spot conditioning

Body shape is largely determined by fat storage patterns in the body.  This is often genetically determined.  Oh if only there were a magic exercise, any magic exercise, that would get rid of what my family calls the “Weber thighs.”  But even when I weighed less than 100 pounds, I STILL had them–thighs that were out of proportion to the rest of my body.

Men frequently store fat around the middle.  As women age, our fat storage tends to shift from our hips to our bellies, especially after menopause. Fat stores are best decreased via diet and aerobic exercise, but people rarely lose fat in only the target area, hence the crazy popularity of liposuction.  Instead, our goals should be to burn it from the entire body via a combination of right eating, aerobic exercise, and strengthening.

However, occasionally bellies seem larger because the internal organs sort of “pooch out.”  In that case, strengthening the abdominal muscles may help support internal organs and decrease belly size.   Boat pose, yoga crunches, and the toe tapping pose we often do in class are awesome for strengthening the “Girdling” muscles of the body.


Finally, adaptation of yoga for those with a rounder belly (for whatever reason!)

The key here is simply to make room for the breath.  Most yoga poses can be adapted to create that extra space you need.   Whenever you’re doing a pose that causes compression, such as a standing or kneeling forward bend, consider widening your legs or knees.   We often say that the feet should he hips bone distance apart, but really, that is the minimum.  They can always be wider if needed for comfort.  And when you’re in the pose, imagine that you are breathing into your back.  This will help you emphasize expanding the back of the rib cage, which will allow for a deeper breath.  Any time you become breathless or feel that the breath is strained, come out of the pose and go back into it when you’re ready.

But remember, it’s not about what you look like, in yoga or in life.  The primary goal of yoga, regardless of your body type, is to bring you greater health and balance.  The rest is just window dressing!

I hope that helps!

Namaste

Tracy Weber

          A Killer Retreat

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle, and check out Tracy Weber’s author page for information about the Downward Dog Mysteries series.  A KILLER RETREAT is available for preorder now from Whole Life Yoga. MURDER STRIKES A POSE is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  and book sellers everywhere! 

Should All Yoga Teachers be Certified? 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 tracy@wholelifeyoga.com.

Kristen asks:  Should all yoga teachers be licensed or certified?

This is a loaded question, and one that I feel strongly about.  Currently there is no WA state or US wide regulation of yoga teachers.  Most days I think that’s a very good thing.  Government is good at many things, but understanding yoga isn’t among them.  In New York, they recently tried to pass legislation that would have required licensing and certification of yoga teachers.  That legislation, however, proposed that yoga teachers be certified by the exercise industry, not the yoga industry.   And the exercise industry knows so very little about the true meaning and purpose of yoga.  I honestly believe that, had this law passed, the quality of yoga programs in that state would have suffered.

That said, having no certification or regulation requirements can lead to misuse of the term “yoga teacher.”  There are people all over the country who teach yoga with little or no formal training.  Often times they have a strong personal practice and can do all the poses.  So, they figure, why not teach?  That not only demeans the profession of teaching yoga; it can be dangerous.  Untrained yoga teachers can ask students to do things that are unsafe, may not know how to modify poses for bodies different than their own, or may not fully understand the impact of their teaching all together.  So, if I don’t want licensing, but I DO think proper training is essential, where does that leave us?

The yoga community tackled this question a little over a decade ago.  In 1999 they came together to form an organization called Yoga Alliance.  Yoga Alliance is a voluntary certification body.  It certifies yoga schools that meet certain minimum requirements to train teachers at the 200 hour and 500 hour levels.  Whole Life Yoga’s teacher training program meets these requirements and is a registered Yoga Alliance school.  Therefore every teacher that is certified through our program has been given a minimum of 200 hours of training in 5 key areas:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Teaching methodology
  • Yoga techniques
  • Yoga philosophy
  • Teaching practice

As a yoga studio owner, I do require that all of my instructors be certified; not for the certification paper per se, but because the certification demonstrates a level of dedication and training.  In fact, at this time I only hire people who have been certified through my program.  I know their capabilities; I know their ethics; I know their hearts.   I know I can trust them with my business and with the students that make it great.

As a consumer, I would personally only take yoga from someone who is certified or who has taken an equivalent level of training from a reputable school.  Many schools in India don’t certify per se, but they do offer excellent training.  So, as the saying goes, “Let the buyer beware.”  Wherever you take yoga, be sure to ask the instructor where they received their training, how long the training was, and if they are certified.  If they can’t answer or their training was less than 200 hours, then just be aware that they may not have a significant level of education in how to safely and effectively teach yoga.  Whether or not you want to continue taking yoga from them is a completely personal choice.

Namaste

Tracy Weber

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle!

How Often Should I Practice Yoga?

This is a question students often ask me, whether they are trying to improve their physical endurance or help heal from the loss of a loved one.  It’s hard for me to give a definitive answer.  When my teacher is asked that question he answers, without hesitation, “every day.”    But I tend to use Viniyoga’s  standard answer to every question: “It depends.”  It depends on your goals, your lifestyle, and even more importantly how you define yoga practice. 

Let’s start by assuming you define yoga practice as asana, or movement.

In that case, Gary’s answer of “every day”  seems really overwhelming to me.  He equates a daily practice to flossing your  teeth;  something you do  consistently, gently, daily, for overall health.   But to be completely honest, there are days I don’t get around to flossing, either.  (Don’t tell my dentist!)

And I do avoid sharing that information with my dentist.   Because when he asks, I know the answer he wants to hear.  I don’t lie to him, but I always feel guilty, even though the answer is almost every day.  Likewise, if we think the goal of yoga is to practice asana every day, anything less than that feels like a failure.    And if we fail, we are more likely to give up on yoga altogether. 

So I never tell students to practice asana “every day.”   Don’t get me wrong.  I believe strongly in the benefits of a consistent  asana practice.  It can help improve everything from emotional stress  to low back pain.  I’ve found that the “sweet spot” for my clients, however, is usually practicing around three days a week.  More than that is likely a bit better.  Less than that will very often bring results, just not as dramatically or as quickly. 

If you can come to class three times a week, awesome!  Our early morning yoga immersion students can attest to the benefits they receive from practicing at the studio that often.   If you can’t, however,  I recommend one class with a teacher each week.  The other two practices can be shorter (15 to 20 minutes is surprisingly effective) and done at home.   Many of the series we offer, such as Yoga for Healthy Backs and Yoga for Real People offer home practices as part of the series, for that specific reason.

But the above still only addresses the question if you define yoga as a physical practice. In fact, it is so much more than that.   It is a set of tools that encompasses meditation, sound, movement, breath work, and ritual.  Beyond even that, it is a system of living that fosters connection, compassion, and presence.  It’s about cherishing the relationships of your life, and striving to better understand the people within those relationships.  Those are components of yoga I try to practice every day–even on those days the dental floss doesn’t make it out of the bathroom drawer.    It’s not just a daily practice, but hopefully a continual one.

Namaste

Tracy  Weber

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle!

Yoga Poses for Better Posture–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 tracy@wholelifeyoga.com.

A yoga student asks:  “What are the best yoga poses to counter rounded shoulders and slouching?”

This posture issue is all too common in our world with computers, gardening, driving, knitting, and all of those activities that keep us in a forward folded position.   Every person’s structure is different, so I’d need to see your specific body to answer you most fully, but there are a few guidelines I can give.

Most people in America (about 75% according to my teacher, Gary Kraftsow) have excessive kyphosis (or rounding of the upper back.)   Additionally, most of us spend the majority of our time with our arms in front of us typing, holding babies, cooking, etc.  As a result, many people are tight in the front of the torso and weak and overstretched in the upper back.    Therefore postures that strengthen the low and upper back muscles  are very important.   Those that stretch the front of the torso, specifically the shoulders, ribs and hips can also be very helpful.  It’s best to do this, at least in the beginning, with focused, targeted poses and movements versus stronger, more complex ones.

Since in Viniyoga there’s no one “right” way to do a posture, giving you the posture name is less helpful than talking about specific variations that address this.  But let me try to do both.  The photos show Whole Life Yoga students doing the poses and variations I’m talking about.

To strengthen the low back try the following:

  • Cobra:
  • Locust:

Specific variations of the above can also nicely strengthen the muscles between the shoulder blades (the arms are the relevant adaptation in this case, not the legs):

Variations in which you lift one leg and arm at a time are nice for bringing balance to an asymmetrical body and posture:

Warrior 1 is another great posture.  It stretches the front of the body while building some strength in the back.

  • Warrior with “Goal post arms” opens the front of the shoulders and strengthens the muscles between the shoulder blades:
  • Warrior done one arm at a time stretches the front of the ribs as well as a bit of the psoas and quad:
  • A kneeling variation of warrior targets the psoas and quad in a nice way that counteracts the effects of sitting, but can be hard on the knees:

These are the places I would start.  And remember, work with a qualified yoga teacher who can assess your specific body and give you much more targeted advice than this!

Namaste

Tracy Weber

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle!

Using Yoga and Ergonomic Principles at Work

This week’s blog entry is written by Frankie Marrazzi, a graduate of Whole Life Yoga’s 200 hour yoga teacher training program.  Frankie can be contacted at mama.razzi@comcast.net.  She wrote on this topic in response to a student request for information on yoga and ergonomics in the work place.  If you have a question or topic request, please e-mail Tracy@WholeLifeYoga.com.

Take your practice to work!

Each yoga session begins with a few minutes of centering yourself, getting in touch with your breath and leaving the rest of your world behind.   Refreshed and renewed you are ready to resume your day-to-day life but this time you do not want to leave anything behind!  Take your practice with you – to the park with the kids, to the kitchen as you cook and to the desk job at work.  Everywhere you go, your practice can come along.

If you have a job that requires a lot of sitting, there are ergonomic basics you can apply but you have to make the effort.  There is no magic accessory that makes it easier for you to sit for hours at a time.  And that is where your yoga practice can help.  Use your awareness of your body and breath during your work day to guide you.  If you find yourself wiggling a lot that usually means you need to take a break.  Stand up, do a few simple asanas (standing forward bend for example) .   If your shoulders and neck are feeling tight – same thing, do a few deep breaths and some shoulder circles, shake out your arms.

Listen to your body and also apply these basic ergonomic principles:

  • Chair:  invest in a good chair (yes you can find them at office supply stores for reasonable cost).  Do not purchase sight unseen unless you have tested the chair before and know that it will support you.  Look for these five minimum features:  5-legs with castors, adjustable arms (up/down and in/out if possible), adjustable seat pan (what you sit on),  adjustable height (if you are taller than average you may need a longer piston which can be special ordered for you in most cases), and lumbar support.
  • Feet:  flat on the floor or a foot rest with 90-135 degree angle.
  • Shoulders:  Relaxed not hunched.
  • Wrists:  Neutral not flexed.
  • Chin:  level so neck is not bent up or down.
  • If you are at a computer, stop typing every 20-30 minutes for 20 seconds just a quick rest pause.
  • Drink water!  Stay hydrated, this helps with every activity work or play.

For more details and ideas of how to further adjust your workspace the OSHA web site is a great resource, including a self-evaluation checklist:

http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/computerworkstations/index.html

Use your yoga practice and ergonomic principles together to be comfortable all day – even with a desk job!

Namaste,

Frankie

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle!

 

Safely Practicing Yoga when Injured–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 tracy@wholelifeyoga.com.

Barbara asked:  “I have been experiencing a variety of aches and pains and am concerned yoga might make them worse.    What suggestions do you have?”

Your concerns are very valid, Barbara.  An effective yoga practice can help decrease pain and increase function in a variety of structural issues.   However, the “wrong” practice for your body or situation can, indeed, aggravate symptoms.

There are three important elements in developing  an effective yoga practice:

  • Finding the right class or teacher for you.
  • Openly sharing your concerns and issues with that teacher both before, during and after class.
  • Listening to your body and not pushing beyond what feels safe and effective for you.

In Viniyoga, we can almost always adapt poses to the individual to make the practice work for them.  The trick is finding the right class for the student and teaching him or her to listen to their body when practicing.   In the West, we are used to a “no pain no gain” mentality, which is completely counter to the philosophy of yoga.  In yoga, the goal is always to work within a pain free range of motion, with the goal of increasing that pain free range of motion over time. Some of my hardest, yet most rewarding work as a teacher is to help students get in tune with their bodies so they learn how to move in a pain free way, both during practice and out in their daily lives.

As for choosing the right class–At Whole Life Yoga several of our series are designed for people with injuries and limitations including:

We also offer gentler drop in classes that work great for people with common aches and pains.  “Yoga for Relaxation” and “Yoga over 50” are great options!

Group classes aren’t appropriate for every student, however.  If the injury is acute or more severe and chronic, a student may need to start with private instruction.  When you work privately with a teacher, they can design the practice specifically to your body.  During their one on one time with you, they can devote all of their attention to observing you and completely customizing the yoga to your needs in a way that isn’t possible in a group class.  Many students start off privately, then transition to group classes when they and the instructor feel confident that their bodies are ready for a group class environment.  More information can be found at our web site:  Private yoga therapy at Whole Life Yoga.

I  hope this helps!  Thank you for the question!

Tracy Weber

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle!