Bikram Yoga and Benign Positional Vertigo

A bout of vertigo can put the brakes on a lot of daily activity. Can you still practice yoga? Will it help? Will it make it worse?

As with most questions in life, the answer is, When in doubt, go to yoga.

I have suffered from motion sickness and periodic bouts of vertigo throughout my life. It wasn’t until my early thirties that an ear exam revealed I have Meniere’s disease, a genetic condition shared by my father and sister, and an explanation for vertigo at such a young age.

Practicing yoga has been a life-saver.

I cannot say classes with vertigo are easy or fun, but they are a path to feeling better for the rest of the day. To understand how to use your practice to help your vertigo, it’s critical to understand the main causes of Benign Positional Vertigo (BPV).

The otolith organs (utrical and sacculus) in your ear monitor your position in relation to gravity with a combination of fine hairs and tiny crystals. For different reasons, the crystals can occasionally get dislodged from these organs and find their way into semicircular canals that make up the vestibular labrynth. It is the out-of-bounds crystals in the vestibular canals that cause the nystagmus, nausea and dizziness that make up vertigo.

To get on track to feeling better, we must first get those crystals back where they belong. There are several techniques out there to counter BPV. The most popular for years was the Epley Maneuver, which I found effective about 50% of the time and works better if it is done to you by a professional.

In recent years, I discovered the Foster’s Maneuver designed by Dr. Carol Foster. This technique is simple to use and can be repeated until you feel better. It is easily assimilated right in the middle of class if you notice the vertigo returning. Please watch the technique in the video below.

What to do in class?

First, perform the Foster’s maneuver prior to class. Because it is ideally done in 15-minute intervals, it is best to do it about 5-10 minutes prior to the start of class. Before you do the technique, lie on your back and roll over to one side and sit up. Repeat on the other side. Note which side made you feel worse. This is the side you will turn your head to during the exercise.

When the class begins Prayanama, it may feel a little bit gross the first few times you drop your head back. If there are still free crystals, they are moving around. That’s why you may feel nauseated or a little dizzy. The exhale breath actually helps to bring the crystals to the back of the vestibular canals where you want them for the maneuver. Go slowly, but don’t skip over it. It will make you feel better in the long run.

Half Moon Pose is helpful in loosening all of the muscles you’ve been tensing since you woke up with vertigo. It’s good for your overall health, so participate. I often find I don’t have a lot of strength when I have vertigo, so don’t be surprised if it looks very different from your usual posture. Complete the lateral flexion (side bends) and the back bend, but skip the forward bend, Hands to Feet, for this class.

The backward bend of Half Moon is the same as the prep phase of the Foster’s Technique. Since the first forward bend in class is about 15 minutes after you did the first set of Foster’s, now is a great time to repeat it. From the back bend, keep looking up and come down to your knees and execute the rest of the maneuver from there while the class completes hands to feet.

In the second set, do not repeat the Foster’s Technique, but skip the forward bend.

Awkward, Eagle, Standing Head-to-knee and Standing Bow can be executed as usual, with one exception. If you have the ability to put your forehead on your knee in SH2K, don’t do that today. Keep your face parallel to the mirror.

Balancing Stick should be done to tolerance. Most people find they cannot come all of the way down to parallel. If you woke up with a full-fledged vertigo this morning, I’d recommend keeping your face parallel to the mirror for this class. This means you will only come down about halfway into the stick pose.

By the time we get to Standing Separate-leg Stretching, if has been about 15 minutes since your last Foster’s Technique. If you are still experiencing a little of that shaky-eye nystagmus, this is a good time to repeat it.

If you are feeling okay at this point, feel free to perform the posture, but keep your face up, above the horizontal plane. For flexible students, you may be able to achieve this by placing your hands on the floor and doing the posture with a flat back. If you are a little less loose in the hamstrings, do this with your hands on your thighs for support.

half way ssls

Triangle can be performed normally, but pay attention to how you feel. You may not be able to turn your head to the ceiling if it is making you sick, especially to your bad side.

So that you don’t reverse the good you’ve been doing with the Foster’s maneuver, please do not go down in Standing Separate-leg Head-to-knee. Setting up the arms and turning to the side is enough for today. Stretching your arms up and lengthening your spine is plenty of hard work anyway.

Tree Pose is not likely to present any problems. Go slowly in Toe Stand to see how far down you can go before the headache and nausea creeps back in. Again, try to keep your face parallel to the front mirror.

Once we get to the floor, it can be very difficult to lie on your back in Savasana with your head completely horizontal. Trying using a block or a rolled up towel to prop up your head to a position where can lie comfortably without the world spinning.

It is okay to perform Wind-Removing Pose with your head slightly elevated, but don’t tuck your chin strongly to your chest.

For the Cobra series the postures are generally helpful for vertigo, but you may need to start and finish the postures with your face parallel to the mirror. This would look like setting up Cobra propped up on your elbows or Full Locust and Bow with your chest already off the floor. On really bad days, I find I need to do the pregnancy version of Locust pose to stave off the nausea.

For the belly-down Savasanas, I generally find that propping my turned head up on two fists is enough lift to stave off the dizziness, but still feel able to rest comfortably. Your rolled-up towel from Wind-Removing would probably work fine here, too.

During the rest of the class, the up and down of each Savasana may be too much for your spinning head. Feel free to sit up between postures or lean against the back wall.

Fixed Firm should feel nice. Go slowly with dropping your head back until the vertigo is gone. Half Tortoise is not recommended until you’re feeling better. It’s really not worth it to try it and start the world spinning again.

Camel is another wonderful back bend that gets the crystals to drop back in the vestibular canals. At this point, it has been more than 15 minutes since your last Fosters maneuver. After the second set of Camel, you’re in the perfect position to whip down into another set. Rabbit should be avoided anyway, so you have a few minutes to do a good, long hold. Remember to hold each phase of the maneuver until the nystagmus stops.

Head-to-knee and Stretching can be performed to tolerance, as long as you don’t drop the head below the horizontal line.

Spine Twist can also be performed as usual, although you may find you need to move your head very slowly through the twist if it brings back the nystagmus.

For the final Savasana you may continue to use the rolled up towel to prop your head or you might find you are feeling well enough to test out a normal execution.

The most important part of this process is to move slowly and with awareness so you can discover what makes your body feel better or worse and stay within your physical limitations for today.

It is recommended with the Epley maneuver that you sleep propped up for the next 24 hours. It does not come recommended with the Foster’s maneuver, but I generally sleep with my head elevated for the next couple of days just to be sure it doesn’t return.

BPV can be initiated or exacerbated by low barometric pressure due to pressure sensitivity in the ear. In times of low barometric pressure, it will help to continue these recommendations both for class and for sleep until the pressure changes.

If you have any questions, ask your teachers for help navigating this difficult time.

sara and bella headstand

 

 

 

 

Sara Curry is the co-owner and Director of Bikram Yoga in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. When her vertigo is under control, she enjoys spending time upside down with her husband and two kids in Southern Maine.

 

 

 

Posted in bikram yoga, health and wellnes, hot yoga, mens health, Uncategorized, women's health, yoga | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thirty Days, Thirty Different Classes

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We just finished another 30-day challenge here at BYP. Every year, I keep saying, “Every challenge is different.” If I am really get down to the meat of it, every day is what is actually different.

The day before the challenge I got really serious with myself. If I can go to yoga, then I should. Don’t skip class just because the challenge starts tomorrow. So I practice Sunday and Monday before we started.

Day One: Man, I am strong.

Day Two: Ugh. I am so glad I know that I can do this. That I’ve done this before. That I will get through this month.

Day Three: Gahd! Why do I do these every year?

Day Four: I usually take six classes a week. Why am I sore after just five days?

Day Five: I’m fine. I’ve got this.

Day Six: I don’t like to do yoga on Sundays. I want to sit in bed drinking tea. Wow. This Sunday morning class has great energy. No wonder people take the Sunday classes.

Day Seven: Holy heavens, I am SORE.

Day Eight: I mean, I’m really sore. Like my joints hurt. Tender to the touch.

Day Nine: Is this yoga even good for you? Maybe this challenge is damaging my joints.

Day Ten: EVERYTHING HURTS.

Day Eleven: Worst class I have had in years. YEARS. More tired and sore than when I had morning sickness.

Day Twelve: Come on. Is this a joke? Yesterday was my worst class in nine years and today, it was breeze. Everything felt 100% do-able. I guess that quote, “Don’t give up before the miracle” is true.

Day Thirteen: I think this yoga is killing me. Or maybe it is my kids who are trying to kill me. Why don’t they ever sleep? Don’t they like sleeping? Feeling rested?

Day Fourteen: As I drove in to the parking lot to the first tender rays of sunlight, I thought to myself, “If I weren’t on the challenge, I would honestly turn around and drive home right now. I don’t even care that I dragged myself out of bed at 5 am and drove all of the way in to town.” After class, I felt like a million bucks.

Day Fifteen: Why are there so many people here at six am? It is dark and cold.

Day Sixteen: Hey, my hip doesn’t hurt anymore. I can actually kick in Standing Bow.

Day Seventeen: Standing Bow feels great, but my Hands-to-Feet has gone backwards a couple of years. I haven’t locked my knees in weeks.

Day Eighteen: I think the yoga is the only reason I am surviving right now. Seriously, could someone sleep past 2 am?

Day Nineteen: I started this morning at -10, by Half Moon, I was back to zero. I am at least a +10 now.

Day Twenty: We have reached cruising altitude. I must say, I also learned a big lesson this week. During the challenge, I’ve had to take and teach a lot of the early bird classes. I usually stay up until about 11 pm each night and am exhausted and miserable the next day. Last night, I took a melatonin at eight o’clock, was asleep by nine and, get ready for this, was refreshed in the morning! I guess I’ve been creating my own personal hell. Not sure why it took my three weeks to figure it out, but I’m grateful for the lesson.

Day Twenty-One: Single digits, baby. By now, it’s gotten easy. It’s just what we’re all doing. #everydamnday It also helps that I’m getting more than five hours of sleep at night.

Day Twenty-two: I floated through today’s class. I wasn’t always 100% present, I know that, but we started breathing and the next thing I knew, we were doing Stretching and laying down for final Savasana.

Day Twenty-three: I worked 63 hours this week and was still able to make it to class every single day. I think coming to class is how I survived this week with grace.

Day Twenty-four: Full-on space case today. I started Standing Bow while the whole class was setting up the second set of Standing Head-to-knee. I set up Floor Bow instead of Full Locust. I kept hearing people laughing and wondering what the joke was about. Whatever it was, I didn’t have the mental grit to stay present today.

Day Twenty-five: I felt so strong today. From the first breath, I could feel how strong my abdominal and chest muscles were. I worked so hard in each set up to nail my alignment and depth that I spent most of each posture just holding it in stillness and listening to my breath. What an incredible feeling!

Day Twenty-six: I’m sleeping, I’m eating well, I’m stretching. Life is freakin’ grand.

Day Twenty-seven: I woke up and had a long conversation with my husband about how we could take today off and just do a double Tuesday. Thankfully, we came to our senses and got up off the couch after the Pats game and took the Sunday Sermon.

Day Twenty-eight: Right on time, two days before the start of my cycle, I walked into class with one of my normal outfits on. It didn’t fit right. The top was rolling down. I felt like I had a wedgie. “What makes you think this is a good outfit? It looks awful.” My stomach was sticking out. I felt terrible.

As we started the breathing, all I could think of was how uncomfortable my clothes were. And then we started Half Moon. As my body created those familiar shapes, I could see myself in the midst of all of my hormonal discomfort. It reminds me of this scene from Hook. “There you are, Peter.”

Day Twenty-nine: She-ra, Princess of Power is back! I worked so hard in this class I was high for hours after. My legs locked immediately in Hands-to-feet. I felt like Standing Bow was finally getting higher. I was rock-solid in Standing Head-to-knee. Yoga is SO FUN!

Day Thirty: Wow. This was a hard one. Sore, stiff, tired at the crack of dawn. In a funny way, I can’t believe it is already over. Where did 30 days go so quickly?

Posted in 30 day challenge, bikram yoga, healing and recovery, health and wellnes, hot yoga, mens health, sports medicine, Uncategorized, womens health, yoga | Leave a comment

Comfortable in My Skin

When I took my first Bikram Yoga Class, I was 22 years old. I was a landscaper by day and a heavy drinker by night. I paired my Budweisers each day with at least a dozen American Spirits, if not two. My job was hard on my body and my best friend and I relaxed at the end of the day with some well-deserved brews.

After my first class, I felt amazing. The class itself was hard and uncomfortable, but after I felt light and happy. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the “yoga high” or what was happening in my body.

I had the perfect excuse not to return. I was too young to need this type of yoga.  It was hard and I was uncomfortable for several hours out of the day.  Yes, it’s only a 90-minute class, but I suffered from severe anxiety. I was uncomfortable from the moment I agreed to go until I was leaving the parking lot.

I have lived my whole life uncomfortable in my own skin.

So I quit. It took me five years to get back on the mat again.  At this point in my life, was no longer drinking, but still smoked a pack a day.  I started out small, going to class a couple of times a week.  The classes were still as hard as I remembered, but I had lost the bloat that comes from drinking a six pack of tall boys a night and that made the classes more tolerable.  My lungs burned in class, but not enough to keep me from craving that all-too-welcoming post-yoga smoke.

When we got a positive pregnancy test, I finally gave up the smokes. My daughter wasn’t going to grow up in a house with a smoker. Unfortunately, I also gave up the yoga. I wish I had known then what I know now about how yoga eases the effects of withdrawals physiologically, emotionally and mentally.

I spent six years without drinking before deciding when my second child was two that my earlier struggles with drinking were probably just from being young and immature. I couldn’t handle my drinking before, but now I’d be able to cope and limit myself and control the types of behaviors that led me to quit in my early twenties.

I was a social worker, stressed to the max. Within a year, I was back drinking another six  pack most days and taking my stress out on everyone around me. I was so stressed that I needed a beer to relax. The funny part is that the alcohol always made my anxiety worse.

I was right back to that old ingrained fight-or-flight behavior.  I knew something had to give. My wife had given up telling me that she knew something that really would help with my stress. I wasn’t going to practice yoga when I couldn’t get to class every day.

But I was miserable and the stakes only kept getting higher at my job. I made the choice to leave my high-stress, unpredictable job and attend yoga teacher training. This scared me to death. I couldn’t talk in front of two people, answer the phone at my house, or make an appointment for myself. Forget about standing on a podium and teaching yoga to a large group of people. Somewhere I found the courage to go anyway.

I went to training and the question that played in my mind over and over again throughout those 99 classes surprised me. The question wasn’t whether I’d be able to teach; it was whether I’d be strong enough to keep up the sobriety that I’d sustained for two months when I got out of yoga hell.  I had this underlying pull telling me it was time to give it all up, but I wasn’t ready.  I continued to drink for another two years after graduating from teacher training.

What would it take to give up my crutch that didn’t actually help me?  I’m ashamed to say it took getting drunk, acting belligerent, and having my little girl ask me over and over on a car ride home from a birthday party, “Daddy, are you okay?  What’s wrong, Daddy? Daddy, are you okay?”  I was scaring and confusing one of the most important people in my life.

I woke up the next morning and remembered everything that had happened the night before. I told her never ever would I act that way again. It has been my intention from that point forward that she would not grow up in a household where she was on edge, where life was unpredictable, where secrets were held, and shame was the underlying feeling for the person that was her role model.

I am sober. Sobriety has changed my life. 

I had gotten sober before, with the support of my wife. I thought I could do it on my own again and for the first year, I did.

When we started the Sober Yogis program, I had a nagging feeling that I was going to have to do it. As I listened to each person speak, I made the decision not just to be a teacher, but to be a participant. Sober Yogis was the support system I didn’t know I needed. It changed the way I view myself as a sober person.

My sobriety was enhanced by knowing that I’m not alone in this plight to be sober.  In fact, it doesn’t even feel like a plight any more. I’m sober. This is who I am and I’m so proud of it.  I have a life where I feel good in my skin. I’ve come to realize through yoga that life is lived when we can go through moments of discomfort great and small and not suppress them with drugs, food, or alcohol. I can feel extremely happy, down in the dumps, anxious as all hell and just ride the feeling through.

For me, being sober, just like being a drinker, it is a choice.  As a fellow sober yogi once said, “I can have that hell back any time I want it.” Sobriety is a choice to be strong, a choice to be okay with feeling uncomfortable, it’s a choice to be in control, and it’s a truly powerful decision.

My daughter says to me all of the time, “I saved your life, didn’t I, Daddy?”  She knows I quit smoking and drinking to be a better dad to her and Judah.  Yes, Bella did save my life, but Sara saved my soul by bringing Sober Yogis to me.  Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I could live a life of happiness in my skin. Yet here I am: living the dream.

jaylon and kidsJaylon Curry is the father of two, avid yogi, chicken farmer, and co-owner of Bikram Yoga Portsmouth in New Hampshire.

Posted in bikram yoga, healing and recovery, hot yoga, mens health, sobriety, womens health, yoga | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

I am Not Good in the Heat and Other Excuses

“I’d try hot yoga, but I’m not good in the heat.” I’ve heard that at least a hundred times or variations on the theme.

“I hate heat.”

“I can’t handle heat.”

“No, really, I hate the heat.”

“I tried it and I couldn’t handle the heat.”

I am the bearer of both good and bad news.

These are not reasons. These are excuses.

The good news is that now that you understand it is an excuse, you can take action. The bad news is that this is just an excuse and not a reason not to go to class.

The human body has a tremendously efficient and responsive thermoregulation system. Except in cases of illness, it does a wonderful job of constantly adjusting to changing external and internal temperature changes.

Your body is no different than any of billions of humans on the planet.

All along the equator, humans live in climates with a heat index much higher than a Bikram Yoga class. People survive Texas in the summer. Just a few decades ago, most did it without air conditioning. You, too, could survive there.

“But I am a special case….”

My friend, John, has a spinal cord injury that severed communication with his sweat glands. He cannot sweat. He uses a spray bottle to mist his skin when he gets hot and the water causes evapotranspiration to cool his body, just like yours. John can do hot yoga. You can, too.

Being in a hot yoga class is uncomfortable.

It’s hard to do yoga. It’s hard to look at yourself. It is hard to feel a body you have been trying to ignore for decades. You are hot and you think you might suffocate. You think your body just can’t handle it. These are thoughts. That doesn’t make them reality.

The secret to it all is, you can do it. You can show up and learn to breathe and focus on your body and not your mind. You can acclimate to the heat and take it one breath at a time and become more comfortable in your body. You can learn to do what you can today and not what you think you should be able to do by now, goldangit! You can become more comfortable in this moment, even if this moment is uncomfortable.

“I am not good in the heat” is a phrase that means “I am not comfortable being uncomfortable,” and this is normal. The human brain is designed to avoid discomfort. Within a fraction of a second, your body can classify any sensation as one to avoid or to seek. Before you even have time to rationalize, your mind will lead you toward avoidance.

If you are chased by a tiger, Avoid! Avoid! Get away and get safe. If you don’t want to take out the trash, well, its time to learn to control the mind and get the job done.

Reason, logic and patience are all gifts of our higher brain function. We can use our brains to either help ourselves in the moment or to hurt ourselves. It is the self-awareness that yoga brings that helps us to experience the present moment and act from a place of understanding and reason.

This is one of the greatest gifts of a hot yoga practice. We train over and over, pose by pose, to pause and to breathe in conditions of challenge and discomfort. We learn to quiet the mind, control the breath and listen to the body. “Am I safe? Am I okay?” we ask our bodies over and over in class.

When the answer is yes, we induce neuro-plasticity and retrain our brains not to fidget, hold our breath, or increase our heart rate under stress. This is why, in scientific testing, yogis have shown significant reductions in the stress hormone cortisol. This is why so many yogis report that yoga “reduces stress” even though their lives are as stressful as others.

Here are some other excuses, parading as “reasons”:

  • I am too old.
  • I am inflexible.
  • I am too fat.
  • I can’t.
  • Yoga hurts people.
  • I have __fill in the blank__ injury.
  • I am tired.
  • I have __fill in the blank__ disease.
  • I don’t have time.
  • My family needs me.
  • I don’t know what I’m doing.
  • I can’t afford it.

These excuses are all of the exact reasons that you need to do yoga. These are all factors in your life that yoga will help you heal from or deal with. I have never met a yoga studio owner who wouldn’t accept work/study or trade for yoga. If you are truly too busy to do yoga, you had better get to class before you die.

If you have seen yourself in one of those excuses, it may have started a diatribe in your head against me and how I don’t know what I’m talking about or, worse, about you and what a loser you are to have made an excuse.

You are not a loser; you are a human. While I take responsibility for saying some things that may have made you uncomfortable, I am not sorry in the slightest. That’s my job. I have made a career of helping people find comfort in their lives through uncomfortable acts and facts. I paid for the mirrors, but you’ve gotta do the work.

The payoff of all of that work is big. Peace. Well-being. Freedom from pain. Health.

In the words of my teacher, “You deserve to have the best life. I feel cry when I say that.” I feel a little cry myself, now that you mention it….

sara headshotSara Curry is the Owner and Director of Bikram Yoga in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She is Vice President of Seacoast Area Teachers of Yoga in Action, a non-profit that improves accessibility of yoga to traditionally under-served populations. She is also one of the creators of the Sober Yogis yoga and recovery program.

Posted in back pain, bikram yoga, chronic pain, healing and recovery, health and wellnes, heat, hot yoga, knee pain, mens health, sports medicine, womens health, yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Do you like the Yoga Mala?

This year, I will have the privilege of teaching and practicing at the Seacoast Yoga Mala for the sixth year in a row. Just days away from this powerful event, I find myself vacillating between thoughts of excitement and dread.

Yesterday, a classmate asked me, Do you like doing the yoga mala?

yoga mala

Good question. This year, we will complete our seventh mala on the Seacoast.

The inaugural mala was held less than a week after my son was born. I intended to attend, but greatly underestimated the exhaustion I’d feel just six days post-partum with my second child. Three hours of yoga, 108 salutes to the sun, it was a little more than I was ready to undertake at that time.

When I joined my fellow yogis in its second year I knew a mala was do-able. By my peers. By real yogis in my community. It was a real event completed by real people who walked the same streets as I.

My nervous sweating started just after I awoke that morning. I don’t know from down dog. I am trained in a discipline thousands of miles from Puna, India from whence Adho Mukha Svanasana originated. Vinyasa, flow, dogs and salutes that are so common in so many American yoga disciplines are not a part of my lineage. I knew I could do a few salutes in class, but could I do 108?

But really, do I like the Yoga Mala? I don’t. I love it.

Nah, I don’t mean I take joy in each inhale breath. I don’t mean I walk through the fundraising with a joyful heart and gratitude that I can ask others to dig into their pockets for an event that uses vocabulary most people outside of a long-term yoga practice don’t even understand. I don’t like when the teacher tells us we can “Rest in Down Dog.” I don’t like the stinky nervous sweat I get waiting for my turn on the podium.

It is uncomfortable to solicit people for money, even though its for a great cause. I don’t like missing Sunday family day. I don’t look forward to the toil of a three-hour yoga class. 108 sun salutes are not something you do for fun. It isn’t like getting a massage. It doesn’t taste like chocolate. It feels exhausting. And hard. And sometimes a little bit boring.

I love the Yoga Mala because of what it is and what it does.

The Yoga Mala is the one time that all of the myriad of yoga studios on the Seacoast get together to use the yoga we love to help the community we love. I love to stand on my mat with more than a hundred yogis from over a dozen disciplines and twenty different studios and lift our arms up in service to others.

I love to see all of my yoga friends each year at the biggest yoga event in our community. Some of these yoga friends I see every week on the mat, some a few times a year, some I see only on this day. We are bonded together forever by our love of yoga and our dedication to our community; we are bound by the intensity of the experience that is the mala. When we see each other inside this room and out, we know a place in ourselves that is truly the same as the other. We have been there. We know.

I love the opportunity to challenge myself physically  to do something that, even six years in, I still wonder if I can do. I love to test my mental strength to stay focused, to be present, to keep going even when I don’t want to anymore. I love the opportunity to struggle so that others may struggle less.

I love how I feel when its over. Hungry, a little shaky in the deltoids and kind of tired, but also exhilarated, satisfied, powerful and proud.

I love the power of our community. We started out by raising $5,000 and increased that to ten. Doubled it to twenty and last year raised nearly $60,000 to help our neighbors in need. That is the force of our yoga community. Those dollars didn’t come from corporate sponsors. Most of those dollars came in fives, tens and twenties from friends and families and studios and neighbors. Together we have the power to make a serious impact.

We have the power to give our neighbors $18,000 of fuel oil in the budget-sparse, but still cold, March season. We have the power to fully fund Seacoast Eat Local’s amazing SNAP program at Seacoast Farmers markets that includes a matching program that makes food stamp dollars stretch farther on local, healthy foods. We have the power to fund free yoga classes all over the Seacoast with specially-trained yoga teachers for at-risk youth, individuals with cancer, veterans, families in transition, and victims of sexual abuse and trauma.

By coming together, we make a major impact on the quality of life in our communities.

By challenging ourselves, we help others to face the challenge of the battle of life with a margin more ease.

By facing ourselves and our fears and our misgivings and our challenges, we forge a better, stronger, more resilient and in-tune human being, the type of person who is an asset to their community and their relationships.

What’s not to love?

sara headshotSara Curry is a certified Bikram Method yoga teacher and owner of Bikram Yoga Portsmouth and Vice President of Seacoast Area Teachers of Yoga in Action. If you would like to support this incredible community movement, visit the Seacoast Yoga Mala page and get involved today!

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I Hate My Yoga Teacher

Day One. I hate my yoga teacher. Anyone could be that skinny if all they had to do all day was workout and shop at Whole Foods. That bitch talked me into an introductory month. Why did I spend an extra $15 to listen to some immature twenty-something tell me about the meaning of life?

Day Two. Look in the mirror? I am sure you looooove looking in the mirror, bitch, with your $200 haircut. The mirror is just there to stroke your ego. Well, let me tell you what, I am not looking in the mirror. That is not what yoga is about. People who are in tune with their bodies should be able to feel their alignment. That’s real yoga.

Day Three. I still hate my yoga teacher. I have nothing in common with this woman. Don’t talk to a bunch of forty-year old women about aging gracefully while we’re trying to stand on one foot. What does she know about life anyway? I am sure her daddy bought her that Subaru and she must live off a trust fund to afford those $70 yoga pants.

Day Five. This asshole told me today that if I couldn’t get my leg around the first time to try again. What the hell does he think he knows? I know my body. I know what I can and can’t do. And I don’t know why these teachers are all suggesting when to drink water and when to not. Like I don’t know how to drink after four decades on this planet? What a bunch of militaristic dicks. It’s all about the ego with them. All they want to do is control us.

Day Six. I don’t even know why I keep coming back. This can’t be good for you. The human body wasn’t made to do these things. And the room! It must be a haven for germs. It can’t be safe to have so many sweaty bodies so close together. What is she doing going over to the thermostat again? Is that bitch trying to punish us for falling out of Standing Bow?

Day Eight. I swear, I’m only coming back to get my money’s worth. I paid $30 for the intro month and I might as well get as much use out of it as I can. It costs as much as a month at the gym and this is the cheap month! The bitch at the front desk told me my goal was to stay in the room to get acclimated to the heat my first class. I knew she was an idiot after two postures. I needed to get some fresh air. I don’t know why anyone else stayed in there. I mean, yeah, I got dizzy when I walked out into the lobby and had to sit down, but I’m sure that’s just because she had the heat turned up way too high. There wasn’t any oxygen in there!

Day Ten. The bitch was all tired at the front desk today. I am sure she was out partying with all of her friends last night. When I walked in, she told me she was glad to see me. Yeah, right. Despite the fact that I hate my yoga teacher, I didn’t leave the room today. I didn’t even think to leave. I was too caught up in the poses. I think I’m starting to get some of them. And I never got dizzy. They must have turned the heat down.

Day Thirteen. HOLY CRAP! I got my leg around in Eagle today! I never thought I would do that. I mean, NEVER! He said, “Try one more time,” and I did and I GOT IT! He believed in me before I ever believed in myself. I don’t know what he saw or how he knew, but HOT DAMN!

Day Fourteen. After last night’s miracle, I got up the courage to try the front row. Now that I can see myself in the mirror, I realize my left hip is always twisting back. That’s the one that used to hurt me in soccer. When I bring it forward, holy smokes the stretch!!! No wonder I was avoiding it when I couldn’t see in the back row.

Day Sixteen. Okay, she doesn’t have a trust fund. She is a lululemon ambassador and she gets those expensive pants for teaching free classes at the showroom on the weekends. I didn’t realize that they are always teaching when other people are not working: early, late, on weekends, on holidays. Still, I tried to ask a question after class today, but all of her friends were lined up to gossip after class. I waited twenty minutes, but no one seems to care about my needs, so I just left without asking. Of course they have never heard of “customer service” at a yoga studio.

Day Eighteen. Son of a gun. I guess their “suggestions” work. I didn’t drink water before camel today and for the first time, I held it the whole time, both sets, and didn’t feel like barfing! The bitch told me I nailed my Triangle alignment “spot on”, too. What, does she think she’s from London now?

Day Twenty-one. I think I am addicted. I didn’t come yesterday and I felt “off” all day. The teachers always say the only class you regret is the one you didn’t take. They couldn’t be more right. Class today felt amazing! I felt like She-ra, Princess of Power. I guess rest does help your muscles heal. I got my kicking leg locked in Standing Head-to-Knee. I can’t wait to try it again tomorrow.

Day Twenty-two. I was listening in as she talked with her “friends” after class today. The girl was complaining of a sore lower back and how she was trying to stretch it out, but it wasn’t getting better. Queen Bitch explained how you can’t stretch out back pain and that back bending is what actually heals it. We sit and forward bend all day, so more of the same will only get you more of the same. I’m glad I eavesdropped. My lower back has been tender for a week now. I am going to try out what she said tomorrow.

Day Twenty-five. No more back pain! I have been taking it easy in the forward bends and working my ass off in the back bends. I even get up during work to do a quick half moon and back bend once in a while. I haven’t felt this good in years. I thought that low-grade back pain was just something I’d have to live with for the rest of my life.

Day Twenty-six. I decided to stay after and wait until I got my turn tonight. My wrist has really been bugging me and it’s affecting my typing. After the back pain realization, maybe she can help me with this. I waited until 8:40 pm. Turns out, those people I thought were her friends are students waiting to ask questions about themselves. One women was even talking all about her dog’s knee surgery for, like, ten minutes. As I left the studio at 9 pm, my yoga teacher was walking into the laundry room to finish washing and folding towels. Her class ended an hour ago…

Day Twenty-nine. My intro month ends tomorrow. I can’t stop now. I am going to sign up for automatic billing. It really is the best deal. And this is like paying for the gym, therapy, chiropractic and a doctor’s visit all in one and I can come every day. I actually came twice yesterday. I got up to take the early bird and had such a terrible day at work that I needed it to de-stress before going home. The guy I used to call “the asshole” mentioned to the class what dedication I had book-ending my day with yoga. Me? Dedicated? I have always thought of myself as a quitter, but I guess I am.

And my wrist is feeling much better. Turns out I had my elbows bent in Locust and my wrist was twisted when I was lying on it. I thought it was more important to get them under, even though she said, “Be sure your elbows are straight.” I wonder how many other cues I’ve misinterpreted.

Day Thirty-four. I learned today that my yoga teacher had a miscarriage three weeks ago. She came to work two days later, tired at the front desk, but she still had a smile for each of us. She told me she was glad I was there. I remember, she even said,”Is that a new top? It really brings out the color of your eyes.” When will I learn, you can’t judge a book by it’s cover?

Day Thirty-nine. A couple of the people from yoga invited me out for tea after class this weekend. How cool. I didn’t realize I was making friends in the locker room, but I feel so comfortable around these women. We had tea and a delicious, healthy lunch after a killer class. I feel like I’m walking on air right now!

Day Forty-five. I thanked my teacher today. I know I should have done it earlier, but the weather was crappy and lots of businesses were closing early, and my teacher volunteered to stay so that those of us in the 9-5 grind could get a class in a the end of a long day. I know she had a long ride home on snowy roads. I said, “Thank you for being here.” “Happy to,” she said. Could she really be happy being in service to others? I needed that class today.

Day Sixty-four. I haven’t been posting much lately. I am too busy feeling good to complain. I am just so lucky to have found this studio, this community and these amazing teachers. I have become a better person just by taking classes here for two months. Who would have thought?

Day Sixty-five. And I forgot to mention: I love my yoga teacher.

sara and bella headstandSara Curry is a yoga teacher and studio owner in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Through many years on the mat, she has learned to love each and every one of her yoga instructors from a wide variety of disciplines by first learning to love herself.

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Why do some yoga poses hurt?

Yoga should never hurt.  

Your back is gonna hurt like hell.

Ask any teacher and they’ll give you a strong argument about why one of those answers is correct. With the myriad of bodies and experiences we see on a daily basis, a yoga teacher learns quickly that as we think there is only one right answer, we couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I like to say, yoga should never hurt you. It should never be damaging to your body. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt sometimes.

How do you know when yoga is healing or hurting?

We often confuse pain and stretching

Yoga is all about getting to know you.  Your body. Your mind. Your Self. Much of our daily lives revolve around ignoring the way we feel so we can get through the day and get our work done. We ignore our aching hips on the two hour commute as much as we avoid movements that remind us of what it feels like to live in this body.

When we first start to move every part of our bodies in yoga, the sensations are unfamiliar and we can frequently categorize the uncomfortable sensation of stretching or moving a joint through full range of motion as pain.

Backbending when you haven’t done it in twenty years hurts. Clearing mineral deposits from your elbows hurts. Tensing up when you are trying to stretch hurts. Bringing back full range of motion to a hip that only sits in a chair or a couch hurts.

Ask yourself, is this pain or the sensation of stretching?  As a general rule, pain means stop and discomfort means go.

Sore muscles become stronger muscles

Muscles need stress to become stronger. One of the side effects of that stress is delayed onset muscle soreness. While it is certainly possible to over-exert yourself in yoga, DOMS is a natural part of increasing strength. This form of discomfort initiates within 24-48 hours of exertion and should resolve itself within three days.

Tolerable sore muscles mean progress. Don’t be scared.

Cramps

Our brains are designed to seek avoidance of anything that causes us discomfort. Cramps are no exception to this rule. Inadvertent and strong contraction of muscles in a cramp can be abruptly painful. It causes us to immediately cease the activity and often violently avoid the sensation.

There are three main causes of cramps, excluding medications and preexisting conditions:

  1. Dehydration. This is a serious condition and is accompanied by a host of other symptoms like the inability to uncurl the fingers, vomiting, confusion and difficulty breathing. Individuals who are dehydrated need immediate intervention. This is not the cramp you get during cobra.
  2. Mineral deficiency. These cramps are generally not experienced during exercise. Nighttime leg cramps can often be attributed to a deficiency or imbalance in calcium, magnesium or potassium. Talk to your healthcare provider about an appropriate supplement if you experience nighttime cramping.
  3. Exercise intensity. Dr. Martin Schwellnus proposes that as you increase the intensity with which you are using a muscle, it can take time for the brain and body to synchronize, resulting in over-contraction of the muscle. This occurs particularly when the muscles are fatigued. This period is known as “altered neuromuscular control” and was originally theorized because studies have shown no correllation between hydration and electrolyte levels with muscle cramping in extreme athletes.

The first two causes of cramping rarely apply in a  yoga class. This leaves us with muscle fatigue and exercise intensity. We often seek muscle fatigue to get a muscle to “let go” before stretching it, so the cramp is a sign we are on the right track, just maybe a little to far too fast. Deepening muscle strength through increased length or intensity of contraction can, at times, be accompanied by cramps.

As unpopular as this may make me, I am a fan of cramps in class. It means I’m doing something new. Going somewhere I haven’t before. Finding new depth or strength I didn’t know I had.

Keep your breathing regular and slowly decrease your intensity and watch that cramp melt away. In a nutshell, cramps in class are not dangerous. Don’t panic.

Rusty hinges, adhesion and scar tissue

After we finish development, it is use it or lose it with range of motion and flexibility in the body. In our adult lives, we sit or stand in the same position for hours at a time, sometimes a majority of our day. It is a rare individual that uses their body through full range of potential movement each day. Most people use much less than even half of potential movement.

Joints that aren’t used through full range of motion are the perfect place for calcium oxalate crystals to deposit. This is a painful form of arthritis. As a rolling stone gathers no moss, so a moving joint keeps surfaces clear from crystalline arthritis. Clearing mineral deposits from the joints is not always a pleasant process. Take your time. It will get better.

Muscles that remain tightened in the same position for long periods of time can form hydrogen bonds between the muscle fascia that get more dense with time. Stretching those long-bonded filaments of connective tissue, like moving a crystallized joint, can feel much more intense than simple “stretching”. Again, move slowly, but don’t be afraid.

Scar tissue forms when the body heals from an injury. Scar tissue cannot be eliminated, but it can be remodeled. Through movement and stretching, one can realign the collagen fibers in the lumpy scar tissue so that it is both stronger and more plastic. Through this process, the scar tissue begins to act more like the original, flexible tissue that was in place before the injury. The older the scar tissue, and the more trauma to the area, the more uncomfortable this remodeling process can be.

On the mat, the yogi should practice with awareness and patience. When we want to achieve yoga “goals” too quickly, we can cause injury. Take your time. Move with awareness, and be patient. Start where you are and build strength and range of motion from there.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the condition in which the protective cartilage in a joint is worn down, eventually to painful bone-on-bone contact within a joint. Osteoarthritis generally forms from uneven tissue-loading or repetitive movement. There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but yoga is a great tool to help strengthen the soft muscle tissue around the joint and reduce the amount of painful bone-on-bone contact.

In the practice of yoga, individuals with this condition should focus on precise alignment of the skeleton in poses and building strength around the joint. Range of motion exercises are helpful because they help palpate the circulation around the joint, maintaining and improving joint health. Individuals with osteoarthritis must practice to tolerance only.

Once the painful bone-on-bone compression is felt, going deeper will only exacerbate the wear and tear on cartilage and bone. This is not a pain to try to tough your way through. Through practice and attention you will find the places where you need to stop before you reach the pain.

Chronic Illness

Fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other autoimmune disorders are often noted for unsourced, chronic pain. Practicing yoga with these conditions hurts. That’s the cold, hard truth.

The good news is that yoga also miraculously relieves the long-term pain. There is no clear explanation of why, but moving the body with awareness, increasing circulation, improving alignment and strength all help to eliminate the seemingly endless pain. Read more about Joseph Encinia’s inspiring recovery from RA.

Other forms of chronic illness are also notorious pain producers. Sometimes it is being unable to move for long periods of time or the way we hold ourselves in response to the illness that causes pain.

Take your time and move slowly, but get started with yoga. The body functions best when it is being used and yoga is one of the safest ways to find the limits of your body in any condition and begin to improve your health.

Chronic Misalignment

Duck-footed. Hunch back. Sway back. Ding-toed. Flat foot. Forward head.

These common misalignments are not in the original design template of the human body. “My father was duck-footed” is not a genetic precursor for you to turn your toes out. The human leg was not designed to be used in that way. We learn postural habits from our surroundings just like we learn syntax and social cues.

Some of these misalignments are caused by accident, injury or habit. You may have developed a habit of jutting the ribcage forward at the beach to appear thinner or have a forward head from working at a computer desk all day.

The most insidious component of chronic misalignment is uneven tissue load. Take this valgus, or abnormal rotation, of the heel below. Misalignment of the heel causes adjustment of the bones of the entire leg, hip and eventually the pelvis and spine. Uneven load in the tissues over time leads to failure of the muscle or tendon fibers. This flat foot might just be causing your migraine headaches.

As you work to change chronic misalignment, you may experience discomfort and pain. This is part of the process of realigning bones, strengthening muscles and healing connective tissue. With this type of pain, it is important to have a strong team of therapists helping you through the process to ensure you stay safe, progress at a rate appropriate for you and practice with a depth and attention to alignment that is not causing you further damage.

A good team includes experienced and educated yoga instructors, massage and physical therapists, maybe even a chiropractor, doctor or sports medicine specialist. Check out Dr. Mike Evan’s video on chronic back pain for more information on diagnosing chronic pain, creating a team and developing an attitude that will help you to heal.

You have bad alignment in class

I know it. You wanted me to say something nice. You expected something more supportive, and all you got was tough love. Get ready for more real talk.

Your alignment sucks.

I hope that is bold enough to get you to make a change. Your teacher said your foot should be pointing straight up over the top of your head in Standing Bow. Yours is pointing over at a boat moored across the river in Kittery and you are surprised your sacroiliac injury isn’t getting better?

You want to go higher in floor bow, so you leg your legs spread three feet wide. Yoga must be bad for knees.

You want to come down lower in half moon, so you turn your chin, twist your spine and collapse your chest. I guess yoga causes neck injuries.

You keep losing the grip, so you use a towel to augment your hand strength. Ah! It’s yoga, not tennis that causes rotator cuff injuries. Phew!

Or are your ready to take responsibility for your actions and use yoga to change your body and your life? There are very specific reasons for the way your yoga teachers cue the postures. The sequence of the cues is critical. The words we use intentionally to create specific actions in your body to keep you safe, and to help you maximize the therapeutic benefit of your practice.

Here are the steps to achieve a healing practice.

  1. Frequency: You have to show up. Regularly. Not once a week you show up and work so hard you pass out, puke twice and have to go home and take a nap. Regular, consistent, dedicated practice. You are worth it.
  2. Accuracy. Alignment is the first priority in any pose. Even if you can only move one inch into the pose. With no alignment, there is no therapy.
  3. Intensity. Only when you are showing up regularly, and executing the postures with accuracy and precision in your alignment, do you add the intensity and depth. Intensity is the privilege of the mindful practitioner.

Intensity is the privilege of the mindful practitioner.

Injury

Injuries happen in life. We slip on the ice, aggravate a shoulder playing tennis or get too aggressive in a pick up basketball game. With few exceptions, a modified practice can be continued with an injury, but pain will be an important guide.

Last year, we had a student practicing with a broken leg. She did her practice in a chair for the standing poses and elevated the leg on the floor. After two weeks, her doctors told her the leg was ready for weight-bearing. After four weeks, the fracture was invisible on an x-ray. Her doctors were blown away by the speed of recovery for a woman in her fifties.

One of the main reasons yoga helps you to recover from an injury is blood flow. Increased circulation helps support and speed repair and rehabilitation. The tricky part is not letting a misguided ego tell you to go for it in floor bow even though your shoulder bursitis is bothering you.

The most important action to take when you have an injury is speaking. Talk with your doctor or physical therapists when they analyze or diagnose you. Ask questions like, what types of movement should I avoid? And, what movement should I do to rehabilitate from this injury? Many students bring in a printout of the poses they have questions about. Get specific and don’t leave without an answer. You may be the first patient they have had who really wanted to know.

Talk to your teachers. Any well-educated teacher has yoga therapy and yoga for the infirm in their training profile. They can’t help you with your whiplash if they don’t know your neck is bothering you. You are not a yoga expert, so you may not realize that forward folds are aggravating your herniated discs.  You might be great at aerodynamics or flag football. Let your teachers share their expertise and experience with you.

I can’t tell you how many students have complained that an injury was not healing and when I asked them to take it slowly or avoid a particular movement temporarily have replied with, “Well, I like to push,” with a cheeky smile. Apparently, you also like to stretch a six-week recovery out to eighteen months.

Bones take four weeks to heal. Muscles take six weeks. Connective tissues can take up to eight weeks. The average woman recovers from a common yoga injury to the hamstrings tendon in eighteen months. Talk to your providers and listen to your body so you don’t end up in unnecessary pain for years.

Over-Aggressive Practice

This could be a sub-section of the injuries category. Like all physical activities, you can create injury in yoga. Yoga has tremendous therapeutic potential. It can also cause harm.

We see it and want to achieve it. We know if we work hard, we can pull ourselves up by our  bootstraps yoga mats and live the American yoga dream.

I hope you listen to what I am going to say next.

Too good is no good.

More is not always better for the human body. You might not be strong enough yet for headstand. Your body may not be genetically designed for full wheel. You can cause wrist injury by misalignment in handstand. Shoulderstand is not for people who have osteoporosis.

This kind of pain is the devil in the world of yoga. This kind of pain is not the walk-through-the-fire-and-emerge-clean kind of pain. This isn’t the suffering that leads to redemption. This is the antithesis of yoga: disunion of mind and body.

When you are in the posture, with healthy alignment, to the best of your ability today, that is the ultimate destination of yoga. It is meditation in it’s purest form: the mind in the body, one second at a time.

Take your time. Ask questions. Be patient. When we approach pain with awareness, we realize that in the words of the great Emmy Cleaves, “Pain is a gift.”

sara headshotSara Curry is a Bikram Yoga studio owner in Portsmouth, NH. A lifetime of back pain lead her to yoga at the turn of the millennia. The freedom and recovery she gained from yoga drives her daily practice and her determination to bring yoga’s healing potential to as many people as possible.

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