uttanasana

Change Your Mind – Start Your Practice

Your friends all gather to go together, you see people in great shape toting mats wherever you turn and even your own doctor has suggested it to help you with your stress levels.

So, finally you commit. You set out to buy your first real pair of yoga pants and go online to find a class that’s right for you but discover there are literally hundreds to chose from in just your area alone! With the popularity of yoga skyrocketing, choosing the right level and style of yoga, as well studio and teacher can be daunting.

It’s easy for a new practitioner to become discouraged after stumbling in to a class that was too challenging or easy.

The good news is: You don’t have to go far to start your yoga practice. In fact, you don’t need to go anywhere! The one thing that will guarantee your success is your mindset. Therefore, you may need to change it as the first step to finding the right class for you.

Even classes labeled “Beginner” could be too challenging for some people, in turn, an “Advanced” class could be too easy. Therefore, both beginner and advanced practitioners alike must always be willing to accept “where they are” in their practice.

Everyday is different, and change is inevitable, both in our lives and on our mats. Therefore, to stay engaged, we must be willing to accept modifications if things get too difficult and keep challenging our selves with harder variations if it’s too easy.

So now that you’re ready to accept where you are, now what? After you have the “right” mind-set you need to find teachers who look after their students to see what they need, i.e., if they are struggling or they seem bored and offer both easier and harder modifications as they teach each pose.

Most teachers do offers modifications and variations but there are some that don’t or only offer a few due to lack of experience or perhaps, preference. So how can you know if your teacher is in the majority? Ask. When you come to your first class with a new teacher. You can ask them if they offer beginner and advanced modifications and variations. This will also serve as a good reminder for them to do so. (If they say yes, chances are you are in good hands.)

As long as you’re willing to take modifications and variations, not only will your practice flourish, you will begin to learn them yourself and not have worry if a teacher offers them. You will confidently be able to take any class, join your group of friends, stroll along with your mat and tell you’re doctor you’re on the right path to reaping all the benefits of yoga, including knowing you are perfect where you are!

Meet Jenny, Teacher of the Month

Jenny playing her gong, harmonium, and crystal bowls.

Jenny playing her gong, harmonium, and crystal bowls.

This month we feature, Jenny Bergold, as Yoga by Degrees Teacher of the Month. YBD has been lucky enough to have Jenny since the company first came to Wheaton in 2011.  We are grateful that Jenny has shared her extensive knowledge of how yoga affects the mind and body and of course, her talents with her music.  Jenny’s classes and workshops are graced with beautiful vibrations from her gong, crystal bowls, and harmonium. Students have developed such deep connections with Jenny that they have her officiating their weddings! Thank you for all you do and for continuing to share your inspiring teachings and grounded energy.

When and how did you come to yoga?

I started practicing yoga sixteen years ago after suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. My doctor recommended it. My first class was in a church in Batavia. It was truly inspirational and heart opening. I had found my passion, my home. I would not be living today if it wasn’t for yoga and the many teachers who believed in me. They truly helped me heal. I am forever grateful.  

 

Why did you start teaching yoga?

I had my son, Michael, six-and-a-half years ago. I looked at him at three months and decided not to go back to my television production job, so I went to Hatha Yoga school instead:-). I was also a high school teacher in the past, so I feel comfortable working with students. As I said, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my many teachers, so I wanted to give back, especially to people with mental illness. Teaching Hatha & Kundalini Yoga is my path, my purpose in life. I want to uplift people through my teaching and my words. And I want them the know that they are never alone, especially with the amazing Yoga by Degrees community! 

 

What is your favorite pose?

Savasana! What could be better than resting and relaxing with blankets and a gong!;-)

 

Who inspires your teaching?

Wow! Where do I start?! My “stand by me through everything” family, my amazing and supportive friends, my Grandma Frieda and my niece Frieda, my son who brings joy and laughter to everyone, my life’s trials and tribulations, other teachers in this inspiring yoga community (especially Lara Devine & Nadja Lalvani), Yogi Bhajan, all the beautiful souls at Spirit Rising Yoga, but most importantly, my students. They show up on their mat even when they feel like staying in bed. They are a miracle and a blessing and inspire me to be a better teacher!    

 

Tips for beginners…

Have fun, bring an open mind, and keep up!

 

What’s your favorite quote? 

Let my mind find confidence

Let my soul find peace

Let me fulfill my life’s purpose

Let me live my life with the attitude of gratitude

I love myself

I bless myself

I heal myself

I am myself

~Yogi Bhajan

DSC_9028

The secret to a “perfect” yoga practice: follow the “limbs”

With so many different types of yoga, studios and teachers to pick from these days, discovering a class that involves much more than the physical side of yoga and which is neither too hard nor too easy can sometimes seem elusive.

Yet teachers at some studios like Yoga by Degrees still know the importance and effectiveness of a traditional and balanced yoga class experience.

So what constitutes this experience? Just as every reliable structure must be constructed with time-tested rules and regulations, every yoga class should be built in accordance with the first book of yoga teachings called the Yoga Sutras. Its a compilation of one hundred and ninety six aphorisms based on the ancient Vedic texts.

The Indian sage Sri Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras approximately two thousand years ago. Sutra 2.9 lists the “Eight Limbs of Yoga”.

The Yoga Sutras, by nature, imply that as many of the eight limbs of yoga as possible need to be practiced in order to gain all of the benefits that yoga has to offer.

In a yoga class, using the eight limbs can serve as a powerful tool in encouraging students to challenge themselves but also accept where they are. The eight limbs are as follows:

  1. Yama :  Morality
  2. Niyama :  Personal observances
  3. Asanas :  Physical postures
  4. Pranayama :  Breath control, i.e. breath exercises
  5. Pratyahara :  Sensory control
  6. Dharana :  Concentration and inner awareness
  7. Dhyana :  Meditation on a higher power
  8. Samadhi :  Union with a higher power

It is possible for well-educated and skilled teachers to “weave” all of the above limbs of yoga in to a class. (Except perhaps the last one, then you no longer need yoga!) For example, a teacher could instruct students to turn their awareness inward, noticing what they are “feeling” and by encouraging them to practice with truthfulness (Yama number two) and contentment (Niyama number two).

While it is the yoga teacher’s responsibility to make sure he or she instructs a well-rounded class, as a yoga practitioner, once learned, you can be mindful and creatively weave the eight limbs of yoga in to your practice yourself both on and off the mat!

How Yoga Affects your Motor Homunculus

The motor homunculus is a "little man" map that shows how the areas of the brain allocate more control over certain areas of the body, like the hands and mouth.

The motor homunculus is a “little man” map that shows how the areas of the brain allocate more control over certain areas of the body, like the hands and mouth.

This “little man” is known as a homunculus, a representation of how much brain control is given to certain regions of the body.  Scientists have mapped the areas of the brain that are devoted to specific areas of the body.  This homunculus map is drawn from the motor cortex of the brain. The nervous system allocates brain power according to need.  Regions of the body with a high level of conscious dexterity use larger areas of the brain.  There is more circuitry and more neurons dedicated to those areas of the body. 

For example, the homunculus hands are extra-large because a lot of the brain is devoted to the hands.  Our hands are so sensitive and we do all our major feeling of things with our hands.  The lips and tongue are so big because taste and speech take a lot of brain cells.  Areas like elbows and knees are small because they don’t use as much of the brain.  If you put something on your knee with your eyes closed, you wouldn’t be able to tell what object it is.  Your hands would be able to tell though.  The thumb itself is larger than the entire pelvic region.

Certain things can change the structure of your homunculus. If a person experiences a stroke, their homunculus will change shape. It may be lopsided or not have certain parts on it at all.  The brain is dynamic and malleable.  Practicing yoga can be one technique to alter the physical structure of the brain.  Although the number of individual neurons cannot increase, the neuron pathways and connections can become more efficient.  The circuitry of your brain can rapidly form between existing neurons to meet new demands.  This is the basis for muscle awakening in yoga.  As you gain more body awareness through yoga practice, refining the circuitry of your brain becomes a byproduct. When you advance your physical practice, your mind-body consciousness expands.

A neurosurgeon can affect the body by stimulating the brain.  A yoga practitioner can begin at the other end of the nerve pathway by heightening the awareness of the body.  There are some areas of the body that we use so often that the brain doesn’t have to think about the engagement.  For example, your psoas muscle (deep hip flexor and core muscle) is engaged so often that it is unconscious and is very small on the homunculus.  To strengthen that mind-body connection, yoga practioners can start with awareness.  Be aware of what the psoas (or any other region of the body) is feeling during asana practice—is the psoas tight, tense, or open?   Then the next level of consciousness is learning to engage or release the psoas, which can be enormously helpful in yoga practice.  Next time you get on your yoga mat, think about how your homunculus is changing and evolving.

Meet Christy, Teacher of the Month

Christy and her favorite, triangle pose.

Christy and her favorite, triangle pose.

Lovely Christy has been a part of our yoga community since Western Springs studio opened in 2012. She went through our YBD Sculpt Teacher Training and has been a bundle of energy in the sculpt classroom ever since. Encouraging “Woo!” sounds often come from her classroom and her shining smile at the front desk is the star of the show. We are so grateful to have this naturally talented teacher as an integral part of the team and look forward to her next chapter at YBD. Take a peek at her answers below to get to know Christy better.
 
Come take her sculpt class in Western Springs on Sunday mornings at 8:30 or 10am, Thursday nights at 6pm, or in Elmhurst on Saturdays at 9am.
 
When and how did you come to yoga?
I took my first yoga class in November 2012 at Yoga by Degrees.  When my collegiate volleyball career came to an end upon graduation, I found myself searching for new ways to stay active.  Yoga by Degrees in Western Springs was a new studio that was opening, so I built up the courage to try a class.  I immediately knew yoga would be a part of my life after taking my first class.  I fell in love with the balance of strength, grace, and active calmness that yoga offers.    
 
Why did you start teaching yoga?
Once my personal yoga journey began, it was not long before I decided that I wanted to share the positive benefits of the practice that I experienced with other practitioners.  I knew the opportunity to teach yoga would allow me to reach out to others in the yoga community and hopefully make an impact on the wellness and minds of others.  I became certified to teach Yoga Sculpt in the summer of 2013, and teaching has been such a wonderful part of my life since then. 
 
What is your favorite pose?
My favorite pose is Trikonasana (Triangle Pose).  I love this dynamic pose because it is such a beautiful combination of strength and elegance. 
 
Who inspires your teaching?
Every person and situation that I encounter inspires my teaching.  I believe in constantly learning from others, and I use these reflections to inspire and shape my teaching.  I feel truly grateful for the teachers and students I have the opportunity to work with at Yoga by Degrees.  Not only am I inspired by the physical aspects of their yoga practices, but also by the strong sense of kindness and consciousness that is present in the yoga community.  
 
Tips for beginners…
I encourage beginner yogis to be aware of the physical and mental aspects of their yoga practice.  Many access yoga on the physically active or workout level, but I think it is also important to be cognizant of the fact that yoga is so much more than this.  Of course the physical health benefits of practicing yoga postures are great, but the yoga journey has the potential to continue to a much deeper level of mind and spirit.  I also encourage beginners to have an open mind and have fun!  It is easy to be very hard on ourselves, especially when trying something for the first time.  While it teaches us to be patient, yoga also requires patience.  Be kind to yourself, and have gratitude for the ability to keep trying and improving your practice and wellness. 
 
What’s your favorite quote?
“The peace you seek is always there.  It sits quietly and calmly beneath everything else.  Let go, and feel it now.” -Ralph Marston

Withdrawing the Senses

pratyahara

“If you don’t go within, you go without.” –Darren Main

 

Are you mindful of your sensations? Your words? Your idle activities? Pratyahara is one of the eight limbs of yogic philosophy, which means the withdrawal or control of the senses.  This is a stage of yoga practice just beyond the physical where internal yoga practice begins.  Practicing pratyahara takes place when your individual consciousness is turned inward so you can master the flow of prana, or energy, in your body.  Specifically, pratyahara is the withdrawing yourself away from anything unwholesome, excessive, or distracting for the mind. 

Most people don’t have the ability to withdraw into seclusion in the mountains to meditate without distractions. It is a little easier to harmonize with prana when you can renounce the world to focus on controlling the senses.  In the real world we have temptations of money, sex, fame, etc. If you can overcome the temptations here then you have really mastered your senses.

“If you control your mouth—what you put into it and what comes out of it—you’ve controlled much of your mind already,” Sri Dharma Mittra explains in his book.  Every effort helps.  If you can master your senses even a little bit, you can calm your mind, improve concentration, and increase your energy.  Think about what you put into your body.  Do you nourish your body with what it needs? Or are you feeding your senses?  Even if you are vegetarian and in control of some aspects of a regulated diet, there can still be issues with overeating, eating unhealthy choices, processed foods that make you feel lethargic.

Just like yoga practice, it starts physical and external (your diet) and the next stage is more internal.  Are you mindful of what you say?  Any form of communication can be included: texting, emailing, body language, small talk.  How much time do you spend watching bad TV, listening to talk radio, or playing virtual games?  These temptations are satisfying for our senses but the satisfaction can wear off quickly and the cycle continues.  

One common technique to get a handle on the senses is to practice breath control, pranayama.  When breathing mindfully, we automatically withdraw from the external and focus inward.  So if you can control the senses, your energy is focused on one single-pointed thing.  Rather than feeding your body with unhealthy food, words, or thoughts, you can send out your energy to whatever is important to you.  This mindful discipline towards an intention has many physical and psychological benefits. You will have more energy since it is not wasted on distractions, more contentment by being present in the moment, and more productivity because of the increased concentration and focus.

Try driving to work without the radio on. Try eating a meal in silence without any distractions—no phones, television, or activities.  Try avoiding gossip, eavesdropping, and idle speech. At first your body or mind may react negatively, feel annoyed, or give up.  The more you practice focusing on one single-pointed thing and releasing the power of the senses, you can diminish your desires and experience true peace and contentment.

Pose of the Month: July

elizabeth

Wild Thing

Sanskrit: Camatkarasana

There are many different ways to transition from downward facing dog and Wild Thing or  “flip your dog” as you might hear it, is one of them! Wild thing is a fun and challenging way to open up the hips and chest!

Benefits: Opens up chest, lung, and shoulder areas as well as the front of your legs and hip flexors. Builds strength in your shoulders and upper back.

Directions:

Start in downward facing dog with your hands spread wide, hips pressed up and back, heels lengthen down.

INHALE- Extend your right leg high. Make sure keep the right hip in line with your left to keep your hips squared.

EXHALE- Bend your right knee to rotate your right hip open. Lift your right palm towards the sky while your left hand remains the grounded palm.

INHALE- Press your sternum up and allow the head to drop back behind you.

 

red stars

Yoga for Athletes

Lots of professional athletes are catching on to the fact that yoga can help repair their bodies.  Through vigorous exercise and repetition in sports, athletes tend to have problems with tightness, tendonitis, and even struggle to touch their toes.  Through athletic training, these athletes tend to have a lot of strength in some areas but inflexibility in others.  The other tricky part is, most athletic sports encourage healthy competition which can be challenging to leave at the door of the yoga studio.

For athletes that can come with an open-mind and let go of the win-lose attitude on the mat, the benefits are extensive.  Increased strength, flexibility, mobility, focus, and improved sleep-wake cycle are just some of the list.  In turn, yoga has the potential to enhance athletic ability and peak performance. Yoga by Degrees has a partnership with the Chicago Red Stars, a professional women’s soccer team.  They visit our facilities to help balance their intense soccer training and season schedule.  “Doing yoga has been very beneficial for both my body and mind,” said Red Stars forward Alyssa Mautz. “It has helped me with mobility and recovery. And for me, it helps clear my head and allows me to focus on the present moment. It’s helped my game tremendously.”

Usually with the repetition in disciplines like running, biking, and playing soccer, there are several muscle groups that are under-utilized.  For any type of student, yoga works to bring us into balance.  Increasing core stability and optimizing a more balanced strength tends to rehab athletes from their injuries caused by overuse.  When you find balance on your yoga mat, it tends to leak out into a more balanced life off the mat.  Through consistent yoga practice, improved coordination and balance can lead to better technique and form in the athletic realm.  When you improve your flexibility through yoga, practitioners are enhancing joint, muscular, and deep tissue pliancy to increase range of motion.  For example, a soccer player with increased core strength and more flexibility in their hip joints and legs will be able to have a longer stride and a greater ability to change direction on the field.

So that takes care of just the physical benefits of yoga for athletes.  While the physical benefits are huge, they are still just the tip of the iceberg.  What about the mental aspect of yoga?  Most people who are first starting out with yoga come for a great workout, which is right in the typical athlete’s wheelhouse.  The meditative aspects of yoga, especially savasana (corpse pose), can be super challenging for some.  After you have worked, stretched, toned and invigorated your body and mind, savasana is a time to lie on your mat completely still.  People who resist savasana may just opt out and leave the class early or spend the time mentally and physically fidgeting.  Many people think the hard work is over but savasana is the most essential pose of class.  It is the time to meditate and let all the benefits of the practice settle into your body and especially mind.  Savasana helps to improve your focus, and quiet the impulses of the mind.  For an athlete, training the body is very important.  But training the mind is what can remove blockages and free them from fear, doubt, or negativity to help them persevere and be the best version of themselves.

 

Meet our Teacher of the Month: Bonnie

image.jpeg

Bonnie has been an amazing asset to the Yoga by Degrees company since her arrival.  In 2010, she completed her 200-hour teacher training in Vinyasa at Yoga to the People in New York. She teaches at all locations and is constantly bending over backwards to sub whenever she can. Her classes aim to be challenging, but accessible, with a strong emphasis on breath and alignment. She attempts to create a safe space for students to tap into their deepest, truest selves. An avid music fan, Bonnie’s playlists provide an ambiance which promote a challenging flow and rhythmic cadence. In addition to teaching and practicing yoga, she is in medical school training to be a physician.  She is so busy with med school and boards, yet she makes time in our studios an important priority. Thank you so much for going above and beyond being an awesome yoga instructor and integral part of our YBD family!!! Learn more about Bonnie:

When and how did you come to yoga?

When I was a freshman in college, I signed up for a class at the rec center. It was sort of a hatha/Iyengar blend, and I actually found it sort of boring. . . My background was in dance and gym-based fitness, so the slow pace didn’t suit me at the time. It wasn’t until my boyfriend in college brought me with him to his Bikram studio that I fell in love with yoga. I practiced Bikram avidly for about four years before I found vinyasa. Bikram is still my yoga home, but I almost practice vinyasa these days.

Why did you start teaching yoga?

I studied biology in college, and every time I had a rough test, I’d convince myself that if I failed out of school, I’d just become a yoga teacher. Now, a decade later and in medical school, I still fantasize about leaving it all behind, moving back to northern California (where I’m from), living by the beach, and being a yoga teacher. I actually applied to a teacher training on a whim in the summer of 2010, and it ended up being one of the most transformative experiences of my life. Now I see my teaching as a parallel to my medical career. . . both are about helping people be their best, healthiest selves. What an amazing thing to be a part of.

What is your favorite pose?

Ustrasana/camel pose. I think it comes from my background in Bikram. I spent the first several years of my practice dreading it (and feeling nauseated and lightheaded every time I did it). A point came soon after my teacher training when I started to enjoy the fact that, even if it was unpleasant, it made me feel intensely. Now when I teach it, I like to have my students come out of the pose and sit on their heels with their hands at their hearts. I like to talk about how valuable it is to maintain a broad, open chest, even after that deep, intense backbend. . . What a beautiful metaphor for staying open and refusing to close oneself off, even after having been vulnerable. One of the many gifts our yoga practice gives us.

Who inspires your teaching?

That’s such a hard question to answer, since I learn so much from everyone at YBD. It’s a rare class where I’m not overwhelmed with gratitude for the amazing teachers I get to practice with. I will say, however, that I sometimes feel like I ended up at YBD so that I could absorb some of Lara’s goodness. She’s as close to a spiritual teacher or guide that I’ve ever had.

Tips for beginners…

Be willing to laugh… At yourself if you fall out of something or at us for the ridiculous contortions we ask you to do.

What’s your favorite quote?

to live in this world

you must be able

to do three things

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go

-Mary Oliver

 

Matsyasana: Fish Pose

unnamed

Matsyasana

Fish Pose

“Destroyer of all diseases”

 

Benefits:

Stretches your hip flexors (psoas) and your muscles (intercostals) between the ribs while stimulating your belly and front and back of your neck. Also helps to improve your posture.

 

Directions:

Start lying down on your mat with legs together and arms to your sides.

Roll your forearms and palms underneath your sits bones while pressing up to your elbows.

Press your heart up while dropping the crown of your head back and pointing the toes forward.

 

Modifications:

If you feel any pinching or pulling at the back of your neck, grab a blanket and place at the base of the neck for extra support.

Use a block or bolster to help support your sternum up and back.