Yoga for Cancer Videos -- Practice at Home!

During treatment, it can be hard to find the time and energy to leave the house and attend a yoga class. I happy to share these yoga videos that I made in collaboration with weSPARK Cancer Support Center. Our hope is that you can practice these gentle yoga sets in the comfort of your own home. 

Click here to watch! 

Get Outta Town: Top Reasons to Take a Yoga Retreat



 As we experience nature’s growth and expansion during springtime, many of us may be thinking of ways that we can let go of the old and welcome in the new. Attending a yoga retreat can be a great opportunity to recharge batteries, take stock of your life and chart a new course for yourself.

Let’s examine several of the top reasons to take a yoga retreat:

1. To Deepen Your Practice
Most of us lead hectic lives and are unable to practice yoga as much as we’d like to.  A yoga retreat gives us the opportunity to practice each day, sometimes multiple times a day. The effects of yoga are cumulative, and a daily practice gives us an opportunity to explore both our body and mind in a deeper way.
Perhaps on Monday triangle pose felt great… but on Tuesday we’ve had less sleep and it’s a bit of a struggle. On Wednesday, we try triangle pose again and we may finally understand some of the more subtle energetic and alignment cues that our teacher is giving us. We learn when to press forward, and when to back off. We may find a newfound sense of patience in our practice as we watch it evolve from day to day. Through continual practice, we learn about the infinite variations of our body, mind and psyche.

2. To Gain Perspective
Simply put, yoga retreats provide respite from the daily grind. Many retreats are set in foreign countries or places of great natural beauty. Stepping away from our routine to breathe, explore and simply be still can help us to look at our problems anew, and to find gratitude for what is indeed working in our lives.
A yoga retreat encourages us to appreciate many of the things we neglect to see or sense in our daily lives – the beating of a hummingbird’s wings, the natural splendor of a mountain, the smell of orange blossoms wafting through the air, the smile of a stranger. Refining our awareness to include the simple things in life can be a powerful tool in gaining perspective.

3. To Heal and Transform 
Many people are drawn to a retreat when they’ve reached the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back”. Consciously or unconsciously, we sense that attending a retreat can be a powerful and positive first step in creating a life change.
For many of us, self-care is not a priority. Making an investment of time, money and energy in a yoga retreat is an empowering choice – we control the reins and can steer the course of our lives in the right direction.

Karma Yoga and Philanthropic Adventure Travel


Here in the United States, many of us think of yoga as being primarily a physical discipline. Indeed asanas (physical postures), breathing and meditation are all parts of the Hatha yoga path. However, there are many paths of yoga, and not all of them involve bending into pretzel shapes. A less commonly known path of yoga is karma yoga, or the yoga of action.

Literally translated as “union through action”, Karma yoga is an often overlooked part of a modern yoga practice. Its roots run deep in the classic Bhavaghad Gita text - Krisha advises Arjuna that, “the reward of all action is to be found in enlightenment.”

Founded in 2008, Roadmonkey is an organization that beautifully blends service to others and exciting travel. Director Paul von Zielbauer, a former award-winning reporter and Iraq war correspondent, believes in the value of exploring new cultures and giving back to communities in need.

Inspired by reading about people living their dreams in adventure magazines, Zielbauer envisoned Roadmonkey as “Adventure Travel 2.0” – substantive travel that is not only engaging and fun, but challenges the participant to a higher standard. To this end, Roadmonkey organizes “adventure philanthropy expeditions”, sponsored by various non-profit organizations, in places such as Peru, Nicaragua, Patagonia, Vietnam and Tanzania.

Upcoming expeditions include:

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro & building a school library on Zanzibar
Cycling the highlands of Vietnam & building a solar-energy kitchen
Whitewater rafting in Peru & building a playground in the Andean foothills

In this day and age, as travelers cautiously check online sources for bad reviews, buy pre-packaged whirlwind tours and print Google maps months ahead of their journey, Roadmonkey is a breath of fresh air. It reintroduces spontaneity into travel and returns us to a several fundamental needs – the desire to explore and understand our world, and to help one another. On some level, we all inherently know that in order to make a difference, we have to take a plunge and dive into new, sometimes frightening territory.

Karma yoga challenges us to find the discipline of self-transcending action. Roadmonkey provides a wonderful opportunity for karma yoga that transforms both communities in need and the traveler by engaging him on all levels – physical, emotional and intellectual.

For more information about Roadmonkey and upcoming expeditions, please visit www.roadmonkey.net.

New Year's Resolutions: A Yogic Approach

As we move into the new year, many of us find ourselves feeling reflective, analyzing the successes and failures of the last year and focusing on what we may like to do differently in the upcoming year. New Year’s Resolutions – and breaking them – are an age-old tradition. The problem is, many of us get caught up in the cycle of feeling excited about our new goals, and then depressed shortly afterwards when we don’t stick to our plans. Or even worse, we set impossible goals and then feel despondent when they seem out of reach.

We all want more happiness in our life – and the main goal of yoga is to help us achieve that. But how? One of the ways to create a lovable future is to set goals that are positive, concrete and specific. However, so many of our New Year’s goals tend to be vague or framed in a negative way:

I want to date a guy/girl that’s not a jerk.
I need to lose 15 pounds.
I want to be balanced.
I need to quit (insert your poison here).


Hmmm. Do you feel better? I don’t. How does one achieve these goals? Rather than asking for what you don’t want, try defining what you do want.

If you’re looking for a great partner, try defining what it is you actually want in a relationship. Ask yourself a few questions:

What will this person do (i.e. what is their behavior)?
What will they say?
What will you do together?

When you refine your value system you are much more likely to recognize that great person when you meet them… or at least not waste too much time with that hot, uninspiring stranger that you met at your local bar.

If you want to lose weight, instead of focusing on how many pounds you want to lose, try visualizing how you would feel and look as the healthiest possible version of you. What are the kinds of things you would do? What are the steps you might take to get there? Be specific and realistic. Dropping 15 pounds in a month is a stretch. But taking two yoga classes a week, drinking more water, and eating slowly and mindfully – these are all concrete steps you can take. And they help you lose that weight.

“I want to be balanced.” We hear a lot (and say a lot) of vague new-age catchphrases as yoga teachers. We all want to be “balanced”, “present” and “grounded”, but we haven’t defined what that means to us. What does being balanced entail? A meaningful job? A healthy relationship? Better communication with your family? Svadhyaya, or self-study, is one of the primary tools of yoga. First define what makes you happy and what you are working towards. Then within that structure, you can begin to refine and become more specific.

Yoga is often defined as the ability to do something tomorrow that you can’t do today.  This particularly applies when one is trying to quit coffee, cigarettes, procrastination, eating an entire bag of Doritos… whatever your vice may be. Fortunately, yoga’s model of abhyasa and vairagya can help.

Here’s how it breaks down:

Abhyasa -  linking with something positive, adding a positive new habit
Vairagya - de-linking with something that doesn’t work

Anyone who has ever been around a child knows that it’s much easier to take something away from them if you give them something new and shiny to look at first. We can train our minds and bodies in the same way.

Here’s an example from my personal life -

I needed to quit drinking coffee because it gave me terrible stomach pains. As far as I was concerned, this was a total disaster. I had been drinking coffee since high school! I desperately needed the caffeine burst, I loved the taste, and I especially loved the ritual of waking up and smelling brewing coffee in the early hours.

So… rather than quitting cold turkey, I started making a cup of black tea and a cup of coffee in the morning. I’d drink my coffee and then some tea. Eventually, I started to cut down the amount of coffee, while still drinking tea. Within a couple of months, I was down to one cup of black tea and no coffee. Now I can even switch it to green tea… or not have any tea at all. My nervous and digestive systems are happier -- and now that I’m not so addicted to caffeine, I find it easier to wake up in the morning. Yoga is the original replacement therapy – if you want to let go of something old, link first with something new and positive.

People often say to me – I can’t do yoga because I smoke, I’m overweight, I’m not flexible, etc. It doesn’t matter. If you add that healthy habit of a breath or exercise practice, you may find that you want to smoke less or eat more mindfully. Healthy habits beget other healthy habits. Yoga’s not rocket science – it’s actually a just a refreshingly simple way to take care of yourself. 

Simple Yoga for Breast Cancer Patients and Survivors

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, which provides for a wonderful opportunity to review practices that can help breast cancer patients and survivors. Please pass this info on to anyone who needs it! 


Yoga is a tool that helps relax and calm a person’s mind and body. It can be helpful to cancer patients and survivors in innumerable ways. Those who are currently undergoing treatment are familiar with many of the unpleasant side effects of radiation and chemotherapy, which can range from nausea to fatigue to insomnia. With its vast array of physical postures, breathing and meditation techniques, yoga can soften some of these difficult symptoms. Additionally, gentle yoga has been shown to slow down the sympathetic nervous system, which helps to alleviate stress and anxiety.

Post treatment, many women may be dealing with limited mobility due to scar tissue and other factors. Simple yoga stretches can help one regain strength, flexibility and stamina.

Try these simple yoga postures and breathing techniques at home:

To open the chest and release tension in the back:

Cat/Cow:
Start on all fours, with the wrists directly underneath the shoulders, and the knees hip-distance apart. Inhale and release the heart and belly towards the floor. Let the head follow with the spine as you draw your gaze upwards. Exhale and round the back up towards the ceiling, drawing the belly into the spine and the chin towards the chest. Continue 1-3 minutes.

Spinal Flexes:
Sit cross-legged on the floor, or in a chair. Inhale as you lift the heart forwards and gently draw the shoulders back. Widen across your collarbone and chest. Exhale, release and round your back, slightly tilting your pelvis underneath you. Continue 1-3 minutes.

To calm the nerves:

Anti-anxiety breathing:
Inhale through the nose. Exhale through a rounded mouth. Inhale through a rounded mouth (as though you are sipping through a straw). Exhale through the nose. Continue this cycle for 3 minutes.

Alternate Nostril Breathing:
1.     Draw your right hand up, keeping your shoulders relaxed.
2.     Block off your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through your left nostril.
3.     Block off your left nostril with your little finger and exhale through the right nostril.
4.     Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril.
5.     Block off the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril.
Continue this cycle for 3 minutes.

To re-energize and recharge:

Right nostril breathing:
Block off your left nostril with your left thumb. Breathe long and deep through your right nostril. Continue 1-3 minutes.

Heart center meditation:
Sit on the floor or in a chair. Cross your hands over your heart center. Breathe long and deep, visualizing a bright white or golden ball of light at your heart center. Visualize this light filling up your entire body, spreading light to any part that needs healing. Imagine that this light can burn up any old fatigue, illness or negativity, and replace it with light.

To relieve insomnia:
Vipariti Karani (legs-up-the-wall pose):
Lie on your side next to the wall with your knees towards your chest, as though you are in the fetal position. Bring your buttocks close to the wall and walk your legs up the wall. Rest on your back with your legs up against the wall. Release your hands by your sides, with the palms up. Rest for 3-5 minutes.


Resources for cancer patients:

The Roy and Patricia Disney Family Cancer Center 

WeSpark Cancer Support Center:
www.wespark.org

The Wellness Community

Tower Cancer Research Foundation

Yoga for Cancer Patients


Why Yoga?

As a yoga instructor and yoga therapist, I have long been strong believer and proponent of the healing aspects of yoga. Whether it be a new lightness in expression, transformed posture, or a newfound physical strength, time and time again I have watched yoga transform my students.  However, it has been the experience of teaching yoga at WeSpark Cancer Support Center that has solidified my faith in yoga’s incredible ability to heal, uplift and transform.

There is no question that facing down a cancer diagnosis and its ensuing treatment is one of life’s greatest challenges. Most everyone at We Spark is familiar with the staggering variety of physical, mental and even spiritual ailments and imbalances that can accompany cancer. Though yoga may not be a cure for this, its holistic approach to health can help to soften the edges of the disease and its treatment, providing one with a greater sense of physical and mental well being.
           
The philosophy and practice of yoga is holistic -- in that it takes into account the health of the entire person - body, mind and spirit. Yoga treats a person as a whole, rather than a collection of problems and ailments. Indeed, Yoga takes the view that we are essentially whole and perfect, even if we are having an experience of disease or pain. Yogis believe that underneath all of our pain and suffering, there is a radiant light of health, wholeness and truth. Like the sun, it is always shining – even if it is sometimes covered by the clouds.

On a physical level, yoga incorporates stretching, bending, twisting and balancing movements. These postures help to stretch and strengthen the body and increase stamina, flexibility and circulation. A skilled yoga therapist is well versed in anatomy and physiology and will understand which postures can help a student. Utilizing that base of knowledge along with a healthy dose of intuition, a yoga therapist can design a simple series of postures and breathing techniques specific to their students’ needs.

Yoga provides a tool-kit for all kinds of situations. Someone who is recovering from a mastectomy may need gentle heart openers, or to simply lie supported on a bolster to open the heart, break up scar tissue and increase lung capacity. Meanwhile, someone who is struggling from chemotherapy fatigue might benefit from energizing right nostril breathing or a mild inversion.  A person with digestive troubles may benefit from a simple knee-to-chest stretch.  However, some students may need to simply lie down and rest, feeling nurtured and cared for by their yoga instructor. The psycho-physiological value in feeling relaxed and cared for cannot be underestimated. As the physician Francis Peabody once remarked, “The secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient”. 

These days, the detrimental effects of stress on the nervous system and immune system are well known. It is evident that we all must practice self-care and self-love. In many ways, yoga can be an antidote the continual stress and strain that occurs while experiencing cancer. Yoga’s holistic approach engages the practitioner on a physical, emotional and spiritual level and helps to facilitate deep rest and relaxation, providing opportunities for greater health and healing.  

Airplane Yoga: The Antidote to Stressful Travel


Do you long for the days of Mad Men style travel, when flying was a little more dignified? Long gone are the days of donning your best suit to board a plane – today’s travel is more of a hassle than an exciting voyage.

The stress associated with air travel seems to be reaching epic proportions today. Long, winding security lines, cramped planes, screaming children and rude passengers have already caused one infamous flight attendant to flee an aircraft via inflatable slide. For the rest of us without emergency slide access, what is there to do?

Yoga provides a toolkit for dealing with stress on both the body and mind. You don’t need a mat and a peaceful room to practice – you simply need yourself and your breath.

Ideally, your yogic stress relief techniques should start before you reach your 30” airplane seat. As you drive to the airport, start to become aware of your breath. Try lengthening your exhales to become a little bit longer than your inhales. This helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or the relaxation response, in the body.

Next - take a look at your shoulders. Chances are, they may be scrunched up by your ears as your body anticipates and braces against potential airport annoyances. Roll your shoulders up and back a few times, and let your shoulders sink down away from your ears.

When you arrive at the airport, keep up with your long, deep breathing. Reach your arms above your head and stretch from side to side. Roll down and hang over your legs for a few breaths, feeling your weight in the balls of your feet.

Throughout your flight, continue to be aware of finding a long, deep breath. Rock the head from side to side, working out kinks in the neck. Massage out your temples and the hinge of your jaw. Extend one leg out in front of you, point and flex your foot several times, and then rotate your foot in circles. Switch sides.

Now that you’ve warmed up a little bit, scoot up next to the edge of your seat. Place your hands on your thighs, and inhale as you lift up through your chest and draw your shoulders back. Exhale as you round your spine back towards your seat. Repeat several times.

For those who experience anxiety while flying, breathing techniques can help. If you feel your pulse racing and your breath quickening at the first sign of turbulence, try these breathing techniques:

Anti-anxiety breathing
Slowly inhale through your nose, then exhale through a rounded mouth. Inhale through a rounded mouth (as though sipping through a straw), then exhale through the nose. Continue for 3 minutes.

Left nostril breathing
Draw your right hand up to your face and block off your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through the left nostril. Block off your left nostril with your little finger, and exhale through the right nostril. Continue for 3 minutes.

Traveling can knock down even the most balanced person – simple yoga techniques can help alleviate stress and strain. And when all else fails, simply breathe long and deep.


The Injured Yogi

There are few things in life that irritate me more than being the injured yoga teacher. Throughout my graceful yoga career, I’ve thrown my back and hip out, sneezed so hard I once pulled a rib out of place, had whiplash from a car accident, tripped over my own two feet, and banged into every piece of furniture within a two foot radius of me. Most recently, I’ve had a body that feels like it’s made out of twigs due to an allergic reaction to a medication. What gives?

Yoga has a funny way of teaching us what we need to learn… even if it means sometimes backing off from our yoga practice. Recently I practiced handstands and arm balances when my body was not quite healed enough to accommodate them. I knew this, yet my ego got the best of me and I tried to muscle through it. The next day I was rewarded with stiffness and pain, and I sheepishly realized that I too am guilty of the same issues I try to steer my students away from.

Yoga is many things – not just asanas (physical postures). A yoga practice can be finding awareness while peeling an orange, listening to your breath as you walk, chanting mantras or simply turning inwards and tuning into yourself. Part of your practice is learning and accepting what is appropriate for you in each and every moment, knowing that your reality shifts from day to day.

As with many things in life, your greatest challenges become your greatest assets. An injured body teaches us to slow down and find a practice that is strong yet soft, sustainable and joyful… and isn’t that the real point of yoga?


Stressed? Try Yogic Breathing.

Of the many elements that help to comprise a yoga practice – physical postures, breathing, mantra, visualization and meditation – it is arguable that yogic breathing is the most profound. Breath links us to the deepest parts of ourselves, and is indeed the foundation of our life. As we leave the comfort of our mother’s womb, the doctor’s slap on the back forces us to take our first gasp of breath – a single breath that has enough force to reverse our blood flow and start us down our path in the unknown, outside world.

In the yogic tradition, breathing techniques are referred to as pranayama. Prana translates into breath – but it is far more than that. Similar to the Chinese term Chi, prana is not only our breath, but our life force. It is all that underpins our actual existence. It encompasses our circulation, metabolism, digestion and the more undefinable energetic force that underlies all of our actions. The word yama translates into control. Pranayama is our conscious way of directing and focusing that life force energy in the body.

One doesn’t have to stretch the imagination too far to see how our breathing affects us in daily life. If you think back to a time in which you were shocked, you may have found that you held your breath -- or maybe when anxious, your breath became shallow and rapid. If we are depressed we often sigh aloud, trying to release the oppressive energy within us. Breath is the seat of our emotion.

When we are under stress and our emotions run amok, it often creates the “fight or flight” response in the body, firing up our sympathetic nervous system. We produce adrenaline, our hormones go haywire – essentially we gear up for a fight. The problem is, many of us walk around in this state of anxiety and tension all day – without ever letting go of “the fight”. Yogic breathing can shift us back into balance. A simple long, deep breath can do wonders – stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, or what is known as the “relaxation response” in the body. Learning how to control the breath is key in stress relief.

The next time you find yourself stressed or anxious, try experimenting with these simple pranayama:

Left nostril breathing: Sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair. Block off your right nostril with your thumb and breathe long and deep through your left nostril for 1-3 minutes. This helps to slow down the mind and body, and is also great for insomnia.

Anti-anxiety breathing: Sit comfortably or lie down on your back. Inhale through your nose, and exhale through a rounded mouth. Then inhale through a rounded mouth (as though you are sipping through a straw) and exhale through your nose. Continue for three minutes.

Try to become very present with your breath as you practice these two pranayama exercises. As you become more attuned to the subtleties in your breath, you can see how you can affect both your physical and mental well being with your breath.