• Yin Yoga: Who Needs It?

    A flow class will get your juices flowing, a restorative class will bring you to a state of deep relaxation, and a yin class will make you ache. Fun, right?  Yin and Yang are two parts of a beautiful whole but most of us are robbing ourselves of half of the gifts that yoga has to offer. I am a huge fan of Yin yoga and want to share it with as many students as I can, and even better, train more teachers to teach it. But I didn’t always love it. In fact, for a time, I really hated it.

    Perhaps you’re indifferent, skeptical, or have convinced yourself that you don’t need or like Yin yoga. I hope that the seeds I plant here might get you to consider working Yin yoga into your regular practice for a month or two to see if you start to feel like you’ve tapped into something really big and incredibly healing. Maybe you’ll even decide to train to teach Yin yoga to others.

    My Yin Yoga Journey

    My first introduction to Yin was in what was supposed to be a restorative class with a beloved teacher in my early yoga days. We always ended with a long restorative pose or supported savasana, but the rest of the class was a pretty intense Yin practice, and that’s exactly the way I liked it.  This practice, and this teacher, saw me through an auto-immune disease diagnosis, a cancer diagnosis, and treatment. After surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy for breast cancer, my body was wrecked. That’s the point, right? Chemotherapy lays to waste everything from the inside out. It’s a rough journey. An incredibly painful one. But it was worth it, because here I am, nine years later. I practiced yoga as I could during treatment, but the cumulative effect was harsh, and my physical recuperation took more than a year after treatment ended. During that time, I leaned into Yin yoga a lot. Naturally flexible, it had always been a go-to for me, and some days I just couldn’t muster the strength it took to take even a heavily modified flow class. I understood that my muscles weakened during treatment, so the many months it took to even attempt a modified chaturanga were not in the least bit frustrating.

    I knew I had to rebuild strength, so I just kept at it as energy allowed.  But I didn’t understand the effect of chemotherapy on my joints and connective tissue. No one talked about that. Not my doctors, not my yoga teacher, not my acupuncturist. It seems obvious now, but really, how much do we pay attention to the strength and vitality of our joint tissue? Injured athletes pay attention. Pregnant women pay attention, for a time. Those with RA and other joint-related chronic illness pay attention. The newer trends of functional mobility exercise pay attention now. But nine years ago? Not so much. So what happened to turn me from love to hate to love again in my yin yoga practice? During my cancer treatment recovery, I went way beyond the limits of my joints in deep, long-held pigeon poses, twists, folds, backbends, and hamstring stretches that were even more accessible to me with weakened, thinned joint tissue throughout my whole body. Most painfully, I damaged my SI joint and herniated a disc which sent ripples through my torso and legs and debilitated me just as I was starting to notice more strength overall. It was a physically painful and emotional setback that took months to recover from. Fast forward through three years of an increasingly strong vinyasa flow practice and I found myself in yoga teacher training. I couldn’t get enough yoga. The anatomy, the philosophy, the practice. It was a magical time. Until we got to Yin yoga week.

    One of my teachers seemed surprised and shocked to see me raise my hand in the “hate Yin yoga” camp. I assume it was because I was naturally flexible and seemed to find the poses relatively easy, but I’m not sure. I never asked him why. I did give him my reasons, though: debilitating injury not completely healed and fear of making it worse. His answer to this shocked me. Yes, he said, these are injuries that you will have the rest of your life. What?! I have a defiantly independent feminist streak in me and although I didn’t say it out loud at the time all I could think was NO, I don’t accept that. This person is not going to tell me that I’m broken. Of course, we’re all broken in some ways, but that wasn’t the point. The point, at the time, was that I knew that there must be more resources out there and it was time for me to do some deeper healing. So I asked around to other yoga teachers and physical therapists and found ways to strengthen around the damaged, weakened connective tissue to find a better balance of strength. Those spots are still vulnerable, of course. But nothing like what they were, even at the height of my strength in athletic style yoga practice. With years of both Yin and Yang practice since that time, I have found ways to work with chronic illness and injury along with a desire and need for strength and athletic conditioning.

    The Physical Practice

    Yin yoga is a complementary practice to the more active and athletic Yang style yoga (Iyengar, Ashtanga, Power yoga, Vinyasa, Hatha). In Yang styles, we focus on contraction of muscles to stimulate, strengthen, and stretch. In Yin yoga, we focus on the dense connective tissues around and within muscles and joints to stretch and strengthen. Our objective in a Yin practice is to stimulate, strengthen and revive tissues that are less emphasized in the active styles of yoga. We move the body into a Yin yoga pose where we stay, passively, while feeling a moderate sensation. We relax and find relative stillness, holding the position for 3 to 10 minutes.  We stimulate dense connective tissue (bones, cartilage, fascia, tendons, ligaments, blood, fat, lymph) to promote its strength and vitality and to hydrate and revive it.

    Those knots in your neck and shoulders aren’t just muscle, but contracted fascia. Likewise with those “tight” and shortened hamstrings: you can try to lengthen the muscle all you want, but if the fascia is contracted and dehydrated, you will return to the same, shortened resting length over and over again.  You get to choose how deeply you go into a yin yoga pose, just as you choose to use 50%, 80%, 100% of your strength and concentration in a power flow class. But in Yin yoga, we slow it way down and keep reminding ourselves to go for the moderate sensation, not beyond. Holding a 10 minute pigeon is no joke, and if you start way beyond your edge, you’ll injure yourself quickly. If you stick with the moderate ache, you will see over time that the range of mobility changes. And even after one class of moderate aching, you will feel freer, lighter, clearer energetically almost immediately.

    Subtle Body Effects

    If connective tissue is, as many energy workers suggest, the biological substratum through which energy flows and communicates within the body, a Yin yoga practice that focuses on the connective tissue promotes energetic circulation and flow. As yogis, we often experience emotional release in our practice. We understand through experience that with or without scientific research, our tissues hold unprocessed emotion. Movement in and out of poses in an active practice as well as long holds using compression, tension, and stretching in a still,

    Yin yoga practice unlock pathways for our emotions to emerge and release. Consider also the mental aspect of your yoga practice. In an active practice, we are asked to concentrate and focus on our breath while tuning into physical sensation. We’re often reminded that yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind, and too often, that translates in practice to controlling the mind. In a Yin practice, we are asked to be receptive, to increase our capacity for receptivity, to allow for what is, and to cultivate inaction.

    Isn’t Yin Yoga Worth A Try?

    Fluidity in movement, better coordination, stronger joints, body awareness, less injury, emotional release, mental receptivity and clarity. Aren’t each of these benefits of Yin yoga worth an investment of your time? As my personal practice and teaching continues through the years, awareness of Yin and Yang imbalance has become my focus when deciding how to practice each day. Some days I need a strong sweat and strengthening, some days I need release and stillness, and some days I need both. I’m guessing you are the same, so I invite you to build Yin yoga practice into your regular weekly schedule and tap into this powerful other half of yoga.

    By Jennifer Winther

    Jennifer Winther. LA based Yoga Teacher Trainer. Retreat leader. PhD. Writer. Traveler. Camper. Hiker. Walker. Cyclist. Meditator. Breast cancer survivor. Motherless mother. Karateka. Libra. Art Lover. Creative dabbler. Bi-racial hapa. Scout leader. Community builder. Novice chef. Advocate. Ally. Community member YBIC. Badass ninja mom.  @JenniferWintherYoga

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.

  • For Yogis with Chronic Illness or Cancer

    In the spring of 2011 I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I was really lucky. Not only did I catch an aggressive form of cancer just before it started to spread, I also had a supportive yoga teacher and community already in place.

    My world came to a standstill when I learned the diagnosis. Actually, a tailspin is more like it. Whatever my everyday life was, that disappeared. What I experienced was constant and intense fear and anxiety at the deepest levels, fueled in part by the trauma of losing my own mother to cancer when she was my age and I was only 11 years old. I remember telling a friend that I should never have had children because now they will lose their mother just like I did. I had spent the last 30 years with “40 = cancer = death” etched in my heart and soul, and then there I was.

    Over the year and a half preceding my diagnosis, I had been practicing regularly with a very special teacher. When we met, I had recently been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease (an autoimmune disease that was knocking out my thyroid) and this teacher seemed to know exactly what I needed to hear. Sprinkled into her delightfully sweaty and athletic yoga sequences were words that sparked my curiosity and touched my heart. Her yin and restorative classes reset every part of me like nothing I had ever experienced. After classes, she would often sit with me and go a little deeper into chakras, koshas, and ayurvedic elements. With her guidance, I became much more in tune with my own, inner resources and healing power, and more importantly, I became willing to face what needed to be healed inside me.

    When the cancer diagnosis came crashing down, my teacher was determined to get me as strong as possible before the long months of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy started. During treatment and after, this teacher cared for me in the best ways she knew. Some things were just right, but we made a few mistakes, too. Now a full-time yoga teacher and teacher trainer myself, I’m honored to guide others living with chronic illness or going through cancer treatment drawing on both advanced training and years of personal experience. While chronic illness and cancer treatment are different conditions, many of the same guidelines of practice apply.

    In my own journey through chronic illness and cancer, my yoga community has been an important anchor in my life. Not only has my yoga practice connected me to generous and supportive people, it has taught me more about illness and healing from the inside out.

    My yoga practice continues to change year to year, month to month, and day to day and I encourage you to let yours evolve and change, too. We all age differently, and with chronic illness or a cancer diagnosis, our bodies may seem a lot older than they are. That can be frustrating, but yoga teaches us to respect our bodies, love them, and do no harm. Even at your fittest, there is never a need to compete for the fanciest pose or the deepest stretch. We work with what we have and start where we are, each time we practice. Chronic illness and cancer survivorship continue to teach me to turn away from self-criticism for what I can’t do and in favor of the powerful healing that my body is guiding me toward.

    Honor your energy level each time you choose to practice

    Practicing with an experienced and knowledgeable teacher is always recommended, and if you find the right one, s/he/they will be guiding you always to learn to hear your own inner teacher. Remember that if you are going through chemotherapy, your joint tissue as well as your muscles are affected, and you may be hypermobile in your joints similar to women who are pregnant. Going too far in stretches when the joint tissue is very weak is strongly discouraged.

    With a teacher or on your own, use these energetic, moderate, and gentle movements as an opportunity to notice the before and after, the shift in your energy physically, mentally, and emotionally. Choose just one at a time or string them together to suit your needs.

    Yoga for Fatigue:

    Studies show that even just a little bit of mindful movement can help energize us. Less minutes more times per week have a greater effect in blasting fatigue, so it’s important to change it up during the week if you get easily bored with repetition. And remember, a little inversion goes a long way!

    • Energetic: Sun Salutations (modify as you like; as few as five can do the trick! And a mala of 108 is almost sure to get you out of any funk you can create)
    • Moderate: Seated or standing forward fold to open the energy channels on the back of the body followed by a seated twist (if you like, go for double pigeon with a folding prayer twist to rest your elbow in the arch of your top foot).
    • Gentle: Viparita Karani (legs up the wall, props or no props) for 15 minutes

    Yoga to Reduce Inflammation:

    Stretching helps stimulate the healing process to combat inflammation, so get into those joints as much as you can tolerate. Chair stretches work just as well as more athletic versions of poses if what you’re going for is stimulating joint tissue and stretching, so use all the props that you need.

    • Energetic: Sanding forward fold followed by downward facing dog. Take your time in these poses to lengthen, strengthen, and release where you can. Next: camel pose, flow into it if you need to then hold or do a few rounds, always keeping your lower spine long, your breath expansive, and your shoulders drawn away from your ears. Take a childs pose to reset.
    • Moderate: Lizard pose variations to target the stretched hip flexor (stretch the back toes back and keep the spine upright and lifting with props under hands), the compressed hip flexor (get low and sink into it a bit), the inner thigh (open it up) and the spine (one hand down, open it up into a twist)
    • Gentle: Supported reclined bound angle pose for 15 minutes

    Yoga to Stimulate the Lymphatic System:

    Lymph does not flow automatically like blood does but we need it to move those white blood cells around to help the body get rid of toxins and waste. Yoga poses and sequences that stretch and compress major clusters of lymph nodes (leg-hip joint; armpits; cervical spine) do just that.

    • Energetic: shift between low lunges with one knee down to half splits; move with each breath or hold each for a few breaths, alternating between the two poses for up to 5 sets of 5 on each side. Let the arms rise with each lunge and the spine lengthen in each half splits. On the last lunge of each set, interlace your hands behind your lower back and pause, breathing deeply with a long spine and strong core for 5 breaths before resting between sets. Follow this sequence with neck stretches, neck rolls, or a neck massage.
    • Moderate: self-healing Qigong tapping is a fantastic complement to a regular yoga practice.
    • Gentle: Supported child’s pose for 15 minutes (use all the bolsters, blocks, and blankets that you like)

    Nervous system:

    For cancer survivors, regular monitoring appointments can bring on mild to severe anxiety. We’ve lived through watershed moments when our mortality is brought right in front of our eyes and when our lives change in an instant. Healing from trauma over time includes regular testing that can trigger fears of death and anxiety. Many who suffer from chronic illness or past trauma experience anxiety and other conditions that compound any physical symptoms. When repeated stress becomes chronic, our sympathetic nervous system stays on and floods the body with hormones that overtax just about every other system. Shifting into the restful parasympathetic nervous system is an essential part of our healing and rejuvenation.

    • Energetic: Goddess pose squats with big arm movements to breathe and move the spine in all directions (lateral side stretches with one arm up and over the head followed by arms opening to the side on the inhale and forward on the exhale with flexion and extension of the spine). Follow a few sets of these big breaths with a standing straddle fold hold (but this whole sequence can be done in a seated straddle, too). If you enjoy the pose, try a reclined virasana before spending 10 minutes in savasana.
    • Moderate: flowing bridge pose up and down a few times before holding (supported on a block is OK, too), followed by supine twists and savasana
    • Gentle: Supported savasana with a bolster along the spine and two bolsters under the knees for at least 15 minutes

    However you decide to practice on any given day, let the principle of ahimsa, doing no harm, guide you. Listen to the cues in your body that ask for a little more or a little less. Whether you’re living with chronic illness, cancer treatment, or survivorship, your body, heart, and spirit are asking for you to care.

    Reach out for help when you need it. Advocate for yourself. Stay open to new knowledge from the outside and from within. Learn to respect the way that your body is trying to guide you and give yourself a yoga break to rejuvenate and reset whenever you can.

    By Jennifer Winther

    Jennifer Winther. LA based Yoga Teacher Trainer. Retreat leader. PhD. Writer. Traveler. Camper. Hiker. Walker. Cyclist. Meditator. Breast cancer survivor. Motherless mother. Karateka. Libra. Art Lover. Creative dabbler. Bi-racial hapa. Scout leader. Community builder. Novice chef. Advocate. Ally. Community member YBIC. Badass ninja mom.  @JenniferWintherYoga

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.

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  • It’s Time to Make Peace with Your Hormones

    PMS making you crazy? Hot flashes? Anxiety? As women, our amazing and beautiful bodies take us on rides that sometimes feel empowering and strong, and sometimes like an out-of-control circus ride.

    Since our pre-teen years, we’ve heard, read, and used “Hormones” with a capital H as an excuse for erratic behavior, poor decision-making, physical “imperfections” and generally anything that we’ve done that we don’t want to take responsibility for.  OK, maybe it’s not quite that bad, but let’s be honest: do you love and respect, or loathe and despair over your hormones and the waves they bring?

    Straight up: Hormones are our internal chemical messengers that keep our bodies moving. More than 200 hormones have been identified in the human body that include testosterone, progesterone, estrogen, adrenaline, insulin, and cortisol. We need to start recognizing all of the ways that they work FOR us in addition to the not-so-fun ways.

    Feeling hungry? Your hormones are working.

    Feeling sleepy? Hormones.

    Feeling scared? Hormones.

    Growth spurt in your youth? Hormones.

    Runner’s high? Hormones.

    Pregnancy glow? Hormones.

    Why do guys put on muscle more easily or lose weight more quickly? Hormones.

    Your Hormones are working for you. We all know the prescriptions for increasing those lovely, happy hormones: intense exercise, hugging, laughing, aromatherapy, sunshine, sex, eating spicy foods. Yes. They all work. We know what they feel like when they kick in, and we pretty easily surrender to the wave of positive hormones to ride it as long as we can. We like feeling good, right?

    How does that differ from the way we meet the less-delightful waves of hormones? The spikes and dives? What if we could find a way to meet “negative” hormonal imbalance with just enough surrender to stop fighting and allow ourselves to feel our way to the shortest path back to balance?

    The beautiful martial art of Aikido illustrates how I’m trying to approach my own hormonal waves, whether they’re going up or down. See what you think: Aikido is a practice that always involves two people. Any strike from one person aims to put the opponent off balance without harming too much. A controlled attack is met with calmness and flexibility as the receiver seeks to regain balance and cover vulnerabilities. The attacks keep coming, and in advanced training, they are met with reversal techniques.

    There is a true engagement between opponents to understand the energy and movement of what is coming and going, what is off-balance, what is vulnerable, where there is strength, movement, or potential, and how to feel and respond to an energetic path to find balance.

    What do you think? Could you imagine yourself meeting the lows or spikes of hormone waves calmly? With curiosity and flexibility? Even compassion? Could you approach a spike of anxiety, hot flashes, or a week of PMS with an intention to see your vulnerabilities, strengths, and potential to find balance?

    What Aikido suggests to us is that we can work with the movement and energy of hormonal waves just as we would an opponent that we respect and are willing to engage. If we are willing to give ourselves a pause before the fight begins, we could tune into the energy and movement of our hormonal waves and meet them with calmness and flexibility to regain (an always changing) balance.

    If you’re like me, your relationship to hormonal waves on the inside has produced the outward expressions of fight, flee, freeze, ignore, make excuses or blame, accuse, or lash out. Wouldn’t it feel terrific to make friends with our hormones instead?

    At Home and In Public

    Hormonal shifts don’t just happen when we’re off the job, relaxing at home, or in any of those “free time” moments. Take a moment to think about how you have approached these hormonal imbalances when they rear their ugly heads:

    • PMS
    • Irregular periods
    • Low libido
    • Unexplained weight loss or gain
    • Hair loss
    • Digestive issues
    • Chronic acne
    • Insomnia
    • Fatigue
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
    • Mood swings

    Do you handle them differently when you’re at work, at school, getting ready for a public talk, going out to meet friends, or waking up on a weekend? Thinking about how we respond to inevitable waves of hormones in different situations gives us clues to start to realign our relationship with them.

    Six easy strategies to get to know your hormones

    Self-monitor

    For a week at a time, keep a journal or scribble on post-its, it doesn’t matter, just write it down. How do you feel physically when you wake? Emotionally? Are you motivated? Bloated? Anxious? Energetic? How about mid-morning? Before/after lunch? However many times during the day it’s helpful for you, jot down how you feel physically, emotionally, mentally. Tune in. Use a 1-10 scale or just jot down words. Whatever works for you is right. Commit to a week and go longer if you can. Look for patterns.

    Keep a monthly cycle journal

    PMS symptoms, moods, physical changes, all of it. Start to notice patterns. Make sure to give yourself some mood-boosting music, movement, creativity, stimulation when you know you’re going to need it.

    Elimination approach to healing your gut

    Your gut health is tied to your mental and emotional health. To better manage the ups and downs, cut out or reduce caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and salt. Yeah, this is tough, but even a small change can have a big effect. Do this with loads of self-compassion to see if a little less sugar at different times in your monthly cycle or before/after deadlines really can make a difference. No need to go overboard here, you’re trying to understand an intricately interwoven puzzle, so don’t forget to love yourself while you learn. Probiotics are a great first step, too, but remember that one size does not fit all and you may need to try a few before you find one that is right for you.

    Start an exercise habit

    Do what you like, not what you hate. Do something that doesn’t cost money. Schedule it three times a week or more in times that will actually work for you. Prioritize enjoyment and starting a habit over weight loss or gain. Your lymphatic system (immune system) needs movement to function (yoga is awesome for this, as are many forms of martial arts).

    Words to live by

    A daily mantra can work wonders. Or a habit-busting mantra. Or a PMS/hot-flash mantra. Or a theme for your week/end. Remember that your body, heart, and mind hear everything you say to yourself, so give yourself some verbal cues (silent if you want to) that make you THRIVE.

    Opt outside

    Nature heals and brings us back into balance. Get some sunshine. Move a bit. On your own or with a friend. Walking meditation, triathlon training, cliff hiking, or park bench meditation. Go get your dose of Vitamin D and fresh air. It may not erase every problem or ailment, but it helps. It really does. And it’s free.

    Feather your nest

    Make your bed the most soothing, relaxing, delightfully restful place in your world. Look forward to rejuvenating yourself for at least 8 hours (or more) every night. Your time resting is your body’s time to restore by aligning hormones. Make this your top priority.

    Stronger together

    Painful menstrual cramps, anxiety, fatigue, and any other hormonal imbalances draw us into ourselves because we experience them physically, emotionally, and mentally in our own bodies. But they needn’t trigger a response that isolates us from the support that we need and deserve.

    ALL women experience natural waves of hormonal shifts that whack our systems out of balance even if we don’t suffer from depression, chronic acne, or live through pregnancy and postpartum hormonal swings.

    Periods, perimenopause, and menopause. These are the big three hormone-driven changes that we all experience as women. And they are no joke. And for more than most realize, thyroid imbalance and autoimmune disease often get confused with perimenopause in women over 50.

    Whether you’ve lived through pregnancy or periods, you’ve felt the very real power of hormones affecting your mood, your digestive system, your breasts, and your weight. And more likely than not, you’ve suffered alone more than you’ve been supported. Asking for support can be hard, but like most things, it just takes practice.

    Here are ways that you can start to get support by giving it:

    Get a period friend

    That monthly cycle journal you’re starting? Get a friend to start one too. Compare notes, share stories and strategies. Promise each other to give up sugar/caffeine/salt/alcohol together for however many days will get BOTH of you through your PMS/bleeding cycles. Finding individual hormonal balancing strategies will take some trial and error for each of you but you don’t have to do it alone!

    Reject the comparison game. Together.

    This is a big one. And so powerful. Make a pact with a friend to stop the comparison madness. This means ditching the commentary about other’s bodies. It means encouraging each other to go gray and age naturally. It means taking the competition out of physical activity and the idea that one diet fits all. It means rejecting any “going back to my pre-pregnancy body” or “anti-aging” anything. Why? Because the work we have to do is on the inside of our own bodies at whatever stage of life we are in, whatever the hour of the day, time of month, or hormonal wave we are riding in the moment. Hold each other to higher standards that reflect the awe and respect that you have for your amazing bodies exactly as they are each day without looking forward, back, or to the sides.

    Normalize Women’s hormonal health and life stages

    Educate yourself and talk with your friends about women’s hormonal health. Learn together about how powerful older women are, and what their hormonal challenges are. Contribute, if you can, to campaigns that work to bring menstrual hygiene supplies to those who can’t afford them.

    Be the auntie that splurges on expensive period panties for her nieces. Fight alongside women in your workplace for breast-feeding rooms, maternity leave, paid mental health leave, and flexible schedules.

    It’s time to make peace with our hormones. They’re not going anywhere. Our relationships, workplaces, and personal health depend on how well we can manage the waves that will keep coming. Give yourself time, set your priorities, and team up for better hormonal health.

    By Jennifer Winther

    Jennifer Winther. LA based Yoga Teacher Trainer. Retreat leader. PhD. Writer. Traveler. Camper. Hiker. Walker. Cyclist. Meditator. Breast cancer survivor. Motherless mother. Karateka. Libra. Art Lover. Creative dabbler. Bi-racial hapa. Scout leader. Community builder. Novice chef. Advocate. Ally. Community member YBIC. Badass ninja mom.  @JenniferWintherYoga

    NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.