EPISODE 57
Shoulder Stand Safe for Neck?

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Danny asks:

My mother-in-law is undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. Is there any diet or simple asanas she can observe?

A lot of people are trying to or using yoga, in terms of therapeutic uses. I think, personally, it’s a little bit risky to assign specific poses and specific diets, just kind of wily nily. In terms of cancer diets, in terms of what people do, there’s a woman named Kris Carr, who has a website called Crazy Sexy Cancer, which is all about her natural treatment of her cancer, and that might be a good place to start.

As a general rule, people usually get really, really heavy on raw, plant-based foods, but again, everybody’s body is different and some people might tolerate that, some people might not. But as a general rule, if we were going to talk in terms of broad strokes and generally accepted approaches, a lot of people do a really high, raw approach, primarily due to the high antioxidants and really rich nutrients, that for a number of obvious reasons, can be really helpful.

In terms of yoga poses, the best yoga poses are ones that your mother-in-law can manage. So if she has a yoga practice already, keeping going with what she’s doing. If she doesn’t have one, I’d start with something really simple. Start with like a beginner’s hatha yoga class, a 60 or a 90-minute public drop in class, and just see how she goes.

Just make sure she’s working with her doctor. Make sure her doctor says it’s okay, based on whatever medications there are. There are certain medications that she may or may not be on that may be contraindicated for yoga, so just make sure that she’s checking with her doctor.

Sheetal asks:

I am taking the YOGABODY Stretch (that’s our nutritional supplement for yoga students, one of our best sellers) 2 tabs in the morning and 2 capsules at 3 pm. I’ve been also practicing gravity yoga. Can you guide me regarding the stretching exercises?

Can I guide you? The best thing is it sounds like what you’re doing is right. Make sure you’re spending at least 15 minutes per day working through the series. Make sure you’re doing long-hold, progressive stretches. Make sure that you are timing your poses. You need to meet or beat your hold times in order to progress, and you should see results very quickly. If you don’t, chances are you’re doing something wrong. So check in with those factors. Make sure you’re doing everything right.

Rosaline asks:

When doing yoga, we inhale through the nose and exhale through the nose or the mouth?

This is a fantastic question. Mouth breathing is associated with all of the frenetic energetic states of our lives. So if we are physically threatened, if we are panicked, if we are on the verge of death, all of the really, really negative emotions that we experience in life or negative, really high-intensity states, are associated with mouth breathing. It’s very much a fight or flight survival mechanism. You open your mouth and you [making heavy breathing sound] and when people are hyperventilating they’ll give them a bag.

So nose breathing has a psychological, but also a physiological difference in how it affects your brain waves, how it affects your brain chemistry, how it affects the biochemical reactions in your body. With almost every state of calm, collective, loving, peaceful, meditative whatever, we’re talking nose breathing.

And so when we do yoga and we breathe through the nose, it’s one of the things that makes it very different from something like jogging. It makes it very, very different from something like running on an elliptical trainer or treadmill. It makes it very different from lifting weights, primarily because we have that mind/body connection through the breath.

Nose breathing works in some other physical practices, like Pilates for example. Even some people do jog very, very slowly, breathing through their nose, specifically to get that mind/body connection. And obviously people will do nose breathing in things like qigong and tai chi and things like this. So the nose breathing is really, really essential.

Now the exhale, interestingly enough, is almost always through the nose as well, but there are Pranayama classic, Pranayama breathing exercises where you breathe out through your nose, and there are also instances where it’s helpful in yoga practice to breathe out through your nose. Now it does have a different affect on your body. We teach it in gravity yoga. It’s often taught in Pilates, mat classes as well, in through the nose, out through the mouth.

And what it does is it breaks up the pattern of your breath, it allows you to relax deeper into poses. There is no right or wrong, in terms of how this works. I’ve just found it to be really helpful, when we’re teaching deep stretching gravity yoga poses. In a normal Vinyasa class, in a hatha yoga public class, we’ll always do nose breathing only.

But in terms of what happens to your body, it’s very, very different when you breathe through your nose. So for example, people who have trouble sleeping through the night, almost always they’re mouth breathers. They’re breathing through their mouth. And one of the very first things that you do if you have trouble sleeping through the night, and I have a lot of experience with this, I’m a chronic bad sleeper, is you take a band-aid or a plaster and you tape your mouth closed so that you breathe only through your nose. And that, for most people, immediately improves the quality of their sleep.

Because again, whether you’re breathing through your nose or your mouth is associated on a psychological but also a physiological level, with different brain wave states. And so you should never, ever discredit the importance of breathing through your nose. It’s absolutely vital.

Antti asks:

I’m holding all the poses for five minutes. Regardless, it feels as if I am not proceeding as well as I should. Should the movements be faster, should I flex my muscles when I’m moving from pose to pose in order to warm up better?

Antti, I would keep doing what you’re doing. In terms of flexing your muscles between poses, it seems like you have a pretty good body awareness. If that works for you, do that. I don’t think that’s going to make a big difference. If you’re already holding poses for five minutes and you’re not feeling challenged by it, it’s very possible that maybe you’re already quite open and maybe the flexibility gains that you get from the gravity yoga series are not as significant as other people. That’s pretty rare. Most people notice pretty big challenges in all those poses, but if that’s the case, you could for sure start to do advanced variations.

I do not do regular yoga, with the exception of gravity poses. Should I start doing some hot yoga classes to further the benefits?

That’s really up to you. If you don’t do regular yoga classes, you can certainly do gravity yoga poses, and a lot, a lot of our students do that. They’re runners or they’re office people or they’re mixed martial artists or whatever, and they’re using gravity yoga to supplement and to increase their flexibility for whatever other activity they’re into.

It really just depends on what kind of benefits you’re looking for. If you’re purely looking for flexibility benefits, long-hold, passive poses are going to give you the fastest and the most affective results. If you’re looking for the overall mind/body health effects of yoga, which I wholeheartedly promote and teach and practice, then for sure going to public classes are great. Hot yoga is a great entry point, but any style of yoga can be fantastic, everything from a Sivananda to a power yoga, to like you said a hot yoga class.

Herbert asks:

I wish to know about the yoga trapeze. Would I be able to do a shoulder stand at approximately 70 to 75 degree angles, supported by the yoga trapeze, without slipping out?

The answer to that, Herbert, is yeah, probably. I would not recommend that. Shoulder stand, for those of you who don’t know, is like doing a headstand but you do it on your shoulders. It’s one of the most awkward poses in yoga. No matter how long you do it, it’s still just kind of awkward. Your chin is against your chest, and you’re balancing on your shoulders.

I’m not an advocate of variations in shoulder stand. People do a lot of propping and a lot of different things. I think it’s a little bit dangerous. I’m guessing since you have this specific idea of 70 to 75 degree angle, I’m guessing you have something going on with your cervical spine and somebody recommended that to you. That might be good advice, I’m not sure.

I would not recommend doing any kind of supported shoulder stand. I never recommend supported headstands either. Supported handstands are fine, but supported headstands, meaning head’s on the floor, feet are up a wall, or supported shoulder stand, same thing, using a trapeze or a teacher or a wall, I never, ever recommend that. The reason being, is aside from just using muscular strength, like a handstand does, you have a fair amount of pressure on your spine and you can get yourself into trouble.

if you’re doing freestanding shoulder stands, away from the wall, away from a teacher, without any support, if you’re doing freestanding headstands, same deal. Away from the wall, without a teacher helping you get up. I’ve never had a single person have any kind of problems with their neck or pushing themselves too far, but I’ve seen many, many cases where people are using props or teachers or the wall to come up before they’re ready or to stay up too long. It’s a very easy way to create problems, specifically in your cervical spine.

So, Herbert, you probably can do that. That makes me nervous. It sounds like you know what you’re doing though, so I would say maybe.

Ray asks:

I’ve been doing the butterfly for 30 years or more, 7 days a week, and I still can barely touch my fingertips to the ground. Am I just a freak of nature?

Okay, so butterfly pose, you’re sitting on the floor, bring the soles of your feet together in front of you, your knees out at the sides. Ray, if you’ve really been doing this every day for 30 years and you can barely touch your fingertips to the floor, you’re doing something wrong, for sure.

Now keep in mind that this pose in particular is really challenging. If you can barely touch your fingertips to the floor, then your hips are pretty tight. So you might just try doing a different pose, like focusing on the blaster pose, focusing on pigeon pose, it’s often called, you can do that passively.

I’d try doing some other poses, but for 30 years, for sure, you should be putting your chin or your chest down on the floor. And if you’re not, you’re either stretching too short or you’re doing something with your stretching that’s not quite right or you have some kind of nutritional or nervous system thing that’s causing a problem. But yeah, you should be getting better results. I’d take a look at your process and see if you can just follow the simple rules of eating right, meeting or beating your hold times, making sure you’re passive in your stretches when you’re trying to increase flexibility, meaning body completely relaxed, and hopefully within 30 days you can get more results than you’ve gotten in 30 years.