therapuetic yoga

Blessed be the cracked, the weary, the sore. Yoga and pain.

12 years ago I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.  This was not helpful. The diagnosis was this: you hurt, you have brain difficulty, there are questionable and various causes, it will always be this way.  My response: no shit, thanks much.

My pain - breaking, physical, unexplained - ran right alongside my depression - breaking, physical, consuming.  It was and is entirely possible that I do not have fibro, but my symptoms are caused by my major depression.  Or that I have fibro, for whatever reason, and this has played a role in my depression.  Throw in active alcoholism and I was just plain broken.  Why would I take up the diagnosis of chronic pain when I already lived with the chronic depression and the chemicals?  I didn't.  Other than to know in the back of my head that body, brain, pain are things I seem unable to explain to others.  That medicine has no very good answers.

And that from the earliest days of my yoga practice I began to feel better.collage  Not cured.  Not fixed.  But breathy and sweaty and tolerable.

Some days, though, I hurt profoundly.  I hurt like my muscles have been soaked in battery acid and my bones are ashy.  I hurt, today.

I want to write about pain, and yoga, but I'm not exactly sure how.  If you look for answers or help, you are hit with a daunting arrayof 'conquer the pain' and 'pain free' and 'beat the pain forever' palaver and self help books.  These set you on a cycle of hope and deeper despair when they don't work.  If you talk to doctors, you are overwhelmed with inadequate answers and the frightening realization that medicine doesn't know much and won't necessarily help you.  More despair.  I do not want to contribute to that cycle.

I don't want to say yoga will make the pain go away.  But it does help.  It can.

Three days ago, at the tail end of my teaching week, I came home exhausted and having a hard time thinking clearly.  I tried to list to myself the errands.  I tried to gather the laundry.  I began to cry.  It was too much, I was too tired, I could not do laundry.

Go ahead.  Say that's melodrama.

I eventually did do the laundry.  Not that day.  But I did it.  And walked around like a cripple, using chairs and walls and countertops to support me, hunched like a centenarian, placing my fingers and feet gingerly.  I started to berate myself.  Myself, yoga teacher.  Myself, woman who stands in front of the room and glides through sun salutations.  Myself, crying because the bed hurts.  Sound hurts.  Clothing hurts.

Whatever.  I limped through it.  I worked harder.  I recognized I wasn't eating very well, but shrugged it off because at least I was eating.  I woke up and wanted to sleep.   To sleep for days.  I 'conquered' tasks in two minute segments followed by half hour cringes.

Yesterday, I went to a family thing.  I hurt.  I held my niece, I laughed with cousins.  We joked about the spring that doesn't seem to come.  On the drive home, battling my tiny car over roads that were blown with icy snow, I hurt more and more.  I couldn't move my wrists well.  My shoulders burned.  And my spine felt like it was breaking, down along each vertebrae.  I stopped the car, stood as best I could and stretched, then drove again.  I stopped, I cried and cussed, then drove again.  I stopped, used both hands to heft myself out of the driver's seat, laboriously set both feet on the highway, held the car with both hands, and vomited because it hurt.  I don't know what hurt.  All.

I want to remove limbs.  I shake.  I want whiskey.  I want cigarettes.  This is stupid; I haven't had a drink in four years.  But I want it, just the same.

In the vernacular of chronic pain, this is a 'flare up'.


Somehow, though, it is okay.  It's too familiar.  I know it, by now.   And I knew, sitting crouched alongside a tiny blue car in the middle of a snow ice storm on a landscape blown to invisible, that I want to write about it for all those students who have told me about pain, too.  I want to say it hurts like blinding light, the body seems rot and spoil, but it is okay.

I made it home, I slept for fifteen hours in a sleep that was more exhausting than nurturing.  And then I read some little checklist for fibro flare ups.  A possible causes kind of thing.

  • cold or wet winter weather
  • too much or too little physical activity
  • stess
  • poor sleep

Which is as unhelpful as was that original diagnosis.  But, honestly, true.  There I was in the middle of an ice blizzard, after having taught seventeen classes a week for months on end.  I'd just navigated my way through a move, tax season, and a few familial stresses which were okay, but emotional none the less.  And I don't get any more than four or five hours of sleep on any given weekday.  Check, check, and check.

Still, I say it's okay.  This is life.  I want more of it.

My theory that doesn't mean anything, unless you're in it

I say yoga works.  It works through breath, movement, system wide, meditation based, give us a reason to go on ways. I don't have the degree or the credential to say why.  But I have this body.  I can make it fly, sometimes.  My theory is that yoga works in ways nothing else will, but it will change your ideas about who you are and what life is.

There is a growing body of research that shows yoga and meditation can help with chronic pain.  For a long while, these studies suggested they help with 'coping', that is, they do not lessen the symptoms at all but give us some modicum of tolerance for what hurts like hell.  Now, though, studies are beginning to show that symptoms themselves may be reduced.

Most studies suggest restorative and gentle yoga.  I believe in restorative and gentle yoga.  I believe there is a style and appropriate yoga for any body.  For me, however, a stronger, sweatier, more intense practice is downright crucial.  I need to go upside down.  I need to challenge the muscles, elongate the nerves.  When I don't for a day or two, 'symptoms' start popping up like ghosts.  I believe 'restorative and gentle' yoga are prescribed because most people don't have any experience with yoga.  If that's the case, it's a good place to start.

Yoga works with the breath.  Breath is immediatelyoxygen connected to the nervous system and the muscular-skeletal system.  Breathing as done in yoga speaks to our tissues and the formation of cells.  I'm not a scientist nor a doctor, but it seems to me those cells are fevered and over taxed and inflamed during pain; to breath as we do in yoga immediately turns on the parasympathetic nervous system, which facilitates healing, balance across our biochemical field, and the processes of healing, building, rejuvenation. Pain responds to the breath.

Nerves.  Oddly, pain doesn't happen in the brain but the experience of pain is considered to be mental, cognitive, brain based.  Let's skip the brain for a moment and go instead to the nerves.  The body scattered map as finely drawn as a universe.  Yoga stretches nerves (they stretch, just as muscle tissue does).  Yoga improves proprioceptive and reflex type things.  It is a way to recalibrate, soothe, and reconnect with reality - here and now demands on the body, sensation, awareness in space, texture and elongation and movement.  It improves communication between nerves and spine, nerves and brain, nerves and endocrine system, nerves and immune system, nerves and hormones.  If all of this is true, and 'pain' is a haywire backfire of those things, than yoga helps.

Inflammation.  Yogically speaking, any 'disease' or 'suffering' manifests somewhere in the body as inflammation.  Swelling, fever, indigestion.  Yogic practices alternately invert, compress, and massage us on a tissue and cellular level.  This processes the gunk of work outs, indigestion, stress hormones.  It directly stimulates improved circulation and lymphatic movement, promotes hormonal balance, begins to work through backlogs of old stress in the digestive and muscular and fascial networks.  Asthma, arthritis, anything rheumetoid is inflammation.  Studies have proven that yoga reduces inflammation.

Brain, but more than brain.  As a culture we roughly understand that depression, fear, wellbeing have something to do with neurotransmitters.  Serotonin, GABA, et al.  Some studies have shown that women have less serotonin then do men, and that fibro patients have serotonin deficiencies.  We tend to think of this stuff as brain based, and certainly they are.  But the stomach and digestive tract produce more serotonin than does the brain.  Our heart and psoas muscles seem to produce chemical reactions much like neural pathways.  And our fascial system, the base from which all chemical reactions across the body mind happen, conduits biochemical reactions in a way more nuanced and less understood than do the axons and dendrites of brain cells.  Again, yoga has been proven to balance mood, prbably balance chemicals, definitely to speak to the release of hormones.  So, if pain signals to the body have something to do with neurotransmitters and biochemical processes, then yoga helps.

Mind body. philosophy, gut experience.  There is something inarticulate about yoga.  At it's heart, it directly speaks to our human condition.  Somehow, it manages both to acknowledge and accept the limitations, sufferings, and pains we human beings face AND to give us a sense of freedom and resurrection.  Unlike self help books, miracle cures, and most religions, the philosophy and lived experience of yoga is an experience of grace under fire.  A strange blend of yes, it hurts to be human and to one day die, but living itself is precious.  There are thousands of books and memoirs about this.  Read those others.  I hurt to much to try to explain it just now, but I believe yoga has given me validation of my individual life and the experience of that individual life as rare and raw and beautiful.  It has given me the ability to face pain and love anyway.  Not to get over it, but to go through it.  And to feel, most days, as if I am dancing.

Let's make up a list of fifteen (that is arbitrary and random) things I know to be true: ie, tips and tricks, advice and how to, or just some tools you can cling to:

-When I teach students or answer questions about chronic pain (or, hey, weight loss or sore knees) I am often stuck: I cannot promise a danged thing.  I can't promise yoga will solve your infertility problems or that it will help you lose twenty pounds.  I can't promise the pain will go away or your knee will work.  But I usually do try to insist yoga will make it better.  This gets harder: most of us want a 'cure'.  We want three classes and then forever relief.  Yoga doesn't work that way.  Yoga will give you very specific things that will help.  But they are intended to be used.  If I do not practice for a few days in a row, the bad comes back.  If you want the yoga to work, you have to do the yoga.

- Consistency.  Don't go looking for a three hour yoga practice once a month, or fall into the yoga honeymoon of a season and then run away, or do the on again off again practice.  If you want to see what yoga is, do it every day.  It does not have to be much. It can be ten minutes.  But go for everyday.

-What kind of yoga.  Again, I believe there is a style of yoga for any and everyone.  Keep looking until you find a teacher who works for you, a style that works for you.  In group classes, DO NOT hesitate to make the practice your own and do wildly different styles than the rest of the room.  Most recommendations for chronic pain point to a gentle or restorative practice.  I can see the merit of this.  I know when I hurt like hell even gentle is near impossible.  However.  Those I know with chronic pain that has become manageable are people who manage it with Bikram yoga, running, Ashtanga yoga, or power yoga.  These are considered to be 'intense' or 'strong' forms of physical activities.  We can't do 100% all the time.  But we do push hard and do 'advanced' type things.  Don't assume that you can't do strong things - chances are you already do.  You've probably had children, or moved furniture at some point.  Having a diagnosis does not mean you can't do physical activity.  In my life, and those I know who have a grip on this pain thing, the intensity of a regular run or a hot yoga room is essential to our management.

-For some reason, movement helps.  Fascial studies are showing that a changing practice goes further than repetive, gym style movements.  Because 'trigger points' and fibro pain seems to have something to do with a pain 'remembered' though not actually really present in the moment, moving IN NEW WAYS and in different planes seems to ease and sooth and, for me, show me the parts of my body where pain is okay.  think of adding flowing movements, it doesn't have to be vinyasa but flowing from bridge to the floor, in addition to any repetitive (ie cycling, lifting, runner's movements).  Explore sensation, and find those that are good and interesting.  Try inversion, backbend, forward fold.  Do different things on different days.  Have favorites, but keep learning.  Relish the moments of 'hey, this is sweet'.

Food/supplement things that I've randomly found to work, and when I don't have, I will begin to slip:

-Avoid processed foods, refined flours and processed sugars.  Just do.  Do a little.  It gets easier.

-Eat more vegetables.  Three times more than you think.  Be aware that meat, dairy, wheat are all inflammatory and harder to digest.  Don't kick them, just balance them, and eat more green stuff.

-Figure out what 'inflammatory foods' and 'anti inflammatory foods' are.  Don't try to reinvent your kitchen.  Just try to add one of the soothers, notice if it's working, and add another.

-tumeric. you can find this in supplement form.  You can cook with it. I get the root at a little Vietnamese grocery and I put it in my juice.

-oral aloe vera.

-vitamins b and d.

-fish oil

-epsom salt baths.  lavender.  clove.  vertiver.

Blessed Be.

I do not like my pain.  I am too tired.  I want to teach, I want not to disappoint, I want to muscle through.

But, there is also a level on which my pains are acceptable.  They keep me honest.  They slow me down when I try to be too much to too many people, when I begin saying yes all the time.

And more than this, they have softened me to beauty and appreciation.  Yes, I hurt today.  But most days I'm playing with handstands, and able to teach others to play with handstands.  And I can cuss it all I want to, but it has given me a deep and abiding sympathy when I see the pain of others.  And the fact is, we all have pain, somewhere.  The fact is, we turn our lurching, mincing movements into dance.  We have to, or we get bitter and resentful and destructive.  Beethoven couldn't hear a thing when he composed his ode to joy.  The strongest people I know have survived things that would kill most animals.  And yet they hold children with a tenderness like the dawn creeping into the night sky.  They have bodies that hang together, against the odds.  They manage to get degrees, paint paintings, sing songs.

We are not perfect beings.  But we are good.

So I say blessed be the cracked, for they let the light in.  Blessed be the weary, for they are honest.  Blessed be the sore, for we are all sore, and we go on breathing anyway.














Jivan Mukti recap - my old 'emotional yoga' mission statement to self

jiva Buried in and central to yogic practices are ways of breathing, moving, and being that profoundly change the way we feel.  It doesn't merely change the way we feel in the moment or for the few hours afterwards - it changes the way we feel our feelings, think our thoughts, and experience our moods.  Science and medicine are proving, each day, what yogic science has known for a very long time: yoga changes our brains, our bodies, our hormones, and the way we think, feel, and process our experience, inner and outer.  Stress, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, grief, trauma, insomnia, eating disorders and addictions all respond powerfully.  Those with self esteem issues, childhood abuse issues, combat experience and sexual assault or trauma histories have all found healing on the mat that they may have given up on, elsewhere.  Yoga touches these very human experiences and changes them in ways medicine and traditional talk therapies simply can't.  It is one thing to understand our problems and to understand healing.  It is altogether different to feel change, beginning at the soles of your feet.

The practices of yoga began as a quest for that kind of healing and emotional well being.  What we think of as a physical practice or a form of meditation was actually a deep inquiry into the human condition.  Yogic sages knew human suffering just as we do, and their intention was to understand the human condition in order to  attain freedom, joy, and emotional balance.  The central archetype in yogic lore is the Jivan Mukti - or soul awake in this lifetime.

The Jivan Mukti expresses the idea that healing is possible.  But not healing in the way we usually think.  This isn't about coping skills, getting over it, or learning to let go.  It isn't even about returning to okay again.  The Jivan Mukti runs deeper.  Healing actually becomes a deeper sense of being alive.  Our grief becomes resonate with more compassion and a stronger sense of joy.  Our stress becomes our wisdom and our teacher.  Healing, passion, enthusiasm, attention, compassion, and love become deeply embodied.

Yoga as Therapy

Psychotherapy and medicine feature a rich collaborative relationship between client and therapist, or patient and doctor.  Both are eloquent in addressing mind and emotions, as well as physical health and disease.  Yoga bridges the science of body and mind.

The range of human emotion, mood, and cognitive ability cast a wide net, from panic attacks to joy to perfectionism.  Each and every one has some answer in yoga.  Western medicine and therapy are starting to prove the fact that mind and body interface in both subtle and obvious ways.  Our memories are held in our muscle structure.  Our emotions are stored across the physical field.  The feedback loop works both ways, so that our thoughts can change our body, but our body can also literally change our minds.  When we don't deal with the body, we leave out important parts of healing.

Many of the most basic human conditions are actually conditioned prior to our learning language.  We learn our core standards of trust, security, anger, how to self sooth, how to respond to fear, and self-worth long before the language parts of our brain have matured.  Additionally, traumatic experiences such as an assault, a fire, or even a serious illness are processed not in the language and rational parts of our brain, but in our instinctual, emotional, and spiritual selves.  The concept of neurotransmitters and their role in cognitive functioning and our general mood are common knowledge.  What is less well known but every day more evident is that similar 'neural pathways' and 'neurotransmitters' work in our spinal cord, our hearts, our fascia, and our muscle tissue.

For all of these reasons, it is strange to think that we could 'talk' or 'reason' ourselves into healing.  If our hurt, fear, stress, or memory is stored in the body, it only makes sense to believe healing should involve the whole body.

The Ways We Hurt

There is nothing wrong with feeling stressed, angry, depressed, or anxious.  These are a natural part of the human experience.  In fact, they are appropriate responses to the world we live in.

All of us, at one time or another, experience grief.  Anger is a natural and appropriate response to feeling violated in some way.  And stress, psychology has shown, is actually a motivating, strengthening, learning human response.  The problem is not that we feel these things.  It's that we become overwhelmed by them.  At times, it may seem that we experience so much fear, anger, or sadness that all other emotions lose their place.  At other times, we may be so overcome by the power of an emotion that we feel swept away, powerless, or dominated by whatever it is we are feeling.

We live in a stressful world.  The World Health Organization suggests that by 2015 depression will be the #1 health problem on our planet.  One in five persons struggles with some kind of depression disorder, and another one in five some kind of anxiety disorder.  Add to this chronic stress, multitasking, the pressure to have it all, and a cultural value system that emphasizes achievement and individualism over self-care and community. Emotional imbalance is more common to the human experience than emotional balance.

That imbalance manifests in thousands of different ways.  Low self-esteem, constant worry, insomnia, persistent body image issues, chronic pain, fatigue, compulsions, invasive thoughts, ruthless self criticism, and an underlying sense that there is something wrong are all terribly common.  'Terribly', both in the sense of being overwhelming in it's frequency, and 'terrible' in the way it actually feels and expresses itself in our lives.

Imbalance may come from core family issues, abusive relationships, stressed-out or absent parents, financial or social strain, poverty, spiritual alienation, overwork.  It is important to recognize how imbalanced our culture (and, to be fair, much of the human condition) is: competitive, consumer culture is stressful; difficult economic realities are stressful; world poverty, violence, terrorism and war are difficult; sexism, racism, and agism are realities.  In very real ways, our global existence is under constant, if unacknowledged, threat.  The sum total of human knowledge took thousands of years to double up until the last few centuries; our collective knowledge makes everything we thought we knew obsolete, now, within a few years.  It might happen only once in a while, during particularly stressful points in our career or on the heels of a significant loss.  Grief is, in it's very nature, a form of depression.  But for an increasing number of us, stress, frustration, powerlessness, apathy, sadness, or anxiety are more normal than not.

Yoga as Healing

No matter what 'caused' it, and no matter how long it has been present, we do have the capacity to heal.   To heal more deeply and more powerfully than we may be capable of believing.  Much of our emotional and cognitive wiring is set, locked into a pattern, and difficult to change no matter how much you may want or understand.  But therapeutic yoga can actually go deep enough to re-set our emotional and cognitive wiring.  It literally provides new learning, new insight, and new experiences, while addressing the old 'hardwiring'.  Yoga gives a new collection of tools - experienced, felt tools more than logic tools - that reverberate deep into the mind-body-spirit network.

Yoga can be a first hand, embodied experience of vitality, strength, peace, and calm.  It can also be a first hand, embodied experience of self-worth, at-one-ment and grace, which are so central to our religious and spiritual selves.  Atonement and grace form the bulk of theology and prayer.  Yoga, oddly enough, is a way to feel the power of prayer, and deep connection, in every tissue of your body.

"Emotional Yoga" as a yoga class

We tend to think of yoga as a fairly intense physical practice.  No matter what style or brand of yoga you practice, you will be getting some of the therapeutic benefits of yoga.

But science and tradition also show that one does not need the intense physical workout, nor a daily practice, to experience the profound transformation available through breath, meditation, and posture.  Indeed, some of the most healing work may come in gentle, restorative postures and simple breathing exercises.

You do not need to be in shape, flexible, or entirely mobile to participate in the class.  You do not need any experience with yoga.  Nor do you need to 'buy in' to any spiritual practices or cultural traditions.  All you need to do is show up.

We all have different needs.  There are specific postures and breath work that energize us from the lethargy of depression, and others that help to ground us and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system - soothing anxiety. The first standard in yoga is ahimsa, or do no harm. That is a guiding principal to all yoga classes.  So while some poses might work especially well with depression, others with anxiety, etc, no pose will be harmful. The principal is balance. I'm committed to understanding individual students, and will be ready to change the class according to need and hopefully give further information and additional practices to those students who have specific concerns.

The Strong Body, Quiet Mind Project

The Strong Body, Quiet Mind Project provides high quality yoga classes to veterans, first responders, at risk youth, and survivors of trauma.  All veterans and first responders are invited to participate - service and health providers are invited to collaborate with Return Yoga.  Participants are asked to pay $30 per month for unlimited yoga classes.  A veteran's i.d. card or first responder i.d. is all you need to sign up. Sign up must happen in-studio for Strong Body, Quiet Mind.  Every class on Return's schedule is open to project participants.

Participants are invited to all yoga classes rather than 'special' classes: there is no need for labels, anonymity is respected here, and all to often 'help' comes with stigma.  The truth is, we all need healing. Further, 'special' programs or classes are all to limited in time and scope, leaving participants after a few weeks rather than encouraging an on-going, life process of growth.

The Need:

Our society is rife with anxiety, stress, and trauma.

Studies have shown that PTSD and 'shock' in this generation of military will overshadow anything known to previous generations, costing billions. Veterans returning from service are finding a depressed economy, a dirth of future and career opportunities, and a shortage of services that answer their physical and psychological needs.

Research is showing that domestic violence and sexual assault survivors are just as likely to suffer trauma symptoms, with an even fewer sources of support and intervention.

Similarly, first responders are on the front lines of crisis situations day in and day out.  On going exposure to traumatic situations takes its toll on responders, who are under appreciated, under respected, and under protected.  Trauma, stress, and shock are status quo.  The private costs are often invisible, but no less deep.

These populations suffer in their own lives, and the effects of trauma are passed onto the next generation. These demographics are over-represented in the unemployed, the homeless, the incarcerated, those seeking emergency services, addiction services, and medical assistance. Their children struggle in education, health, and social connections. These kids are more likely to be involved in crime, high risk behaviors, and have inadequate medical and educational support.


Trauma has proven to be one of the most difficult issues to 'treat'. However, current research has shown that the skills of mindfulness, meditation, and yoga promote autonomy, well being, and genuine healing in away medicine and traditional 'talk therapy' can't. 8 weeks of a yoga practice has proven to calm the sympathetic nervous system and increase activity in the areas of the brain associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, sense of safety and autonomy, and cognitive functioning. Further, yoga can be taught at very little cost, with no negative side effects, and is accessible to any level of ability/mobility.

The effects of trauma (or stress, for those who have been labeled too much already) are pernicious, at times devastating, at other times manifesting as a numbing sense of being 'damaged' or 'broken'. Many who have lived through trauma (from a car accident to the death of a loved one, a sexual assault to active duty)often describe it as a chronic state of hopelessness.

Yoga is a rediscovery of hope, and the lived experience of grace.

It was so for me.

There is a profound difference between trying to 'get over it', and feeling oneself okay from the soles of the feet to the deepest parts of the brain.

Yoga allows us to experience ourselves not as 'wounded' or getting over it, but as powerfully alive and worthy human beings.

How the Program Works:

Return subsidizes costs directly, in such a way that every class dollar spent by students goes to funding the Strong Body, Quiet Mind Project.  Return is incorporated as a non-profit.

Additional funding may come from community or private donations or grants.

If your program is interested in accessing yoga classes for your demographic, please contact Karin Burke at  All support, whether by participating in class or donating directly, is greatly appreciated and provides a demonstrable good.

Fertility yoga

Now and again people ask if I teach or would teach a prenatal yoga class. The short answer is no.  The long answer is yes; always, of course.

I do not host a specifically prenatal class; such classes are hard to maintain fiscally, hard to hold class numbers high enough, and it is impossible to randomly pick one time during the week when all the interested pregnant women could make class.  It doesn’t help much if I do offer a class Wednesday mornings, if four out of five people can’t make that time slot.  In my experience, holding a prenatal class is too small for too big a need.

I do, however, teach pre, post, and fertility yoga.  I also know that fertility and health often times include loss of a child, aging, and sexuality issues that a ‘prenatal class’ doesn’t touch.  While pregnancy certainly does have specific practices in the yoga tradition, I also believe that fertility touches men’s health as well as women’s, that bio, psycho, and social aspects of gender, identity, self esteem, health and wellness span relationships and life cycles, and yoga has specific tools and suggestions for ALL of these things.  The question is not what prenatal yoga is, but what your process is and where you are.

My recommendation is this: take a private session to discuss your own needs, goals, and circumstances.  You will learn in a private or two the poses that will help and the way to avoid or modify poses that are contraindicated for pregnancy.  Once you have done this, you can attend ANY yoga class, anywhere, safely and effectively.  Of course, you can continue taking a private sessions as you need and want the individual feedback and support.  I believe that individual feedback and support is crucial; pregnancy, sexuality, and fertility issues are profound embodied and psychological experiences, felt individually and existentially.  You deserve such support.

Once you have that foundation, I strongly recommend attending the healing classes.  Unlike a once a week, hard to get to prenatal class, healing classes are held five nights a week.  Classes are small and tailored specifically to who shows up for class.  Each class explores specific healing postures and meditative traditions for our own unique needs.

Those who have a long yoga practice behind them can absolutely attend strong classes the full term of pregnancy, provided they are willing to make appropriate modifications.

Body, Mind, Feeling, and World. A yoga and mindfulness workshop.

Sunday, December 30th 9am - 12 pm.  $40.

Register here.

What: a workshop part movement, part dialogue, part silence.

Mindfulness, yoga, and 'stress reduction' are buzzing words these days, related to everything from dieting to worship to treatment of mood disorders.  But students repeatedly ask me what exactly meditation is, how body movements can possibly heal old hurts or daily grind stress, and what 'enlightenment' and poses named after saints and myth might have to do with our 21st century selves. Learn what science and ancient tradition say about 'mindfulness'.  Learn, too, what 'healing' and 'stress reduction' might mean in your own body and life.

Wear: comfortable clothing you can move freely in, as well as a warmer shirt to cover up with/socks as we will NOT be engaged in a strong practice or move the whole time.  Have something comfortable for the discussion part.

Bring: a notebook and pen, your mat if you've got one, possibly a towel or small blanket to sit on and shift around on as we discuss.  (pillows, props, all welcome.)  Something to sip.

Any questions?  Let me know.  I'm excited!

Transitioning into Fall, #classnotes

I walk my dog along the river, most mornings.  It is good for me.  Yesterday, though, I groaned and creaked; the sky was gunmetal gray, the river black, the wind staggering and pulling leaves and milkweed silk away into what could only be darkness.  Darkness, and cold.  The sound of those brittle leaves, skittering down the pavement when there was no other human noise, pulled at something in my belly. How is it the quickness and fullness - the stark raving beauty of the autumnal feasting and festing and chittery birdsong - so quickly became this dankness and sharp?  I slouched deeper into my coat and my hands would not stay warm.  The dog I think has better transitioning skills than I do; he wanted to stay.

I wanted to go.  We cowered and shuffled our way home through a neighborhood that seemed all railroad track and chainlink fences, beer cans like leaves rolling down the street.  Last week I didn't notice, these.  I noticed the trees on fire.  I noticed the warmth in the sun.

It is good for me, these walkings and meditations: I wondered how it is one transitions into fall.  Or, more generally, how we weather the cold and barren times of change.  What happens to us when we are blown upon?

This, in itself, has been the revelation: it is not a question of how 'one' bears transition or seasons, yoga doesn't ask that.  Yoga asks how you, yourself transition.  If you do.  And how that happens to be working for you.  And if it might change - you might change - to not only cope better but to find the joy in it, the harmony.

In the ayurvedic system, autumn is governed by the vata dosha.  In Chinese medicine, the season affects the lungs and the large intestinal meridian.

Vata: that which blows.  The lungs constrict in a blast of cold air - and stay in shallow breathing patterns if either the external or internal cold lingers on.  This fuels anxiety, hyperexcitability, irritability, a sense of being ungrounded.  The vata dosha itself rules the nervous system, our 'moods' and 'thinking' and 'cognitive ability'.  Imbalance of the vata dosha results in skittery, blowsy, richocheted movements that seem to have no center or gravity.  There is endless activity, but nothing much that matters.  There is crisis, after crisis, after crisis and a hyperfluidity of people and circumstances and things without any of it connecting together.  Imbalance can manifest as lack of enthusiasm, loneliness, fear.  Diminished creativity, unstable memory, scattered thoughts.

The leaves, I think.  The wind.

The large intestine, the colon, is essential to the apana vayu or grounding movement of energy.  It is digestive, yes, but it is also related to our ability to be grounded, nourished, not wispy and famished or bloated and lethargic.  The intestinal meridian needs, in this season of cold and withdrawing, warm and slowly cooked foods.  Earthy, comforting foods. We need not scattered activity but meaningful rituals and deep, profoundly deep, retreat and rest.  The body needs movements that are slow, purposive, contemplative. It is good to do

The preparation and culmination of all that feast, I think.  Rest.  Truly rest.  Create and establish rituals that will hold you in the lean time, the meaningless activity.  Find connection to the unchanging aspect of it - life, I mean life - that exists within and underlies everything.

The surface is blown clear, frozen, withered away.  The way through is to find the deeper core.

Fall is, or can be, a potent time to begin to withdraw and to rest.  To complete things we have started, even as the season completes her own work.

How do you transition? I wondered about myself and realized I wasn't sure I'd ever asked such questions before.  Do I transition?  Or do I react and feel victimized?  Do I, vata style, keep going and going and going in an attempt to override reality with endless activity and surgical attachment to the cellphone?  Attempt to keep busy rather than deal with mental, emotional, or physical issues?  Vata also has a tendency to cling tenaciously to false ideas and hopes even when faced with evidence to the contrary in unconscious efforts to escape dealing with a deeper reality.

The days are neurotic here in Minnesota - it was 80 degrees and colored like jewel box or a laquered chinese painting last week and now here I am scrounging for warmer socks and something to cover my head.  Vata is a dosha, which is usually understood as a personality type.  I am not Vata - I am kapha and pitta pressed so hard it's become stone - but doshas are NOT personality types but characteristics and patterns.  Characteristics are things that all people have, and seasons and earth and rhythms, too.  Vata changes without me directly influence my internal environment.

And what does this mean?  I am so glutted on yogic information it becomes hard to know what to teach or why.  And the accumulated wisdom of thousands of sages, the ruthless edicts about diets and cleanses and practices, the strange stories of yogic transformation that involve at times stopping ones heart or sleeping in the snow or somehow bilocating oneself to be in different parts of the world at once; what does any of that have to do with who we are?  How can yoga mean anything to those of us who do have jobs and families and televisions and high fructose corn syrup?  The stories are lovely as fairy tale and the promise of souls waking up speaks directly to what we most quietly long for.  But what do the stories have to teach us?  Where our our stories?

Again, revelation is backward turning and face slapping.  Biting like the wind, I suppose.

All of this yogic knowledge, the practices, are only relevant if we can apply them to our own selves.  It would be unrealistic and unhealthy to swallow any prescription wholesale, or to believe yoga will turn you into a wandering saint humming chants.  Or to take what any yoga teacher tells you, any class teaches, as the answer.  The answer is in the question.  The answer is in beginning to question.

From there, possibilities unfurl and something deep in the earth is set in motion. 

The point lies in knowing how change affects you, and diet and movement and circumstances, and in learning how powerfully we can respond and grow.  The point lies in realizing we are not powerless, but poignant. Thriving in that power, within and without.  Becoming, through the practices, better selves.

Next post will highlight key concepts, asana, dietic stuff for transitioning into fall.




Strong Medicine

More and more I find myself referring to yoga as medicine.  As science.

Of course, I say in class, yoga has elements of a spiritual path.  It has elements of fitness and diet.  But it is not a religion and it is not a fitness program.

Yoga is a science.  Yoga is strong, strong medicine.

In a world of many illnesses, a country of unprecedented stress, anxiety, mental illness, obesity and cardio vascular diseases, you would think this would be embraced.

It is not.  Western Medicine itself will only refer to yoga as a useful tool for 'stress reduction', in spite of a growing body of evidence that it can reverse heart disease, treat 'treatment resistant depression', and ease carpal tunnel syndrome, to pick out of a grab bag.  Even within the world of 'alternative medicine', mention of yoga is dismissive and scant - perhaps because nothing is ingested or inserted or removed from our bodies and we can't fathom medicine, otherwise.

And even in the world of yoga, it's teachers, authors, and serious practitioners, yoga is called a 'discipline', a 'practice', or a personal path.  I don't mean to suggest it isn't those things.  But I believe it is more.  I believe it is science and ought to be treated as such.

We know it builds strength and confidence, if not character.  We know it improves flexibility and stability, that it fosters serenity and poise.  Beyond its attributes as preventative medicine, we know that it heals - not cures, necessarily, but heals in quantifiable ways - low back strain, chronic pain, MS.

One of the difficulties is financial: studies cost.  More deeply, it is that cultural assumption that healing involves ingesting something, inserting something, or removing something from the body.  The cultural assumption focuses on disease rather than health and has no real way to discuss, let alone understand, yogic well being.

This raises a question.  Call it philosophical if you like.  Wonder about your own, or your best friend's, particular body if you want to be more poignant.

When you have an intervention which appears safe and effective, when it has no negative side effects, when it in fact has positive side effects, should one wait for proof before trying it?

I say no.  I say yoga will help in ways you wouldn't think possible.  I say it will change your ideas about health and wellness.  I say it will heal you, though the healing may not be what you expected.

I am not a doctor.  I will never encourage someone to go against a doctor's advice.  I will and frequently do insist a student talk with a doctor before beginning, changing, or returning to a yoga practice.  But I do believe a yoga practice can compliment traditional medicine, and make us more well.

And I believe yoga's potency, what makes it strong medicine, is largely it's ability to return you to control and autonomy: it will immediately teach you things you can do to relieve symptoms and influence your health, whereas so many of us feel we have no choice, no influence, no way to navigate the body mind other than to 'suffer' it or 'deal with it'.  How powerful it is for the fibromylagia patient, who has been told there are no cures and that she must learn to live with her pain, to realize there are, actually, things she can do for herself.

This is fierce medicine, indeed.

Private yoga sessions with Karin

Traditionally, yoga was ‘whispered wisdom’, a lineage handed down from one teacher to one student.  As yoga burst into the American mainstream, group classes became the norm.  This is wonderful, as it allows anybody anywhere to experience yoga.  It can be a cost effective way to have a consistent practice.  It means we can try out different styles, different teachers, and different locations.  It means you can find a yoga class wherever in the world you happen to go. However, classes can be intimidating, alienating, or too generalized for what you most need and want.  Private sessions return yoga to its heart: the goal of personal transformation.

Let's face it; 'yoga classes' simply don't feel right for many of us.  That in no way means yoga is not an option.

In my own practice and as a teacher, I have seen that a few private yoga classes can teach more than years of group classes.  This is especially true at the beginning of a practice, at a point of ‘taking it to the next level’, or when students have specific physical, emotional, or private concerns.  Private sessions are entirely adaptive, supportive, and personal: any body, with any degree of mobility, can find here the profound healing, restoration, and preventative benefits of a yoga practice.

The basics: $125 per session.  Each session lasts about an hour and a half.  I strongly recommend that you commit to taking these in a sequence- taking a single class will give you a lot of information but no follow through.  To make this more accessible, you can purchase 4 privates and get a fifth for free.

Students New To Yoga

Starting a yoga practice with a few private sessions can rapidly introduce both a sense of familiarity and ‘easing in’.  It can break down some of the barriers of intimidation and alienation we feel in walking into a group of people we perceive to be ‘better’ at yoga than us, more flexible, more strong, or more confidant.  Working with a teacher who will directly answer any question you might have and who can explain yogic concepts and postures as they apply to you and your body, your lifestyle, your experience is an invaluable gift.  It is also entirely possible to set up an ongoing private session as your practice evolves; this can help you assess where you are, how to advance, and keep your practice rather than a synchronized yoga team as the goal.

Taking it to the Next Level

“I am currently in a teacher training program, and stumbled on Karin’s webpage.  After a single class with her, I knew I had found my teacher.  I learned more from her classes, her insights, and her conversations than I have in any trainings or workshops I’ve attended.  She has clearly made yoga a calling and not a career.  She watches to make yoga work, really work, for each and every one of her students.  You don’t find that in most teachers or studios.  You just don’t.” – Cari S

“I am a yoga teacher. I consider Karin to be a ‘teacher’s teacher’.  She teaches yoga of the heart, yoga of life, yoga as the whole experience of being alive.” David S

“Knowing Karin has taught me how to make yoga real – not a brand name or a thing I do once a week, but real.” anonymous

“I’ve practiced yoga for more than 30 years and I have never understood or felt alignment the way I do when Karin teaches.  Not all teachers are teachers.  Karin is.” Maria K

Sometimes we plateau in a yoga practice.  Sometimes we just wonder how the heck what we do on our mats is supposed to translate to ‘the path’.  And sometimes we need to know more; we become interested in arm balances, say, or we are worried our practice has to change as we age, or we want to use yoga as part of training for a marathon.  I’ve worked with a number of people who are in or are considering yoga teacher training and are hungry for dialogue.  Whatever the prompting, private sessions are a powerful way to take your group classes, your home practice, your path a little deeper.  It doesn’t take much – a private or two every once in a while radically transforms a practice.

Yoga Therapy, Yoga for Mobility, Weight loss, Personal Training, or Emotional Healing

We know – science has proven – that yoga works with things from anxiety to cardio vascular disease to Parkinson’s disease and fibromyagia in ways pills and talk therapy can’t do.  But we may also struggle to feel a group class is right for us, or how we can possibly participate.  Private sessions allow you to learn the appropriate modifications, experience the full benefits of postures, express any and all concerns and have them addressed.  All Return Yoga classes are open to and appreciate the participation of beginners and those who adapt their poses: but stepping into a class means the teacher cannot focus on you constantly.  Taking a private session or two can give you the confidance and information you need to adapt group classes appropirately and safely.  Yoga CAN be practiced safely, promote self healing, and turn limitations into strong points. Yoga IS for you, it’s just a matter of answering to your specific needs.

Life coaching, spiritual direction, philosophy, distance coaching

“Yoga”, real yoga, does not mean yoga class or physical postures.  Long story short, yoga is an eight limbed path, and the physical practice of asana is only one of those eight branches.  Many of us are interested in all those other branches.  This is incredibly important and something I want to encourage.  Further, many of us need time to process and dialogue our yoga experience, ask questions, or get some insight into that vast and often times confusing world that is ‘yoga’.  Many of us suspect ‘yoga’ might help but aren’t interested in the group style format.  Private sessions allow for all of this.  It’s your time.  Sessions can be all asana (physical practices), all conversation, or a blend of both.  Karin has training as a counselor, crisis intervention specialist, and advocate.

Quick FAQs

Who are private yoga sessions for? 

Any of the above (new to yoga, looking to start a home practice, wanting to take it to the next level, or have a specific concern).  Privates are also frequently recommended as a starting point or addition to group classes for fertility issues, obesity, disability, anxiety, depression, PTSD, pre and post natal, stress, chronic pain, cancer recovery, sleep trouble, illness….

Q: Why are Private Sessions Recommended for Herniated or Ruptured Spinal Disks? Many doctors are suggesting yoga to people with disk issues. Yoga can be very therapeutic and provide back pain relief. However, certain postures offered in a group class setting could also aggravate disk conditions. Safety and ahimsa (non-harming) is our first priority. With a little private coaching, someone with a disk issue can learn how to practice yoga safely alone or in a group class. In just one private session, a student can gain a basic understanding of which postures are most useful to their condition, which ones to avoid, and which ones to approach in a modified form.

Q: Why are Private Yoga Sessions Recommended for Pregnancy? Pregnancy is such an individual experience that it deserves individual attention and support. This personal guidance empowers the mother to be to practice safely. She can then attend ANY regular group yoga class at her leisure with the understanding of how to take care of herself by modifying postures to avoid strain or injury to the baby.

Q: What do I Bring to a Private Yoga Session? – What do I Wear? – How do I Prepare? There is nothing you need to do to prepare for your private session. If you have a spinal condition like scoliosis and you may want to bring a your X-rays or MRI report for the instructor to review. Wear clothing that is comfortable and will stretch and move with your body. You are encouraged to bring a notebook and pen. If you can, you may want to write down your questions or concerns in the days before your private to bring with you.

Your mental health

Jim Campbell - OmLight Yoga Photography

Earlier today I had a conversation about mental illness.  It made me think of yoga, and I posted on the facebook page.  But then that same friend and I talked again, and he reminded me of the difficulty: on the one hand, it is too easy to call negative emotions or problems in life 'illness' when it is part of being human; on the other hand, 'mental illness', along with a hit list of things from fibromyalgia to IBS to PTSD, are too often minimized and dismissed as being 'in your head'. Clarity: it is not just in your head.  I hope that anyone who knows my teaching knows I believe these things to be very real, very physical, a cornerstone to reality.  I do not advocate over simplistic views of 'healing' that encourage you to meditate your way past DNA or cancer or depression or alcoholism or schizophrenia.

But I do think - I know - that yoga helps.

Western medicine (humanity, maybe) has floundered on these kinds of illness, and yoga offers a kind of healing that is unheard of, elsewhere.  I do not say it makes it all better.  I do not promise symptoms will all go away.  I cannot make the blind see or the dead rise and I will never, ever tell someone NOT to listen to their doctor.

The best shot you've got involves both your doctor and your yoga.

Here is what I said on facebook:

talked with a friend this morning about 'mental illness'. How, of all the medical conditions in the world, most of which have seen an improvement in life expectancy in recent years, the opposite is true for the chronically depressed, anxious, and struggling.

Yoga helps, I kept thinking. Yoga heals. I know this is true.

But I also know that 'illness' is itself limiting. There is nothing wrong with feeling anxious, sad, or angry. Life is anxiety provoking. We should feel sad and angry.

The problem is not that we feel these things, but that we feel overwhelmed and damaged by what we feel.Yoga, though, teaches us different. Teaches us to find more more meaning and more power from what we feel. To use these very things to feel more alive, not less so.Yoga helps. I know this is true.

The fact is, anyone who tells you they have a cure or it is all in your head is minimizing your experience.  Anyone who tells you they can change the way you feel or that you SHOULD change the way you feel is being harmful and dishonest and misleading in very important ways.


I do not want to offer you something to make you feel better or to change you.  I want to say it's okay to feel what you feel.  To say yes, I see it, it is there.


To say, still: yoga helps.  I know this.


Oddly, though, I want to throw in an immediate caveat: yoga isn't for everybody.  The gurus who try to tell you their yoga is for everyone are false gurus.  This yoga has worked for me, and I believe there is a yoga that will work for everyone.  It may not be called 'yoga'.  It may have nothing to do with physical postures or breathing or philosophy.  But if it is an ongoing personal transformation, it qualifies in my book.


I throw caveats, everywhere.  Like breadcrumbs.  As if I'm going very deep into the unknown woods.  Perhaps I am.


Mental health.  Yoga for everyone.  I think I will continue to write on these things, to teach and to practice and to sweat them out.  I am not preaching answers.  I'm asking questions.


The problem with mental health is hopelessness, pathology, and society.  Within the individual, healing and a full, humane, joyful life are entirely possible.  Yoga is the process of finding it.


I know, this: I am watching someone I love be destroyed by active alcoholism and am maddened by her inability to see it, crushed by my inability to understand why I was able to get better and she has not.

I sat with a woman for a long time last week talking of chronic, debilitating depression and crushed my fingernails into my palms as she said she didn't believe she could ever have kids for fear she'd pass 'this' on, yet she was grief stricken by her loss; she didn't believe she'd be able to live to old age if it kept on this way, that suicide is inevitable; I knew exactly what she meant.  I know, because I have that depression, too.  I tried to explain that I have it - I have it STILL - but that it is different, now.  That it is truly my strong point, my revolution, my actual reason for being alive and finding joy and being strong.  I cannot much explain it, but it happened on a yoga mat.

I have seen autism, trauma, manic states, and schizophrenia change because of a yoga practice, people become alive again and not crushed, not broken, but sweet and powerful and glad to be alive.

These are the questions.

If this is possible, why not try?



Listen to the Gut - Yoga of Digestion and Indigestion

I want to answer questions that repeatedly come to me from students, provide a few poses and ideas about digestive health.  But I also insist, insist insist at the beginning, that yoga is individual, just as your gut is. I will keep the poses as general as I can, asking you to remember that what works for you may be different than what works for the next guy.  We all have different bodies, different constitutions, different contexts.  Understand that yogic knowledge should ultimately be self-knowledge; talk with your yoga teacher and your doctor both about your specific needs and concerns.


Death and disease, yogically speaking, begin in the stomach.  Aging begins in your belly.

Digestive health informs every aspect of our emotional and physical well being.  Many of the breathing and postural practices are directly aimed at the digestive tract.

Of course, in yogic thinking, digestion is both literal and more than literal: we 'metabolize' not only food, but water and air, experience, emotion, relationships, stress, joy and sadness.  This tends to make things more abstract than our uber convenient, pre-packaged sensibilities would like; there isn't necessarily one single answer to why your stomach hurts, but a multiplicity of moving parts.  Frustrating, if you want a quick fix or one simple pose to do magic.  But it is liberating if you begin to understand that mind and body are synergistic; you can heal and harm in both directions.  By understanding and respecting the fact that your management of time, experience, relationships, and stress is directly affecting your digestion, you have a few tools.  By learning to honor and listen to your body through asana you have a handful more.  Understanding and watching what you eat and consume through your skin and mind, you have another few.  Ultimately, this is a more powerful and autonomous way to live than is looking for a cure all.

How To Begin

If you suffer regular but not serious indigestion, picking up a regular yoga practice will be highly beneficial.  If you are interested in losing or gaining weight, be aware that a more physical practice is necessary to 'burn calories', but a basic, restorative practice will improve your body's rhythms, ability to digest and detoxify, improve mood, motivation, and energy levels.  Much of our health, weight, and appetite is wedded to our levels of contentment, anxiety, and depression, which yoga immediately addresses. Frequently, digestive issues are symptoms of some other issue in the body or mind, various biochemical balances; yoga will help sort this out.  Keep in mind, though, that digestive issues are real and often painful and distressing. They are not just in your mind. Start where you are, rather than trying to change your whole body in the next 30 days.  Talk with a qualified teacher whom you trust about finding the right balance of 'athleticism' and 'restorative' practices and you'll find the place for you.

It is not necessary to wait until stomach ache or irregular bowel patterns have dissipated to begin your practice; start as soon as you can.

If, however, you are new to yoga and suffer Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, or other serious digestive problems, check with your doctor before starting a practice and let your yoga teacher know where you are.  Yoga is highly beneficial for people who suffer from these chronic ailments, but if you are recovering from an obstruction or surgery, you should make sure your body is ready to practice.  If you suffer from Irritable bowel syndrome you will find yoga, no matter what stage of digestive flare up, to be very beneficial.

To notice any benefits, you should practice at least 2-3 times a week. Yoga can be practiced every day. If getting to a studio or practice that often is difficult, ask the teacher you are most comfortable with for help with a sequence you can practice on your own.

Let me repeat: a gentle, restorative practice has innumerable benefits to our body's natural tendency to heal, balancing internal rhythms, and finding a sense of control and well being.  Such a practice is easily modified and entirely safe for even the injured or ill.

Just begin.

What Yoga Teaches, and how it differs from Western medicine

When I was in teacher training, we spent a lot of time memorizing the anatomical systems of the body and their components from a western medical and anatomical perspective.  We memorized skeletal components. We traced the roadmap of the nervous system. We prodded the digestive and immuno and cardiovascular bits and pieces.  We crammed, we quizzed. We had a fuax skeleton.  After our initial ignorance and discomfort passed, we named him Greogory and put him into various postures.  We blamed him when the coffee spilled.  I sat up late at night, reviewing latinate words and looking at my own hand, foot, or knee for understanding before waking up early for class the next day. But after all the flashcards and the diagrams, we learned this:

Western anatomy understands things by cutting them apart.  It describes location.  It understands 'health' mostly by describing illness, after the fact, without understanding causes or prognosis over well. But the body's very existence, and each flitting sensation, is a symphony of moving parts and interaction, not isolation. There is really no such thing as 'the immune system' or the 'digestive tract', because it all works in concert.  Digestion is affected by the secretion of proteins, enzymes and hormones, which are part of the endocrine system and have central plexuses in the brain, organs, and spinal column.  It is intimately related to our blood, which is tangled up with our lymph. The endocrine system is influenced by the nervous system of brain and nerves and reflexes.  And the brain is influenced by the cardiovascular system, our breath and blood, while our blood and gasp is directly related to our muscle tissues and skeletal system, which is more or less healthy because of the nutrients and toxins we metabolize or don't.

Some of us may have too much acid in our stomach.  This is affecting our mood, which affects our secretion of hormones, which affects the build up of new cells in the muscles and skin, which may mean we hold ourselves or move differently, which affects our muscles and our bone structure, which in turn affects our body's internal understanding of what needs to be produced and expelled, which results in more acid or far too little.  Which ends in sleep patterns and energy levels, optimism and pessimism, craving and apathy.  The cycles are endless as the cosmos.  This also means you can begin, anywhere.

In terms of asana and posture, the quickest overview to digestion and yoga is this: yoga postures and breath work massage the internal organs and the nerves associated with hunger and satiation; yoga strengthens the muscles of the pelvic floor and deep core; it alternately constricts and invigorates the flow of blood to specific areas of the body, which works to tone the fabric of the various body tissues as it maximizes the absorption of nutrients and facilitates elimination of toxins.

More basic, still: the best yoga pose for digestive health, the best possible detox diet you can go on, is any pose, any yoga class.  Just begin.  Here's how it works.

Yoga pays attention to the breath.

The breath is a doorway between thought and the body.

As you become more and more aware of the subtleties of the breath, you will become more and more sensitive and knowledgeable about the workings of your insides, heart to bone to itch.  As you develop the skill of listening, inside, you will begin to hear and understand the cues and impulses.

When you learn to tap into the cues of your body, you will begin to hear what it really needs. You'll begin to immediately feel the effects of what you put into your body, how your thoughts affect your physical self, and how your physical condition is manifested into what you previously understood as 'truth' , independent mind, or the way things are.  Yoga directly influences our ability to navigate the four core drives to hunger, fatigue, sex, and danger, which changes the very core of who we are.

By learning to pay attention to the breath you step beyond the mind, down into the body.  Your body's natural tendency is to clean and heal and grow stronger.  When you can hear and accept these messages, your behaviors begin to change. You'll have skills for self healing, and digestive disorders will become more manageable and less disruptive.

You do not need to understand it,  describe it, or will it to happen.  You simply need to start a yoga practice and stay with it.


Do any yoga pose.  Any.

Consider how frequently we hear poses described as being 'for the upper arms' or 'for balance'.  Yet there is no single pose that is only for hip opening, improving balance, or toning your 'core'.  Tree pose is called a balance pose, for example.  But it directly affects certain nerves in our feet, hips, and the hypothalamus and pineal glands.  It strengthens bone health, prevents osteoporosis, skeleton wide and develops stability and optimal flexibility in the foot, ankle, knee, and hip - which directly changes the biochemical tone of the fascia across the rest of the body.  It opens the hips, which nurtures most of our digestive tract and nervous system.  It releases the secondary muscles of respiration and frees up the area around the lungs for optimal breathing, while simultaneously steadying blood pressure and exercising the heart.  It is known to improve concentration, focus, and light up 'gray areas' of the brain that are somehow associated with subconscious, sleep patterns, and personality.  It is rumored to improve eyesight and relieve depression.

With all of that (and more, and more...), it is impossible for me to say that tree pose is just about 'balance'.

And it is impossible to say there are three top poses for your digestion.

Every single pose will help.  Begin, anywhere.


Tree pose, and yoga, are about balance.  Yoga is balance, flexibility, and strength, surely.  But not in any narrow way.  Yogic balance is a highly personalized alchemy of motivation and serenity, mind and body, self and world.  Flexibility is in the mind and heart and ability, not just in the hips.  And strength is different for everyone, and for each individual in different moments.

I have watched students rebuild and recover their strength after amputations and chemotherapy.  I've watched morbidly obese persons begin to recover.  I have seen persons with debilitating anxieties and depressions find an emotional balance that is stunning.

But I've also seen terribly thin teenage girls demand a 'power yoga' class and skip lunch, seen strong young men couple their yoga class with other exercise that must have been burning their bodies alive, inside out.

I once had a girl rush into the yoga studio and ask in hot, whispery tones if yoga would get her into a size six in three months.

I don't know, I said.  I can't promise that. 

I can promise it will give you the body you were born to have, in all its power and beauty.  I don't know if that is a size six, or not.

There is a danger to using asana or detox or dieting to harm ourselves, just as there is a danger to believing your body should be on the same diet as your neighbors, or that your body should magically resemble the plasticized and bleached and photoshopped versions we see in advertisements and media.

The only answer yoga will ever give you is your own life.  It can make it better.  It can.  It will, if you are willing to accept your life, your body, and not someone else's.  Your body is a path of transformation.  It is, says yoga, the only path there is and the best shot you've got.


How yoga benefits digestive health

Yoga has demonstrable effects in alleviating and preventing digestive distress.  Yoga is perhaps most helpful for its ability to reduce the stress, anxiety, and the pain of chronic illness. Regular practice will indisputably improve your physical and mental fitness, promote relaxation, and give you a sense of control over your health and well-being. As with other stress management techniques, the more you practice, the more powerful the change.  Yoga gives relief from symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas, and pain. Yoga is also tremendously beneficial for preventing or minimizing menstrual cramps, which often exacerbate digestive distress.

Yoga stabilizes digestion by working with the nerves (such as the large Vagus nerve) associated with hunger, satiation, and metabolic processes. It balances the hormonal levels of those proteins and enzymes associated with digestion, absorption, and the breakdown and expelling of toxins, as well as strengthening the muscles associated with the digestive process and the organs along the digestive tract. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the 'rest and digest' system, while soothing and regulating the sympathetic (fight or flight) system.

Asanas systematically compress certain areas of the body, restricting blood flow to the area.  When released, a flush of highly oxygenated blood enters the area.  This rich blood source is responsible for the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to each individual cell and organ in the body. It also draws impurities, build up, and toxins from the body's tissues, redistributing to the lymphatic system and eliminative system as waste or breaking substances down for use.

Breath work, or pranayama, assists in directing our breath to very specific parts of our body. Breath alone has healing properties and we forget all too often to breath with regularity and mindfulness. Simply forcing ourselves to breath into our bellies during certain yoga poses sends breath and healing to the digestive area. Regular focused breathing can also open up blocked areas of energy in the body - blocked, resisted, or pent energy (prana or chi) in the stomach/intestines is often the cause of digestive problems.

Inflammation, swelling, dehydration, and retention are all important concepts in yoga, both in terms of diet, immunity, and physical activity.  Most imbalances - whether emotional, energetic, or physical - manifest on some level as inflammation.  Typically, inflammation (with swelling, pain, distress, bloating, dysplasic cell structure, weakened tissue tone) in one area of the body throws other areas of the body out of balance as well.  For example, we may retain, swell up, or bloat in our digestive tract but end up dehydrated in our muscle fibers.  Yoga's balance addresses these issues both in terms of relief and prevention.

Constipation versus Diarrhea with Yoga Poses

It is important to note that there are different poses that are good for constipation/diarrhea.

All poses listed here are beneficial for constipation as they will help to get the stagnation of energy moving down in what is known as 'apana vayu'. Master yogis suggest that if you suffer from constipation and do a daily forward folding practice for a week, you will see an immediate and marked increase in bowel activity.

They are each beneficial for diarrhea as well, as they promote consistancy, ease, and regularity.  But if you are in an active state of diarrhea, it is best not to practice intense forward folds (such as seated forward folds.) These poses will increase the downward flow of energy which might increase the flow of bowel activity.

Extreme twisting poses should also be practiced with some caution in those who suffer acute IBD or a history of bowel obstruction.

Twisting or compressing to the left first and then to right will slow the movement of bowels out the intestine whereas twisting to the right first and then the left will increase the movement of the bowels. This can be charted by the squeezing motion of the colon and correlating it with the movement of materials through the bowel.

Overall though, note that the benefits of ANY yoga practice for someone who suffers from digestive concerns would far outweigh the risks.  A practice will calm an over-active sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which can have resounding beneficial affects on auto-immune and inflammatory diseases.


Diet is part of a yogic lifestyle, and the science of ayurveda is the medicinal/dietic branch of yogic practice.  Whole books have been written on the subject.  For most of us, too much info or expectations of radical change to our eating will do more harm then good.  Further, yoga emphasizes individuality: there is no miracle herb or superfruit that will work for everyone and address every issue.

There are, though, very simple practices you can work on adding to your life.  Think of it as a process, rather than a deprivation.  Try to enjoy your food.  You'll begin to learn, with yoga, what cravings and habits actually are and how to work with them in ways that nuture you rather than limit you or keep you stuck.

Four suggestions that require no expensive purchases, official diet, or major changes:

*alkalinity and pro-biotics, vs. processed foods (1 and 2).  Our bodies are alive.  Most processed food is not.  Trying to 'digest' much of our supermarket, convient foods is like planting a plastic bag in a forest and expecting it to biodegrade and bloom.  Try to avoid processed (in a box or a can, refined flours and sugars) foods and add living foods.  Drink a cup of hot water with the juice of half a lemon every day (or cucumber slices, lime, or a tablespoon of organic apple cider vinegar) stimulates digestion and keeps the living biology of our GI track in tact.  You can take this much, much further along the lines of supplements, raw foods, yogurts with probiotics and kombucha type teas, but you do not have to.  Just drink a cup of hot water with lemon, every morning.

* Green, leafy vegetables (#3).  Eat them.  The greener, the better.  Again, you do not need to go vegan or learn how to cook all over again.  Just increase your veggies.  Significantly.

* Oral aloe vera.  The medicinal properties of aloe are old hat in our superficial culture by now.  But independent studies have shown ingesting aloe brings tremendous relief to digestive disorders and works to heal damaged tissues, just as it does sunburn.  You can buy aloe vera juice - in many different flavors, qualities, and price ranges - at various Whole Foods type groceries, online, and through health stores.  A 'dose' is generally less than a shot glass and virtually tasteless.  Add it to tea, a smoothie, or just sip it down after you brush your teeth.

*Supplements.  There are many herbs, spices, and teas that are traditionally used to ease digestive distress and prevent digestive problems.  Pick one.  Read a bit on line or visit a health food store; your symptoms and concerns are unique, and you can find a supplement that addresses your concerns.

* extra credit:cut down on the dairy.  It is tremendously hard on our digestive systems.  I'm not saying cut it out entirely, just practice cutting back.


Poses - generally speaking, first.  (I'll post a few sequences in upcoming weeks, as well as breakdowns and modifications of each of these poses.)

Standing poses:

all standing poses are recommended for digestive health.  You can't go very wrong, here.  In particular:

  • Trikonasana and Parvritta Trikonasana (Triangle and Revolve Triangle)
  • Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle)
  • Warrior 1, 2 + 3
  • Half Moon Pose- Balancing Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasan, both the standing and the balance)as well as Crescent Moon (Anjanyasana)
  • Camel (Ustrasana)
  • Most other standing and balancing leg postures are beneficial and not harmful for digestive ailments.

Inverted Poses:

Yoga becomes more complicated when getting into inversions, arm balances and back-bends. However, these postures are essential for inner well being, overall health and healthy digestion. While it may seem counter intuitive to stand on your head when suffering from a stomach ache or gas, these poses in yoga are very helpful.

Inversions are a helpful way to ease up the stress of digestion by reversing the impact of gravity on the intestines. Inversions are also very helpful for constipation. Inversions are defined as any pose where the legs are above the heart. It is best if inversions are held for a length of time- at least for a few minutes and up to 15 minutes. Inversions that are recommended for indigestion, but you should learn the poses under the guidance of a qualified teacher.  A good teacher can also help you learn the modifications of each pose, so you can begin where you are and work your way into the full expression as you are ready.

  • Sirsasana- Head stand
  • Sarvangasana + all its variations- Shoulder stand

Forward Folds All forward folds offer relief of flare ups and discomfort in addition to strengthening the digestive process.  (Be aware, however, that they may stimulate elimination and might be skipped if you have diarrea,  and should be approached gently post surgery).

  • Uttanasana(Standing forward fold)
  • Paschimottansana (Seated forward fold)
  • Marichyasana 1 (Seated forward fold with bent leg)
  • Janu Sirsasana (Seated forward fold with leg in tree)


Twists stimulate, massage, and ease the digestive tract and stimulate detoxification on a cellular as well as an organic level.  Twists can get quite complex and advanced, but the benefits can be had in the very first stages of the pose.  Remember that alignment is where the benefits of yoga are, not 'advanced' poses.  For those who want to focus on digestive health, holding twists for longer periods of time is recommended.

  • Marichyasana 2- 4 (seated twist)
  • Supta matsyandrasana (reclined twist)
  • supta Jathara Parivartanasana (reclined revolved abdominal twist)
  • baradvajasana
  • garudasana (eagle)

Poses for the pelvic floor/lower back/lower abdomen

  • Malasana (squat or garland pose)
  • Utkatasana (chair, awkward, or powerful pose)
  • Pavanmukatasana or Apanasana (wind removing pose/knees into chest)
  • Baddhakonasana (bound angle)
  • Virasana (hero's pose)
  • Upavistakonasana (wide legged straddle)
  • ananda balasana (happy baby pose)
  • learn the bandas with your yoga instructor, and practice engaging them during poses



  • danurasana (bow)
  • shalabasana (locust)
  • matsyanadrasana (fish)
  • apanasana/pavanmukatasna (wind removing pose)
  • paschimottonasana (back side stretching pose /seated forward fold)
  • uttanasana (forward fold)
  • cat cow
  • halasana (plow)
  • malasana (garland or squat)
  • mandukasana (frog)
  • bujangasana (cobra)


  • supta baddhakonasana (reclined bound angle pose)
  • viparita dandasana (legs up the wall pose)
  • supta padangusthasana (reclining hand to big toe pose)


  • prasarita padahastasana (wide legged forward fold)
  • apanasana (wind removing pose)
  • sasangasana (rabbit pose)
  • balasana (child's pose)
  • adho muka savanasana (downward facing dog)
  • gentle inversion poses (including down dog and standing forward fold)


  • gentle inversion poses (including down dog and standing forward fold)
  • virasana (hero pose)
  • dhanurasana
  • upavistha konasana (wide legged seated fold)


  • learn the bandas with the help of a qualified yoga teacher
  • standing poses focusing on pelvic floor


  • salamba savasana (supported corpse pose)
  • supported twists, child, bound angle poses
  • reclining twists
  • supported bridge