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Three meditation studies that inspire me to practice

When Jason and I recorded the second podcast for this program (which, btw, you can still sign up for!), I told him that I often read  yoga and meditation research — for fun. He somewhat incredulously blurted out, “Nerd!” because he had no idea that I love poring over Harvard Health’s recent round-up or that I visit Richard Davidson’s site on the regular just to see if there’s anything new…

But it’s true – I do. In part, it comes from my years of writing short health pieces. But it’s also because the research inspires me. We all get bored in our practice from time to time. Reading the research is part of how I bargain with myself to sit down and do the practice. Even after all these years, I still need need reminders about why this practice is so valuable. Plus, I genuinely love seeing how science is starting to measure the things we inherently know when we engage with these practices over long periods of time – that they make us more empathic, that happiness is a skill, that somehow we aren’t as triggered by stress anymore.

With that in mind, here are three of my favorite meditation studies (I include lots more in the program):

Jason Crandell Meditating | Yoga Meditation | Jason Crandell Yoga

Compassion Meditation Changes the Brain

More than 10 years ago, Richard Davidson’s team published a study in PLOS One indicating that “positive emotions such as loving-kindness and compassion can be learned in the same way as playing a musical instrument or being proficient in a sport.” Brain scans of 16 monks who were exposed to distressing human sounds showed increased activity in regions of the brain associated with emotion sharing and empathy compared to a control group. Access the study here >>

Mindfulness Increases Grey Matter

This study, led by Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar, showed that after just 8 weeks of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), participants demonstrated increases in areas of the brain associated with compassion and empathy, memory, and concentration. In addition, the participants’ amygdala got smaller! The amygdala is associated with fear and the fight or flight response.  Access the study here >>

Meditation May Protect the Aging Brain

When researchers at UCLA compared the brains of meditators to non-meditators they found that meditator’s brains were almost a decade younger by the time people reach their mid 50s. Research is still ongoing, but the hope is that meditation may help protect against age-related decline. Access the study here >>

I hope these studies inspire your practice! For more inspiration, consider joining Start Your Year with Self Care, which includes self-compassion meditations, mindfulness meditation, and self-inquiry practices.

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What Self Care Means to Me — and Why It Matters

Andrea Ferretti

Self care is a buzz word these days. And there’s a reason for it – in times of cultural and political strife, people’s interest in self care increases.

Buzz words tend to make me cringe, or at the very least, they make me suspicious. But last year, as I was prepping for an interview with Jill Miller, I read her words, “self care is healthcare,” and they stopped me in my tracks with a big, resounding, inner YES.

Yes, because I went through clinical depression and panic disorder in my twenties, and a big part of my healing was learning self care (the other big part was and still is anti-depressants). When I became a mother 6 years ago and ended up with an unplanned, super-medicated C-section and my baby couldn’t latch properly for close to a month, I was forced to slow down and practice self care. And when I went through cancer treatment four years ago, I was reminded yet again that ongoing self care was part of my post-treatment plan to help prevent recurrence.

So, a big YES to the idea self care is part of what keeps me healthy – and when I lose touch with that, I am less healthy, resilient, and strong. I’m also less able to cope well with the primary people in my life – I’m less patient, more brittle, and less of a teacher to my daughter, more of a drill sergeant. The reason for this is so obvious to me now –it really is true that the way you treat others begins with the way you treat yourself. If you’re gracious and spacious with yourself, you’re more able to extend that goodwill to the people around you.

For me, self care is a constant process of self-reflection and then making choices that contribute to my overall well being from moment to moment.

The actual doing of self care is different for everyone. And until I read Jill’s quote, I put it in the category of – go get a mani with my bff or treat myself to something. I like to treat my self – just ask my husband. And, occasionally, a pedi feels like self care. But overall, I think of it differently now. For me, self care is a constant process of self-reflection and then making choices that contribute to my overall well being from moment to moment. Sometimes it takes the form of using some essential oils to reset my mood. Other times it’s scheduling in coffee time with friends who I truly love connecting with. Many, many times it’s allowing myself more silence, less screen time.

Whatever the self care choice is, there are three underpinnings to this approach to self care:

– First, I acknowledge that self care has value. It’s not a treat; it’s a necessity for me to function at my very best in a consistent way.
– Second, it requires the ability to tune in to what I need, which requires self-awareness.
– Third (and I learned this one from Caitlin Hildebrand on my recent podcast, Yoga as a Form of Radical Self Care) – when it’s tied to your overall sense of purpose, it’s more meaningful and easier to stick to.

And that’s why yoga and meditation are at the very root of all my self care practices. These two foundational practices that accomplish two things at once – they hone your self-awareness so that you can better identify and respond to your own needs while being amazing forms of self care in their own right. Simply stepping on the mat or sitting in silence on a regular basis will help you understand your energy levels, your physical pains, your responses to stress. These practices will help you hear the voice in your head that is planning the future or is stuck ruminating on the past. They can illuminate the mean girl on your shoulder who tells you you’re not working hard enough, and it also open you up to a compassionate voice who knows the truth of how inherently worthy you are.

Self care is not always easy – it’s not all running through daisy fields taking selfies. It also doesn’t have to be expensive. But it does require committing to its value and carving out practices that you can regularly incorporate into your life.

I have so much more to say about this topic and I’d love to share it with you. If you’d like to learn more about self care and create a meditation habit that sticks, join me in January for my three-week program, Start Your Year with Self Care. Each week, you’ll receive four meditations, a video podcast, and a journal with self-inquiry questions to help you scope out your year and how you will maintain a healthy relationship with yourself. Click here to learn more about the program — and if you jump on the email list, I’ll send you an early bird discount before registration is open.

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Yoga Pose Notebook: Astavakrasana

Astavakrasana | Eight Angle Pose | Jason Crandell Yoga Method

Long before photos of Handstand ruled the social media kingdom, Astavakrasana was king of the hill. Teachers would get one or two photos of themselves every few years to adorn their bios and show aptitude in their flyers.

There were 3 distinctly different looks that teachers would cast while being photographed in the pose: 1) a joyous smile that gave the look and feel of a yogi’s Senior Picture, 2) a far-off gaze that implied the teacher was being caught in their natural habitat, and 3) the somewhat surly (my favorite) mug that proved the teacher was not being photographed for their Senior Picture.

Astavakrasana is no longer as ubiquitous, but it’s still a great pose. It strengthens the upper body as well as the rotational muscles of the core. If you do it correctly, the pose also strengthens the adductors and outer hips. Plus, it still looks great on flyers.

See also Yoga Podcast: A Strategic Approach to Arm Balances and Inversions

Like all the postures I breakdown on my blog, Astavakrasana has many layers. Many of the cues I use for the pose are featured in the illustration. But, there are three quick tips that I want to give you.

These are the most common elements of the posture I’ve found myself troubleshooting for my students over the last 20 years.

3 Tips for Astavakrasana

1. Placement of the hands

The most common error that students make when they practice Astavakrasana is placing their hands too close to their hips when setting up for the pose. I’m not talking about the width of the hands from each other. I’m talking about the proximity of the hands to the hips. You need to be able to lean forward into your hands in order to bend your elbows and lift your hips. This is not possible if your hands are too close to your hips.

When you set up for the pose, set your hands about a foot forward of your hips. This way, you can lean forward into your hands. This will make bending your elbows and lifting your hips much more accessible.

2. The Outside Elbow

Get. It. In. The outside elbow likes to drift outward. But, this often leads to the outside shoulder dropping too low. When the outside shoulder drops low, it can easily put excess stress on the socket.

In order to help avoid this—and, provide your body with greater stability from your arms—hug your top elbow towards the ribs. It’s okay to set your hand a little wider than your shoulders, but be sure to hug your outside elbow in rather than allowing it to bow out.

3. The Often Overlooked Twist

When we practice arm balances, it’s easy to overlook their subtleties. In Astavakrasana, it’s common for students to forget that one of the posture’s defining element’s is spinal rotation. We get so focused on the hand-balancing element, that we omit the action of twisting. So, don’t drop the ball next time you practice Astavakrasana. Remember to use the squeeze of your legs, press of your hands, and action of your core to maximize your twist.

See also The Expert’s Guide to Chaturanga, Part I

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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Yoga Pose Notebook: Natarajasana (King Dancer Pose)

Natarajasana | King Dancer Pose | Jason Crandell Vinyasa Yoga Method

Before we get to the post, a quick, shameless plug for my upcoming trainings. You can join me live at my 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Training in San Francisco, London, or Hong Kong. I also have three separate online teacher trainings, focusing on arm balances & inversions, sequencing, or anatomy.

If you’ve spent time practicing with me, you know that I like to organize postures into categories. Sorry, I’m a Virgo. I’m also from the Midwest which is why I’m apologizing for something I don’t need to apologize for. In my defense, Patanjali was an organizer and list maker. So was the Buddha. I’m in good company.

Naturajasana falls into the backbending category in which the arms are reaching overhead and holding the foot/feet. Notable members of this family include the One-Legged King of Pigeon postures (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana postures), the ridiculously difficult arm balance named Kapinjalasana, and Hand-to-Foot Boat Pose (Padangusthasana Dhanurasana). So, yeah, this pose group is difficult.

Writing as someone with a mortal’s body who can’t directly hold my foot in ANY of these postures, I am thankful that they’re all highly accessible with a strap. In fact, these are my favorite backbends to practice, and I’m convinced that I feel every bit as good in these postures as someone who can hold their foot without a strap (or, at least, that’s what I tell myself while I cry myself to sleep).

See also Backbends: When and Why to Engage Your Glutes

One Thing to Know About Natarajasana

This entire family is challenging, but Natarajasana’s difficultly stands out. In fact, a highly skilled and capable student in my recent workshop in Copenhagen asked me why she wasn’t able to do Natarajasana, even though she had deep backbends. This is how the conversation went (with a few embellishments here for your entertainment):

Student: Why can’t I hold my foot in Natarajasana, when I can hold my foot in similar postures like Pigeon Pose?

Me: You’re not spirituality pure enough and the only way to burn the necessary samskaras is to provide your teacher with significant cash donations.

Student: No.

Me: OK. There’s another reason, and it’s simple. If you have the flexibility to hold your foot in Pigeon Pose, you probably have the flexibility to hold your foot in Natarajasana. The challenge is that it’s much more difficult to access your flexibility in Natarajasana than Pigeon.

Student: OK.

Me: Let’s quickly break this down. In Pigeon Pose, you have a lot of contact with the floor. Your front shin, your front knee, your front hip, and your back knee are in contact with the ground (or props). This means you’re stable and you have good leverage. When you’re stable and you have good leverage, you can generate more motion in your body to do your backbend. Plus, in Pigeon Pose, your center of gravity is close to the floor.

Therefore, in Pigeon Pose you have: More stability + more leverage + lower center of gravity = more range of motion.

Compare this to Natarajasana. In Natarajasana, your entire base consists of your standing foot. That’s all. In addition, you’re standing upright so your center of gravity is much higher. Pigeon is short and squat, Natarajasana is long and narrow.. This means that you have much less stability in Natarajasana than you do in Pigeon Pose.

When you have less stability, your body creates greater tension to stabilize your shape. This leads to less mobility—or, more accurately, less access to your mobility. You’re still just as flexible, but you can’t access it under the current conditions.

Get the difference? Yes? Good, come to my yoga teacher trainings. No? Good, come to one of my teacher trainings. Sorry, for the shameless plug, but if you’ve made it this far in this tedious article, we share common ground.

Therefore, in Natarajasana you have: Less stability + less leverage + higher center of gravity = less range of motion.

Student: You’re still not getting a cash donation.

That’s how the story goes.

To prove that she was able to do Natarajasana, I supported her raised knee properly and she easily reached back and took hold of her foot. When I provided her with additional base and stability, she was able to access her flexibility—just like she does in the other postures in this family.

When you don’t have a friend or a teacher to help create stability for you, you can do so by rooting through the base of the big toe, grounding the inner heel, and engaging quadriceps. You could also stand parallel to a wall (on the standing leg side) and place you hand against the wall so that you can feel the activation in your standing leg.

What’s the simple take-away that goes beyond Natarajasana? Sadly, you don’t need to give your teachers cash donations to do more difficult postures. Instead, you have to focus on producing greater stability and activity in your base, so your body is able to move more freely.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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Yoga Pose Notebook: Ustrasana (Camel Pose)

Ustrasana Camel Pose | Tips for Camel Pose | Jason Crandell Vinyasa Yoga Method

I wanted to like Ustrasana, or Camel Pose, for years, but everything kept getting in my way. Everything, meaning, my lower back, my neck, and the way that my ego was offended when I practiced the pose.

Then, it dawned on me that one of the techniques in the posture that nearly every teacher (including myself) uses was totally irrational. The problem—for my body and many others—was forcing the pelvis to stay positioned directly over the knees. To say this another way, the cascade of problems stemmed from keeping the legs vertical and stacking the hips directly over the knees.

Now, before I continue, let me make something clear: Many people can keep their pelvis positioned vertically over their knees. This alignment is not bad. In fact, it works very well for students who have fairly flexible hip-flexors. However, there are plenty of students—like myself—for whom this instruction does greater harm than good.

See also Essential Sequence: Learn to Love Camel Pose

Should the Hips Stack Over the Knees in Ustrasana?

Let’s look at why keeping the pelvis directly over the knees doesn’t work for everyone.

To begin, think about Bridge Pose for a moment. With the exception of the position of your neck, Bridge pose is just like doing Camel Pose— but on your back. When students practice Bridge Pose, they are never told that they must lift their hips to the same height as their knees.

Of course, lifting the hips this high is a good thing if it doesn’t cause compression in the lower back. But, making this a prerequisite for the pose would be silly. There are zero mechanical reasons to lift the hips as high as the knees, and requiring them to lift this high would likely cause students with tighter hip flexors to move too far in the lower-back in order to make up the difference.

The same goes for Ustrasana. If you require your hips to stay vertically aligned over your knees and you don’t have sufficient hip flexor mobility, you’re likely to compress your lower back. Another way to say this: Your lower back is likely to move too far in order to compensate for your lack of hip flexor mobility. And if your lower back is excessively arched (and compressed) in this pose, you’re more likely to misalign other parts of your body, including your neck.

See also Backbends: When and Why to Engage your Glutes

How to Find Safe Alignment in Ustrasana

First, let me reiterate that keeping the pelvis directly stacked over the knees is not a problem if you have sufficient hip flexor mobility. If you practice Camel this way and you’re comfortable in your lower back, there is no reason to change your approach. This alignment is only a problem if it is creating a problem. Unfortunately, this alignment does cause a problem for students with less hip flexibility.

So, what’s the fix? Easy. Simply allow your pelvis to move slightly toward your heels in this posture. Another way of saying this is allow your hips to move slightly back instead of pushing them forward. This should decrease compression in your lower back by reducing the demand on the hip flexors. While doing this posture, remember to engage the bottom of your buttocks and do all the other skillful things that you do in backbends.

One note about your neck in Ustrasana. It’s essential to sort out your lower back before sorting out your neck. However, if your neck is still uncomfortable after you’ve sorted out your lower back, try keeping your chin slightly tucked toward the throat in the posture. This will make the muscles on the front and side of your neck work while preventing your neck from hyperextending. Since this can be demanding on the neck, you might want to shorten your duration in the pose to a few breaths.

And, remember, if you’re still unable to make friends with the pose, there’s always Bridge Pose instead.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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