About Ricardo das Neves

Ricardo das Neves is the author of Unenlightened: Confessions of an Irreverent Yoga Teacher , is occasionally known to tweet (@spirithumor) and is committed to keeping a minimum 35% wit content on his website. When he’s not trying to be funny, he acts very serious teaching yoga classes in and around Seattle. Want to receive humorously-described, illustrated yoga poses in your inbox? Click here. Connect with him on Google+

Get More from Your Yoga Class

careforbody01

The Often Overlooked Factor

There are many ways in which you can extend the benefits you receive from a yoga class, and ideas on that is just a Google search away.

But in my mind, the most overlooked way to get more out of a yoga class is to PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU’RE DOING WITH YOUR BODY BETWEEN CLASSES.

If you’re taking a class once, twice, or even three times a week to help you do away with pain or discomfort (or even for a positive reason, to improve your posture, to become more fit, or to derive mental or emotional benefits), the class will no doubt provide that.

But it’ll be difficult to build on the benefits of one class to the next if afterward you are hunched over a computer keyboard all day, or the ultra-plush couch in your living room sucks you in for a few hours of daily TV.

If the class lengthens and strengthens your muscles and improves your posture (and hence, breathing), then anything you do that negates these benefits afterward will reset you back to where you were, right?

Short of hiring an expert to tell you how to set up your office or observe how you use your time at home, follow a few basic rules:

* Set up your work chairs to raise your hips higher than your knees (your lumbar spine won’t collapse, your breath will be freer, and your energy will be higher)

* Opt for standing when possible, or alternate between standing and sitting

* Check in with your breath a few times a day: is it naturally expansive, or is it shallow? If the latter, how are you sitting or standing that’s preventing it from feeling naturally expansive?

Take a look at a couple of illustrations:

careforbody01

1. While not terribly bad, this is an example of a rounded back that makes the breath shallow, shortens the hamstrings, and over time saps you of vitality. You could make yourself sit up straight, but then you’d actually be working, tightening your muscles to prop yourself up.

Instead…

careforbody02

2. You could rearrange your seat so your feet are on the floor and your sitting bones are supported and your back is naturally straight… or…

careforbody03

3. You could stand, if your working surface is at a good height and your line of vision to your work is below eye level.

Why does this matter? Well, when you return to your yoga class, the stretching, the balancing and the strengthening poses will actually have a chance to build from one class to the next… as opposed to just resetting the compression that your muscles and vertebrae got exposed to between classes.

This will help to deliver what yoga promises: better body awareness for better body functioning.

Visual Yoga Blog: Refresh your Eyes the Yoga Way

EyeRefresh03-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

Good Vision: What’s Yoga Got to Say About It?

Remarkably little, alas. I’m a yoga teacher, and I’d love share with you tons of effective yoga techniques, but… for all the modern awareness that we have about eye health, apparently ancient yogis (and yogis as recent as the early 20th century) didn’t have much to offer for vision any more than they did for hearing.

My guess is that just as yogis probably didn’t lose their hearing from repeated exposure to hip-hop or death metal concerts, they probably didn’t get progressive vision loss by staring all day at a tiny little screen less than an arm’s length away.

When diabetes first surfaced in the 1600s, the physicians of the day checked Greek treatises to find out how the ancient Greeks dealt with this particular affliction. They couldn’t find anything. All through ancient times, there was no diabetes. Our love affair with carbohydrates got quite a boost once sugar cane appeared in the West (around the time of the Crusades), and although sugar is only part of the diabetes story, sugar helped to turn diabetes into today’s pandemic.

Likewise, the yogic toolbox is a little lacking in eye health because they probably didn’t need to fix something that didn’t need fixing. My great-grandmother had perfect vision into her 70s. She was also illiterate until late middle age. While I wouldn’t give up my literacy and all it has brought me, I’m aware that all my life I’ve been using my eyes to do something they never evolved to do: look at tiny little squiggles for hours on end, every single day of the year.

This is me the individual, not the yoga teacher, speaking: I think less-than-perfect vision is the canary in the coal mine that alerts us to other underlying issues, to wit:

  • Spending too many hours of the day looking at screens
  • Spending too many hours of the day indoors, looking at things not particularly far away
  • A diet that’s carbohydrate-heavy and not sufficiently emphasizing of fresh vegetables
  • Not sleeping enough (recent statistics suggest that 37% of North Americans do not get enough sleep; I suspect the number is higher)
  • We’re tense: driving, juggling work and personal and family time, too much of a barrage of information and news that we don’t really need
  • Not hydrating ourselves enough or in the correct fashion
  • Not having enough time of true relaxation

    Now, this is me the yoga teacher: Whatever yogic techniques exist are limited and often borrowed from associated disciplines. The most successful, as far as my own experience, is “palming” — cupping your hands over your (closed) eyes till all the light is blocked, and staying with it for 5 or 10 minutes at a time:

    EyeRefresh01-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    Needless to say, even though you might visit this technique briefly in a yoga class, 5 minutes would feel like an eternity. Plus, in a yoga class, where do you rest your elbows? Elbows up might be fine for a minute or two… after that, it gets tiresome, then tight, then painful.

    There’s another technique: rubbing the eyelids lightly with your fingers, but that (plus massaging assorted other pressure points around the orbits of the eyes and at the back of the head), in my experience, only delivers a very short-lived refreshment to the eyes and to vision — certainly not as much as palming for 5 or 10 minutes.

    So, what to do with tension around the eyes? Enter our friend, the yoga strap:

    EyeRefresh02-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    Bring it up to eye level and trie it behind your head. Not tightly, just enough that the eyelids are being lightly held shut by the strap. Like this:

    EyeRefresh03-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    Leave it on for 10 minutes. Yes, you still have to invest 10 minutes, but you can talk with someone (hey, even on the phone… in case anybody still does that…), you can sit and listen to relaxing music, or you can meditate.

    Which brings me to the only time in which my vision felt truly reset without doing so artificially (click here for an extended account of my experience with orthokeratology): it was many years ago, at a workshop that involved extended guided relaxation. I don’t remember the length of this guided relaxation, but when we sat up (we were lying on our backs), myopic me could suddenly see far across the room with a level of acuity that I hadn’t experienced in a long time–and it lasted, to my surprise, for half an hour or more.

    There’s evidence that we can indeed do something for our vision, and vision therapy is one of them. Granted, this is outside of yoga, but if you look for vision therapy programs from reputable optometrists, you will find techniques and exercises effective in coordinating your brain, your vision, and the signals they send each other. I have personally experienced these in the past and can attest to their value.

    But if you’re in the market for a solution that doesn’t involve paying a professional, I believe you should consider this:

  • Can you find a way to cut down drastically on the time spent staring at screens? Calling instead of texting? Listening to audio instead of reading?
  • Can you find a way to spend time outdoors daily, looking at things near and far?
  • Can you consider that your diet may be more carbohydrate-intensive than you think (labels on U.S. foods suggest that an “average” carbohydrate consumption for an “average” adult should be 300 grams a day. Any dietitian worth her weight in… salt? sugar?… will tell you that this is a formula for putting on weight through the years and becoming at least pre-diabetic. Some feel that a third of that, about 100 grams of carbs, is more than sufficient for the average person.)
  • Can you find a way to rearrange your life so you can sleep 8 hours? Your actual ideal number might be more or slightly less, but generally, if you’re relying on caffeine in the morning to energize you, that may be the clearest indication that your sleep tanks are not getting full).
  • Can you identify sources of stress within your control? Can you find a more relaxed way of commuting? Can you substitute watching or listening to the news (or your friends’ social media rants) in favor of more calming, more pleasant, more fulfilling things?
  • Can you find a way to sip, not gulp, water regularly throughout the day? (Click here for something else I wrote about eye health.)
  • Can you find a way to build true relaxation into your day… whether that’s with yoga, tai-chi, a meditation practice, being with friends, or taking a bath?

    Here is my final yoga pose suggestion that incorporates some of the above:

    EyeRefresh04-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    Lie on your back, swing your legs up a wall, cup your palms over your eyes, and remain here for 5-10 minutes. If your eyes don’t thank you, your back, your lumbar spine and your hamstrings will.

    If it’s not restful enough to have your hands on your eyes for this length of time, try doing this with a yoga strap lightly tied around your eyes, as in the previous illustrations.

    Just be sure that if you do this at work, you’re wearing a sign that says “Don’t freak out! I’m just resting my eyes!”

  • Learn to Balance better with The Revolved Tree Pose

    RevolvedTree06-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    Balance: Tricky In Yoga, as In Life

    Many people describe themselves as having poor balance (especially in my classes, which tend to be balance-intensive), but you can train your body to balance better.

    On the surface, the Revolved Tree Pose looks like a challenging balance/twist pose; but like most poses in yoga, the trick is to know the approach into the position. Here’s how to train your body to balance better by breaking the pose down into the right approach.

    RevolvedTree01-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    1. Start in a lunge position: right leg forward, right foot flanked on both sides by your hands. If getting the hands well-grounded eludes you, try using a yoga block under each hand. Take three slow breaths here.

    RevolvedTree02-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    2. Shift the weight of your body forward and raise your right leg. Hands should wind up directly beneath the shoulders. Again, if it’s hard to reach your hands to the floor while keeping your standing knee straight, then use blocks beneath the hands. Take two slow breaths in this pose.

    RevolvedTree03-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    3. Now, lift your hands off the floor while raising your upper body and swinging your right leg through. Extend your arms out to the sides to balance easier. Set your gaze on a spot on the floor out in front of you. Take two slow breaths.

    RevolvedTree04-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    4. Cross your right ankle atop your left thigh.

    RevolvedTree05-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    5. Bring your palms together and begin to lean forward and downward.

    RevolvedTree06-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    6. Turn slowly to your left and place your right elbow on the instep of your right foot, as pictured. Keep your left elbow pointed upwards and your palms pressing together. Look at the floor for easier balance, though when you master the balance you can look away from the floor instead. Stay for 6 slow breaths and then repeat the entire sequence, starting from the lunge position, on the other side.

    Benefits: Fantastic purveyor of balance and a gateway pose to other balancing or twisting positions. Significantly increases your proprioception (awareness of position of body in space).

    Avoid if: Because this position requires a fair amount of balance, if your reflexes aren’t fast enough for you to place your second foot on the floor if you lose your balance, then you might want to skip this in favor of easier balancing poses first… or surround yourself by ten thousand cushions and wear a parachute for good measure.

    Final thoughts: Additional benefits not listed above include amusing your coworkers by pretending this is how you check if there’s anything stuck to the bottom of your shoe.

    Visual Yoga Blog: The Assisted Splits

    AssistedSplits05-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    Recently I discussed Doing the Splits, The Easy Way

    Being able to do the splits always seems like one of the hallmarks of flexibility: for some it’s something to strive toward; for others, it seems about as possible as crossing your legs behind your neck.

    With the Assisted Splits, there’s a way to make the impossible a little more possible.

    You need 3 props of different heights for this. Examples are a rolled-up yoga mat, a yoga block, and either a shorter-height yoga block, or, in this example, a ball.

    AssistedSplits02-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    1. Sit on the floor with your legs positioned wide as pictured. Take a rolled-up yoga mat and lean your forehead on it while keeping your back straight and hinging at your hips. If this position is already outside your range of possibilities right now, then reference Doing the Splits, the Easy Way for a better way to get started on the splits. However, if you are able to come into this position, then stay here, with your forehead supported, for the space of 10 slow breaths.

    AssistedSplits03-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    2. The subsequent steps are just a variation on the first one. After your hamstrings have had the chance to acclimate to the first position, then substitute the mat with a block, as pictured. Same guidelines: back straight, hinging at the hips, not forcing and simply waiting patiently for more relaxation to build in the hamstrings. Spend anywhere between 10 and 20 slow breaths in this position.

    AssistedSplits04-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    3. If your body is up for it, go deeper, supporting the weight of the upper body on the forehead either with a shorter-height block or with a soft ball, as pictured. Spend 10-20 slow breaths in this position.

    AssistedSplits05-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    4. If after this slow, gradual approach your hamstrings, hip joints and back feel ready to advance more, then walk your hands farther out in front of you and bring your chest and abdomen onto the floor as pictured. Stay for a minimum of 5 slow breaths.

    Benefits: As with any splits, this is a fantastic releaser of hamstrings, low back and hip joint tension. This approach has the specific advantage of letting you progress faster into the position because your body has an easier time relaxing into stretch when it’s supported.

    Avoid if: Bear in mind that if you are able to get to the first step, it may be the extent of what your body can do for right now… and that step 1 is where you stop; repeat on a daily basis until the subsequent steps are doable without pain or discomfort. So if you experience pain or discomfort in any of these steps, back off the intensity of the stretch until the pain/discomfort disappears. Then stay there, breathing at the edge of a comfortable stretch. If you cannot get to any point in this practice where you do not experience pain, then check my other poses for ideas of other things you can do now that are gentler on your body.

    Final thoughts: It’s been suggested that the final prop is a big lump of chocolate placed at mouth level on the floor. The person who came up with this variation eventually became really good at the splits, but also really fat.

    The Dynamic Weight-Bearing Spinal Twist

    DynamicWeightBearingTwist05-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    Sometimes a twist isn’t just a twist…

    … if you’re holding a weight at one or both ends of the twist.

    The use of the weight is what I call a dynamic twist: you’re not just resting in the twist; you’re muscularly engaged in it. This makes the twist strengthening as well as… well, twisting.

    But… where do you find an easily-accessible weight?

    In your yoga mat, that’s where.

    Here it is, in 5 easy steps.

    DynamicWeightBearingTwist01-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    1. Lie on your back, bring your knees up to your chest and hold your rolled-up yoga mat in your hands, arms outstretched. Take two slow breaths.

    DynamicWeightBearingTwist02-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    2. Tip your knees to your left and your arms and the mat to the right. Bring the arms and the legs as close to the floor as you can, but do not let them rest on it.

    DynamicWeightBearingTwist03-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    3. Extend your left arm out to the left and leave your right hand holding the mat by itself. You’re still floating off the floor with both the arms and the legs. Take two slow breaths here.

    DynamicWeightBearingTwist04-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    4. Extend your right leg and place your left hand on it. Remember: except for your hip and back, everything else is off the floor.

    DynamicWeightBearingTwist05-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    5. If your range of motion allows this, grab your right big toe with your left hand, as pictured. If not, stay in step 4. Either way, take five slow breaths. Then, repeat on the other side.

    Benefits: This pose is multi-functionally useful: here you have something that involves balance, abdominals, hip stretch, iliotibial (IT) band, low back (lumbar) release, upper back release, shoulder release/stretch, spinal release/stretch and, last but not least, strength. Not bad for a single pose.

    Avoid if: If your shoulders, hips or spine hurt in any way in the midst of this pose, try not going quite as far in the twist–that is, twist, but not quite so close to the floor with your arms and legs. If you still encounter pain or discomfort, then you might try some other gentler poses.

    Final thoughts: With so many things that this pose does, you could consider it the Swiss Army knife of yoga poses. If so, we can agree that the extended leg is the knife blade, and the mat you’re holding in the opposite hand is the bottle opener. It’s kind of a soft bottle opener, but you shouldn’t be drinking that beer bottle during yoga anyway!

    The Balancing Lumbar And Hamstring Release

    RecliningHamstringBalance04-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    In Yoga, as in life, we seldom think about balancing with our backs.

    Balance is something we do with our feet and our legs, right? Or with our hands or head if we’re in an inversion. But combining balance with some stretching on our back can be a pretty effective way of doing several things at once–the key to making your yoga practice more useful and compact.

    The following position lengthens your lumbar spine and your hamstrings, engages some abdominal muscles, and gives you a sense of what it is to balance on your spine.

    You’ll need a yoga block (or equivalent) and a tightly rolled up yoga mat. And about 2 minutes.

    RecliningHamstringBalance00-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    1. Sit down atop the bottom end of your (once again, tightly rolled up) yoga mat. Set up your block at the top of the yoga mat so it’s there to support your head.

    RecliningHamstringBalance01-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    2. Lie down on the mat. Your spine should be well supported by it. Also, slide up or down on the rolled mat until both the shoulders and your hip bone feel well supported by the rolled-up mat. Take 3 slow breaths in this position.

    RecliningHamstringBalance02-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    3. Extend your right arm to the right on the floor. Lift your legs and tilt them slightly to the right, so your balance shifts toward the support your right arm is creating. Lift your left hand toward your left leg.

    RecliningHamstringBalance03-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    4. Grab your left calf (or ankle, or wherever you can reach with your left hand) and gently pull your left leg in toward your chest, while breathing slow, even breaths.

    RecliningHamstringBalance04-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    5. Here’s another view of the pose to highlight the fact that your upper body is supported by the cilindrical shape of the mat and the block: only your right arm actually touches the floor. Take five slow, deep breaths in this position and then repeat the sequence on the other side.

    Benefits: Increases your sense of proprioception and balance. Relaxes your spine, which can often be tight from long periods of sitting. Lengthens your lumbar area and lengthens your hamstrings at an easy, gentle pace. Helps to increase your focus, as you have to be paying attention to where your balance is currently shifting to, in a dynamic, ever-changing way.

    Avoid if: When you lie down on the rolled mat (and adjust it, again, so hip and upper back are equivalently well supported atop the mat), it should feel comfortable. If it doesn’t; if your spine objects to that much pressure on it when you lift the legs, then you might want to try other gentler poses first before you tackle this one. Also, some yoga mats are flimsy and too thin to provide enough cushioning for this practice; if you have a second yoga mat, roll it together with the first one, so you have a more robust cushion.

    Final thoughts: We don’t always attempt to do several things at once in yoga. Yes, poses that do multiple things (stretch, strengthen, balance and release) can be the yogic equivalent of getting more yoga in by cutting corners, but beware of cutting too many corners. A yogi once tried to balance (on one hand), stretch (feet on top of his head), strengthen (abs and arm strength from the balance) and have his morning cup of tea, and everything was going well till he discovered he hadn’t let the tea cool enough for drinking. He had to get a new tea set and wear a cast for two months. I’m just sayin’.

    Visual Yoga Blog: Doing the Splits, The Easy Way

    EasySplits10-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    In Yoga, a Little Preparation Goes a Long Way.

    I’d been doing yoga for five years before I took a class where the teacher put us into the splits. “Holy mother of Ganesh!” I thought (or something less family-friendly), “Everybody’s flat on the floor and I’m up here, as vertical as a prairie dog!”

    If you’ve never stretched this way before (or you didn’t inherit gymnast or acrobat genes), chances are that you too might find the side splits a little challenging (or for that matter, the front-back splits). But I’ve discovered through the years that with a little mindful preparation, it’s possible to get the body into this position… and harvest all its stretchy benefits.

    The key to this? A meandering approach into the full position. And help from a prop: specifically, a tightly rolled-up yoga mat.

    Here’s how. Remember to take the recommended amount of breaths in each pose and don’t rush any step.

    EasySplits01-www.RicardoDasNeves.com1. Sit on top of your tightly-rolled yoga mat. Shift around until your glutes, hamstrings and sitting bones feel well-cushioned by this placement of the mat. You should feel comfortable. Place the hands on the floor behind you. This could be the palms, the fingertips, or a couple of yoga blocks underneath the hands. Keep your back straight. Take five very slow breaths here, feeling the remnants of the diaphragmatic movement reach down as far as your hamstrings, hips and sitting bones.

    Note that this may be as far as your body can go into the entire sequence. If this feels like a challenging stretch already, do yourself a favor and go no further. Call this your splits, and practice it daily it for several weeks before you try to go any deeper.

    EasySplits02-www.RicardoDasNeves.com2. Still sitting on the mat, lean to your right, raise your left arm and reach toward your right foot. Keep your right hand where it was in step 1, on the floor. If your hand cannot touch the foot with comfort, do not force the arm position or your body position. Instead, leave the hand floating however close to the foot it’s able to reach. Take five slow breaths in this position. Let yourself relax into it.

    EasySplits03-www.RicardoDasNeves.com3. Reach across to the other side: left hand behind you on the floor to support you, right arm reaches toward your left foot. Five slow breaths, letting them sink in.

    EasySplits04-www.RicardoDasNeves.com4. Slide forward and off the rolled-up mat. You’re sitting on the floor/regular yoga mat now, and your hips and hamstrings should already be feeling slightly more pliable from the three preceding steps. Take two slow breaths here.

    Again, this may be another go-no-further point. If so, just stay here and breathe five or ten slow breaths instead and save going further for such time as your hamstrings and hips have given up a little of their normal tightness. Bear this in mind especially if you have great-grandchildren, are a newcomer to yoga or stretching, or if you haven’t been physically active since Olivia Newton-John sang “(Let’s Get) Physical.”

    EasySplits05-www.RicardoDasNeves.com5. Lean forward a little and place the back of your right hand in front of your right leg, as pictured. Take two slow breaths.

    EasySplits06-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    EasySplits07-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    6. Reach your left arm overhead toward the foot. Gently advance your right hand so as to turn your chest more toward the ceiling. Again, if you cannot reach your foot, just let your left arm hang overhead, as pictured in the second image. Take five slow breaths here.

    EasySplits071-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    EasySplits072-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    7. Repeat, leaning to the left. Remember to inch forward with your left hand, arm and shoulder when arriving at the pose. Five slow breaths.

    EasySplits08-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    EasySplits09-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    8. After your fifth breath, don’t come back up; instead, lean forward. Your hips joints, hamstrings and low back will be primed for the forward fold, so just place your hands on the floor and fold forward. Take five slow breaths.

    EasySplits10-www.RicardoDasNeves.com

    9. Stay in the previous position, propped up on your hands or elbows, or if your muscles have begun to acclimate and yield to the pose and relaxation, then extend the arms out in front of you and let your body gradually arrive into the full position. Take ten or more slow breaths in it.

    10. When you’re done, lie on your back and relax for a couple of minutes, letting your body absorb and process the stretch.

    Benefits: Unparalleled releaser of hamstring, hip and lower back tension. Do this for the course of ten or fifteen slow breaths and it’ll feel like you’ve been put back together to the relaxation and suppleness of the day you were born. Plus, you get to think of yourself as one of those ultimately-limber people who can do stuff like this. (Ego alert! Ego alert!)

    Avoid if: There are many reasons to avoid this position, or to stop along the various stopping points that I outlined. If just sitting on the rolled-up mat is enough to make you feel less than comfortable, by all means go no further. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the tension in your hamstrings, hips and low back. It is technically possible to release that tension in a relatively short time, but you want to do that under the guidance and individual attention of a yoga teacher attuned to your body and your specific circumstances. Absent the individualized attention, go slowly, stay away from pain, and just revisit the position daily, like having tea with a friend: easy, relaxed visiting.

    Final thoughts: If you don’t know who Olivia Newton-John is, or if you’ve never heard the song “(Let’s Get) Physical” — you’re definitely young enough to do the splits without having to stop at step 1. You missed a very disposable phase of pop culture, and for that you should be more grateful than for being able to do the splits.