A Case for Yoga

By Monique Parker

Yoga is being used therapeutically in conjunction with modern medicine today to aid in a variety of physical conditions and psychological problems. Research reveals that practicing yoga regularly helps to reduce high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. Yoga can even assist in the absorption of prescription medication, so that it can work more effectively.

When the physical exercises or asanas are combined with breathing exercises or pranayama, meditation, and a proper, well-balanced diet, the body’s physiological systems stabilize. The endocrine system—the thyroid, parathyroid, and thymus glands—normalize. Assimilation and digestion improves. Respiratory rate increases. Circulation and cardiovascular efficiency improves. Generally, your energy levels are higher.

From a physical and structural perspective, yoga improves both musculoskeletal strength and flexibility. Joint range of motion increases. Muscular asymmetry rebalances. Posture improves.

Yoga also has a huge advantage in that it directly and positively affects well-being and mood stability since breath regulation and focused concentration enhances one’s ability to cope with stress. There’s also more alpha and theta brain wave activity (which occur when we are relaxed and calm). As a result, you feel more alive, peaceful, and optimistic. Even sleep improves.

Yoga for Svastha

The Sanskrit word svastha is derived from two roots, sva meaning “self”, and stha meaning “to stay”. Thus, the goal of yoga is to stay as one’s self. As a practice you show up to your exercise-pranayama-meditation in order to 1) remind yourself to stay present in the moment, and 2) bring yourself back into harmony with nature and yourself.

Whenever you invest more energy in activities, work, and other people than you get back, you operate at a deficit. This state of imbalance leads to degeneration rather than regeneration. As well, because of the constant pull of gravity, our vital pranic life force flows in only one direction causing the stagnation of chi and results in high blood pressure, slipped disks, back ache, hernia, and other health issues.

That’s where yoga comes in as a healing modality. When practiced regularly, yoga brings about balance: structurally, physiologically, and mentally.  Here are some helpful tips for incorporating this ancient science into your life, today.

Tips for Starting Yoga

Find a teacher. Get direction from an experienced and certified yoga therapist or instructor. Guidance from a qualified professional will not only help you to feel better, but also help you to avoid injury or exacerbating a pre-existing condition.

Look around you. Increase your awareness by learning to pay attention to your body and how stimuli and certain activities affect your sense of well-being. Practice unplugging from brainless, instant gratification activities: TV, Internet, boredom eating. Notice the world around you: the wind, the shape of the mountains, how the body relaxes when exposed to the warmth of the sun.

Start small. Don’t overcommit. If you do less, on a more consistent basis, your body will more quickly regenerate. As with any resolution, habits form after around 30 days. You’ll have a better chance of sticking to a routine performed daily for 20 minutes than once a week for ninety minutes.

Join a class. A structured yoga class is beneficial because of the strong social support. If you are someone who needs people—and who doesn’t?—find a class that meets several times a week. Many teachers are trained to offer modifications for participants at varying levels of experience.

Be gentle with yourself. When we practice self-acceptance versus competition, we experience life in a way that nourishes rather than promotes conflict, both internally and externally.

The best news is that every step you take to improve your health will have a noticeably positive impact on the path of yoga.

**First published in The Taos News on May 23, 2013





The True Essence of Partner Yoga

By Monique Parker

Ed (71) and Lynn (66) Galusky, both of whom have been working to improve their balance, support each other in Vrkasana or Tree pose.

The term “partner yoga” conjures up the image of a couple simultaneously exercising together, perhaps one person supporting the other while both assume a posture.

While this relatively new form of “couples yoga” is on the rise among yoga practitioners and may offer a novel way to experience asana and “other”, the truest form of partner yoga is when two people provide the mutual support, trust, and encouragement to learn and grow in a way that serves the highest good of each individual.

Married 44 years, Lynn and Ed Galusky took up yoga for different reasons, but support each other in their individual practices, which they perform at the same time in separate rooms of their Questa home.

For Lynn and Ed Galusky, this means having a practice that addresses the unique needs and goals of each partner. Married forty-four years, the Galusky’s, who came to yoga for different reasons, practice yoga at the same time of day in separate rooms of their Questa home.

“Lynn started doing yoga first and kept it up,” says Ed, “I started thinking, ‘there must be something beneficial to this’ and it got me going.”

The Galuskys moved to Questa from a Dallas suburb ten years ago after retiring; Ed worked as a building maintenance engineer and Lynn as a special education teacher and counselor.

Lynn stretches her quadriceps, which is also a balance posture.

I met Lynn at Questa High School four years ago; I was teaching dual-credit college English and she was back at work full-time as both as a counselor and special education teacher. “I could have stayed retired, but why, when I can still make a difference in kids’ lives?” she says.

Lynn, 66, started taking yoga classes with me nearly two years ago at the Questa Health and Fitness Center. Soon after, she augmented her routine with a home practice. “I had polio as a kid and had to wear corrective shoes or my ankles would get all bloody,” she says, demonstrating a hyper-pronated duck-walk.

When Lynn first started practicing, she habitually locked her knees when standing, which is not uncommon when someone has a meniscus tear or knee pain accompanied by movement. “I have arthritis in my knees and a meniscus tear—probably from playing soccer—but I’m holding off on surgery,” she adds.

With the advice of Dr. Ganesh Mohan, we designed a series of exercises that helped strengthen the muscles surrounding her knee joint. “And look,” she happily says, “I don’t lock my knees anymore.”

Lynn also suffered from neuromuscular tension in her back and neck, affecting a rounded posture with hunched shoulders. “Turning my head like this,” she says, looking over her shoulder, “was almost impossible before I started yoga. My shoulders are now down and I no longer have aches and pains like I used to.”

The yogic breathing also helped her to cope with work-related stress. “It’s gotten harder at school with all the politics,” she says. “There are nights I don’t want to do my practice, but halfway through I’m glad I did.”

Her dedication has paid off in a marked change of attitude. “I can still spout off and get mad, but it doesn’t affect me as much,” she says. “I do deep breathing at work and my attitude now is ‘Oh well, it will be there tomorrow, let it go.’”

Nine months after Lynn took up yoga her husband Ed came to me for a private session. “I’ve never been flexible,” he says. “I had low back pain and high blood pressure. But since I started yoga my blood pressure has lowered. A few weeks ago it was 115 over 70.”

Ed practicing Tadasan or toe balance pose.

After a long hiatus, Ed, 71, took up tennis two years ago. While he was sprite, which allowed him to cover the court, he noticed that he was stiff and that his balance needed improvement. “I used to fall all over the place when I started standing on my toes,” he says.

One of the postures Ed practices is Tadasana or palm tree pose, a basic but important exercise for spinal extension, focus, and balance. While inhaling, he simultaneously raises his arms and lifts his heels to balance on his toe mounds. At first he took support of a wall, but he no longer needs to. Every couple of months, when Ed is ready for more challenge, he follows up with another yoga session.

Although retired, he keeps himself busy practicing permaculture; Ed also built a greenhouse and woodworking shop. A believer in preventative measures, he appreciates having a personal yoga practice that he can do in the privacy and convenience of his own home. “Group settings can be impersonal and somewhat generic since the teacher has a lot of students,” he says. “Having a home practice, then a weekly group class for variation is ideal. The familiarity of the exercises helps in the group.”

Perhaps by accident, Ed has already tapped into the crux of yoga practice: “I always feel better afterwards,” he says. “It’s what keeps me motivated so that I’ll do it again.”

**First published in The Taos News on April 18, 2013


Taos Men Do Yoga

by Monique Parker

Men have been the predominant practitioners of Hatha Yoga in India for thousands of years. That changed when yoga migrated west and women began attending classes in droves. It’s not uncommon to see a 10:1 ratio of women to men in most classes. Many men may have steered clear of Hatha Yoga as a form of physical exercise, thinking they weren’t flexible enough or that it wasn’t a macho activity.

Fortunately, the number of men attending yoga classes and seeking out private instruction is increasing—across the US and in Taos. This past month I met with three men from our community who I’ve known for years and who have at one time or another expressed interest in trying yoga. For a variety of reasons, they are all finally ready to get on the mat.

Steve Borkert

Steve Borkert combines pursed lip breathing to reduce shortness of breath with arm raises to lengthening his spine and expand chest muscles.

After ending up in the hospital with congestive heart failure four years ago, Steve Borkert, 60, got a wake up call. “I had a bop ‘til you drop mentality,” Steve says, “until I was in the hospital joking around with some bro’s, and my doctor says, ‘There’s a chance you might not survive this.’”

Since his recovery, Steve experienced several bouts of pneumonia. “I realized how compromised my lungs were,” he says. “I decided to recommit to yoga to improve my breathing, but also my posture and stamina.”

Steve’s yoga practice includes daily pursed-lip breathing exercises to reduce shortness of breath and exercises to help strengthen and mobilize the muscles that aid breathing, such as Dvidpada Pitham or bridge pose, arm raises, and Cat/Cow, which emphasizes spinal extension and flexion.

“I’ve been clean and sober for 20 years,” Steve says. “Since my illness I have reassessed my physical, mental, and spiritual life.” Besides yoga, Steve walks regularly and has recently made changes to improve his diet.

In addition to working as a general contractor for 18 years, Steve volunteered for the Latir Fire Department for 12 years and served as the vice-president of the Latir Neighborhood Association. “I’d like to be of more service to others because of my feelings about being inside this body for a short time.”

Michael Rael

Michael Rael takes support of a strap to stretch his calves and hamstrings after prolonged sitting in the car.

Despite living with pain for most of his life, Michael Rael, 63, lives life to the fullest. When he’s not working alongside his brothers at Questa Lumber & Hardware, he serves as the Municipal Judge in Questa, is a member of the Municipal Judge’s Association of New Mexico, is on the board of Roots and Wings Community School, and, for 11 years, served on the board of Community Against Violence (CAV).

An accomplished musician, his band plays at the Midtown Lounge once a month; he volunteers as a DJ at KRZA where he gives air time to “damn good friends who are damn good musicians”; and every Monday afternoon he entertains seniors at the Taos Living Center.

“I’m in pain from AM to PM,” he says. “I’m on the road so much now that my legs have started cramping.”

Like his father and grandmother before him, Michael was born with a genetic predisposition that eventually required spinal fusion of his lower three lumbar vertebrae. “I can’t flex my spine,” he says. “It gets so bad that when I’m not in pain I can’t figure out what to do with myself.”

Michael’s yoga practice focuses on exercises that increase spinal mobility and stretch his calves, hamstrings, and piriformis—muscles that both tighten and atrophy with prolonged sitting. We also added Tadasana or Palm Tree Pose to improve his balance.

“It’s time to untie all the knots in my body,” Michael says, “ to feel better and get healthier.”

Andy Romero

In addition to weight lifting and swimming, Andy Romero practices yoga poses like Warrior or Virabhadrasana to strengthen his lower body and improve his posture.

Since joining the Northside Spa in December, Affordable Adobe builder Andy Romero, 59, has lost 25 pounds by lifting weights and swimming. He recently started practicing yoga again to help prepare for Jujitsu training. “My body is shrinking,” Andy says. “I know yoga will help me get back into shape and extend my posture to its natural 5’7” state.”

Along with his sons, who are also business partners, Andy made 20,000 adobe bricks ((many of which were donated) to help restore the 175-year old San Antonio de Padua Church in Questa. He started Affordable Adobe so local working people could afford homes. “I’ve got some chronic use injuries from building the last 17 years…left wrist, knee injuries…my posture’s starting to round,” he adds.

Andy practices Virabhadarasana, or Warrior Pose, and Asymmetrical Forward Bend, also called Parva Uttanasana to help strengthen his torso and improve his posture.

For over two decades he’s also practiced one of yoga’s most important spiritual precepts: turning one’s will over to a higher power. “Twenty-three years ago I stopped drinking and broke a 300-year-old lineage,” he says. “It was a life-altering occurrence that shifted my whole mental attitude. Once it shifted I couldn’t operate old patterns out of ignorance anymore.”

He hopes that more men will follow suit and make healthier choices. “You can’t edit life. When you commit to something like yoga—it may inspire someone else.”

**First published in The Taos News on March 17, 2013

Pre-Season Conditioning with Ardha Utkatasana: Chair or Half Squat Pose

 By Monique Parker

Svastha Yoga teacher Julie Cortopassi demonstrating half squat pose.

As snow season approaches, Taos athletes can get in some last minute pre-season conditioning with a popular yoga posture that benefits all winter sports: Ardha Utkatasana, also called Chair or Half Squat pose. Whether you snow shoe, cross country ski, downhill ski, snowboard, or ice skate, Utkatasana can help you to improve your performance while decreasing the risk of injury.

Even if winter sports aren’t your thing, the squat (often considered the king of exercises), because it strengthens key posture muscles—erector spinae, gluteals, quadriceps, hamstrings, and abdominals, is an exercise that can make navigating through life easier. Think of the muscles you use when you’re getting up off the floor, or in and out of the car. And, the squat is versatile: you can perform it anywhere (office, home, outdoors), as part of a larger routine or as an isolated exercise by itself.

Utkatasana, the classic deep knee yogic squat may increase the potential of injury to knee ligaments and therefore should be performed after considerable preparation.

There are a variety of squat variations to creatively challenge your muscles and keep you from getting bored:

  1. Standing in either wide or narrow stance
  2. Varying the degree of knee flexion (ranging from a few inches to a half squat to a squat where the thighs are lowered past parallel)
  3. Using weights or no load at all
  4. Going symmetrical (two feet on the ground) vs. asymmetrical (one legged squat)
  5. Lifting the heels off the floor (which also targets calf muscles)
  6. Squeezing a block between the thighs to help hug or co-contract the hamstring and quadriceps muscles

Squatting requires a high level of proprioception when done correctly (the ability to sense the position, location, and movement of the body in space). It’s also a closed-chain exercise, which coordinates the ankle, knee, and hip joints so they move together in a functional pattern.

“Yoga is a great tool for developing proprioception and balance in the muscles used for skiing and boarding. So when you’re sliding down a hill with something strapped to your feet, you can react to the terrain and more skillfully move through those inevitability awkward moments with fluidity,” says yoga instructor Monica Martin. “The more ready you are before you’re on skis or a board, the less warm up time it takes to be comfortable in the terrain you want to be in.”

Besides being used for ski conditioning, the half squat is also the basic stance used in ice-skating (knees bent, back straight, and arms out). In fact, when students learn to skate they’re frequently told that “if you start to fall, get small,” meaning, regain balance by bending the knees, keeping the feet and arms pointed forward. In this half squat pose, skaters find stability out on the ice.

“I always think of these instructions when I’m walking outside in winter, especially on icy parking lots,” says Carrie Leven, an ice skater and yoga practitioner, “and have saved myself from falling many times.”

One legged squat is a great variation for toning and strengthening legs in preparation for ice skating.

Skaters use one-legged squats to condition their legs and core and improve balance for performing sit spins and moves like “shoot the duck”, a full one-legged squat with the opposite leg extended forward. “The half-chair strengthens the core abdominals, back, and leg muscles that are so important to holding the body firmly upright in forward and backwards skating, as well as in the fast turns and jumps,” adds Leven.

Besides being a great sports conditioner, the modified squat is also used in physical therapy centers and may be appropriate for the rehabilitation of most knee injuries. If you have knee issues, please consult your doctor or physical therapist before performing this exercise.

Whether or not you ski, board, or skate, the benefits of Ardha Utkatasana, can’t be ignored. Happy Trails!

Carrie Leven will be offering a free “Yoga for Ice Skating” conditioning class October 28 from 11am-12:15 at the Taos Youth and Family Center. “Practicing yoga off the ice gives people strength, stability and confidence on the ice,” Leven says. For more information, call 586-1480.

Squatting with the heels up puts greater emphasis on the calves, develops balance, and is one of the core postures in the famous Bikram Yoga series.

Julie Cortopassi instructs a Gentle Svastha Yoga class on Fridays from 12-1:15pm at Santosha Yoga of Taos. “We work on postures that develop core strength and stability and to prevent bone loss,” says Julie. “We put in effort in conjunction with using the breath to create a holistic feeling of being strong, yet relaxed.”

Monica Martin, together with partner Josh Fredrickson, a ski instructor with over 20 years experience, designed a Pre-Snow Season Yoga Conditioning series that she teaches on Tuesdays 5:15-6:30pm at the Edelweiss Lodge & Spa at the TSV, and Wednesdays 6:15-7:30pm at AwarenessWorks Feldenkreis Studio in the Northstar Plaza in El Prado.

First Published in The Taos News on October 18, 2012

Getting Older & Better with Yoga

Cathi Kroon retired as the manager of Interpreter Services for Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, CT, and moved to Sunshine Valley three years ago with her husband Chuck.

by Monique Parker

The pursuit of happiness is something we all share. Yet as we grow older, the things that used to make us happy no longer top the list. Happiness in youth may come from achievements and acquisitions, but in mature adults the strongest factor of psychological well-being is good health.

A research study at Ohio State University polled people between the ages of 60-90 on life satisfaction. The results weren’t surprising: seniors valued good health, retirement money, and mobility (the ability to get around and maintain a level of independence).

Nobody likes to be ill or in pain, yet most of us associate the symptoms of declining health with getting older. Yoga can be beneficial in the prevention and maintenance of health issues related with old age. As a complementary therapy yoga can help reduce and eliminate symptoms—including pain that comes from muscle and skeletal problems. Here is an example of how one of my students found relief.

Last August Sunshine resident Cathi Kroon showed up at one of my yoga classes at Questa Fitness and Health. For two and a half years, Cathi experienced debilitating pain in her right hip that gave her fitful sleep, woke her in the morning, and worsened throughout the day. Regular activities like driving, playing piano, walking around the house, and anything that required her to bear weight worsened her condition.

Cathi demonstrates Parsva Uttanasana, an asymmetrical forward bend, with therapeutic support.

Refusing to live with pain, Cathi, sixty-seven, saw her primary care physician several times between the fall of 2010 and 2011, the first two visits resulting in physical therapy referrals, as he didn’t think arthritis was culprit. Cathi faithfully followed her physical therapy regimen, but never got permanent relief. She also passed up the pain prescription offered by her doctor and opted for an over-the-counter lower dosage to help moderate the pain and inflammation. “It dulled the pain to the level of ignorable and would serve to help for two to three days. Then it would come back,” she said. “I just didn’t want to take it forever.”

Cathi also followed a strength training routine and did aerobic exercise throughout the week, but her pain persisted. “After my first yoga class I was sore. I found neglected muscles I wasn’t using in my other exercise,” she said. “I decided that yoga would present me with a new approach to personal sustainability.”

Since starting yoga Cathi’s pain occurred less often, and as a result she required analgesics with decreasing frequency. “I lucked out the day I walked into Questa Fitness and discovered the level of yoga taught there,” she added. “When the facility closed I got high quality yoga that went beyond the cookie cutter postures by having Monique develop a specific course of action.”

When Cathi started yoga seven months ago she only dreamed of performing Parivrtti Utthita Trikonasana.

She returned to her doctor and was referred to Matthew Harrison, M.D, a physiatrist, who diagnosed her condition as trochanteric bursitis, inflammation of the fluid-sac at the outside of the hip. Dr. Harrison recommended more physical therapy and suggested a steroid injection, which Cathi deferred taking. “I also declined PT because I didn’t feel it was effective,” she said. “I asked him if I might pursue yoga therapy since after two months of classes I was beginning to notice steady improvement.” Dr. Harrison provided recommendations for me to use in designing her practice. He also conjectured that acupuncture might help.

Cathi can now sit pain-free. In this chest opener she works within her range of motion.

Cathi practiced her exercises twice daily for several months. Her routine consisted of modified asanas, similar to what she did in physiotherapy (but modified for her skill level), with the addition of exercises that developed core strength and better posture. We also incorporated yogic breathing coordinated with movement and awareness, and ample rest after each yoga session.

It was important that Cathi had a practice that not only addressed her issue, but that also fit into her lifestyle. She also received several Reiki sessions with Reiki Master Bill Terry and acupuncture treatments with Oliver McCrary, DOM, which she feels contributed to her well-being.

Cathi did Dvipada Pitnam to strengthen her gluteus, hamstrings, legs and spine.

I’ve since met with Cathi two more times to adapt her practice, making it more challenging. Whereas Cathi couldn’t balance on one foot six months ago, she can today. She can also now sit on the floor in a crossed-leg position, without discomfort. And her posture has improved. “For the first time in three years I’m pain-free. I stopped taking pain meds, but continue with my practice,” Cathi said. “Getting older is not about disability or riding around on a scooter. There are things, like yoga, you can do before it ever gets to that.”

Published in The Taos News on June 21, 2012