One of my very best traits as a human is the ability to harmonize with others (vocally and otherwise!) However, recently I’ve begun to realize that inner harmony is an even greater skill, and definitely one needing honing in me. Balancing my own inner energies requires the skill of awareness on a deep, deep level. Learning to heed the need for rest, and recognize when something is not good for me are two biggies.
Letting go of the need to do everything, be everywhere at once, and get it all done requires constant effort (or ease, actually.) And then there is cultivating the ability to ask for what I need from others, clearly and compassionately. Setting boundaries has never been easy for me, but now that I realize their importance I’m getting better at it.
When I’m harmonizing on the inside, not pushing myself through pain or low energy to try and “get it all done,” my emotions are calmer and my mind is also more tranquil. It’s then that the harmony of being with others and really listening (without interrupting) – and connecting with that divine flow of life energy that surrounds us every single minute becomes an absolute joy.
Achieving this state of inner and outer harmony is only possible for me through a very regimented self-care routine. If I stick with my routine, I can really GO WITH THE FLOW so much better. And the type of yoga that is best for me is actually NOT the vigorous vinyasa that I used to do, but a more gentle type that helps me cultivate this constant awareness both on and off the mat. And that’s what I like to teach, too.
I think that’s the great journey of our lives: getting to know and heal ourselves, learning to listen, and striving for balance every single day – both within ourselves and with others around us.
Following Our breath: Staying safe throughout the day
A few nights ago, I learned a valuable lesson while picking up after our dog Lucy. I had been eager to return to my desk to record a few thoughts tied to this post you’re now reading: staying safe as we move through our everyday routines. And wouldn’t you know it, as I bent over, plastic bag in hand, I felt that familiar twinge in my lower back…I shook my head in disbelief and quickly corrected my posture, bending the knees and straightening the back…It was almost comical. Here I was, preaching the importance of proper posture and alignment, and then committing one of the cardinal sins myself…But that is really what it is all about, isn’t it? Building awareness and then informing our movement and mindset with that awareness. It actually sounds a lot like yoga when we’re tuned into a sequence…but what about off the mat, when we’re hammering away at our keyboard or picking up after Lucy? Where can we find that awareness before our lower back joins the discussion? Well, that is where our breath enters the picture…
Research shows that when we pay closer attention to our breath, we can not only relieve stress, but also sharpen our focus in the present moment. Our breath is always there for us and provides the ideal cue for us to pull our heads out of the past or the future, even if it is just to focus on picking up after Lucy. What’s important is that we stay safe during these everyday movements that we normally handle on autopilot…climbing in and out of a deep sofa or easy chair…checking our blind spot when changing lanes on the highway…lifting that bag of groceries out of the cart. As strange as it sounds, our breath can help us pay closer attention to what we are doing in these everyday moments and stay safe, so we can continue doing everything it is that we love doing, or even not love doing so much…
This series of short video tutorials slowly walks you through several basic everyday movements, highlighting how the breath provides us valuable cues on safe posture and alignment. We firmly believe that with practice, you will find yourself paying closer attention to not only these different movements, but also how you are feeling in the moment. It all comes back to following the breath, our gateway into the present. Please let us know what specific movements you would like to see featured in this series, and until next time, stay safe and keep breathing!
1. Everyday Yoga: Getting in and out of our chair
We get in and out of chairs dozens of times every day…in living rooms, offices, kitchens and bathrooms…it only makes sense we take a closer look at this movement to make sure we’re doing it safely. We can all too easily lose our balance, even with chairs we’re familiar with, leading to serious outcomes…in fact, 50% of folks over the age of 65 don’t survive beyond one year after suffering a hip fracture. This video breaks down the proper alignment and breathing that support safely getting in and out of just about any chair you can think of. And as we do so, we’ll also gently tone the core muscles in our back, hips and midsection.
2. Everyday Yoga: Picking Something Up Off the Ground
So, imagine you’ve dropped your keys trying to get into the house, or maybe the dog has left you something to scoop up on your nightly walk…your mind is somewhere else as you bend over and suddenly feel that pull or pinch in your lower back. We have all been there…in fact, 80% of Americans experience significant back pain in their lives. One third report that it impacts their everyday activities, including sleeping! This video breaks down the proper alignment and breathing that support a healthy forward bend, which can also help us build strength and flexibility in our core muscles of the back, hips and midsection.
3. Everyday Yoga: Looking Over the Shoulder
Imagine you’re checking your blind spot on the highway…or you hear Interstate 95 in the Philadelphia area is one of my most learned mindfulness teachers. I owe so much of my progress in deep focused breathing to the drivers and potholes of this notorious stretch of highway. As I pay closer attention to my breath, I get plenty of practice in managing my stress levels, anticipating the next unexpected move of another motorist, and also turning more safely to check my blind spots. Looking over our shoulder seems like such a simple everyday movement, we rarely pay much attention to it…that is until we pinch a nerve in our neck as I did myself several years ago. I was sitting in my office and quickly turned my head as a colleague walked in the door. I immediately felt a sharp shooting pain down the right side of my neck and shoulder. It was months before I could move my head freely in any direction…This video breaks down the proper alignment and breathing that support a healthy twist, which can also help to relieve back pain and tension
So let’s stay safe doing what we love doing (or maybe not love so much…) by paying closer attention to how we move through our daily routines. Think of it as yoga for everyday living!
Reserve your spot on the lawn now – this class is limited to 10 participants to ensure safe social distancing. We will measure and mark the spots laid out in staggered rows so all you need to do is show up and roll out your mat.
Get grounded, connect with your breath, and relax deeply during this slow flow yoga class for all levels.
What you need to bring:
Your own mat
Any props like blocks or strap you typically use (but not required.)
An extra towel or blanket is handy for underneath your mat for extra padding.
Something to cover your eyes during final relaxation pose.
We recommend you wear your mask until your mat is set up and you’re ready to practice. While practicing yoga we leave it to your discretion as to whether you keep your mask on, and ask that you consider wearing your mask as you leave class.
Other instructions: Please come 10 minutes early to set up. If you are hard of hearing, let us know in advance and we will reserve a front row spot for you. Do not attend if you are feeling unwell. If you become infected with COVID-19 and you have attended this class, we ask that you let us know for contact tracing purposes.
FIRST COME FIRST SERVE: $20 per person. You must pre-pay electronically to secure your spot, as there will be no cash handling on site. If you need to pay by check please email email@example.com for instructions.
We are asking this slightly higher price so that Team Sun Wellness can continue to make yoga accessible for all by offering free classes to underserved communities in Philadelphia.
In case of inclement weather: you will receive an email at the very latest an hour before class letting you know if it is canceled. If you receive no email, class is on. The facilities inside SUMC are not available at this time.
Address: 129 Park Ave. Swarthmore, PA – metered parking right out front available (don’t have to pay past 6pm).
About the Instructor: Ann Grace MacMullan is a certified yoga instructor (E-RYT 200) and believes in the healing power of yoga for everyone, no matter what age, level of fitness, or life circumstance. Ann is currently pursuing her E-RYT 500 and C-IAYT, certification in Yoga Therapy. She has been teaching yoga and meditation throughout the Philadelphia area for five years, and teaches yoga and balance classes every semester through Wallingford-Swarthmore Community Classes.
I recently came across a social media post by a local hot yoga studio exclaiming that we should have “no limits” when it comes to yoga. To be fair, the quote was “all limits are self-imposed,” and then someone commented that “no limit is the limit,” to which the studio owner replied “yes!”
It got me thinking about this attitude I’ve come across before; one that encourages yoga students to push themselves beyond their limits. I respect your choice to challenge yourself, but when you are teaching others to potentially hurt themselves, it becomes bullying. It goes against the very first moral observance of non-violence, or Ahimsa.
Entitled to my own opinion and interpretation, I believe that the “no limits” attitude in the world of yoga creates an ego-driven and competitive environment where people are encouraged to hurt themselves in the name of self improvement.
I choose to think of limits as grounding. Setting a boundary can be a form of self-compassion. We are human, after all. My personal yoga practice changes from day to day based on what my body and mind tell me. I don’t come to the mat and push myself in a pose that requires a deep hamstring stretch if I tweaked my hamstring the day before. I can continue to progress in other ways instead, because guess what? I want to do yoga for the rest of my life!
Anyone who has ever had an injury and adapted their yoga practice or exercise routine around it, knows – this is where you learn so much about yourself, your ego. This is where you develop self-compassion and can strive to take better care of yourself to heal and then thrive again with a fresh perspective. The injury is a limitation that teaches you to do something different. You become internally stronger by listening, modifying, and taking the best care of yourself so that you can continue to progress another day.
The pandemic world we are living in right now, where we need masks to go grocery shopping, are distanced from friends and family, and our careers have been put on hold: this is a limit. It’s a container that holds us and teaches us to do something different, to pivot and redirect our progression as human beings – which might include resting for a bit if we need it.
To the many people who are turning to yoga for the first time, or deepening their yoga practices during this unprecedented age: explore your inner landscape safely. Be grounded by, but not defined by, your limits. And work towards challenging your limits, safely.
We can learn something from our dogs! We sometimes worry when Lucy practices her Cooling Puppy Pranayama, but she knows what she’s doing. Panting is the primary way for dogs to cool themselves off because they don’t sweat the way humans do. Instead, dogs cool themselves through their mouths using the evaporation of moisture from the mouth and tongue, and by exchanging the hot air of their lungs with cooler external air.
For us humans, Cooling Breath, or Sitali Breath, can help in much the same way. We can “drink the air” through a curled tongue to cool down!
How to Practice Sitali / Sitkari Breath:
Close your eyes, take a few normal breaths, then open the mouth and form the lips into an “O.”
Curl the tongue lengthwise and project it out of the mouth.
Inhale deeply across the tongue and into the mouth as if drinking through a straw.
Focus your attention on the cooling sensation of the breath as the abdomen and lower ribs expand.
Withdraw the tongue and close the mouth, exhaling completely through the nostrils. During each exhalation, you can also lightly touch the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, inviting the tip of the tongue to send coolness toward the upper palate.
Swallow now and then if the throat feels dry.
Continue this cycle until you feel refreshed.
If you are unable to curl your tongue, try Sitkari breath. Gently press your lower and upper teeth together and separate your lips as much as you comfortably can, so your teeth are exposed to the air. Inhale through the teeth and exhale through the nose.
Besides building breath awareness, this practice is said to calm hunger and thirst! Sitali breath cools the body, adds moisture to the system, and may reduce fatigue, bad breath, fevers, and high blood pressure. Try it for yourself and let us know how it goes!
For more Pranayama or Breathing Exercises, visit the Breath Page.
Pre-register by paying $10 per person in advance (and be sure to include your email address)! You’ll be sent a link to the Zoom class scheduled for Saturday at 10am once you’ve paid. The Zoom platform will enable us to see and hear each other, thus allowing me to support you more fully in your practice, and perhaps help us feel more connected.
You can pay by clicking the picture above (you’ll be able to use PayPal or a regular credit card), or you can Venmo me $10 @Ann-MacMullan. Be sure to include your current email address.
The classes I’ve taken on Zoom so far have been great, but you should make sure you set up a little early so you can adjust your camera and audio if you want to be seen and heard. I’ll be there to help you the best I can. I’m asking that you pay $10 in advance, and then I will send you the link to our session and info on how to join.
During our session, I may not be modeling poses as much as I have been on YouTube so that I can talk you through your poses. I’m looking forward to practicing with you! Please let me know if you have questions.
Class description: Learn basic yoga asanas to improve strength, balance and flexibility while focusing on the thread of the breath that “yokes” the mind and body together. “Ha” means sun and “Tha” means moon – together, Hatha is the modern practice of yoga as we know it. Our Hatha class will take you on a balanced journey through effort and ease with the goal of creating stable foundations that allow us to reach new heights both on and off the mat. For all levels!
ABOUT THE INSTRUCTOR: Ann Grace MacMullan is a certified yoga instructor (E-RYT 200) and believes in the healing power of yoga for everyone, no matter what age, level of fitness, or life circumstance. Ann is currently pursuing her E-RYT 500 and C-IAYT, certification in Yoga Therapy. She has been teaching yoga and meditation throughout the Philadelphia area for five years, and teaches yoga and balance classes every semester through Wallingford-Swarthmore Community Classes.
Why we love Bhramari Pranayama: As we’re exhaling and creating the droning sound, like that of a bee, we’re also lengthening our exhalations – which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the side in charge of resting and digesting. Calming, centering, grounding…bee’s breath is just what we need these days!
🐝Bhramari is the Sanskrit word for “bee,” and this pranayama or breath exercise is so named for the humming sound produced – like the gentle low buzz or droning of a bee. We like it best for its ability to drown out an anxious mental loop, and find it incredibly grounding and centering.
Bhramari Pranayama (Bee’s Breath):
Calms and quiets the mind
Releases cerebral tension
Stimulates the pineal and pituitary glands, supporting their proper functioning
Soothes the nerves
Relieves stress and anxiety
Lowers blood pressure
May have a positive effect on tinnitus
Bolsters the health of the throat
Strengthens and improves the voice
Supports the healing of bodily tissues
Induces sound sleep
“The busy bee has no time for sorrow.”
– William Blake
How to Practice Bee’s Breath:
Sit comfortably but upright, with a stable foundation to support you.
Gently close the lips, keeping the teeth slightly apart, and bring the tip of your tongue to the space behind the upper front teeth. (Keep the jaw relaxed throughout your practice.)
This part is optional: You can actually use your thumbs to “close” your ears (for me, not all the way feels better) and then gently cover your eyes with cupped palms. There are other ways to practice with the fingers fanned out, but this is most comfortable for me. It does take the experience a little deeper inward.
To begin, take a deep breath in through the nostrils.
Begin to exhale slowly, making a steady, low-pitched ‘hmmm’ sound at the back of the throat—like the humming of a bee. Focus on making the sound soft, smooth, and steady. The positioning of the tongue allows the vibration to better resonate throughout the head.
Continue for as many repetitions as you like. After the final exhalation, allow your breath to return to normal and observe any changes that have occurred.
Maybe you can even feel the vibration continue throughout your head and body after you’ve stopped humming!
Practice it in our chair yoga class:
🐝How do you feel after your bee’s breath practice?🐝
Sit or lie flat with with one hand on your belly right under your ribs and the other on your chest.
From this position, take one deep breath through your nose while letting your belly nudge your hand outward. Ensure your chest isn’t moving as this happens.
Next, with pursed lips, breathe out like you’re whistling.
As you feel the hand you’ve placed on your belly go in, use it to push out all the air.
Repeat this several more times.
Why Belly Breathing?
The lower half of your lungs is the thickest and most closely compacted, which means more oxygen can enter the bloodstream.
Consciously breathing into the lower half of your lungs by engaging the diaphragm, literally allows you to ‘breath more life into’… you.
Oxygenated blood travels to the heart, where it’s pumped to the rest of the body via blood vessels that move into surrounding tissues.
Ultimately, oxygen reaches every cell that makes up the body.
If your upper chest is moving when you breathe then you’re not using the lower part of your lungs, which means you’re not breathing optimally.
Chest breathing engages only the top part of your lungs, and remember that the lower half of your lungs is the most oxygen-rich.
If you’re breathing with your chest and not your diaphragm/ belly you’ll likely overuse your neck and shoulder muscles, which are not meant to be breathing muscles.
What are the benefits of belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing?
Diaphragmatic breathing has proven to:
Improve respiratory function, by relaxing tight chest muscles and by increasing lung capacity. Research suggests that diaphragmatic breathing can be especially helpful to those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Lower heart rate and blood pressure, and is even recognized by the FDA in the treatment and regulation of hypertension. It also improves circulatory system function by maximizing the delivery of oxygen to the bloodstream and to each of the trillions of cells in your body.
Maintain blood pH levels (the scale of alkalinity to acidity.) Blood acidity is neutralized with the release of carbon dioxide from the lungs. Deep, slow breathing helps the brain and lungs continuously optimize pH levels.
Engage your diaphragm internally which in turn massages your abdominal organs and glands, stimulating them and promoting their healthy and optimal function.
Boost the immune system because as the diaphragm massages the internal organs and glands it helps move lymph (fluid containing the immune system’s white blood cells) throughout the body to their targeted locations.
Detoxify the body. Controlled breathing stimulates lymphatic movement. One of the key functions of your lymphatic system is to flush toxins out of your body. Your lungs are also a major excretory organ. With every maximized exhale, you expel waste, toxins, and excess carbon dioxide from your system.
Maintain healthy digestive function and help ease upset tummies. The same diaphragmatic massaging motion that helps flush toxins also helps stimulate blood flow of your intestinal tract, ensuring your gut muscles keep on moving as they’re intended to.
Breathing deeply can help prevent acid reflux, bloating, hiatal hernia, and intestinal spasms.
Deep breathing also helps quell the stress response, which compromises digestion. It’s worthy to note here that multiple studies and research confirm a high correlation between digestive/ gastrointestinal issues (i.e.: IBS) and mental health imbalances such as anxiety and depression.
Increase theta brain waves. Theta brainwaves are associated with the state of deep relaxation and dreaming sleep, as well as increased creativity, super-learning, integrative experiences, and increased memory.
Be an effective relaxation technique. This is because your breath acts as a switching station for your nervous system, specifically between the two branches of your autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system (stress response), and the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response.) Deep, slow breathing relieves stress and relaxes you, and also engages your sympathetic in ways that work for you, not against you. In this way, deep breathing helps send your body signals of safety so that you can enter into a higher state of functioning – one that is healing, regenerating, and conducive to sustained fulfillment and thriving.
Be an effective option for treating emotional and mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression.
BREATHING with BRIANWe’ll explore and practice several mindfulness and focused breathing exercises that researchers suggest can enhance our physical mental and emotional health.
CHAIR YOGA with ANNWe’ll explore and practice several mindfulness and focused breathing exercises that researchers suggest can enhance our physical mental and emotional health.
KIDS YOGA with the WHOLE GANG!Pull up a chair to practice self-care! All ages and mobility levels are welcome. Learn breathing techniques, easy stretches, and specific yoga poses adapted for the chair.
GENTLE FLOW YOGAGet grounded, connect with your breath, and relax deeply during this slow flow yoga class for all levels.
CHAIR YOGA with BrianPull up a chair to practice self-care! All ages and mobility levels are welcome. Learn breathing techniques, easy stretches, and specific yoga poses adapted for the chair.
HATHA YOGALearn basic yoga asanas to improve strength, balance and flexibility while focusing on the thread of the breath that “yokes” the mind and body together.
MENS YOGA with BrianDesigned for men of all ability levels to build strength and flexibility in an informal setting, this class will focus on the core muscles of the back, abdomen, and hips while exploring how to optimize alignment and manage stress throughout the day.
If you miss the class time, you’ll be able to access the recording after the class is completed.
ABOUT THE INSTRUCTORS: Ann and Brian are certified yoga instructors who have been teaching yoga and meditation to all ages throughout the Philadelphia area for five years. Lucy their dog is the team’s meditation coach and mascot.
BREATHING 101 with Brian: Reduce your stress while building resilience to better adapt to all the changes and disruptions to our normal routines in the coming weeks and months. We’ll explore and practice several mindfulness and focused breathing exercises that researchers suggest can enhance our physical mental and emotional health. All you need is a comfy place to sit.
CHAIR YOGA with Ann or Brian: Pull up a chair to practice self-care! All ages and mobility levels are welcome. Learn breathing techniques, easy stretches, and specific yoga poses adapted for the chair. Improve your balance with standing poses that use the chair for support, if it’s in your practice.
KIDS YOGA with TEAM SUN WELLNESS: Join us to move, breathe, and stretch while having fun and learning yoga poses and breathing exercises. Kids of all ages welcome.
GENTLE FLOW YOGA with Ann: Explore the equilibrium between effort and ease during this accessible sequence designed to connect mind, body, and spirit. We’ll unleash joyful freedom during rhythmic movements linked with the breath…and find steady poise through stable alignment in classic poses.
MENS YOGA with Brian: The teaching philosophy for this class is simple: helping us men of all shapes, sizes and ability levels continue doing the things we love doing…by 1) managing past injuries, 2) preventing new ones and 3) building mobility and strength where we need it most. We’ll focus on the usual suspects in the aches and pains department, specifically the hips, back and shoulders; and concentrate on building core strength to stay safe in our daily activities.
HATHA YOGA with Ann: Learn basic yoga asanas to improve strength, balance and flexibility while focusing on the thread of the breath that “yokes” the mind and body together.
Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence. Jorge Luis Borges
I have practiced hot yoga on the same mat in the same studio for nearly ten years. It’s a little frayed around its edges and is starting to lose some of its no-slip grip. I should have replaced it six months ago but I have to admit I am attached to this mat. We have been through a lot together. Attachments like these seem innocent enough, but there’s something else going on here and I feel I am finally getting to the bottom of it. Every time I roll out this mat and look down on its signs of wear, I tell myself a little story. It’s a story that celebrates my hard work and dedication to my practice through the years. It feels good to keep repeating this story, which is why the mat keeps living to see another day. The problem is this story has very little to do with my yoga and a lot to do with keeping my ego happy. Without diving too far into the weeds, approval has always been important for me, even when I generate it on my own. This deeper stuff is great to shine some light upon, but will have to wait until a future post for closer examination. What is important here is my attachment and its happy little story 1) take my focus off what I am actually doing on the mat and 2) obscure the fact that I’d be safer on a new one.
When we loosen our hold on something or someone, we stop feeding the stories they inspire and bring greater awareness to whatever we’re doing in the present.
This is how our attachments work…under the radar, but still in plain sight. The new car, the coveted job title, the approval of those close to us (…or not so close). Our attachments play starring roles in all our favorite stories. Of course, the attachments themselves are not the problem…it’s how we cling to them and spin our stories around them that can get us into trouble. After all, I should have replaced my mat six months ago…I have just been getting in my own way. In many Yoga and Buddhist traditions, attachment is viewed as a major source of suffering in our lives. Non-attachment or non-possessiveness (aparigraha) is considered so important, it is held up as one of the five yamas, or ethical principles of yoga that help guide us through our daily interactions and activities. The logic here is straightforward: when we loosen our hold on something or someone, we stop feeding the stories they inspire and bring greater awareness to whatever we’re doing in the present.
And this is where our breath comes in. We hold on to our breath just like anything else we are afraid of losing. When we let go of our breath, we reset our nervous system and loosen the hold of even our strongest attachments and most compelling stories. The Foundation Breathing exercise presented below focuses on the exhalation and that sublime stillness before we take our next breath. Approach it with an open mind. With some practice you will likely find it, as I have, to be a powerful addition to your self-care toolkit.
Foundation Breath Basics
Our attachments (people-possessions-beliefs-expectations) can be a major source of pain and suffering
The Foundation Breath can pull us from repeating story loops and loosen the hold of our attachments
Research suggests that diaphragmatic (belly) breathing moderates clinging and controlling behavior by increasing our attention, improving our mood and reducing our stress levels (see references below).
Breathe in through the nose – Release the breath through the mouth – Pause – Repeat
Start with a 2-3 sec. inhalation-exhalation and 1 sec. pause and move up from there.
Breathing in through the nose conditions the air for absorption in the lungs.
Breathing out through the mouth (vocalization optional) focuses attention on the exhalation.
Slow down persistent worry over pending medical test results or financial strains.
Lessen chronic stress due to workload, a challenging boss or an upcoming performance review.
Let go of the expectations related to your balance in tree pose or your strength in triangle. As one of my teachers puts it: “One percent of the pose done correctly provides 100% benefit.”
Hafenbrack, A. 2017. Mindfulness Meditation as an On-The-Spot Workplace Intervention. Journal of Business Research. 75, 118-129.
Ma, X., Yue, Z., Gong, Z, Zhang, H., Duan, N., Shi, Y. Wei, G. & Li, Y. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(72): 1-12.
Schmalzl, L., Powers, C., and Henje Blom, E. (2015). Neurophysiological and neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the effects of yoga-based practices: towards a comprehensive theoretical framework. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9:235.
Sullivan, M., Erb, M., Schmalzl, L., Moonz, S., Taylor, J. & Porges, S., 2018. Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory: The Convergence of Traditional Wisdom and Contemporary Neuroscience for Self-Regulation and Resilience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience,12(67), 1-15.