Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tai Chi for Beginners

Learning Tai Chi Fundamentals
In tai chi (taiji), who is the beginner? This is truly a trick question. Even after 20 years of practice, many students genuinely consider themselves beginners, especially after watching a high-level tai chi master at work.

Tai chi’s beginning, intermediate and advanced practices are like a continuum without exact, defining landmarks. Criteria and standards of what constitute beginning, intermediate or advanced methods vary widely between individual teachers and entire schools of tai chi.

Some teachers have a larger, more complete knowledge of the entire tradition than others. Consequently, one group’s idea of what constitutes an advanced technique, by another group’s standards may be considered something only marginally more advanced than the basic level.

Within classes, you can expect to learn:
  • Sequences of movements
  • Basic body alignments
  • The 70 percent rule of moderation
  • Coordination
  • How to protect your joints
During the first year, unless you are exceptionally sensitive, it is unreasonable to expect to feel a lot of chi. Although at its advanced levels tai chi’s primary goal is to grow and balance your chi, in the beginning approaching your practice only from the perspective of chi is neither necessary nor desirable. Staying grounded in the body tends to keep any self-perceived experiences of energy from being pure fantasy or overly exaggerated.

Tai chi’s physical movements serve as effective sensitivity and awareness exercises that keep the body flexible, reduce stress, and tone and strengthen muscles. In terms of health and longevity, tai chi is a non-impact, physical exercise without any notion of energy.

Tai Chi: Body-Energy-Spirit

All Taoist practices are based on the three treasures: body, energy and spirit (jing, chi and shen, respectively, in Chinese). Learning tai chi serves as a body practice and advancement as an energy practice. So whether or not you have an interest in practicing tai chi for spiritual pursuits, it always starts with the body—making you incredibly healthy down to the cellular level.


The physical body is the container through which your energy and spirit flow. This is the physical approach to health, longevity and optimum performance. Through tai chi, you learn how to exercise the body down to its most subtle aspects. This can best be done if you understand the body’s physical mechanisms and realities, such as anatomical subtleties or how different parts of the body do or don’t work well or flow together.


The legendary martial arts abilities of many tai chi masters derive from the development of the many functional kinds of subtle energy. This is where many of the “secrets” are hidden in tai chi and for which some train arduously over decades to achieve and master. 

Increasing your life-force energy, which can be achieved from regular tai chi practice, can produce extraordinary healing and provides the gateway to human intuitive or psychic capacities. For people who are overly energetically sensitive or psychically developed, tai chi can help ground and smooth their energy, so they can handle—rather than be overwhelmed by—their natural talents.

Spirit (Mind)
Spirit’s sphere of influence works directly with the mind and the invisible spirit within us. It involves the arts and sciences of meditation, which originally generated the first two levels of body and energy.
Spirit involves active use of the mind. It tells your body and chi when and how to move. Applying your spirit's energy well is mandatory to get to the root of and fully engage your true personal power, obtain emotional balance and inner peace, and actualize the potential of your mind.

While intent can take you a long way with body and energy, the Heart-Mind is required to fully activate spirit, which is the center of your consciousness. That is the place where thoughts and images come from before they reach the conscious level.
Working with body, energy and spirit has within it beginning, intermediate and advanced techniques. They are learned much the same way as music: basic techniques build on each other until you can seamlessly blend them. The art of tai chi is as complex as the greatest symphony. At its most advanced stages, the body, mind and spiritual components blend into a unified whole that lead you to experiencing the Tao.

Unlike learning music, however, where you progress by learning successively more challenging pieces of music, in tai chi you perform the same series of movements, each time going deeper and learning more.

Learning Tai Chi Is Challenging
Tai chi is challenging to learn. People who do tai chi well make it look easy and effortless. But the truth is tai chi is not especially easy to learn. An interesting point about learning anything of value is: Things are difficult when you can’t do them and easy when you can. The road to attaining fluidity, smoothness and relaxed movements in your tai chi practice requires much patience and effort, just like any sport or art form.
Tai chi requires and progressively develops gross and subtle physical coordination. Tai chi is one of the most sophisticated methods of integrated whole-body movement.

Tai chi is a workout that can be as strenuous and invigorating as aerobics, even though it can look easy, simple and relaxed. You will likely use muscles that you didn’t know you had. Before you really learn to relax and soften your body, the habitual tension stored in your legs and shoulders may make you tremble and ache.

It is quite normal to feel some emotional unpleasantness, especially as you begin to really notice, often for the first time, what stress is doing to your nervous system, or how unquiet and devoid of inner peace your mind and emotions really are. For everyone, part of learning tai chi is learning to recognize the subtle tensions within your body and mind. This can freak you out as you may not be able to believe the degree of unconscious tension held by most people. 

However, if you can overcome it, you will feel truly empowered about your ability to let go.
At first, it may be difficult to practice on your own. It is best not to feel guilty about this; just accept your limitations rather than quitting. Attending a weekly class is the best way to create a regular practice rhythm.

Many students focus on learning movements correctly or doing them perfectly. It is not possible to do tai chi perfectly, so don’t approach learning tai chi with a been-there-done-that mentality.

Although tai chi is not especially easy to learn, it is not the most difficult thing to do either. Half of China’s 200 million people who successfully learn and practice tai chi daily begin after age 50. If they can learn tai chi, so can you.

Some degree of challenge makes most recreational activities more fun, interesting and alive, whether they are physical (golf, skiing, tai chi), mental (reading good books, doing crossword puzzles), or artistic (playing music, painting). Lack of any challenge causes many activities to become boring, causing people to quit.

Conversely, all worthwhile activities that continue to have both short- and long-term pay-offs usually have continuing challenges.

Building a Sustainable Tai Chi Practice 

You don’t have to be an expert to benefit from learning tai chi. Even when done poorly, tai chi fosters vibrant health from deep within your body. As you grow in experience and are able to pay more attention to body alignments and energy mechanics, you’ll find you gain more and more from your practice.

Give yourself time to absorb the big shapes of the movement. The most important thing is to learn the whole sequence together even if you have to fudge some moves. This builds confidence for the long haul. Refining the moves happens with practice, or in the next rounds of learning new information.

If you have specific moves you really like, do them singly outside the sequence of the form. This builds up your confidence and creates the foundational skills needed to eventually overcome the bigger challenges of more difficult moves.

Do not emotionally beat yourself up over moves that you personally find difficult. Just move on and complete the entire sequence as best you can. Don’t get hung up on one or two moves. You will improve with practice.

Whatever you do, don't compare your learning speed to others. Tai chi is challenging for everyone to learn although some will pick it up faster than others. It'd your commitment that matters--not how fast you can play the game.

The Good Tips to a Fantastic Spine

Over 80% of all working Canadians report having back pain each year.  
As a yoga therapist and a teacher of thousands of public yoga classes over the last ten years I see many students with poor body alignment, and the inability to flex, extend and twist their spine normally.

Immobility and poor alignment are the two main causes of back pain.  The good news is most people with mild to moderate pain will find relief once they are moving and aligned properly using the tools of Yoga.  The key is having the right knowledge and expert instruction.  My workshop series, Get Aligned-Get Happy, covers this topic in detail but I want to share some powerful information and tips with you now to jump start your healing process.

Here are the 5 Keys to a Fantastic Spine that will give you basic knowledge, insight, and tools to understand and heal your low back from the perspective of yoga.

5 Keys to a Fantastic Spine:  
1. Knowledge and awareness are KING! 
2. Listen to your body’s warning signs. 
3. Investigate what in your daily life is contributing   
    to your low back pain. 
4. Learn good body mechanics and proper body 
5. Use specific yoga-based alignment tools to heal 
    your spine.

#1 Knowledge and awareness are KING. 
You cannot heal what you are not aware of or what you do not acknowledge. Noticing that your low back is at risk of further injury is #1. 

In the early stages of misalignment the pain is often mild and intermittent, and therefore relatively easy to manage. They key word here is manage, that does not mean heal. Common ways of managing these flare-ups are anti-inflammatory medication like Ibuprofen, or by doing less of the pain triggering activity. For example, you may not go hiking or cycling as often as you used to.  To manage low back pain you may buy a new ergonomic chair, get shoe inserts or place a lumbar pillow to support your spine. Sound familiar? 

Spending hundreds of dollars on external objects designed to align your body from the outside-in may help, but they will likely not help heal the root of the problem. Crossing off the things you love from your activity list is not a great option for most of you either.  You need to understand how your spine became misaligned, what is keeping it that way, and how you can make positive changes to shift the spine toward optimal alignment.

#2  Listen to the feedback you are receiving from your body on a daily basis.
Your body is constantly sending you messages about how aligned or mis-aligned you are during daily activities such as sitting, standing, lifting and resting. Awareness is key and here is the knowledge. The early warning signs that your spine is in need of attention and care are below.
Early Warning Signs your Spine is at Risk:

  • Discomfort in the low back after prolonged sitting.
  • Pinching sensation near your sacroiliac joint, lumbar curve or hip joint.
  • Burning sensation down the back of your legs to the knees or feet.
  • Sharp pain deep in the center of the gluteus maximus muscles (buttocks).
  • Tingling or numbness in the area of the vertebral discs, legs or feet.
#3  Investigate what in your daily life is contributing to your low back pain. 
The biggest cause of slowly progressing, intermittent type of back pain that gets worse over 5 to 10 years is poor posture in both seated and standing positions. Poor posture can result from immobility, tension, and lack of awareness. 

A common trigger while seated is slouching. This reverses the spinal curves by rounding the shoulders forward, tipping the pelvis back, and reversing the lumbar curve (Photo 1, left). Rounding the spine places extra stress on the vertebrae and spinal discs. Compare that to the upright posture shown on the right where the lower pine can maintain its healthy natural inward curve.
In general, sitting is one of the most challenging positions for the spine because by positioning alone it puts three times as much pressure on your vertebra and discs than standing.  Have you ever noticed that your low back aches after a long and uninterrupted period of sitting?  

When you combine sitting with slouching that is double the stress on your spine, not to mention the hips.  Eventually, the lumbar discs protrude posteriorly from the pressure on the vertebrae. Your discs act as natural shock absorbers and protect your spine from compression they can remain healthy when we maintain a  natural curve in our spine while we sit and stand.
Small tasks we do everyday like lifting and carrying objects also trigger low back pain, especially when performed out of alignment.  It is not just heavy objects that pose a risk, it is the repetitive lifting and carrying of purses, backpacks, grocery bags, children, and laundry to name a few that can make minor tweaks to the spine through the day. Photo 2 shows how the normal curves of the spine become misaligned while holding a large bag. To compensate for the load of the bag the right shoulder drops, the lumbar curve pushes  out to the left and the sacrum compresses on the right. 
This poor alignment held for repetitively over a long period of time will eventually cause pain. Make positive change by  carrying a smaller bag, distribute the weight evenly on both sides, alternating sides you carry objects, change bags to a cross the chest strap or backpack, or set your bag down while you stand.  Then on the movement side of things, do alignment based yoga to strengthen, stretch and gain good alignment.

#4  Learn good body mechanics and proper body alignment. 
 Healthy spinal curves are designed to have a sleek S-shape from front to back that allows for proper articulation of the vertebra while preserving the shock absorbing qualities of the spinal discs (Photo 3).  In the C-shape configuration the shoulders round forward, the chest collapses, the pelvis tilts back, and the low back rounds (see Photo 1, left). 
When the bones are out of alignment for a long period of time your muscles compensate in an attempt to correct the alignment. Unknowingly, we continue to do the triggering action in the same habitual way (like the infamous slouching when we sit). Eventually, this causes imbalance in the muscles that fixates the bones in poor alignment. 

This creates rigidity and immobility (think hunched over old person walking with a cane and you get the picture). Over time, certain muscle groups become overused and therefore chronically tight, while other muscle groups become weak from lack of use. 

The end result of improper use of your body for a long period of time is compression or torsion in the vertebrae of the spine, pinched nerves, bulging discs, and an overall decrease in function and stability of your spine.

Why does it feel uncomfortable to stand or sit up straight?  
Even with knowledge of proper posture and the best of intentions, the habit of slumping and collapsing the spine can sneak back in quickly. In fact it may even feel good to slump and completely unnatural to stand or sit up straight.  You know the term “use it or lose it”, it applies here. 

If you have not been exercising the muscles that hold you up and support good alignment it will feel awkward and even tiring to stand or sit straight for more than a few minutes.  The muscles that have been overworking are chronically tight and need to stretch.  

The tense muscles will not fully let go until the weak muscles get stronger and take some of the work load off the over-working muscles.  This is why yoga is such a powerful tool in healing and preventing back pain.

What is good standing alignment?  
The ideal posture in Photo 4 shows correct alignment while standing versus five common misalignment postures. Do any of these look familiar? 

Good alignment is when you can draw an imaginary line along the side of your body from the ear opening down to the outer edge of your shoulder, outer hip, side of your knee, and ankle bone. A common misalignment in the low back is too much curve (sway back) or too little curve (flat back). 

You can see how all of the misalignments change the natural S-shaped spine into a different shape and it effects the vertebrae and supporting tissue all the way up to your head.  Luckily, yoga can teach you the principles of good alignment and provide you with powerful yoga poses that you can do daily to help gain and maintain the mobility and health of your spine.

#5 Use specific yoga-based alignment tools to heal your spine.
It is never too late to improve mobility and health in your spine with yoga, and the sooner the better. Yoga aligns your bones and encourages proper use of muscles that support upright posture and alignment. Yoga poses build strength in weak muscles and flexibility in over taxed muscles.  

Through balanced action of muscles over time the spine will become more supported and at ease in an upright position effortlessly maintaining the natural spinal curves.  You may notice an energy boost to standing and sitting tall as it just feels and looks better than slouching.

Here are 5 Key Yoga Postures and a Daily Yoga Routine you can do in 20 minutes or less:
 306A2928Web Chair Pose
 306A2966Web Prone Backbend
 306A3007Web Hamstring Stretch
 306A2981Web Outer Hip Stretch

 Thigh Stretch


  • Chair pose 3 times, one-minute holds with 15 second rest in between.
  • Prone backbend 3 times, 30 second holds with a 15 second rest in between.
  • Hamstring stretch 2 times alternate sides, 45 second holds with 15 second rest in between.
  • Outer hip stretch 2 times alternate sides, 45 second holds with 15 second rest in between.
  • Thigh stretch 2 times alternate sides, 45 second holds with 15 second rest in between.
  • Rest in child’s pose or on your back with knees to chest for 30-60 seconds at the end.
This routine performed daily with good instruction and alignment will help to heal back pain over time. There are many other postures in my yoga tool bag, but this is an excellent start! I recommend consulting with a therapeutically-trained yoga teacher to ensure you are doing the poses correctly, and to offer pose adaptations if needed.

Listen and trust your body. 
Therapeutic yoga pose applied correctly and engaged properly should relieve or at minimum decrease pain right away. If pain increases, come out of the pose and rest. If this continues to occur then find a different type of yoga or select a different yoga teacher. If you are in acute pain and have inflammation, I recommend that you wait a few days until the swelling subsides before doing any exercise or yoga. If you have concerns check with your doctor.

All yoga is not therapeutic
In my experience of working with hundreds of clients I have found that certain types of alignment-based yoga is far superior in setting the proper curves in the spine and keeping them there. I have also found that yoga done improperly or without good quality instruction can put your spine at risk and cause damage to vertebrae, discs, muscles, and ligaments.  An alignment-based yoga with the professional tailoring of these specific types of yoga to an individuals unique needs and goals is the safest and most effective way to practice yoga.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Prevent Wrist Aches and Carpal Tunnel

I meet a lot of people, particularly women, who have wrist pain during yoga or lifting. This pain can actually impact a person's ability to complete a workout or limit a person's ability to do poses like crow, handstand, or even down dog.  

Here are three poses to help stretch out achy wrists, as well as some guidance for wrist safety:

Tips to Prevent Wrist Aches and Carpal Tunnel 
  • Release wrists with stretches after standing on your hands or performing actions that demand repeated flexion of the wrists. 
  • Avoid poses that demand deep flexions on days when your wrists are flaring up. A lot of wrist pain comes from inflammation, and stretching will not help reduce that inflammation. If you are experiencing sudden pain impacting your ability to perform certain activities, just skip them for the day. Typically, wrist pain comes and goes, and you can do these activities on days when you are not experiencing a flare-up.
  • Take an anti-inflammatory if your wrist pain is extreme. But, be warned, anti-inflammatories can mask the pain (duh!), so it's best to still avoid demanding postures until you are well enough to complete them sans medicine.
  • Try a yoga wedge if you are repeatedly experiencing wrist pain during flexion in your yoga class. The wedge lifts the heel of your hands a touch higher than your fingers, taking some of the flexion out of the wrists.
  • Even without a wedge, try to lift weight out of the heels of your hands when holding poses such as down dog. This is particularly important if you are practicing on a soft surface where the wrists have tendency to sink in. In fact, if you're practicing yoga on grass or sand, it's best to avoid long holds on the hands.
Stretches to Relieve Achy Wrists

Gorilla Pose                                        
wrist stretches, wrist pain, carpal tunnel remedies, helping wrist pain, wristsCome standing with your feet hips width distance apart. Bend your knees as you fold forward, bending as much as you need to firmly touch the ground with your hands. Lift your toes, and slide your hands under the soles of your feet, palms facing up, and fingers pointing toward the heels. Slide your hands all the way under until your toes can massage your wrist creases. Hold here, wiggling your toes if it feels good, for up to twenty breaths.

Chicken Dance Pose:
wrist stretches, wrist pain, carpal tunnel remedies, helping wrist pain, wrists
Okay, this is not an official term, but you'll see why I use it. This can be done standing or seated. Extend the arms beside the body, bend the elbows, and wiggle your wrists up into your armpits. The palms should face out, fingers pointing down toward hips. As you lift your chest, you will feel the backs of your hands stretching out. Hold for up to twenty breaths.

Wrist Releases: 
wrist stretches, wrist pain, carpal tunnel remedies, helping wrist pain, wrists
This can be done standing or seated. Reach your right hand out in front of you, parallel to the ground. Flex your wrists back, fingers pointing the ground, palm facing forward. Spreading your fingers wide, gently pull back on your thumb. Hold for a few breaths, continually softening your shoulders down your back and spreading the fingers of your right hand. Move on to the pointer finger, the middle finger, and so on, holding each finger for a few breaths. Your hands will want to scrunch up; don't let them! Repeat on the second side. Roll out the wrists a few times in each direction to complete the stretch.

The good news is yoga actually strengthens the wrists. 

Turf toe

“Turf toe” is the common term used to describe a sprain of the ligaments around the big toe joint. Although it’s commonly associated with football players who play on artificial turf, it affects athletes in other sports including soccer, basketball, wrestling, gymnastics, and dance.  

It’s a condition that’s caused by jamming the big toe or repeatedly pushing off the big toe forcefully as in running and jumping. 

What Causes Turf Toe?  

Turf toe is a sprain to the ligaments around the big toe joint, which works primarily as a hinge to permit up and down motion. Just behind the big toe joint in the ball of your foot are two pea-shaped bones embedded in the tendon that moves your big toe. Called sesamoids, these bones work like a pulley for the tendon and provide leverage when you walk or run. They also absorb the weight that presses on the ball of the foot.


When you are walking or running, you start each subsequent step by raising your heel and letting your body weight come forward onto the ball of your foot. At a certain point you propel yourself forward by "pushing off" of your big toe and allowing your weight to shift to the other foot. 

If the toe for some reason stays flat on the ground and doesn't lift to push off, you run the risk of suddenly injuring the area around the joint. Or if you are tackled or fall forward and the toe stays flat, the effect is the same as if you were sitting and bending your big toe back by hand beyond its normal limit, causing hyperextension of the toe. That hyperextension, repeated over time or with enough sudden force, can  -- cause a sprain in the ligaments that surround the joint.
Typically with turf toe, the injury is sudden. It is most commonly seen in athletes playing on artificial surfaces, which are harder than grass surfaces and to which cleats are more likely to stick. It can also happen on a grass surface, especially if the shoe being worn doesn't provide adequate support for the foot. Often the injury occurs in athletes wearing flexible soccer-style shoes that let the foot bend too far forward.

What Are the Symptoms of Turf Toe?

The most common symptoms of turf toe include pain, swelling, and limited joint movement at the base of one big toe. The symptoms develop slowly and gradually get worse over time if it’s caused by repetitive injury. If it’s caused by a sudden forceful motion, the injury can be painful immediately and worsen within 24 hours. Sometimes when the injury occurs, a "pop" can be felt. Usually the entire joint is involved, and toe movement is limited.

How Is Turf Toe Diagnosed?

To diagnose turf toe, the doctor will ask you to explain as much as you can about how you injured your foot and may ask you about your occupation, your participation in sports, the type of shoes you wear, and your history of foot problems. 

The doctor will then examine your foot, noting the pattern and location of any swelling and comparing the injured foot to the uninjured one. The doctor will likely ask for an X-ray to rule out any other damage or fracture. In certain circumstances, the doctor may ask for other imaging tests such as a bone scan, CT scan, or MRI.

The diagnosis will then be made based on the results of the physical examination and imaging tests.

How Is Turf Toe Treated?

The basic treatment for treating turf toe, initiailly, is a combination of rest, ice, compression, and elevation (remember the acronym R.I.C.E).This  
basic treatment approach is to give the injury ample time to heal, which means the foot will need to be rested and the joint protected from further injury. 

The doctor may recommend an over-the-counter oral medication such as ibuprofen to control pain and reduce inflammation.  To rest the toe, the doctor may tape or strap it to the toe next to it to relieve the stress on it.  Another way to protect the joint is to immobilize the foot in a cast or special walking boot that keeps it from moving. 

The doctor may also ask you to use crutches so that no weight is placed on the injured joint. In severe cases, an orthopaedic surgeon may suggest a surgical intervention.
It typically takes two to three weeks for the pain to subside. After the immobilization of the joint ends, some patients require physical therapy in order to re-establish range of motion, strength, and conditioning of the injured toe.



Can Turf Toe Be Prevented?

One goal of treatment should be to evaluate why the injury occurred and to take steps to keep it from reoccurring.

One way to prevent turf toe is to wear shoes with better support to help keep the toe joint from excessive bending and force with pushing off. You may also want to consider using specially designed inserts that your doctor or physical therapist can prescribe for you.

A physical therapist or a specialist in sports medicine can also work with you on correcting any problems in your gait that can lead to injury and on developing training techniques to help reduce the chance of injury.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Most common yoga injuries and how to avoid them

As a long-time yoga practitioner and instructor, I have seen and experienced a lot of injuries over the years.

Anecdotally speaking, the vast majority of these injuries-including my own-probably could have been avoided. 
It’s all too easy to go past those limits especially in a hot yoga or Bikram class when the heat may allow you go deeper than usual. Also, it’s easy to push past limits in a practice when the endorphins are being released, all feels right with your mind and body, and you think you can do the maximum when in fact you cannot.

So, in order to prevent injuries, here are some tips to avoid three of the most common injuries that I have seen over the years:

 1. Hamstring injuries
Just about everyone seems to have tight hamstrings. Tight hamstrings appear to be a side effect of modern living. Avid runners and walkers tend to have them as to do those who sit or drive for long periods of time. Also, some people just have naturally tight hamstrings.

Hamstrings can change from hour to hour. (For example, mine tend to be tighter in the morning than in the afternoon.) Just because you can could get your heels to the ground yesterday in downward facing dog or press your palms all the way to floor with straight legs doesn’t mean you will be able to today.

The easiest way to prevent an injured hamstring is to bend the knees. As an teacher, I always encourage my students to bend their knees and never force their heels to the ground before they are ready. Forcing them to the ground will not result in a better down dog; rather, it will only result in pain that may last for several months.
Hamstrings will lengthen over time—just be patient.

2. Shoulder injuries
As I mentioned, this is one that I know all too much about. In my experience, one of the biggest culprit of shoulder injuries is incorrect alignment in headstand and shoulder stand poses. Having tight shoulders greatly increases the risk of shoulder injuries.
Much like tight hamstrings, tight shoulders can be a result of modern living. (Think of how much time most of spend hunched over in a car or in front of computers. All that hunching can do a number on the shoulders.)
Just like you should never force your heels to the ground before you are ready, you should never force the shoulders to open before they are able to do so.
Tight shoulders are often weak, so strengthening them in a poses like bridge or dolphin is a great idea. If I have a brand new student with very tight shoulders, I suggest they skip the shoulder stands and headstands until they open up and strengthen the shoulders. (Legs-up-the-wall is a great inversion that is usually safe for most and takes pressure off the shoulders.)
Speaking of shoulder stands, I am a big fan of using props like blankets especially if they are going to be held for any length of time. Iynegar-based teachers excel at this, but any decent yoga instructor will be able to show you how to use them correctly.

3. Back injuries
While some people associate back injuries with one of those things that just comes with growing older, most back injuries have an underlying cause. (Also, it isn’t just older people who suffer from this malady. I’ve had students barely out of their teens who have had back injuries.)

One of the most common causes is weak back muscles. Usually, it isn’t just the back muscles that are weak, but the entire core. Many hear the word “core” and immediately think of the superficial abdominal muscles, namely the rectus abdominus which is responsible for that “6-pack ab” effect, but the core involves far more than that.
In fact, the deeper core muscles-the ones that cannot be seen-are the ones that most people should focus on when it comes to the health of their back. (It can be helpful to think of the core as a sort of internal corset in order to get a better idea of how it works.) 

My favorite yoga pose to strengthen the core is boat pose, but even the humble bridge pose can do wonders when it comes to strengthening those deeper muscles. Plus, if you have tight shoulders as well you can kill two birds with one stone. (By the way, placing a block between the knees and squeezing it is a great way to make sure that those core muscles are really engaged.)

Most yoga injuries just don’t happen but are the result of underlying causes. The three I listed are some of the most common injuries I have encountered and some of the most preventable, too!

Remember that yoga when done correctly should prevent injuries rather than cause them. However, in order to do so it is imperative that you listen to your body and work within its limits rather than try to go past them. Doing so will not only prevent injury but, paradoxically, may actually result in one day going deeper than you ever thought possible.

How Drinking Coffee Could Improve Your Health

If you rely on coffee to get through the day, or just to get it started, you might be lacking sleep or something in your diet. Nobody, after all, is ever going to mistake coffee for health food.

But like wine, chocolate and popcorn, coffee has joined the ranks of unlikely foods with health benefits. An increasing body of research has found that drinking coffee—even four or more cups per day in some instances—provides health benefits. And a 13-year study of 402,260 AARP members conducted by the National Cancer Institute, which was published May 17 in the "New England Journal of Medicine," concluded that devoted coffee drinkers were associated with a reduced risk of early death by up to 16 percent.

“This is perhaps the most compelling because the study was so large,” says Robert Davis, at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and author of “Coffee is Good for You: From Vitamin C and Organic Foods to Low-Carb and Detox Diets, The Truth About Diet and Nutrition Claims.” He noted that the study was observational, so it doesn’t prove cause and it effect.

Though drinking coffee excessively can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol and foster a dependence on caffeine, here are ten areas where coffee consumption just might be beneficial – if you limit the cream and sugar.

1. Gallstone Prevention

Harvard researchers in 2002 found that women who drank at least four cups of coffee a day were at a 25 percent lower risk of gallstones. An earlier study found similar results for men.

2. Depression Prevention

Women who drank two to three cups of daily coffee were 15 percent less likely to develop depression, and those drinking four cups were 20 percent less likely, according to a 2011 report in the "Archives of Internal Medicine."

3. Memory Improvement

Coffee can help with both long- and short-term memory. In a 2005 study presented at the Radiological Society of North America, researchers found that consuming two cups of caffeinated coffee improved short-term memory and reaction times.
Interestingly, a 2007 study found that women -- but not men -- who were 65 or older who drank more than three cups of coffee each day performed better on memory tests and were less likely to show memory decline than those who drank just one cup a day.

Although researchers have known for some time that coffee can decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, researchers at the University of South Florida in 2011 found that a distinctive interaction between caffeine and coffee might be why. They recommend drinking four to five cups daily, starting in middle age, to increase GCSF, granulocyte colony stimulating factor, which is decreased in Alzheimer’s patients and improves memory in mice.

4. Less Risk for Diabetes

Studies suggest that coffee drinkers are less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, with those putting away four or more cups daily 50 percent less likely. A January 2012 report in the 'Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry" might explain why. It attributes the effect to compounds in coffee that block hIAPP, a polypeptide that can result in abnormal protein fibers, which are found in people with Type 2.

5. Decreases Cancer Risk

Coffee consumption has been associated with decreased risk of breast, endometrial, prostate and liver cancers, and those linked with obesity, estrogen and insulin. A 2008 Swedish study found that drinking at least two to three cups a day reduced the risk or delayed the onset of breast cancer.
A 2011 study in "Breast Cancer Research" found that drinking five or more cups could translate into a 20 percent less chance of developing estrogen-receptor-negative breast cancer. And, citing research on coffee’s effect on diabetes, researches also found that drinking more than four cups a day was linked with a 25 percent reduced risk for endometrial cancer.

But it’s not just the women who luck out. A recent study out of the Harvard School of Public Health found that both regular and decaf coffee resulted in reduced risk of prostate cancer.

6. Metabolism Boost

Coffee might help you maintain -- or even lose -- weight. A study as far back as 1980 found that the caffeine found in coffee stimulates the metabolism, but that only “normal,” rather than obese, subjects experienced greater oxidation of fat.
A 2006 study confirmed that the metabolism-boosting benefits of coffee were greater -- and lasted longer -- in lean women. More recently, researchers discovered that ground green coffee beans taken as a supplement seemed to promote weight loss -- an average of 17 pounds in obese adults during a 22-week period. Researchers didn’t think it was the caffeine; rather, they credited the chlorogenic acid, which might reduce glucose absorption.

7. Lower Risk for Parkinson’s Disease

The "Journal of the American Medical Association" in 2000 found that the caffeine intake associated with coffee translated into a lower risk of developing Parkinson’s. A 2010 study found that drinking two to three cups of coffee daily can mean up to a 25 percent less chance of developing the disease.

8. Antioxidative Properties

Harvard researcher Edward Giovannucci, in research published in "Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention," noted that coffee has more antioxidants than most vegetables and fruits. In fact, a 2005 study found that coffee is the No. 1 source for antioxidants in the American diet. That’s a reflection of the volume of coffee consumed in this country, and how much is making it into the bloodstream is unclear.

9. Performance-Enhancing Benefits

Coffee -- and the caffeine in it -- has been shown in multiple studies to increase both endurance and short-term performance. A 2008 study concluded that the benefit of caffeine before exercise occurs during endurance events, stop-and-go events and long-term high-intensity activity. It also can help athletes perform better during strength training -- even when sleep-deprived -- if taken one hour before exercise at the rate of 4 mg for every kg of body weight.

10. Gout Prevention

A 2007 study of men older than 40 linked long-term coffee consumption with a lower risk of gout, an inflammatory condition caused by elevated levels of uric acid. Decaf and regular both had an effect, and those drinking six cups a day experienced as much as a 60 percent lower risk of gout. 
Article reviewed by Pete Williams Last updated on: Aug 16, 2013