The Yoga Teacher & Yoga Therapist

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Steve Jobs, Autobiography of a Yogi and Happy Birthday

Last Smile - Paramhansa Yogananda

Last Smile – Paramhansa Yogananda

Millions of people from around the world have read the spiritual classic, “Autobiography of a Yogi,” by Paramhansa Yogananda.  Many have been so inspired by it that they have changed careers, moved, been healed or found spiritual enlightenment.  Steve Jobs gave the book as his last gift to friends and family at his memorial service.

In honor of Yogananda’s birthday, January 5th, I asked Nayaswami Premdas, a minister at Ananda Sangha and Director of the Ananda Course in Self-Realization, which is based on Yogananda’s teachings, a few questions to enlighten us on why this book has had a such a profound effect on so many people over the decades.

1. Why do you think the “Autobiography of a Yogi” has had such an enduring appeal?autobiography_yogi_book

It’s sweetness.  While introducing the reader to timeless truths and teachers who mastered themselves, Yogananda speaks caringly to us through the ages, demonstrating how we too are offered the same keys to happiness, contentment and peace these great souls possessed.  In this book we are called to our own heritage of love and strength and discover guidance and wisdom for our lives, no matter our location, age or vocation.  And its chapters reveal treasure-troves of inspiration for all of today’s challenges.

2. What do you think was Yogananda’s most important contribution to yoga for our modern times?

The practicality of applying simple truths and techniques for expanding our own happiness.  I know no other quicker, direct methods nor paths for increasing joy in and around you.  If you want to change yourself or the world, delve into his life and message and see yourself transformed.

3. Aside from reading the Autobiography of a Yogi – which I personally recommend – how might one learn more about Yogananda, his life, his teachings or simply be inspired by something he wrote or did?

734772_474981269205960_1609209345_aOne can read many other books and investigate online how, what and why this yoga master continues to transform lives, but the best source remains the people who’ve discovered and put into practice the ageless tried and true teaching, who are living what he called high thinking and simple living, most appropriate for our times.  I highly recommend visiting an Ananda Community, an evolution of what Yogananda called World Brotherhood Communities.

Nayaswami Premadas lives at Ananda Village and can be reached at

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Is Yoga a Religion?

Many individuals and organizations that oppose yoga, especially in public settings, do so because they believe that yoga is a religion.  For example, the parents who filed the lawsuit Sedlock v. Baird in Encinitas, California, argued that yoga should not be taught at a public school for this reason.  In the Sedlock case, the judge ruled that the specific yoga program taught in the Encinitas Union School District was not religious, but avoided a ruling on yoga in general.

Despite the Court’s ruling on this one case, the question of whether yoga is a religion or not is still a debatable issue.  It is an important question, and after having investigated the question myself, I find that there really is not a black-and-white answer that one can give objectively and which applies in all instances.  We are living in a time of rapid change, where culture, religious, and even scientific beliefs are being questioned and challenged. From a traditional viewpoint, this era was predicted by yoga masters of the past and considered a transitional period where we are moving out of the age of Kali Yuga- characterized by form, dogma, and materialism-to Dwapara Yuga, an age of energy and expansion.

When I asked yoga colleagues from around the world about their thoughts on this topic and added their responses to discussions I heard among yoga practitioners and observed on the Internet, it seemed that most people in the yoga community strongly assert that yoga is not a religion. When asked if it is spiritual, there is a divergence of opinions.  Many practice yoga for purely physical reasons; others strongly argue that it’s not really yoga if the spiritual aspects are stripped from the practice.

I found that Judge John Meyer’s decision in the Encinitas case to look only at the particular program in question was a very wise choice to make.  The way that yoga is viewed and practiced around the world and even locally is diverse, changing and evolving in such a way that at this point in time I don’t think that a definitive argument could be made one way or the other. Rather it is by looking at the presentation of yoga programs and yoga practices on a case-by-case basis that we can draw any meaningful conclusions.

Excerpted from Yoga Therapy Today, the Winter 2013 Issue – a publication of the International Association of Yoga Therapists

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Healthy Hips in Hatha Yoga

Ask anyone—even a doctor—to put their hands on their hips, and chances are that all hands will go to their waists. Ask new yoga students to stand with their feet hip-joint distance apart, and you’ll see the legs widen beyond the typical, anatomically correct distance of 3-4 inches. Sadly, you’ll see some (yes, mostly women) with perhaps a not-so-good self-image, set their feet farther apart than the width of the entire pelvis.

So where are those hips anyway?

Hip Joints 101

The hip joint is the place where the femur (upper leg bone) connects to the pelvis. Both the iliac crest (i.e., the top of the ilium: upper part of the pelvis) and the greater trochanter (the large protrusion on the outer side of the femur, near but still below the hip joint) are often mistaken for the location of this elusive, but otherwise relatively simple, ball-and-socket joint.

You can find it by pressing your fingers deep into the crease that is formed when you bend forward from the hips and—oops, if you don’t know where your hips are, you will probably bend from your waist, and we’ll be right back where we started from. So instead, stand up and bring your knee to your chest. (If your balance is not the best, or if you are reading this in high heels, I suggest that you do this from a seated or supine position, as in the photo below.) Your hip joint is deep behind the crease that you create between your lower abdomen and your thigh.

The inferior (lower) end of the femur meets the tibia and fibula to form (along with the supporting soft tissue) the knee joint. From that point upward, the femur angles laterally outward until (approximately) Nicole1_16the greater trochanter, where it turns back in medially and ends in a ball-type surface (the femur head). The femur head inserts into the acetabulum, the socket shaped depression formed where the three sections of the pelvis (the ilium, the ischium, and the pubis) connect. The joint is cushioned by cartilage and synovial fluid.

Hip MovementScreen Shot 2013-11-03 at 9.01.45 AM

The hip has a fairly wide range of motion in most directions: flexion, extension, adduction and abduction with lateral rotation. Abduction without lateral rotation is limited to about 40 degrees, because at that point the superior femoral neck bumps into the upper edge of the acetabulum, restricting the motion. The degree of both lateral and medial rotation varies widely, as can be attested by practitioners of hatha yoga. Some find that Padmasana (Lotus Pose) and Virasana (the version Image_1998 Nicole Lotusthat’s a cousin of Vajrasana, in which one sits between the heels after medially rotating the hips a significant amount) are simple matters of limbering some of the muscles around the hip joint, while others find those poses to be exercises in futility and/or exercises to guarantee knee injury. More on this later.

To keep the ball in the socket, so to speak, there is a thick joint capsule that is reinforced by ligaments, the strongest being the iliofemoral ligament. To further support this joint, which is key to locomotion, large muscles criss-cross the joint to stabilize it and provide the power for walking, running, jumping, and a host of other moves on and off the dance floor.

From above the hip joint, some of the deep pelvic muscles that Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 9.04.39 AMsupport and move the hip include the piriformis, psoas, iliacus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and last not but not least the largest muscle of the body, gluteus maximus. (Because the psoas and iliacus attach to the femur at the same spot, they are sometimes referred to jointly as a single muscle: the iliopsoas.)

The muscles that support and move the hip from below are the quadriceps femoris (four muscles in one), sartorius, hamstrings (a group of three muscles), adductors (a group of five muscles), and tensor fasciae latae. And there are more muscles very close to the joint, such as the quadratus femoris, which, along with five other muscles, form the group known best as the hip rotators.

Asanas and the Hips

Have you ever been in a class with a teacher who poetically and metaphorically instructs students to open their hearts, soar with the birds, or create space in their hip joints? We often view these instructions as nice sentiments that can help one to go a little deeper into the pose, but not as specific anatomical instructions. However, if you are in my class and I ask you to create space in your hip joints, I will mean what I say, and I will expect you to be able to do it. If I tell you to get taller and take a load off of your hip sockets, I will expect you to do exactly that as well. Are you saying, “Good luck!”?

No, it’s quite possible. Engaging proper core and postural muscles, as well as the varied movements of yoga practice, have helped students stand up taller and literally take a load off of their otherwise squished spinal discs. I have had several students literally gain as much as half an inch of height from their yoga practice!

Okay, I know that there are no discs to squish in the hip joints. So how can one create more space in the hip joints while bearing weight, like in standing or Virabhadrasana II, or Parsvakonasana?

The key lies in four little—and little known—muscles called the obturators (obturator internus, Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 9.07.12 AMobturator externus) and gemelli (gemellus superior and gemellus inferior). Better known for rotational and other movements of the hip, their combined job is to lift the pelvis up out of the hip socket (or pull the femur down away from the socket, depending on which is in a fixed position: the femur or the pelvis, respectively). Together they form a “hammock” type support for the pelvis.  A taught hammock, so to speak, lifts the pelvis up off of the femurs.  Naturally these small muscles can use all the help they can get from properly engaged postural muscles, and in certain positions, other core muscles as well. These larger muscles may get the credit, but without the obturators and the gemelli, it may be a sinking proposition.


What is the best way to engage the obturators and the gemelli? Um … well … poetic visualization!  It might be rather ambitious to try to selectively engage any one of these muscles—instead go for the sensation of lifting  the pelvis up out of the hip joints, and know that those muscles will make it happen. Feel the pelvis lifting up out of the hip joint as the spine extends upward to “soar with the birds” (or something like that).

For the hip joints to be healthy, we need them to be both strong and flexible. Imbalances and improper movements and/or posture can take a toll on the hip joints themselves, but often their neighbors—the knee joints and the lower back—will suffer the consequences and be injured.

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 9.10.32 AMLearning and teaching proper body mechanics—as well as never forcing movements or positions—is essential for preventing injury to the hips and surrounding structures as well as for rehabilitating them. For example, forward bending from the waist instead of from the hip joints—especially when combined with tight hamstrings—can put a lot of pressure on the lumbar spine and cause injury.

The shapes of the bones and the angles in which they come together to form the hip joint can vary widely among individuals. The point at which compression occurs from the contact of the femural head with the acetabulum (hip socket) is determined by both the shapes and angles of the femur and the acetabulum. These variablities create variations in potential maximum range of motion for each individual’s  hip joints.  And as I alluded to before, some people can never go safely into asanas such as Padmasana and Virasana—not because they lack muscle flexibility, but because of the way their bones fit together. And some people may be able to do one of those poses but not the other. As a result, forcing oneself into these positions can lead to debilitating and permanent knee or back injury.

So be hip. Know how to move from your hips, not your waist. Know thy hips, and respect their range of motion. And don’t forget to give them a little space!


This article first appeared in the Ananda Yoga Teachers Association’s “Awake and Ready”


FREE Webinar: 5 Prenatal Yoga Mistakes Yoga Teachers Make… and How to Avoid Them

IMG_3150I remember the look on an experienced yoga teachers face when I walked in unannounced at 8 months pregnant to his yoga class.  Knowing who I was he said after his initial look of shock, “I sure am glad you are a yoga teacher and will know how to take care of yourself during the class!”

I also remember back when I took my initial yoga teacher training prenatal yoga was a fringe niche and most people had never even heard of it.  It was very difficult to find prenatal yoga teacher trainings and so it was a milestone and sign of the new times when I was asked to be on the first Yoga Alliance Prenatal Yoga Teacher Training Standards Committee.

Back then doctors were just starting to figure out that pregnant women actually should exercise instead of taking it easy and had just stopped telling women they should eat for two.

We’ve come a long way baby!  Now doctors not only counsel women to exercise but also the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) even endorse yoga as a good practice for pregnant women.

There is now solid scientific evidence about the benefits of prenatal yoga and who should be able to do what safely.  Think of these statistics from the Yoga in America Study 2012 commissioned by Yoga Journal:

  • The number of people practicing yoga increased by 29 percent from 2008
  • That’s 8.7 percent of US adults who practice yoga
  • Over 82% are women
  • The majority of yoga practitioners fall within the age range of 18-44 (child bearing years)IMG_3148

Couple those numbers with this, the statistic on the number of women at any given time who will be pregnant in the US, and you have over a quarter of a million women who are pregnant and are already practicing yoga.

That’s a lot of women whom we would like to be able to take good care of in our regular yoga classes.  The yoga teacher who is well educated about prenatal yoga will also be the one who will get the new pregnant students and are seeking a regular yoga class sent to them by the front desk staff.  All leading to increased numbers of yoga students for your class.

To help you increase your skills, your service and your class size, I have designed this FREE Google Satsang-Hangout:

Prenatal Splits Nicole

That’s me 18 years ago – 1 week before delivering my son!

5 Prenatal Yoga Mistakes Yoga Teachers Make… and How to Avoid Them

In this 60-minute presentation you will discover:

  • The 5 Prenatal Yoga Mistake Yoga Teachers Make
  • How to Avoid the 5 Mistakes
  • How to Grow Your Classes Without Being a Prenatal Expert
  • Fact from Fiction – Dispelling Prenatal Yoga Myths
  • Easy Prenatal Yoga Tips and how to look impressive to ALL of your students

When you register now you will receive the Free Bonus:

Prenatal Yoga Tips Handout for you to give to your students – saves you time, and helps you better serve the approximately quarter million women who are pregnant and practice yoga in the US alone!

Click on the link to register. You will be asked to “like” the page and then scroll down to the small green button: “Register Here!”

See you at the Google Satsang-Hangout!