Yoga A-Z B for Breath

It had to be Breath for 'B'. In common with most yoga teachers I talk about the breath and breathing a lot; in fact breath will get a mention (or several) in every single class I teach. It's an ancient quotation that best explains why. The following is from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written in the 15th century:

" When the breath wanders, the mind is also unsteady. But, when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath."

A more western approach is encompassed in this quotation from Donna Farhi from her book called 'The Breathing Book':

"Breathing affects your respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, muscular and psychic systems, and also has a general affect on your sleep, memory, ability to concentrate, and your energy levels."

We know that controlling the breath can act as a shortcut to switching on the parasympathetic nervous system, like pressing the reset button on our mind and body to allow us to escape from the flight, fight or freeze response. More than that the breath fuels our body enabling us to move with more ease and grace. Try jumping holding your breath and then try doing the same jump inhaling as you do so and the effect is obvious.

In yoga we call the various breathing techniques Pranayama, Prana being the Sanskrit word for life force or energy and Ayama meaning extension or control. In weekly yoga classes we tend to keep to the simple, tried and trusted techniques like keeping the inhale and exhale the same length or employing a basic ration of counting the length of the inhale, the pause after the inhale, the exhale and the pause after the exhale, but there are many types of Pranayama There are 8 common types, but a huge number more exist, some coming under what are known as Kriyas, Sanskrit for cleansing techniques.

So much, so simple and yet like many things in life we are capable of forgetting to use this fantastic resource that is always there for us. Better yet, whilst breaking out a yoga pose or two outside of a yoga studio or one's own home might raise an eyebrow (or might not of course!) the breathing techniques we learn can be used literally everyday. Deep even breathing to calm us when stressed out by traffic, helping us take that moment to think before replying to a comment that has triggered something for us, enabling us to feel OK about an appointment at the dentist, dealing with fear, grief and countless other common situations are improved and the stress and strain on our bodies and minds limited when we use our breath.

Yoga A - Z A for Adjustments

 

Here are my thoughts and reflections on the whys, hows ,dos and don’ts of adjustments in yoga, but first let me offer some examples of what I think might be in the speech bubbles above people’s heads if only we could see them:

What exactly is the teacher trying to get me to do?

Am I doing the pose all wrong?

Wow, that feels amazing.

Why has the teacher picked on me?

Is it meant to hurt/feel like this?

I never thought I could get into that pose

Of course the speech bubbles might also say:

Crikey that feels a bit intimate

I can smell his/her garlic breath

I’d rather you didn’t touch me at all

Why?

A teacher might use the term ‘assist’ rather than ‘adjustment’ because from a teaching perspective our intention is to assist the student in one of the following:

·         Experiencing the pose more deeply e.g. finding more length in the spine, space to breathe more fully, being able to bind, twisting more deeply

·         Finding more alignment so that the benefits of the pose are maximised

·         Ensuring safe practice

How?

Telekinesis! Only joking but it’s spooky how often just at the point I look directly at someone’s knee alignment in a class they self adjust.

More often it will be a verbal cue or suggestion which might be accompanied by a hands on physical adjustment e.g. to steady someone in a balance or encourage a twist.

 

 

Dos

As a  student  do tell your teacher if you’d rather not be adjusted. It’s perfectly fine not to want to be touched.  You don’t have to give any reason full stop. Do tell your teacher if you experience pain or discomfort or you feel as if you losing your balance/steadiness. However experienced your teacher is they cannot know what it is like to be in your body and cannot feel what you are feeling so if it’s not good you need to tell them. If you feel an adjustment is too intimate or inappropriate just say ‘stop’ or ‘no’ and move if you need to do so.

As a teacher do check with students they are comfortable being adjusted. Be clear about what your intention is with the adjustment.

Don’ts

Say something is OK if it’s not OK. Be guided by your own body and what works. Don’t feel you’re doing anything wrong if a teacher comes to adjust you.

As a teacher do not make adjustments unless you feel confident in what you’re doing, don’t inflict your garlicky lunch breath on people. Back off immediately if you’re asked to. Obvious and non-negotiable but it needs to be stated – never ever touch someone inappropriately.

Enjoy!

A good adjustment is like receiving a present - it makes what’s already a good experience even better and yes, it really can feel amazing and magical.

 

Cutting out the mental chatter - but is there a place for self talk?

I have always loved words and stories, both printed and spoken. Languages fascinate me; their roots and origins, similarities and differences. Unsurprisingly therefore I am one of those Yogis that loves the Sanskrit names of poses and mantras chanted in Sanskrit. I understand completely though that many, if not the majority of people who attend weekly local yoga classes are less than interested in  adding trying to memorise and understand Sanskrit words on top of concentrating on the pose, the breath, the alignment and whatever else the teacher chooses to throw in. I learn aurally too so words my teacher says to me stay with me long after class is over.

Words  have undeniable power , and most of us are aware on some level of our own chatter inside our heads, a good deal of which is self talk and the stories we choose to tell ourselves to support those self talk statements. Maybe you know the ones I mean:

  • "I'll never be able to do that"
  • "I'm too fat/old/weak/inflexible for this"
  • "That looks scary"
  • "Yay - I finally nailed that pose!"
  • "Last time I tried this it was a disaster"

On top of the kind of statements above, we contend with other voices in our head:

  • "Must remember to pick up some milk when I fill up the car with petrol"
  • "Hope to goodness he/she fed the dog"
  • "Wonder if I should really take this time out for myself when there's so much to do"
  • "This mat smells horrible"

Yoga with its emphasis on concentration, focus and using the breath as a means to do this is a tried and tested route to stilling the busyness of the mind. In Sutra 1.2 Patanjali specifically refers to the cessation of fluctuations of the mind - or put more prosaically, cutting out the chatter in one's head. Certainly the examples I've given above would generally be unhelpful to a quiet and focused mind or preparation for either meditation or asana practice. Nothing is more certain than if we think we cannot do something we will fulfil that prophecy. If we fill out minds with the minutiae of every life and its dramas we will never find time to look more deeply at ourselves and find our true selves deep inside. 

Despite all that here's my confession on this subject. Sometimes I still the internal chatter with a more focused and upbeat version. Faced with something in a yoga practice that I find challenging or difficult two things happen. The first is that I hear my own teacher's voice inside my head guiding me through, and I hear my own self talk mantra of positive outcomes. It may just as simple as repeating 'I am calm and strong' to myself or 'breathe evenly' and hey presto the negative chatter disappears. Powerful magic this yoga!

There are more things in heaven and earth...........

As someone who follows and subscribes to numerous blogs and Facebook pages about Yoga and wellbeing in general I'm fascinated by the sheer number of articles and posts that point to research about how yoga helps everything from anxiety, to arthritis, cancer symptoms, confidence building, depression and even the Holy Grail of weight loss and the effects of ageing. They vary in their degree of rigour as studies of course, and as with all research findings we need to be mindful of our own viewpoint. Like those clever pictures that are optical illusions like the well known one shown below we see what our mind chooses to see.

Vase-Face1.png

This week I've been fascinated by two different studies. The first was one I heard about on a programme called Supersense Me on Radio 4 which was about experiments which result in the brain being able to develop new senses beyond the 5 we normally think of as human senses. In the main example the reporter wore a vest which enabled her to feel vibrations through her skin in response to sounds. In other words she was learning to interpret the world in en entirely different way and her brain was being reprogrammed. For example, she experienced a trumpet sound as a skittering sensation across her shoulder blades. I found myself nodding agreement to the radio (luckily I was on my own at the time!) and thinking about the senses that know our pets have which can be trained to help humans in all sorts of ways from medical assistance dogs who know before their owners that an eplileptic fit is on the way, through to dogs that can smell cancer. There are many stories of dogs and cats with an uncanny ability to know when someone is about to die. At the same time there are some humans whose senses are more fully developed or naturally present than average e.g. people who create perfumes who have a sense of smell way beyond that of an ordinary person. How exciting to contemplate a future where we can employ new senses to enhance and interpret our world.

The second study that caught my attention was an article about research that has been done using CT scanning to show how there is a difference between the acupressure points on the body used since ancient times in Asian medecine , and non acupressure points. Basically it shows that the acupressure points have a different structure in terms of larger blood vessels and that they oxygen pressure levels are higher at acupressure points than elsewhere on the body. In other words things we can't see even with dissection exist. 

So what's all this got to do with yoga? Well I guess my fascination with this stuff is at least partially because of my viewpoint which is that I have both experienced in myself and witnessed in others the beneficial effects of yoga that go way beyond the work that is done with muscles, bones and even the breath. However, as a true Westerner I have a degree of scepticism in my make up and that's where all the studies and research is invaluable, because if it can jump my own hurdles of scepticism then there's a good chance it will do the same for others. It's my contention this has a part to play in spreading the benefits of yoga ever more widely,  because until the point where we 'get it' in our own bodies and minds then we are in a place where research studies can help us give tangible reasons to others as to why yoga is one of the best ways to spend time you could ever experience. 

There truly are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy as Shakespeare's Hamlet said to Horatio. How great that we're starting to discover some of them.

December has arrived!

 The Beauty of a Frosty Morning

The Beauty of a Frosty Morning

For some reason I am always slightly surprised by the arrival of December. It seems like only yesterday that the warm autumn hues of September and October were lighting up corners of the garden and Christmas was ages away. The arrival of 1st December is the equivalent of a starting gun that lends legitimacy to the downhill ski race to Christmas and the end of the year. As someone who uses yoga as a tool for daily life at any time of year, I find it especially valuable in December. Here are just a few of my personal reasons:

  • The annual events and social get togethers of the season are lovely but they leave me craving the tranquility and reflection space to be found on the mat
  • At a time of year when making others feel happy and good, not to mention well fed, can become a pressure point, yoga restores my balance and equanimity
  • Mindful practice helps build mindful habits for everyday allowing celebrations to happen in the moment without comparison to other celebrations or idealised versions of celebrations
  • Knowing that I will be getting onto my mat the following day is a great tool for self discipline with my own intake of food and drink!

There are, of course, specific yoga asanas/poses that can aid digestion so when you do get your mat out (and I hope you will!) try some of the following:

Cat/Cow

Downward Facing Dog

Triangle

Extended Childs Pose

Bridge Pose

Gentle seated twists or supine twists

Hugging the knees into the chest one at a time (Apanasana is 'wind relieving pose')

However, yoga is not the only thing that can help ward off the more crazy elements of December. I recently followed a series of blog posts which all had the same question of "Where do you find peace amid chaos?" which was addressed to all different kinds of people in all different kinds of occupations. Two of the responses which most resonated with me were from musicians and yet they are not about listening to music. Here are some excerpts:

By living in the arts. According to Nietzsche, the only vindication for our existence and this world is aesthetic.
By enjoying the love of my beloved and returning to it.
By trying to keep my balance, dancing amongst contradictions.
— Alfred Brendel Concert Pianist
Some of the most reliable ways of finding peace in our wretchedly noise polluted world come through connecting with the spirit of wild places - with past denizens of ancient chalk downland, hearing the larks chirping overhead: by yomping through forests and glimpses of passing deer, in listening to the wind in the trees in wild woods, and by inhaling the varied aroma of felled timber.I find it too in the scent of new mown grass, the calming company of cattle grazing lush pasture, in the shaggy companionship of nice dogs, in the cool interior of medieval churches, or in the Sunday rituals of baking fresh eggs for breakfast.
— Sir John Eliot Gardiner Conductor

As well as practising mindfulness it's also a good time to make gratitude a focus - and I don't mean gratitude for the material elements of the season! The company of family and friends, the memories of happy times past, and the unadulterated pleasures of sharing are all there to be grateful for. Like most people I am already surveying the calendar and diary with mild dismay; so many things to fit in and so seemingly little time, but I do know that the important stuff will get done, and that December has a full quota of 31 days and that I can only live and enjoy them one minute, hour and day at a time. The rest will follow. So whether you love or loathe December I urge you to include yoga, on and off the mat, in your seasonal formula. I know I will.

Thoughts on Age, Yoga and Social Media

Have you ever noticed how social media posts and media articles in general follow trends in exactly the same way as fashion on the High Street? Or perhaps it's me reacting in the same way as I do when I've acquired something in a brand I've never had a high awareness of before. Before I owned a little Honda car I'd never noticed how many there are on the roads - they're everywhere in vast numbers! Recently I've seen, and read, articles on mistakes young people make teaching older yogis, stuff about the benefits to senior citizens yoga brings, an item on whether or not social media has ruined yoga, and a highly thoughtful personal blog post about the relationship of that person to social media and how they feel about it. As this reflects much of the random content my own brain turns over regularly I thought I'd add my two penn'orth to the mix.

I happen to be an older yogi who does look at, and use, some limited social media. However, it's worth considering that all of us over a certain age lived the vast majority of our lives to date without it. Ditto, mobile phones, and even the internet itself. Yoga, of course, managed perfectly well in spreading its teachings and message throughout communities long before all our modern western gizmos arrived. Many of the older students I meet in my classes do not have an e mail address, or in some cases, a mobile phone and yet they share their lives with family and friends and turn up to class smiling in the pleasure of each others company. How then did I arrive at the point where on the occasions where I do not have internet access I feel vaguely anxious? When thinking about this I realised that it's my old friend and sparring partner called 'attachment'! Nobody makes me look at Facebook or my news feed, and if I can't send an e mail for a few days the world does not come to an end. I know all this but occasionally act as though I don't. So much for the wisdom of age! What I do acknowledge is that beyond all the nonsense and ego filled content clogging up all our inboxes and feeds, that there is real sharing of knowledge, technique, and much more importantly kindness and love which has a real role in making us feel connected and embraced by the wider world. I agree with the conclusion that others have reached that social media is a tool like any other; it's how we choose to use it that counts, including ensuring that we don't feed our attachment gremlin or other insecurities on the way.

I have a similar instinctive response to the age question. Yes, there are some younger yoga teachers who have no concept of what its like to live in an older body and mind and they fill the gap with their own misconceptions and prejudices even when kindly meant. Thankfully these teachers are relatively rare, and just as we as teachers have a responsibility to our students, as students we have a responsibility to ourselves to select and stick with, teachers that provide the right level of support for us as we learn. It's simple enough; if we don't enjoy a teacher's style irrespective of their age we need to find another class/teacher. We are generally still the people we were when we were younger. If we liked a challenge at 25, the probability is we still will at 65, and the same goes for many personality traits that show up in our behaviour. Having gone through some of life's tougher realities we are grateful for what we can do and what we have in our lives. Our egos remain intact but for the most part we're not fooled by their tricks. We know ourselves that little bit better and can forgive ourselves for the occasional lapse like trying too hard to achieve a pose and forgetting that's not the point.  Similarly I find it easy to forgive what looks like ego driven marketing by those younger, fitter, more beautiful souls whose photos grace Instagram, workshop advertisements and media generally. I know that they too have their gremlins to wrestle with, have undoubtedly had their own struggles along the way and have nothing but respect and admiration for the time they have invested in their own practice to get to that level. My own ego would enjoy just a fraction of their grace and elegance - but that would be feeding the beast now wouldn't it?!

 

  

Standing Up for Standing Poses

Almost every yoga class will contain some standing poses. Some of them are going to be in the top 10 most regularly used poses in all likelihood, and as a result, regular students feel a familiarity with them and feel they know how to 'do' them. As someone who practises Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga my own daily practice always starts with the standing sequence and it's easy therefore to take these poses and their many benefits (and challenges) for granted. Dare I say it, but just as it's possible that at some time or another we have been guilty of driving the car without fully concentrating on the task in hand, it's also possible to do standing poses with the same level of too easy familiarity. This post is a shout out for the standing poses and a plea not to sleepwalk your way through them in class (or your home practice). Here are 5 reasons why:

  1. They work on our foundation, through the feet, the ankles, the legs and the hips, strengthening the muscles, bones and joints over time.
  2. They help our balance, and keeping balance in our lives and maintaining our ability to balance as we age are both vitally important for our wellbeing.
  3. We use our breath to enter, hold and exit the poses, enabling us to fully expand our lungs as we explore finding space in the body.
  4. They enable us to find optimum alignment for our body. The best example is in Tadasana, Mountain Pose, where we learn to feel what good alignment of our skeleton feels like complete with the natural curves of the spine.
  5. They counteract the sense of gravity and any emotional or mental concerns dragging us down. By standing 'up', we automatically become more alert, focused and feel better for it. 

If your teacher is watching he/she will see when you're not paying attention in your standing poses as your body will give the game away. There is no hiding place even in a full yoga room - we can see the back row as well as the front row! If you do find yourself struggling to maintain concentration and energy in the pose, listen to the verbal cues the teacher is giving. You may have heard them many times, but maybe you haven't really listened to them. There are so many different things to work on in each pose that the emphasis and words used may well vary week to week. I can personally testify that sometimes we can hear the same cue loads of times but fail to act on it effectively until one day the teacher says it again and we have that wonderful moment when we 'get' it and feel what they're communicating in our own bodies. It's magic and it feel great!

Breathing in the Autumn and a Poem for October

This last week has brought the feel of autumn to the landscape and our gardens, and maybe to us too. We've also had some beautiful sunshine to compensate for the cooler temperatures and it's a good time therefore to think about opportunities to use our breathing practice as we go about daily life as well as when we start or finish a yoga practice or meditation. Whilst walking we can observe how our breath is linked to our stride, perhaps breathe a little more deeply taking the chance to inhale the scents of autumn in the air and appreciate the beauty autumn brings even as summer finally slips away.

Practising Nadi Shodana, alternate nostril breathing at this time of year can be especially beneficial. Nadi is the Sanskrit word for 'channel' or 'flow' and Shodana can be translated as purification, so this form of breathing technique is designed to purify and clear the subtle energy channels bringing things into balance. To practise Nadi Shodana first sit comfortably and rest your left hand on your knee or in your lap. Breathe naturally just noting how your breath feels. Sit tall. Create a Mudra with your right hand folding the second and third fingers in towards the palm and resting them on the base of the thumb. Exhale fully, then use the thumb to gently close the right nostril, breathe in through the left nostril. Then, release the right nostril and at the same time gently close the left nostril with the ring finger and exhale through the right nostril. Keeping the ring finger in place inhale through the right nostril, then release the ring finger and at the same time close the right nostril with the thumb and exhale through the left nostril. This inhale through left, exhale right, inhale right, exhale left whilst alternating the closing of the nostrils makes one round. Try practising 6 rounds at first and then let your breathing return to its normal rhythm and take a few moments to observe whether the alternate nostril breathing has changed anything. In autumn I like to think of this purification as a letting go of anything that no longer serves my wellbeing in the same way that the trees are letting go as their leaves fall.

There is a feel of letting go in a wonderful poem called 'Equinox' by Barbara Crooker that I was introduced to last year by a dear friend. Here it is:

Another October. The maples have done their slick trick
of turning yellow almost overnight; summer’s hazy skies
are cobalt blue. My friend has come in from the West,
where it’s been a year of no mercy: chemotherapy, bone
marrow transplant, more chemotherapy, and her hair
came out in fistfuls, twice. Bald as a pumpkin.
And then, the surgeon’s knife.
But she’s come through it all, annealed by fire,
calm settled in her bones like the morning mist in valleys
and low places, and her hair’s returned, glossy
as a horse chestnut kept in a shirt pocket.
Today a red fox ran down through the corn stubble;
he vanished like smoke. I want to praise things
that cannot last. The scarlet and orange leaves
are already gone, blown down by a cold rain,
crushed and trampled. They rise again in leaf meal
and wood smoke. The Great Blue Heron’s returned to the pond,
settles in the reeds like a steady flame.
Geese cut a wedge out of the sky, drag the gray days
behind them like a skein of old wool.
I want to praise everything brief and finite.
Overhead, the Pleiades fall into place; Orion rises.
Great Horned Owls muffle the night with their calls;
night falls swiftly, tucking us in her black velvet robe,
the stitches showing through, all those little lights,
our little lives, rising and falling.

Equinox 

by Barbara Crooker

 

Starting Your Home Practice

If the only yoga you've ever done has been in a class or following a DVD it can be difficult to know what to do once you get to the point of rolling out your mat at home. Good news - simply by rolling out your mat you've made a start! More good news - you don't have to be on the mat for a set length of time. This is your practice, your time and your space to use as you need. If you have experience of going to classes, then rather than suggesting a set sequence I advise following a few  basic guidelines:

  1. Commit to a short amount of time and practise every day rather than doing a really long practice one day and then nothing for the next 5 days. Better just to do 10 minutes every day if that's the time you can make available. You can build up the time slowly.
  2. Try to establish a quiet space for your practice and ensure the family knows you'd rather not be interrupted. This may not work, or it may be impossible if you're caring for children or others, but minimise distractions as much as you can.
  3. Begin with some simple breathing with your eyes closed. This can quickly bring you into a calm space.
  4. Keep the poses you practise simple. Do easy versions.You can work from supine upwards or standing poses, then seated and then supine to finish. There is no wrong approach, but my personal preference is to get grounded and energised by standing poses before moving onto seated poses. 
  5. Hold each pose for a minimum of 5 inhalations and exhalations, and make sure that any poses you do that are one sided, you repeat on the opposite side to keep things even.
  6. Practise poses you enjoy! If you focus on all the poses you find hard in class it's not a recipe for an enjoyable home practice that you will want to repeat. That's not to say that as time goes on you can't work on things you find challenging, but don't make that your sole focus.
  7. Allow yourself the time to enjoy a Savasana/relaxation at the end. Remember how good that makes you feel at the end of a class? Why wouldn't you want to feel as good at home?! 

Still not sure what would suit you best for your home yoga practice or want to focus on a specific area e.g. balancing or tight hips, or strength building? Perhaps consider a private lesson. More about this in next week's blog but it can be a great way of kickstarting your efforts.

5 Reasons to Practise Yoga at Home

You might be thinking what a strange topic for a yoga teacher to blog about. Surely they want people to come to their classes? Yes, of course I want (and need!) people to come to the classes that I teach, and that other great teachers offer too. However, the benefits of yoga are such that if people can get themselves to the point of trying a home practice , then it can support and multiply the benefits of coming to class exponentially. Class plus home practice is a magic formula. So what follows here are 5 great reasons to practise at home:

  1. You can fit around the demands of your daily life. Whilst it's ideal to set yourself up for the day by practising early in the morning you can practise anytime that suits and for whatever period of time you have available. Even 10 minutes a day can work wonders.
  2. Wear what you like! No need to worry about whether your leggings or shorts are clean. Practise in your knickers or pyjamas if you want to. 
  3. Make it the practice you need that day. Some days you may want to work hard and build heat and energy. Other days you may be tired and need a gentle restorative approach. You can decide according to how your body feels that day.
  4. Eliminate the fear of making a fool of yourself. As long as you know how to practise safely (more about that in a future blog) you can try that funky arm balance you saw demonstrated in class as often as you like and fall on your bum without worrying about how daft you look. Practice may not always make perfect but it surely goes a long way towards it.
  5. Do more of the poses you love. Everyone has poses that they hope the teacher will include in the class (as well as those they'd rather not have included!). Mostly the reason is that in our body those poses just feel really good delivering exactly what our bodies need and respond to. I always suggest practising what you enjoy doing at home. It's a guaranteed way to motivate yourself to get on your mat. Make it a treat not a torment is my motto.

Next week on the blog I'll cover how to go about actually designing your home practice and deciding what to do.