Learning from injury

When our body is working well we may not pay it much attention, but even the slightest injury can increase our awareness of the role of the injured body part in our overall well-being and state of mind.  I once managed to break (I think) my little toe, right at the start of the autumn term.

The next few weeks gave me a great learning opportunity. When part of the body is injured, other parts will try to compensate and may be hurt themselves along the way.  Depending on the injury, we may need to rest or perhaps movement will help the healing process.  Either way, there is invariably something to be learned from the experience.

For such a tiny part of the body, the little toe has a major role to play in balance, as the weight shifts across the foot during balancing postures.  Being unable to stand comfortably on one foot really made me appreciate how important that little toe is!  It also made me reach for a support…which led to my second realisation.

When we do our balances using a support, the work needed in the foot is significantly reduced and as a knock-on effect, less effort is needed higher up, in the core muscles that help to stabilise the body.  By continuing to use a support for balances, the foot will not be encouraged to develop the strength and flexibility needed to provide a good foundation for our postures and as a result, our ability to balance will not improve.  If we struggle with standing balances this is indeed a catch 22 situation!  For this reason, I always encourage people to try and balance without a support, however wobbly they may be.  It is only by being prepared to move outside our comfort zone that we can grow and develop in our practice.

Share

Your guide to sitting comfortably

Patanjali doesn’t say much about asana in his Yoga Sutras.  But the little that he does say is in the context of finding a seated position for meditation and breathing practises.  He suggests that the position should have 2 qualities.  The first of these is sthira, which we generally understand to mean ‘steadfast’ or ‘stable’.  It implies an alertness and strength.  The second quality is sukha, which translates literally as ‘happy’.  In the context of sitting we mean see this as ‘ease’ or ‘comfort’.

Sometimes it may seem that it is easier said than done to achieve these qualities in your sitting position.  However, by paying attention to a few basic aspects of the pose you can enhance both the stability and the comfort of the posture so that your breathing or meditation become more effective.

Some sources will tell you that the body must be in a certain position.  Well, that’s fine and dandy, but if it hurts like hell it won’t be much use.  Instead, I suggest you focus on these few specific areas and adapt the rest to make them possible.

  1. Pelvis.  Our pelvis naturally has a slight anterior (forwards) tilt and this is important in order to maintain the natural curves of the spine as you sit.  This frees the spine and allows it to move naturally as you breathe.  For many of us, used to western style sitting in chairs, it is helpful to raise the seat bones a couple of inches by sitting on a block, firm blanket, or a rolled up yoga mat.  Check yourself in a mirror or get someone to look for you.  Sideways on you should see the S-shaped curves of the spine clearly.  If it looks more like a ‘C’ you need to make some adjustments.
  2. Knees.  If you sit cross-legged with your knees higher than your hips there will be a lot of strain in your leg muscles to maintain the position.  Again, check the mirror or ask your helpful friend.  You have a few options here.  It may be that raising your seat bones allows your knees to relax down.  Result!  If not, try different leg positions.  For those who are comfortable kneeling, sitting on two blocks placed between your knees can be the answer.  Alternatively, try having your legs out in front, either together or wider.  Check your pelvis and spine in each option to see what is best.  If none of them give you a good result the best way for you to be comfortable is likely to be sitting on a chair.
  3. Head.  If we balance the weight of the head on the neck we can harness gravity to minimise strain in the neck and shoulders.  This in turn will relax the chest and make it easier to breathe fully.  To do this, imagine the back of the neck lengthening towards the sky.  The chin comes in slightly towards the throat, so your gaze will rest on the floor about the length of a yoga mat ahead of you (if you are sitting on the floor.  Your ears and shoulders should be level.  Resting your hands into the support of your knees or lap will help your shoulders relax.  Ask someone to check for you; it’s hard to use the mirror for this!

Remember, the most important qualities of your sitting posture are stability and ease.  Being uncomfortable will make it hard for you to focus on the breathing or meditation practice, which is the main reason for being in this position.

Share

Your guide to sitting comfortably

 

Patanjali doesn’t say much about asana in his Yoga Sutras.  But the little that he does say is in the context of finding a seated position for meditation and breathing practises. The ability to sit comfortably is vital if we are to benefit from these practices. He suggests that the position should have 2 qualities.  The first of these is sthira, which we generally understand to mean ‘steadfast’ or ‘stable’.  It implies an alertness and strength.  The second quality is sukha, which translates literally as ‘happy’.  In the context of sitting we mean see this as ‘ease’ or ‘comfort’.

Sometimes it may seem that it is easier said than done to achieve these qualities in your sitting position.  However, by paying attention to a few basic aspects of the pose you can enhance both the stability and the comfort of the posture so that your breathing or meditation become more effective.

Some sources will tell you that the body must be in a certain position.  Well, that’s fine and dandy, but if it hurts like hell it won’t be much use.  Instead, I suggest you focus on these few specific areas and adapt the rest to make them possible.

  1. Pelvis.  Our pelvis naturally has a slight anterior (forwards) tilt and this is important in order to maintain the natural curves of the spine as you sit.  This frees the spine and allows it to move naturally as you breathe.  For many of us, used to western style sitting in chairs, it is helpful to raise the seat bones a couple of inches by sitting on a block, firm blanket, or a rolled up yoga mat.  Check yourself in a mirror or get someone to look for you.  Sideways on you should see the S-shaped curves of the spine clearly.  If it looks more like a ‘C’ you need to make some adjustments.
  2. Knees.  If your knees are higher than your hips there will be a lot of strain in your leg muscles to maintain the position.  Again, check the mirror or ask your helpful friend.  You have a few options here.  It may be that raising your seat bones allows your knees to relax down.  Result!  If not, try different leg positions.  For those who are comfortable kneeling, sitting on two blocks placed between your knees can be the answer.  Alternatively try having your legs out in front, either together or wider.  Check your pelvis and spine in each option to see what is best.  If none of them give you a good result the best way for you to be comfortable is likely to be sitting on a chair.
  3. Head.  If we balance the weight of the head on the neck we can harness gravity to minimise strain in the neck and shoulders.  This in turn will relax the chest and make it easier to breathe fully.  To do this, imagine the back of the neck lengthening towards the sky.  The chin comes in slightly towards the throat, so your gaze will rest on the floor about the length of a yoga mat ahead of you (if you are sitting on the floor.  Your ears and shoulders should be level.  Resting your hands into the support of your knees or lap will help your shoulders relax.  Ask someone to check for you; it’s hard to use the mirror for this!

Remember, the most important qualities of your sitting posture are stability and ease.  Being uncomfortable will make it hard for you to focus on the breathing or meditation practice, which is our main reason for being in this position.  As always, appearance is not everything, consider how it feels!

Share

Square benefits

In the Tuesday class we have been trying a practice called the ‘Square Breath’.  This might seem like an odd shape for breathing; the lungs are anything but square!  However, the name refers to the image we visualise during the practice.  We imagine a yellow square in front of us and use this to help us ensure that the four parts of each breath are the same length.

The square breath represents a modification of our normal breathing pattern.  Not only do we want the inhalation and exhalation to be the same length, but we are also introducing a distinct pause between each breath.  The pauses are the same length as the breaths themselves.  This breath retention is called a kumbhaka and it slows down the whole breathing process, balancing our levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.  It is said that when the breath is still the mind is also still.  Exploring these short periods of silence can increase our sense of relaxation.

Visualising a yellow square can also contribute to a feeling of peace.  It symbolises the earth element, and therefore has a connection to the root chakra, muladhara.  Imagining this shape in front of us as we sit and breathe can make us feel more grounded, as we experience the connection to the earth.  We draw the awareness gently around the image of the square in time with our breath.  Each side represents each of the four parts of the complete breath.  As the breath should never feel strained, you can adjust the size of the square you visualise to suit your needs in this simple yet effective practice.

Share