Do your prep!

Back when I was doing my British Wheel of Yoga Teacher Training course, I remember our tutor commenting that there was a feeling in the British Wheel that teachers were offering lots of prep but not so many postures in their classes.  “Where have all the postures gone?” became a bit of a catchphrase at the time.

It’s true to say we do need to warm the body up before performing more challenging postures in order to avoid injury.  We also need to do counter-poses after the main posture so that we relax the effects of the main posture.  For example, a strong main posture that is a backbend might be followed by a twist and then a forward bend as counter-poses.  So each class is going to consist of a mixture of movements and postures that prepare and counter-pose for the main posture.  We also benefit from some quiet time at the end, when the body can absorb the benefits of the practice before we move on.  That doesn’t always leave a lot of time for ‘proper’ postures.

According to the ancient wisdom of the Gheranda Samhita (translated by Ian Mallinson);

“All together there are as many asanas as there are species of living beings.  Shiva has taught 8,400,000.  Of these, 84 are pre-eminent, of which 32 are useful in the world of mortals.”

It would be a pretty tall order to include even these 32 in a daily practice, let alone 84!  So, why not try another way of looking at the issue?  By doing plenty of preparatory work we can aim to maintain the body in a state where a variety of postures can be successfully practised if we choose to, even if we don’t do them daily.  For example, I rarely do boat pose (navasana) but I do prep work for it each morning.  So when I do want to do this posture, there is no struggle.  That prep work also serves me well for any of the standing balances and strengthening poses such as plank.  This way I get all the benefits and save time too!  Can’t be bad!


Find your freedom…of movement

Many prospective students contact me in the hope that yoga will improve their flexibility, or in other words increase the range of movement they have in their joints.  Restrictions to joint freedom are often due to the muscles, ligaments and tendons that surround, support and work on those joints, not the joint itself.  Each joint has a medically recognised range of movement and it is possible for our movement to be restricted so that it is less than the typical range, or in the case of hypermobility, it may be more than is typical.

Under anaesthesia, muscles relax and the stiff patient regains their full range of movement.  However, once the patient wakes up from the anaesthetic, the old limitations resurface.  While this is not necessary helpful to potential yoga students with stiff joints(!), it does have a medical application as some conditions of stiffness in joints, such as a frozen shoulder, may be treated by manipulation under anaesthesia, allowing the therapist to move the joint in ways that would not be possible under normal circumstances.

Sometimes it is only during the yoga class that we notice that stiffness exists.  You might notice it when working in asymmetric postures that allow you to compare one side of the body to the other, or perhaps feel stiffness in a muscle when attempting a particular stretch.  These revelations only serve to remind me how little of our possible range of movement we use as a part of our normal daily lives.  And the old saying ‘Use it or lose it’ is so very true in this context.

All our muscles have a certain resting tone and a length that they comfortably stretch to.  Unfortunately, when we only use part of our range of movement in a joint, the connective tissue or fascia will ‘set’ that length within the muscles surrounding it and the signals sent by the nervous system serve to ensure we then stay within the new accepted range of movement.  Ever decreasing circles come to mind…

In order to stretch the muscle further, and thus gain greater movement in the joint, we need to increase the maximum length by working to ease out restrictions in the connective tissue or fascia that supports the muscle.  The Joint Freeing Series or Pavanmuktasana in yoga helps us to become familiar with the flexibility we have at each joint and if practised regularly, attempts to move all the joints through their full range of movement.  Enhancing joint mobility can relieve pain and stiffness, moving the joint helps to circulate the synovial fluid.

Easing tension in muscles around the joint also helps to create more space within the joint so its movement can be smoother and more comfortable.  Although I never do the whole series in any one class, most classes include some parts of the series that are relevant to that session.  This means that each class has an underlying theme of joint mobility and I would hope that through regular practice you would see improvements in how you can use your body.  So tell me, has it worked for you?


It’s not a competition

Yoga is very much a personal practice, even when we are working in a group in class. But don’t we all find ourselves looking round the room at times? It’s so easy to make judgements about ourselves based on how good or bad we appear to be at something relative to the others in the room.

It would be easy to be put off if we found that we were regularly struggling to do things that others seemed to find a breeze.  This is when it’s good to remind ourselves that yoga is about more than making a series of physical contortions, it’s about our attitude of mindful awareness to the practice, our breathing, and our ability to focus on the matter at hand.  And I would like to suggest that there can be more to learn – and more to gain – when things don’t come that easily, when we need to dig into our reserves of dedication and persevere, to keep coming back and trying again.

At this point I could also say that the only person you are competing with is yourself, but I am not sure that this is true either.  When you see yoga practice as a competition, even with yourself, you can be tempted to push too hard, to ignore the messages from your body and your breath, to lose sight of what is realistic or even desirable at that moment in time.

The idea of discipline in yoga is referred to as tapas.  And no, this doesn’t involve little plates of yummy nibbles that you snack on whilst sipping a glass of wine in a Spanish bar!  The tapas we are talking about here comes from a Sanskrit verb with the meaning ‘to burn’.  It refers to the discipline and commitment to overcome the obstacles that prevent you reaching that inner calm and connection that is yoga.

This could be the discipline of attending class each week or undertaking a regular home practice, of taking time each day for yourself in mindful meditation, of reading something educational instead of randomly surfing the net.  These achievements are much more about your inner world than the outer world of appearances.  It is these little steps of commitment that move us closer to finding our goal of wholeness through yoga.


Embody your yoga pose!

In yoga tradition, the various asanas are all named in Sanskrit.  Unfortunately this can sound like so much gobbledy-gook to students who are not familiar with these names, just the same as any language we have not learned to speak.  Sometimes different traditions give different Sanskrit names to the same posture, which can make it even more complicated.  And then of course there are the English translations, which may or may not reflect the meaning of the original Sanskrit.

I think of the names as falling into one of 4 categories.  First we have the obvious descriptive names.  Here, the name is a description of the pose and can be directly translated eg Utthita Hasta Padangustasana translates roughly Outstretched Hand to Big Toe Pose.  And not surprisingly, that’s what the pose involves.

The second category is postures named after a person.  Examples here are Matsyendrasana, named after the sage Matsyendra, and Virabhdrasana, after the warrior of the same name.  Next we have postures named after things that they involve or look like.  For instance, Malasana is garland pose (mala is garland) and Navasana is boat pose (Nava is boat).

The fourth category are postures named after animals.  Here we might think of Adho Mukha Svanasana, literally Down Face Dog Pose, or Bhujangasana, cobra pose.  In fact, there are quite a lot of animal poses!

If we can see beyond the confusion, the names originally given to the postures can bring our experience of the postures to a new level. For each of these latter categories, consider the name and the qualities that might be associated with that person, thing or animal as you do the posture.  Practising cobra pose, think of the qualities of the snake, its sinuous-ness and the amazing light support that the body can create for the head to lift it off the ground.  Embody its strength and its poise as you perform the posture.  See if those qualities might shine through to enhance your experience of the posture, bringing your practice to a whole new level.


Sitting flat? It’s not a competition…

In yoga classes, I have found that there can be a resistance to sitting with a support beneath the seat bones.  An assumption, perhaps, that it’s normal to be able to sit cross-legged on the flat surface of the mat for our breathing or meditation practice.  At a Buddhist meditation class, it would be automatic to sit on a small cushion called a zafu, which raises the seat a few inches off the larger square zabuton beneath.  Perhaps we don’t need the larger cushion (though I find that my ankles welcome some extra padding), but the habit of sitting with the seat raised a little is one that is well worth cultivating.

Raising your seat a few inches can have 2 main benefits.  The first of these has to do with the angle of the pelvis.  In the West we are generally unused to sitting on the floor once we reach adulthood.  There is often insufficient flexibility in the hips and hamstrings as we spend so much time sitting on chairs.  As a result, when we sit on the floor the pelvis is likely to tilt backwards and you will lose your lumbar curve.

The knock-on effect of this is that your ribcage may press down on your belly as you slump forward and there is a good chance you will round your shoulders as well.  In order to keep your head level you will now need to jut your chin out, which shortens the back of the neck and puts strain on the muscles at the front, which are effectively hanging on to all that weight now that gravity is no longer much use.  None of this is very helpful to your body as it tries to breathe!

Our body is generally more balanced when there is a slight anterior (forward) tilt in the pelvis.  This applies when standing or sitting.  It brings your spine into alignment in its natural curves, which in turn allows gravity to act on the spine in the way nature intended and minimises the amount of effort required to stay in this position.  By lifting your seat bones 2-3” you can encourage this anterior tilt and the rest may just fall into place.

The second benefit has to do with your knees and hips.  By encouraging the pelvis to maintain the anterior tilt, your knees are likely to get closer to the floor (or even rest on it!).  This will reduce a huge amount of tension in the legs, as the muscles here are no longer holding on to the weight of the legs suspended in mid-air.

So what’s the answer?  In a word, experimentation! The best options vary from person to person but you might want to try one or more of the following;

  • A yoga block.  You need to use a block not a brick, which is really not a good shape for sitting on.  The block is much the shape and size that the Yellow Pages used to be before everything went online.  There are two sorts in my store, the blue ones are harder and I find them less comfortable for sitting on than the recycled foam ones.
  • A folded blanket.  If your blanket will fold up into a firm pad of a similar size to a block, this would save bringing extra kit to class.
  • Rolled up yoga mat.  This is the option I find most comfortable but it’s less convenient if you want to use it for seated postures during class as well as for the breathing or meditation practice.  Roll your mat up tightly with a short section left for your feet and ankles, and then sit on this roll.
  • A firm cushion or pillow.  Not ideal for sitting on but perfect to put under your knees for support if they are still not down on the floor.

Exploring some of these options at home will mean that you that you can come to class with the right props to help you sit comfortably.  And if the answer is that nothing works, there is absolutely nothing wrong with sitting on a chair!


Sitting has a lot to answer for

As I child, I was regularly told off for fidgeting.  No-one wanted to share the sofa with me, because of my endless wriggling and shifting position.  Looking back, I wonder if my body was trying to tell me something even then; sitting down is bad for you!

Yesterday, I made a note of how long I spent sitting down during the day and, to be honest, it was pretty scary!  What with meal times, working on my computer, reading a magazine, having a regular ‘sit down and a cuppa’; it all added up to rather a lot of hours spent resting on my laurels.

And what is wrong with that, I hear you say?  Well, sitting down tends to slow our metabolic processes, so that fat and sugar are not metabolised as effectively, as well as limiting our movement by spending prolonged periods of time in one specific posture. Research has shown that excessive amounts of time spent sitting can contribute towards a myriad of ailments, including back pain, bowel cancer, obesity and high blood pressure, even increasing the chance of death!

As well as these more significant complaints, spending time in a seated position means the muscles in your legs tend to shorten and weaken, and there is a tendency to round or hunch your shoulders.  When we spend so many hours reinforcing these postural shapes it becomes increasingly difficult to counteract the effects they have on our body.

Over time, increasing tightness in the muscles in the legs can affect our ability to move freely when we walk or run and can affect the position of the pelvis, in turn causing problems with back pain or discomfort higher up in the neck and shoulders.  Furthermore, the effect of gravity compresses the spine over the day, reducing the cushioning effect of the discs.

Unfortunately, it appears that spending time working out doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.  The answer is to stand up more and move more frequently.  Here are some simple yoga movements from the Joint Freeing Series (Pavanmuktasana) that can help you to counteract the effects of too much time spent sitting.  Some can be done surreptitiously in the office, others are a little more obvious!  Repeat each a few times whenever you get the chance.

  • Neck: turn to face one shoulder and as you exhale draw your chin down across your chest to the other side. Face out over the other shoulder to inhale.
  • Shoulders: start with arms down beside you and keeping them parallel, inhale to raise them up in front to point towards the ceiling.  Now bring back down and continue sweeping backwards as high as is comfortable as you exhale.
  • Feet and ankles: point and flex toes and ankles, circle ankles in each direction.  Coordinate with your breath to make your movements steady.
  • Spine 1: place your hands on your knees and arch backwards as you exhale, looking towards your belly button.  Lifting your elbows at the same time gives extra movement to the shoulders.  As you inhale, reverse the movement and lift up through the crown of the head towards the ceiling, coming into a slight backbend.  Be careful to keep the back of the neck long as you do so.
  • Spine 2: Practise a simple spinal twist to each side, turning as you exhale.



Anatomy of a yoga class

If you have ever wondered what to expect in a yoga class, or have been plenty of times but still wonder why we do what we do when we do, this post is for you!

The class will invariably start with a few minutes of lying down, preferably in semi-supine (more of that another time!), focussing on becoming more aware of the body and the breath.  This opportunity to centre ourselves brings our attention to the present moment and allows our breath to settle into a steady rhythm that will guide our practice.

We are then ready to begin our physical practice of the postures, or asanas.  This starts with gentler movements and postures aimed at warming the body up in preparation for the main posture.  We might revisit postures covered in recent weeks or others that are directly relevant to the main posture.  The choice of postures will ensure that the spine is moved in all directions, helping to keeping the spinal column healthy and well-nourished.  The main posture is different each week and more time will be allocated to introducing and practising this posture.  Afterwards we will do one or more counterposes, which ease the body after the work of the main pose.

The physical practice helps to both concentrate our mind and to relax the body, preparing us for breathing and relaxation or perhaps just enabling us to go home feeling calmer than when we arrived.  In a one hour class we may move on directly to a few minutes of relaxation, or else sit for breathing or meditation first.  In a longer class this quiet practice will last up to half an hour.  And thats it! til next week…


Why do we start in semi-supine?

If you’ve been to my classes you will know that I encourage you to start the class in the semi-supine position rather than lying with your legs outstretched in savasana, or corpse pose.  So what is it that’s so special about this position?

In semi-supine, also known as the constructive rest position, we lie down with the knees bent up and the soles of the feet on the floor.  This position allows the spine to adopt its natural curves, which in turn allows the muscles around the spine to relax.  As a result, the shoulders can broaden and the spine may feel longer.  The ribcage is able to relax and breathing can become deeper and quieter.  By adopting a horizontal position, we can begin to undo the compressive effect that gravity has had on the spine over the time since we got up and fluid can begin to be reabsorbed into the disks between the vertebrae.

A particular benefit of this position over savasana, however, is its effect on the hip flexors, or ilio-psoas muscles.  These large muscles connect the thigh to the spine and pelvis and they tend to be both short and tense if we spend a lot of the day sitting down.  Over time, this can lead to pain in the lower abdomen, hips or back.  Having the knees bent up in semi-supine allows the hip flexors to soften in a way that is less likely to happen in savasana.  As the hip flexors release their pull on the pelvis and on the spine, the pelvis may tilt back a little and the lumbar curve become flatter than it typically is when standing.

Spending time in semi-supine helps to counteract some of the negative effects of too much sitting and standing on the body and forms an important part of our preparation for the physical part of our yoga practice.  As well as reducing the pull of the legs on the spine, by lying in this horizontal position we temporarily remove the compressive effect of gravity on the spine, and give this essential part of our body a well-earned rest before our physical practice begins.