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?

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…and yoga to exercise your brain

Many yoga students comment on the calming effect of a yoga class; perhaps they feel more relaxed at the end or get a better night’s sleep afterwards.  Personally I think these benefits come about because yoga is a whole-being workout involving your brain as well as your body.   By bringing body, breath and mind together we create some mental space and nagging problems can take a back seat for a while.

The relaxing effect of yoga on the body comes through maintaining this focus as we move through our different postures.  As the body gets a physical workout, the brain gets a workout in concentration.  Just like a muscle that’s been working hard, when it’s time to let go the brain relaxes and takes a rest.  I think this is one of the reasons that students often comment on how quickly the time has gone in class; they have been so engrossed in the lesson that, for them, time has flown by.

It might be the need to coordinate breath with specific movements or to remember a short sequence of postures.  Either way, it requires an effort from the brain that leads to a sense of relaxation later.

And it seems that medical science is starting to demonstrate that the positive effects of yoga on our minds don’t stop there.  Studies have shown that 3 sessions of yoga a week can boost levels of the amino acid GABA in the brain. This amino acid is associated with the function of the central nervous system and affects our mood.  Low levels can result in depression and anxiety so it’s good to know that yoga helps to keep us feeling positive, especially as we move into the shorter days of the coming winter.

Another study, at the University of Illinois, showed that 20 mins of hatha yoga results in greater improvement in reaction times and accuracy in cognitive tasks than 20 mins spent on aerobic exercise such as walking or jogging.  They also found that after the yoga session, participants in the study were better able to focus their minds and were more effective at learning.  Although the sample group was small, these results all suggest that yoga helps keep more than just your body in good shape.

All good reasons to practise on a regular basis!  But then I guess, if you are a regular to yoga classes, your body already knows what the scientists are now proving to be true.

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Yoga to exercise your body…

We’ve all heard about 5-a-day; in fact it’s become quite the modern mantra.

But what about your 150 a week?  Eh?

Standard advice at the moment seems to be that we aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week.  Apparently you can do this however you choose; in one gruelling 2 ½ hr session, or 22 mins a day.  I did also read that doing a really intense 3mins a day can take the place of your 150…but that sounds like seriously hard work!

Sadly for keen yogis, our practice doesn’t count towards this goal at all (sighs).  Moderate activity is defined as that which raises the heart rate and speeds up your breathing.  As we aim to keep the breath rhythmic and even during the class that is not really part of our yoga practice.  We might find it happening for brief periods during the class, but certainly not for the whole hour.  I wonder how many vigorous sun salutations you would have to do to check off 150 mins a week?

As a result, yoga is not that effective at burning calories either (scientists found that you use only 144 calories in a typical session) and even dynamic forms of yoga fall short of being classed as an aerobic exercise.  So, keep taking the stairs and running for the bus!

However, the aspect of our weekly recommended dose of exercise that seems to be less frequently mentioned is muscle strengthening, and the good news is that this is where yoga can help.  According to the NHS, you should do muscle strengthening exercise on 2 days each week.  In fact, the NHS actually recommends yoga as one way of boosting muscle strength.

Most classes support muscle strengthening by working with our own body weight in postures that challenge the lower body, upper body, back and core muscles.  Strengthening is an important aspect of the class, helping to support joints and contributing towards our ability to move the body gracefully and with control.  The variety of postures in each class makes sure that all of our muscles get a work out.

So here’s to stronger muscles! However, if you want to build in some government-approved moderate exercise perhaps it’s time to leave the car at home and take a brisk walk to class.  Just a thought!

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Take a deep breath: Part 3

A great way to learn more about how your body breathes is to spend some time using the hands to feel the movement of the body with the inhalation and exhalation. Using your hands in this way helps to bring your awareness to the relevant part of the body and the touch can also enhance your breath into this area.  This simple practice can be enjoyable and relaxing to do at night just before you go to sleep, or a way of recharging your batteries if you have a spare 10 minutes at any time in the day.

Start by lying in semi-supine and place your hands on your belly so your fingers are barely touching in the middle.  As you inhale, the breathe moves down into the lungs and there is a gentle rise in the belly.  You may feel your hands lifting, perhaps the fingers will move further apart.  Focus on this movement, feel the sensation of the body breathing beneath your palms.  If you don’t feel much (or anything!), don’t worry, just imagine the subtle movements taking place.

After a few minutes, when you feel ready, move your hands a little higher so they are now resting on the lower ribs.  Again, aim to position them comfortable to they can rest with the middle fingers touching if possible.  Now focus your awareness on the movement of the rib cage as you breathe.  You may feel the fingers move apart as you did with the belly.  In addition you may feel a sideways movement under palm of each hand.

The final stage is to move your hands to rest on or near your shoulders or collarbones, to sense the movement in the upper chest.  Find a position that allows your arms to relax, ideally with your elbows touching the floor.  The movement here may be more subtle, as the breath moves into the uppermost part of the lungs.

And that’s it.  After this final stage, you might like to rest the arms beside you and relax for a few more minutes before you get up.  Stay with an awareness of the body inhaling and exhaling, imaging the breathing moving into each of these parts of the lungs as it brings new energy into the body.

Enjoy!

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Love affair with a yoga mat

A prospective student recently told me “I expected you would provide mats”.  I blinked, and for a split second my world stopped as my mind flashed up the implications of this statement.  Firstly, I would have to buy them.  At least 20 of them.  Goodbye £250!  Or perhaps more! Then I would have to store them.  That could be interesting, in my little house.

And for each of my 8 classes a week I would need to carry them to the car (goodbye walking to class), unload them into the room, return them to the car at the end and then carry them back into the house to store away til next time.  Assuming I can carry 4 at once, that’s 16 trips minimum per class … at least 128 a week.  Hello chiropractor!  Not to mention the extra time it would take.  There would also be the need to keep them clean – can you imagine washing and drying 20 mats on a regular basis?  My mind boggled.  I blinked again.  “Afraid not,” I replied.  “It’s not really practical.”

Aside from the practicalities of supplying mats for students, as custodian of your yoga practice I do also believe that it is for you to choose and care for the equipment you need, as part of your commitment to treating your body respectfully in class.  For advice on what it might be useful to bring along to class, please check out my FAQs page.

The key investment you are likely to need to make is, of course, the purchase of a yoga mat.  While you can get away with using any sort of exercise mat or even a thick blanket to begin with, a proper mat really does make the practice safer and more enjoyable.  So, what are you looking for when you buy a mat?

Your first priority should be to choose a sticky mat.  Many types of exercise mat provide excellent padding but will slip on the floor.  This can put you at risk of injury during standing postures and balances.  Ideally we do the practice barefoot, and the stickiness will also help to stop your feet (and hands) from slipping.  Wearing socks is not generally helpful here; either they slip on the mat, or else stick to the mat and you slip inside them!  Feeling that you are sliding on the mat is likely to introduce tension into the body and make it harder for you to relax into a posture.

Yoga mats are typically 4mm thick.  This is thick enough to provide some degree of padding and insulation from the floor but thin enough that the mat is still flexible.  It is also a reasonable weight to carry to class.  A 4mm mat is easily folded to provide extra protection when you are kneeling.  It can also be rolled up to help you sit more comfortably.  Some students like to use 2 mats, or bring a blanket for extra support and comfort.

Sadly, as with anything you tend to get what you pay for.  I have tried cheap mats in the past and found that spending a bit more is really worthwhile.  My current mat is a ‘Warrior Mat’ from Yoga-Mad (presumably called after the series of yoga poses of this name).  I have been using the same one for several years now and it is just starting to show some signs of wear.  Whilst this mat is not from the eco-friendly range, I particularly like the fact that I can put it in the washing machine when it’s grubby, although getting it dry is another matter!  More recently, I have started using a yoga towel on top, as this can be washed and dried much more quickly. A decent mat might cost you £18 or so, but t probably works out at just pennies per class before you need to replace it.  And then, of course, there are myriad uses for your old yoga mat – but that’s the subject of a whole different post!

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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…

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Your purpose in yoga

Part of working mindfully in yoga can be to observe our physical and mental response to what we ask the body to do in our asana practice.  We can, of course, reflect on how the body feels, what thoughts come up and our general experience of the posture.  It also helps to see the posture in a broader context, so that we have an idea of why we might choose to work in a certain manner.

An example of this is downward dog.  Some styles of yoga would encourage this posture to be performed as a backbend, with the body’s weight pulled away from the hands and the chest being pushed between the arms towards the floor.  If you have the flexibility to do this, the stretch can feel great.  It does also mean that you are kind of hanging out there, at maximum stretch, hoping that the muscles can go that bit further each time.  Another way to approach the posture would be to consider it instead as one in which we choose to maintain a neutral spine and allow weight to transfer into the hands.  By activating our connection with the ground through the hands we can open the shoulders and release the spine.  Rather than being a backbend, downward dog done this way becomes preparation for handstand.  Even if we have no intention of attempting handstand, the posture works to build much needed upper body strength. The posture becomes a weight bearing one for the arms and shoulders, helping to maintain bone density.  We are directing to the body to a completely different goal.

Neither way is right or wrong, they are just different.  It all depends on our intention.

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Yoga immersion

Last weekend I attended a yoga workshop in Worcestershire, run by my British Wheel of Yoga Diploma tutor, Gillian Russel, and another wonderful teacher, Wendy Teasdill.  It was held at the beautiful Holland House, which was stunning at this time of year, as the primroses were in full bloom.

We had a very full schedule, and were on our mats at 7.15am on both mornings, despite losing an hour to the change of the clocks on Sunday night!  Our two tutors have quite different approaches but it works so well together that it is a delight to be there, even if tiring.

If you have never attended a yoga weekend or retreat I can definitely recommend it.  There is something magical about immersing yourself in the practice for a longer period of time and you may start to see benefits that you can merely touch on in one or two classes a week.  It never fails to surprise me how so much ‘doing’ can result in a greater degree of ‘being’. Why not give it a try?  You may be surprised!

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Teach yourself yoga

I encounter many types of students.  Some are advised to attend by their doctor, for reasons ranging from stress to a bad back.  Many come for the physical aspects of the session, whilst others seek an opportunity to unwind.  Yoga offers a thoughtful, controlled way of exercising the body.  It can develop strength, flexibility and a greater understanding of the body and mind through which we experience the world.

Yoga, like Buddhism, does not prescribe blind faith in its benefits.  It encourages exploration, experimentation; try it and find out for yourself.  Indeed, when Patanjali wrote of the many approaches to calming the mind, he suggested that you can use any method that works for you.

As a teacher, I try to communicate the knowledge I have acquired over the years.  Theoretical knowledge from my training and personal study combines with my experience of teaching and my own experience of practising.  One thing that stands out to me above all others.  While yoga can be taught, there is so much we can learn from ourselves.  Yes, I can present the basis of each practice, but only you know how it feels to be in your body and in your mind.

If we are mindfully present while we practise, there is then much to learn from ourselves.  You can assume the approximate form of the posture.  But then ask yourself some questions:

  • If the purpose is to strengthen and tone the body, is this happening?
  • What if I move this arm here or that foot there?
  • How do I connect with the ground?
  • Is there unnecessary tension that I could let go of?

The list goes on.  It’s about taking control of your learning, your experience and your practice, at home or in class.  To teach yourself yoga in this way requires two fundamental qualities which we can aim to cultivate.  Firstly, to have a beginners’ mind, or a child-like openness in our approach.  Rather than assuming that you are doing it ‘correctly’, challenge yourself, ask questions, make your own adjustments and see what happens.  And secondly, we need to trust in ourselves, so that we can learn from the answers to our questions.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn said so succinctly, “It is impossible to become like somebody else.  Your only hope is to become more fully yourself.”

The answers are in there.  Go on, take a look!

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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!

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