Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Holiday At the Yoga Cafe

I am on holiday (hopefully creating some great blogs though) from 17 December to 1 January 2012.  Last yoga class is Thursday 16 December and first class is Monday 2 January.  Wishing you all a merry christmas and happy new year!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Yoga Retreat In November in Negombo

Time for another yoga retreat!  This time it is at Goldi Sands Hotel in Negombo.

This will be a great opportunity to deepen your yoga practice and is suitable for anyone, except total beginners (although please give me a call if you are interested so we can discuss).  We will do four 2 hour yoga classes over the weekend, focusing on asana with some time for breathing and meditation and deep relaxation as well.

Dates:  Arrive Friday 11 November evening.  Depart Sunday 13 November after yoga class.

Rates: Rooms are rented on a twin share basis.  Room and full board (3 buffet meals) is Rs 26,000 per room for the two nights.  Find a friend to share with and split the cost or let me know if you don't know anyone and I will try to match you!

Yoga Cost: Rs 3,000 per person

Yoga Classes:
Sat 7-9 am and 3.30-5.30 pm
Sun 7-9 am and 3.30-5.30pm

What to bring
Playful attitude and your yoga mat. 

Book by:
This is the first time we are using this hotel and we need to show them our committment.  It is quite a popular place so we have to book and pay quickly in order to reserve the rooms.  We also need to have a minimum number of rooms for the retreat to go ahead.  Please let me know by Friday 22 October if you are interested!

Looking forward to sharing a great weekend with you all!

Monday, October 3, 2011

No Sweat Yoga, Part I

No need to break a sweat doing yoga!

When I first started yoga, I was attracted to much more physical styles.  Some of the first serious yoga classes I took were from a particularly vigorous style of yoga that that involves some great and challenging postures, invigorating breathing, and a whole lot of sweat.    At the time I was also doing a lot of running (about 60km a week) a lot of cycling (about 100 km a week) and a lot of rock climbing (about 4 nights a week), and it appealed to me to be doing a style of yoga that suited my otherwise athletic lifestyle.  I was very much in the mind-set that I needed to sweat to be doing something good for myself.  
However, within a few months I had stopped these classes, realizing that what I really needed from my yoga was something that slowed me down to balance the other activities that were going on in my life.  It was a pivotal shift in my own thinking—that I could do something good for myself by slowing down both mentally and physically. 
I wonder if there are a lot of people similar to me, who came to yoga with the idea that you have to be bathed in your own sweat puddle by the time you lie down for a few minutes of savasana at the end of your yoga class? 
Nowadays, I prefer my sweating to take place while out on a run rather than on my yoga mat, although that is not to say I still don’t enjoy getting my heart rate up in some challenging yoga sequences as those of you who come to Monday and Thursday classes will no doubt experience! 
But, more and more, my own practice is becoming quieter and quieter.  And so I wanted to share a series of blogs dedicated to lying down yoga.  I have found I can practice yoga quite happily for an hour or more without standing or even sitting up. 
The first pose I want to share is supta padangusthasana.  For those of you who are interested, whenever you see ‘supta’ in the name of any yoga pose, you can get the idea that you are going to be trying to do something relaxing.  All of the ‘supta’ poses are lying down. 
This pose is great to stretch your hamstrings.  I would recommend it for anyone who wants to cultivate hamstring flexibility and, in particular, for anyone with lower back issues.  This is probably the safest forward bend ever.  It’s a big claim, I know, but the reason it is so safe is that your spine is naturally elongated along the floor.  There is no movement or bending of your spine at all and the movement comes from your legs only. 
I would recommend that you practice this daily if you are trying to improve your sitting forward bends.  Importantly, unless you can get your legs past 90 degrees in this pose then you are probably not ready to do straight leg sitting forward bends like paschimottanasana (where you sit on the floor with both legs straight and try to fold forward over your thighs).  This is because if your hamstrings won’t allow your legs to move beyond 90 degrees in the lying down version, the only way you will come forward in a sitting forward bend is to round your spine.  In fact, if you find that you cannot get your legs beyond 90 degrees in the lying (supta) version, then you should either be sitting on a block in the sitting version, or bending your knees.  If nothing else, supta padangusthasanawill force you to be honest about your true hamstring flexibility.
The most relaxing version is to come to a doorframe or pillar, as I have done in the photo below.  I have placed my bottom at the pillar edge and lengthened one leg through along the floor, keeping it straight (if you do this at a door frame your leg will go through the doorway).  The other leg goes up the pillar (or up the doorframe).  To straighten your leg up the pillar/doorframe, you need to have 90 degrees of flexibility.  If you cannot straighten your leg (or if the leg going along the floor starts to bend) then you know you are not ready to sit on the floor in a forward bend without props or adjustments.  If you cannot straighten the leg then you can move your bottom slightly away from the wall so that you can straighten it. 
If you can take your leg up the wall then, if you want to lengthen your hamstrings more, you can take a belt or towel or scarf around the foot and start to draw the leg towards your face.  Keep your shoulders on the ground and your neck relaxed.  One of the most common things I see as a teacher is the displacement of tension into muscles completely unrelated to the ones you are trying to target and in this posture it is not uncommon for people to struggle to reach their foot by lifting their shoulders off the ground or straining their neck. 

Only when you can bring your leg back far enough that you can reach your foot without moving your shoulder away from the ground should you attempt to take your toe with your hand.

A few things to remember in this posture:
·         Don’t displace tension into the neck or shoulders;
·         Take deep, relaxing breaths;
·         Your hamstrings might attempt to escape the stretch by one of two main methods.  Watch out for these.  First, your knee might bend—keep it straight.  Second, your hip/bottom might jut out to the side.  You will feel this as a shortening of the side waist of the raised leg side.  Make sure to keep both side waists equally long and keeping your pelvis level;
·         Lengthen the raised leg heel up into the sky, creating as much distance between the back of your knee and your heel as possible.  This will increase the sensation down the back of your leg dramatically and you may feel a stretch from the heel to the sitting bones;
·         Hold for as long as you like on both sides.  Why not try a couple of minutes?
Enjoy your practice.  I will be back with more sweatless yoga poses soon!
with mettha,

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Free Your Spine in Uttanasana

Safer Standing Forward Bends

Last week I posted a photo of a lady in uttanasana.  She seemed a bit too hunched and rounded for my liking.  That prompted me to write the yoga quiz, to see whether it was to your liking or not as well, and to see if you could think of some ways to improve your own forward bending.  And that then prompted me to make a little movie about keeping your spine long in uttanasana--standing forward bend. 

Before I start, I just want to put it out there that my tips for uttanasana (or for any poses for that matter) are not the only ways to practice the pose (I also have more tips as well but limited myself for the sake of making a short movie clip that does not gobble up all of the memory in my computer!).  What I encourage you to do is try and, in practicing, ask yourself whether your spine feels relaxed, happy, and free.  If the answer is no then we need to try something else!

Watch the movie and then read some more of my tips below.  In the interests of transparency I have to also add that I was partially motivated to make this film clip this week so that I could show my sister in Australia my new haircut and glasses since my skype camera is broken (Hi Shell!).  This is why I turn to the camera at least twice and wave.

The Hunch
Below is last week's photo.  I like the peaceful look this lady has on her face.  She does look like she is enjoying her pose and that's great.  It's my feeling that she is trying to reach her toes when perhaps she is not quite ready though.  Why do I say this?  Because you can see that her entire spine has become rounded.  In particular, see how her spine rounds up from her pelvis to form a peak at her lower back and then rounds down again as it arcs towards the floor?  This type of forward bending puts your lower back at great risk, especially if you have any lower back problems. 

Hmmm, I have a hunch that something is not quite right here...

What you want to try and avoid in uttanasana is this upward peak that forms around your lower back, or what I call "the hunch".  The hunch is very sneaky and likes to creep up on people in forward bends.  Hunch awareness is an important thing to cultivate in your yoga practice.

So why is this hunch appearing on this lady's back?  Why might it appear on your own back? 

The hunch does not appear by magic, landing on your unsuspecting spine.  In forward bends such as uttanasana it generally appears when our hamstrings (the muscles on the back of your thighs) are not long enough (they are too tight), which means our pelvis cannot tilt forward properly.  When your pelvis does not tilt sufficiently any forward bending movement then comes from rounding the spine.  This is usually accompanied by some hunching of the shoulders as the arms stretch out to reach the feet or the floor, which you can also see in the photo above.  

The hamstrings are really important in forward bending poses such as uttanasana.  Let's take a closer look at how they can limit forward bending. 

Hamstrings and Pelvis
Your hamstrings are muscles that start on your sitting bones (part of the pelvis).  They go down the back of your legs and across the back of your knees where they attach to the bones of your lower leg.  The fact that the hamstring muscles are attached to your pelvis and cross your knee joints is an important thing to consider in cultivating hunch awareness and minimising its impact.  A picture might help here.  Below are some images of your hamstring muscles.  You can see how they start at your pelvis and go across the back of your knees. 

The picture on the left shows the 'normal' tilt of the pelvis, which is just slightly forward. The picture on the right shows what happens as the top of the pelvis starts to tip forward.  This lifts the sitting bones higher into the air.  As the sitting bones lift, the hamstring muscles start to get stretched as one end of the muscle (attached to the sitting bones) is getting pulled away from the other end (attached below the knee). 

Some people have hamstrings so tight that they cannot tilt their pelvis forward in any forward bends.  Some people even have hamstrings to tight that the their sitting bones are actually pulled down in normal day to day life so that their pelvis tilts backwards (as though you are a dog with its tail tucked between its legs).  When your pelvis starts to tilt backwards you lose the natural curve in your lower back (lumbar curve) and the hunch starts to form.

You can probably tell by now that being able to move your pelvis freely is key to safe forward bending.  In fact, safe forward bending movements should be initiated from the forward tilt of the pelvis.  Being able to tilt the pelvis forward will enable your spine to feel free and agile.  You can see this clearly see in the film clip I made.  At the end of the clip I demonstrate exactly what happens to your spine and lower back when you tilt your pelvis the wrong way in a forward bend and I encourage you to watch this part a few times and feel it in your own body.  A good tip would be to imagine the Bat Signal (you know, that light that shone into the night skies of Gotham City to alert Batman that some dastardly plot was unfolding) was shining from your backside as you practice uttanasana.  Now, if you really wanted to alert Batman to the perilous ground situation you would need to shine that light as high into the sky as possible.  If you sense your light is shining only slightly above the horizon or even down into the ground then you are most likely to be in danger of hunching your spine in your forward bends. 

Now this is all well and good if your hamstrings are long.  You will indeed be able to shine the Bat Signal high,your pelvis will move freely and your spine will be long.  But many people find themselves in the situation that their hamstrings are stretched to maximum capacity, their pelvis is stuck, and their Bat Signal is still nowhere in the night sky to be seen.  Fortunately there are some strategies you can adopt to ensure your uttanasana is safe. 

Bend Your Knees
First, you could bend your knees.  This is a smart option, especially for anyone with lower back issues, and works because once you bend your knees, the distance between the two points where your hamstrings attach (your sitting bones and below your knees) is shortened again and tension is relieved.  You will be able to keep bending forward but your knees will be bent and you will be in more of a squatting position.  See the image below.

Forward Bend With Bent Knees
Practicing the pose in this way will allow your spine to relax downward, allowing gravity to lengthen it, without the hunch appearing.  You might have to bend your knees more, or less, depending on whether the hunch starts to appear or not.  Because you cannot see yourself you have to use body awareness to detect if the hunch is creeping up and one way to do this is to feel if your lower ribs start to move away from your thigh bones.  If that happens, you can be pretty certain that your lower back is rounding.

To practice uttanasana in this way start in a low squat, connecting your lower ribs to your thighs (as though somebody has tied your body to your legs).  Hug the back of your calves or thighs and from there start to slowly press the heels down and tilt the sitting bones higher into the sky, allowing the legs to slowly straighten.  Keep straightening your legs until your lower ribs start to move away from your thighs and then hold in place.  You can try to deepen your hamstring stretch by actively trying to tilt your sitting bones higher and higher into the sky from this position.

One problem in doing the pose in this way is that if your hamstrings are really tight you will find you have to bend your knees so much that you are practically squatting on the ground.  This is really tough on your thigh muscles and they will get tired so you cannot hold the position for very long.  Another option, then, would be to use a prop such as a table or chair or block. 

Use A Prop
Your next option might be to keep straight legs (or slightly bent knees) and use a prop to rest your arms on, which supports your spine.  See the image below where I have used a block.   

Doing the pose in this way will probably be a more satisfying hamstring stretch since your legs are straight.  Remember that you want to try and tilt your sitting bones into the sky to shine that Bat Signal as high as you can.  If you don't have a block you could use a chair or even a table.  The main point is that my spine does not start to dome up around my lower back area and that my pelvis is the highest point. 

In Summary
  1. Safer forward bending in uttanasana means cultivating hunch awareness and making sure you do not dome up around your lower back.
  2. Be mindful of the position of your pelvis.  If it starts to tilt backwards (as though you are a dog tucking its tail between its legs) you are entering into hunchville. 
  3. In uttanasana you need to shine the Bat Signal high into the sky--tilt your sitting bones up!
  4. Don't be afraid to bend your knees.  This will ensure your pelvis is the highest point and your spine can dangle down freely from there.
  5. Don't be afraid to use a prop like a block or a chair or a table.  This will enable you to keep your legs straight but also to keep your spine long without it starting to hunch. 
  6. Although I did not mention this above (so it should not really be a summary point) the ego or our desire to touch the floor is at the heart of a lot of unsafe forward bending in uttanasana.  You do not need to reach the floor in forward bends.  You need to lenghten your hamstrings and free up your spine.  If your hands reach the floor then fine, so be it.  If your hands do not reach the floor it does not matter.  Don't leave them just dangling in mid-air though.  Instead, place them on the back of your thighs or the back of your calves and start to gently draw your shoulder blades down the back of your torso so that your neck remains free (remembering it is also part of your spine).
  7. Finally, I really encourage anyone with back issues to seek advice from an experienced therapist or teacher as they start to practice uttasnasana.  If practiced incorrectly it can create pain, however, when practiced mindfully and with proper alignment, you will be able to find a variation to suit you (also watch for my upcoming post on Super Stretches for People with Low Back Pain!). 

Happy and safe practicing!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Yoga Quiz!


I found this photo on the internet when I typed "tight hips" as a keyword into Google.  I am not quite sure what the picture is trying to show (is it tight hips? tight hamstrings? tight lower back?) but I thought it was a good way for me to introduce a new interactive feature into this blog.  Whether or not you come to my yoga classes or not, I hope that you can learn something from reading it.  So I have decided to have little yoga quizzes from time to time that I hope might enhance your practice or the way you think about your practice. 

I want you to take a look at the picture in the photo.  It is actually a fairly accurate replication of what I sometimes see in yoga class when people are coming into a standing forward bend. 

Below are some questions I want you to think about in relation to this photo.  I will post my own answers soon but hope that some of you might send in some suggestions of your own--either to my personal email or publicly if you are up for it!  I am giving a free yoga class to the person with the most creative and positive answers so have a try!

  1. What is the name of the standing forward bend in yoga (in Sanskrit and in English)?
  2. What part of the body typically stretches in this pose?
  3. If we were to make some changes to the way she is doing this pose, what might we suggest?  Bonus points for giving a reason.
  4. Reason why you love or hate this pose.
As you can see, I am not necessarily looking for one 'right' answer.  Have fun exploring your answers, just as I hope you have fun exploring your yoga.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mega Yoga Stretch

There are a few yoga poses that provide a stretch that is just, well, mega.  These mega stretches may push your intensity threshold, but they are usually worth it.

Thursday classes at the moment offer one of these mega stretches.  On Thursdays we are going from the two ends of the torso to open parts of our body that will help us fly up into backbends.  They are not the only keys to the flying backbend but they really help.  In last week's blog we thought about how our orangutan arms--how our arms connect to our waist.  This week, we get a chance to go to the other end of our torso and consider how our legs also connect to our waist. 

Anatomically, this is true.  There is a muscle called the iliopsoas that goes from our thigh to just below our lower ribs. 

This is a pretty important muscle and, among other things, influences the curvature of our lower back.  If this muscle is too tight, your lower back can get habitually pulled into a curve that is exaggerated (too curved or hyperextended).  Without going into too much anatomy, if your lower back is constantly being pulled into a tighter curve this can lead to all sorts of back problems as the vertebrae get pulled closer and closer together and the discs get compressed.

Backbends require our lower back to be long and free, not tight and compressed.  If your iliopsoas is tight you are going to have trouble feeling this freedom and it is likely that you will get a 'crunching' or squashed feeling in your lower back as you try to come into backbending postures. 

Bearing this in mind, on Thursdays we are doing a mega yoga stretch to help free the iliopasas so that we can have free lower backs in backbends.  We do a wall variation of virasana (hero pose) that seems much more difficult than virasana itself.  This is probably because your thigh is fixed against the wall and cannot move, thereby preserving your alignment, whereas in the real virasana your thigh can move around (even if you try not to let it) and subtly change the alignment of the pose.  As most of you have no doubt found out by now, the smallest change in your alignment can make a huge difference to a posture.  When our body is stretching it will often find little 'escape routes', by which I mean it tries to take us away from the intensity. 

In the the mega stretch on the video clip there is little escape from the intensity.  You need to go with the flow and breathe.  Of course, as always, be mindful of any strain that might be leading to injury.  In this pose the most likely strain would be in the knee joint or possibly the lower back if you are not mindful.  Below I have outlined a few points about the integrity of the joints for this pose:

  • fold up your mat like I do in the video clip.  This is actually just to act as a cushion for your knee.  The thing about this pose is that it looks like the pressure is on your knee, but your weight is actually not on your knee cap but on the bottom of the thigh bone.  I usually do this pose against a wall without my mat, but, having said that, having a little cushion does bring a bit of comfort.
  • watch the front knee does not come too far in front of the ankle and definitely not over the toes.
  • in the video clip I fix my shin straight up the wall and then slip my pelvis inside the heel of my foot to take it all the way back to the wall.  You do not need to do this and you should not force yourself to do this.  Remember, yoga is never about forcing.  Your body will 'do' when it is ready. Your pelvis can stay in front of your foot, it does not have to go back to the wall, and that is completely ok!  You can use this pose as a lunge variation rather than as the virasana variation as I move into.  Work within your limits. 
  • this posture requires us to maintain the normal curve of our lower back.  We don't want to try and flatten it or exaggerate it.  Most people will probably find the curve exaggerating--especially if your iliopsoas is tight.  So be sure to keep your lower ribs from jutting out, which will increase the curve at the lower back. 
  • if you are going to try and take your arms overhead, make sure the natural curve of your lower back is maintained.  Tight latissimus dorsi muscles (which connect your arms to your waist--see last week's post on orangutan arms) will make it difficult to take your arms overhead and the escape mechanism for them will be to try and increase the curve in your lower back to allow you to do so.  So watch what happens to the curve in your lower back as you try to take your arms overhead.  If it starts to get exaggerated then don't take them up any further. 
  • ankles that are tight might make it a bit difficult to get into this posture.  If the front of your ankles are tight and you cannot get them flat against the wall then roll up a little hand towel and place it between your ankle and the wall.
See if you can hold the two poses I demonstrate in the video clip for about a minute each.  Focus on steadying your breath as you do so.  In between legs, get up and move around.  You will really feel the new 'freedom' in the leg that you have just stretched.

This mega yoga stretch really targets the front of your thighs and pelvis and, combined with your orangutan arms (see last week's blog), will help you fly up into backbends!  Have fun and practice safely.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Monkey Grip: Improve Your Yoga With Orangutan Arms

I have a good friend who has arms like an orangutan, by which I mean his arm span is greater than his height not that he has hairy shoulders.  Orangutans have amazing arms and shoulders, which comes in handy when you live mostly in the trees.

But for those of us yogis who (for the most part) don't live in trees, having arms like an orangutan, or at least imagining that you do, is a great asset to your yoga practice. 

The fact is, although most of us think of our arms as starting from our shoulders, they actually start from our pelvis.  Well, not the arm bones themselves, but the muscles that help our arms to move.  We have lots of muscles that connect our arms to our torso (you've probably heard of your deltoids).  But there is one pretty big one called the latissimus dorsi that runs from your humerus (that's the arm bone that goes from your elbow to shoulder) all the way down to your pelvis. 

I don't want to get too much into anatomy here, but you might be able to imagine now that if the skeleton above raised it's arm overhead and it's latissimus dorsi were tight then the arm would not move very effectively.  This is especially if the skeleton wanted to to externally rotate at the shoulder joint, like we do in backbends, because the latissimus dorsi muscle is even more stretched in that position. 

Having extra long arms that are rooted in your waist will help you with all backbends, and will help that pesky problem of the elbows splaying out that happens in some inversions (like pincha mayurasana or hornstand).  It also helps you experience downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) in a different way and with more freedom in your neck and spine.  Your handstands will get better and you might even find yourself becoming more attractive, wealthier, and.... wait a minute, strike those last two. 

To cultivate orangutan arms (ie, arms that move freely from your waist not hairy ones) there are lots of things you can do.  I got on a movie-making spree last weekend and made three short clips to help you bring awareness to the area extending from the middle of your upper arm, down through the armpit, and down to the waist, and to feel the connection between these areas. 

In the first clip I try to show how to connect your arms to your waist in downward facing dog.  I also show a pretty intense stretch that will hopefully bring your awareness to the entire torso, armpit, arm complex.

In the second clip I show another intense stretch to really open up your armpit area.  After you have held this stretch for a minute (or two), I recommend you go back into downward dog again and see what a difference it makes!

In the third clip I show another way to come up into an effortless backbend by really drawing those arms back down into your waist.  As you watch this clip I hope you can see that my entire spine rises from the floor as though it is floating just by setting up my arms.  Those of you who come regularly to my classes and who struggle with backbends will know that I can help you fly up not by lifting you (I am not that strong) but just by firmly sending your arms back into your waist.  If anyone is willing to be filmed with me making this adjustment then I would really appreciate it so we can show people what I mean!!
Before you watch the movies and try some of the poses I am doing, I recommend that you try this little exercise so that you can really feel your arms connecting to your waist. 
  1. Come into tadasana (mountain pose or standing upright)
  2. Take your arms over your head
  3. Reach your arms up as high as you can
  4. Now, imagine that you have a shirt pocket sewn into your side ribs, just above your waist
  5. Bring your awareness to your armpits and drop your arms back into those shirt pockets.  Your elbows will probably bend a bit.  That's fine.
Once you understand how the arms connect to your waist and can manage to keep them connected you will fly up into backbends like a wind billows out a sail. 

By the way, if you can hear Kylie Minogue in the background of these movies, it is just because I was having a bit of a yoga dance practice session when I took the shots.  Am seriously thinking about doing a yoga dance workshop as it was a lot of fun!

Orangutan Arms and Downward Facing Dog

Stretch Your Orangutan Arms!

Use Your Orangutan Arms To Fly Into Backbends!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Support For Your Dog

Our doggy friends instinctively know this stretch is good for them but most of us struggle with adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) at first.  It's usually the wrists that feel like they are bearing too much weight, and perhaps the shoulders.  Once you learn how to use your hands, forearms, and shoulders correctly this will become less of an issue but, until then--to use that wonderful Sri Lankan turn of phrase-- what to do?

Why not try a supported version of the pose?  You just need a belt and a column to tie yourself to, and you can get a great stretch for your hamstrings, calves, and spine without putting any weight through your wrists at all.  This supported version is fabulous even if you can manage a five minute down dog with ease.  I had forgotten about it until recently when I saw a spate of people with bent up legs and crooked spines, then saw a few people with hand injuries who could not put weight through their arms at all. 

Check out the video below to see how to support your dog.  A word of caution: make sure you are securely tied or you are going to face plant.  If you don't have a belt then use a non-elastic sarong or scarf.  As always, stay there, relax and breathe.  For those of us who have had a long day at the office, a long day of looking after children, a long day of shopping or walking in high heels, or even just a normal, easy-going day, this pose is sure to top it off and leave you feeling longer, calmer, and refreshed.  Have fun!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Yoga Gems: Yoga for Your Lower Back

Previously I posted a video that showed how lying over a block placed strategically in your upper back can help 'billow' out your chest and give your upper spine a new found feeling of freedom.  Well, we can do the same thing with our lower backs too!

Lots of us want to or need to free our lower backs.  The video link shows a wonderful way to help create length in your lower back to give it the freedom to move pain free. 

The poses shown should be restful.  If they do not feel restful, or if you feel any pain, then move out of them.  It is really important to get the block position right.  It needs to be on your sacrum, which is the hard bony plate that you can feel just above the crack of your own bottom (I wish I had a better way of putting it!).  Do not put the block on the lower back itself--it will feel awful and you probably will not be able to stay there. 

If you do not have a block, be creative.   A thick dictionary could do the trick.  How high you go all depends on your flexibility. Don't go too far, too fast.  Listen to your body and respect what it is telling you. 

In the video I show a progressive series of poses of increasing difficulty, culminating with a mega thigh stretch at the end!

These sorts of poses are 'gems' and I practice them nearly every day, along with the block in my upper spine.  The lower back becomes more free and length is created across the upper thighs where they meet your torso.  This is exactly the place where many of us need to stretch out to help those deep back bends. 

Be safe and enjoy your practice.  If you have any doubts, then please consult your yoga teacher and get them to have a look at you.

Happy and safe practicing!


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Paddy's Here!

Paddy's here!  Just what our spines ordered 

If you have not gathered already, Paddy is my teacher (not in the possessive sense--she is everyone's teacher!). She is in Colombo from the 20th May to 5th June and is conducting classes around town. 

Please log onto Paddy's website for her contact details
It is also where you will find details of her classes around the world for those no longer in Sri Lanka.  If you have trouble then you can always contact me. 

If you have never had the pleasure of being taught by Paddy, then please take this opportunity as she may just be the best teacher in the world (no, I am not biased!).


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fun With Trikonasana

Trikonasana is one of those poses that you learn early on in yoga.  I really like how it stretches out my sides even after all these years. 

Like any pose, Trikonasana can start to feel dull if you keep practicing it in the same way.  It's important to continually break down habits so your body keeps learning and keeps challenged. 

In this video, I leap into trikonasana like Paddy has shown me.  And then I turn it into a standing balance for a bit of fun. 

The trick in turning this posture into a standing balance is to learn to dance so that you transfer weight from the front foot to the back foot at just the right moment. 

I have been a bit naughty and not provided a modified version of this posture in the video.  If you cannot bind your arms (which is pretty hard) you can just try to keep your upper arm or shoulder pressed close to your knee instead. 

Have fun and remember to keep your spine long and free.

Step 1:
Come into Trikonasana with a long spine
Step 2:
Bend the front knee and bring your front shoulder towards the knee, nuzzling it in as close as possible.  If the shoulder does not get there, press your upper arm against the thigh or knee.  If you can bind your arms here then do so.  Don't worry it you can't.  Keep your spine long and free as though it is still in Trikonasana.
Step 3:
Start your little dance.  Transfer the weight into your front foot.  You need to start leaning forward to do so.  Your back foot should start to feel a little light so you can hop it close to your front foot. The back foot is perpendicular to the front foot.
Step 4:
Transfer your weight into the back foot now.  As you do so, shift your weight more and more to the back foot side.  With any luck your front foot will just start to float off.
Step 5:
As your foot starts to float off the ground, come into standing.  If you like you can straighten both legs! 
Relax and breathe.  Turn your head away from the raised leg.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Yoga Retreat in July

Every now and then George from Kahanda Kanda hosts a weekend yoga retreat at his beautiful hotel.  Amidst the gentle greenery, surrounded by the rolling hills of the tea estate and the calls of a diverse array of wild-life, and beneath beautiful open skies we practice yoga morning and evening.  In between we swim, eat, read, relax, cycle, and basically chill-out. 

If this sounds like the type of weekend you have been looking for, then check out the website and book in for the yoga weekend in July.  These retreats tend to fill up fast since George offers a discount rate so be quick.  KK is a boutique hotel with a few rooms so you might find if you round up your nearest and dearest yoga buddies you might even have the place to yourselves!

Looking forward to seeing some of you there!


Monday, May 2, 2011

New Class On Thursdays!

We've really lengthened our legs and spines with Yes-You-Can-Can Legs (and even did the splits!).  We've opened up our hips and they didn't die in the Hips Don't Die class.  Now it is time to move up to our waists with Twistin Round The World (first made famous by Chubby Checker of course).

I have choreographed a sequence of twists and turns, and side bends and stretches, along with a bit of core strengthening thrown in.  Amidst all of this twisting, turning, and bending we will really be trying to get an idea of how to lift our bodies out of our pelvis.  Who knows, you might grow a few inches?  (Disclaimer: height gain is not guaranteed)

It does not really matter how much yoga experience you have for this class as there are easier and more challenging versions of everything.  As is usual with these classes, I have tried to find interesting alternatives to the 'normal' poses, so expect to experience a few new asanas pop up!

It all starts this Thursday and should be lots of fun.  So why not come along to the women's international centre next to the Lionel Wendt at 5:45pm.

Happy practicing!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Challenge Pose: Bakasana

Challenge Pose: Bakasana
For those of you in Colombo you will no doubt know that it is pretty hard to go anywhere without a bunch (murder) of crows somewhere nearby.  Many people think of crows as just scavengers and look at them a bit like rats.  But here are a few crow stories that have changed my impression about crows:
·         Once (upon a time) a crow came onto our rooftop terrace with a large piece of bread in its mouth.  It sat on the edge of the wall at first, a bit hesitant since we were sitting having our own breakfast nearby.  The previous night it had rained and there were a few puddles of water drying on the deck. Well, the bread must have been a bit hard and the crow must have been very hungry as it eventually jumped down onto the terrace and hopped over to a puddle within a few steps of us (they usually keep their distance) and dipped his bread into the puddle to soften it up then flew away!  How smart is that!
·         There is a guy who lives in an apartment a few doors down who feeds the crows bread about once or twice a week.  We know when this event is happening as crows flock from all directions to sit on his balcony.  I am not sure how word gets out and how a crow several hundred metres away can tell there is a man on a balcony feeding other crows bread, but there is obviously a special language shared amongst them when a free feed crops up.  Anyway, it actually looks very scary as he is surrounded by crows vying for position.  They perch on his balcony, his neighbour’s balcony, the nearby tree, the TV line running up the building—anywhere they can hook their feet.  The thing is, rather than descend upon him like a swarm of killer bees, they all wait in a rather orderly fashion (well, as orderly as crows can be, which is much more orderly than many of the people I encounter at the train station or supermarket queues) for their share of bread. 
·         Did you know that Australian crows are about twice as big as the Colombo crows?  They also sound different too.  Australian crows seem to be more melodic (I would not go so far as to call them melodic), while as their Colombo cousins seem to have a smoker’s cough. 
·         One afternoon Tilak (aka doorman in the sarong, aka my husband) was standing outside of Perera & Sons with a malu paan in his hands.  He looked down the road for the oncoming bus and in that split second a crow dive-bombed him and snatched the malu paan from his hands.  As I am frequently telling Tilak to be a bit more mindful about his eating, he seems to have taken this as a sign that the crow was sent by me to prevent him from eating between meals.  
So, there you go; a few interesting crow stories.  Now, to the challenge pose of the week: Bakasana (crow pose).  Here, I am going to help you practice bakasana in a few easy steps.
1.       Come into a low squat with your knees together.  Have the heels off the ground and put your hands on the floor in front of you and lean into them—as though you are readying yourself for a very short downward dog.  Really lean your body forward over your thighs.  Stay here for a while.

2.       From there, take the knees apart and lean your body through your knees.  Keep leaning forward into your hands.  Your knees should be around your shoulders—hug them in close.

3.       Take the hands off the floor but keep leaning forward.  You are now about to do the karate chop manoeuvre.  Take your arms in front of your shins and ‘karate chop’ them out to the side as though you were trying to karate chop your shins with your upper arms.  The point is to bring the upper arms in contact with the shins and keep the upper arms moving back into the shins.  As you take your upper arms back and into your shins, squeeze your knees into your shoulders (or upper arms).

4.       Make bird’s claw hands and place them on the floor in front of you shoulder width apart.  It is important to ‘bird’s claw’ the hands to distribute the weight throughout the hand and this will also help you balance.  The elbows stay wide at the moment and the upper arms are still pressing back into the shins.

5.       Keeping everything else the same, lift your tail a bit and lean forward into your hands as you do so.  Come up onto your tip-toes.

6.       Squeeze the elbows in towards eachother while maintaining the feeling that you are pressing your arm bones back into your shins.  Squeeze the knees into the arms/shoulders.  Look forward, lean forward and…find your balance.  There is no ‘launching’ yourself into the pose.  This is a balance and you need to find your tipping point.  Maybe just take one foot off the floor at first, find your balance there, and then shift the weight a bit further forward until the other foot floats off.  Basically, head tips forward and bottom floats up--just like in the picture below!

Hints and Cautions
·         Be in the middle of your mat in case you fall forward.  You could put a cushion a bit in front of you as well if you are worried about falling on your face.
·         Bird’s claw hands are key.  If you do not get some pressure under the finger tips and knuckles, all of the weight will be on your wrists and you will not be able to find your tipping point as well or as easily.
·         Keep squeezing the elbows in towards each other.  If they splay out to the side you will drop lower to the floor and you need to create lift so this won't be good!  Too much elbow splaying will lead to a face plant for sure! 
·         You need to keep moving your centre of gravity forward—this means you need to practice leaning forward into and over your hands.  You will not find your tipping point if you stay too far back. 
·         You can try just taking one foot off the ground and then trying to lean forward a little bit more.
Bakasana is challenging at first and helps you understand about how slight changes in your centre of gravity can completely change a posture.  When you find just the right tipping point it will feel like you are flying. 
Happy practicing!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ten Minute Yoga Practice: Can-Can Flow

If you have only got ten minutes a day to practice, why not try the Can-Can-Flow?  This is our warm up sequence in the Yes-You-Can-Can class.  I designed it specifically to bring our focus to two things.  First, lengthening the legs.  Second, to keep the spine long while doing so.  The second is actually more important than the first and please read the blog “Yoga Gems #3: You don’t do yoga to be a hunchback”  before practicing the flow shown on the video.
Happy practicing!

Yoga Gems #3: You don’t do yoga to be a hunchback

The toughest thing about straightening your legs when you are bending forward is not actually getting your legs straight.  It is dealing with the little voice inside of you that says you have to touch your toes or reach the floor while your legs are straight. 
That little voice is a bit like the archetypal devil sitting on your shoulder who encourages you to do something that most of us probably know we probably shouldn’t—at least you should know if you have been coming to yoga class for some time. 
The thing about forward bending is that sometimes we look too far ahead of ourselves and try to get somewhere our body is not quite ready for.  If you have had a back injury you will know this on an intimate level.  But even for those of us without back injuries we need to be mindful that we don’t develop awkward habits that could lead to injury down the track. 
The angel, if you listened to her as she whispered from your other shoulder, would be telling you lots of nice things as you practiced forward bends.  Here’s a potential though not exhaustive list:
·         Relax and breathe
·         Let go of ideas about where you ‘should be’ and just be where you are
·         Please don’t come to yoga to turn yourself into a hunchback
It is the third of these that I really want to focus on. 
If you come into a forward bend, either from standing or sitting, with the idea that you have to straighten your legs and touch the floor or your toes you are potentially setting yourself up for trouble if you don’t have enough length in your hamstrings or lower back.  What will likely end up happening is that you round your spine and then shrug your shoulders in order to reach wherever it is you want to be.  You will end up looking a bit like a hunchback. 
This is not a pretty sight.  Imagine if I kept my shoulders and spine in exactly the same configuration and stood up.  In case you cannot imagine, I demonstrate in the video. 

Ok, can you honestly say to yourself that you have come to yoga so that you can re-enforce a hunch in your spine?!  Do you want to go home after class and say to yourself, “Gee, I am so glad I spent so much time cultivating that hunch.  Feels so gooooood.”  My guess is no.  But the devil, you see, will encourage you to do exactly that.
So what can you do? 
First of all, bring absolute mindfulness to your spine as you practice any forward bend. 
Second, remind yourself you are trying to open the whole back side of your body—from your heels to the crown of your head—rather than just focus on that short distance between your bottom and your knees.  It might help to think of yourself as trying to fold your body in half like you might fold a towel—you don’t want the bottom half to be smooth and straight and the top half to look like a camel’s hump. 
Third, even though you are doing a forward bend, see if you can think a little bit about a backward bend as you come forward.  You will not be able to maintain the natural curve in your lumbar spine as you bend deeply forward but it helps to feel as though you are trying to do so.  To do this it can help to imagine pushing your sitting bones behind you or above you—increasing the distance between your sitting bones and your knees.  In the midst of a forward bend this is much easier said than done though, since this action creates a lot of tension in your hamstrings.
Fourth, draw your shoulder blades down your back so that the shoulders are free and move away from your ears.  This will free up tension around the neck and the upper back. 
Fifth, if you are in sitting, make sure you feel your centre of gravity in front of your sitting bones so you do not feel like you are falling backwards.  You might need to use a block to sit on if this proves really difficult, or take option six, below. 
Sixth, you can also opt to bend your knees as much as you need so the torso lies on the thighs. I like this one a lot, especially if your hamstrings are pretty tight.   This action is very effective as it will release a bit of that tension on the back of your legs and allow your spine to relax forward more so you still get a satisfying feeling of being able to fold forward.  You can still stretch your hamstrings by pushing your sitting bones further behind you.  This calls for a tilting action of the pelvis so the top of the pelvis comes forward and your sitting bones move backwards.  Once you have laid your chest on your thighs you can really hug your chest along your thigh bones and then start to straighten your legs from there, but only so much that your spine still feels relaxed and long and you can keep your chest and thighs roughly parallel (like that folded towel). 
In practice this means you might not reach your toes or the floor at all.  It does not matter.  Reach the back of your calves or thighs instead.  Just remember to move those shoulders away from your ears (you can try to press your hands into the back of the calves with your elbows in and then ‘pull’ the calves up under your knees to also free up some tension in the neck/upper back in a forward bend).  
A word for the more experienced.  Your spine is ultimately going to round a little bit when you come into a deep forward bend so you do not need to keep it stiffly upright (unless you are practicing some particular technique that calls for this).  If you maintain this stiff upper back for too long what you will find is that the muscles in your back start to get tired.  You need to allow for slight rounding so that your spine can relax.  The trick is being able to feel the difference between a nice relaxed and long spine and a hunched and constricted one. In the video you can see my spine is not ramrod straight, but it is long and I can still move it and find little wavelets rippling through it no matter how deep I bend.  As soon as I cannot ripple anymore, I know I have come too far.
As always, it pays to listen to what is going on inside your body.  “Length” and “Freedom” should be a little mantra that you repeat to yourself when you practice forward bending. 
If you feel in your body that you are slumping then this is a good sign that you need to do something to lengthen your spine.  If your back muscles are getting tired then you are probably ‘too straight’ and you need to relax them a little.  If you cannot move your neck in freedom you shoulders are probably shrugged as you try to reach too far.  If you feel any pain at all in your lower back, bend your knees a lot to keep the lower back long or come out of the pose. 
Happy practicing!