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!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Ten Minute Yoga Practice: Basic Suriya Namaskar

If you've only got ten minutes to do yoga...
Reaction to last week’s blog came mainly in the form of “can you make a video?”  Actually, I was really tired last week and didn’t have the energy to make a video but I must agree, videos are often more helpful when you are trying to learn about yoga.  Watching someone else do yoga often makes your own body itch to get out there on the mat.  I know that after I have spent an afternoon doing some yoga research on the web my right hand is virtually grabbing me by the scruff of my own neck to drag me away from the computer and onto my mat.
Anyway, I made another movie and even decided to bite the bullet and narrate this week’s clip rather than try and dodge having to record my voice by using nice music instead!  I was a bit nervous as you might be able to tell. 
This week’s video is a basic suriya namaskar sequence and I plan to do a whole suriya namaskar series.  There are millions of suriya namaskars that you can do.  I often make one up to suit the type of practice I am going to do on a particular day.  That is, if I want to work deeply in my hips I will do a suriya namaskar that gently warms them up and so forth. 
Doing a few rounds of suriya namaskar (sun salutations) is a traditional way to warm up for your yoga practice and you can use them to set the tone for the rest of your practice on a particular day.  This is not to say you have to start with any suriya namaskar at all—sometimes I get sick of them myself and do something else instead.  This is likely because I am basically from the yoga school that says I need to craft my own practice (of course, being mindful of the wisdom of my teachers) rather than stick to any particular dogma. 
However, if you are newer to yoga and just trying to establish a bit of self practice then a few rounds of suriya namaskar is a great way to get yourself onto you mat. 
The video I have made this week is ‘Basic Suriya Namaskar’.  It is a ten minute sequence of three different suriya namaskars.  Most of us can probably sneak in ten minutes a day, can’t we?
Over the next few weeks and months I am going to post some more ten minute snippets, including a few more suriya namaskar variations.  Coming soon will be the hip opening suriya namaskar and the hamstring lengthening version.  I know a lot of my students have moved overseas to a variety of other postings and, in case you have not found a yoga class yet (could be difficult to find in Tchad perhaps?), I hope you find them useful. 
Happy practicing!

If she can do the can can...

I am still trying to make myself laugh, although I got my funny spots burned off with liquid nitrogen this morning.  In any case, I came across this picture and was reminded of our Thursday night can-can crew because our legs are starting to look a bit like this. 

For those who have not made it to Thursday's class yet, don't worry.  We will still be lengthening those legs for the next 6 weeks!  Is this picture real or fake? I don't know.  The point is we are never too old and stiff to have long legs.  You can do it and I can see improvements already!  It might not happen overnight....

Happy practicing until I see you next!!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Just Do It: Five Ways To Start a Home Practice

We were all born yogis, sometimes we just forget.   If you are struggling to get a home practice into your life here are a few tips to help get you started.  

Nike is not paying me for this blog.  Just to make that clear from the very beginning.  But they do have a point; “Just Do It” is a pretty good way to think about a lot of things in life, including yoga. 
It goes without saying that there is a lot of theory about yoga and while sometimes it is good to languish like a cow chewing the grass as you think and read about yoga, nothing really captures the yoga like doing it.  This is true whether we talk about the more physical or active aspects of yoga like asanas, pranayama, and meditation, or whether we talk about the more philosophical aspects, including the yamas and niyamas (ethical teachings).
But how do you get on your mat every day with such a busy schedule?  It can be hard, even for yoga teachers.  Here are my top five tips to help you start. 
1.       View your whole life as a yoga practice.  When your whole life is viewed this way it means you can practice yoga virtually anywhere.  This works for asanas as well as other aspects of yoga as well.  I have listed some ideas here.  You will notice the bathroom seems to be a favourite place to do yoga!
·         going to the toilet becomes an opportunity to practice uktatsana (chair/fierce pose);
·         interacting with difficult people becomes an opportunity to practice mindful breathing so as not to over-involve your emotions and become distressed;
·         brush your teeth in vrksasana (tree pose);
·         put on your shoes/socks balancing on one leg and bringing the foot to the chest instead of bending down;
·         sit on your chair in padmasana (lotus) or sukhasana (cross-legged) or even virasana (kneeling/hero);
·         practice ahimsa the next time you start to feel yourself starting to get angry at someone or something;
·         standing back bend while you rinse your hair in the shower (don’t fall!);
·         do uttanasana (forward bend) to pick up the pen you have dropped (mind your back).
This list could go on and on and is limited only by your imagination and your capacity to be mindful—remembering to remember that there is always a way to practice yoga.     
2.       Create a time and space to get on your mat.  While you can turn your whole life into a yoga practice, you do need to get on your mat.  Now, I know I am a yoga teacher and I am supposed to love doing yoga every day, but the truth is that sometimes I struggle.  I work full time—at a desk no less—and teach classes most evenings so finding the energy to do my own practice can be hard. 

Over the years I have learned, however, that no matter how tired I am I will always feel better after being on my mat.  I cannot recall a single time where I got off my mat and thought, “gee, I feel really crap”, which is a good thing really as I am not sure why I would keep doing something (teaching it no less) that makes me feel crap.   This is something to bear in mind on those days when you feel it would just be easier to lie on the couch. 

The first thing I have done is created a time and space to lie on my mat.  Obviously, this time and space will transform over time with changes in work and lifestyles.  For me it currently means practicing in my lunch hour at work.  I try to (mindfully) eat lunch at my desk and then use my actual lunch break for my practice.  This works well for me as it works out the desk-jockey kinks but also helps with the stress of my actual work.  You might be able to find a space at home to do your yoga (I also have such space but do my weekday practice at work).  If you are really lucky you could just leave your yoga mat unrolled on the floor so that it is always inviting you to practice!

You might not have an hour but who says you need it?  You might have ten minutes in the morning or ten minutes in the afternoon, you might find you even have ten in the morning and ten in the afternoon. It does not really matter how much time you have but give yourself some time.  It is probably more important to do something every day rather than gorge yourself in one go once a week or once a fortnight.  You really need to cultivate discipline to do this, especially if you are the type of person who easily talks themselves out of things. 

3.       Make a general plan. When you are first starting a home practice it can be hard to think of what to do.  You might barely be able to remember any poses at all.  Most of us can probably remember some version of suriya namaskar and maybe you just plan to do five or ten of those.  After you do that you might find that has triggered your memory of other poses and you could do those as well.  Sometimes you can just start by lying down and breathing, quieting your mind, and you will find that a practice emerges. 

If that doesn’t happen, you could also bring some pictures of some poses and put them beside your mat to trigger your memory.  Sometimes it can be a bit distracting to keep looking at pictures but after a while you won’t need them anymore. 

The next time you go to a yoga class that you really enjoy, you could also try to jot down a few poses that you liked straight afterwards—being mindful that it is always good to do a mixture of poses that you really like and poses that you would rather avoid!

Another thing you could do is pick a theme—maybe you could choose one forward bend, one hip-opener, one twist, one backbend, one inversion and practice one of each of those, choosing a different one each day or practicing the same ones for a week and doing new ones the next week.  Maybe you could say Mondays is for hips, Tuesdays for forward bends, Wednesdays for backbends, etc. 

Whatever plan you might make, please also consider point 4, below.

4.       Relax.  I mean this in three ways. First, in the sense that you can just lie on your mat and do savasana for however long you have.  I do this for an hour sometimes.  Not very often but on those days where my body just tells me it simply cannot be expected to do any more than I have been asking of it.  This is usually if I have worked intensely in the previous week or am feeling a bit sick.  Some days I might not do savasana but I might just feel like I don’t want to do a single standing pose so I think of everything I can do that involves lying on my back.  You’d be surprised how you can spend an hour just doing lying poses and I think I will have to create a blog post dedicated to this!  Anyway, the important thing is that I take some time to listen to my body so I can hear what it is telling me and develop an appropriate course of action. 

When I say relax, I also mean relax your ideas of what you should be doing and not getting too worried or stressed out about your practice.  You don’t come to yoga to get stressed and worried.   If you get on your mat and start thinking you absolutely have to do something you are cultivating rigidity and not flexibility.  I am not a big fan of the word should and all of the right/wrongness that it implies, but I will use it with caution here to say that the only thing you really should do (although you can choose not to) is get on your mat!

In practice this means learning to let go, modify, and adapt.  It means that even though you had grand plans for your practice that day but you feel really sluggish when mat-time comes around then maybe you need to do modified backbends rather than the whole shebang.  It means that if people start doing construction work next door while I am practicing at lunch that I might have to move elsewhere or, instead of doing the nice quiet practice I had planned, maybe I’ll have to get up and ‘go with the flow’ and do a more active practice instead. 

The third thing I mean when I say relax is, bearing in mind point 2 (get on your mat), you do need to give yourself permission to take a day off now and then.  Your body needs time to recover and sometimes it becomes really hard to practice (such as when travelling, although as you get more experienced at yoga you realize you can even do yoga in airports, on planes etc, and, moreover, that you probably need it even more in these situations.  The next time I go home I will definitely be writing a blog about airport/airplane yoga—look for it around June).   

5.       Put on some music.  There are lots of people who practice in silence.  Personally, I sometimes practice in silence (well, as silent as Colombo gets) and sometimes practice with music (see point 4 about not getting too rigid!).  I tend to have my favourite yoga music but every now and then I mix it up so I’ll be yoga-ing to Tracy Chapman, Norah Jones, Santana, David Gray, and Marc Antony.  It is amazing how different music can inspire your body to move in different ways.  I find that I might get on my mat feeling like a sloth bear but as soon as I hear a particular piece of music I am all dropbacks and handstands.  The other thing about music for people who are having difficulty getting on the mat in the first place is that it can be a cue.  You can prepare yourself a 10, 20, or 30 minute musical sequence, for instance, so you aren’t looking at your watch all of the time wondering when to finish. 
There you go, a few tips to get you on your mat and remind you that we were all born yogis even if we can’t touch our toes anymore.  A regular home practice will really teach you a lot about yoga as no matter how good a yoga class is or how good your yoga teacher is, I am generally of the opinion that some of the best insights will come from within. 
So, even though my blog is really interesting, time to exit the browser and get on your mat!  Happy practicing.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Yoga Gems #2: Winged-Feet

Find the wings in your feet to generate lift and lightness in your poses…

In high school a girlfriend once called me a macropod.  This is a very large word to come from the mouth of a 13 year old.  I am sure I had to go and look it up in the dictionary later that day, but her father was a journalist and she was pretty good with words so I would not be surprised if was just part of her vernacular.
I cannot recall precisely what it said under the definition of macropod but there was an example.   That example was something to do with kangaroos.  Now, she was not trying to tell me I had a pouch or a tendency to hop around.  Not even that I had long pointy ears.  No, she was referring to my enormous feet; macropods are basically any of the marsupials belonging to the kangaroo family and the word itself comes from the latin “big foot”. [As an interesting aside I just found out some cool things about kangaroos here]
How could I be angry at her?  She was just telling the truth and, besides, she was a good friend. 
The thing about my big feet is that I am probably not tall enough for them.  Most people are surprised when they find out my shoe size.  It is incredible (but true) that my feet have been this size since I was about 12 and I think what must have happened is my body spent so much energy on growing my feet that when it came time to start growing other things it had simply run out of energy so I ended up a short big-footed person.  This was highlighted to me again this week when I found two other kindred macropods in my yoga class with the same foot size as me (hard to find) but who are a good few inches taller.  I’d like to just stop for a moment to make the point that we don’t normally go around comparing body parts in our yoga classes but we somehow got to talking about our feet after class in a spate of wind-down girl-y chatter. 
In any case, apart from being large, my feet are naturally fairly flat.  Now there are a lot of us flat-footers out there in the world and I have heaps of them in my yoga classes.  But I have found that even the flattest of feet has the capacity to cultivate an arch.  And this is important because the arch gives us lift through the entire body.  If you let your weight collapse onto the inside of the foot you will feel a sinking rather than lifting sensation and there is no yoga pose that I can think of where you want to feel like you are sinking. 
Cultivating the arch in your foot is hard if you are not used to it, but it is worth the effort because you will ultimately have a much better foundation for all of your yoga poses.  In the movie I have posted below you can see very clearly what happens to my ankles and knees when my arches collapse.  There is no doubt that there would be effects in my hips, spine and even shoulders and my body collapses in on itself. 
Apart from seeing what happens if you don't have an arch, I show a few tips for cultivating good yoga feet.  Once you start to understand the feeling of lift in your feet you then need to practice mindful walking and mindful standing off the yoga mat to bring this little yoga practice into your daily life.  This is why I have called it a yoga gem—because it should be practiced every day and become a natural part of your life.
My feet are still flat, but these days I never stand or walk with them that way as it feels just awful.  I truly believe that learning to cultivate my arches through practice and mindfulness has helped solve some of the knee problems that I used to have.   From a young age I was prescribed orthotics to help correct some of my foot problems.  They helped a little but my feet were still ‘lazy’.  About the time I started practicing yoga I also threw out my orthotics and my feet feel better than ever.  Use the tips below to see if you can find the lift in your own two feet.  I can’t promise that you will fly, but maybe one day…

Generate Lift By Creating Spirals
The two key actions shown in the movie to help you cultivate your arches are:
1)      Create an outward spiral from the inner ankle, across the front of the shin and up towards the outer calf muscle;
2)      Create an inward spiral from the outer ankle across the top of the foot to the mound of the big toe.
The outward spiral creates the lift, the inward spiral connects you back to the ground. 
This can be a very tricky thing to get at first, especially if the feet are a bit lazy.  There are all sorts of instructions you can try to help.  I show one of these in the movie. 
First, start on the outside edges of your feet and really lift up the insides of your feet so they do not touch the ground (outward spiral). 
Second, spread wide across the ball of your feet and then try to pull your toes back to your shins.  This will help cultivate an arch. 
Third, place the mound of the big toe down while still staying on the outer edge of the foot and drawing the toes back (inward spiral).  You can then place the toes down carefully without dropping the inner arch of the foot.
Most people can do steps 1 and 2, but have trouble putting the mound of the big toe down without collapsing the arch.  At first many people try to keep the arch and will just put the tip of their toe down and won’t really connect through the mound, but this is not enough.  You will not be stable.  You really have to press that big toe mound down firmly.  Push it down with your fingers if you like. 
Once you are practiced in this you can do it in reverse, starting by grounding down through the mound of the big toe (inward spiral) and then creating the outward spiral.  The only problem with this is that if your feet are a bit lazy you won’t know how to create that outward spiral at first so you might have to go back the steps described above until your feet “get” what you are trying to do.  Quite often you can just go through those steps on one foot and then the other foot will understand by itself and automatically lift the arch. 
Finally, it is important to remember that whether or not you have flat feet, you need to always be mindful of cultivating the feeling of lift in your arches in all of your poses, especially, but not limited to, standing postures where the full weight of your body is on your feet.    
Wishing you wings on your feet!