Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I want to be this old lady!

This lady is 83 years old.  Apparently she only started yoga 40 years ago, which means she has been practicing yoga for longer than I have been alive but also means she only started in her 40's.

We can all do yoga at any age of our life.  And while Bette (that is her name) is doing a pretty advanced posture that many of us might never do (although we might) the point is she is still practicing.

Maybe I will be alive when I am 80, maybe not.  I sure hope I am still practicing yoga with such joy.

You can read more about Bette here:

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Inappropriate Yoga Teacher!

Last week I had an enquiry from someone who said a friend of theirs (a woman) went to a private yoga class and the teacher (a man) suggested they try a tantric meditation whereby she sat on his lap facing him while they looked into one another's eyes.  My friend wanted to know if that was appropriate.  He went on to describe some of the intimate sounding adjustments that had gone on in the private lessons.

Since I don't know the teacher or what style of yoga he was teaching or what they had discussed about yoga I can't make too many comments.  Having said this, the answer to the question of whether this is appropriate or not is always going to be, if it does not feel right then it is not right.  This goes for yoga teachers asking you to sit on their lap or yoga teachers making adjustments on you!

You must always remember you come to yoga class for you.  Most of us come to feel better.  You are the best judge of whether something is appropriate or not because it is your body, your mind.  Your yoga teacher might have suggestions and it is up to you to decide whether or not to take up those suggestions.  So while a teacher might encourage you to go deeper into a pose it does not mean you have to.  While a teacher might suggest a particular pose, you never have to do it.  If you do not know why your teacher is suggesting something then feel free to ask their reasons.  If you are not satisfied then just pass.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bhujangasana Tips and Common Errors

Aiyo! Spot the issues

I want to start by getting you to take a look at the picture to the left.  This very flexible person has taken themselves into Bhujangasana, cobra pose.  We practice this pose a lot in my classes.  I chose this particular photo of it because it highlights some of the concerns I commonly raise  with my students.  Can you spot the issues I would raise about the way this guy is holding the pose?  Hint: there are five main ones.

Let's start with one of the main weight bearing points: his hands (the other is the legs but I will leave those aside for now).

Look closely at how he holds them on the floor.  It is hard to tell but I am pretty sure all of the weight is bearing down through his wrists because I cannot see his fingers spreading at all.

Your hands are like your feet.  They have natural arches in them.  You must cultivate those arches in the hands so that you generate lift.  If you do not, you will sink into the wrists and they will become painful and you won't be able to hold the pose for very long.  To help generate this lift and take away from the wrists you need to press very strongly down through the mounds of the fingers (the base of the knuckles).  Spread wide from the base of the index finger to the base of the baby finger and extend out through your fingers.  As you do this, see if you can suck up the middle of your palm from the floor almost as though you were trying to lift the floor up.  This takes quite a bit of work at first but you will find the pressure on the wrist reduces dramatically.  If you find you seem to be stuck in your wrists and they are hurting then you can always put a little bit of height under the wrists (fold up the end of your yoga mat) which will help you take the weight off the wrists.

Moving up from there let's take a look at the elbows.  Elbow joints come in all forms.  This guy has what I would call really bendy elbow joints. People with bendy elbow joints often think their elbows are straight when in fact they are hyper-extended or over-straightening as I like to say.  The picture below shows a similar issue but from a different angle.

Locked elbows (pose needs improvement)

You can see the inside part of the elbows have spun around to point forwards (you can also see the same hand issue here with the fingers together and weight through the wrists).  What has happened here is that the elbows have locked into position so that the arms are effectively held straight by holding in the elbow joint rather than using the muscles.  Locking the elbow joints when you practice any pose where the arm is weight-bearing (like this one or downward dog or handstand) can lead to injuries in the wrist, elbow or shoulder joints so you want to avoid it.  From what I have seen on the mat, a tendency to lock in the elbow joints is often related to weakness in the biceps or triceps muscles (which are responsible for bending and straightening the elbow joint) so that if you enter a pose which requires those muscles to work with the arm in a straightened position your body chooses the easy way out locks the joint rather than use the muscles.

The problem for many people who tend to lock the elbow joints like this is that the arm 'feels' straight when they lock them.   And what often happens is when I come around in class to put the elbow in the correct position people with this issue will say the elbow now 'feels' bent.   Your body has internal sensors that give you an idea about the position of your joint without having to look at it (which is why we can walk without having to look at our feet).  In this case, the way these people have learned to interpret the sensations from the joint has lead to them mislabeling what is actually straight and what feels straight.  To compensate for this you need to look carefully at the elbows when you are in weight-bearing positions of the arm to check with your eyes rather than rely on the internal sensors.  The inner elbows should end up pointing rather more in towards one another rather than pointing to the front.

In bhujangasana the elbows don't have to be straight.  They can actually be bent.  How much they bend depends on how you do the pose.  There are many ways to do this pose and some people keep their elbows very bent and don't come off the floor all the way.  If you are going to straighten your arms you need to make sure you are not straining in your lower back and most of us will probably find that if we straighten our arms we will need to let the pelvis and maybe even the upper thighs come off the floor.  The photos below show some better elbow positions for this posture.

Elbows slightly bent (good, working with his capacity). 

The photos above shows a man with his elbows ever so slightly bent.  That is fine because he is working to his capacity.  His shoulders are down away from their ears (we will talk about the shoulders next).  His chest is open and expanding--just like a cobra spreading his hood.

If you don't use your hands and elbows properly, it is likely you will end up with your shoulders like the boy in the first photo--shrugged up around your ears.  Aside from making you look like a vulture or buzzard with no neck, this is not good for the shoulder joints.  Some people do use their hands and elbows well but still end up with their shoulders as ear-rings, although the three are often connected. 

Shrugged shoulders (pose needs improvement)
The photo above shows the hands are not working well (you can see the base of the knuckles are lifted off the ground rather than pressing), the inner elbows are pointing more to the front, and that she seems to be hanging in her shoulders.   She has pushed her chin up to give the illusion of a neck but this is just the front of her neck that is long--the sides of the neck are scrunched down into the shoulders. 

Now, look at the two photos below.  In the top one you can see the shoulder shrugging more clearly.  See how the tops of her shoulders seem to be pushing up and the chest is sagging below the shoulders?  It is almost as though her body is hanging down from the high point of her shoulders.  Contrast this with the shoulders in the bottom photo.  See how there is more space between the top of the shoulders and the ears? 

Shoulders pushing up and chest is sagging (pose needs improvement)
Chest is rising (good)
In bhujangasana the chest needs to rise up between the shoulders and expand outwards to give rise to the posture's namesake: the cobra.  To get this flare of the cobra's hood you need to use your hands and arms effectively but also draw your shoulder blades down your spine.  The image below showing this woman from the front clearly shows the expanding and lifting (as opposed to closed and drooping) chest.

Expanding and lifting chest (good)

There are so many variations for the neck in this posture--as you can see from all of the photos above.  I tend to feel that unless you know how to take your neck back properly (if you are wondering what properly is then that is a clue) then you are better off just keeping your gaze directed forward.  Otherwise, you will just scrunch the back of your neck and that is never good.  

Take a look at the picture below of the guy in our first photo at the top of the page.  By now you will will notice the hand and shoulder shrugging problems previously mentioned and the hyper-extended elbows.  Now, look at the spine as a whole and notice the curvature.  Also, draw and imaginary line running from between his shoulder blades to the base of his skull.  What do you notice?

What can you notice about the angle of the neck relative to the rest of the spine?

What you will see is that all of the curve of the spine is coming first from the lower back (he is really flexible there) and from his neck.  In between he is pretty straight.  This is not the way to treat your spine if you want it to remain healthy.

The way I teach bhujangasana (which is not the only way) is to try and have students go for a more even distribution of the curvature of the spine from the bottom to the top.  This means trying to let the curve at the neck follow the curve of the rest of the spine.  You get a better idea of why when you take a look at the full expression of the pose below:

Full cobra with more even distribution of curvature of spine
In the full version of this posture the feet and head touch.  This pose might not be a place where a lot of us will ever get to (and who cares if we never do it anyway?  Will your life be so different?) mainly because it requires a lot of flexibility.  But, if you are working towards it what you need to do is emphasize more lift and open-ness through the thoracic spine (upper back) otherwise you will get scrunching in the lower back and neck.  Many very flexible people who lack the strength to hold this posture correctly may find themselves able to get into the position but experience discomfort in the lower back in particularly if they are not generating the appropriate lift and expansion of the chest.  But more about that in a second.

The neck is a very flexible structure that most of us hold tension in.  In my classes I see a lot of people automatically flopping their heads back when they come into this pose.  I always wonder why because I never teach people to take their heads back and I never do it myself.  If you are doing it and it feels good and there is no tension anywhere along your spine then by all means continue--I am not Uncle Scrooge and don't want to take away a nice feeling!  But if you are doing it because you have seen a picture of someone doing this pose before and their head is back then have a rethink about what you are doing.  If you are doing it because you think you should be doing it then also have a rethink.

Head and neck placement should always be very mindfully considered.  Here is what I would recommend.  If the centre of your breastbone (sternum) is pointing straight ahead then you should look straight ahead too.  Only if the top of your chest can start to turn up to the sky should you consider taking your head back.  If you are going to take it back make sure the curve in the neck follows the curve that is present in the middle of your upper back between the shoulder blades and try and feel that the distribution of the curve in your spine is even.  And remember, taking your head back is actually more about taking it up than backwards.  You need to feel your head lifting off your spine.  I am not going to go into detail here (might leave it for another post) and for the mean-time make sure you have a chat to your teacher if you are not sure about what to do with your head.  The safest thing to do if you have any doubt is to keep looking straight ahead!

Lower back
Finally, we get to the lower back or the lumbar spine.  The flexibility you have in this part of your spine  and across the front of the pelvis and thigh will ultimately determine how you come into this posture.   The main point to consider is that should have not pain or scrunching feeling in your lower back when you do this (or any) posture.

When I look at the guy in our first picture I get the impression he is extremely flexible in his lower back.  You can see there is an almost 90 degree angle between the pelvis and the rest of his spine.  Most of us will not get that sort of curve.  I can't help but feel if he continued to practice this pose as he is he will end up with lower back issues if they are not present already.  It is hard to tell but it seems to me he is locking into his elbows and collapsing into his wrists and shoulders in order to push himself into bending in the lower back to be in this posture rather than using his muscles to support himself there.

In bhujangasana the muscles along the spine need to work to hold us in place, rather than just collapsing into the most flexible parts (lower back and neck).  Nearly everyone I have ever seen in class with a very flexible lower back finds this pose difficult--not coming into it, which they can all do with ease--but holding it because they invariably tell me their back hurts.  This is usually because they are flexible in their spines but not strong.  And this is where the difficulty lies because this pose is as much about strength as it is about flexibility.  The muscles of the spine needs to be strong to bring your torso up against gravity, the muscles of the abdomen need to be strong to prevent collapsing into the lower back, the muscles around the shoulder blade need to be strong to open the chest and prevent you from collapsing into your shoulders, the muscles of the upper arms need to be strong to hold them straight, the muscles of the forearms and hands need to be strong so you don't collapse into your wrists.  This pose is about lifting, expanding and curling your body back onto itself and you will not get these things without using your muscles appropriately.

As I keep saying, there are so many variations of this posture so bear this in mind.  Some people like to practice keeping the pubic bone on the floor and with the arms bent.  Some practice with the arms in front of the shoulders.  Some practice with the arms below the shoulders.  Some allow the pubic bone to come off the floor and straighten their arms.  Some are able to keep the pubic bone on the floor and straighten their arms at the same time.  How you practice will depend on your yoga teacher's style and your own strength and flexibility.  Changing the position of the hands and elbows and deciding whether or not to allow the pubic bone to come off the floor are decisions you can make about your own practice, always bearing in mind that any of these adaptations should be made to maintain or promote freedom in your lower back.

Let's take a look at the photos below, which show adjustments of the hand, elbow, and pubic bone position that will give your cobra a different look and feel.  Each of these poses shows an accommodation for the flexibility in the lower back and across the front of the thigh and pelvis.

Fig 1: thigh bones lifted off the floor

Fig 2: hands moved in front of the shoulders

Fig 3: hands under shoulders and thigh bones on the floor

Fig 4: hands under shoulders, elbows very bent and pelvis on the floor 

Fig 5: hands under shoulders, elbows a little bent and pelvis on the floor

Each of these people is basically working within the limits of their lumbar spine coming into this posture.  Let's go through the figures one by one.  

In Figure 1 the person has straightened her arms fully.  However, because there is not enough flexion in her lower back she has done the right thing, which is to let the pelvis and top of the thighs come off the floor.  The main thing you need to remember if you are doing cobra this way is to make sure you do not  sag into your belly.  You need to keep the belly in very strongly or you end up 'hanging' in your lower back (having said this, all variations of cobra require you to draw in your abdominals--you will just feel the consequences of not doing so more strongly in this variation).  Always come back to the feeling you are having in your lower back and if you feel compression or scrunching then you can try to draw back through the belly and soften the lower ribs back to your spine and if these two don't work, bend the elbows and let the pelvis and thighs come back to the floor. This is the way we usually do the posture in my class (which doesn't make it right but is just the way I teach), and most people will have their pelvis off the floor.  

In Figure 2 the person has kept her pelvis on the floor but taken the hands out in front of the body.  In my classes we don't usually do this--not because it is incorrect but because we come up with the hands behind the shoulders.  If this person tried to bring her hands back under her shoulders she would probably find she would need to let the pelvis and thighs come off the floor like in figure 1.

In Figure 3 you can see the lady has hands under shoulders and elbows straight and pelvis on the floor, reflecting a very flexible lower back and flexibility across the front of the thigh and pelvis.  Most people would find this very difficult but some do not and you just need to make sure there is no scrunching in the lower back.  If there is, accommodate by going for the position in figure 1 or 2.

In Figure 4 the lady has decided to stay in a very low cobra and really use the muscles of her spine.  We  do this position often in my class (but without the hands on the floor) just before we take the hands to the floor and come up to finish with straight elbows (taking our pubic bones away from the floor as required).  This is a really good way to strengthen the muscles of the back and shoulder blades that help you hold this posture in the final version with ease.  You will likely feel the muscles of the lower back working the hardest here but see if you can get more even work throughout the spine so that you can feel work in the upper back as well.

In Figure 5 the lady has bent elbows and the pelvis on the floor.  She is still working the muscles along her spine really strongly and this is a good position to work in to combine strength and flexibility.  If you do not have the flexibility in the lower back the only way to come further up is to push with the arms and let the pelvis and thighs come off the floor, which is fine.  You will end up like the lady in Figure 1.  

I hope this post has been helpful in giving you some insight in the common errors I see in bhujangasana.  You need to carefully consider how you are using and positioning your hands, elbows, shoulders (and shoulder blades), neck, and lower back.  Remember all yoga postures are about lifting not sinking.  You need to generate lift out of all of these parts of your body or you will collapse somewhere else, which will lead to pain and possibly injury over time.  

The whole of your body is working in bhujangasana.  I did not mention the legs but the legs and feet need to be pressing into the floor, the abdominals lift to support your lower back, the muscles along the spine are working to lift you out of your pelvis and generate an even curve, the muscles of the shoulder blades are working to draw them down away from your ears and towards the centre of your spine to expand the chest, the muscles of the upper arms are working to hold the arms in place and prevent buckling into the wrists or pushing into the shoulders, the muscles of the forearm and hands are working to prevent collapse into the wrists.  Remember to carefully position your neck so that the curve is distributed evenly along your spine.  Go to your yoga teacher for guidance.  

As you practice, see whether or not you are falling into any of these common errors.  Look at yourself in a mirror if you can. Always ask yourself whether you are feeling freedom or compression, particularly in the wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck and lower back.  If the answer is compression then do something to change that.  If the answer is freedom, well done!

Happy and safe practicing.  

Friday, October 26, 2012

We are of the nature to grow old, get sick,and die

I am of the nature to grow old.  I cannot escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.  I cannot escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die.  I cannot escape death.
All that is dear to me and every one I love are of the nature to change.  I cannot escape being separated from them. 
My actions are my only true belongings.  I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand. 

I found this poem years ago.  I was reminded of it today when writing to a friend whose father had died.  It is attributed to the Buddha.  Lots of things are attributed to him and while they might not be his exact words, they do sound like something he might say.  

Your body and thoughts are of the nature to change from day to day, moment to moment.  Next time you are in class, take a moment or two to reflect on this beautiful poem and see if you can find meaning in it for your yoga practice.  Perhaps in a particularly tough hip opener.  Take time to reflect on the moment to moment fluctuations in sensation.  Remind yourself that while you are in the pose now, soon you won't be (as I often say, I am not going to ask you to hold it forever!).  Watch your thoughts as they fly, changing from one second to the next.  Be mindful that the actions you are taking now--your patient, consistent, and dedicated practice--will lead to change.  

The poem obviously has relevance to places other than the yoga mat.  I am not a preacher or guru so I will leave you to interpret it for yourself.  I am going to pin it up on the door for tomorrow's hip opening workshop for the yogis to see as they come in!

Hope you are enjoying your practice.  

with mettha,

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Yoga Tantrum

Hmmm, I've had a few weird experiences with yoga teachers lately.  A few weeks ago one came over and yelled at one of my students telling him he was disgusting.  The reason?  He was smoking.  Now, surely there is a nicer way of asking a person not to smoke rather than vilifying them in front of an audience?  Surely all the yogic meditation and relaxation could come in handy there?  After all, the student was smoking because the staff at the place had given him an ashtray and indicated it was ok to do so.

Then today (which is my day off and saw me stumbling around the internet) I found this article in LAWeekly (don't ask me how I go there) of an interview with Bikram Choudhury.  Since I don't have Bikram's response to the interview I'll take it with a grain of salt realizing that reporters can hold grudges and be biased just like the rest of us, but the story did make me laugh.   You can read the full story here but I have inserted some select quotes below.

Not that I want to compare myself to the guru status of Birkam Choudhury, but please, if I ever start to make comments like this about yoga, my students, or my life, I hope at least someone will realize I've gone off my rocker and will reach out to slap me back into my senses.

(FYI Bikram is currently involved in legal battles with a former student claiming he has copyright over a sequence of yoga poses he put together.  Not sure how the US copyright office could have accepted such a claim in the first place but then I am not an expert or even slightly knowledgable in such things).

Choice quotes from the interview:

"I am going to go to trial to get him punishment, to make him an example, so no one will ever have the guts to do that same kind of shit," says Choudhury, a man so synonymous with yoga that people often are surprised to learn he is still living and not just a mythical icon.
"I always forgave my students, like Jesus," he says. "But I reached a point where I have to protect my regular legal schools."
"I kind of run this city," he says. "They depend on me."
Choudhury felt a sting of betrayal at seeing his protégé take on a new mentor. "He said, 'You cannot be a fucking prostitute. You cannot have your feet in two holes.' "

"You cannot steal somebody's intellectual property. Law and justice protect," Choudhury says, leaning close to be heard amid the roar of conversation, his small brown eyes red with exhaustion. "Because I'm a sweet, kind guy, everybody thinks I'm an idiot, I'm weak. Now I have to protect my franchising. If I don't, nobody will buy my franchising anymore."
When he returns to the table, Choudhury turns to me. "Greg Gumucio, he's finished," he says. "He's ass in the grass."

The guys at Freakanomics who put together interesting bits and pieces have some interesting things to say about copyrighting yoga.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Safe Practice

I had many interesting conversations in the past week; two of them stood out.  The first was with a student who I bumped into on Sunday while I went for a run.  We passed in the park and got talking about a sharp pain in the wrist she was experiencing.  She wanted to ask me about doing plank and chaturanga with the wrist issue.  What stood out to me about that conversation was the fact that she told me she had asked her previous yoga teacher about this issue before and was told it was her fault because she was ‘doing the poses wrong’ and not given guidance on how to prevent the pain from occurring. 

The second memorable conversation was with another prospective student who came to meet me because he had back pain and had been instructed by his doctor to undertake yoga.  What struck me about that conversation was that the doctor had told the man ‘pain is your friend, not your enemy’.

These independent conversations are linked.  The doctor was correct—pain is your friend.  If you ever experience pain while you practice yoga—especially sharp pain near your joints (like the wrist pain the first student described)—this is a sign from your body that something is not quite right.

If you are practicing yoga and you experience pain, you need to back off and tell your yoga teacher immediately.  If your yoga teacher does not give you any corrections or help you find ways to practice without pain then you probably need to find another teacher. 

Right there in the park my student and I were able to work together for a few minutes to find a way for her to practice the yoga poses that were causing discomfort without pain simply by modifying them.  Then, in the next class, we worked together to improve her technique so she could continue to practice in a pain free range of motion.

Remember, you don’t practice yoga to suffer.  Please let me know if you ever experience pain so we can work to relieve this.  You only have one body and you need to take care of it! 

Monday, August 20, 2012

New Day Time Classes!

Good news for those who cannot make it to my evening classes!  I am now teaching two morning classes.  Thanks to Tashiya at Body Bar for inviting me back to teach at her gym on Jawatta Avenue.

The new classes will be:

Monday @ 10.30-12pm
Wednesday @ 8.30-10am

These will be YogaFlow classes suitable for all but complete beginners.  I strongly recommend that beginners come to my YogaBasics classes on Friday nights for a few weeks before starting other classes.  

Just remember that these two new classes are at Body Bar so don't show up at my place unless you want to talk to Tilak!

See you soon!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Savasana: Just Relax

At the beginning of nearly all yoga classes I get people to lie down so they can relax.   We do the same at the end of class.  Most of us are very good at lying down but many of us are not good at relaxing--be this physically or mentally.  Sometimes people think they are relaxing when they are not.  I see this often at the end of the class when I go around to make adjustments as people lie in savasana (corpse pose deep relaxation pose) and ask them to relax as I move them into position.  Here is what often happens:

Me (bending over a person reaching for their shoulder from behind so I can draw the scapula down, however, as soon as I reach under the shoulder it magically lifts without me doing more than touch it): Just relax

Student (lying in Savasana): Mmmm

Me (barely touching the shoulder, which somehow still hovers above the floor): Just relax

Student (lying in Savasana): Mmmm

Me (jiggling the shoulder a little in an effort to get the student to feel the tension and sense that they are holding their own shoulder up rather than letting go of tension and allowing me to hold it): Relax, relax, relax [soothing voice of course].

Student (lying in Savasana): Mmmm 

Me (gently letting go of the shoulder, which stays in mid-air rather than fall to the ground because the student was the one holding it up anyway): Silence (speaks louder than words)

Student (opening eyes in surprise): I thought I was relaxing!

Aside from the fact that it must be slightly annoying to be told to relax when you think you are already relaxing it seems to me that this is one very powerful learning exercise in understanding how you can hold tension without even knowing it.

One of the joys of yoga is discovering yourself again.  This includes uncovering 'secrets' such as the secret tension you might be holding in parts of your body.  But tension does not have to be muscular.  We can also hold tension in our breathing patterns (e.g., when we hold our breath or it becomes laboured or forced), while the tension we hold in our minds is more often referred to as stress.

Savasana is a great opportunity to consciously relax body, breath, and mind, and, like all yoga postures, to go within and experience what it is like to be yourself from the inside.  There are many ways to practice savasana and many guided relaxations you can try.  I like Erich Schiffman's description of savasana (he writes shavasana) in his book, Moving into Stillness. I have extract parts of his guided savasana that might help you consciously relax for you to try below (see pp297-299 of his book).   You can read more from Erich's book at: 

  • Start in comfortable lying. 
  • Relax.  It feels like melting.  Do this by scanning your awareness around and through your body--the space inside your body and the space around your body--alert to where there is unnecessary contraction, discomfort, tension, or excessive energy.  Let go of every hint of holding on.
  • Start at your hands.  Rest your awareness in the area of your hands: the palms, thumbs, fingers, the space between your fingers, the fingertips, fingernails, the back of your hands, the wrists, the space inside your hands, and the space around your hands.  Forget about what they look like, what you remember they look like, and instead immerse your awareness in the way they actually feel to you now.  Go into your hands and feel them.  Gradually, you may begin to sense heat or warmth, then a pleasant, tingling, electricity-like sensation.  Feel the energy in your hands.
  • As your hands relax, feel them expanding.  Feel them becoming less dense, less thick, less contracted--more spacious inside, more comfortable.  Feel this happening and let them expand without limit.  Notice how as they relax and expand, hands aren't there. as though there's just wide open tingling space where your hands once were.  Enjoy the way this feels.
  • All this new sense of expanded and tingling openness to flow upward through your arms at its own leisurely pace, until your hands, arms, and shoulders feel tension-free, transparent, clear.  
  • Direct your attention to your fee.  Go into your fee and feel them.  Relax the sole of each foot, relax the arches, relax the spaces between the toes, the top of each foot, the ankles, the heels, the space inside your feet, and the space around your feet.  Feel the energy in your feet.  Again, forget about what they look like, what you remember they look like, and instead immerse your conscious awareness in the way they actually feel.
  • When the tingling sensation in your feet becomes established in your awareness as with your arms, now allow it to flow slowly upward through your legs, horse, and head--until your whole body is experiencing this pleasurable tingling vibration. 
  • Savor the way your legs feel: the ankles, calves, shinbones, knees, thighs, inner thighs, back of thighs, all the way up into the hips, pelvis, genitals, and buttocks.  Feel the energy in your your legs and pelvis, feel the space around your legs, and allow your awareness to roam through this whole area at its own comfortable pace.  Again, enjoy the way this feels, and allow yourself to be intrigued with your actual now-experience.  Forget about what your legs look like, and instead experience yourself and body as you actually are.  Experience your legs becoming transparent and clear.
  • Relax your abdomen and belly, and let your breathing be normal, free, unrestricted.  Feel your belly rise and fall with each breath, and experience how this gentle, continuous movement ripples through your whole body and can be felt everywhere.  Ride the breath.  Stay aware of your breathing.  Savour the air on both the inhale and exhale. 
  • Keep bringing your awareness slowly upward through your torso, and let the movement of your breathing relax your lower back, diaphragm, ribs, chest, heart.  let this whole area relax, expand, and become tension-free.  Release every hint of holding on.  Let go completely. 
  • Relax your neck, throat, face, and head.  Relax your moth, the corners of your moth, the lips, the jaw.  Relax your nose, your cheeks, your ears. the back of your head, the scalp, your forehead, your eyebrows, and especially your eyes.  Relax the muscles around the eyes, the muscles deep in the eye sockets, the inner corner of each eye, the outer corner, the space between the eyes, the eyelids, eyelashes, the eyeballs themselves, the pupils.  Be intimately aware of this whole area.  Soften every tension you come upon, even little ones, even just a little.  Relax areas that do not feel tense too. Relax everywhere, letting your eyes fall backward away from the eyelids. Let go of all the usual tensions that feel like you.  Feel the energy in your face.  Glow.  
  • Feel the space inside your body and the space around your body.  Notice that as you relax and expand, every tension evaporates, disappears.  It may even begin to feel as though your body isn't there, as though there's just wide open tingling space.  Be aware of what's happening.  You're releasing tensions, melting, and therefore expanding--everywhere.  You're deliberately letting go of all the lumps in your energy field, all the areas of compacted, held, blocked energy.  You're clarifying, purifying, washing yourself clean with awareness. Your actual now-experience of yourself is becoming, more and more, that of being less dense, less blocked or held in, less physical, in a sense, and increasingly transparent or luminous, more consciously spirit like.  Notice how comfortable you are, how awake and at ease, unusual perhaps at first, but normal, familiar.  it feels good to let yourself be this open.  Enjoy the way you feel. 
  • Continue releasing tensions until there are non left, until you feel wide open like the sky.  This spacious, conscious comfortableness is known as the "sky of mind", or pure conscious awareness, and relaxing into yourself like this is how you can consciously experience your unity with infinity.  Become thoroughly familiar with what it feels like to be this open, relaxed, fearless, and undefended.  Feel the peace of stillness.  
  • As you relax you will expand. You will begin to feel big, huge, spacious.  Pretty soon it will feel as though you--as awareness--are infinite; infinite in the sense of not finite, not limited, not what you thought you were, not body, only that you can't actually sent a limit or stopping point to where your consciousness is, to where you are--and that you are therefore not body only, nor body with mind, but the space, mind, or awareness in which everything you are aware of is happening.  You real body, therefore, is mental.  The sound of that airplane or barking dog for example is happening within your awareness.  Even your experience of having a body is happening within awareness.  Everything you are aware of is happening within your awareness.  And therefore, and this is the point, you are the Awareness in which everything is happening.  You are Awareness being specifically aware.  You are that big. You are infinite and specific, both at the same time.  Relax inside, expand, forget about yourself as body, and stay with your actual now-experience.  Experience yourself as huge, spacious, without limit, infinite.  Experience the peace of infinite Being.
  • Continue to relax, feel, and pay attention to see what happens.  
  • Stay for five to twenty minutes.  When you have had enough you will know. At that point, ready yourself and open your eyes.  Just before opening your eyes, be aware of how relaxed you are, how peaceful, how at ease, and then open your eyes without disturbing your peace, without shrinking or tightening up.  Stay relaxed, spacious, undefended, and wide open, and be like a child who is seeing the world for the very first time.  Look at things without being quite so sure what everything means.  Enjoy this awareness.  Then roll to your side, linger there a few moments, and come to a seated pose. 

Happy relaxing!

Monday, July 2, 2012

15 Minute Sequence To Build Arm Strength

I always admired Linda Hamilton's chin ups in Terminator 2.  When I was ten I could do chin ups myself thanks to my father who took me running and then to some monkey bars and got me to practice.  When I was about thirty I tried again and couldn't manage one.  But then again I used to do handstands without fear when I was ten too.  (I am not trying to create a link between your chin up capability and handstands although there probably is one.)

In any case, a certain amount of arm strength is required in yoga practice.  And I am talking about the entire arm from the fingers up through the wrists, across the elbows, shoulders, and into the shoulder blades.  For those of you who come to my classes you will note I count our arms as attaching to our waists (see monkey arms blog post) and so developing strength around your back and side waist mucles is part of arm strengthening for me. 

You don't need gorilla arms or body builder arms to practice yoga.  Yogic strength tends to be lithe and graceful rather than bulky. The 15 minute sequence I created (see clip above) should help you get some of the strength you need.  If you are very new to yoga and not used to bearing weight through your hands it is probably going to be too tough for you--mainly because your hands are likely not working effectively yet and you will be bearing weight through the wrists rather than evenly through the entire hands.  In this case it is best to maybe gradually build up to being about to holding downward dog for a few minutes without the feeling of pressure through the wrists and come back to this sequence when you are ready. Don't forget to read my previous post on using your hands effectively to take weight off the wrists as well. 

Even if you are a bit more experienced, you still might find this sequence a little tiring.  If that is the case, split it up or take more rests.  You can always take knee options as well.

Your practice should always be mindful but things to watch out for in particular in this type of sequence are:
  • cultivate lift through the hands so you are not sinking in the wrists
  • cultivate freedom in the elbows so they are straight but not locked
  • keep pressing the hands down into the floor so that you do not sag into your shoulder joints
  • keep the shoulders away from the ears, especially when lowering to the floor and rising up from it
Have fun and hope you enjoy the sequence.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Class Lowdown

I thought I'd give a quick rundown of classes at the moment.

We started our new Wednesday morning class.  It is beautiful to be up on the roof so early.  One week a monkey even dropped by to see what we were doing.  He took off light a rocket when we noticed him and disappeared into the jungles of Colombo 5 with a raucous group of crows in hot pursuit (I know it is a murder of crows but, really, they are very intelligent and, I think, much maligned and I am not quite happy calling them by such an unsavoury collective noun). 

The problem for many, of course is getting up early to realise how beautiful it is to be awake and present as the world around us wakes up.  Normally I might have a problem getting up so early since I work full-time, teach nearly every night, and find I need a good night's sleep, but I have been waking up in anticipation of this class each week and thoroughly enjoyed our sessions. 

These classes are tough.  You will sweat.  A lot.  Bring a towel and some water and hope for a breeze!  Even though the class is very challenging it should leave you feeling energised throughout the day. 

We have also started a new Thursday class, with the new sequence focusing on core awareness strengthening.  I am not a great fan of sit-ups and crunches and so I have tried to make this class interesting and fun so that we can find our core strength in a variety of different postures.  What I have noticed for myself after this class, and as Tilak (husband) pointed out after last week's class, is that the entire class is the perfect preparation for strong and stable handstands.  So, if you feel like springing into a handstand or two after class, feel free!!

Saturday classes have been growing, although last week we had a nice private session with just the three of us.  Normally Saturdays are pretty small though so they are the perfect opportunity for you to come to class with some suggestions about things you would like to do for yourself.  I am always happy to develop sequences based on your suggestions.  After all, it is your class!

We have had a whole lot of yoga first-timers coming on Fridays so if you are reading this and still sitting on the fence about joining a class because you are new then now is a great time to join up with others in a similar situation.  Having said this, anyone can join the Friday class at any time so please don't be shy.

I'd like to get back into some good strong flow sequences on Monday nights.  In this weather it means you are going to get hot.  So please remember to bring some water and a towel unless you want to be dripping all over your yoga mat. 

Anyway, hope you are all well and hope to see you in class soon.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Yoga Retreat in June at Talalla 1-4 June 2012


I am really happy to say that I am organising a yoga retreat weekend in Talalla over the first weekend in June, which happens to have a Monday as poya day.  This is going to be an extra special retreat over three days with 5 yoga classes.  Anyone who is interested in getting away for a weekend of yoga is free to come. I know there are some families out there who enjoy yoga and you are free to bring along the kids as there are lots of things to do (even a bit of yoga if they are interested). 

Talalla Retreat is a dedicated yoga retreat and a lovely place to do yoga, swim in the sea or the pool, and relax.  You can check it out at  If you have never been on a retreat before this is the perfect place to start!

Yoga Classes
Each yoga class will be two hours.  Don't worry--you will be able to do it!  This will include some simple meditation, pranayama (breathing), the asanas--including a nice long savasana at the end.  There is a lot of grass around so I expect we can start to practice some inversions (if you want to) outside as well.

Prices include all taxes, 5 yoga classes, 3 nights accommodation, and brunch and dinner.

Triple = Rs22,000 per person
Double = Rs26,000 per person
Single = Rs35,000 per person

The retreat will start with arrivals on Friday night and finish after class and brunch on Monday morning. 

Arrive Friday night 1st June for dinner.  Relax!

2nd June Sat 7-9am  - yoga followed by big brunch
2nd June Sat 4-6pm - yoga followed by dinner

3rd June Sun 7-9am - yoga followed by big brunch
3rd June Sun 4-6pm - yoga followed by dinner

4th June Mon 7-9am - yoga followed by brunch

We need to book and pay in advance to confirm.  Talalla is quite a busy international yoga retreat with lots of bookings so we need to confirm soon.  This retreat requires a minimum of ten people to go ahead but it is such a great place I don't think we will have a problem.  Please reserve your place by sending me a message and paying to confirm. We need to pay by the middle of next week to have our booking confirmed.  If you cannot make it you will need to find a person to replace you.  Please feel free to pass this on to friends!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Don't have a cow: Reduce pain in your wrists in yoga poses

Cow pose (not shown here but I couldn't resist these pics of cows doing yoga) is one of the most common beginner's
postures and is also one where yogis might first encounter wrist pain

It has become very clear to me that when new students come to yoga class the portion of my brain dedicated to recall of names drifts off and starts doing complicated inversions.  I had been calling a student named Sanjeewa Sanjay for a long time before someone else kindly pointed out his real name.  I think I was calling Udeni Upeksha for a few months before her friend quietly came up to me after class one day to politely point out my ongoing error.  I was so proud to have remembered Arosha's name that I used to call her name out all the time.  About a year later she told me it was Aroshi.  In any case, if you have been coming to yoga for a long time now and I have failed to call you anything then I think it is safe to say that your name is suspended in neon lights on a billboard out there that I just can't seem to read and I'd be more than happy if you told me, or, if you are too shy, just came up to class wearing a name badge for a little that you display prominently on your mat.  Ditto if I have been branding you with a secret yoga alias.

That said, while I seem to have some semantic blockage (which I am trying to fix with some training in arbitrary mnemonics), the thing I have found most new students have difficulty with when turning up to class is with taking pressure off of their wrists. 

When you start out yoga (at least in my classes) we spend a bit of time on all fours, first in cat/cow variations and later in adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog). 

Cat-cow pose--many students find this tires their wrists out

The cat/cow variations look like a piece of cake.  How hard can it be to be on your hands and knees for a few minutes?  Don't babies spend months there?  But as most of us soon find out babies seem to be much better at yoga than us and pretty soon the wrists start to ache.  The most common question I have after class is what to do about sore wrists, which makes me very happy. Not the bit about wrist pain but the fact that someone identifies an issue and asks me questions.  Yoga shouldn't be painful so if it is then we need to do something about it!

There are many reasons your wrists can be sore when you practice yoga.  I, for instance, fell off a rock climbing wall many years back and landed on my outstretched wrist.  It has not been the same since.  Some people also have diagnosed wrist conditions that are aggravated by placing weight through the wrist joint (if you fall into the category of people with known conditions then please do let me know--I always need to know about injuries or conditions).  Injuries and medical conditions notwithstanding, I think it is fairly safe to say that one of the most common reasons for wrist pain is that most of us do not know how to use our hands, forearms, and upper body properly to generate a feeling of lift and to distribute weight evenly throughout the hand.

Try the following suggestions the next time you try the cat-cow pose combination). 

Mindful Placement
So much of yoga is about being mindful.  Whenever you place your hands on the ground, do so mindfully.  If you look at the back of your wrists and bend your wrist backwards you will see lots of little lines running from one side to the other.  These creases of your wrist should be parallel to the top of your yoga mat.  Your middle finger will end up pointing roughly straight ahead (not completely).  Spread your fingers apart comfortably and lengthen them into the floor.

With your hands correctly positioned, it is time to generate lift. 

Generating Lift
I can't think of a yoga pose offhand where you are not trying to generate lift.  This does not mean we are trying to fly or levitate as we practice--we are still firmly connected to the ground.  It simply means that we need to use our connection to the ground and align ourselves in such a way that we are not simply sinking downwards. 

To generate lift we need to be mindful (there's that word again) of the natural arches that exist throughout our body.  The arches all of us would be most familiar with are the arches of the feet (even if you are flat-footed you will be aware of the absence of a well defined arch) and, to a lesser extent, the arches in your spine.  What you might not be aware of is the fact that your hand has natural arches too.  

The arches in your hand are important.  Without them you would find it very difficult to do things with your hands.  If you turn your palm up to the sky, hold your hand loosely, and bring your wrist up to eye level you will see there are dips and mounds on the surface of your palm--it is not flat.  As you practice yoga, therefore, you do not want to practice "flat-handed".

To cultivate the arches through your hands as you practice, I like to envisage that I am trying to pick up the floor or a very large ball (say a basketball) with my hand.  The point about this is that to pick up the ball or the floor you would first need to spread the mounds of your knuckles wide.  You would need stretch your fingers long, and press down through your fingertips.  Then, once you have your "grip" you'd then need to lift up. Imagine your hand as a suction cup--stuck to the floor around the edges but sucking up through the centre.  There is no way you would ever be able to pick up the floor or a ball if you only pressed down through your wrists. 

This is not the whole story though.  When you generate lift like this, what you will notice is that the mounds of your fingers (below your knuckles) have a tendency to lift off the ground, as do the fingers themselves.  The next step is to engage through the mounds of your fingers.

The Mounds of the Fingers
When you cultivate the arches of your hand, the mounds of your fingers will undoubtedly lift off as will the fingers and you will find yourself connected only through the fingertips.  This is normal due to the structure of your hand. 

Once you have generated your lift then, you need to try to press the mounds of your fingers down into the floor without collapsing the arch structure entirely.  

Most people find that the base of their index finger is tough to keep down.  Be mindful (there I go again) of not letting it become a habit to let it float in mid-air.  To help keep the index finger mound down bring try to roll your wrist and hand from the outer corner of your wrist in a diagonal towards the mound of the index finger.  This action is coming from your forearm, just above your wrist, and you should see that your forearm rolls in (pronates) when you do this. 

This is good to practice because if you get into the habit of putting too much pressure on the outside edge of the hand and letting the mound of the index finger stay airborne you will find it difficult to do some of the more advanced postures (especially handstand).
Props and Modifications
There are other strategies to minimise pressure on the wrists.  These include:
  • making a fist in certain poses such as cat-cow and plank (I had to do this when I had my wrist injury),
  • being on your forearms instead of your wrists (such as forearm plank or forearm downward dog), 
  • making a little wedge or hill on your yoga mat to elevate the wrists slightly and send more weight down into the base of your knuckles and fingers (you could fold up a hand towel),
  • placing your wrists slightly in front of your shoulders rather than beneath your shoulders (which will change the angle of the joint and make the stretch less extreme)
  • practice 'Namaste' at your chest, pressing your hands together and keeping your wrists in contact as you draw your palms down towards your navel without letting the wrists come apart (to stretch across the palm side of your wrists if this is tight)
I am happy to explore these options with you in class if you are still experiencing wrist issues.  If you are not a one of my students then your own yoga teacher will surely be able to help!

You'll no doubt find using your hands and forearms correctly is hard work.  Spreading your weight evenly through your hands is tough and first when you are used to working that way, but, as with everything, with practice it will come.

A discussion about how you use your hands is not really complete without thinking about what is happening around your shoulder blades (scapulae), shoulders, and elbow joints but I will have to save that for another post.  Suffice it to say that no part of your body works in isolation and you will find that a lot of stress can be removed from your wrists if you are using the rest of your body correctly.

For now, happy and safe practicing!