Sunday, September 29, 2013

Key Points For Evaluating A 'Good' Practice

The most important thing to me at the end of a yoga class is that I feel good.  As a teacher, I want my students to feel good as well.

I try to make this clear by asking how people feel at the end of the class and by reminding people if that they don't feel good, or if (gulp) they somehow feel worse than when they came into class, that they should come and talk to me so we can try and nut out what might be going wrong.

Feeling good is understood differently by different people.  And sometimes things that might feel good while we are doing them can actually have harmful consequences.  Here I am thinking, for example, of people engaged in addictive activities that ultimately lead to suffering for themselves or others.   

So I thought it might be good to explore what it is I mean when I say do you feel good and I came up with the 5 points below.

1. You feel like you have done something but you don't feel exhausted or like you need to go and relax because you have done yoga.  Instead you feel energised.

This is an important point.  It means you come to the end of your practice without feeling like you need to 'recover' from the yoga session.  In my recent practice it means I also practice in a way that is nourishing and which means I hardly feel the need to do savasana. Instead of needing to lie down and relax, I feel like I can sit and mediate peacefully.  

2. You feel energised in a way that makes you feel calm, focussed, and relaxed rather than 'buzzing'.

I want to suggest that the 'energy' you feel is one that focusses you and allows you to feel like you can go away and do things in a calm way.  It is not an electric or buzzing 'high' that might be more of a feeling that you have over-stimulated your nervous system.

3. The relaxation you feel is not one that makes you sleepy, scattered or spaced out. 

By the same token, I want you to feel relaxed but not sleepy.  Don't worry if you do fall asleep if you do savasana--it might mean other things are going on.  It is just that I am hoping that your yoga practice has not been so dull (and I mean this in a nervous system way not in the sense of being boring) that you  are under-stimulated or, conversely, that you have worked so hard in class that you need to 'sleep off' your practice. 

4. You feel content with where you are right now and with what you have done.

This is really important.  A part of being content means worrying less about whether you are doing things perfectly or whether you can do everything.  See if you can find contentment in every moment of just being.

5. The body is relaxed in a way that you can move without pain or stiffness (or with less pain and stiffness than you came to class with and certainly not more).
At the end of a physical yoga practice one of my aims is that you have moved your body in specific ways that unblocks any blockages and which allows energy to move through you so that you physically feel good.  If you have pains or aches that are present after class that were not present before class then we need to figure out why so please come and talk to me (or your other teachers). 

Notice how none of the points mentioned above have anything to do with what poses you did, how much you sweated,  how many calories you burned, how deeply you came into a posture, how flat your stomach is (I know people worry about this--my blog posts that have something about stomach in the title are always the most read!), or how long you practiced for.  None of those things will make you a better person and, ultimately, will probably not make much difference to your life.  

Ultimately, I practice because I want to feel good, happy, and healthy.  I want to be a kinder more generous person to myself and to others.  So in my practice I feel for those things.  I feel for them as I practice and at the end of my practice.  

In following posts I will explain some of the 'hows' to generating a practice that makes leaves you feeling good.  Until then, happy and safe practicing!

Much metta,

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Way To Turn The Neck Without Squashing It

***This is a repost of an article I previously wrote on my Australian blog:  I am sharing it here for my Sri Lankan students who may not have viewed the article.***

There are many ways to move and I tend to encourage finding ways to move that help you find freedom.

If your neck is squashing when you turn it then you are not in freedom.  In this post I want to offer a way to turn the head and neck so it is free rather than squashed.

I learned these tips from courses and classes with Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss of Yoga Synergy.  It is always good to go direct to the source so please take a class or log onto their website for lots of interesting stuff.

I previously posted on a way to move your shoulders to free your neck.  In that post it was suggested you can move your armpits down towards your waist so the upper shoulders and neck can move more easily.

I am one of those people with neck issues, which is perhaps why I like to post about freeing it.

I like to think my neck issues started courtesy of a man who did not give way to me riding on my bicycle and smashed into me.  This resulted in my head spearing through the windscreen of his car.  I thank the bike police (who'd caught me riding without a helmet a few weeks previously and who put the fear of spinal injury into me with their caution) for saving my life.

The man was also nice about it and, after staying around to peel me off the road (where it appeared that I  had only experienced a few seconds of unconsciousness and a few scratches), he drove me to uni and fixed my bike.

Anyway, since then I have experienced 'weirdness' in the upper spine.  I don't know what it is, and am not inclined to have scans, so I just call it weird since it is not normal and go about helping myself with yoga.

I do know that if I don't turn my head mindfully, to the left in particular, sometimes it jams up and I have had weird (that word again!) sorts of spasms occasionally.

Even if you have never head-butted a windscreen, chances are your neck is an area that can feel stiff and problematic due to the way most of us tend to move and work.

That said, I was really glad to discover the way of turning the head to the side that I describe below.  It creates space on both sides of the neck, lengthening the side you turn to rather than jamming it.

The Short of It
If you just turn your head to the side the side of the neck in the direction you are facing shortens or squashes.

To prevent this squashing bring your chin towards the middle of the throat before your turn.  Then, once your head has turned towards the shoulder, move the ear away from the shoulder you are looking towards.

It's pretty much that simple.

The Long of It (Applied To Postures)
There are lots of postures where you turn your head to the side, although you might not think of them that way.

The basic twisting postures are obvious ones--usually the torso turns and then the head turns to look over one shoulder.  It is often the back shoulder but can be the front.

You don't actually have to turn the head--you can keep it in line with the centre of the chest (which is in line with the spine)--but most of us will turn it and often turn it excessively.

Excessive turning of the neck is because the neck is much more mobile in turning (rotation) than the rest of the spine so you will feel like you are twisting more if you turn your head more.

And while it might be good for the ego remember it is not our ego you are practicing for.

A spinal twist should be a twist from the whole spine from the base up rather than a big twist at the neck.

Aside from the more traditional and obvious twists, there are other postures that we turn our head in.

Trikonasana and parsvakonasana are two of them.

These are two postures where students typically feel discomfort in their neck if they do not hold it right.

I believe this is because many of us turn the head to look up in those postures without thinking about what it is doing to the neck.

You must remember that when you look up in these postures you are actually turning the neck so the basic principles I outline here are relevant.

So what to do about this pain in the side of the neck when turning it to the side?

Look for freedom rather than squashing
The main thing to remember in any posture is you are looking for a feeling of comfort.  In the neck you don't want to feel squashed or restricted in any direction.  Being mindful of this is the first thing you can do for yourself: if you notice squashing then do something about it.

Move slowly and smoothly
You can also make sure that you move slowly and smoothly.  Moving slowly and smoothly is part of mindful movement and you will be able to stop before any discomfort arises.

Initiate movement from the base up
To help reinforce mindful movement you can try initiating your movements from the base of the spine first and moving the neck and head last.  That is, in a twist you could try initiating movement from the navel, lower ribs, chest, collarbones first and then mindfully position the head.

Position the neck and head: Chin in, ear away from the shoulder you are looking towards
With mindful, slow, smooth movement that is initiated from the base up you can then make sure that when you turn your head to the side you move the chin towards the shoulder you are looking towards and the ear away from it.

Whenever you turn your head to the side you are likely to squash the side you are turning towards.

A basic principle in yoga is to lengthen without squashing.

To avoid squashing the neck when you turn it to the side, keep the chin in and move the ear away from the shoulder you are turning towards.

It helps to be mindful that you might be squashing, and to move slowly, smoothly, and from the bottom of the spine to the top.

I hope this trick helps you find freedom.  Please do not do anything that causes discomfort and talk to your yoga teacher if you need help.

Happy and safe practicing!