Friday, December 26, 2014

Backbends Two Ways

I have written about armpits many times before.  There are more things to talk about with regards to actions at the shoulder joints but the armpits are so key and I have focussed on them in our course.

One of the key things to appreciate is that how you use your armpits, depending on shoulder position, can impact on the spine.  If you take your arms overhead, I take armpits forward and up and NOT down and back.

In an overhead position armpits forward and up will help create length in the spine.

If you take them down and back while arms are overhead, or even down, you get a shortening feeling around your sides and back.

To come into more difficult postures where the arms are overhead you need to free up your armpits so the spine can move freely.

Some backbends happen with the arms below shoulder height, like ustrasana or bhujangasana for instance.  In those types of positions, because arms are not overhead, I take armpits down and back.  The video below shows how I can do backbends with armpits down and back, as I would in backbends like bhujangasana, or forward and up, such as I would in urdhva dhanurasana.

In the video I also show how you can actually come into a pose like urdhva dhanurasana with armpits either towards ears or with armpits towards hips.  I do this to illustrate a point that it can be done, not necessarily that it should be done.

As I show, because I have a fairly fluid spine it does not create difficulty for me to come into an overhead backbend like urdhva dhanurasana with armpits down.  But it does not feel as good as it could either.

The thing is most people (either coming to yoga or not) tend to be stiff in their spine in general, and move most from their lower back.

Doing urdhva dhanurasana with the armpits to the hips (downs and back) can reinforce the shortening many people already experience.

So, in my classes I encourage armpits to ears to generate the length in the spine.

Again, because I am fairly mobile around my armpit area, especially when I take them overhead, I can easily come up into a full backbend with armpits to ears.

People who are tighter around the armpits will find that they cannot come up so easily and I suggest you only come up to the point where you feel at ease in your spine.  This might mean the shoulders barely come off the floor and you just lift a little, as I also show in the video.

These are not things to practice without the guidance of an experienced practitioner so I encourage you to go to one.  I would encourage you to feel in your own body what is going on and if you come out of a backbend with a sore lower back to question what has gone on to create that as it should not be squashing.

In our classes this week we also looked at some of the basic movements at the shoulder joint--shoulders rolling in and shoulders rolling out.  We looked at how these movements can cause associated movements in the upper back (thoracic spine).  We looked at how these associated movements can be over-ridden if we call attention to them.

For instance, rolling the shoulders in tends to cause the upper spine to round as though bending forward.  We can try to lift the chest softly to help bring the spine back to upright.

When rolling the shoulders out it tends to cause the upper spine to arch as though back bending but that we can also over-ride this if we are conscious of it by softly drawing the lower ribs in.

Understanding these associated movements will help you learn to move your spine independently of shoulders for better and more active spinal movement.  I will post more about this later.  The armpits are a lot to think about already!

I had to laugh at myself when I re-watched the video.  I am not sure how my voice turned into a David Attenbourough-esque commentary.  Perhaps it is because I feel so wonderfully passionate and when that happens and you try to explain something it does something funny to your voice.  Well, to mine anyway,  Also to my eyebrows!

We will practice these actions in my classes, workshops, and retreats in Canberra, Colombo, and Bali.   I'd love to have you along.

Great work all.  Happy and safe practicing.

Much metta,

Chair Yoga For My Gran

Gran, this is for you!

Here, I show some basic shoulder, elbow, and wrist/finger movements to help move blood through your body to warm you up and improve mobility.  There are some moves that will help your brain get co-ordinated too!

Position yourself carefully with ankles under knees.  Sit towards the middle or edge of your chair.

Move slowly.  Nothing should hurt.  Do less than me if you need.  Breathe naturally.  Relax your face.  Be calm.  Enjoy moving.

At the end just close your eyes and see if you can feel that your shoulders are warmer, your upper back is warmer, maybe even your finger tips are warmer.

Why Get Out Of Bed For Yoga?

I teach yoga as I love getting outside, I love showing people what they can do to move more freely, to see the joy in people's faces as they learn, to move out of pain and suffering, to be a better and kinder person. 

The other day I was asked a question. What makes you want to get out of bed to do yoga?

The truth is, while I am a teacher of hatha (physical) yoga, I don’t always want to get out of bed to do this yoga. 

I suppose sometimes people think teachers must just be itching to get out of bed to go and do their practice.  But there are days where I just want to sleep or linger or snuggle—especially in winter!

When I was first starting my ‘serious’ yoga I would have thought there was something wrong with thinking like that.  It was because I had a narrow conception of yoga and because I had (?still have) a slight tendency towards rigidity or control in certain areas of my life. 

This was the phase of my practice where I thought I must do my yoga every day and that I must do it for a certain amount of time (anything less than an hour was considered slacker territory). 

What this meant was that I made great improvements in terms of my physical practice (as you surely must when you practice 60-90 minutes a day).  But I also felt guilty or ashamed of myself for lack of discipline if I did not practice (though this was rare).  There was also fear that if I did not practice I might ‘backslide’ or something. 

Throughout this time I was mainly doing self practice due to being in a remote location where a civil war was going on.  I was very fortunate that I had met my teacher by then and her words would echo through my practice.  Words about free spinal movement.  About not feeling tension or strain (thanks Paddy).  This meant I did not injure myself. 

I learned to do the splits and backdrops and all sorts of interesting things upside down.  I was very pleased with myself.  But there was still this controlling and guilt element that crept into my thinking about practice.  I knew I was missing something here. 

Things changed a lot for me when I heard my other teacher, Simon, whisper some words before a group practice.

“The main purpose of this practice,” he said, “is to move circulation and energy through your body.”

The words were a missing piece of the puzzle (there are more and I will keep putting them in place). 

Today I say these words before every class I teach.  I mean them.  I must sound like a robot to my students and sometimes I think they must have heard it a million times maybe today I will say something else or nothing.  But I don’t.  I always say them.  They are just too important.

I stand there and I think to myself.  Right, I have this body and it is designed to move and to be healthy it needs to move in a way that is going to make it feel good.  And I remind myself to distinguish between that which makes my body feel good in and of itself rather than some sort of ‘feel good’ of the ego that comes with flashy poses. 

When I remind myself about this purpose it is a reminder to myself to be honest about whether these movements, whatever I am doing, free up my body so that it feels elegant, light, and warm.  So that any niggly aches and pains dissipate. 

When I practice like this I can generally do ‘stronger things’ but feel more at ease. 

When I practice without force or strain or too much desire then it also helps my mind become much clearer.  By the end of such a practice I feel more connected to my body, any troubling thoughts or life circumstances feel much more manageable, and I am somehow able to be a better and kinder person to others.

And you know, for me that is a driving force.  To practice in a way that helps you move away from pain and suffering so that you can be a more stable person for friends, family, and people you do not even know.

I know it sounds like I am going on a bit of a roundabout way to answer a seemingly simple question but it gets back to the heart of the question for me.  I promise.

You see, aside from teaching around 10 classes a week, along with my own practice, I also work full time as an occupational therapist with children with autism and their families.  I also live with my sister and her family, including my nieces. 

What this means is that some mornings I get up and I want to practice my hatha yoga.  I’ll head out to the balcony and my niece will get up all ready to play.  There I have a decision.  Am I going to tell her to go away or do I use this interaction as an opportunity to practice my yoga.  To enhance my connection to self and others.  So although I have a strong desire to get the kinks out I might make toilet roll fairies or do Willy Wonka puzzles or even show her a few down dogs if she is interested. 

Or I might get up all keen for a practice but I realize I have some kids to see at work who need some extra input.  So I spend that time re-writing my therapy activity plans or researching some new ideas.

The key is I can now do this without resentment, guilt, or a feeling that I am somehow not doing my yoga. 

To me this is a type of karma yoga.  You know, a yoga of service.  And it is delightful. 

I can only do this because of the change in mindset.  Because I changed my ideas about the main purpose of my practice, I know that I can also slip in 5-10 minutes of circulation/energy moving sequences into my day.  Longer if time allows later in the day.  But I do not feel bound to a 60-minute practice just for the sake of it. 

My physical practice is very important to me.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have twisted vertebrae and without it I would be in a lot of pain.  This means I am very motivated to do some form of physical practice every day, which is perhaps a more obvious answer to the initial question.  That is, I get out of bed to do yoga so I am not in pain.

Now, having taken you on a walk around some of the thought pathways of my practice, some of the other reasons I get out of bed to practice include:
·      The joy of being awake in the early hours where it is just the birds, a few other early risers, the morning stillness, and me.
·      For the love of fresh air.  I practice mainly outside—even in winter where I can.  I really believe in the positive health benefits of fresh air so much so that I stopped teaching some classes in a yoga studio because I found myself wanting to tell everyone they should get out and enjoy the sun!
·      For the love of teaching.  I enjoy teaching people about movement.  I love seeing people make a deep connection to the possibility of free movement, especially in their spine.  I also enjoy being my own teacher.  Working down to the more subtle layers of what is going on inside.  It makes me feel like a small child delighting and in awe of the smallest of discoveries. 

With that said.  All this writing has inspired me to get out and move!  If this has inspired you to move then join me for a class, find a good teacher near you, or join me in Bali in April 2015 where I am pairing up with Art of Life Retreats for a 7 day yoga retreat (more details soon!).  

Happy and safe practicing to you all.

Padmasana Without Hands

Here I wanted to introduce you to my friend Ramali so that you can see how a more natural bodied person can come into a pose like padmasana (lotus) with ease and without hands.

Ramali can come into padmasana with as much grace and ease as she can fold her arms. 

When Ramali first came to my classes I was able to do padmasana—using my hands though. 

I would go through all of those ‘cradling’ the hip type poses to ‘warm up’ my hips and ‘open’ them and then carefully place the legs into padmasana. 

Actually, I understood this was not the best approach as my own teacher, Paddy McGrath (, always guided us to work into padmasana without using our hands.

Paddy would tell us to use the intelligence of our legs and move our legs using the muscles of our legs.

I would dutifully try and could always manage to get one leg in but the other leg sort of lay there like a dead fish.  Attached to the notion of padmasana I would use my hand to put the second leg in place.  

Then Ramali came to class one day and it was time for sitting meditation at the end of the class and there I was saying to everyone do your best not to use your arms and showing my one-legged version.  Ramali neatly and quickly and modestly just popped both legs into position without batting an eyelid.  

It was a great moment of realization and humility for me and from that time on I said, well, no more padmasana for me.  I won’t continue along this path of fooling myself padmasana is a pose for me. 

 It did not mean I gave up on the pose altogether, although I abandoned practicing it for many months. 

Instead, I went about my normal practice of active movements with the usual standing hip opening poses (forward bends, lunges, trikonasana variations, warrior variations, gadjastan variations) as well as moving actively (no hands) into sitting poses. 

I made sure to actively externally rotate the hip that should be externally rotated in those postures.   I made sure to remain active in the pose so I did not sink into my hips.  I used principles of activating muscles while in lengthened positions.

This was part of my regular practice. 

And then one day, several months later, I thought I might just try padmasana again. 

Voila.  My legs went into the pose of their own accord. 

Now, my legs still do not go into padmasana with as much ease as Ramali’s do. 

While I can do it first thing in the morning, with no preceding warm ups or movements, as you can see in the video I still have a slight ‘sawing’ action to get there.  

Ramali takes her legs into position in two smooth movements. 

I wrote this post not to dishearten.  But for you to think about the truth and reality of what your body is able to do of it’s own accord. 

Based on ideas of active movements and trying not to force your body into position I encourage students to try to move their legs into postures using just their legs. 

One of the reasons is that there is always the risk of damage to your knees if you are really straining to get into position.

Ramali is one of the few people I have met (Georgie in Australia, you are another one!) who have always been able to perform these movements so smoothly.  I am very fortunate to have come across them and have the good sense to watch and learn from what their bodies had to teach me.  Thanks guys!

Perhaps you can watch and learn as well.  

Happy and safe practicing.

Handstand At Ease

Here I wanted to share a way of coming into handstand and being in a handstand where I feel at ease in my spine especially.

My teachers always taught that the spine should feel long and free.

What I do in this handstand is try to capture a feeling in my spine that is like I am standing with my arms reaching overhead.  Only instead of the weight being on my feet I put the weight on my hands.

To do this handstand I do a few key things.

First, I lengthen the lower back by moving sitting bones down towards my heels and gently moving top of pelvis back.

Then I do a sit up in my tummy.  This is the type of sit up you do where you get firm in the middle and soft in the sides and where you feel as though you can still breathe in a way that the tummy will move.  I recommend that you read Simon Borg Olivier's blogpost on is it correct to pull navel to spine to understand what I am doing here (see:

Third, I keep that sit up in my tummy and reach my arms out as far as possible.  If I were in standing it would be like I was reaching for something off a really high shelf.  The arms move forward and upward.

On the ground I really push my hands downwards into the floor.  I feel for my shoulder blades wrapping around the spine.  I try to roll my outer armpits to my face.  I grip with my fingertips as though I am trying to make a fist with my hands.

I try and keep my neck free.

I breathe.  I check that I feel firm but calm.

I lean more into my hands but it does not feel like I am sinking as I keep pushing downwards which makes me feel like I am lifting upwards.

I walk my feet in if I need to see if I can get more of my hips over my shoulders.

I don't sink into my shoulders.  I keep pushing the floor away.

I keep the sit up in my tummy but I can still breathe there.

I bring more weight over my hands and keep my tummy firm and my feet naturally come onto the tip toes.  They are light on the ground.

I take a leg up and do a little tap with the grounded foot.  If I don't come up I try again.

My legs might come up.  Maybe they don't.  If they do and I am up there I keep the fingertips pressing, keep breathing, relax my face, and try to feel for the lightness in the spine.

This is a spinal releasing posture for me.  It feels lovely and free on my back.

This post is intended for my students who are working on this pose.  It is best not to work on more advanced postures like this without the guidance of a teacher.  You need to make sure your shoulders and wrists and tummy are mobile and strong enough so you do not strain or injure.

We will work on this type of posture in upcoming retreats, classes, and workshops in Canberra, Colombo, and Bali. Looking forward to sharing with you in person.

Happy and safe practicing.