Sunday, August 23, 2015

Better Backbends: Make Them Active

By better I mean backbends that will strengthen and mobilise the spine without squashing.  If you feel squashing in any part you are in some other pose and not in the one I am feeling for.

I was inspired to write this post because I started circus classes recently.  Just to try something different.

Me practicing some a
ctive movement on the trapeze
One of the first things they were teaching me was to hang upside down and do a backbend.  To me it was like a version of ustrasana or dhanurasana with my legs hooked around the bar.

It looked a bit like this.

Circus is a lot about performance and so my hands should probably look more elegant, but those who know me will appreciate I am more functional than glamour.  

Turn the trapeze pose sideways and it would look a little like
this active variation of dhanurasana 
But you can see how if I had my tummy on the ground that pose on the trapeze would look a little like this one.
This is active spinal extension.  I am lengthening without squashing.  My butt and hamstrings are very active as well.  To hang onto that trapeze I need good hamstring activation or I will fall off and that would not be a good look (even if I am about function over looks I don't want to face plant!). 

A good yoga practice should include a lot of active movement so you strengthen rather than pull yourself passively into postures.  

When I teach dhanurasana I teach it using active movements that will help you strengthen your entire back body in a way that lengthens rather than squashes.  Watch the video below that will show the active movements where I hold position without my hands and then read the step by step instructions.  

As always, this is intended to help students that practice with me.  It is better to learn from an actual teacher who is beside you rather than the internet.  Do not strain or do anything that hurts.  Move slowly.  

One of the great things about doing this sequence actively is that you still have something to work on if you cannot reach your ankle as it is not essential to hold the leg at all. 

Video Sequence
The sequence below is what I tend to teach towards the end of our practice.  

When practiced without squashing you should not feel the desperate 'need' to do a counterpose in any yoga posture.  

If you have squashed or over-tensed it is definitely beneficial to try active spinal flexion (firm the tummy so you can still breathe in it).  

I show a transition to down dog at the end and then down dog.  I am firming my tummy in those postures and lengthening the back of my spine. 

Step-by-step instructions
I have deconstructed the video sequence below. 

Draw heel to bottom
I start lying down comfortably.  I get a feeling I am doing a sit up in my tummy.  I draw a heel to my bottom.  I am breathing naturally.

Lengthen arm forward and upwards from armpit
Maintaining previous actions I reach forward as far as I can as I come up.  

Reach arm back towards foot
I take the arm towards the back foot.  I can stay here.  I do not need to take the ankle.  

The photo shows clearly that my hand is beside my foot.  That is a good clue that I have enough spinal extension and sufficient strength in my hamstrings to move to the next stage. 

If you cannot have your hand close to your foot then you just skip the next step and do the rest of the sequence without holding your ankle. 

Hold ankle, pressing shin into hand
I will say it again.  If you cannot hold actively in the posture then do not take the foot.  Just stay in the previous posture (where you will be working quite hard).

When two body parts touch I use an action of them pressing into one another.  Here that means once I have the ankle I push the shin into the hand (as though trying to straighten the leg) as I try to bend my elbow.  

I am not trying to passively pull my foot closer to my bottom.  

If there is any strain in the knee at all then let go and do the previous posture. 

Reach forward and upward opposite arm
I reach forward with the opposite arm then up.  At the same time I reach back with the opposite foot and lift.  

For those that can handle a more subtle cue, I try to reach out through that back foot while at the same time feel as though I am drawing the front of that thigh towards my front ribs.  

I am also doing a sit up in my tummy in a way that I can still breathe. 

Out, up and away!
I continue with all previous actions, moving out, up, and away.  Importantly, I try to distribute the curve through my spine so that it is not concentrated around the lower back. 

I work on trying to do a sit up in my tummy.

Release and hold position
Stay in the same position but just real ease your back foot.  

You should not 'spring out' too much.  One of the anatomical purposes of this posture is to be able to hold the position without using your hands!

Do the other side.

Both heels to bottom
You can guess what is coming next!  That's right.  Both legs!

Start by bringing both heels to bottom. 

Both arms reach out and up
Reach out and up through the arms.  The chest needs to lengthen forward and up. 

Both arms reach back
Then reach the hands back towards the shins/ankles.

Hold ankles
You only hold the feet if you can reach there without strain.  Also, I recommend that you know you are ready to reach the feet when you can take them simultaneously rather than having to grab at them.  In class I joke that this you should try not to waddle around like an elephant seal to fiddle your way into the posture.

Press shins into hands
I press shins into hands as though trying to straighten the legs while trying to bend my elbows.

I have my shoulders rolling out.  

Lift feet
I press my feet upwards. 

Lengthen through chest
I try to distribute the curve evenly through my spine, lengthening through the upper back area.  

I am doing a sit-up in my tummy in a way that I can still breathe there. 

Release and hold position
Then try to hold the same position but let your hands go!  Try not to spring away!

Hands beside waist
Take your hands back towards your waist.  Elbows press back and squeeze together.  Sit up in my tummy.  

Press hands down and forward, elbows together and back and come up.   A sit up in my tummy.  Trying to drag my knees forward as though trying to bend my hips.  Allow your pelvis to come away from the floor so there is no squashing. 

Knees to chest
Sit back to your heels then lift your knees into your chest, trying to hug them in as close as possible.  

Down dog
Press the heels back, keep the sit up in your tummy, and come into downward facing dog. 

Once you have all of this in place, you can start to work on more shoulder mobility to come into the fuller dhanurasana but that requires tremendous and careful practice for a long time for most people. 

My yoga teacher has amazing spinal mobility and this type of posture would have her head touching her feet or having her legs straight up to the sky while she hold onto her ankles.  I am still a novice and quite stiff and weak comparatively.  But we all work to our own bodies and best not to compare yourself.  That is why I suggest trying the active version with no need to even hold the ankle at all!

Have fun.  Move slowly.  Tense less.  Stretch less.  Think less.  Breathe less.  

This is the type of practice I encourage in my outdoor classes in Canberra and retreats in Sri Lanka.  Come along if you like!

Happy and safe practicing.  

Much metta!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Best Ever Shoulder Stabilising, Mobilising and Strengthening Sequence!

Well, that is a pretty bold claim I know.  If it is not the best ever it is certainly one of the best I have found that you can practice within a yoga sequence.

This is a little sequence we are practicing in my Canberra outdoor yoga classes.  

It is something new that I inserted in the past few weeks and it has certainly vamped up some people's practice.  

The final pose is not new itself--we have always been practicing some version of pincha mayurasana or horn stand. 

What is new is the way we come into it. 

I am mindful of not always coming into postures the same way.  

This helps me feel things differently and also to keep me learning.  I like to think it helps prevent bad habits from keeping into my practice as well.

Inserting this into my classes has helped to shake up the practice of a lot of students, in a good way!  

It helps you understand a little bit more about the strength, mobility, and stability around the shoulder joint complex.

It is also another nice way to come into downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) that keeps your spine light and free and I feel it is worth practicing just the transition from balasana to down dog just for that spinal freedom. 

As always, this post is intended for my students.  I believe it is best to learn from a physical teacher not a virtual one through the internet.   I will be teaching these little spinal freeing techniques and some foundational shoulder mobilising and stabilising techniques in my upcoming yoga retreat in Sri Lanka as well.  

Watch the video then check out the step by step sequencing.  Do not do anything that hurts.  Move slowly.  Stretch less, tense less, and see if you can breathe and think less as well.  Be comfortable and feel like you are doing something but without strain. 

Video sequence

The video shows the transition from balasana, then to downward dog. From there I bend my elbows simultaneously to come down onto my forearms.  Then I straighten them simultaneously to come back to downward dog, pull my knees into my chest, and lower my butt back to my heels.

That is a nice little sequence itself and we do it naturally in our practice at a few points and you could try it, for example, within a suriya namaskar if you want to insert it into your own home practice. 

If you are up to that level, you can see I start again but get to my forearms and come into the forearm balance, pincha mayurasana.  That is pretty tough and I do not practice with a wall.  

Below I deconstruct the sequence.

I start in balasana on the balls of my feet.  

I reach my arms as far forward as they will go.  I creep my fingers forward on finger tips first like a spider scurrying away.  Then I put my hands down flat. 

I do not try to get my chest on my thighs.  

In fact, you can see I have a little space between my chest and thighs.  My whole spine feels like it is lengthening.  I am not trying to arch it or straighten it.  Just to reach my arms away and lengthen it as much as possible. 

Knees to chest

I push my hands down and forwards and then lift my knees into my chest as much as I can.

Your tummy will work.  I try not to have forward movement around the shoulder joint complex.

Down dog

I continue my journey to down dog by trying to push my heels down from the previous position.  If you watch the video you can see it is more like my legs unravel beneath my hips.

There is no levering around the shoulders or pressing of the spine at all.  It is what I call a 'secret movement'.  The legs do the moving without disturbing the spine or shoulders.

Lower to forearms
This is much harder than it looks!  Try to lower the elbows at the same time.

Perhaps try to bend the elbows slightly first.  Then try to hug the elbows together as you lower.  Allow your knees to bend if needed and the heels to lift if they lift.

Again, this is trying to be a secret movement so the spine is not disturbed.

Back up again

Aiyo! as my friends in Sri Lanka might say.  This is really tricky again.

Try to get back up to down dog by pushing down and forward through the hands.  Try to get the elbows up at the same time (not one at at time).

If it is too much then bring your knees down and come back up through balasana.

Back down for a rest

You can pull your knees back into your chest on your way back down to balasana. 

Back up if you want!
Head back up to down dog and then back onto forearms if you want.

From there you can walk the feet in a little.  Again, a secret movement so the spine and shoulders are not disturbed. I am looking towards my navel.  This helps keep tummy engaged.

Working your way up
Make sure you build your stability in the preceding poses before trying this next one.  The most common mistake I see in class is people trying to bring their knee to chest while collapsing into one of their shoulders.  

Move slowly if you are going to try this and sense that you are not twisting your spine or dropping into one shoulder more than the other.  If you are doing this then you are not ready to bring knee to chest and you need to keep practicing the preceding poses.

Again, bringing knee to chest is a secret movement that does not disturb your spine or shoulders.  Remember also that this pose, the way I practice, should be spine releasing and neck releasing.  

If your neck and top of shoulders are feeling tense then you are in some other pose and I recommend you get out and go back to basics!

If all is going well you might try to tap or kick up into pincha mayurasana.  It is pretty tricky.  I keep saying that don't I? 

I am trying to practice pincha in a true neck releasing style by looking more towards my navel when I am up rather than looking forward.  I press strongly down and forwards through elbows and wrists to help generate lift.  I push up through the balls of my feet.  I feel light and my spine is lengthening not squashing.  I sort of feel a bit like when I was a kid and my uncles used to pick my up by my feet and hang me upside down (playfully as a game!).  

As always, happy and safe practicing.  There should not be strain or tension.  The shoulders and neck should feel great.  If they don't you are in some other pose and make sure you seek advice from your teacher.

We will take a look at these movements in more detail in my classes in Canberra and Sri Lanka and workshop them at the retreat in Sri Lanka in October.

Much metta,

Sunday, August 9, 2015

October Yoga Retreat in Sri Lanka

I won't be teaching in Bali this year and have shifted my retreats to Sri Lanka!  The next one is 1-4 October at the beautiful Kahandamodara, also known as Back of Beyond (  

Learn active movement in the Yoga Synergy style in a safe, fun and beautiful environment from an experienced teacher.  

My talent is in deconstructing posture and movement to help you find freedom, stability, and joy in your yoga practice—on and off the mat.   I will combine clear instruction with hands-on-adjustment so that you can find yourself in challenging postures with less effort and greater ease. 

You will get expert instruction with two active classes a day, meditation, delicious food, and great company in the beautiful surrounds of Kahandamodara, about 2 hours from Colombo in Sri Lanka's deep south. 

Rates are $690 single, $570 double, or $525 triple per person, including yoga, food and accommodation.  (SL resident rates: Rs45k single, Rs35k double, Rs32k triple).

Contact Tilak for more details: or +94 773 912 100.  

Ankle Stability

Ankles together heels apart

Trouble with balance?  Could it be you need to develop more ankle stability? 

The opening sequence I teach is great for improving ankle stability, something most people find a challenge.

In the video below I show a deceptively simple looking heel raising/lowering combined with knee bending/straightening sequence.

When I practice these I am also doing spinal movement along with shoulder and wrist movement.  But, for the sake of 'zeroing in' on what is going on around the feet I just videoed my feet.  

At the end of this post I have posted a link to show what the rest of the body could be doing. 

In the video below there are a few key actions I focus on.  One of the main ones is to lift my outer feet towards my outer ankles.  An instruction you could think of is to keep your ankles together but heels apart. 

I maintain this as I raise the heels.

I also grip with my toes as I raise the heels.

Lastly, I try to be firm behind my knees as I bend and straighten the knees.

This is much harder than it looks, primarily because most people are weak in lifting their outer feet towards their outer ankles and their heels tend to come together as shown below.

Here the heels come together--this is what I try to avoid.
In the video above I showed some variations where you can (1) raise heels, bend knees, straighten knees; (2) raise heels, bend knees, lower heels, straighten knees; (3) bend knees, raise heels, straighten knees, lower heels.

I did all of these while trying to maintain ankles together and heels apart, as reinforced again in the picture below.

Key action of ankles together, heels apart.
I learned these movements from Yoga Synergy teachers and physiotherapists Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss.  They are integral to the opening of the Yoga Synergy sequences and help you build ankle stability for the standing balances that are so common in the rest of the sequence. 

Here is a link to show these actions in the context of the opening sequence of whole body movements:
Note that in that video I did the same actions in the feet but just with feet apart as I alternate feet together and feet apart when I practice. 

Remember, these posts are intended for my students who come to class.  I do not advocate using from the internet as the main source of learning. 

Happy and safe practicing.

Free 5 Minute Standing Balance Spinal Movement

Before I practice suriya namaskar I 'warm up' my spine, legs and wrists with an active spinal movement sequence that incorporates dynamic balance.

When people start my classes, this opening sequence appears, by far, to present the biggest challenges.  It includes heel raises, one legged balancing, and active spinal movement--often all at once!

I took this 5 minute video at my last retreat in Talalla, Sri Lanka.  You can hear the beautiful birds in the background and see the luscious coconut grove in which we have our twice daily practice!

The video is mainly intended for my students who want a visual refresher of what to do or for interested students who might come to class.  I don't recommend learning from the internet.

After watching the video take a look at some of my practice tips.

Below I have jotted down a few thoughts for some of the movements/actions throughout the sequence.  I say these commonly in class. They are not all of the instructions.  I have tried to clarify a few points were I see students sometimes struggle.

Arms forward and up

When taking the arms overhead, push the armpits forward and up.

When practicing all of the heel raises, lean forward until the toes start to grip naturally, look at the floor to help with balance, then raise the heels.  Keep gripping with the toes.

Knee bends

When bending the knees, I push my knees forward and hips forward.  My hips don't really go anywhere and what you will see is that they lower straight down.

When knees are bending I try to keep firm behind my knees--as though you were trying to perhaps squeeze something behind them.  But don't squeeze too hard!  Remember, feel active but not tense. 

I keep the toes gripping.

Shoulders roll in

When you roll the shoulders in, press armpits lightly down.  I try to press wrists forwards and elbows back.

When you roll shoulders in it is easy to droop the top of the spine.  Be careful it does not sag.   Keep upper back lifted so you do not shorten the front of your body.

Shoulders roll out

When shoulders roll out there can be a tendency to press the ribs forward.  Look carefully in the video and you see I try to lift but not push out in the upper back.

Side bending

When you bend sideways, try to lengthen the one side without squashing the opposite side.  In the video you will see I initiate this movement by raising one elbow without dropping the other.

When you twist there is a tendency for the hip/pelvis you are turning towards to move backwards.  Try to press that hip forward so the pelvis remains pointing to the front.

Standing balance leg forward

The raised thigh rolls out.  That means your knee seems to roll away from the centre line of your body.  Be careful not to hike your raise leg pelvis up, which commonly happens when people focus on getting their leg high.  It is not how high it is that counts.

Leg to side

Again, thigh rolls out.  It is difficult to get the leg this high so keep it closer to the floor if necessary.  The leg is to the side and slightly to the front.  People who focus on getting their leg too high often have the leg too far to the front but it needs to be more to the side than the front.

Leg behind fold forward
In this posture I push my shin into my hand and pull with my hand.  The raised thigh is rolling in.  That means the knee feels like it is looking more down to the floor.

Leg straight forward fold
Here I am careful not to be too archy in my lower back.  I don't want to feel tension in my lower back.  My raised thigh is rolling in.

Balancing twist
The raised thigh is rolling out.

Additional thoughts
As always, stretch less, tense less, think less, and breathe less.  Try your best without being attached to an outcome.  The outcome people often become attached to in these postures (from my observations) is taking their legs too high.

Better the legs are straight rather than high.  This might mean that you keep toe tip on the floor.  That is an important modification I did not show in this video.  That is, you do not need to raise the toe off the floor at all.  You can keep toe tip down, do the arm and spinal movements, and then just straighten the leg when that time comes.

Relax your tongue and breathe naturally.  This will help you feel calm in these challenging movements.

This is the opening sequence in my current outdoor Canberra yoga classes.  Join us and have some fun if you like!

Much metta,