Sunday, September 20, 2015

Hands free pigeon (Don't Let The Pigeon Drive Your Brain)

Fuller version of eka pada rajakapotasana
I wanted to call this don't eat the pigeon messenger after I received a record number of emails from last week's post.  I mean the internet almost broke with the sudden upsurge!

Okay, that might be an exaggeration.

But a few things I learned from people's responses.

It seems many people are very attached to their pigeon pose and do not want to let it go.  Little pigeon protests were erupting in people's brains.

A pigeon protest

Many people have been doing it for years and may not have been able to 'move on' to something different.   A lot of people saying "I can't" before they have even tried.

I suppose some questions I think about are if you have been doing the same thing for years, which while they might feel good while you are in them, do not seem to have demonstrable carry-over to times outside of class it is possibly a good opportunity to reflect on a lot of things.

This could include: what are you doing in your daily life that means you are stuck in this cycle? Are you doing the pose in an effective manner?

These types of questions apply to any posture or any 'thing' really that we perceive as good for us but which somehow is not having the desired effect I suppose.

Don't let the pigeon drive your brain!
So yesterday I practiced pigeon for the first time in a long time and recorded it for posterity.  I did it 'hands-free' so that there was no labouring or pulling or pushing or straining to get into the posture.  I have a better indication then that I am okay in this posture.

Take a look at the video and have a think.  If you cannot come from standing to a squat to sit on the floor without hands, just try starting on the floor.  If you cannot sit comfortably on the floor in cross-legged without your hands supporting you for some way then that in itself is a good sign you are going to struggle with pigeon and maybe choose another posture (like my active standing variation!).

That afternoon I went to circus class and, co-incidentally, they taught me a sequence of active movements that had me end up in an inverted and flying variation of the pigeon pose!

This sort of posture is only possible with active movements, particularly in that top leg where I am actively gripping behind the knee to create firmness, trying to externally rotate top thigh and internally rotate and extend bottom leg, and make sure I am lengthening my spine rather than squashing it to do the backbend.

Create firmness in tummy and stabilise shoulders with these cues

Tiny things can make an enormous difference to your practice.

In this post I share some small tips to help you in suriya namaskar.  They will help create postural firmness in your tummy and around your shoulders.

When you use these tips you should feel from but calm.  If you were beside someone you should be able to be in the posture and talk to them normally, without feeling breathless.  Otherwise you are too deep in the posture and you need to back off.

When applied mindfully these little tips will help you practice less with more benefit.  Then you can spend more of your time living your practice and being happy and helpful to other people and less time in the practice arena.

Watch the video then read the written and visual instructions.

In your own practice you should maintain the free feeling in your spine.  It is easy to hang in your shoulders and your lower back and the cues I give here should help you avoid this and thus avoid strain.

Four cues

  1. I have put circles around the lower back area to show you that it is always in a lengthened position.  I would not call this neutral or tucked under pelvis.  I imagine I am lengthening my sitting bones towards my heels and my top of pelvis back.  This lengthens my lower back and lengthens the front of groin area.  I am looking for this feeling of lengthening and freedom throughout the cycle.  CUE: Sitting bones down, top of pelvis back to lengthen lower back.
  2. I have put circles around the shoulder joint area to show that I am focussing on not dropping or sining into the shoulders.  Instead I feel that I am lifting out of them.  Pressing my hands down and forward helps with this lifting feeling.  CUE: press hands down and forward.
  3. I have also put circles in some positions around the elbows.  The cue here is that I am bending the elbows so they point back towards the knees/hips/toes and squeezing them together as though they are trying to touch.  Even when my elbows are straight, as in the plank or down dog, I feel as though I am making those actions but with straight arms.  This gives me a feeling of broadening across upper back and neck.  CUE: elbows bend towards hips, squeeze in.
  4. I have put circles and arrows around feet and knees.  I try to keep as little weight as possible on knees and toes as possible.  I make an effort to drag the toes or knees (whatever is on the ground) towards the hands.  This creates more tummy activation.  CUE: feel as though you are pulling toes/knees towards your hands. 

There are more things you can do in these postures but these cues will help create postural firmness in the tummy and around the shoulder joint so that you feel like you are doing something but can breathe naturally and without feeling stress or strain in your spine or shoulders.

From Plank

Be on the very tip toes in your plank.  Not on the ball of the feet.  Right up there on the toe nail area.  Over the tops of your toes if possible.  With the shoulders over the wrists this should automatically create firmness in the tummy in a way you can still breathe. 

The feet feel like they are pulling forward towards the hands. This should create more postural firmness.

It is important that you start from a position of the lower back lengthened.

The lower ribs are lifting.  If you look at my spine it is more in a straight line than with any dips.  No valleys between my shoulder blades.  

Kneeling Plank
I lower my knees softly here.  In the video I show how I raise and lower the knees and the knees feel light on the ground.  I feel as though I am pulling my knees towards my chest.  Shape of spine did not change. 

Bend and squeeze elbows
From kneeling plank I bend elbows back towards hips. It does not change the height of the posture.  I do not dip into my shoulders or create valleys in my shoulder blades. 

I also squeeze my elbows towards one another.

Your elbows might not bend very far.  It is not important.  You should feel the work around the under arm and side chest area and that your neck has become more free. 

Lean forward
Lean the whole structure forward.  You are not trying to lower.  Try to stay up.  You will lower somewhat but that is not what I am thinking about at all.  I am trying to maintain the integrity of the structure I have created and just lean the whole thing forward.  

Most people will find they cannot go very far.  That is not important.  Maintaining integrity is important.  Don't let your ego write cheques your body can't cash (do I need to put the reference in there?  It's from Top Gun of course!).  

Knees up
If all is good maybe, just maybe, you might feel you can press your heels back to lift the knees while maintaining your integrity.  There should be no change in the structure aside from a secret knee lift.  If you cannot make that secret knee lift then you are not ready for this version of the posture and go back.

Knees down

Pop knees back down if you took them up.

Chest forward and up

This sequence of postures has me maintaining, in particular, integrity of my lower back.  Feeling as though I am drawing my knees forward helps tremendously.

I do not dip into the shoulders.  I simply (well, if you try you will maybe find it is not that simple after all) try and wriggle my spine forward and up through my arms.

Take your pelvis away from the floor if you feel any strain in your lower back.  This should not feel like a back tensing posture.  It should feel like a spine lengthening posture.

Down dog

Ease your way back to a buoyant child's posture and to down dog.

In Sum
A feeling of ease and length in your spine is glorious.  You will feel less like you are stretching and more like you are just having a bit of a jet spa inside your body, loosening and relaxing your muscles.  You will definitely still feel like you are doing something.  But practice to a level where you can still breathe easily

This is the way I like to practice.  It is better than any massage I have ever received and, when done well, you feel like you are floating buoyantly.

I hope to impart this type of knowledge and practice to you in my Canberra outdoor classes and in my upcoming retreat in Sri Lanka.

Practice mindfully.

Much metta,

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Don't Let The Pigeon Wreck Your Knees!

In my day job I am an occupational therapist and work with kids with autism.  At a school this week they read 'Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus'.  That is a really cool book in case you have not read it.

Lots of yogis and everyday 'stretching people' adore what is often called pigeon pose (segue to this post!).

Personally, I have not done it the way most people do it for years.  So I could not put a picture of me in it.  Instead, I drew the pigeon in it.

Despite my substandard artistic abilities, I think I have managed to capture the basic gist of the way it is performed, including a sort of grimace of pleasurable pain that most people seem to get from it.  You can google it and find other people doing it if you are still unsure

As a teacher I basically stopped teaching this pose like this when I moved towards a more 'organic' practice that involved ridding myself of things like yoga mats, props, pillows, cushions etc, etc, etc.

Mainly because so many people needed 'bolstering' to even get into the posture without feeling strain in their knees.

When I started practicing more 'active movements' rather than passive postures I found an alternative that uses the same joint positions but without the weight of the entire body pressing down on the knees.

This more active variation is also 'self-limiting' in the sense that you can really only make it to the next step if you are able to do the step before and there is less change of forcing yourself into the posture, whereas the squawking pigeon (as I have renamed the pose above) is easier to force yourself into.

Below is the active variation.

Did your pigeon face just go like this?

I didn't say it was easy, did I?

But don't worry.  I have made a video to help you step by step into this variation.

You do not proceed to the next step until you feel comfortable in the preceding step.  You will find even the first step is a great one to do if you hold it for a little while.

Video (eka pada galavasana)
This posture features in our current sequence.  The outdoor yogis have made it through a Canberra winter and, as you can see, I am out enjoying the sunshine as I practice.

If you practice this (and remember it is intended for my students who come to class so we can talk about things and sense things as it is always best to learn from a physical teacher and not the internet) then there should be no strain.  Move slowly and mindfully.  Only go to the next step if you feel comfortable.

Hips forward, thigh rolls out
Stand comfortably.  Take one toe tip forward.  I stay on the toe tip so most weight is on the other leg. Hips move forward.  It looks like I am leaning back.  This will help in a moment when you might try to raise the leg.  Keep the standing leg outer hip moving to the centre of your body so you do not sink into it.

Raise knee, thigh rolls out, foot pulls back to shin
With the toe tip barely touching and the hips moving forward you should find it easier to raise the leg.  Raise it if you can and then roll the thigh out.  If you cannot raise it then keep toe tip down and roll the thigh out and just stay there until you find the balance possible. 
Pull your toes and foot back towards your shin.  This is really important if you are going to come into the balance later.   This is the active standing version of pigeon!  Pretty tricky isn't it!  From there you could 'rest' by putting your ankle on your lower thigh.  You have to play around a bit with a comfortable position. 
Hips forward, reach up high
All postures should help us lengthen the spine without squashing.  In the next steps you move the hips forward (rather than stick your butt back).  Sticking your butt back tends to shorten or squash in the lower back. 

From there I reach up high to really wriggle up and lengthen the spine.  Feel long and tall.  

Come forward
To come forward I get the feeling that I am still trying to move hips forward and lengthen my spine.  I also keep the feeling that I am moving the standing leg hip in towards the centre so it is not swinging out to the side.  In fact, I sort of feel as though I am drawing both hips together.  If you allow your hip to swing out to the side you will lose the 'pigeon' hip opening feeling. I suggest you do not lose this in a 'quest' or attachment to the full variation of the posture.  Instead wait patiently until you are ready to go further.  

At a certain point my bottom does go back and I fold forward but the feeling is that I am trying to move the hips forward and keep lower back long and front of groin open.  

Elbows bend, press down to ground and then together
This action around the shoulder joint and elbows is really important if you are going to balance.  I bend the elbows so they point to the ground, then try to press the elbows together while trying to keep them about shoulder width apart. You should feel that your neck got a bit freer and your back body widened without squashing the chest.
Arms press to shins and shins press to arms, hips press forward
You cannot see to well all of the stuff that is going on at this point.  I am making the effort of pressing my arms into my shin while at the same time trying to press my shin in my arm.  The foot is hooking around the arm.  At the same time I feel as though my hips are pressing forward so the whole body is pressing into the arms while the arms press back. 

I lower forwards towards the ground.  My heel has to raise to allow me to lower.  I keep the connection of shin and arms.  If you lose it you need to reestablish it if you get down with the same actions.
 Lean forward
This is now just a matter of balancing and shifting your weight while maintaining previous actions.  I lean forward.  My back heel starts to raise until the foot lifts.  Common errors I see people make at this stage are that their foot is too close and heel on the ground, perhaps because they have put their hands on the ground too close to their foot.  Either wriggle your foot back or come down so you have to raise the heel off the ground already.

Heel to bottom
Once the foot floats off you can do an active lift, drawing heel to bottom.
Knee up
This bit is tricky.  You need to have kept the effort of pushing hips forward and pushing shin forward into arm to be able to liberate that back leg.  If you do not do those actions you will feel like you are sinking into the arms rather than lifting out of them.

Straighten leg
Straighten that leg.  Keep the thigh rolling in (so it feels like your knee is pointing more towards the centre of your body).

You should feel firm but calm.  Your tummy will be firm but in a way you can breathe into it.  You should be able to talk to people passing by, smile, and feel like you are doing something but comfortable and not straining!

If you have practiced mindfully you should be a happy flying pigeon!

Enjoy your practice.  Be active if you can.  It feels less like stretching and tensing and more like lengthening and 'doing something'.  You will move better and happier.

Looking forward to sharing this type of thing in my outdoor classes in Canberra and my upcoming retreat in Sri Lanka.  

Hope to see you soon.

Much metta,

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Trikonasana Pelvis

Here I want to show you how I practice trikonasana and maybe give a few reasons why.

First, my main focus in all of my postures is that I have an internal feeling of freedom and lightness.  This is both a physical feeling and mental one.  I tend to let my body adjust itself from there.  

But when you are newer to yoga sometimes you have to focus on specific parts and narrow your focus of attention.  Over time the skill is in narrowing and broadening and being able to shift and integrate and come to some point of non-thinking mindfulness.  I still work at that.  

But back to the topic at hand, which are just some thoughts on the relationship between what you do with your pelvis and how that affects movement at the hip and what you see at the thigh in a pose like trikonasana. 

I made a video as that is the best way to explain.  Have a look and then I have written some commentary below.

Set up
I set my front foot up along an imaginary mat so that the outer edge of the front foot is parallel to the outer edge of that imaginary mat.  My back foot ends up toe down then heel down (mindful and slow movement) so that an imaginary line (lots of those going on in yoga and you get the sense of how yoga can train your sense of position in space when you consider all of the internal imagining and feeling that is going on) exists from the front heel towards the heel or back half of the back foot.  My foot is at an angle.  Other people do different things with their feet.  I try to figure out where my knee feels comfortable.  

With my front heel set like that I can try to grip the heel inwards.  That contributes to a feeling that the thigh rolls out.  You will feel some firmness around the outer hip joint.  
Front thigh rolling out.  Knee looks more like it is pointing towards outer edge of foot.

This rolling out is what I wanted to focus on in this post.  There is obviously a lot more going on in trikonasana.

If you know what you are doing you can actively just think about rolling your thigh out and it will happen. I show this a few times in the video how I can roll the thigh out or let it roll back in. 
The front thigh rolling in, with knee more over the inner edge of foot.  I avoid this in trikonasana.

Ultimately, the thigh bone sort of makes an imaginary line that is going more on the outer side of my foot rather than on the inner edge. 

Relationship of moving back pelvis to what happens in front hip joint complex
In the video I move my hand to touch the front of back pelvis.  Then I start to move that back, as many people do in an effort to get their pelvis pointing to the side. 

You can see what happens to my front thigh if I do that though.  I rolled my pants up so you can see clearly what happens and where the knee starts to point.  
What happens to front thigh when I try to take back pelvis back.  This is what I avoid in trikonasana.

Most people will also start to feel some stretch along the inner thigh as well.  

The act of moving the pelvis back is going to have an impact on what happens at the hip joint.  

In this case you start to get thigh rolling in at the front hip rather than the rolling out that we are looking for.  

So what?
So what I say is don't worry about where you think your pelvis should be facing.   

Most people will ultimately have their pelvis in more of a diagonal facing position--how diagonal is up to your own body.  
Front thigh rolling out.  Back pelvis comes around.  Pelvis neither pointing straight to front nor directly to side.  It is in a happy place in between.
I tend to instruct bringing the pelvis around a little so that you can get good activation in the front hip joint complex and so you do not feel the sensation of stretch in the front inner thigh.  

Roll your back thigh in.

Then, activate your legs by stretching the ground with your feet (trying to push the feet down and away from one another).  

Feel that your lower back is free.  Feel that you are firm but calm.  

You could stay there or you could start to move actively from your spine to turn towards the sky.  I turn while lengthening and not squashing the spine.  

I reach my fingers as far away from the centre of my chest as possible.

Inside I am singing and smiling and feeling like I am doing something but happy and calm and free.  

This is how I practice.  This is how I try to help you feel in class.  

Join us for Canberra Outdoor Yoga classes each week of join me for retreats in Sri Lanka where I teach principles of active movement, free spinal movement, and generally helping your body sing from the inside so you move happier and healthier.

Do not do anything that hurts.  Remember, these posts are mainly intended for my students as practice notes.  It is best to learn from an actual teacher and not from the internet. 

Much metta,

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Spinal Lengthening For Backdrops

Here I show lots of movement throughout my spine as I try to get my wriggle-on and lengthen my spine from bottom to top as much as possible to come into a standing backdrop that lengthens rather than squashes my spine and so feels delightful.

I wriggle up...

and up...

and up...

And my up takes me back...

And down, but in an up kind of way!

When practicing backbends it is important the spine does not feel tense.  It is important to feel light and free.  It is important that your whole body is smiling from the inside.

Well, that's how I like to practice.

This video is not intended for anyone to copy.  Such poses are learned from a teacher.  It is more for my students to have a look at how when you keep wriggling up you can also come down.  A bit like a slinky.  

Happy and safe practicing and hope to see you soon.  We will be practicing outdoor yoga in the sun from now on so protect yourself however you need.  See you in Canberra or Sri Lanka for my upcoming retreat (October 1-4 2015).

Much metta,