Be passive – be active

A few months ago I wrote a short entry about using intuition in your yoga practice. Sometimes it can useful to simply put your mat on the floor and start doing some yoga, and see where that leads you. Respond to your body and your mind and let them direct you.

I’m often surprised by what I end up doing when I take this approach, rather than determining the course of my practice consciously at the beginning. If I set myself a conscious direction, then I may end up focussing on particular poses (standing, forward bends) or I may try to deal with something that’s a source of frustration, such as a lack of flexibility in my quads. I think this is mostly influenced by the classes I go to.

The yoga classes I go to are almost exclusively Iyengar. So they’re quite physical and focus on correct alignment in asana. That’s not to say they’re not relaxing. I often find that I’m physically tired at the end of a class which helps me relax deeply in Savasana. But my yoga journey didn’t start with Iyengar. It started with Hatha yoga and Sivananda Yoga – echoes of which continue to resonate in my practice.

Hatha yoga is really a term that covers all physical yoga. Iyengar, Ashtanga, Viniyoga – they are all physical disciplines and so they can all be considered Hatha yoga. Sivananda would come under this heading as well, but Sivananda is really very quiet and gentle compared to Iyengar and Ashtanga.

I think that yoga is a mixture of being active and being passive. The practice of asana is there to help develop the physical strength, stamina and control to help the practitioner to sit comfortably for periods of time where the breath and being quiet is the focus.

When I decide to approach my home practice without any conscious intent, other than practising yoga, I now find that I start and end with a few minutes sitting cross-legged, head bowed forward, relaxing and trying to just focus on my breath and connect with the present. When I get it right (I’m not sure if the idea of right and wrong is really appropriate here) it’s a wonderful feeling – a clear, still mind which isn’t distracted by external or internal events.

Hatha is a word made up of two terms from Sanskrit: Ha which can mean Sun – think activity, physically demanding poses and; Tha which can mean Moon – think passivity, restful and recuperative poses. If you practice a phyiscal form of yoga it’s important, I think, to include elements of both in your practice, whether that’s a conscious decision or not.

170718 Grounding

Hair of the (downward facing) dog…

The morning after the night before. It’s a feeling many of us are familiar with. The sore head, dry mouth, lack of energy and the nagging worry about who we offended and how. We all get that, right? It’s pretty much how I feel at the minute, but I only have myself to blame, or so I’m told.

A hangover might be an extreme case, but it is all too easy to get to a point where you feel less than 100%. Work might demand too much of your time so you end up not eating properly and trying to deal with the stress of a heavy workload. Looking after a family can mean there’s very little time (and peace, and quiet) just for yourself.

Just as eating well and drinking plenty of water can help to keep your body healthy, regular yoga practice can help to keep your ‘you’ healthy, your self. The stretch that muscles receive during yoga helps to promote good blood circulation, increasing energy and also helping the practitioner to relax and de-stress. The breath work in a yoga class (pranayama) helps to regulate energy levels and quietens the mind, which in turn helps us to relax deeply in Savasana at the end of a class. If you can relax effectively then not only does it become easier to deal with stress, it also helps to keep stress at bay.

If you’re interested here’s a link to an excellent video about pranayama. 

The hair of the dog isn’t my go to remedy for a hangover any more, but I do recommend a regular practice of Downward Facing Dog (and other poses) if you want to feel happy and healthy.

 

Good to be back

Yoga at Avonmouth Community Centre re-started on Friday 13th October – good to see some new students and some regulars! This week we focussed on hips, particularly the actions needed in Virabhadrasana 2 (Warrior 2) and Vrksasana (Tree).

170718 virabhadrasana 2 away from cam

This coming Friday we’ll be working on a series of poses that includes Warrior 2, and that gives the legs and core a really good workout. Hope to see you there.

Classes start again on Friday 13th

Lucky for some! After a couple of weeks off yoga classes at Avonmouth Community Centre will start again on Friday 13th October.

The classes are Hatha Yoga – which basically means a physical form of yoga. There’s a blend of moving sequences and static poses as well as time for relaxation. Each week there’s a different theme or focus, this allows us to explore everything that yoga has to offer.

The best medicine

Doing yoga can help you feel better in body and mind.

Yoga is sometimes described as holistic exercise – for the body and the mind. In my opinion, all exercise is holistic. Running on a treadmill listening to music on your headphones might not seem as ‘mindful’ as yoga, but if you feel better afterwards, in body and mind, then it’s holistic.

The idea of yoga as a form of exercise might surprise some people. If you’ve never done yoga the image you have of it might be a group of tie-dye wearing hippies sitting in a circle chanting ‘om’. That does happen in some classes, the Om bit at least (it’s a very nice thing to do), though not many people wear tie-dye.

A typical yoga class will be a mix of being active and passive. Classes often start with moving sequences to help warm up the body which in turn helps the body to be more receptive to stretching. Towards the end of the class the level of activity will drop, and the very end of the class is often spent in Savasana, a passive, resting pose.

Some styles of yoga are more active than others and are based almost entirely on movement. In Ashtanga-Vinyasa or Vinyasa Flow you can expect to be moving most of the time, flowing from one pose to the next. These classes can give you a very effective cardio-vascular workout, certainly as effective as a session on a treadmill. A Hatha or Iyengar style yoga class will still be quite active though there is less focus on movement and more focus on holding poses for long (ish) periods of time, which allow muscles to be stretched effectively. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is easy. Holding poses can be physically demanding, requiring strength, stamina and focus.

An active yoga class gives you the opportunity to work towards the recommended amount of physical activity you need to be healthy, helping to prevent illness and disease associated with being inactive. You can read more about activity and health here.

Yoga is also very effective at keeping you mentally healthy. Recent studies presented by American psychologists state that yoga is effective at relieving depression. It can also help with low mood, anxiety and stress. The way yoga helps is as simple as it is ingenious. The body has a ‘fight or flight’ response to certain situations. When you experience anxiety or stress hormones are released, you tense up and your heart rate goes up as your body prepares for action. This reaction is automatic, but it’s not out of our control. Yoga teaches you how to control the body’s response to stress, with the aim of turning on the body’s “relaxation response”. Scientific studies show the impact of this. For example, in one study participants did yoga (including meditation) daily for eight weeks. The participants reported feeling less stressed and brain scans showed shrinkage of part of their amygdala, a deep-brain structure strongly implicated in processing stress, fear and anxiety.

So there we have it, yoga, possibly the best medicine we have to keep us healthy.

170718 Grounding

 

Let your intuition guide you

Deciding what to practice can be difficult. It’s not unusual to put your mat on the floor and sit there without knowing what it is you should do. When that happens let your intuition guide you.

I’ve been doing quite a lot of physical work over the last few weeks, putting up a fence. I never thought it was going to be easy, but I never imagined that 6 inches under the top soil would be dense, solid clay that need breaking up with a metal pole and scraping out by hand. I had to dig 28 holes which were 18 inches deep. I also had to dig out a few old, concrete fence posts that had been cemented in very well indeed and were stubbornly resistant to being moved. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy hard work. But my enthusiasm was beginning to wane a little by the end.

At the same time, I was teaching at school and teaching yoga classes, so at the end of the fencing project I put my feet up, literally, and enjoyed a well-earned rest. And then my back went. Where it normally does – lower back, around the sacroiliac joint (mostly on the right-hand side) and around my right hip. Not badly at first, but what started as a twinge developed into an embuggerance which I’ve been trying to deal with ever since. My intuition guided me to the solution.

I decided to do some yoga so I put my mat on the floor and just sat there without much conscious thought of what I was going to do, beyond “something that will help my back”.

I sat in Sukhasana (cross-legged) and did a gentle forward bend. At the first hint of tension I stopped and focussed on relaxing the tension. I would normally go straight past this point and try to stretch to a ‘comfortable’ maximum, but that didn’t feel like the right thing to do. What felt right next was a gentle twist to each side. I changed the cross of my legs and repeated the sequence. My intuition then guided me into Setu Bhanda, moving up and down with inhalation and exhalation rather than holding the pose. After that Apanasana, alternating knees to chest. I was beginning to feel some relief.

I then went into the cat/cow sequence. To be honest, I was really surprised at how little movement there was on the cat stretch (shoulders up, chin in towards chest). When I started to bring my chin in towards my chest I could feel the familiar twinges in my lower back, a result of the stretch on the longissimus thoracis muscle which attaches to the lumbar vertebrae. Intuition said, “Stop at the twinge”, I stopped. I repeated this for 8 breaths.

From cat/cow I moved into Adho Mukha Virasana, which stretches out large muscles of the back (Latissimus dorsi). Although there was some initial discomfort moving into the pose,  intuition said to persevere, hold the pose, and allow time to relax. The discomfort eased and I found I could relax. I carried on into Adho Mukha Svanasana, trying to keep the pose as easy and relaxing as possible, and then into supported Cobra (Salambha Bhunjangasana). I moved between the poses 3 times, holding each for about 30 seconds.

I turned over to lie flat on my back and with a belt I did Padangustasana. First the right leg straight up, then the left, followed by the right and left leg out to the side. Next I did Jathara Parivritti, which was a really nice way to massage the lower back and release the abdominals and helped to calm my mind down before Savasana.

I’ve repeated this sequence most days for about 2 weeks now, and it is definitely helping. It’s a sequence borne out of necessity and provided by intuition. If you don’t know what to practice the next time you put your mat down, see where your intuition guides you.

170718 Grounding

Yoga to get fit

Yes, you can get fit doing yoga.

For many people yoga is associated with relaxation rather than getting fit. The idea that yoga could be hard probably doesn’t occur to people without experience of yoga. But, with 7 weeks to go before my stag do I’m focussing on using yoga to get fit so that I can tackle Pen-y-Fan and Snowdon. Not your typical stag, I know…

The Sun Salutation sequence is where we begin. There are a number of variations of this sequence so you can change it to suit your needs. You can start with just 2-3 rounds of a fairly easy sequence and build up to a 6-8 repetitions of a very vigorous sequence that will raise your heart rate and really get the blood pumping. This is what we’ll be working towards in class.

We’ll be making good use of the warm-up provided by Sun Salutations to help develop flexibility. First of all the quads, which are overlooked far too much in my opinion. It can be really satisfying to develop hamstring flexibility, but it really should be balanced with developing flexibility in your quads.

Then we’ll alternate between sequences that lift the heart rate and holding static poses to stretch. Although some poses, particularly the Warrior poses, can do both jobs at once!

It felt good today to work through the class I’d planned and to hear people working hard. I know I found it hard work to do all the demonstrations and talk at the same time! Hopefully by the time I’m heading up Pen-y-Fan I’ll be making it look easy…

What to expect in – and after – a yoga class

If you’ve never done yoga before you might want to know what to expect in your first class, and it might also be useful to know what to expect afterwards.

A yoga class normally begins sitting down. The teacher may give some instructions about how to sit or to adjust your position to make sure your posture is okay. Often there will be a few minutes to allow everyone to bring their focus and attention to the class ahead.

What happens next will depend on your teacher and the style of yoga they teach. In some classes you’ll go straight into a flowing sequence called Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar). This is a really good way to warm up before doing some stretches. Other classes may start in a more gentle manner, using some limbering exercises and gentle stretches to help you prepare for the class ahead. Or you might go straight into poses (asanas).

A good teacher will tell you what to expect and will demonstrate what they want you to do before talking you through things. You can also expect more instruction and guidance as you’re doing a pose. This will continue throughout the class.

If you’re new to yoga it can be difficult to do some things as well as the more experienced students. Don’t worry. In a good class your teacher will allow for all levels of ability. Everyone should be able to work at their level.

The end of the class is normally used for relaxation. This could include some breathing exercises (pranayama) before a short period of relaxing lying down (Savasana).

It’s true that in some classes you’ll be asked to join in a chant or ‘om’ but don’t feel under any pressure to do so. It can take a while to become comfortable doing new things in new surroundings with a bunch of strangers. It is worth giving it a go at some point however. And while its true that yoga classes are more popular with women, most classes will be mixed. Your teacher could be a man or a woman.

A day or two after a yoga class it is not unusual to feel some tightness or soreness in your muscles. This is known as DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness. It’s simply a sign that you’ve been working your muscles and now your body is working to repair them. This is when you’re actually getting fitter! You can ease the soreness by being active, going for a walk is best, and you can help your body rebuild your muscles by drinking plenty of water and eating well. That doesn’t mean eating nothing but protein! A good, balanced diet will give you body everything it needs to do its job.

Doing 1 class of yoga a week will help to develop your range of motion, strength and stamina, and muscles tone – but don’t expect any miracles. If you practice regularly, and if you look after yourself outside of class by eating a healthy diet, then you should notice an improvement.

Dealing with difficult poses

Yoga is a great way to tone your muscles, develop flexibility and your ability to relax. But it can also be pretty frustrating. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that everyone who has been to a few yoga classes has experienced some frustration at some point.

Balancing poses are perhaps the most obvious source of frustration, especially if it’s one of those days when you’re wobbling and unable to hold a pose like Vrksasana whilst the rest of the class is as calm and still like the tree the pose is named after. I hesitate to mention Sirsasana (Head Balance) and the years of practice I’ve needed to be able to perform the pose away from the safety of a wall.

Alternatively, you might be in one of those lessons where the teacher is getting you to hold seemingly simple poses for a long time. 5 minutes in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing Dog) can feel impossible and if you have to come down and go back up 1 or 2 times then you can end up feeling a little bit defeated by your lack of stamina.

My current source of frustration is a pose called Supta Virasana.

suPta-virasana

It’s looks deceptively simple. You start sitting in Virasana, then just lie back. Easy! However, if your quads are tight, or your hip flexors, or your knees or the deep postural muscles then this pose will not come easily. The class I’ve been teaching this week is focused on developing flexibility in all these areas, with Virabhadrasana 1 as the peak pose. It’s a very active sequence which involves lots of preparatory stretches from Tadasana – Gomukhasana arms, hands in reverse Namaskar, standing quad stretches and a belt-assisted standing back-bend in Tadasana.

This can be a good way to deal with a difficult pose. Rather than attack it head-on and force yourself into it, take some time to think about the source of your difficulty and work on those areas in different poses. The standing quad stretch and the final pose of Virabhadrasana 1 both help to develop the flexibility I need in my quadriceps. Working from Tadasana and doing a standing back-bend is helping to develop the flexiblity in the deep postural muscles, Psoas Major and Minor and Iliacus.

And it has worked, a bit. I’ve been getting closer and closer to a comfortable Supta Virasana. Of course it takes time but there’s less frustration in the pose now as I can see some small improvement.

Perhaps it’s an approach that works not just with difficult yoga poses.