Archive for the ‘Breathing’ Category

What are you doing about your back pain?

Friday, January 26th, 2018

One of my students came to me this week and complained about lower back pain. I did some work with her, but nothing really changed.

Then I asked her about her lower back, what did she think that it did? She gave a long and detailed list. I was impressed with her clarity; most students have to stop and think about that. But I wanted more clarity, so I asked her what was her back’s most important job?

Holding her up was the answer. Her back was not doing a good job according to her.

I asked her: ‘what if your back didn’t need to hold you up. What if the natural design of your back meant that you were always fully supported’.

It didn’t make much difference.

Then I repeated it, this time using my hands for reinforcement. When someone has a core support strategy that’s faulty, it can feel risky to even think of changing. Asking them to change cognitively doesn’t cut it, their mind spins into over-drive, their body resists.

They need the experience of having a real choice. That’s the beauty of Alexander Technique hands on work, it can give you the experience of having another choice. It’s incredibly rewarding for me as a teacher to have this skill to offer. She noticed a definite shift in her lower back. Then the rest is PPP (practice, practice, practice). Practice is still a deal, but it’s easier when you know that you’ve been able to do it at least once.

So, if you have a realisation that your body is working way too hard and it doesn’t need to because you have a faulty idea about how your body works, is it all over unless you can get to a teacher who can guide you with your hands?

No, there’s another option. That is about creating an environment where your body has no option but to let go. And that is restorative yoga, the art of using props to restore ease in the way you deal with the world.

I’m covering all the options (body mapping, hands on guidance and using props) in creating ease in Yoga using the Alexander Technique workshop on February 24th 2018. There’s still space if you want to sign up.

Yoga and lying down to rest poses

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

There are lots of ways of lying down to support your body. Here are some suggestions about how to support yourself lying down so that you can be fully restored when you get up. The idea is that your body is so well supported that it can’t help but let go. It’s like putting a fish in the water, it can’t help but swim.

Lying on the floor on a yoga mat. Your body adapts to the surface and there’s no props needed.Resting, meditating on a yoga mat in svasana

Using props for support. This suggestion comes from Judith Hanson Lasater and I’ve used to to really help a lot of my students find peace and calm in their lying position. You will need a bolster under your knees, a book or yoga block under your head, blocks under your hands and a blanket under your heels. The most important to get right? Support your head. Without head support, your body just won’t let go. The eyebags over your eyes are optional, they allow your busy brain to calm down and switch off.
Lying, meditating with props in svasanaLying, meditating in svasana, using eyebags to cover the eyes

Lying on your front. It’s great to have contact with a bolster underneath the front of your body, it helps your organs relax.
Lying on front to meditate, to restore and rest

Side lying. This is a great option when lying on your back or front are uncomfortable. The important bit again is support your head. Put a bolster or cushion between your knees. Using a cushion or block under your elbow helps make your arms comfortable.
Lying on side to restore, to meditate and to rest

Yoga, AT and politics of the upsetting kind

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

QUALITY GOODSI went to a body work session recently. The practitioner I went to see is gifted in bodywork, smart and knowledgeable about healing.

She does have one little flaw, which is that she can come out with statements which are, to say the least, insensitive to immigrants or people of colour.

In this session, she happened to say “you know x is at least telling the truth”- X being a politician of the bullying, shouty variety whose tedious rantings have been amplified by the online and offline media. She had an unfair advantage on me, in that I was lying face down with my shirt off while she was doing something with my shoulders. So I tried to say something neutral and she moved on.


Normally, I just ignore what she comes out with; but in that session, she crossed a line. I didn’t say anything at the time but I certainly had lots to say later in the privacy of my own head once I started thinking about it.

In fact, I turned into a ranty shouty person pretty quickly myself!

So, I did some coming back to myself. I remembered my Alexander technique directions. I remembered some of the ways that I learn to centre myself in yoga. I remembered that when I get frightened, angry and hostile, the first thing that happens in that I lose empathy for myself and others. I calmed down and wondered what to do next.

I figured that it’s OK to have a reaction. It makes sense that it would bring up some very difficult issues for me, I’m very easily triggered by stuff which I perceive to be about lying, bullying, about being put down, dismissed. And right now, there seems to be a lot of that about.

What happens when I get triggered?

  • My stomach feels tight and even sore
  • I lose my capacity to just be in my body, I want to be somewhere else
  • I go into some sort of fantasy world
  • I watch too much TV
  • I fritter away my yoga / AT practice time
  • I withdraw, particularly from social gatherings
  • I’m kind of mean
  • I lose my alignments in dynamic movement and easily injure myself.
  • And of course, I tighten my neck and my jaw pushes forward

Like all situations involving nationality and race, it’s not binary. There are shade of nuance and meaning which need to be considered.

She’s an older woman from a working class background. She’s married to a person from another country and race. That means there’s a complicated power dynamic of practitioner / client with an underlying dynamic of man / women, middle class / working class going on beneath it.

Does that mean I need to keep quiet? No, I want to say something. It just means I need to be with what I want to say for a while longer than I normally would so that I don’t unconsciously say something that would reinforce stereotypes.

This is where some classic Alexander principles come in handy. Stop, direct, then do. Pause, then figure out what the yes plan is in this situation as opposed to getting fixated on what I don’t want.

I want to talk to her to let know what my feelings are. I want to ask for some change in what we talk about during the sessions. That would all be a start.

Phew! I can breath again.

Getting triggered by difficult emotions? Why not sign up to my mailing list where you’ll get tips and ideas for practices that will bring you back to yourself in the midst of charged emotions.

Yoga and working with injury

Friday, April 20th, 2012

You’ve got an injury, a reaction, a restriction. You didn’t ask for it, but it happened.

Sometimes you can do the sensible thing and take time out with lots of rest and come back to normal life when the injury has fully cleared up.,


But often life isn’t perfect, you still need to maintain some mobility. Here are some tips to help you cope. I’m assuming that your injury is not life threatening and that you are following the advice of medical professionals.

Don’t give up! You have the power to help yourself. If you are giving yourself a hard time about being less than perfect, reflect on the fact that every great athlete, dancer, yogi or body worker has at some point had to cope with injury.

Accept that the injury has happened. Accept that your life has changed in a way you didn’t want or plan. Acceptance doesn’t mean that you have to like it.

You have a body and at the same time, you are more than your body. It means you can still be your authentic self despite having a body which is not working at full potential.

Many of the usual ways of dealing with injury contain an inherent opposition. ‘Powering through’, ‘gritting your teeth and carrying on’ suggest a mind over body or a mind against body type approach. If this works, great. For me, finding ways of getting my mind to work with my body is preferable.

Give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel. And that means whatever you feel, whether it is sulks/trantrums/blaming/self pity/relief, even if you believe them unacceptable or weird. There’s a story about Pablo Cassals, the great cellist, who mangled his hand on a skiing holiday. He admitted later that his first response was to think “thank god I don’t have to play the cello”. Self compassion is likely to be in very short supply at this point. Anything you can do to decrease beating yourself up is welcome.

Once the injury has happened and there is pain, the flight/fight/freeze response will start to kick in. It will partially numb your sensations but accept that your body IQ has just dropped. A lot of thoughts about movement are just wrong as your body is fighting between what was and what is.

Accept help when it is offered, you need it and you will surely return the favour at some point in the future.

A mistake is to try and move like you are not injured. Your body will fight back and you get’ll upset.

Affirm that you can still move very freely and at the same time accept a reduced range of motion or an adapted range of motion. For example, with a leg injury, do smaller strides and maybe a slower pace. You can always find the fluid uplift from the earth and surrender of weight to the earth, even in moments which seem impossible. Take time, trust the life force and move. And if you fail, it’s OK, you’ll get it another time.

Things take longer, small distances become scary. Give yourself more time for your body to organise itself in the transitions between positions. For example, take a couple of breaths before moving from sitting to standing.

Accept that your muscles need to move through slightly different pathways. Take time to allow those new pathways to emerge, don’t rush. Your mind expects that you move in a certain way. You’ll feel confusion during the process of allowing these new pathways to emerge.

Persuade all the muscles crossing the injured part to keep moving when you move. Again, never force this. Sometimes the muscles just need time to freak out and lock up.

Accept that there may be pain. Let go of the tendency to avoid the pain or get into it. Notice your reaction to the pain, take time to reassure yourself that you are managing your body in the best way you know how. If the pain is persistent, seek help. The internet is a good resource for instant tips but also make appointments with your doctor.

Use pain killers, but don’t train on them. If you need to do something athletic which outside of normal daily movements, avoid using pain killers if you can as they can give you a false confidence.

And finally, make a commitment to explore the lessons which need to be learned at some point in the future when you have healed enough to listen without judgement to what your body needs to tell you.

Yoga and the spine, workshop Saturday 3rd December 2011, 10am to 1pm

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

I am running a drop in workshop on Saturday 3rd December 2011, 10am to 1pm. Cost is £20.

Click here to apply for the class.

Our spines and our breath are intertwined. Often the first sign of problems in our spines is the lack natural breath movement in part of the spine. Just getting the breath moving in the spine can offer us a chance to get in touch with our natural strength and flexibility without having to do complex or difficult asana. It also offers us a way of establishing a perceptual baseline, a neutral starting place in our yogic adventures of movement, meditation and stretching.

We will be exploring how the breath moves in our spine. We’ll be taking those ideas into exploring our natural ability to flex,extend, side bend and rotate our spine to see how that can expand our life experience. We will take a look to see how simple self-help can help maintain and improve the health of this essential centre in our bodies.

We will be doing some simple vinyasas (flowing sequences) and asana as part of the class.

Why you should do Yoga if you’re a cancer patient

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

By guest writer Liz Davies

Sleep disturbances and fatigue are two of the most common long-term side effects experienced by people after cancer treatment. These side-effects are caused by various things but anxiety is a clear source. Yoga provides the emotional health benefit of reduction in anxiety which gives cancer patients the ability to help themselves get rid of these two symptoms.

Yoga practitioners are accustomed to clearing their minds and placing themselves in the moment. Taking a long, deep breath, feeling every part of your body and completely emptying your mind is something that yoga practioners aspire to do on a regular basis. If cancer patients are able to do this with the help of yoga, their focus can shift from disease to health.

The majority of research regarding cancer and yoga is focused primarily on patients with breast cancer; however, recent research has begun to focus on all types of cancer patients, including rare types such as epithelial mesothelioma. The results have been nothing but positive. Yoga has proven to create improvements in mood, sleep quality, stress, cancer-related symptoms, cancer-related distress, and overall quality of life.

Here are a few easy ideas to start with:

Alternate nostril breathing is a good way to reduce anxiety and is very simple. Just close one nostril using a finger and then breath out of only the other nostril. There is no special effort to breath, just allow your mind to come naturally to the breath as you breath in through one nostril and then out through the other. The full sequence is: inhale left and exhale right. Pause. Inhale right and exhale left.

The savsana pose is especially effective for full relaxation. The key to this pose is to be absolutely comfortable and to feel that you could lie quietly without strain for a long time. Being able to lie quietly and comfortably is more important than the exact pose.

Try lying on your back with your legs slightly apart and your arm slightly away from your body with palm upward. If your gaze point is above your head, it is an indication that your head is tilted backwards. A blanket under your head will help bring your head back into a neutral relationship with the rest of your spine. Other props to aid comfort are a blanket under your knees and / or blankets under your wrists. If it is not possible to perform this pose on the ground, feel free to try this on a couch or bed where you are comfortable. If this still feels uncomfortable, try lying on your side or on your front.

This pose combined with the right breathing is sure to cause relaxation.

Liz Davies is a recent college graduate and aspiring writer especially interested in health and wellness. She became particularly interested in ways cancer patients can cope with the side-effects of their treatment after her mother became an oncology nurse for lung cancer.

Useful links:

Sleep disturbances and fatigue

Breast Cancer

Epithelial mesothelioma


10 simple things you can do to save your spine

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

1. Give your neck a rest! Your neck is one of the most overworked parts of your body. Lying down with the support of a book or cushion under your head and consciously relaxing your neck will help your whole spine.

2. Quiet hands. Our hands are always busy busy busy, either doing something or holding the thoughts of doing. Quieting our hands allows our shoulders to relax and guess where the shoulders are attached to? Your spine of course.

3. Explore neutral spine. Neutral spine is a place where the curves of your spine are in an optimum relationship with each other. Years of habits mean that we’re never really in neutral spine, most of us are actually frozen in a forward bend or back bend. Taking time to explore what neutral spine means to you lying on your side, on your back and on your front (that is, somewhere you can experience total ease and comfort) will help to release the years of bad habits.

4. Take a few minutes each day to consciously move your spine in all the directions it’s capable of. Bending forward, bending back, bending to the side and rotation. Start from neutral, do the movement and go back to neutral to absorb the benefits of this. Yoga poses are great for these but it doesn’t have to be a full on asana to bring the benefits.

5. Relax your shoulders when you breath. All too often we are subconsciously trying to breath by moving our shoulders up and down as opposed to letting the breath come from the action of the diaphragm in the middle of your body. Shoulders move with the breath rather than trying to control the breath.

6. Allow your shoulder blades to respond to and support the movement of arms in the same way your eyes track the movement of a ball you want to catch. Most often, your finger tips initiate arm movement and so your shoulder blades should respond to this. All the students I’ve taught who have shoulder problems brace or fix their shoulder blades before moving their arms.

7. You have two bones at the bottom off your pelvis. They’re called the sitz bones or ishial tuberosities.  When you sit, see if you can find them so that the weight of your torso is moving through these bones. Sitting on your tailbone (slouching back) is storing up problems for the years to come.

8. Do movements which pulse force and energy through your spine. If you’re really fit, jumping and running will provide this. If you want to do this in low impact way, bouncing on a swiss ball or doing pulsing movement lying on a mat will help. It helps to keep the joints in the spine mobile.

9. Cultivate awareness of arms and legs and their relationship to your spine. If you have a very painful area or damaged area in your spine, working with arms or legs can be a way into treating and healing the spine.

10. Become mindful of the way that your internal organs support and are supported by your spine. This is quite an advanced subject, so just beginning with how your lungs support your upper spine and the movement of your arms is a good starting place.

I do all of these things on a regular basis and over the years it’s really helped me build a strong spine. If I get really run down or practice yoga in an over aggressive way, I start getting an aching back. Other than that,  my spine feels great most of the time.

Most of these tips are ones that I’ve learnt over the years, the one about quiet hands is from Steve Hamlin, a Feldenkrais practitioner in the US.

Yoga and flat feet

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

As a flat foot, I’ve been subjected to teachers telling me to ‘lift your arches’. I even had one teacher sitting at my feet and basically shouting at my poor arches. It has spectacularly failed to produce the slightest change in my body.


It’s a pity because I really needed someone to help me with my feet. I’ve been wondering why that advice didn’t work at all. I’ve realised with my feet, it is not the shape of the foot which produces the problems so much as my response to the ground through my feet.

First of all, there’s quite a debate as to whether flat feet are just another variation in the normal range of the human condition or if they are a problem which needs to be corrected. Some people with flat feet have no problems at all and are able to lead very active lives, being capable of walking long distances. My father was one such person. Take a look at the wikipedia report on flat feet.

Secondly, the foot is an immensely complex part of the human body and each foot has a unique path towards ease and good use.

Thirdly, it is not the shape of your foot which produces the problems so much as your foot’s response to the ground when weight is put through your foot. In my case, I’ve realised that my foot has been chronically stressed over the years and has been even more over-stressed by trying to lift my arches.


So, my strategy has changed and I’m now looking at what I actually do when weight goes through my foot. Gripping with the soles of my feet and clenching my toes seem to be one of the things I do on a regular basis. Now imagine gripping your soles of your feet, clenching your toes and then trying to lift your arches. It makes me tense to write about it, let alone do it. You’ll see why I’m reaching for my gun.

So what might be more helpful advice? Well, asking all students to get in touch with how they put weight through their feet is a really good start. I’ve had students who have very well formed arches and whose feet are as dead as a doornail. Their feet are permanently cold and they have lost almost all sensation in the foot. Giving students a chance to explore how weight going into their feet plays out in the whole rest of their body is an approach that I’ve started taking and I’ve found it a much more supportive approach then trying to get students to correct ‘problems’.

Asking students to relax their jaws (or some other part of their body that they have better contact with) and then notice the effect on their balance and their feet is an approach which seems to work for some students. It gives them an idea that everything is interconnected. It gives them something real and practical to work on rather work directly on an area they already have poor contact with.

And of course, as a yoga teacher, I’ve never given students well meaning but rather superficial advice that a senior teacher has passed on as a revealed truth to be applied in all circumstances!

Neck care video

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

Steve Hamlin is a Feldenkrais practitioner. He’s put together some really good advice about taking care of your neck. For example, did you know that your arm and shoulder girdle is about 30lb (14kg). Guess which muscles you have to use when your shoulder is up around your ears? Yup, it’s your neck muscles. Enjoy!

10 ways to fail at asana practice

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Getting tired of having a successful asana practice?

Get right into these bits of advice, it’ll soon put you on (the wrong) track.
1. Treat the asanas as a performance which must be right no matter what
Point is to practice from a place of loving kindness, the moment it becomes about absolutes you’ll leave that place

2. Obsess about the asanas long after you’ve finished them
Did you not read the fine print about being in the moment?

3. Push down, push away all feelings which arise as a result of moving into the pose
Hmm.. lost touch with the holistic aspect of the practice?

4. Label difficult emotions, thought as un-yogic
All thoughts and feelings welcome on the mat, grasshopper. Some you want to take up residence permanently and others you encourage to move on

5. Fake the pose, desperately hang on while praying that the teacher will end the pose soon
The pose has been long over for you the moment you’ve entered that space. Time to explore how you got there in the first place?

6. Become really angry at yourself for not being able to do the ‘full’ pose
People are different and that means it’s OK to do what you can do

7. Beat yourself up by going into should,must,ought. i.e. saying things like ‘after x years of practice, surely I should be able to do this pose by now’
The practice is now, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it. Just encourage yourself to be present and to let those negative feelings go as they arise. The point of the practice is to eventually catch them before they arise and then let them go. If they have already happened, it’s OK, just back off and find another way into the pose

8. Ignore your intuition
Still not reading the fine print?

9. Rationalise your feelings away when a teacher gets you to do a movement which doesn’t feel right
You’re really not reading the fine print, aren’t you? Most teachers will welcome this as a chance to learn from your feedback.

10. Do the asana from a place of fear, lack of self worth
Easy to say that you shouldn’t do this, not so easy to be fully in yourself in a positive place. Part of the fun though..

11. Imagine that because you can / can’t do an asana that it means something
That’s true for around 100 people in the world, the ones who make a living as yoga models or who make DVDs. The rest of us, it just gets in the way. The point of asanas is just to practice, enjoy it as much as possible and then get on with the important things in life.

OK, that wasn’t exactly 10 ways, but just treat the 11th point as a bonus.

Good luck!