Archive for the ‘Menu’ Category

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

How can the Alexander technique help yoga practioners?

Friday, September 30th, 2016

AT and Yoga (1)There are lots of somatic techniques out there which have gained some following amongst us yogis. I’ve come across Feldenkras, Body Mind Centring, Somatics, the Franklin method and the Alexander technique.

Why do yogis, particularly yoga teachers, start getting interested in other disciplines? Surely yoga is a complete method that doesn’t need the help of another technique which may just confuse?

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve found yoga to be incomplete in terms of custom and practice. Yes, in theory, all you need is access to a good translation of Patanjali and off you go. In practice, I’m influenced by everyone around me. Yoga when it came to the West both influenced us in the West and also was influenced by the West. One of the influences that was a mixed blessing was the adoption of an anatomical model of movement.

The anatomical model of movement has quite a few assumptions behind it, one of the most pervasive is the disconnect between body and mind. That we can describe our movements in a purely pragmatic, functional way. No need to examine thoughts and feelings. And if a small stretch is good, then surely a big stretch is even better.

I’ve done the Alexander technique for most of my adult life, first as a student and now as a teacher trainee. I’ve applied it to a lot of the activities that I do in daily life and have found it to be transformational.

At its best, the Alexander technique is a conversation in elegant simplicity. For me, there 3 key elements in the Alexander technique

  • Head / spine relationship
  • Body mapping
  • Guided touch

Head / spine relationship

Alexander teachers have done a lot of experimenting was done over the last 100 odd years into how to pay attention to that very delicate and easily upset connection between head and spine without disrupting ground support, breath or connection to environment and the people in it.

What they discovered is that a small movement in your head relative to your spine produces a global release right the way through your whole body. That release goes beyond that to put you into a different orientation and relationship to the ground and the environment. They discovered that the head / spine relationship is a key relationship in our body that not only helps movement but also is a reliable guide to general human health and happiness.

There are many such key relationship in our body, our hara centre (our centre of gravity) is another one.

Guided touch

The Alexander technique excels in guided touch that awakens tensegrity. Jeremy Chance, an Alexander teacher trainer, says that this guided touch is something that can’t be faked. It’s the opposite of a manipulative, coercive touch. Bruce Fertman, an Alexander teacher of over 40 years experience, says

Alexander teachers excel in creating what I refer to as “tensegral support.” It’s the support system that creates the hallmark experience of kinesthetic lightness, the sense of suspension.

Body mapping

Body mapping offers the opportunity to bring the more anatomical approaches into a more thoughtful reflective approach which combines movement, function, anatomy and emotion in one package. It looks at what our internal map of our body is and then asks how we feel about that.

And it’s this emphasis on the how as well as the where, when and what that can help yoga practioners. If your head is free and coordinated with your spine, the foundation kind of takes care of itself. This can be very freeing for someone who has spent a long time worrying about their foundation and solely working from the ground up.

Then there’s the value of just having another perspective. If you are a painter and just do oil paintings, it will sometimes be interesting to talk to painters who are specialists in water colours. Most of us benefit from another somatic perspective, particularly when we doing something engrossing and compelling as yoga.

And lastly, it offers a way of having an informed thoughtful discussion about the 3 dimensional complex interactions between mind and body which makes movement in general an interesting human activity to think about. And yoga has lots of movements which are really interesting to practice, discuss and generally be fascinated by!

Yoga, Alexander Technique, Eyebody and our brains, part 2

Friday, August 12th, 2016

Pushed for time? Check out the video below. If you prefer to read, scroll past the video and read on.

In the last article, I looked some of our assumptions about where our brains are and what cultural assumptions we might be buying into when we start an inquiry into how our brains function.

In this article, I look at two ways of using somatic enquiry that allows us to get our brains working a little easier. I have a lot of practices which are around helping my brain function a little easier, but these are the two that I can really recommend as they are a little more accessible than other practices.

The first is to do with the relationship between our head and our body. We can’t see directly what’s happening in our brains, we can only guess and infer by what’s happening in our bodies and in our relationship with the world. Take a look at this famous sculpture. He’s doing something, but it’s interesting that Rodin put his sculpture in this pose to indicate thought. What might be happening in his brain? Is he happy? Is he tense?

the_thinker_rodin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What about Michelangelo’s David? Is his brain happy? These can seem like odd questions, yet how can we start to figure out what is happening in another person’s brain until we allow ourselves to ask the question ‘is their brain happy?’ and look at them.

Michelangelo-DavidWhen I look at Michelangelo’s David, I see a certain relationship between his head and the rest of his body. His head looks like it has support from the front of his body as well as the back and sides.His head is tilted slightly forward on the top of his spine. To me, that gives him poise.

With Rodin’s thinker, he may be thinking but he looks tense to me. I’m picking up on his head being slightly retracted on top of his spine giving him the impression of someone who is bracing against something. Perhaps the full title of this sculpture gives us the clue ‘Thinker at the gates of hell’.

For me, brains need to be supported fully by the body they live in. After all, there hasn’t been a thought expressed in the world without a body that goes along with it. That support needs to be from all the different parts of our body, from our contact with the earth and from all the different types of support within our body.

For an idea of how that support might look, see this video of Bruce Fertman, Alexander Teacher in action showing students how to access this head / body relationship

When I look at this video, I’m always struck by how dynamic the relationship between our heads and our bodies are, and just how a small and delicate touch can begin to restore it. It’s both simple and complex. Simple because it’s one movement of our heads and complex because it profoundly changes the rest of our body and how we are in the world. Our bodies begin to fill from the inside.

It’s both a relationship and a subtle internal movement at the same time. Can you find this movement in your own head? It’s a movement of your head in space relative to your body, backwards, upwards and over. Can you allow yourself to be delicate and yet clear in this movement? Can you be emotionally available with acceptance and compassion for all the hidden hurts and slights, often going back a long way in time, that lead you to go into survival mode and fix your neck or other part of your body?

The other practice that I do is about my brain’s orientation to the world. I’ve found that brains like to be in contact with the world in a way that make sense to them. Peter Grunwald, a natural vision teacher, gives 3 states our brains can be in relationship to the world. They are underfocus (mind wandering in a stressful way), overfocus (mind clear but unable to relax) and presence (mind with a quality of relaxed alertness). These states are quite similar to the Body Mind Centring  (Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen) ideas of collapse / prop and yield in their effects on the body but explicitly include states of mind.

brain-states

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, how do we get to our brains being present and with us well oriented to the world? Well, there’s a very simple investigation that Peter Grunwald does called the line movement. This is about orienting our brains to our environment using the light going into our visual systems. We see with our brains, not our eyes. Our eyes are just there to receive and focus the light waves. It’s our brains that interpret and process the light coming in.

eyebody line movement

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The line movement is simply finding a line in the environment and then bringing your awareness to the upper part of your neo cortex (it’s where you would have your hair spiral or top knot). Then with the intention of presence – so that you start releasing chronic states of under / over focussing – you look either from the close distance to the middle distance, to the far distance and back again without jumping.

I’ve done this investigation for the last 5 years and it’s been a really interesting practice. What I noticed when I first started doing this was that I really bored by it. I wanted something flashier, more complex. Then I noticed that my eyes and my visual system were in such a chronic state of tension that I could only do the line movement once because it was so uncomfortable. Then I noticed that my eyes just couldn’t stop jumping around. I would either be staring really hard at something or barely registered that the object was even there.

Now, when I do the line movement, it has a really meditative feel. Even better, I do the line movement when I am doing a sun salutation and that really seems to bring a quality of lightness to my movements. For example, I place my attention in the upper part of my back brain with an intention of presence. Then I look into the far distance and as I bring my gaze into the middle distance, I move into forward bend. In this way my whole body is supporting the movement of my brain and my eyes. I can continue the movement into the close distance and then when I’m fully in the pose I can do the line movement the other way and upside down. Check out the video at the top for how it looks in practice

 

What will I learn in yogaground’s 6 week yoga class?

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Yoga Finsbury Park Restorative SetupSo, you’ve signed up to my 6 week class or you’re thinking about it. What are you to learn and how will that happen? If you haven’t read about my approach to classes (What poses will I do in the yoga classes) then that could be a good start.

 

I structure the classes so there’s quite a bit of repetition. Creative repetition is at the heart of any practice and yoga is no exception. I want to create an optimal learning environment, so taking an exploratory / investigative approach seems to be the best way to do this. It means there are poses but they are ways to explore how you are in your body rather than a routine that you have to get right.

I use a combination of verbal instructions, examples, guided meditations and guided touch to teach. If one teaching method is not working for you, then we can experiment with others. Some students find verbal instructions confusing and learn by looking at examples and receiving guided touch. Some students have sensitivities around touch and prefer verbal instructions. Generally, it’s about trying things out and then letting me know if something doesn’t work.

The overall themes of the 6 week class are breathing, standing, lying down and sitting.

Week 1

We take a look at the breath and how it works. Another theme in this class is learning to relax when you lie down as we do a lot of poses lying down. I want you to come away with a basic understanding of how breathing works in your body. Then we’ll explore how we can stop interfering with this natural mechanism. You’ll come away with a couple of ideas about breathing a little easier in your day to day life.

Week 2 and 3

We’ll looking into your relationship to gravity, the space around you, within you and the environment. Do you hold yourself up or do you tend to collapse? Maybe a bit of both? Another theme to this class is (un)learning how to stand with ease as many of the poses are done standing up. This introduces the idea of yield, how to give yourself to the earth and receive support from the earth.

Week 4

We’ll return again to the breath and to yield as ongoing themes underlying and structuring the movements that we do in the class.

Week 5 and 6

As well as breathing and yield, the other theme of these weeks is getting to know your spine better. It’s also about your spine’s relationship to your arms and your legs. We’ll look into head and tail integration. You’ll do some sitting poses to encourage you to sit better. You’ll also start doing a simple sun salutation where you move from one pose to another so you’ll get a sense of what it’s like to yield in a more fluid and dynamic setting.

Which students do well in these classes?

I’ve found it doesn’t matter what size or shape you’re in as to whether you do well in the class. What seems to matter most is that you’re willing to experiment with ideas and movements which might help you grow as a person. A sense of perspective, a degree of self acceptance, a willingness to communicate with me about what’s happening in your body and a bit of humour is also helpful.

Which students don’t do well in these classes?

I’ve had a couple of students come to my class hoping for a really strong and sweaty workout. I’m afraid I’m not set up for that. I will do these classes at some point, but not right now. Some students would like to relax but only if they can do it without letting go. I sympathize, letting go is scary. If you’re not willing to let go, even a little bit, then it’s unlikely that you will relax. Some students are very attached to a particular teacher or method. I make use of a variety of methods and ideas based on my current understanding.

 

What poses will I do in the yogaground classes?

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Yoga in the West developed from the work done by the Indian yoga masters. Many of them were faced with a familiar problem to most spiritual teachers, how to reach an audience unfamiliar with meditative practices? The way chosen by most was to focus on virtuosic asanas. The type of poses which go for the wow factor. It proved very effective in generating interest and all of us who practice today owe a debt to these early pioneers.

The implicit promise was: do yoga and you too can do these amazing poses. However, what they forget to mention is that virtuoso poses are the realm of the few. In much the same way, there are very few violinists of Nigel Kennedy’s ability, so there are few yoga practitioners who can do the really difficult poses. And the ones who can, have done many years of preparation as well as having the fortune to be born with a body with an extraordinary range of movement.

The practice of focussing on the most difficult poses and calling the ability to do difficult poses an advanced practice has caused a lot of problems for yoga teachers. On the one hand, it has drawn people to the practice. On the other hand, it has generated unrealistic expectations and has lead to many yoga practices being less enjoyable than they otherwise might be. Very few students think about what the pose requires and what preparation needs to be done before attempting it. Most just show up to the class and assume that if the pose is being taught, they can somehow power their way through it.

So, when I teach the poses, I am somewhat cautious.
Firstly, it is possible to strain or injure yourself if the poses are done incorrectly.

Secondly, most people lack the kinaesthic awareness that allows them to build the pose from the inside.

Thirdly, very few people ask themselves what the poses do. If yoga is to help you with your everyday life, then the question must be asked: what is the problem you are having in your life that requires a pose as a solution? If you spend your life working at a desk then what poses will support this and help you sit with ease?

Lastly, a pose done badly will often have worse effects on your life than not doing the pose at all. I know many colleagues and teachers who have irreparably damaged themselves trying to do a difficult pose.

So, I’m interested in creating class which deals with these issues. I want to teach a class that is rooted in everyday life. A practice which has to be got off the mat was never really on the mat to begin with. So that means that whatever is in your life is also brought on to the mat. There is no special ‘yoga’ attitude. Just a willingness to be present. A class that is rooted in everyday life needs to deal with the fact that most people are under extraordinary stress. So the mat needs to be a place of restoration, not a place where you once again fail and feel terrible about yourself.

I want to create a class which generates safety and trust in your own body. This will help you be present and begin to deal with the stress in your life. Central to this is that you listen to your own body and you are faithful to the intuitions and experiences which arise from this. This means that are you entitled to modify a pose or come out of it early without feeling judged or criticized. It means that you prioritize the subtle nuanced internal awareness of where you are in relationship to the earth and the space around you over achievement of the pose. If you do this, how far you can go will change effortlessly when you are ready.

Most of the yoga students that I have taught who have been unhappy in their practice have prioritized the end result over the process of getting there. If you accept that each release will follow it’s own path and that trying to pre judge this path will only block it, you will be more willing to allow your body to intelligently lead you into the pose.

The journey into the pose involves constraints. In understanding the pose, we are often specifying what we don’t want, what we are seeking to avoid. It is only then that we can let go of the habits that blind us to what is truly happening in our bodies when we are in the pose.

Even with this approach, there are risks. So, it should be understood that no pose is risk free, but the risks can be consciously undertaken. The risks I want to take are one of integration of mind and body, being more present.

OK, finally, I can talk about the poses I do in the class. There are three poses I do pretty much every class because everyone does them and everyone (including me) can benefit from doing them better. They are:

Standing, sitting and lying on the ground. Then there are the transitions between them.

If yoga is to benefit you in every day life, that’s all you need. The rest are just fun. Since I like having fun, I throw in lots of other asanas. But I do so because I want to have fun.

I’m not interested in doing asanas because they are good for me (or my students). The world is full of grim faced yogis who are doing the pose because they think it is doing them good. And the less fun they are having, the weirder their philosophy as to why they should suffer. It is not unique to the yoga world, my local park is full of people speed walking with absolutely no enjoyment of the act because their doctor told them that walking is good for them.

So, maybe you get to do headstand. There again, maybe not.

You will probably do forward bends, downward dog, lunges, triangle and the warrior poses. But it depends on where you’re at and sometimes it also depends on where I’m at as well.

So finally, you’re not going to the class to learn the poses. You’re going to the class because you are learning to trust a natural process that allows you to be effortlessly present no matter what pose you are in during your daily life. You’ll be put in places in your body which require you to be inventive, creative and above all, adaptable. And then whatever pose you do will be an antidote to whatever ails you.

In the process, we all get to have fun!

See you in class.

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.