Archive for the ‘Spirit of yoga’ Category

Street food Alexander for lifting heavy suitcases

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

I’m at an Alexander retreat as an assistant and we’re all studying how our arms connect to our bodies. In particular, the connections that our arms have to our bodies that we tend to overlook. We tend to overlook the connection from our armpit down to our tail (our lats). And we tend to overlook just how many arm muscles there are in the back of our body.

In fact most of the muscles that we can see when we look at a swimmer from the back are arm muscles.

We’ve done a few experiments and the teacher in charge, Midori, has worked with a couple of guys carrying a table to show us how to think of this area. You can see them visibly transforming into moving easier and stronger as she does the work with them.

I’ve been given 15 minutes to help a small group with carrying luggage.

Carrying luggage is a really interesting Alexander study. Firstly, it’s a study in timing. When you’re carrying luggage, you’re usually thinking about anything but actually carrying something. You’re thinking about catching your plane or how you’re going to get from a train station to where you’re going. In other words, you’re distracted.

Secondly, carrying luggage is an action where you transition from very little load to lots of load in a short space of time and rarely when your body is in an ideal state. You sit for a long time and then suddenly you need to get up and quickly carry luggage.

Thirdly, carrying luggage involves getting your arms and legs to work together, something most people find very challenging. I’ve found that a lot of my students make good progress when I ask them to move their arms from their back or move their legs from their back. Ask them to do both together and it’s another level of difficulty.

We were all practising lifting a normal largish suitcase. I noticed one woman very carefully bent down to get her hands close to the suitcase and then froze into place just before lifting. Finally, she picked up the luggage as though it might bite her. When I checked the rest of the group, they were all doing something along the lines of think, freeze then try and move.

This is a situation that calls for street food Alexander.

Street food Alexander is a quick something to help you in busy situations. Where there’s no time for leisurely gourmet Alexander. It’s something that organises us quickly and allows us to move into picking up the luggage at a good pace.

So, street Alexander is ‘head, tail, move’. It can be shorted to ‘head, move’. Each word has a light but definite emphasis and when the moving part happens, that’s when you move. There is a natural pause between ‘head’ and ‘move’ to allow your body to organise itself. When you say ‘move’ that’s exactly what you do.

You move even if you think it isn’t working. Even if you can’t feel anything changing. Even if you know you made a mistake and you want to stop and try again to get it right this time. You still move. Otherwise the freeze habit takes over.

We got it all working a bit more easily. I found I needed to be very tolerant of imperfection. The idea was to get everyone just a tiny little bit more organised and then let them move. When I’m getting people to pick up the pace, it has to be super simple otherwise confusion starts creeping in.

Once confusion is there, its close friend freeze is never far behind.

We all learned something these experiments, me probably more than the students!

How asanas end up being difficult

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

At the end of a recent workshop, one of my students was doing Bakasana (child’s pose). It’s a pose done lying face down on the ground with your legs folded underneath you. I looked over and s
he didn’t look at all comfortable.

She said that she found it difficult and then tried a series of different self adjustments in rapid succession.
 I started to wonder about that. What was going on for her?

After asking some questions, it turned out that She expected it should be easy for her because when she went to a class, the teacher told the students to rest and relax in child’s pose. So, she had the idea that this should be easy for her and when it wasn’t she immediately started to think that there was something wrong.

What if, I asked, if she dropped the ‘should’ in her idea of the pose and just went with what it was? It started to help.

That’s the interesting thing about having a real body and doing yoga. Some poses are easy and manageable and some aren’t so much. Most people love child’s pose and find it soothing and restful. But not all.

We’re wired to frame at least some of our happiness about how we fit into a group. If you’re in a group and everyone seems to be enjoying child’s pose and you’re not, it’s all too easy to frame it as you not really belonging.

Once that thought takes root, then all sorts of difficult thoughts spin up about not being good enough, being the odd one out.

When I think about setting up a class where everyone can belong, I never frame that belonging on how well or not you are doing in the pose. I’m interested in using the pose to see what shows up. If it’s difficult, does the difficult you show up? Or can you be easy with what’s there? If it is easy, are you easy too or do you immediately switch off, go into a mind wandering state?

Then the asanas are tools we use to reveal the camouflage that hides our natural design. 

In so doing, we can find that the poses are actually simple and easy as long as we are willing to go at our own pace.

Working with wholeness, how to remember you are already whole?

Friday, March 9th, 2018

I’m in an Alexander Technique lesson in 2017 and I’ve got my forearms on the table. My teacher is asking me to pay attention to the opposition between my fingers lengthening forward on the table and my legs and feet lengthening down to the ground.

All this is AT jargon for remembering to be whole in any action that we do.

We can just remember that we’re whole. That’s a good start.

When we remember that our wholeness includes a relationship between parts of us, then that idea of wholeness become richer. Oppositions are a way to remember wholeness by paying attention to two things at once, head against feet. Or left hand against right hand.

It’s a great way of bringing tone into a movement. And it’s a great way of reminding ourselves that we tend to rush. When we rush, we are usually preoccupied with a small part of the thing we are doing.

Have fun with oppositions, an elegant way to remember that you are whole!

Why does it take so long to get results?

Wednesday, February 21st, 2018

I’ve written about a student who wanted know about why it took so long to get results.

This is why.
Because it takes that long for numbness to wear off.
Because we don’t believe it’s possible even though we see it each time we go to class or have a lesson.
Because there are parts of us who need to hide behind the trees for a few years to make sure that it’s safe to come out.
Because it’s a skill that’s just as rich as playing music.
Because the whole thing is really fun and we just like it.
Because it’s really hard and we need that long to get over how hard it all is.
Because we see the gap between where we are right now and where we could be and we either despair and give up or we power on through. When we power on through, we tend to just repeat the same mistakes. When we give up, nothing changes.
Because it just is.

So why put yourself through all that?

I can’t say why you should. I can just say what I’ve found when I show up and do my practice without needing something from it.

I just practice.

Well, I enjoy it. Not always, there are some days when I’m sleep deprived and would rather just stay in bed. Mostly though, it’s become something that’s just me. I used to get anxious that my practice wasn’t the same as other people and therefore maybe wasn’t as good. Now I don’t care, my practice feeds something that makes me more real, more alive.

The more I practice, the better I get at it and the easier it is to get results.

And every now and then, I get instantaneous success!

It doesn’t have to take years, it’s just that sometimes it does.

Stiff people don’t exist, they’re a figment of yoga teachers’ imagination

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

I’m sitting in Paul Grilley’s class about 10 years ago. He’s famous for debunking a lot of myths about flexibility by going back to looking at the surprisingly large variations in bone and joints.

Up to that point, I was convinced that I had very stiff hips and if only I did all the hip openers enough, I would have ‘open’ hip joints. He started talking about the variations in hip joint movement, that some people are naturally good at internal rotation, some at external rotation. Something about it clicked in my body and I went from an experience of stiff hips to hips that were moving easily.

My hips hadn’t changed in that moment, so what did? Well, what changed is that for a moment I was working with my structure and not the story about the structure I thought I should have, if only I did enough yoga. It was my first step into mapping my own structure.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see the mechanism that comes into play when we try and move from a faulty sense of how our body is.

I had miss-mapped where the joint was, I thought it was further back than it was. So when I wanted to move my legs, I was telling my muscles to move an area that couldn’t move in that way. So, my muscles tried to work to stop the actual joint moving in order for the phantom joint to move. And since the only movement possible was in the actual joint, that was where the movement happened. So my muscles were trying to hold the joint and move it at the same time. I had a belief my hips were stiff and my faulty mapping of the joint was making that happen.

From Paul Grilley (

From Paul Grilley (

There’s another way to be stiff. Even if I have a good map of my hip joint, if I ask it to move beyond what it’s capable of doing, muscles will fire to protect my joint.

And then there’s the last way to be stiff, which is not to move enough for your body. If you don’t move enough, your muscles start gluing themselves together. (What is enough movement is a highly individual thing). This is genuine stiffness but is easily cured by movement. The final way is because you’re ill or coming down with something.

So, I’ve need to map my hip joints as a shape in my body. And I’ve also needed to have a sense of where the absolute limits to movement in that joint are. The absolute limits are when bone meets bone.

What would it be like to let go of the cultural story about stiffness? What would it be like to have an accurate map of our internal shape and range of movement AND then pick a practice that works from that knowledge?

Wish I’d known this earlier, it would have saved me many years of not understanding my structure and then trying to retrofit movements on my structure that later proved to be not a good idea!

Want to figure out how to do this for yourself? There’s still some spaces in my workshop in a few week’s time.

Workshop, Saturday 25th November 2017, Creating a yoga practice

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

When we start to practice yoga, we generally do someone else’s practice. We go to a class and we do the poses. Many people find this an enriching and empowering experience. Some find that these practices suit them and they can continue them as a life long practice.

But after a while, we can notice that there are gaps in these practices, we can get stuck, even end up trying to do a practice which injures us.

So this class is about creating your own practice by looking at your life as it is right now and then figuring what you truly need (as opposed to what you think you need) and then setting up ways to get those needs met. It will include:

  • Looking at the basics, how you stand, you walk, you lie down and sit. These are areas which most of us do in ways that create suffering and extra stress 
  • Setting up simple and effective ways to know your own body without become overwhelmed with anatomical information 
  • Setting up ways to integrate how we see with how we move. 
  • Looking at yoga poses that come from a deep understanding of your body and allow you to grow. Rather than retrofitting a yoga pose on to an already stressed body and then wondering why it doesn’t seem to be working 
  • Looking at the psychology of practice, how to use insights from neuroscience, psychology and the wisdom traditions to set up a practice that is simple, satisfying and possible for you to do enjoyably and well. 

If you are a teacher, this approach is also very useful for generating further material for your classes, or just helping a student solve a particular issue that they bring to class

If you are a student this approach is useful for developing your practice further and bringing you the results that you want.

The workshop will be based on insights from the ways that Alexander technique and Eyebody can help a yoga practice.

It will contain a mixture of guided movements/poses and then will have some space for personal work on poses within the group setting.

Click here to apply for the workshop.

Is there one thing that can make your life a bit easier right now?

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

I was a student on an Alexander technique retreat in July and I decided to offer a morning yoga class. So, for 4 consecutive mornings I lead a one hour class.

The overall theme was working with core stability in relationship to ground, gravity, space and the light. Quite a bit of the class was done lying down on the floor. I was careful to keep offering students the right to make a change in the pose if that change suited them better. At least, that’s what I thought I was doing.

On the last day, I got them to do a long lying down session. We started off fine and then I noticed one young woman becoming progressively more fidgety. No problem, I thought, I’m sure she’ll modify the pose if it’s uncomfortable for her.

We reached the end of the class and she came over to me and asked me ‘that was really uncomfortable, is there anything I can do about that?’ The problem was her sacrum at the back of her pelvis. Lying on the ground didn’t feel good.

The solution was a simple folded blanket under her pelvis.

Instant change for the better.

It made me realise that even with lots of encouragement, we all tend to hold on to stuff that makes us feel bad, even though the solution to it is often simple and readily available.

So that’s my question to you:

Is there something that’s making you feel pain? (Whether physical or psychological).

Could you stop doing that right now and empower yourself to choose a simple solution that’s right there in front of you?

Yoga and Alexander technique: The one thing you need for a healthy brain

Friday, September 1st, 2017

I’m walking from the South Bank to Waterloo station in London and it’s a really busy place. Lots and lots of people. I’m minding my own business and enjoying a lunch time walk when something looks odd. It’s as though all the people who are in my field of vision were actors in a film I was directing, and they’re all a bit hostile towards me.

I’ve just had a rare insight into how my brain and my visual system come together to create my current reality. My internal director is having to work really hard to project this vision of a hostile crowd on to the people who are around me.

I let go, I’m just in the middle of a crowd of people. My whole reality changes and all I can see is the people as they are, not as I imagine them to be. I feel a whole lot better and my eyesight improves as well.

Caroline Williams, a New Scientist journalist, in her book “Override: my quest to go beyond brain training and take control of my mind” lists three things to help your brain health. They’re surprisingly mundane. Diet, exercise and meditation.

It’s a bit surprising because diet and exercise don’t seem to be much about brains, but it turns out our brains are hugely influenced by our gut bacteria and much of our brain is about movement.

We all know that diet and exercise is good for us so I’m skipping those in this article. I will come back to these topics because many people are exercise averse and struggle to control their diet.

What about all those clever mind exercises that are supposed to stop Alzheimer’s in it’s tracks? Well, 50% of neuro scientists think they’re a load of rubbish.

In one study around of 11,000 people, found that brain puzzles and games do nothing to make you smarter in general. They do make you a bit better at the game you have been practising, but even then the effects don’t last very long. (Owen AM et al., (2010) ‘Putting Brain Training to the Test’, Nature, vol. 465, pp. 775– 78.)

There again, 50% think they are either harmless or quite effective. So, right now, take your pick.

Back to my internal movie director experience. My biggest insight that day is that it was my brain’s orientation to the world that was off. That orientation was a mixture of physical alignment of my body, mental focus, my intentions for living and what was in my field of vision.

And that for me is the one thing that I really need to have a healthy brain.

It’s that aspect of brain work that I’m focussing on in my workshop on the brain next week.

Our brains really like to be connected to the world, interacting with the world through our senses and our ideas about reality.

It’s our intention for presence, to be fully here and not somewhere in the past or future that makes a difference to our brain. This mental intention for presence wakes us up.

Once we have this, then we go to specific techniques that will allow us to realise this intention.

Alexander work, with it’s very nuanced ideas of the head and spine relationship means that our brain is in a good physical relationship with the world. I’ve been experimenting with this further by wondering which how this affects my brain inside my head. In particular, the thalamus and optic nerve area. I’ve found that my head can be in good relationship to my spine (forward and up in Alexander jargon) and my brain can still be slumped. I’ve been exploring the ideas of Eyebody to bring some awareness to this area. A lot of visual information goes through that middle of our brain and some of it ends up getting stuck in our memories.

What takes us out of this easy orientation to our environment? It’s our brain in survival mode. When we go into survival mode and the situation doesn’t warrant it (that is we are not about to be killed) we start believing things that aren’t real. We pay too much attention to things that don’t really matter.

It seems horribly simple to say, yet this is the thing that really has made all the difference to me: the intention for presence, to be here and now both inside my body and fully in the environment. That leads to a small change in the physical orientation of my brain, my eyes, my head and then the rest of my body follows.

My workshop on yoga and the brain next week is full but I’ll be running it again soon. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll drop you a note when I next put it on.

How much is enough?

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

I met him and his 2 children on my first teaching job. I was 17 and was teaching a multi-millionaire and his 2 children how to sail a small boat. After being on the boat for a while, the children became more and more restless. They kept asking their dad for something really expensive. I can’t remember what it was but I remember being surprised at how readily he said yes. And even more surprised at how little happiness this brought about in his 2 kids.

Think about the last time you ate an ice cream or a bit of chocolate and really enjoyed it. It was great, right? So, if that made you happy, think about what 10 ice creams would do. 10 times happier, obviously.

Actually, not really. It turns out what we need constraints to be really happy. One ice cream can make you really happy because you know that you can repeat it but you choose not to, you have other things to do which are more meaningful to you (and have less risk of expanding your waist line).

If I had to say the one thing that Alexander’s discoveries brought to my yoga practice that really changed it for the better, it wouldn’t be his discovery of the head / spine relationship.

It was his concept of too much too soon. Of overdoing things and ending up worse off. He noticed that people tended to rush through life, tended to want something without really thinking through how they were going to get it.

He called it end gaining.

In a yoga world that was busy getting flexibility at any cost, the concept of end gaining turned out to be a life saver. End gaining in the Alexander world is a very sophisticated yet simple inquiry into how much is enough. It is embedded in the way that Alexander people approach their work. That simple question of ‘how much is enough’ turns out to be one of life’s really deep questions.

When it comes to yoga, how much increased flexibility will make us happier? Function better, be easier in ourselves? It turns out that the answer to that is ‘not a lot’. Our joints have absolute limits which come about when bone meets bone. And there are limits to do with the state of your soft tissue (muscles, connective tissue, fascia).

One of the earliest lessons I do with my yoga students is to get them to figure out their current range of movement. Then figure out what the difference is between bone meeting bone (something they should never go beyond) and the limits set by their soft tissue (something they can work on). I wish someone had done something similar to me when I first started yoga lessons, it would have saved me a lot of frustration and anxiety.

There are lots of very interesting questions about how to get to a place of an expanded range of movement.

  • How many poses do we need to do each day?
  • How long do we need be in the pose?
  • When do we need to those poses?
  • How often do we need to do a particular pose? Once a day? Once a month?

These are questions I regularly ask myself and my students. The answer varies, but the process is a lot more fun than pushing your body beyond your limits and then spending weeks or even months trying to get over it.

Are your shoulders killing you after a long journey?

Friday, April 7th, 2017

We’re traveling a lot these days. The normal commute is 25 minutes for people in USA and 54 minutes in UK. Then there are all those business and leisure trips.

I’ve realised over the years that I’ve bought into a fantasy version of traveling. In this fantasy, I can travel long distances without preparation, suffer no discomfort from the journey and be able to instantly recover.

I’ve wondered where this fantasy comes from, after all long trips were treated with a great deal of respect in the days where you had to use a horse or a ship to get where you needed to go. Perhaps there was no advertising industry to persuade us that traveling was entirely without difficulty, discomfort or stress?


For me, there are some stages to travel.

The art of preparation.

Stuff takes time. It takes time to pack. It takes time to plan a route, to book accommodation and transport. The funny thing about planning is that most of us get it wrong. We assume that it takes 20 minutes to pack a bag. It probably does but we forget… well, life happening. During that 20 minutes someone will call you. You’ll get distracted by deciding whether it’s green sock or blue socks. You’ll forget where you put your passport, get in huge panic, realize its where it should be and then take 10 minutes to calm down.

Then there’s the journey.

One of the stresses of the journey is caused by forgetting that a lot of other people will be doing the same as you. That it’s inconvenient for everyone, not just you. That you have absolutely no control of whether that train or plane will leave on time.

That there are long periods where nothing is happening other than sitting and being followed by short periods of intense activity and focus.

Are you able to sit quietly for long periods and then transition into intense (often weight bearing activity)? Or do you find that you that you either zone out or stress out when you’re sitting only to be startled when you reach your stop and need to get off with a bag?

Here’s a tip to help that:

Switch on your core. Your core is a very loose definition (anatomists get upset about us talking of the core) of some of the muscles that are towards the centre of your body. We tend to switch them off when we collapse or tighten up.

Guess what one of the best ways to do that is? Free your neck so that your core engages effortlessly. Free as giving yourself permission to activate the resources you need on demand. Free as giving yourself permission to be connected and present to what’s needed right now.

After the journey.

After the journey there needs to be stretches, relaxation, restoration. Joints get compressed and need time to decompress. Stiffness and swelling needs time and some body TLC to drop out of the system.

The best way to drop down an over activated nervous system, stressed out muscles is Svasana (if you’re a yogi) or the lying down procedure if you’re an AT person.

Check out some further tips about how to get into svasana in my article Yoga and lying down to rest.