Archive for the ‘Spirit of yoga’ Category

What I’ve learned from standing up and sitting down from a chair

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Chair work in the Alexander technique is looking at how we transition from sitting to standing and back again. There are some teachers who think that it’s great and some who think it has nothing to do with the Alexander technique. I’ve had lessons with both types. One of my early teachers, Patrick McDonald was a big fan of chair work. Misha Magdov still is. Bruce Fertman and Jeremy Chance are not keen on it. In recent years I’ve moved towards an approach which is based on the activity that you’re doing right now.

Here’s what I’ve learned from doing chair work:

Chair work is a form. Forms are repeated activities that allow you to see your habits more clearly. The repetition allows you to know what’s new and what’s different from the last time you did the form. Form allows you to store information about yourself that you can forget in other contexts.

I learned that my conception of how to stand up and sit down, those seemingly inconsequential and even trivial every day movements was faulty. Like a dog with a bone, I hung on to an idea of how to do the movement.

I learned that trying to do a simple movement like standing without being fully supported and present results in a dis-coordinated movement. When the movement is done as a whole, force and energy sequences effortlessly through my joint spaces and the core of my body. I’m clear on what initiates the movement and how to get the support of the earth.

I learned that timing is everything in movement, engage the legs too soon and it blocks the movement. When I have a faulty idea of the movement, I’m confused or just trying too hard, timing goes. When it all works, everything engages in the right order at the right time.

I learned that if my idea of the primary movement excludes my core, the movement doesn’t work. It ends up with a tell tale little jerk as my pelvis leaves the chair.

I learned that when I move my body closer to the earth, it’s best to let gravity do the work. When I move my body closer to the earth I’m trusting my muscles to catch me as I fall. If I do it another way, I tend to over muscle the movement, to over do the catch and end up bracing.

I learned that my releasing my head at the top of my spine gave me access to co-ordination and integration in a way that still surprises me 30 years after I took my first Alexander lesson.

I learned that extraordinary ease is possible, even from the most unpromising and difficult place.

Here’s what I didn’t learn from doing chair work:

I didn’t learn the Alexander technique from chair work, that’s something I’m still figuring out for myself. Chair work put me somewhere in the area of Alexander technique. Perhaps that’s the best a teacher can do, create what they hope are the right conditions and let the student discover for themselves what it’s all about.

I didn’t learn spiral, three dimensional, asymmetrical movements from standing up and sitting down. That had to wait until I started yoga. I was confused when I tried to apply the stuff I learned in my Alexander lessons to these movements, it took me a while to translate the symmetrical movements I learned in the early 80’s in AT to the asymmetrical movements in yoga. And that’s another process which I’m still learning to this day.

I didn’t learn about other movement patterns like navel radiation (from the centre of gravity out), or developmental movement patterns. That had to wait until I did some work with yoga teachers who had done Feldenkrais and Body mind centring.

Here’s what I think about chair work now:

It’s fun! When I was learning with teachers who just did chair work, I believed that it was necessary for me to do chair work in order to learn the Alexander technique. When I started learning with teachers who didn’t do chair work, a lot of anxiety about belonging dropped away. Now, it’s something that I can do if I choose.

Sometimes when I’ve been sitting for a while, I’ll find a way to get out of the chair I’m sitting in which brings me home into my body. Often, that’s thinking of my head mediating the movement. Sometimes I’ll have fun coming up with other ways to do it. Sometimes I’ll just move without trying to be conscious in any way. I’m not sure if my chair use is improving but my sense of being at home in my body definitely is.

Yoga, Alexander technique and the art of exploration

Friday, December 16th, 2016

The art of explorationWhen 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.

Even if a particular sequence or approach to the practice works, there are times when we need a more individualized and personalized approach.

This is where cultivating the skills of exploration, inquiry and experimentation are useful. They are ways of setting your own learning goals, whether it is to modify an existing sequence or come up with completely new sequences. And as we progress towards a more mature or advanced practice, we’ll be moving from generic approaches to something that is uniquely your own.

This can a phase of your practice which is exciting and full of potential. But, there are many people who avoid truly making a practice their own through modifying or changing it for fear of being excluded from a group, a method or by a teacher from whom they’ve studied for many years.

Unless they are successfully negotiated, these all too human fears mean that the practice can atrophy. The students prioritise fitting in above their own individual needs. In truth, we need both a communal, shared practice and one that honours our uniqueness.

Most methods will give you a form of some sort, something that you repeat again and again under the guidance of a teacher. Hopefully, this is a deeply meaningful practice that will give skills in more than just the form. But what happens when you want to vary it?

The first thing is create safety. I want to set it up so that when I practice, and when I teach other people to practice, there’s a good chance of success. There’s a whole skill to learned in setting up an exploration, an experiment that feels manageable, contains some challenge and also feels safe.

How to do that?
Deciding what you want to do, when and where. Then reflect.
Set intentions. Intentions are wishes for emotional conditions that will support the practice. I find it good to start with intentions for the type of emotional support that can go missing in action. In my eagerness to succeed in the practice, or just because I’m in a little bit of a rush, I start to lose contact with important parts of my emotional support.

In fact one of the early warnings of a practice that is heading towards strain and injury is a practice that has lost contact with support, physical or emotional.

Here’s what I notice going missing most often in my practice.
Truth and honesty about my own body. So; setting an intention to be with the truth about your body is a good start. But being brutally honest, while a good idea to unblock something that has really been blocked, can sometimes lack compassion.
So, compassion is a good one to add in. One of the early warning signs of a practice that has got into fear based learning is a loss of empathy or compassion. It’s the sign of an inner dialogue that is starting to go towards finger pointing and blame.

Why is all this important? Well, we know that human beings perform poorly under normal conditions when under influence of fight / flight / freeze / fidget conditions. Your adrenal glands are over stimulated, you have a number of hormones circulating in your body which result in decreasing sensitivity so that you can literally save your own life. That’s the problem, unless there’s a real life threatening situation, then you are just giving yourself problems. This is why it’s important to pay a lot of attention to creating safe environments for learning, we’re moving out of habitual trauma based patterns into something more resilient.

So how do we create containers for safety and structure?
The containers I use are:

1. Time.
Just setting aside time, preferably a regular slot is in itself incredibly good for structure and safety. It affirms all sorts of good things about practice. This can be a major obstacle for some, better to take a little time here and there if a regular time seems an unmanageable challenge. Then there are times within the practice, shorter is better than longer.
Like: for the next minute, I’m going to focus letting my breath happen.

2. Range.
I can always vary the range of my movement by choosing a different end point. Smaller better than bigger, you can always grow into bigger. I find that a common mistake in most beginner practices is to be ambitious with the range of movement and then find that either you have switched off when it comes to the quality of the movement, or find that you have powered on through.
Like: I’m going to move my arm and not worry about how far I go, only the quality of the movement in this moment.

3. Pace and rhythm.
Many yoga practices link breath to movement. It’s an easy, natural way to create pace and rhythm in movement which then creates structure. But all too often, that can become a habit. Why not try doing a movement without worrying about whether you should do it on an inhale or exhale? Why not explore seeing what your comfortable pace is and then consciously varying it? What happens? Do you get pushier the faster you go? Tend to switch off if you go slower?
Like: What does it feel like to do that movement slower and still be present? What does it feel like to do that movement faster and still be soft?

After exploration and experiment is done, then reflect. Not before or during! It’s another common mistake with movement practices, to decide in advance how it should feel or look and then to go back into habitual pushing or switching off.

Having started with a one size fits all practice and then going on to more explorative practice, I’ve found that my movements and practice have gained in flexibility, creativity and just plain enjoyment!

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, Alexander technique and decisions

Friday, September 9th, 2016

DecisionsI notice that when I have a conflict about decisions to make, that my head and my neck becomes strained and my arms become tight. It feels like my head is being pulled one way and then it is being pulled the other way.

What if every decision I made was the right one? What if there were just different paths to take rather than the right or wrong decisions?

So, I could take path one and that takes me through the swamp to start off with; but then after a while there’s some beautiful scenery and it becomes easier. Or, I could take path two and that takes me through some beautiful scenery to start off with but at some point I will need to figure out a way to get through the swamp.

Scenery vs Swamps?

What if beautiful scenery or swamps are really just part of the same thing? One is neither more difficult than the other nor easier, they both have different things to offer.

Then I could just be with my breathing, free up my neck a little more and see what comes up when I decide on a path and take action.

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.

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 positive thinking

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Who wouldn’t like to think positively? And keep doing it better? Probably most of us would admit to wanting to be better at positive thinking.

The trouble is, there is an inherent contradiction in the term positive thinking. We think thoughts. And once that thought comes to your concisous mind, you label it positive or negative.

So, it’s not the thoughts that are the problem, they are just thoughts. Our brain generates thoughts and associations in the same way that our gall bladder produces bile. What most people have difficulty with is unwanted thought patterns which repeat again and again like an old fashioned record stuck in a groove.

These unwanted thought patterns are sometimes a symptom of  tension or maybe illness in your body. And sometimes, the thoughts we label as negative are just things that we have difficulty with in our lives. I’ve noticed again and again that if I release tension in my body, my thought patterns change. So just doing some yoga and relaxing a bit might sort out the problem.

But that doesn’t always get to the source of the problem. Desikachar in ‘The Heart of Yoga’ talks about samskara (roughly translated as habit or conditioning) and getting to the root of the habit. With unwanted and persistent thoughts that are not generated by tension in your body or unresolved issues from your past, you need to stop the thought just as it arises and choose another thought before the negative thought begins. Since our brain generates associations very quickly, we need some way of becoming aware.

The best ways to break a habit are:

  • A meditative practice which allows us to observe thoughts and stop them before it all begins.
  • A form of mantra which is repeated again and again with the intention of replacing a bad habit or attitude with a better one.

It’s possible with practice but isn’t easy. Most of us are trying to deal with the thoughts after the fact. So some techniques which might be useful.

  • Acknowledging the positives can rebalance our thinking. A standard technique is taking time to acknowledge the good things in your life, the things you feel grateful for.
  • Find the context, the big picture. Telling yourself not to take it personally if someone rubs you up the wrong way, that they do it to everyone is an example.
  • Break out of any isolation that you might feel. Take time to acknowledge that other people are in the same position and also struggling with the same problems.
  • Have compassion for yourself. You are human and that means that you are imperfect and that’s still OK.
  • Find ways of dealing with stress, lack of sleep or improper nutrition in ways which suit your body and your personality.
  • Take time to reflect on the things that trigger the thoughts. Gradually learning to disable the triggers will give your mind a breathing space and allow you to meditate clearly on the causes of the thought in the first place.

There are many forms of meditation which allow you to see the root of the habits and choose different pathways. If you want to explore this, I can recommend getting hold of ‘A Path with Heart’ by Jack Kornfield. It’s beautifully written and gives many practical meditations.

 

 

If you want to explore replacing thoughts by using affirmations, then Louise Hay’s ‘Heal Your Life’ is a also good read.

 

 

 

 

If you want a very entertaining talk on happiness and positive thinking at work (a place a lot of people have difficulty being positive about), check out http://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work.html

This blog post arose out of some conversations in my intermediate yoga class, so thanks to Jo for bringing it up.

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
http://www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/50488.cfm?CategoryID=2382

Breast Cancer
http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/

Epithelial mesothelioma
http://www.mesotheliomasymptoms.com/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!