Archive for the ‘Teaching Yoga’ Category

Wrist Exercises, Alexander Technique and Yoga

Monday, July 2nd, 2018

I often hear other Yoga teachers asking questions about the right exercise for a particular condition. This is a question that I posted an answer to in a Yoga Facebook group which illustrates Alexander Technique thinking about those types of questions.

Question: I have a question about supporting wrists. One of my regular students runs a cafe and from years working in hospitality has over extended her wrists in both directions. I know poses to stretch wrists and help with and prevent arthritis but not so many to provide stability and strength and help with that pattern of over stretching. ..she’s able to do poses like cat, downward dog and plank. .. it would be great to find some regular practices she can to do to help.

Note to non yoga people: cat, downward dog and plank all involve being on all fours and supporting part of your body weight with your hands.

I’ve worked with people with wrist problems, usually over use injuries caused by too long at the computer and then getting over enthusiastic about gym/yoga stuff.

Here’s my thinking on this: If your student is able to do cat, downward dog and plank then she might not have a wrist problem. She has a what FM Alexander called a use problem. That is, she’s getting herself into a panic in the complex dynamic of her life. From that place she is putting force and effort through those joints in a way that isn’t supported by her body’s natural design.

You could give her exercises and poses from now until forever and they will probably be of limited use. She needs to get to the heart of why she is mis-using her wrists in the first place.

Alexander Technique can help because there’s a clear pedagogical goal of giving students the tools they need to investigate the root causes of their problems. Then Yoga poses could be a way of illustrating these tools. This type of thinking is 180 degrees away from the normal exercise mentality which pervades many movement practices. It’s the idea that if only you know the right exercise, your problems will be fixed. Instead, if we are learning the fundamental principles underlying all movement then we’ll be able to flexibly apply what we know to any situation.

Back to the wrists. In my experience, people who have wrist problems almost always tighten and brace in other parts of their arm structure. They believe that their arms start at the glenohumeral joint and completely ignore the deep connections their arms have to all parts of our torso.

It’s like their arm is just the sleeve of a t-shirt and has no connections to the rest of the t-shirt.

When they do this, there is no dynamic self adjusting movement within the collar bones and shoulder blades or clear relationship between head, tail, arms and the spine. Instead, the collar bones and shoulder blades are usually braced and frozen down on the ribs. They have an inherent internal model of stability which involves freezing and bracing rather than stability being the result of tuning into our bodies’ natural self adjusting micro movements.

I also usually check their bodies’ keystone relationships. Are they able to centre their pelvis? Are they able to move their heads easily at the top of their spine? If these are out, then they can have domino effect on the periphery.

Being curious and interested in why she thinks she needs to over extend her wrists in both directions while she’s at work will be a good start. It could be that she’s over extending her wrists because she’s shut down her natural range of movement else where in her arm structure or spine. Once you have a feel for that, there’s a good chance that the exercise she needs will present itself.

A good resource for these types of thinking is Liz Kock’s Core Awareness, Donna’s books and Bruce Fertman Teaching by Hand, Learning by heart.

Another interesting way to look at wrists is here:

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.

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.

How long does it take to fix my shoulder?

Friday, February 9th, 2018

Last year, I had a student with shoulder tension come to me for a series of lessons. His osteopath had recommended yoga.

We talked a bit and then he pointed to his shoulder and asked ‘How long does it take?’ He wanted to know how long it would take to fix his shoulder.

My answer, after thinking about it for a while was: ‘3-5 years’.

His response: ‘Huh!!?’

Here’s why it can take that long.

Because the change towards resolving the shoulder tension usually isn’t that long. A few lessons should see some progress. But the problem is that tension will come back. That’s because it’s rooted in habit. Not just superficial habit, but patterns of thought attitude and behaviour which have been around a long time and are hard to change.

Because deep change is difficult. It takes time and it takes practice. Both are big challenges, particularly in the beginning.

Because the change that needs to be made is immediate and simple. Simple is not easy. There’s nowhere to hide. You get it or you don’t. And most of the time you don’t. Most of the time I don’t either. That can be very confrontational, particularly if you have a strong thing about being right or about being perfect.

In essence, you practice over and over again to get something that is an overnight success.

So a lot of the 3-5 years is spent being compassionate about not getting it.

About dealing with the frustration and anxiety that brings up. About learning to practice with a strong desire for progress and at the same time letting go of any attachment to results.

Here’s the thing, if you do that, you’ll get results. And those results will be rich, amazing and bring you back to yourself. The practice is something where you can be you, without some expectation of what you can or can’t do. Then there’s a good chance that you’ll fix that shoulder thing.

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.

Yoga and Alexander technique: possibilities for pain free movement

Friday, September 29th, 2017

Yoga tends to attract people with unusually large ranges of movements. At the top of that large range are people who persist long enough to become senior teachers with photogenic practices. It creates a distortion field in our perception of what’s possible when we only look at those people doing poses in photos and videos.

We hit a restriction, assume that it’s muscular, it’s our fault, we’re bad people. We’re desperate to fast forward through the difficult bits, we feel ashamed and power on through

Then we hit some pain and assume that there’s something badly wrong, we’re about to die.

What if pain, restriction, guilt or shame was a path to waking up into calmness and not a signal to blunder around in a panicky way desperately looking for someone to save you?

I’m asking myself: what would that shame and guilt free practice look like?

Well, restriction comes from tight muscles/fascia and compression of joints. A practice which is full of shame is going to mean that you’re just not going to be there, just interested to see if the restriction is something that will resolve itself with practice or something that is an absolute limit.

What if I treated all restriction as a place of possibility? Then see if there’s more possibility for movement. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t.

What would it be like to be skilled, honest and open as I meet these experiences as they arise? As I go into more challenging movements for my body, what emotional skills do I need to be able to meet these challenges in an honest way?

I learnt something really important when I was assisting Donna Farhi in July 2017. Even though she had a very serious injury, she was comfortable. She was comfortable because she was utterly honest about her limits and used them with great integrity.

I learned that you don’t have to be uncomfortable or in pain even when up against really challenging physical limitations.

For me, it’s not about the result (nice though it might be), it’s about asking interesting questions and taking time to explore the answers that really makes the difference.

I’ve been asking these questions for the last 10 years as a teacher and sharing this process with students. Maybe I can help you ask some interesting questions and get answers of your own? Check out my one to one sessions here.

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?

Workshop on vision, brain and movement

Friday, September 15th, 2017

I did a 3 hour workshop in September 2017 on brains, vision and movement. I wanted to see if there was a way of combining 3 disciplines that I’ve studied for a while, Yoga, The Alexander Technique and Eyebody. It was the first time I had brought some ideas about how our brain works into a workshop.

We spent an hour playing around with noticing the difference between what the way that our bodies actually worked as opposed to how we had grown up thinking that they worked. This is the Alexander technique concept of body mapping. I did a whistle stop tour head/tail and then legs and arms.

We figured out where the top of our head was, the bottom (hint: it isn’t the bottom of the jaw). Then we did head / body games to figure out how our heads actually rested on the top of our spine.

Then we figured out where our brain was. Everyone closed their eyes and pointed to their brain. Differed a lot, some people pointed to their forehead. Others to the back or middle of head. As a teacher, that for me was one of the interesting learning points, that we all have very different ideas about what our brain is.

It made me realise that for me now, my brain is inside my whole head and it has a long tail of nervous system running down my spine with nerves branching out to every part of my body.

We did another hour, this time with a simple sun salutation from Yoga. We were exploring what it was like to embody the Eyebody principle of vision leads, brain, eye and body follows.

The last part of the class was on activities that everyone brought to the class.

Two people in the class wanted to work on a computer. The common theme for both people was how they interfered with their arm structure. What I noticed as was, the act of focussing on the screen ended up with both people tightening their shoulders because they had disconnected to the arm support from below. I needed to remind them that the bottom most muscle of their arms actually goes into their tail, that most of the superficial muscle layer of the back of our bodies is arm. Once I had brought this back into their body through guided touch, they were both able to notice a difference.

One chap was a motor cycle courier and wanted to work with this. We worked a lot with being alert and yet relaxed. I helped him with some guided touch around neck and shoulders and that helped him find some space within his shoulders and arms.

Then somebody wanted to work on a the cobra pose in Yoga. Like many people who try this pose, I noticed that the moment that weight was put on the hands, she tightened up. I suggested finding more support from below by lengthening out legs.

I asked people what was useful about the workshop. People found things like left / right eye connection, the body mapping and the linking of vision to movement useful.

Yoga and Alexander technique: the art of seeing a whole person

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

When we do yoga or Alexander technique, we have an intention of being whole, of not dividing ourselves in a confusing set of parts.

Good intention, but how does that work in practice?

I’ve just finished assisting a teacher who is well-known in the yoga world called Donna Farhi on a 4 and a half day intensive on moving from the core. She’s a great yoga teacher and author. I’ve learnt a lot from her way of inquiring deeply into movement and the patterns behind movement. There were 3 of us assistants and around 50 students, many of them also yoga teachers. So, a busy class with lots of very knowledgeable people.

Assisting is like watching the patterns made by a flock of birds. Patterns in movement appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. Being able to help a student requires that I see the pattern and suggest a change at the right moment. Sometimes I’m right there. More often than I’d like, I’m behind or in front of that crucial moment. It’s a great metaphor for life as an effective teacher, there are lots of powerful distractions and teaching interventions need to be focussed, short and timely if they have a chance to survive.

Back to the seeing from wholeness. When we look at another person, we tend to focus on their face. We’re social beings and faces contain lots of useful information about how our interactions are going. If we’re attracted to that person, we look at er… other bits. And that’s it. We don’t really register those areas of the body not considered essential for social or sexual interactions.

Think about it, there are probably whole web sites devoted to your favourite movie star’s rear end. Not so many devoted to their left elbow.

So I’ve spent some time in looking at areas of my students that don’t usually register. Their toes, their elbows, their wrists, their knees. I got this tip from Alexander teacher Bruce Fertman; who has devoted many hours of study to the art of seeing the whole person.

It paid off with one student who was doing Warrior II pose in the one of the morning sun salutations. It was a pose that the students spent a minute or two. It’s a complex three dimensional shape. Like a lot of yoga students in this pose, I noticed this student seemed to have strain in her arms. She seemed to be pulling them up with a lot of effort.

If I had started working on her arms instead of seeing the whole person, I would have missed a little thing that she did with her toes. They seemed to have a life of their own, pulling away from the floor at intervals. I asked her if she would be willing to let her toes rest quietly on the floor. Instant transformation in her whole body, including her arms.

Afterwards she told me that she came into a whole different experience of a more intuitive, instinctive way of being in the pose.

The tension in her toes was just enough to block her experience of being whole.

Then there was a chap whose Tadasana looked full of strain. Tadasana is basically just standing and we’re designed to be able to stand upright with very little effort. Somehow, that message hadn’t reached this chap. He was pulling his upper body backwards in space with considerable effort and tension. If you looked at him side on, it looked like he was leaning backwards and pulling himself down to the ground.

I worked with him to find another balance. And didn’t have much luck. When I talked to him later, he told me that if he couldn’t feel the ground in the way he was used to, then he was convinced that he had lost his balance and he didn’t like it. He was all about holding on to the ground, that’s where his idea of support came from. The work I did wasn’t totally lost though, when he did a balance pose, he was beautifully upright. The key seemed to be when he was distracted enough, he let go of the pulling down and back pattern. In the body/mind connection, I’d got the body part of it there, the mind would need more work.

And that’s the way it is with working in fast moving dynamic contexts; lots of mistakes as well as lots of successes.