Archive for the ‘Teaching Yoga’ Category

Your shoulders don’t really exist

Friday, May 12th, 2017

Yesterday I had a student come to me for a one to one lesson. “What’s up?”, I asked. She rubbed the side of her neck and said she had neck pain and stiff shoulders. She seemed resigned, it was just the way it was. She has a busy London life and not much chance to relax.

When I asked moved her left arm upwards, it got half way and then got progressively stiffer as it went up. It felt like I was lifting a heavy weight.

I worked with her with my hands, and asked her to see what it was like to have arms that were connected to her tail and to the back of her head. There was an immediate difference in the quality of her organisation. It was like something softened and filled in along the whole of her torso. Her arm came up much a little more easily. Did that fix the problem? Not completely, we still had to work on sequencing. More on this next week.

Now, what are your shoulders? Where do they begin and where do they end? This might seem like an odd question, but there is considerable variety in what people imagine their shoulders do and where they are on your body.

When you think about this, place one of your hands on what you think are your shoulders. Is it the space between the side of your neck and top of your upper arm?

Here’s the strange thing about shoulders: they don’t really exist!

Huh? Well, anatomically, shoulders are just a part of your arm structure. It’s like having a long road with one part called Green Lanes and the other part called Yellow Road. They’re the same road, they just happen to have different names.

Your arms start at the base of your collar bones and go to your finger tips. Your shoulder blades in your back are a way for the muscles in your torso that connect your arms to your body to slide over your ribs.

How does that change things for you? Does it make them feel different? Take a moment and do some simple movements switching between the two ideas. One that your shoulders are completely separate from your arms. The other where your shoulders are just a convenient term for part of your arm structure.

Take this into your life, every so often, tune into yourself and try out the thought that your shoulders are just part of your arm structure.

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 and Alexander technique, workshop report

Friday, November 11th, 2016

WORKSHOPI ran a 3 hour workshop recently on ‘Yoga and the Alexander technique’. It was an introductory workshop aimed at people who had some yoga experience and wanted to find out more about the Alexander technique.

There were 5 people who came to the workshop from different backgrounds. Some were teaching yoga, others did yoga on an occasional basis.

Head / spine relationship

I decided to focus on head / spine integration as a way of integrating Alexander technique into yoga. It was an exploration of head leading the movement and the rest of the body following.

We did some very nice explorations of head neck where we did it in 3s, one person a head, another a neck and another a body. Then we tried to figure out how that person would move if their necks were totally relaxed. Or how they would move if their bodies were desperately trying to be a good yogi.

We did some very simple sun salutations seeing what came about when we allowed our heads to lead and our whole bodies to follow. There were lots of experiments, letting go of some perfect outcome.

We did some work in pairs during the sun salutation in finding a more neutral pelvis and tail. I used Robyn Avalon’s idea of finding a dinosaur tail rather than a dog tail (pelvis forward, tail tucked in) or a duck tail (pelvis back, tail pushing out). I gave the students some ideas about letting the pelvis float relative to the head of the femurs – most of the people I work with tend to lock their pelvis down on their legs. It was interesting for me that there was one person in the workshop who was already letting their pelvis float on their femurs, but was doing it too much. It was a good reminder that images and cues are always individual, what works for one doesn’t work for another.

We ended the asana practice with a supported restorative twist.

Alexander and yoga in everyday life

Then we did a section where everyone thought about something that was tricky for them in daily life. I used an idea from Jeremy Chance of asking people to think through their normal day and pick something. I also said that if they wanted to work on a yoga pose, that was really good too.

We had someone who wanted to work on trying to print out from a photocopier and talk to a colleague at the same time. We had someone who wanted to practice running, so we all got on our warm weather gear and took a walk outside. We had someone who wanted to work on how to put bolsters underneath the student’s legs in svasana to support them without feeling rushed or stressed. We had someone who wanted to practice her tai chi warms ups and someone who wanted to get to standing from sitting on the ground while carrying her toddler.

Each one needed something a little different and it was great for me to work individually with people. With most people in this class, the problem wasn’t their head / spine relationship but the fact they were so preoccupied with the activity they were doing that they had lost contact with their body. Just asking some people to think of themselves as a whole person in that situation seemed to really help bring everyone back into themselves. Often their head / spine relationship would just correct itself without any other help from me.

At the end, everyone was smiling and I felt great. When I asked them what they were going to take away from the class, the answers were, whole body, whole person moving, the idea that our jaws are separate from our heads.

Here’s a comment from one of the participants on the course:

I  enjoyed very much the workshop on Saturday the 5th, thank you. I got a lot out of it, you came across many points that were complete new to me, I keep thinking about them and try to remember and use them into everyday activities.

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!

Workshop: Yoga and the art of exploration – Saturday 10th September 2016

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

Click here to apply for this workshop

Cost is £28.

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.

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

What we need in order to have a more personalized approach is to cultivate skills of inquiry. It is the skill of learning how to set up a pose or part of a pose in a way that yields the results that we want. It is the skills of slowing down and taking time to figure out what it is that we need and building some poses from that. It is cultivating skills in self support, setting clear boundaries and deciding what we want and what we don’t want. We need to take stock of our skillset, notice where there are gaps and look for ways to learn those skills.

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.

It will cover the following

  • How to get started with ideas for your own enquiries
  • How to deal with overwhelm
  • How to balance the need for entrainment and repetition with the need for creativity and originality

It will contain a mixture of guided inquiries to establish where we are in our bodies, our minds, our emotions and then will have some space for personal enquiries within the group setting.

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

It is suitable for yoga practitioners of 1 year of more of yoga experience.

If you are a complete beginner, please call me to discuss whether this workshop would be suitable for you

Click here to apply for this workshop

The workshop will be limited to 6 people

Brain integration in Alexander technique and yoga

Friday, July 29th, 2016

brain_and_yogaThis is the first of a 2 part article on integrating our brain into our yoga or somatic practice. Our brains are an area of interest for many yogis. We either have injury or other problems in that area or some of our students do.

Then there is general increase in interest in neuro-science and the attempts to explain the recent advances for a general audience.

You might believe with all the recent publicity for neuro-science that scientists now have a good understanding about how the brain works as a unified whole but that’s not the case.

Larry W Swanson in his book ‘Brain Architecture’ points out

“..but ask 10 of the world’s leading neuroscientists how the brain work – how it think, feels, perceives, and acts as a unified whole – and you will get 10 very different answers”

So, when I do any investigation of this area in my yoga practice I want to be somewhat cautious, it’s not something I want to mess up and there’s a lot of difference opinions out there about how it works.

Where is the brain in our body?

Like a lot of things in our body, we tend to mis-map where it is. Take a look at what most people believe to be their head. Most of us think that the top of our head stops around the top of our eyes.

Brain map (2)

 

 

 

 

 

Actually, if we draw a line between our eyes and the back of our head, there’s quite a bit on top. And most of that bit on top is our brain.

brain is above the eyes

So why is this? Well brains don’t have the same degree of nerve endings that other parts of our body have. Our hands have a lot of nerves and we can map where our fingers end from having contact with a surface or just by the feeling in our finger-tips.

 

 

If you know that there’s a bit more above your normal idea of where your head ends, how does that change your awareness of how you move? When you take your brain for a walk, how does it feel to have more on top?

What cultural assumptions are we buying into when we think about brains?

Of all the parts of our bodies, our brains seem to be the most loaded with all sorts of cultural assumptions, beliefs and downright strange ideas.

The first is that our brain is an inert grey mass sitting inside our skulls. Take a look at this photo which most of us probably think of as our brain.

 

It’s an image of a brain taken out of the person after that person was dead and it’s not something that we can see moving at all.

 

 

 

 

What about this image? Does that change the way that you think about this part of you?

 

Your brain has synapses which are functional contract between nerve cells that may change their strength based on experience. You have about 100,000,000,000,000 in your head. How does that change the way you are in the world?

 

 

 

Now take a look at this image and notice the associations it brings up for you.

ceo_image_business

If this man was a CEO, would you describe him as the guts of his organisation?

Perhaps the heart of his organisation?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not really, in the English speaking world we would usually call him the head of the organisation. And once we had done that, we would have immediately bought into cultural assumptions that brains are command and control centres, more important than the rest of our body and probably that they are male or represent a more male energy than other parts of our body.

Another cultural assumption that often crops up is that our brains are not only the seat of our identity but that they can live independently of the body they were born into. For $80,000 you can get your brain cryogenically frozen so that some time in the future it can be transplanted into another body. This is the ultimate ‘living in your head’. If you’ve even done just a little of yoga or Alexander work or any other somatic work you’ll know that living in your head is never a story that ends well.

In my next article on the brain, I look into how we can work with this area of our body in yoga, the Alexander technique and other somatic meditation practices.