Sunday, 22 December 2013

Christmas Yoga Timetable

Merry Christmas.  Modified classes over the next few weeks:

Tuesday 24th December 0645-0745am in front of flags at Lake Burley Griffin
Saturday 28th December 0900-1030h Patrick White Lawn, Lake Burley Griffin (in the shade)
Tuesday 31st December 0645-0745am in front of flags at Lake Burley Griffin
Saturday 4th january 0900-1030h Patrick White Lawn, Lake Burley Griffin (in the shade)

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Saturday Morning Flow Class - Change of Venue

Mr BKS Iyengar in parsva bakasana.  We will be  figuring this one out in our sequence!

There is a charity event on the Patrick White lawns this Saturday so class will move to the grassy plateau up behind the flags at Lake Burley Griffin between the High Court and Questacon.

Class is from 0900-1030h, $15.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Three Adjustments To Invigorate Your Twists

There are many ways to twist.

I often see people perform twists in yoga by turning the chest in the direction they want to go and then getting leverage by by hooking or pressing or bind their arms in an attempt to pull themselves deeper into the posture.

If you twist this way you lose the potential benefit of active spinal movements and even risk hurting your back if you 'pull' yourself further than your spine can naturally go.

I use the principle of active spinal movements to twist.  First, it ensures I only moves as far as my body can go without external forces.  Second, by actively moving in a particular way it brings firmness to my belly without me having to think about tensing it, which helps to protect the spine.

Before performing any yoga pose it is important to lengthen your spine.  Melt the sitting bones down (see my earlier post) and then try the three tips I suggest below.  The video and these tips generally deal with postures that involve spinal twisting as their main component.  Of course, a posture can combine spinal twisting with spinal forward bending, side bending and/or back bending.

Remember, only do what is comfortable.  Practice safely and ask your teacher for guidance.  These posts are intended for my students who come to class and whom I can discuss these movements with.

1.  Turn From The Navel Up 
Move actively from the lower belly first.  Move the navel area of the spine towards the hip that you are trying to twist towards.  You should feel that the side of the belly between the navel and the hip you are turning towards becomes firm.  Some people find it hard to imagine moving this part of their body.  For those people it can sometimes help to imagine just trying to firm the side of the belly that you are trying to turn towards.   If you do this you should find that you have started to twist slightly.

Once the navel has turned, then try to turn the lower ribs as well.  Follow this with the chest and then the shoulders.  The idea is to turn from the bottom of the spine upwards.

Once you have actively moved the spine you should feel firm on the side of the belly that you are turning towards.  But firm in a way that you can still breathe into the belly.

2. Lengthen The Side Ribs/Waist
After performing the active twist you will probably find you need to lengthen the side ribs and waist of the side that you are turning towards.  Active spinal twisting tends to draw the lower ribs towards the hip (on the side you are turning towards).   If you bring your awareness to this area you might be able feel that the waist feels shorter or that you feel squashed on that side.

To resolve this (if it has happened) you can either think of lifting the lower ribs up if you are in an upright position or lengthening them away from the hip if your spine is parallel to the floor.  The idea is to maintain length.

Here I should make a special note that some postures (like parsvakonasana or parivrtta parsvakonasana) involve twisting and side bending.  In those cases one side waist will feel shorter than the other although neither should feel squashed.  The spine should never feel squashed.

3. Move The Hip
Twisting the spine also tends to cause the hips to turn with you.  When you turn to the right, the right hip will tend to also turn to the right so that it moves behind you (or above you if your spine is parallel to the floor).  I tend to allow a small movement of the hips when I am performing the active spinal twist and, when I have completed the spinal movement, I carefully adjust the hips.

In an upright position this means moving the hip of the side you are turning towards forwards.  If your spine is more parallel to the floor it generally means lifting the opposite hip, as I show in the video.

When you add this movement of the hip you will find that the belly on the side you are turning towards naturally becomes firmer.

Active movements are the safest movements for yoga postures.  Try not to lever yourself into twists and only ever bind the arms if the hands come together without strain.  Always lengthen the spine before twisting.  Move from the navel upwards, lengthen the side waists, and adjust the hips.  Feel natural firmness in the belly.  Relax, breathe, and be content!

I learned about active movements and free spines from my teachers Paddy McGrath and Yoga Synergy of Bondi Junction.  Please try to practice with them if you are ever in Sydney or Thailand!

Happy and safe practicing!

Friday, 8 November 2013

An Action To Decompress The Lower Back

Having a free spine is always something I think of when practicing.  If you walk away from yoga class with a sore back then there is something about your practice that is not right.  It should not hurt to do yoga. 

One of the most common actions I perform in my practice is to lengthen the lower back.  I do this by imagining that my sitting bones are melting down the back of my legs.  I like the idea and feeling of melting as it reminds me this is something done without force.  I once told a class to imagine their butt cheeks were like two scoops of ice cream atop a cone (their legs) and that the ice cream was dripping down the one (i.e., their legs).  A child, who happened to be in the class with her mother, whispered loudly, "My bottom is not an ice cream.'  Some visualisations are not for everyone I guess!

Anyway, the idea is to create some space in the lower back.  It is a small action done without strain or force.  If you overdo it, or misunderstand the movement as something more akin to what I call a pelvic tuck, then you might irritate nerves if you have an irritable nerve condition so be mindful and move slowly.  

I try to demonstrate the difference between the lengthening movement (melting) and the tuck in the video.  What you will notice is that no length is created in the lower back with just the tuck (the way I perform it in the video).  Whereas, when I melt the sitting bones down you will see that the space between my vertebrae is lengthened.

I use this melting of the sitting bones to prepare for standing poses, in my forward bends, and in my back bends.  It helps to prevent me from overarching the back or squashing it.  If you combine it with lifting the shoulders and arms overhead it will traction the whole spine.  

These videos are intended mainly for students who attend my classes as an aid to their practice and as a point of discussion.  Please be mindful if you are practicing any videos from any source without the guidance of an experienced teacher.  

Happy and safe practicing!

5 Minute Sequence For Shoulders and Neck

I wanted to post a serious video.  A few seconds into recording my 2 year old niece walked in.  I think the video is much better with her in it.  You can watch me or you can watch her running around having fun.  She doesn't need to be told how to release her neck and shoulders as she spends her time running around and playing and we can all learn a lot from such unencumbered movement and joy.

For those of us who have become a bit gnarly with age, see if you can watch and listen to my instructions and move your shoulders and neck in freedom.

Remember, never force, tense less, stretch less, and move slowly.  If it does not feel good then it is not good.  Talk to me in class, by email, or otherwise discuss with your teacher if you need clarification.

Shoulder/Shoulder Blade Movements
This sequence gets us to move our shoulders and shoulder blades in four general directions (there are some other things going on but I won't complicate things).

High Shoulders
I ask us to move the shoulders up high.  To the ears if possible.  Some people are scared of this movement, believing their shoulders are already a bit high.  However, while most of us probably do hold our shoulders a little high and tense this is generally subconsciously.  That is, they are tensed without us realising it.  We rarely bring them up through the full range of movement.

The ability to move the shoulders up high is essential for some other yoga postures where the arms are raised overhead (e.g., warrior 1, handstand).

Being able to bring the shoulders up high also helps to traction (lengthen your spine), especially when combined with softening the sitting bones down.

Taking the shoulders high and holding for a time also gets us to move them through the full range of movement.  If you release the shoulders down after holding them high for a little time you will often find they relax down more.

Armpits down
I also ask us to move the armpits down towards the waist. Moving the armpits towards the waist firms the inner and outer armpit muscles.

It also causes the muscles on top of the shoulders to relax through a spinal reflex known as reciprocal inhibition.  This basically means that when I firm a particular set of muscles, the muscles that cause the opposite movement to occur will relax.  If you hold tension on top of your shoulders then this is a great little trick to do a few times a day.  Just don't overdo it. Do not firm to your full capacity.  Be relaxed and calm.

Shoulder blades forward
Pressing the shoulder blades forward helps strengthen muscles on the front and sides of the chest.  When held for a few breaths this can also cause relaxation of the muscles that squeeze the shoulder blades together.

Moving the shoulder blades forward also naturally causes the upper spine to bend forward.  Over the years I have found that a lot of people spend a good deal of time being too straight--with shoulders pulled back and chest puffed up.  If you ever get pain between the shoulders blades or tired between the shoulder blades after sitting for some time then moving the shoulder blades forward like this can help relieve the fatigue and/or tension.

I find that I need to be particularly mindful of head and neck position when I press my shoulder blades forward or I get a little tense around the throat.

Shoulder blades drawn back
Drawing the shoulder blades back is something most of us are familiar with.  Some people will find this really difficult if they habitually slump or have their shoulders rounded, however.

At a particular point in the sequence I bring my shoulder blades back, then I press my armpits down.  From there I interlace my hands behind my back as this is comfortable for me to do.  It might not be comfortable for you so you do not need to interlace the hands and you can just keep the shoulder blades back and down.  Remember do not force this action.  Do not force any action.

Holding the shoulder blades back together will cause the muscles that draw them forward to relax a little.

Head/Neck Movements
This sequence also has some combined head/neck movements.  Make these movements small.  So small it feels like your head is floating.  Do not move the head as much as it can move.  Be cautious and alert to any disturbing sensations.  Correct practice can help your neck problems (I have them myself--you might notice how asymmetrical my head is atop my shoulders) but incorrect practice can aggravate.

Throat lightly forward, chin lightly up
At certain points in the practice I do what looks like taking my head up or looking up.  However, this is two movements.  The first movement is me pushing my throat lightly forward.  The second movement is me taking my chin lightly up.

When performed correctly it should feel like the front of the neck is lengthening without squashing the back.

Chin to the middle of the throat
I also direct us to bring the chin to the middle of the throat.  That action is also two movements.  Here, the throat moves lightly backward and the chin moves down towards the middle of the throat.

When performed correctly it should feel like the back of the neck is lengthened without squashing the front.

Chin to the shoulder, ear tipped away
At certain times in the practice the head is facing in a different direction to the centre of the chest.  If this is the case, then I tip the chin in towards the shoulder that my head is closest to and I tip my ear away from that shoulder.  I do this in twisting and side bending.

When performed correctly it should feel like both sides of the neck is lengthened.

I pop on a good song and do this type of practice throughout the day, especially if I have been sitting down for a long time.  It helps bring circulation into the shoulders, upper back, and neck area as well as improving overall mobility.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Ways To Create Core Stability

I was so relieved to find a teacher who was clear and articulate on the matter of core stability.  It is  such a big buzz word in the world of yoga, pilates, and fitness.  Simon does a great job in this video of explaining the different ways to create core stability.

As Simon shows the key to completing many challenging yoga poses in a way strong (that is with a powerful and firm core) but calm is to generate core stability in such a way that you can still breathe into the belly and which still allows your spine to move.

While no movement is right or wrong, I know from my own practice if I try to 'suck it all in' it just immobilises my lower back and gives me nowhere to breathe but into my chest, which makes me feel tense.

However, using the other method--where the belly seems to move out (but still moves in relative to a relaxed abdomen) I feel strong, powerful but at the same time relaxed.  My handstands and arm balances become light.  My lower back feels unstrained.  I am happy and calm.  And that is just the type of yoga practice that I want.

I hope this video helps you as much as Simon's teachings have helped me.  You can link to Simon's classes and teachings at

Much metta,

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Tips For A Practice To Move Your Spine

I have been teaching a spinal movement practice of late.  This is based on the things I have understood from my teachers, including Paddy McGrath and Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss.  Any misinterpretations of their teachings are my fault.  I encourage everyone to seek them out and learn from true masters how to move your spine in freedom.  If you are coming to my classes, I have outlined some basic principles of the spinal movement practice in this post.

Basic Principles Of The Spinal Movement Practice

The spinal movement practice has anatomical and physiological benefits.  On an anatomical level, spinal movements can help bring strength and flexibility to the spine.  On a physiological level spinal movements help move information and energy throughout the nervous systems and torso.  The torso contains most of your organs and careful application of the spinal movements can help improve the functioning of these organs.

There are a few important points to consider with regard to spinal movements.  These points are listed below, although not in any order of priority.

Move the vertebrae one at a time from bottom to top 
Blood can move in two directions throughout the spine, whereas in other parts of the body it can only move in the one direction.  This means if you move the middle part of your spine you will push blood (and energy) upwards as well as downwards—like squeezing a toothpaste tube in the middle.  Therefore, when performing spinal movements you try to move either from top to bottom or bottom to top.  It is more common to move from bottom to top and this is what will be instructed in classes.  This is akin to squeezing the toothpaste tube from the bottom so that all the toothpaste moves upwards.

 Create length on one side without squashing the other
An important principle of spinal movement is to create length on one side without squashing the opposite side.   For instance, in back bending this means lengthening the front without squashing the back.  In side bending it means lengthening the one (e.g., right) side without squashing the other (e.g., left) side.

Learn to move stiffer parts of the spine
There are parts of most people’s spines that are relatively stiff and immobile, while other parts of the spine are mobile and often weak.  The parts of the spine that are most commonly injured or which people complain about tend to be the weak mobile parts, primarily the lower back and neck.  A basic principle in the spinal movement sequence is try and move each vertebra, including the stiffer parts of the spine, rather than move only the more mobile parts. 

Create stability and mobility
The spine should be moved in such a way as to create stability without compromising movement.  This approach encourages use of the abdominal muscles in a very particular way—a way that encourages firmness with relaxation so that you can still breathe into the belly.  When practicing the spinal movement sequence you do not pull your belly in tightly.  This restricts movement and breathing and leads to tension in the lower back.  Instead, you create firmness in the belly through posture. 

Distinguish spinal movements from hip movements
It is important that you learn to distinguish spinal movements from movements of the hip or pelvis.  Despite the common claim of ‘tight hips’, most people’s hips have sufficient range of movement for daily life and most people will have learned to move their hips in favour of their spine.  Being able to separate hip from spinal movements is an important element of this practice.

Tense less, stretch less, think less
Remember that the aim here is to create a way to move energy through the spine.  Over-tensing and over-stretching will limit or block the flow of energy.  Thinking too much can also block the flow of energy and inhibit your ability to relax if you worry or focus too much on whether you are doing everything right as you practice.  Worry less about ‘doing’ and focus more on what it feels like to move.

Move slowly
Move slowly into and out of your postures and within the postures themselves.  When you move slowly you will be less likely to injure yourself as you will feel if something is not right.  Moving slowly brings greater control and awareness. 

Use active movements between and within postures
Use active movements to position yourself.  An active movement is a movement where you come into a position through your body’s own ability to move without the need for external forces.  External forces include gravity, momentum, and levering oneself into position.  If you need to use an external force to fall/fling/pull you into position then you need to ask yourself whether your body is really able to be there in the first place.  If you cannot take your legs into full lotus (padmasana) without using your hands then you probably need to question whether you should be there in the first place.[1]

You are different every day so do less or more as you need.
Only do what is comfortable for you.  Your body is not the same every day.  Your practice won’t feel the same every day.  See if you can learn to tailor your practice to whatever is going on with you on a particular day at a particular time.  Do less if you need.  Do more if you need.  Let go of the attachment and expectation that you can do the same practice every day.

Learn how to lengthen your spine
Try to learn the spinal lengthening movement first.  Then, before initiating any of the other spinal movements, initiate the lengthening movement.  This will help maintain the length and integrity of your spine.

Never move into pain
As you practice, do not move into pain, especially if you are prone to neck or back problems.  The sensation of pain is your body’s warning to you that something is not right.  Practicing using the preceding pointers should help avoid this situation from arising.  However, there are always exceptions and you must remain alert to the possibility that, for some reason, a particular movement on a particular day may not be right for you.  There are occasional instances used by trained professionals where pain is part of the healing process.  I am not using any such approaches and, therefore, if you sense pain you should immediately back off.

Using these principles should help you move your spine in freedom, without stress or tension.  If you feel stress or tension then do let me know.  There might be something we can do about it!

Happy and safe practicing!

[1] Please bear in mind your life is not going to be worse because you cannot do full lotus!  However, it will be better if you don’t injure yourself by trying to pull yourself into a position that your body cannot move into naturally.  

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Evaluating A 'Good' Practice

The most important thing to me at the end of a yoga class is that I feel good.  As a teacher, I want my students to feel good as well.

I try to make this clear by asking how people feel at the end of the class and by reminding people if that they don't feel good, or if (gulp) they somehow feel worse than when they came into class, that they should come and talk to me so we can try and nut out what might be going wrong.

Feeling good is understood differently by different people.  And sometimes things that might feel good while we are doing them can actually have harmful consequences.  Here I am thinking, for example, of people engaged in addictive activities that ultimately lead to suffering for themselves or others.   

So I thought it might be good to explore what it is I mean when I say do you feel good and I came up with the 5 points below.

1. You feel like you have done something but you don't feel exhausted or like you need to go and relax because you have done yoga.  Instead you feel energised.

This is an important point.  It means you come to the end of your practice without feeling like you need to 'recover' from the yoga session.  In my recent practice it means I also practice in a way that is nourishing and which means I hardly feel the need to do savasana. Instead of needing to lie down and relax, I feel like I can sit and mediate peacefully.  

2. You feel energised in a way that makes you feel calm, focussed, and relaxed rather than 'buzzing'.

I want to suggest that the 'energy' you feel is one that focusses you and allows you to feel like you can go away and do things in a calm way.  It is not an electric or buzzing 'high' that might be more of a feeling that you have over-stimulated your nervous system.

3. The relaxation you feel is not one that makes you sleepy, scattered or spaced out. 

By the same token, I want you to feel relaxed but not sleepy.  Don't worry if you do fall asleep if you do savasana--it might mean other things are going on.  It is just that I am hoping that your yoga practice has not been so dull (and I mean this in a nervous system way not in the sense of being boring) that you  are under-stimulated or, conversely, that you have worked so hard in class that you need to 'sleep off' your practice. 

4. You feel content with where you are right now and with what you have done.

This is really important.  A part of being content means worrying less about whether you are doing things perfectly or whether you can do everything.  See if you can find contentment in every moment of just being.

5. The body is relaxed in a way that you can move without pain or stiffness (or with less pain and stiffness than you came to class with and certainly not more).
At the end of a physical yoga practice one of my aims is that you have moved your body in specific ways that unblocks any blockages and which allows energy to move through you so that you physically feel good.  If you have pains or aches that are present after class that were not present before class then we need to figure out why so please come and talk to me (or your other teachers). 

Notice how none of the points mentioned above have anything to do with what poses you did, how much you sweated,  how many calories you burned, how deeply you came into a posture, how flat your stomach is (I know people worry about this--my blog posts that have something about stomach in the title are always the most read!), or how long you practiced for.  None of those things will make you a better person and, ultimately, will probably not make much difference to your life.  

Ultimately, I practice because I want to feel good, happy, and healthy.  I want to be a kinder more generous person to myself and to others.  So in my practice I feel for those things.  I feel for them as I practice and at the end of my practice.  

In following posts I will explain some of the 'hows' to generating a practice that makes leaves you feeling good.  Until then, happy and safe practicing!

Much metta,

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Sri Lanka Retreats 19-22 September & 17-20 October 2013

Talalla Retreat

Sri Lanka was my home for 8 years and it is a wonderful place in general and a great place for yoga!

So I am really pleased to be returning to my other island home in September to catch up with friends, family, and run some yoga retreats and classes.  If you would like to join then I'd love to see you.

We will be in Talalla ( for 3 nights in September and then again in October where we will have 6 x 2 hour yoga classes, lots of good food, and plenty of time to relax (or be active).

Me teaching some kids on the last retreat

If you are coming from Australia the all inclusive price (3 nights accommodation, yoga, food) is $380 for a single, $280 pp for a double, and $240 pp triple (Sri Lankan students contact me for details).

The sample schedule is as follows (we are a bit flexible with times):

0630h - tea and fruit
0700-0900h - Yoga
1600-1800h - Yoga

In your free time there is plenty to do--swim in the pool or in the sea, relax beneath the coconut trees, visit nearby historical sites, hang out with your fellow yogis, get a massage, or come and talk to me about pressing yoga issues!

Pool and accommodation

Flights are about $1000 to Colombo from Sydney return at the moment.   I always go via Singapore but you can fly through Thailand and Malaysia as well.

Anyway, I'd love to see you there so please be in touch if you are interested.  I'd be happy to tell you about other places to stay in Sri Lanka and how to get around to make the most out of your stay in this beautiful country.

A Way To Downward Dog To Free Your Spine

Do I start every post with the phrase "there are many ways to do the same pose"?  Well, it might be boring but it is true.

Remember that I offer suggestions on a particular way to try poses because I believe they offer a way to bring freedom but they are not the only way to practice.

This week I want to offer a way to think about downward dog that I suggest you explore in my classes.  Rather than go into fine details about the entire pose,  I am going to focus on a specific part of the pose--what you are doing around the ribs, chest and armpit area.

I will also show you a variation that you can practice at the wall to create more freedom around the upper back and armpit area.

This variation will especially help those of you who feel your arms are 'too short' to come into pincha mayurasana or whose arms are too weak to help you into urdhva dhanurasana.

In my experience, it is not limb length or strength that makes those poses difficult but tightness around the outer armpits that prevents you from taking the arms overhead with a free spine; which is precisely what you want to practice in a pose like downward facing dog.

If you just want the technical stuff then skip this bit.  You might have guessed that I am one of those people who LOVE reading the author's footnotes and endnotes, often more than the main text.  So, I'd like to meander a bit here to share with you how the idea for this post emerged.

A few weeks ago an inquiring student asked me why she another yoga teacher came and pushed her chest to the ground in downward dog when I was suggesting in my class that she gently soften the ribs towards the spine.  Obviously that was confusing since we seemed to be suggesting the opposite movements!

My first advice to her was to ask why the other teacher might be doing that, as teachers always have a reason and will be able to tell you their reasons.

My second words were that while I might be suggesting something else it does not mean one way is wrong or right, but that they are different and she needed to explore for herself what felt better at a particular point in time (bearing in mind our bodies are always changing).

These are really important messages.  Ask why and then explore what feels right.  Seeing this attitude in students always makes me happy.  You don't come to yoga to make me happy, obviously, but I am altruistically happy in this regard because I know that with an inquiring, exploring attitude you will eventually find your own way to freedom.

While I was chatting to her about this it also reminded me of another student who, many years ago,  asked me to teach the class exactly how to do downward dog because he had read somewhere that if you can master downward dog then you have mastered yoga.  As a relatively novice teacher  I mistakenly believed there was only one downward dog (of course it was the one I had learned!).  I wouldn't say I am wiser but I now know better.

Having said that my downward dog is still pretty much the same as it was then, mainly because I had the same genius teacher back then that I have now (Paddy McGrath if you haven't googled her yet then please do).

You don't have to get all theoretical about yoga but it can help your practice if you have an idea about what you might be doing in a pose.

My purpose is always to look for freedom in the spine.  I have invented a new adjective to describe this way of freeing your spine--'spongify'.

In all of my poses I try to feel like my spine is a sponge so that at any time I could squeeze it in any place and it would be soft and spongey.  And if I came up to you while practicing and tried to 'grab' a piece of your spine (which my students will have experienced) it would feel spongey and not hard.

It is a beautiful experience to have this spongey spine and you will not get it if you stretch too much or tense too hard, so bear this in mind.

Physiologically, when you can let your spine be free you will enhance the flow of energy and information through it.

Aside from cultivating freedom in your free spine, you can also try to create length in your outer armpit muscles by practicing the way I suggest.  This will help you take your arms overhead without projecting your ribs forward so that the spine stays long rather than compressing in poses like urdhva dhanurasana and pincha mayurasana (or any pose where you need to take your elbows near your ears).

The Ribs
What to do with the chest in downward facing dog?

Because a lot of people think yoga is about stretching, and perhaps because many yoga journals and articles tend to print pictures of very flexible people, you might think that pushing the chest through towards the ground is what you should do with it in downward facing dog.

It is not wrong to push the chest through, sometimes I do this briefly myself and it usually gets a crack or two out of the thoracic vertebrae.  But, for me, if I hold myself in the pose like that it just feels like squashing the back of my spine and jamming up my shoulders.

What feels better is if I gently soften my ribs towards my spine--as though they are floating towards the ceiling.

The key is not to push the ribs back or you will go too far the other way--instead of shoving the chest through you end up shoving them back.

As in most things the middle way often bears the most delicious fruit.

What I suggest you look for is a place where you can wave the spine around.  You will see me doing a lot of that in the video.

The Armpits
With a free and spongey spine see if you can think about pressing the armpits downwards and inwards as though they are trying to move towards your inner thighs.

This firms the armpits in a lengthened position and will help cultivate strength and flexibility that will help you in other postures where you need to take your arms overhead.

Some Adjustments
To get a free and spongey spine you might need to make a few adjustments to your downward facing dog.  Some of the most common ones you can try are:

  • bend the knees a little and worry less about getting the legs straight.  This is especially if the back of your legs are really tight.  
  • take your arms a bit wider than shoulder width.  Sometimes this can help if you are already really tight in the armpit or across the upper back.

Downward dog is a pose that gets repeated a lot in yoga classes.  For me each downward dog is a great opportunity to to give my spine a good wiggle.  Actually, I wiggle my spine in each and every pose but this is a semi-inverted pose that helps it wiggle in a different way.

To get your spine waving, see if you can find a way to soften your ribs towards your spine.  Then, to help create strength and flexibility in the armpits to better backbends and inversions (by better I mean spine-freeing) practice pressing the armpits down.

Remember, if it doesn't feel good then it probably isn't.  And don't be afraid to ask your teacher to give you a hand.

May your practice be peaceful, safe, and joyous!

Monday, 22 July 2013

A Way To Free Your Neck When Turning It

There are many ways to move and I tend to encourage finding ways to move that help you find freedom.

If your neck is squashing when you turn it then you are not in freedom.  In this post I want to offer a way to turn the head and neck so it is free rather than squashed.

I learned these tips from courses and classes with Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss of Yoga Synergy.  It is always good to go direct to the source so please take a class or log onto their website for lots of interesting stuff.

I previously posted on a way to move your shoulders to free your neck.  In that post it was suggested you can move your armpits down towards your waist so the upper shoulders and neck can move more easily.

I am one of those people with neck issues, which is perhaps why I like to post about freeing it.

I like to think my neck issues started courtesy of a man who did not give way to me riding on my bicycle and smashed into me.  This resulted in my head spearing through the windscreen of his car.  I thank the bike police (who'd caught me riding without a helmet a few weeks previously and who put the fear of spinal injury into me with their caution) for saving my life.

The man was also nice about it and, after staying around to peel me off the road (where it appeared that I  had only experienced a few seconds of unconsciousness and a few scratches), he drove me to uni and fixed my bike.

Anyway, since then I have experienced 'weirdness' in the upper spine.  I don't know what it is, and am not inclined to have scans, so I just call it weird since it is not normal and go about helping myself with yoga.

I do know that if I don't turn my head mindfully, to the left in particular, sometimes it jams up and I have had weird (that word again!) sorts of spasms occasionally.

Even if you have never head-butted a windscreen, chances are your neck is an area that can feel stiff and problematic due to the way most of us tend to move and work.

That said, I was really glad to discover the way of turning the head to the side that I describe below.  It creates space on both sides of the neck, lengthening the side you turn to rather than jamming it.

The Short of It
If you just turn your head to the side the side of the neck in the direction you are facing shortens or squashes.

To prevent this squashing bring your chin towards the middle of the throat before your turn.  Then, once your head has turned towards the shoulder, move the ear away from the shoulder you are looking towards.

It's pretty much that simple.

The Long of It (Applied To Postures)
There are lots of postures where you turn your head to the side, although you might not think of them that way.

The basic twisting postures are obvious ones--usually the torso turns and then the head turns to look over one shoulder.  It is often the back shoulder but can be the front.

You don't actually have to turn the head--you can keep it in line with the centre of the chest (which is in line with the spine)--but most of us will turn it and often turn it excessively.

Excessive turning of the neck is because the neck is much more mobile in turning (rotation) than the rest of the spine so you will feel like you are twisting more if you turn your head more.

And while it might be good for the ego remember it is not our ego you are practicing for.  

A spinal twist should be a twist from the whole spine from the base up rather than a big twist at the neck.

Aside from the more traditional and obvious twists, there are other postures that we turn our head in.

Trikonasana and parsvakonasana are two of them.

These are two postures where students typically feel discomfort in their neck if they do not hold it right.

I believe this is because many of us turn the head to look up in those postures without thinking about what it is doing to the neck.

You must remember that when you look up in these postures you are actually turning the neck so the basic principles I outline here are relevant.

So what to do about this pain in the side of the neck when turning it to the side?

Look for freedom rather than squashing
The main thing to remember in any posture is you are looking for a feeling of comfort.  In the neck you don't want to feel squashed or restricted in any direction.  Being mindful of this is the first thing you can do for yourself: if you notice squashing then do something about it.

Move slowly and smoothly
You can also make sure that you move slowly and smoothly.  Moving slowly and smoothly is part of mindful movement and you will be able to stop before any discomfort arises.

Initiate movement from the base up
To help reinforce mindful movement you can try initiating your movements from the base of the spine first and moving the neck and head last.  That is, in a twist you could try initiating movement from the navel, lower ribs, chest, collarbones first and then mindfully position the head.

Position the neck and head: Chin in, ear away from the shoulder you are looking towards
With mindful, slow, smooth movement that is initiated from the base up you can then make sure that when you turn your head to the side you move the chin towards the shoulder you are looking towards and the ear away from it.

Whenever you turn your head to the side you are likely to squash the side you are turning towards.

A basic principle in yoga is to lengthen without squashing.

To avoid squashing the neck when you turn it to the side, keep the chin in and move the ear away from the shoulder you are turning towards.

It helps to be mindful that you might be squashing, and to move slowly, smoothly, and from the bottom of the spine to the top.

I hope this trick helps you find freedom.  Please do not do anything that causes discomfort and talk to your yoga teacher if you need help.

Happy and safe practicing!

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

A Way To The Half Push Up

For those regularly reading this blog you will see that I have become a bit of an advocate for going half way.  The kneeling plank as opposed to the full plank, taking the arms part way up rather than all the way back, suggesting you do other things like forearm stands and down dogs instead of headstands for a while, and, now, the half push up as opposed to a full push up.

The thing about going half way is it is not necessarily easier.  Sometimes being at half way can be harder and than going all the way, just like doing preparatory poses can sometimes be harder than doing the full pose.

Before I launch into a description of this technique, I will start by reminding you that there are many ways to come into yoga postures.  This is the way that I am practicing.  It is always good to know why your teacher might be practicing in a certain way as opposed to another so here is why I practice this way.  If you practice differently then you also might like to ask yourself how and why it is different.

My main aim (physically) in doing this half push up is to build up strength in the upper arms, specifically the triceps.  Muscles crossing my wrists will get stronger doing this, as will muscles around the shoulder joint and the muscles of the abdomen.  You can strengthen those muscles in lots of other poses where the weight is through the arms (like plank, down dog) but this posture will ask a lot more of your triceps (muscles at the back of the upper arms).

The half push up also gets me to the floor for poses I do on my belly.  Performing it this way also lengthens the back of my body while firming the front, pushing blood and toxins from the abdominal organs and bring fresh blood and energy to the back of the body.

Coming into the posture
With these things in mind, to do a half push up you start with the kneeling plank.  Basically, the sitting bones move down and forwards, the ribs move to the back of the body, the arms push down into the floor, the armpits move towards the waist, the knees pull towards the chest, and the hands screw into the floor and claw it slightly.  Go over my previous posts on this posture if you are feeling unsure.

From the kneeling plank the idea is to maintain this structure and feeling in the spine but simply bend the elbows.

The elbows do not go anywhere, although they might feel like they are moving backwards and you can enhance this feeling by attempting to drag the armpits towards the waist.

Instead, what happens here is that the shoulders and chest move forwards.

It is important that the shoulders do not move into the ears so keep hugging the armpits back towards the waist.

It is important that the chest does not sag through the arms so keep pressing the ribs towards the spine.

It is important that the lower back does not sag so keep moving the sitting bones down and forwards.

The elbows stay close to the ribs rather than splaying out.  The hands keep screwing and clawing the floor (see my previous posts on using the hands).

And this is all made easier if you look towards your navel rather than have the head up.  If the head is up, push the throat forward and chin up

As you lower you want to try and keep the hips and shoulders level, or, at least, don't let one or other of the points sag.  They lower at the same rate.  You will see in the video that I don't even bend my elbows to 90 degrees.  That means my chest is still slightly higher than my hips, however, they are lowering at the same rate and there is no sagging.  If I lowered to 90 degrees of elbow flexion the shoulders and hips will be about the same height.

I don't actually lower to 90 degrees in the video.  I am not sure why I didn't demonstrate that to be honest!  However, it is not even necessary to lower that far in order to feel the work in the triceps.

What you do want to watch for is that you don't lower more than 90 degrees if you want a more effective activation and strengthening of the triceps.  As soon as the shoulders start to come below the elbows you will take the effort away.  Obviously, to come to the floor you would have to do that but if you intend to hold the pose then hold it either half way or with the elbows at a slightly obtuse angle.

Common Give Way Points
The most common 'give way' points that you need to watch for are:
1) The tendency for the chest to sag through the arms and a valley to form between the shoulder blades
2) The tendency for the lower back to sag and the butt to stick up
3) The tendency for the hips to come to the ground faster than the chest or, conversely
4) The tendency for the chest to come to the ground faster than the hips so the butt is left up in the air
5) The tendency for the shoulders to creep up around the ears
6) The tendency for the elbows to go out wide.

Basically, the half push up is a variation of the kneeling plank.  I recommend that you get a good kneeling plank going before holding the half push up.  I also recommend that even if you can do a full plank that, if you are not sure of your technique, that you do a push up on your knees rather than with the knees up.  That way you can move more slowly and mindfully and check you are not giving way at any of the points.

Remember, practice safely and if anything hurts then don't do it!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Bending Forward: Hips Or Spine?

Learning to differentiate movements of the hip from movements of the spine is one of the things that can lead to better spinal health.

In this post I want to talk about the difference between bending forward from the hips and bending forward from the spine and why you might choose one over the other.  These are things I learned from classes with Simon Borg Olivier I have been taking and you can link to the Yoga Synergy site here.

In my current series of classes there are many postures in which I direct students to bend from the navel level of the spine first (then the ribs, then the chest, collarbones, and shoulders).  This is something many people are not used to and so I wanted to demonstrate it here.

The thing about forward bending is you can bend forward from the spine or the hips or, usually, a combination of both.  

Because the hips are more mobile many people tend to bend forward from the hips and only try to move the spine when the pelvis won't move anymore.  This is often because the muscles on the backs of their legs are so stretched the pelvis will not move further, especially if the knees are kept straight.

What can end up happening is the backs of the legs stretch until the pelvis won't move any more and, in an effort to reach the floor or the toes, the spine starts rounding and stretching as well.

I am not one for too many rules in yoga.  I appreciate that I don't know everything, that there are many ways to do yoga, and that there is always the possibility that what I might suggest could work for 90% of people but might not work for the other 10% (our bodies are different after all).  

One of the rules I do stick to is do not stretch the hamstrings and the back of the spine at the same time unless directed to do so by your health professional.  That is, in yoga class, you do one or the other but not both. 

I have noticed over the years that many people are probably going to choose hamstrings in this scenario, perhaps because many of us believe stretching the hamstrings is good for us but have probably not thought about how stretching the spine might be even better for us.  

I am not denying hamstring flexibility is a good thing to have.  But, in the course of your life, spinal flexibility is much more important.  

Learning to mindfully move the vertebrae of the spine through their various possible movements (bending forward, backwards, to the side and twisting) helps improve the mobility of the spinal muscles and structures, the strength of these structures (when practiced actively rather than passively), and also helps to bring space between the vertebrae.

On a physiological level it can also improve the flow of blood, energy, and information through the spine and spinal nerves.

Learning to bend forward from the navel level of the spine  (with the sitting bones moving down and forward) will also firm the abdomen naturally (without you having to pull your belly in and therefore leaving you able to breathe into the belly).  It will compress the organs around the pelvis and abdomen--such as the digestive, reproductive and immune system organs.  This can help squeeze substances through/away from those organs (especially toxins) and, when the posture is released, allows for fresh blood to flow in.  

So, there are lot of benefits to learning to move the spine.  I only discuss forward bending here but there are, of course, benefits of moving the spine in other directions as well.  

The video shows how to bend forward from the spine in standing, a lunge, and in sitting.

Common to all of these postures is the suggestion that you bend your knees slightly.  How much you bend your knees depends on the posture and your own body state.  The act of bending the knees allows the spine to move more freely.  Remember, here I am emphasising that you do not want to feel the back of the spine stretching at the same time as the back of the legs so you will want to bend the knees.

Before moving forward, the spine is lengthened.  This action is really important.  It creates space between the intervertebral discs, which are often compressed and the source of back pain.

It might help you to think of these forward bends as back body lengtheners.  The idea is that you will be bending forward while lengthening the back without squashing the front.

To lengthen the back of the spine the sitting bones move down and forward and the top of the pelvis moves slightly back.  This serves to lengthen the lower back and to bring a natural firmness to the abdomen without you needing to tighten it.  This leaves you free to breathe into the abdomen, which will help you relax.   

To lengthen further, move the ribs back and up--a bit like being lifted by the scruff of your neck.  Free the neck and relax the face.  

With the spine lengthened the forward bend is initiated by pushing the navel and navel level of the spine forward before moving.  

Importantly, this action is performed without moving the top of the pelvis forward.  If the top of the pelvis moves forward then you are bending from your hips and not your spine. 

Once the navel has moved out, it moves forward and down.  Then the ribs move forwards and down.  By now you should feel that the centre of the belly has become firm without you needing to consciously tighten anything.  If you cannot feel the firmness come up and try again, perhaps moving more slowly and making sure you are moving the sitting bones down and forward and not letting the butt stick out and the lower back arch.  

Keep the forward and down movement moving up the spine, moving the chest  forwards and down, then the collarbones forwards and down then the shoulders and, if it feels ok, the head. If you are able, you would move one vertebra at a time.  That is hard and takes practice! 

What you need to watch for here is that the lower back does not move backwards or behind the top of the pelvis.  This will potentially cause discomfort-especially for people with low back pain due to disc problems or who have narrowing of the spaces between the vertebrae in that area.  

This tendency for the back to move backwards is more likely if you do not bend your knees enough, especially if you are on the floor.  It the movement is at all uncomfortable then don't do it.  Remember to move slowly and do no harm.   

These general ideas work whether in standing or sitting.  In sitting the knees probably need to bend more for most people.  Sitting and bending forward can be a dangerous movement for your spine if you cannot sit upright without feeling like you are tipping backwards.  In that case, you might opt to sit on a chair if you are going to practice spinal flexion.

If you are going to bend to the floor from standing you definitely will not reach it just by bending forward from the spine.  The spine does not really bend that much.

So, you will need to bend your hips, and perhaps, for most people, your knees as well.  Just don't lose the postural firmness that you have created as you involve the hips.

After folding forward, you can counter the lengthening of the back body you just performed (active and careful spinal flexion) by lengthening the front of the body (active and careful spinal extension or backbending).  I will write another post on that soon.    

And, not to worry, for those who want to lengthen the hamstrings I will write more on that later as well.

Learning these basic movements will help you cultivate the power you need for good arm balances and inversions like hornstand, handstand and headstand.

Happy and safe practicing to all.  Hope to see you soon!

***Class schedule (current as of 4 July 2013)

Mon 1300-1530h - Private classes in Barton

Wed 0615-0715 - Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court Phillip, $12
Wed 1030-1130- Alive! Gym Narrabundah
Wed 1245-1315 - Menzies Library Lawn, ANU, $5
Wed 1830-1930 - Alive! Gum, Narrabundah

Sat 0900-1030 - St Aidan's Church, Brockman St, Narrabundah, $15

Sun 0900-1030 - Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court Phillip, $15

Monday, 24 June 2013

Am I Ready For Headstand?

The Short Of It
Every now and then I get a question about headstand, which I don't normally teach in an open class.

Headstand can bring physiological benefits but it can be harmful.   This is true of most things.  But we are talking about your neck so it would be wise to be cautious.

Can you do a freestanding pincha mayurasana or hornstand in absolute freedom, feeling relaxed and at ease, talking to me all the while and telling me how much you love the pose?  If the answer is no, I would wait until trying to do headstand.

Pincha mayurasana is much harder than headstand.  Much, much harder. But if you can do that pose freely and safely and happily then it will be easy for you to come into a headstand.

I believe that being in all poses should be effortless.  When your body is ready it (the pose) will become so.

From my perspective headstand is not a pose to test yourself on or challenge your fears on or become a better person because you overcame fears and difficulties in life.  Quite frankly, you can go achieve conquer your fears and challenge yourself in a million other ways that does not have the weight of your body on your head!

Read more below to find out how you can build towards the headstand safely.

The Long Of It
I was inspired to write this post after seeing students in several different classes coming into headstands when I was not there or talking to me after class about how they want to do a headstand.

The thing is, I generally don't teach headstand in group classes.  I am not suggesting it is wrong to do so but there is a lot that can go wrong if your headstand is not up to scratch and until I see students confident in other poses I prefer not to.

However, I recognise that a lot of people really want to do a headstand.  Perhaps because it looks pretty cool and perhaps it is a neat little trick to have in one's repertoire.  Perhaps you did it many years ago and so want to be able to do it again.

But before you come into any pose it can be good to ask yourself what your intention is in doing so and perhaps find out from your teacher what their intention is in teaching you.

You probably won't find many yoga teachers telling you it is because they want you to learn a trick and look cool.

For me, the purpose of a headstand is to get inverted (with all the associated physiological benefits).  I have used headstand as a type of neck releasing posture for myself as well.  I also use it as a way to come into other postures--like a backbend for instance.

I don't use headstand to strengthen anything, the neck especially, as it is my belief that you should develop strength in other postures first and use the headstand as a posture to hang out and be relaxed in.

Above all, I am mindful as I practice that while headstand has so many possible benefits, it it is also a risky pose.

The reason I tend not to teach it in classes (again I am not saying it is wrong) is because I know that out of a room of about 10-20 people that there is a risk that at least one or two are not really listening to my instructions fully, or perhaps they are listening but might not be ready to fully understand them in their bodies.  And I know from my own experience as a student that sometimes even when the teacher says back off if you are not ready or if you are tired there are always some of us who still forge ahead!

Knowing all of this, I then calculate the consequences of not listening or understanding or doing more than you are ready for (tipping over when your body weight is on your head and neck for instance) and, for me, the chance that even one person might suffer is not worth the risk.

I am not suggesting you give up on ever hoping to do a headstand or don't work towards it.  But I would like to offer some alternative suggestions for how you can build up to the the posture safely.

I am writing this primarily for the students who come to my classes and wonder why we are not working on headstand yet but it might be useful for you to think about even if you are not my student and ask yourself whether you are really ready for it!

I am not going to tell you how to do headstand here;  that is best left to practicing in the presence of a trained teacher.  What I want is for you to ask yourself whether the poses I suggest below are easy and free first.  If the answer is truly yes--if you can talk and breathe and relax and be happy in all of the poses I offer below--then perhaps you are ready for headstand.  If so, find a teacher and try!  I am also happy to offer private classes to students to work on this skill as well.

Kneeling Plank to Downward Facing Dog
Check out my previous posts on kneeling plank.  The feelings in the abdomen and torso that you generate in that posture surface in so many other postures--headstand included.

With the sitting bones moving down and forward the lower back is lengthened and there is firmness in the abdomen but you should still be able to breathe into it.

With the chest moving towards the ceiling the spine is lengthened more and the muscles around the shoulder blades and chest become active without tensing.

You can try the full plank with knees off the floor, but don't lose the actions of moving the sitting bones down and forward, ribcage to the ceiling.

You don't have to be squeezing and tensing and tightening here.  Go for a feeling of firmness without tension.  You still need to be free to move around.  Be free in the joints, not locked.  Feel as though you could move and ripple through the spine, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, and ankles if you wanted to (without actually moving).

See if you can make the transition to downward facing dog and maintain the same feelings in the abdomen and torso with freedom in the joints.

Build up more strength and stability through the shoulder girdle in bakasana while maintaining the same feeling in the abdomen and torso that you did in kneeling plank.

Bakasana also offers you the opportunity to be actively drawing your knees towards your chest while they are bent, which is a helpful action when you are working towards starting to take your legs up into the headstand.

I put bakasana in here for another reason too.  Partly because it looks tricky and hard and interesting and perhaps you might be able to satisfy that niggling urge to do complicated tricky looking things by mastering this pose first!  Remember, bakasana ultimately comes with straight arms and an ability to be relaxed and calm.  Build up to holding this pose for 30 seconds to a minute and be happy.

Forearm Dog/Dolphin
The actions in the abdomen and torso you worked on in kneeling plank are also mimicked in the forearm dog posture, which you can see in my previous post on kneeling plank and in the video for this post.

This pose is hard.  Really hard.  Really, really hard.

It is even harder if you try and take one leg up without changing the actions in the torso.  If you cannot do this pose and feel at ease and have a conversation with me then it might be best to put off your headstand for a while.

Remember that when done correctly the head is not on the floor in this pose.  It does not come towards the floor either, which tends to happen for a lot of people.  If anything, the head lifts further away from the floor.

Watch for the tendency to collapse the ribcage and sway the back here, essentially losing the actions that were cultivated in the kneeling plank.

The neck should be free and you can look towards your navel.  If you cannot see it then you have probably sunk into your shoulders or collapsed the ribcage or are arching in your upper and lower back.

Now, while you are here, with one leg in the air and not collapsing, can you breathe and relax and talk freely?  Can you feel relaxed in your shoulders and neck?  If you cannot, be content with where you are and just keep working on it.

Work on it in a dedicated but kind way.  This is not the time to be hard on yourself.  Keep practicing, notice the small changes, and be happy with what you have done and are doing.  Alternate between this and the pose below at the wall if you like.

I suggest you get a teacher to observe you practicing this pose as they will be able to help you free your shoulders and neck and let you know if you are collapsing in the spine.

Forearm Stand At Wall (pincha mayurasana or hornstand) & Free-Balancing
From the Forearm Dog you can back yourself up to the wall and see if you can maintain your actions and walk the legs up the wall to 90 degrees.

Again, remember your kneeling plank foundations.  Resist doing more than you are ready for.  If the spine starts collapsing (you will know because you can feel it starting to bend backwards) then go back to the forearm dog for a while.

Being at a 90 degree angle is pretty tough.  You will find it seems to take less effort to be in the actual pose--either at the wall or free-balancing.  But that is why it is a preparatory pose--you want your preparation to be so effective the final pose feels easy.

I suggest that you work your way to feeling confident in free-balancing in this position, first at the wall if you need but ultimately away from the wall before you try headstand.  Then you know that if at any time your neck felt uncomfortable in a headstand you could push up into the hornstand to relieve any tension.  You will probably need the guidance of a teacher here so don't be afraid to ask.

I also suggest that you be able to do this posture in way that feels relaxed.  Well, I suggest you do all postures in a way that feels relaxed but really think about it in this one.  This means you feel free to move around in the position and feel lightness rather than tension.

The thing is, if you are going to fall from a headstand--which you should be open to--then you want to be relaxed about it rather than falling from a rigid and stiffened body.  I liken this a bit to what happens to really drunk people.  Have you ever seen a really drunk person fall over?  They are relaxed and like rubber and probably less likely to break something than the same person who falls with limbs and spine rigid.  Not that I am suggesting we all turn to drink--you can relax without drinking.

This all takes time.  Be patient.  Be happy with where you are rather than unhappy thinking about where you want to be.

Throw In Some Side Bending & Twisting
You can also work on some side bends and twists.  Both types of poses--when initiated from the navel up--will help move your spine.  They will be especially helpful for people who feel like their elbows keep splaying out in the hornstand/pinch mayurasana.

Side bends will help lengthen the side of the body from the hip up through the armpit and into the arm.  A lot of people are tight around there.  Bending sideways can help free up the spine as well as the hips and shoulders.  See my previous posts on 'A Way to Parsvakonasana' and 'A Way To Sidebending'.

Headstand is a wonderful pose to do but I'd suggest only doing it if you know you have no neck issues and you are confident you can at least to do horn stand or pincha mayurasana in absolute freedom and ease away from a wall.  Then you can be assured that you have the requisite strength, mobility, and stability around the shoulders.

For me, headstand is not the type of position you want to see as a challenge.  It should really be the natural consequence of being able to do much harder positions.

I wrote this post as a guide only and nothing beats the careful attention of an experienced teacher.  Perhaps rather than practice any of these things on your own you can bring them up with your teacher when you next see them.

May your practice be safe and happy!

Classes (see schedule page for full details):

Mon 1300-1530h @ Barton [private classes]

Wed 0615-0715h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $12

Wed 1030-1130h @ Alive! Gym, Narrabundah

Wed 1245-1315h @ Menzies Library Lawn, ANU, $5

Sat 0900-1030h @ St Aidan's Uniting Church, Brockman St, Narrabundah, $15

Sun 0900-1030h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $15

Basic Daily Spinal Movement Sequence

I have been trying to post a video like this for a while and been putting it off as I seem to be having focus problems with the camera.  Sorry about that.  In any case, try to view the video once and then just listen to what I am saying so that you can perhaps even close your eyes as you do the sequence.

This sequence is how I open my yoga classes these days. Well, this or a variation of it.

This is a spinal movement sequence where we try to lengthen, then flex, then extend, then side bend, and then rotate the spine.

It is influenced by the work of Simon and Bianca at Yoga Synergy and I highly recommend you visit their site (link on my homepage) and even get to their classes if you are in Sydney.

Why film myself doing it if I direct you to the source?  Mainly for students who come to me to see so they can connect with what I am doing in class.  Also, this is a slight variation and I have a different body to Simon and Bianca so it is nice to see how different bodies move and respond to the same or similar instructions.

A few words before you practice.

Only do what is comfortable.

Move slowly.

Always make sure you can relax and breathe.  Doing too much--tensing too much and stretching too much--is more likely to block the flow of blood and energy through your body rather than enhance it.

Try to initiate movements from the navel level of the spine up--one vertebra at a time if possible.

This sequence asks of you to breathe into the belly so that you can relax and to then create the firmness in the abdomen using postural adjustments rather than by actively pulling the belly in and tightening around the abdomen.

Notice that performing active movements initiated from the navel level will bring a natural firmness to the belly.

Think about lengthening rather than stretching.  Think about firming rather than tensing.

Wearing pink flowers in your hair helps the practice (the science is very solid in this regard) but is not essential.

May your practice be safe, happy, and peaceful!

Classes (see schedule page for full details):

Mon 1300-1530h @ Barton [private classes]

Wed 0615-0715h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $12

Wed 1030-1130h @ Alive! Gym, Narrabundah

Wed 1245-1315h @ Menzies Library Lawn, ANU, $5

Sat 0900-1030h @ St Aidan's Uniting Church, Brockman St, Narrabundah, $15

Sun 0900-1030h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $15

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Mallakhamb (Pole Yoga)

I hope this guy won and paid off his home and for his sister's wedding.  A lot of combined strength and flexibility going on there.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

A Few Thoughts On Arm Position And Freeing The Neck When The Arms Are Overhead

The Short Of It
Necks are delicate structures.  If you are going to try anything I suggest, always move mindfully and slowly.  If something hurts, don't do it.  See your yoga teacher for guidance or get to my class where I can explain more fully!

One of the reasons we can take our arms up is to traction the spine, but, if done incorrectly or with too much vigour, you risk squashing your neck and/or your lower back.

Stand comfortably, moving the weight towards the toes, bending the knees slightly, and lengthening the lower back by pushing the sitting bones down and forward.  This also firms the lower belly in a way that you can still breathe into it.

Start by remembering that you don't actually have to take your arms overhead.  They can always stay by your side and you can just be there standing and breathing.

If it feels ok to take them up then try taking them up in a forwards direction rather than out to the side (although it is not wrong to do that).

Pull the armpits down towards your waist.  Then, emphasise a forward movement of the armpits as you take the arms up.  The shoulder blades will feel like they come around your ribcage and hug onto the ribs and the upper back will feel broad.

As the arms come up, roll the underside of the arms towards the face so the inner elbows start to point towards you.  This will free the neck.  If you move the arms so the inner elbows point away from you it is likely you will feel congestion in the neck.

Keep pushing forward with the armpits.

As you get to just after parallel to the floor, start pushing the armpits forward and up.  Do not lose the forward in favour of the up.  As you go higher the armpits will want to start to roll out to the side and move back so you will need to consciously keep moving them forward.

If, as you raise the arms, you feel the back start to arch then stop taking the arms up.  Be content to stay where you are knowing this is a good place for your spine.

Reach out long through the elbows, wrists and fingers.  They are firm but not tense.

As you keep moving the arms towards the head, keep pushing forward and up and keep rolling the inner arms to your face.

Relax, breathe, be content.

Once the arms are as high as they can be with comfort and freedom, drop the sitting bones lower without dropping the arms.  The spine should lengthen.

The Long Of It
It can be hard writing about physical things.  Sometimes words do not capture what you are trying to convey.  So, as you read, do so with reflection and remember that nothing beats the guidance of an experienced senior teacher.  I recommend getting to either Paddy McGrath or Simon Borg Olivier or Bianca Machliss if you can.   If you come to me I will do my best to pass on their teachings with the respect and intelligence they deserve.

One thing I have always tried to look for in my practice is freedom.  A feeling of freedom.  A feeling that my body is moving as though through water.

So as you read my posts offering ideas on ways to move into, be in, and move out of postures please remember that I am always writing from a place to help you find freedom--particularly spinal freedom.

If something I say (or something you interpret me as saying) does not bring freedom or if it brings pain then stop.

I say this all because I want to talk about freeing the neck.  The neck is a pretty delicate area of the body on most of us, and it is often injured or the source of some discomfort.  When following any guidelines on how to move your neck and head remember to move slowly, mindfully, and search for freedom.

At Your Desk
One thing that you can do in your daily life to help free your neck as you sit at your desk (or anywhere else), and I have posted on this before, is to actively press your armpits down towards your waist.

This action activates muscles below the armpits, which can cause a relaxation response in the muscles that do the opposite action (that is, muscles that pull the shoulders up).

If the muscles that pull the shoulders up are really tight you might even feel them stretching when you press your armpits down.  But, actively pressing them down for a few slow breaths should eventually help the tight muscles to relax a little.

At our desk our arms are generally by our side so the instruction to press armpits to waist is valid, if over-simplified.

In yoga our arms are in all sorts of positions--sometimes out to the side, sometimes overhead, sometimes behind us.  This is significant because position of our arms has a huge bearing on what happens in our neck.

Here I want to focus on how arm position when the arms move overhead can be done in a way that frees the neck (good) or in a way that leads to compression and pain (not so good).

Physical Purpose Of The Posture 
I believe there is a common misunderstanding amongst some students that the arms need to be taken so they are level with the ears to be doing poses (where the arms are up) correctly.  Perhaps this is because they believe the purpose of the pose is to get the arms up and then take them as far back as possible.

However, this results in some people taking their arms too far back at the expense of their necks and, possibly, their lower backs.

Taking the arms too far back in these overhead positions, while not wrong, can be uncomfortable.

It is perfectly fine to have the arms up but in front of the face.  In fact, it would be fine to not even take the arms up at all if it is uncomfortable.

It all comes down to understanding why you are doing a particular pose in the first place.  In most cases the answer will never be that you are doing a pose so you can take your arms overhead!  It is more likely that you are doing the pose (speaking from a physical or anatomical perspective) to traction or lengthen the spine and to create more mobility and stability in the shoulder joint.

So bear the purpose in mind.

If your aim is to bring length to the spine and mobility and stability to the shoulder joint complex then be mindful of these things as you move.

If taking the arms up starts to cause tension in the neck or lower back then reassess how you are moving them and try to correct the movement (I offer some tips below) and if that does not work, stop doing the movement until you get the chance to speak to your yoga teacher who can give you more personal attention.

If taking the arms up causes pain or discomfort in the shoulder joint then, again, reassess how you are moving and stop if pain persists.  See a suitably qualified teacher who should be able to point you in the right direction.

Common Causes of Discomfort
From observation, there are a few common things that could be causing or contributing to tension in the neck and spine when moving the arms.

First is the misconception that you need to take the arms up at all when there is pain or discomfort.  Unless a suitably qualified professional has directed you to do so (sometimes they do) then do not take your arms up if it is painful.

Second, there is a misconception that if the arms are up then they need to be taken back so they are level with your ears.  This type of movement is not available to a lot of people and, if attempted, is likely to cause discomfort.  So, don't try to take them back as far.

Third, there is a tendency for some people to roll their inner arms outwards so the inner elbows point away from the face as the arms come up higher.  Rolling the arms that way can squash the neck.  As the arms come up you need to be rolling the inner arms towards your face so that you can see the inner elbows. [Here I am starting from an understanding that you are taking the arms forward and up and not to the side and up].

Moving Towards Freedom
Here is an alternative way to bring the arms up that should bring freedom.  It brings the focus to the armpits and shoulder blades, with an emphasis on pushing the armpits forward and up rather than taking the arms back as far as you can.

1.  Bring your hands into namaste: palms together, thumbs at the nose.  Check your neck is relaxed.

2.  Set your base: feet comfortable, weight shifting forward into the toes, knees slightly bent, sitting bones moving down and forward (a little like a scared dog).  This should bring a light firmness to the abdomen and lengthen the lower back.  This is a foundation you want to keep.  Try not to move the top of the pelvis forward.  Keeping the lower back long will help you to traction the spine as the arms move overhead.

3.  Lightly press the armpits down towards the waist.

4.  With palms together start to push your armpits forward, push your elbows forward.  You will feel this is an action of scapula protraction--the shoulder blades move around the side of the ribcage.  As you do this keep the elbows moving towards one another rather than letting the move apart.

5.  Start to straighten the elbows.  As you do so let the hands come apart.  They'll come to be about shoulder width apart.

6.  Reach out through the elbows, wrists, and fingers so they are firm but not tense.  The arms will be parallel to the floor.  Keep pushing the armpits forwards like you are trying to reach out for something just beyond your reach.  You might stay here.  That is ok.  Breathe and relax and be content.

7.  If it feels ok, then go further.  Start to push the armpits forward and up.  As you do so keep rolling the inner elbows towards your face.  Breathe and relax.  Move slowly.  Be mindful that as you take the arms up the spine might start to arch.  Do not let the spine arch so stop if it starts.  Remember to keep pushing the armpits forward and up.  Don't lose the forward movement as this is what will help free the neck once the arms come up higher.

8.  Keep checking that your neck is free as you move.  Keep breathing and relaxing the face, throat, neck.

9.  At a certain point--perhaps when the arms are about 45 degrees from being overhead--the upward movement will feel more predominant than the forward movement.  That is ok.  Just don't lose the forward movement.  Reach up and reach forward.  Move slowly and mindfully.  Keep rolling the inner elbows in towards your face.  If they start to roll out then stop and be happy where you are.

10.  Keep stretching out through the elbows, wrists and fingers in a way that is firm but not tense.

11.  Once your arms are as forward and up as they can comfortably be lengthen the spine more by letting the sitting bones drop down and forward.  Imagine you are holding onto a tree branch and everything is lowering from there.

12. Relax, breathe, be content.

A Final Note
If you watch my video you might notice a few things.  If you look really closely you will see I have an asymmetry in the movement of my arms.  So you can see I am not perfect.  What a relief.  I bring to yoga my old injuries, one of which being a car accident many years ago.  Do not worry about asymmetry.  Be mindful that it is there.

I also had a point about 18 months ago where a lot of stress at work and some inappropriate work tasks contributed to a severe spasm that meant I could not even lift that arm.  You know what I did?  I kept up my practice.  I even kept teaching.  This was to the surprise of my students I think.  But I knew that I could still practice yoga without arms.  I just didn't take my arms overhead.  I didn't do work on my hands.  I did gentle movement with my shoulders to keep the blood and energy moving through the joints as best I could until I recovered, which I did and fairly quickly.

You might also notice that at times I do funny things with my jaw, I swallow, I wobble my head around, I lick my lips.  You can't really see but I also sometimes do things with my eyes to relax them too.  I am intentionally trying to free up the muscles around my neck, throat, and head that get tense when I am not mindful.

In this video you can also see that at times I have to keep reminding myself to stretch out through my fingers.  I am concentrating on what I am doing with my shoulder blades and armpits so much that sometimes the fingers get slack.  So, don't worry if you forget certain things!  In my practice I am constantly forgetting things and then bringing them back to mindful awareness.  That is part of the practice of yoga.  Continually bringing yourself back in touch with your body.

Taking the arms overhead should be an action that brings freedom and length to your spine but which can cause squashing and tension if not done appropriately.

Remember to move the shoulder blades forward and up and keep rolling the inner elbows towards your face.  Move slowly, check in with your neck, and don't allow the back to arch as you take the arms up.

Stop if there is any discomfort or unease.  Relax.  Breathe. Be content.

May your practice be happy, free, and safe!

Classes (see schedule page for full details):

Mon 1300-1530h @ Barton [private classes]

Wed 0615-0715h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $12

Wed 1030-1130h @ Alive! Gym, Narrabundah

Wed 1245-1315h @ Menzies Library Lawn, ANU, $5

Sat 0900-1030h @ St Aidan's Uniting Church, Brockman St, Narrabundah, $15

Sun 0900-1030h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $15