Wednesday, 27 March 2013

A Trick To Firm Your Belly & Free Your Spine

Use a trick from kneeling plank to help you get here

I have just had the pleasure of spending a week taking daily (sometimes twice daily) classes at Yoga Synergy in Sydney and will be heading to Townsville next week to spend time with my own teacher, Paddy McGrath.  I am so excited.

The teaching styles of these great yogis are very different but I was recently struck by how some of the cues in two very different looking postures were almost the same.
Bianca Machliss from Yoga Synergy in kneeling plank

I love the Yoga Synergy high plank (above is the kneeling version) for many reasons.  One of the least obvious is that it can help teach you a trick to free your spine for serious back bending as used by my teacher, Paddy (below).

Paddy (Dancing Spine Yoga) in an extreme backbend
Outwardly, what Bianca is doing seems to have little to do with what Paddy is doing.  But they are more alike than you might think.  The trick is what you feel inside.

Here's the trick
Come into kneeling plank like Bianca.  Notice this is a high kneeling plank.  By that I mean the chest is pushed back between the shoulder blades (or the shoulder blades are wrapped around the chest in protraction).  This action is important in other arm balance poses but that is a discussion for another post.  For now, let's focus on what is going on in the lower body.

Also notice Bianca's knees are behind her hips--make sure your knees are also slightly behind your hips.  This is also important for the actions we want to create next.

Notice the footwork.  The toes are pressing firmly down into the floor.  The firmer you can press your toes, the lighter the pressure on your knees.  You can press the toes down and try to push the heels back.

From this position lightly hug your armpits towards your waist.

Now, and this is the trick, try to drag your knees towards your hands.  The knees will not actually move because you are pressing with your feet.  What you should feel instead is activation of muscles low in your belly without you having to pull your navel to your spine.  Stop trying to pull the knees and you should feel them relax.

Then you can also try a more subtle move.  Try to move your sitting bones forward as well--as though they are moving towards your navel (don't pull that navel in though!).

What you should feel with these combined actions is that you have created firmness in your abdomen without having to tense the belly or pull the navel to the spine.  You should still be able to breathe freely although you will feel the breath higher up in the torso (since the belly has become firm you it won't move out as you breathe).

From there you can try to keep pulling your knees towards your hands and your sitting bones in the same direction (without pulling your navel to your spine) but at the same time push your heels further backwards so the knees come off the floor and the legs are straight.  You will now be in the high plank.

With your legs straight, keep trying to pull your knees towards your hands and your sitting bones towards your chest just like you did in kneeling plank.  It is harder because the legs are straight and your hips might want to bend (don't let them) so if you can't get it then go back to practicing in kneeling plank to recapture the feeling.

For those of you who lower to the floor from plank or kneeling plank (I really recommend just lowering from kneeling plank until you are really sure you know what you are doing with your shoulders, torso, and legs or you might just set up bad habits that will later lead to injury) you can now try to keep these actions as you come down.  It should feel very supportive of your lower back and make lowering much easier.

So what?
Ok, so what does this have to do with Paddy's extreme backbend (don't worry if you can't do it--I am still working to get there!)?  A lot actually.

This is because, in her backbend, Paddy is trying to do exactly the same thing with her knee and her sitting bones!  That is, she will be trying to move her back knee forwards along the mat and her sitting bones towards her navel.

By attempting to drag the back knee and sitting bones forward Paddy will have firmness in her lower belly and freedom in her lower back.  Only if she uses this trick can she move deeper into the back bend with a free or, as Paddy calls it, a dancing spine.

Application to your yoga practice
Now, you may not be able to attempt the pose that Paddy is doing.  And, to be honest, it probably does not matter if you can ever do it.  But, we practice poses that have a similar idea in yoga all of the time.  One of the most common is the standing lunge or the kneeling lunge.
Bianca in san calasana (high lunge)
In these sorts of lunges you are trying to do exactly the same thing.  That is, attempt to drag the back knee forwards and sitting bones towards the navel to firm the lower belly.  You will feel that this frees your lower back.

In Bianca's high lunge (pictured above) you might find it is easier to think of dragging the back foot towards the front foot.  But if the knee is on the ground you will find it easier to think of dragging the back knee forwards.

The other pose you will encounter frequently in most yoga classes where you can apply this trick is bhujangasana (cobra).

Paddy transitioning to cobra

In the photo above you can see Paddy about to transition to cobra.  One of the interesting things about this transition is you can see her upper spine is like the kneeling plank and, in fact, the whole pose has a kneeling plank look about it!

To come into cobra pose, Paddy has come from downward dog towards kneeling plank and is now  about to try to let her pelvis lower (not fall) down while simultaneously dragging her knees towards her hands.

Once she has lowered her pelvis as far as it will go (without feeling any squash in her lower back) she will raise her chest.

Importantly, if her pelvis would not go down any further without compressing her lower back then she would just lift her chest from here with her pelvis high off the ground.

I couldn't find a photo of Paddy in the full cobra on the internet.  It seems people like to take photos of her in pretty extreme poses only.  However, this photo of her transitioning to cobra is probably more useful than one of her in cobra because it really demonstrates the 'feel' of the pose and sometimes we get too caught up in the look of a pose.

People often come into cobra from the floor.  But coming into it this way (from kneeling plank) will help you really engage the legs and lower belly and teach you a movement pattern that frees your spine.

This trick of trying to bring your knees towards your hands or chest and sitting bones towards your navel works in most of the backbends.  However, it is harder to get the feel when your knees are not touching the floor and when your legs are straight so it is really helpful to practice in poses like a kneeling lunge or a transition from kneeling plank to cobra.  This helps your body begin to understand the firmness in the belly combined with freedom in the lower back while back bending.

You can watch the full youtube video of Paddy practicing extreme backbends below, including the transition from kneeling plank to cobra.  Beware!  They are extreme.  Paddy is an extraordinary teacher and yoga practitioner.  What I hope your body learns from watching her is the beautiful freedom that is present in her spine as she practices.  She got there with years of practice and listening to her body.  Some of us might never come into such extreme postures and it doesn't really matter.  We can all, however, learn to move with greater awareness and freedom.

Happy and safe practicing!

Classes (current at time of posting.  See class schedule page for updated 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, 17 March 2013

Classes This Week 18-24 March

I will be away this Tuesday and Wednesday so I have to cancel the scheduled yoga classes.  

However, I am pleased to announce that I will teach a Sunday morning Lakeside class from 9:30-11am.  Bureau of Meterology predicts sun with only light breeze and max of 24.  

Cost $15
Bring: mat or big beach towel (towel might be better as we are on grass)
Location: Lake Burley Griffin up behind the flags near the trees on the High Court side.  Call me if you have trouble understanding my instructions or cannot find us (0457532858) 
Consider: wearing long sleeves and possibly a scarf/beanie in case it is a little chilly!

Looking forward to seeing you then!

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Hip & Arm Balance Workshop Study Points

Bakasana ('crow pose') as shown by an expert

The short of it!
We had a fabulous workshop yesterday by the lake with 22 yogis of various levels of experience from beginners to teachers enjoying (or so they told me!) our two hour hip and arm balance workshop.

We focussed on techniques for using the hands, shoulders, and spine to help us learn the feel and shape of the arm balance postures bakasana and eka pada galavasana.

Among many things we learned how important it is to lengthen and curve the spine away from the floor broadening across the back body without squashing the front body; to hug the armpits down to the waist while pushing the arms through the floor; to squeeze the elbows towards one another; and to create ha-mani bandha by gripping the floor with our hands as though making a fist.

We also practiced these postures in various orientations to gravity (lying on our back) to feel whether our bodies could move into position without pressure on the arms.

We built strength, stability, and mobility (freedom) in the hips with a sequence of standing and lunging postures, and used some one-legged standing balance postures for deeper strengthening and opening.

We also did a great mandala hip opening sequence that included two of my specialties, which have to remain nameless since the first is a transition pose that I stumbled upon in my own practice and the other is one a posture my teacher taught me and I can't be sure she didn't make it up.  Pigeon and dying warrior variations also made an appearance.

All topped off with some meditation and savasana beneath a clear Canberra sky.  Aaaah.

Unfortunately I didn't get to cover some of the other interesting poses.  So, as my sister suggested, that will be part II!

The long of it!
Wow!  The weather could not have been more perfect for us yesterday at the hip and arm balance workshop.  I thought we'd have about ten people but 22 of you decided doing some yoga by the lake would be a great way to start your weekend.

When I have run this workshop previously it is usually three hours.  Since I am new to Canberra and to most of you I thought I would start with the gentle approach and cut it back to two.  It means there was stuff I had to skip.  Astavakrasana and eka pada koundinyasana II got the boot.

Instead, we covered some of the basics of bakasana (crow pose) and eka pada galavasana (one-legged balance).

Eka pada galavasana

Basic ideas
One of my main intentions was to help people understand the 'push and lift' feel in arm many of the balance postures.  That is, the spine is rounding and lifting away from the floor as the arms lengthen and press down.  A crucial part of this is making sure the shoulder blades wrap around the outside of the ribs and your upper back gets very broad.

In these poses, the spine becomes gently curved. Some people baulk at this because they think they are hunching.  But this is not hunching.  This is lengthening the spine in a forward curve.  From the centre of your sternum (breastbone or hard bony plate that runs down the front of the chest) you are moving back and up rather than collapsing the chest down.  Imagine a strong gush of water coming from below (like the water fountain at Lake Burley Griffin) that is pushing up strongly and lifting you in the centre of the chest.

At the same time the tail goes down and under-imagine the tail of a submissive dog so that rather than squashing the belly in you are trying to curl the back side under.

These sorts of instructions are aimed at trying to get you to attend to the stretch/lengthened don't squash principle.  That is, the front of the torso should feel like it is getting longer not squashing or collapsing in on itself.    

At the same time as all of this is going on, the armpits need to gently hug down towards the waist so that the neck can remain free.  The outer elbows need to wrap under and around as they hug towards one another so that in the final arm balances the elbows do not splay out and drop you.

Basic sequences
We started by warming up the wrists in standing poses before taking a few slow suriya namaskars with lunges and high lunges.  Between the suriya namaskars we came into low squats with knees around the outside of the shoulders, which helped our hips start to ease into the bakasana position.

We moved to some standing hip opening postures (including trikonasana, virabhadrasana II, and parsvakonasana).  We also did one legged standing variations of bakasana--drawing one thigh up to the outer shoulder with and without using our hands.  We kept the spine and arms in the 'bakasana' feel mentioned in the 'basic ideas' above.

We moved to bakasana on our backs, hugging the thighs up and into the upper arms as we curled our chest high and through the knees.

After practicing lying down it was time for the real thing, putting everything together that we had learned.

There were plenty of delightful crows bobbing around on their mats and even if we didn't come all the way up it was not the end of the world because we remained mindful that poses come with practice and if we continue to practice with dedication and compassion we will likely get there in the end.

Balancing into bakasana

Phew, it was getting pretty tiring out there by this time so we headed for a seated/lying sequence of hip openers, starting with a long, slow pigeon (eka pada rajakapotasana).  Here, I reminded everyone to stay mindful that the knees were not experiencing strain.  We never move into pain!  I encouraged us to see what a difference it made to move the front hip back and move the back hip forward while in pigeon.  When I say encouraged, I came around and gently coaxed you there!  Wow, what a difference that makes to the posture!

My special pose--we won't forget this one in a hurry!

We moved into my special pose (pictured above) and then a dying warrior sequence, topped off with another special pose that I don't have a picture and remains the nameless creation of my teacher, Paddy.  Suffice it to say, it was very special.

From there it was time to practice eka pada galavasana on our backs and from there moved to a one legged standing variation before coming into the arm balance position.

One thing some of us noticed was that this arm balance pose demands a lot of your hips.  If you cannot do the pose in lying then you might be better of practicing pigeon for a while or the standing variation that we practiced on the day (pictured).  Better to practice safely and without pain so that the hip gently opens rather than try to force yourself into something your body is not ready for.

Throughout the practice we interspersed some back bending and finished with seth bandhasana, some lying and seated twists, as well as some neck releasing postures.  Then is was time for meditation and a well deserved savasana.

A Few Words on Strength
Those of you there on the day might have noticed I did not talk much about strength.  This was deliberate.  While is it true that all arm balance poses require upper body and core strength to help create the lift, it wasn't my priority to do a lot of strengthening in this sequence.

This is because I wanted you to have energy to try modified versions of the pose without coming into them fatigued.  This is especially if you have not quite figured out how to use your hands and arms to take weight from the wrists (be sure to read my previous blog post on this).

However, we did do some strengthening work, which you might like to practice at home.  They were slipped into the general sequence and included the ones mentioned below:

  • in standing, bending the knees slightly, evenly rounding the spine, pushing the arms and shoulder blades forward as you send the chest up and back between the shoulder blades, gently hugging the armpits to the waist.  Keep these same actions throughout as you practice the next positions

  • high plank (with chest pushing back through the shoulder blades) and spine evenly curving and pubic bone moving towards the ribs
  • from high plank slowly lowering knees towards the floor until they hover a few millimetres from the earth

  • from there lift your hips and start to walk forward on your tip-toes with your hands still on the ground.  Knees can stay bent.  Keep walking forward as far as you can take the feet while keeping the hands flat on the ground and shoulders over the wrists.  Stay as high on your tip-toes as you can. 
  • come into a high squat on your tip-toes.  Adopt the spine and arm position in the first standing position described above.  Gradually fold forward, keeping the shoulder blade/arm/spine position and position your hands flat on the floor in front of you.   Keep leaning forward over your hands, gradually taking more weight off the feet until we are on our tip-toes
Leaning forward into hands, come higher onto your tip-toes (higher than in this picture!)
  • from there, walking back on tip-toes to high plank again
  • practicing both of the poses (bakasana and eka pada galavasana) on your back (helps with the core)
Practicing the standing, squatting, and plank versions described above helps you cultivate the overall shape and feel of the postures.  In particular, it will help with regard to what you are trying to do in your arms and shoulder blades as well as along the front and back sides of your spine.

The standing variations are important to practice first because you don't have to bear any weight through the arms you can focus on how to position yourself and the general action/feel without concern about whether you are going to collapse under your own weight!

Plank is a good position--either in kneeling (easier) or with legs straight (harder)--to cultivate strength in weight bearing for this posture.  However, you want to practice the high arched plank with the chest doming up for best results.

Tip-toeing forward and backwards and leaning into the hands from the semi-squatting position are harder than plank because there is going to be more weight over your hands as your centre of gravity shifts forward.   Ideally, you want to be able to get your shoulders in front of your wrists and be able to stand on your tip-toes fairly close to your hands.  If you can do that you will know you definitely have more than enough strength for the arm balances!

A Few Words on Balance
The arm balance postures are balances.  We float into them by shifting our centre of gravity forward until we find our tipping points.  It is important to be able to relax the face and breathe.  Remember, there is no facepullasana.

If you can't find your tipping point then you might need to spend some more time strengthening and cultivating the overall shape of the posture in various orientations to gravity.  Especially in the case of eka pada galavasana, you might need to spend more time on hip opening.  If you have the hip opening and the strength and you can get yourself into position on your back then perhaps get your teacher to have a look at you to see if your technique is correct.   There might be a few minor adjustments that they can help you with.

Looking Forward to Hip & Arm Balance 2
I have more to cover so look out for part 2 of this fun and challenging workshop series!  Until then, happy and safe practicing.

Classes (current at time of posting.  See class schedule page for updated 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

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Workshop on Saturday 16th-Precise Location Revealed!

We will be behind and above the grass bowl on the left!

I could not find a way to pinpoint the exact location of tomorrow's workshop so I will talk you through it.

If you are standing with your back to the Lake and looking at the flags you will see there are flags in front of the High Court to your left and in front of Questacon to your right.  In between the flags is a semi-circular grass bowl, which I will call the grass bowl (not to be confused with the super bowl).

Anyway, above and behind the grass bowl is a plateau of grass.  We are going to be up there.  So walk up the grass bowl on the High Court side, once at the top you should see us.  There are some trees that will afford us some shade!  You'll still need sunscreen and water though.

I am going to bring a big beach towel to practice on as well as my yoga mat and see which one suits better.  The grass is a bit soft already so a yoga mat might be too spongy.

Looking forward to it!  If you haven't given me your mobile number already, please do as we'll have to move if it rains!

Below I have posted an old youtube video I made a few years ago.  Maybe turn the sound down!  This is one of the ways to come into bakasana.  There are more.  We'll approach it different ways on Saturday to see what suits you best!

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

1, 2, 3 & Lift Off!


Out behind the backyard in the Aussie bush practicing my bakasana!  This is one of the poses we’ll be working on in the hip and arm balance workshop coming up on Saturday 16 March 9-11am by Lake BG.  Check out my ‘Workshop’ page for details or contact me.  Until then, have a looksee below.

Step one: Roll up sleeves, get ready.  Wonder to myself why I am practicing on gravel.  It hurts a bit.  Remind myself of my recent post on using the hands properly in yoga poses.

Step two: Folding forward, clawing floor, leaning into hands, doming chest, and lifting belly.

Step three: Looking forward, doming chest, lifting belly, lifting pulling thighs up, knees to shoulders, on my tiptoes, weight forward, light on feet.

Step four: Looking forward, doming more, belly lifting more, leaning forward, feet float off ground!

Bakasana and other arm balances can be scary.  Mainly because it can feel like you are going to face plant if you don’t generate enough lift through the hands, armpits, chest, and belly.  In my upcoming workshop we will learn some tricks and head over to the grass.  It should help!