Tuesday, 28 May 2013

A Way to Parsvakonasana With Strong Legs & Free Spine

There are many ways into postures.  This is one way into parsvakonasana that helps promote a strong and stable base and free spine.

In this posture it is important that you find a place of freedom in the neck.  It will like jam if you do not push the armpit forward and down and if you do not move the ear away from the shoulder.

I come into this pose from a low lunge.  You can try other ways.  The basic ideas are to:

  • set the feet
  • set the pelvis so that sitting bones move forward and under top of the pelvis back
  • ensure the front leg sitting bone does not swing out to the side, encourage it to scoop under
  • press front foot forward, back foot backward.  The legs will feel strong and the spine will feel light. 
  • grip front and back heels in
  • roll back thigh in
  • back leg armpit moves forward and presses down to the floor
  • front leg armpit moves towards the hip
  • turn from the navel first, then the ribs, then the chest
  • relax the throat and neck
  • breathe
  • relax
  • smile
I start from a low lunge.  I line the front foot up with the outside edge of the mat and grip the heel in without moving it. 

I move the sitting bones down and forward, top of the pelvis back.  Lower back lengthens.

I scoop the front leg (right) sitting bone over the left.

I keep the pelvis as it is and lower the back heel without swinging my butt out.   I actively roll the back thigh to roll in. 

I press the front foot forward and back foot backward.  I push the heels inwards.

I feel the spine float up. 

I take my left armpit forward and press lightly down, right armpit moves to the waist.

I straighten my left arm, armpit stays pressing down.  I take my right hand towards the floor.

I keep my arms as they are, my pelvis as it is.  I push my navel forwards and then turn first from the navel, then the ribs, then the chest.  My spine turning towards the ceiling.  My left armpit stays pressing down and forward.  

I lengthen the front without shortening the back by pushing the navel forward again then letting the chest float up. 

I place my neck in a comfortable position. 

I feel that I could move and if I wanted to but I stay still.  I don't feel stuck.  I tense less, I stretch less, I think less.  

I relax.

I breathe.  

I smile. 

May your practice be happy and free!

Monday, 27 May 2013

A Way To Trikonasana: Strong Legs and Free Spine

There are many ways into poses and different ways of doing poses.  Different styles of yoga emphasise different things.

I say this and called this pose 'a way' to trikonasana to highlight that the way I describe here is not a definitive way but simply one that you might like to experiment with and think about in your own practice.

What I hope is that this way will promote a free and fluid spine so if you are 'looking' for anything in this particular variation then 'look' (ie, feel) for that.

At the moment I think of a free spine as almost like a spineless creature blobbing through the water.  Like a jelly fish.  It waves and floats and circles and moves fluidly.

Some of the important things that I will emphasise in order to help this free floating jelly fish blobbing spine are:

  • set the feet
  • adjust the sitting bones
  • allow the back thigh to roll inwards and ensure the front thigh points in the same direction as the shin 
  • soften the ribs
  • press the armpits forward in the direction they face
  • relax the throat and neck


  • I come into trikonasana from a low lunge.  
  • I move my sitting bones down and under, top of the pelvis back.  
  • I push front foot forward, back foot backwards.  My legs get firm and stable.  My spine becomes light and fluid.  
  • I lower my back heel, careful not to lose the actions of the sitting bones. 
  • I scoop the bottom sitting bone further under.  
  • I keep the back thigh rolling in, front thigh rolling out.  
  • I start to straighten my front leg, pushing into the ball of the front foot.  
  • I lift the outer ankle of the front foot.  
  • I keep my pelvis, belly, and chest pointing down for now.  
  • My body is light.  I can breathe freely.  
  • I initiate a twist first from my navel, then my lower ribs, then my chest and shoulders.  
  • I press my armpits in the direction the face--in this case forwards.  
  • I start to straighten my arms but I don't take them back.  I keep pressing the armpits forward.  
  • My neck is free, jaw relaxed. 
  • I breathe into my belly (pushing it out) and then to my chest--lengthening the front of the body without shortening the back.  
  • I adjust my head so there is no tension in my neck.  In this case, I look up, tuck the chin, and move my ear away from the top shoulder.  If this is uncomfortable I reposition.  
  • I breathe.  
  • I relax. 
  • I smile.

Blast From The Past
Just for a bit of added information, here is a video I posted a while ago about the front knee in trikonasana.  It is from my time in Sri Lanka.  It talks about good knee alignment in the pose.

And For The Encore!
And, if you haven't had enough of trikonasana yet, take a look at me practicing a few little tricks with it on my roof in Sri Lanka!

Happy and safe practicing!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Freedom In Movement: What Lady Macbeth Taught Me About Yoga

A great lesson I learned from my teacher, Paddy McGrath, is that our bodies often learn by looking at other bodies.  I know that every time I look at a graceful mover (a dancer, a martial artist, an elite runner, a 'free' person walking down the street) some part of my body goes 'wow'.  It is as though my cells turn on and start itching to move that effortlessly.

Enter Lady Macbeth.

After class this week I was having a chat in the change room with one of my students.  We were discussing her stealth-like ninja ability to sneak into class without making a noise.  It got us talking about free movement and we spontaneously started swanning around the locker room with our versions of 'free walking'.

And, amidst this jovial mood, I suddenly thought of Lady Macbeth.

"You know what I really remember about Macbeth is how Lady Macbeth walked in the video we watched in high school" I offered.


"Yes, well, I mean, apart from the other things.  I am sure I must have learned other things," I said quickly, not wanting to look too stupid (although, to be honest, I was struggling to remember what those things were).

"Yeah, like the murder and deception and bloodshed!" laughed my student.

"Oh yes!  But, incredibly, amongst all that decapitation I just remember a scene where Lady Macbeth is walking down a staircase.  And they way she walked!  I will never forget that!  It was as though she was gliding or floating."

Now Lady Macbeth might have some deeper things to tell you about your yoga practice.  But, for me, my body saw freedom and instantly wanted it.  It saw lightness.  It saw effortlessness.  It saw grace.  It saw beauty.  And this is what I remember most in spite of the severed heads on sticks.

The point is your yoga can feel like this too.  Light and free that is, not like you are a severed head on a stick.

Your yoga can feel as easy as crossing your arms or scratching your nose or blinking.  If you are not feeling freedom and ease as you practice then remind yourself that you could be.  Then ask yourself whether you want to.

If the answer is yes (sometimes it might be no for particular reasons of your own) then do something about it.  See whether you can (as Simon Borg Olivier taught me) tense less, stretch less, and think less.    

As I teach a class my voice is never strained, I don't run out of breath, I don't tense up my face.  I talk (probably too much) throughout the poses.  This is one sign of me being relaxed in the posture.

Over the next few weeks in class see if you can let your body, rather than your thinking brain, follow me as I move.  Don't worry if you don't feel like you are getting it.  Come and ask me after class.  Perhaps there is something I can help you with in private.
May your practice be peaceful, happy, and free!

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Sthira Sukham Asanam: Firm But Calm

Firm But Calm: The Braselly Sisters

My basics course has started.  If you are coming or not, I'll use some of these posts to cover some of the stuff we talk about and practice.

There are so many important things to talk about in a basics course but this has to be keep coming back to: practice in a way that is firm but calm, steady but relaxed.

Personally, I feel that if you walk away from a class feeling tense, like you need a massage or like you need 4 hours of savasana then it might be time to rethink the way you are practicing (unless you wanted to feel that way!).

In yoga, being firm and calm while practicing is known as Sthira Sukham Asanam.  A quick google search will give you lots of information about this concept and its origins.  I am not a yogic scholar and I don't speak Sanskrit so I'll refrain from delving into an area better covered by others.  However, I can offer some ideas about how this concept relates to my practice and how you might apply it to yours.

As with anything I write, remember, these are suggestions--not instructions--try them safely and with awareness.  If they don't feel good then don't do them.  I must acknowledge the people I learned these ideas from: Paddy McGrath, Simon Borg Olivier, and Bianca Machliss.  Any errors in interpreting their teachings is mine.  Please try to attend their classes if you can.

Can you practice in a way that you can hold a posture but tense less?  Perhaps this means backing off your maximum slightly.  Teachers I have been to suggest 20% of maximum possible muscle activation as a guide.

It is difficult to tell whether you are activating 20 or 30 or 40% so don't worry about it, just remember that the body needs to keep moving as you practice and the more you tense the more difficult it is to move.

Remember, we want to build strength, but a fluid strength that supports free movement rather than restricts it.

Perhaps it also means checking in with your throat, your jaw, your tongue, the corners of your eyes and your gaze as you practice.  These points often hold what I call 'secret tension'.

They are some of the points in our body that are under dual control--that is you can consciously activate them but they can also be unconsciously activated.  If you find your teeth clenching, your brows furrowed, your tongue sticking out then your whole pose will feel tense.

Another suggestion for most of us is to see if we can breathe into our belly a little more.  Let the posture create firmness in the abdomen without you interfering and then breathe into it.  This should instantly help you tense less and feel more relaxed.

Can you practice in a way that you can be in a posture but stretch less?  Perhaps this means not going as deeply into the posture.  It definitely means not moving too quickly into the posture.

If you move too quickly you will likely trigger a 'stretch reflex', which is basically your brain reacting to a sudden movement and giving your body a message to tense to protect itself.  For most of us, the last thing we want in a forward bend is our hamstrings suddenly tensing up as it will inhibit our ability to move into the pose.

If you feel too much stretch in a posture and move too deeply you are also at risk of injuring yourself.  And, if the stretch is felt really close to the joints, you are probably applying too much stretch to less elastic structures like ligaments and tendons.  These do not spring back into place like muscles do and, over time, over-stretching them can lead to permanent damage.

On an ego level it can be difficult to practice in this way since many of us come to yoga wanting to be more flexible!  However, over time, with mindful practice the body will begin to move more freely with greater range without you needing to hold in passive postures for minutes to stretch out the hamstrings/calves/butt/quads/traps/lats etc.  One of the reasons is because the way we practice in my classes encourages active movement that triggers relaxation responses. (Note, I don't mean to suggest it is wrong to be 'passive', there are many people who teach this way and it is just different but not wrong).

Can you practice in a way so that you think less?  Hmmm, this is a hard one, isn't it?  Especially when you are new to something.  It's one of the reasons I am not instructing the breath in my basics classes, aside from telling people to breathe naturally at the beginning and into the belly if they can.  If you have to think about breathing and moving when you are new it can be very confusing and sometimes frustrating.

The way I am structuring my basics courses is to give verbal instruction in the beginning to clarify a few points, but, gradually, through the class, to talk less and allow your body to find it's way without having to listen and try to interpret what I am saying.

This doesn't mean that you move without intelligence.  You eventually learn to move with your body's own intelligence after it learns some basic movement patterns.

Can you continue a dedicated practice that is mindful so that you feel good? The three previous points are a bit of a 'how to' guide: tense less, stretch less, think less (something I learned from Yoga Synergy) that tease out some of the basic principles of my own practice.

With this final suggestion I ask you whether you can find a way to be be fully present and focussed as you practice.  Be firm in the sense of commitment and dedication.  Be calm so that you feel relaxed and free and don't hurt yourself (with thoughts or movements).  Be mindful that you wake up with a new body each day--we are not the same person every day.  Things are always changing.  To leave a yoga class feeling good our practice needs to reflect this constantly changing state.

Sthira Sukham Asanam is not usually discussed the way I have discussed it.  Actually, I don't know that I have ever seen it discussed this way so you might like to do that google search and read what other people have to say!

For me, the important thing to remember is you have not come to yoga to suffer.  If you tense too much, stretch too much, think too much you will likely experience tension in body or mind.  Be respectful of yourself and find a way to be fully present in your practice so that you feel great and wake up each morning excited about it!

***End Note
As you read this will no doubt find the influence of my great teachers--Paddy McGrath and the Yoga Synergy team.  Of course, any errors in interpretation of their teachings is my fault.  Best to always go straight to the source and if you ever have the chance, please go and practice with them.

***Photo credits:
These two ladies look stable, steady, focussed, strong but at the same time calm, peaceful, relaxed: the essence of Sthira Sukham Asanam
I got this photo from:
who in turn got it from:

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Basics Course Starting Sunday 19th May

Is this baby thinking about how to balance?  

Don't confuse the word 'basics' with the word 'easy'.  My basics course, which starts this Sunday, may not require you to fold up into lotus and lift into handstand but the poses will still be challenging.

We are going to focus a lot on standing poses.  Not because they are simple.  In fact, they are quite complex.  All of them will challenge you, especially since I intend to help us learn the requisite joint actions in their one-legged standing variations first!

This approach will ensure your body understands the actions required of it and is able to perform those actions actively.  This is really important.  It will mean you are relying on internal actions and effort rather than on the external forces of gravity or passive movement.  This will make your postures safer, and reduce the chance of activating reflexes that cause stiffness rather than softness.  The result should be that you perform strong postures in a way that feels relaxed!

Sounds good doesn't it?!

My aim is to help your body learn what it needs to do without stress.  Like the baby balancing on his father's hand above.  Is he thinking about how to balance?  Probably not.  He has organised his body weight to help him stand up tall.  His face looks relaxed.  No doubt he is breathing into his belly.  This is how I want our yoga to feel.

So whether or not you are experienced or new to yoga, come along and move your way towards strength, stability and freedom.  Do let me know if you are coming.
The course goes for 6 weeks from 9-1030am at Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Philip.  I did have some signs at the bottom but someone who doesn't want people to know about this course seems to have taken them down!

Bring a mat, bring a friend, and get ready to move!

Firm Belly Soft Sides

Simon Borg Olivier in Lolasana--firm belly with soft sides while breathing into belly give this pose power!

Wow, it is such a privilege to have the influence and guidance of two extra-ordinary yogis that have made such a difference to my practice and life.  I hope I can share even a fraction of what I understand from them with you.  Remember, best to go to the source--the sources being Paddy McGrath and Yoga Synergy.  I am only interpreting my understandings of their teachings.

This week I was blown away by a very simple instruction.  Breathe into your belly.  It changed my postures dramatically.

Somewhere along the way I have learned to grip my belly so everything is firm.  But at a workshop with Simon Borg Olivier over the past ten days I learned that I could keep the front of my belly firm and relax the sides by breathing into my belly.  Baby breath.

I have posted previously about a trick to keep the belly firm by pushing the sitting bones down and forward (top of the pelvis backwards).  This brings a natural firmness to your belly in poses like plank and bakasana.  The instruction that was missing was to see if you can try to continue to breathe into the belly while you practice those poses.  This relaxes the sides of the belly as the front stays firm and brings more power into your postures.  Not to mention relaxation!

I realise I have been firming the front and gripping the sides of my belly as well, which forces the breath up into the chest, and has been reducing the power of my postures and making me feel a bit tense.   For me, over-tensing everything to stabilise has been limiting freedom and mobility.

As Simon mentioned continuously, it is not that one way is necessarily 'wrong' and another 'right'--it depends what you are looking to experience and do.  For me, the freedom that came with keeping front firm and sides soft has brought a whole new dimension to my practice, including a beautifully free-floating handstand!

I'd really recommend reading and viewing Simon's blog post about this issue and have a think for yourself.  Go to blog.yogasynergy

I will be introducing this concept into my classes to see how it goes for you.  Just remember, move cautiously and with awareness.  If something does not feel good, then don't do it.  If something brings pain, then don't do it.  Move away from suffering.  Move away from pain.  Always, always, always moving towards greater freedom.