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

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

A Way To Side Bending

Two key ideas in side bending are to lengthen the side you want to lengthen and firm the opposite side. If you can learn to move from the navel upwards your posture will more effectively move blood and energy through the spine.

You can see the influence of the Yoga Synergy team of Simon and Bianca here so please also go straight to the source and see what they have to say.

What I wanted to show in this video is how to do a side-bend first in a standing balance posture and then apply it to a more traditional side bending posture like parsvakonasana.

Apologies upfront for the annoying autofocus on the camera, which leaves me in soft-focus a few times.  Must get that sorted.

What you will find is that a side bending posture can lengthen and traction one side of the body/spine, while firming the opposite side.  The firmness does not come by itself and you need to move the body in particular ways to achieve this.

Start from standing, feet comfortably apart, weight forward in the toes, knees slightly bent, sitting bones moving down and forward, top of the pelvis back.  Relax and breathe.

From the standing position above, move right toe tip forward.  Move sitting bones forward.  Then, to lengthen one side--let's say the left--initiate the movement from the base of the spine up.  So move the navel to the left, then the ribs, then the chest, then the collar bones.  If you can move the individual vertebra between each of those points then do!

Then enhance the lengthening by using the shoulder/arm--taking the left arm forward, up, and to the right.  Do not worry about taking the arm too high--this can tend to squash the neck.  Try to go for more forward and across movement.  Play with it a little and see what gives you length without squashing.

With left side long, now firm the right side.  To do this move the right armpit down towards the right hip.  Then push the right hip forward and up.  The forward and then the up are important.  You need to do both.  You should find this firms the right side without squashing it.

Relax and breathe into the abdomen which is firm on the right side but soft on the left.  Put your neck in a comfortable position so that it is not squashed on any side.

The basis for side bending is to move from the navel up.  Lengthen one side of the body and firm the other side without squashing.  If you let the sitting bones move back you will end up squashing the lower back so watch for that.

You can use these basic principles for any of the side-bending postures.  I demonstrate this in parsvakonasana in the video.  But trikonasana would be another example of this.  There are many floor sitting side bending postures where you apply the same principles of lengthen then firm as well.

Remember, don't do anything that doesn't feel good.  Look for a feeling of freedom and ease rather than stretch and tension.

Happy and safe practicing!

A Way To Chandra Namaskar (emphasis on firming belly through posture and long, free spine)

There are many ways to come into and out of yoga postures and sequences of postures.  Below is one way to try a chandra namaskar.  It is based on the classes I have taken with Yoga Synergy and you should go to their website to get material directly from the source and understand this is my interpretation only.

And while I mention it as based on the Yoga Synergy style (based on the emphasis on moving the sitting bones forward), I note my teacher Paddy McGrath also encourages similar movements (but without the same anatomical instructions) in the classes I have had with her--particularly the actions of bhujangasana, which requires postural firmness in the belly while simultaneously keeping the spine long rather than squashing it.

This sequence is practiced with natural breathing; breathing into the belly.  The belly is made firm by the posture, which, in this case, is caused by moving the sitting bones forward and top of the pelvis back.  This action also creates length in the lower back, which tends to get squashed in most people.

What I try to distinguish between as I practice this sequence is a movement of my spine versus a movement at the hip joint.  You will see that from standing, I first bend the spine (from the navel upwards), then I bend at the hips and knees to come to the floor.  I don't worry about straight legs here. I am more concerned with the movements of the spine.

You will see that I step back into a low lunge.  Before I stand up I firm the belly by pushing the sitting bones towards the front heel.  Then I stand up.

You will see in kneeling plank I use the same action of pushing sitting bones forward to cultivate a firm belly but I still breathe into it so that I am calm.

You will also see that in the second cycle I come from kneeling plank into bhujangasana.  That transition is really important.  I am moving into a backward bend but I do not stop pressing the sitting bones forward.  Look at this section really closely.  You will see that the length in my lower back is maintained.  The sitting bones continue to push forwards.  If I let my bum stick up in the air it will squash.

You may not be able to lower your pelvis to the floor as much as I am.  But lowering it is not important here.  What is important is the length of your spine. Make that your focus.

When I cannot move forward anymore then I lengthen the front of my body without sticking my ribs out or squashing the back.  In this way I feel freedom.  I should mention the action of the armpits is strong here, which you cannot see, and they are pressing down and back (like I am trying to pull my hands back to my hips).

When I move back into kneeling plank I don't let the lower back sag.

Throughout this sequence I pay attention to my neck.  I make sure it is not squashed and is in a position where it feels long and free.

In the second cycle you can see I try to maintain the feeling of kneeling plank and tip-toe my feet towards my hands.  Here I was just playing around with maintaining that feeling while putting weight through my arms.  Some people might lift to lolasana (take their toes off the ground and hover) or even a handstand if that is available to you.  It is not available to me so I just stay at the level I am at, be content with that, and breathe.

Move slowly through this sequence.  Don't practice it if you are unsure or if anything does not look or feel right to you.

May your practice be peaceful and happy!

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, 6 June 2013

A Way To Kneeling Plank For Better Arm Balances

Down dog, plank, crow and the forearm balance pincha mayurasana are all much the same pose.  The main difference is the angle of the arms relative to the torso and angle of the hips.  From my perspective, and current way of practicing, the spine stays much the same--long and free.  

In these poses, the abdomen is also made firm.  However, it is made firm by the posture not because you are 'sucking in'.  In this way of practicing there is no need to actively pull navel to spine and you can breathe into the belly.  It won't move too much because it has been made firm by the posture (if performed correctly) but the act of breathing into it will help give you power and relaxation.  Please link to Simon Borg Olivier's work on this matter if you are in doubt.  Also, watch Paddy McGrath as she practices (you can google them both).  You will see how long and free her spine is as she moves between postures like this.  

These issues--length and freedom in the spine along with firmness in the abdomen created by the posture--are important things to consider when 'looking' for a feeling in the postures I describe below.  

You will see that kneeling plank, when performed as described, is the foundation for all of the poses. 

You will see also that kneeling plank, when performed as described, is a fairly difficult pose.    

If you can manage a great kneeling plank, as described, then you will create firmness in your abdomen without needing to pull your belly in. The type of firmness that is combined with ease and will enable you to gracefully come into more challenging poses rather than rely on brute force.

You will cultivate strength, stability and openness around the shoulders without needing to lift weights.

You will find length and freedom in your spine without over mobilizing weak parts.

Here is how. Before you begin, revise my previous posts on using the hands as I will only highlight the main points.  Remember do not try anything that might make you uncomfortable. Move mindfully and back off if there is any discomfort.  This is a way to come into these poses.  I like them because they make me feel firm but free, strong, but relaxed. There are other ways.  Find what works for you.

***note that the 'ambient' noise in the background is because I didn't figure out how to get rid of the noise of the person boxing in the gym where I filmed this!

Kneeling Plank
Come onto the hands and knees. Middle fingers point straight ahead, hands a little wider than shoulders.  Claw the fingers as though making a fist. Squash the wrists towards one another, roll the underside of your arms towards your face. Elbows straight but not rigidly so.

Knees slightly behind hips. 

Breathe into the belly.  Let it bloat out like a baby's belly.  You will keep breathing into the belly throughout.

Scoop the sitting bones down and forward as though they are moving towards the wrists.  Lift the top of the pelvis towards the ceiling. The lower back should lengthen and now the belly will firm without you needing to think of actively tensing it.  

Breathe into the belly.

Child's Pose (Balasana)
Beware the tendency to just sag back and let the chest and lower back give way to gravity.  The chest still floats up, the sitting bones move towards the wrists.  

Press the armpits in the direction they face--now towards the floor. 

Feel as though you are pulling your knees towards your wrists.  

Push the ribs and chest up towards the ceiling.  The upper back will broaden.  Push the arms down into the floor to enhance this.

Lightly move the armpits in the direction they face--back towards the knees.

Relax the face and neck.

Breathe into the belly.
From kneeling plank you can move to balasana by shifting the whole torso and pelvis backwards towards the heels.  You don't have to sit on the heels.  

Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Keep the actions you have been cultivating in kneeling plank and then child's pose.  The only thing that changes now is that the heels start to press backwards, as though to the floor.  They might not reach the floor. Who cares? It is not that important.  The legs might not straighten. Who cares? It is not important.

What is important is that the foundation you have set--ribs floating up with lower back long--is maintained.

To ensure you can do this, move slowly.  If you find yourself starting to sag in your spine then pause.  Back off until you are not sagging.  Stay there and be content with where you are. Let's use this pose to free and lengthen the spine rather than worry about straightening the legs.

Many people, if not mindful, will push their ribs through towards the floor. Perhaps because a lot of people are photographed doing it and because it feels more stretchy.  I am not saying it is bad to feel stretchy.  However, the action of pushing the chest through rather than lifting it up will teach you nothing about the more advanced arm balance poses.

Crow (Bakasana)
Bakasana is basically a variation of kneeling plank but with the knees on the arms.  The actions of pushing sitting bones to heels, pushing chest upwards, pulling the knees into the chest, and pressing the armpits in the direction in which they face.  

The main difference is that the knees actually move towards the chest rather then just feeling as though they are. 

Lift up on tiptoes, place the knees on the upper arms, keep trying to pull the knees up higher, push the sitting bones towards the heels, armpits to waist, chest to sky.  

You will feel when. You are ready as you will be able to shift your weight forwards and float up.

Forearm Stand (Pincha Mayurasana)
From down dog, lower to your allows, again without letting the chest or lower back sag. Sitting bones to heels, top of the pelvis back, ribs float towards spine. Head hangs down.  You should be able to see your navel.  If you ribs poke out or drop you will not be able to do this.

This pose is really tough.  Most of us just need to be content to stay here on our elbows for a while, navel gazing.  The most common things that happen here are that the chest sags, elbows splay, and shoulders start to drop into ears. 

If these things start to happen then try to rectify them and, if you cannot, go back to kneeling plank and down dog, every now and then coming back to Pincha Mayurasana to see if you can maintain the position without losing the foundations you have set.

The lower back is lengthened by moving the sitting bones down and forward towards the wrists, top of pelvis up to the sky.  

The middle and upper back are lengthened as the ribs and chest move back towards the spine or ceiling.

The armpits press in the direction they face.  

The posture creates firmness in the belly.  Don't try to pull it in.  Breathe into the belly.

Relax the neck and face.  

Be content.  

Remember, move slowly.  If anything does not feel good, back off or don't do it.  

May your practice be safe, peaceful, and happy. 

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

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Six Tips For Standing Poses

My teacher, Paddy McGrath, often says she wants to write a book on yoga but that she can't get past the first page because--she jokes--yoga is really very simple and there are really only a few instructions to give.

Of course she says all of this while floating effortlessly into a drop back and then flipping into a handstand.

But the more you practice the more you realize she is right.   

Many yoga poses have common instructions just with your body in different positions and orientations to gravity.  

For example, you can see from my recent posts that trikonasana and parsvakonasana, which look very different, share many of the same instructions.  

One thing that many of the standing poses have in common is that one foot is forward of the torso and the other is backward (behind the torso).  The tips in this post are for those sorts of poses, including trikonasana, parsvakonasana, virabhadrasana 1 & 2, privrtta trikonasana, parivrtta parsvakonasana, and parsvottanasana.

Rotation At Hips
A general instruction that you can follow in such poses is to try to roll the front thigh out (external rotation of the femur or thigh bone -- it should feel as though the thigh bone is turning to the upward and towardsoutside of the mat) and to roll the back thigh onwards (internal rotation of the femur/thigh bone -- it should feel like the thigh bone is trying to turn downward and towards the centre of the mat).

These actions help ensure that the spine remains long without squashing.
Stretch Mat With Feet
Another general instruction you can follow is to try and stretch the mat with your feet.  

That means try to move the front foot forward and the back foot backward. This action activates hip flexors on the front leg and hip extensors on the back leg, bringing stability to the hip when combine with the previous action, and can cause the opposing muscles to relax through reciprocal relaxation. If you listen carefully to your body you will feel these actions also bring a natural firmness to your belly.

Press Down Through Ball of Front Foot
Another common instruction in such poses is to press down though the ball of the front foot, as though you are trying to push it through the floor. This action will help you balance and will activate the muscles of your calves without you needing to consciously tense them.

Line Up Outer Edge of Front Foot & Squeeze Front Heel In
In these poses the outer edge of the front foot should be parallel to the outer edge of the mat. The inside of your foot will be angled in.  That is ok.  This foot alignment allows you to squeeze the heel of that for in towards the centre of the mat (although it does not actually move). This action can be felt all the way into the hip joint and you will feel that it helps with the external rotation of the front hip.

Lift Outer Edge of Front Foot
With all of the external rotation going on this can cause the weight to all move onto the outside of the front foot. Counter this with pressing down on the mound of the big toe and inner heel while lifting the outer edge of the foot.  This brings firmness to the outer ankle and stability to the posture.

Back Foot Placement
The placement of the back foot in these types postures depends on your hip flexibility.  

For these postures the heel is down with toes angling outward.  The angle depends on how your knee feels.  People with more flexible hips will be able to have the back heel line ip with the front heel.  But a lot of people who have spent most of their lives in chairs, for instance, will need to move the back foot over to the side away from the midline of the body.

SummaryWhile I have mentioned the feet last here, as a general rule you would set your feet first.  So, five general ideas to help your standing poses:
1. Set the feet.  Front foot outer edge parallel to edge of mat and heel squashing in.  Back foot angled and positioned at a comfortable length and width from front foot.
2. Front thigh rolls out. Back thigh rolls in.
3. Stretch the mat with your feet
4. Press the ball of front foot down as though through the. At.
5. Lift outer edge of front foot.
6. Back foot is set at an angle (toes out heel in) in a position that depends on hip flexibility and encourages freedom.

And the sneaky seventh? Of course it is to relax, be firm but calm, and breathe.

The most important thing in these and all yoga poses, from my perspective, is that you feel strong but relaxed and free.  You should be able to breathe and tell me how much you love the pose and want to stay in it without gasping for breath.