Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Handstand At Ease

Here I wanted to share a way of coming into handstand and being in a handstand where I feel at ease in my spine especially.

My teachers always taught that the spine should feel long and free.

What I do in this handstand is try to capture a feeling in my spine that is like I am standing with my arms reaching overhead.  Only instead of the weight being on my feet I put the weight on my hands.

To do this handstand I do a few key things.

First, I lengthen the lower back by moving sitting bones down towards my heels and gently moving top of pelvis back.

Then I do a sit up in my tummy.  This is the type of sit up you do where you get firm in the middle and soft in the sides and where you feel as though you can still breathe in a way that the tummy will move.  I recommend that you read Simon Borg Olivier's blogpost on is it correct to pull navel to spine to understand what I am doing here (see:

Third, I keep that sit up in my tummy and reach my arms out as far as possible.  If I were in standing it would be like I was reaching for something off a really high shelf.  The arms move forward and upward.

On the ground I really push my hands downwards into the floor.  I feel for my shoulder blades wrapping around the spine.  I try to roll my outer armpits to my face.  I grip with my fingertips as though I am trying to make a fist with my hands.

I try and keep my neck free.

I breathe.  I check that I feel firm but calm.

I lean more into my hands but it does not feel like I am sinking as I keep pushing downwards which makes me feel like I am lifting upwards.

I walk my feet in if I need to see if I can get more of my hips over my shoulders.

I don't sink into my shoulders.  I keep pushing the floor away.

I keep the sit up in my tummy but I can still breathe there.

I bring more weight over my hands and keep my tummy firm and my feet naturally come onto the tip toes.  They are light on the ground.

I take a leg up and do a little tap with the grounded foot.  If I don't come up I try again.

My legs might come up.  Maybe they don't.  If they do and I am up there I keep the fingertips pressing, keep breathing, relax my face, and try to feel for the lightness in the spine.

This is a spinal releasing posture for me.  It feels lovely and free on my back.  

This post is intended for my students who are working on this pose.  It is best not to work on more advanced postures like this without the guidance of a teacher.  You need to make sure your shoulders and wrists and tummy are mobile and strong enough so you do not strain or injure.

We will work on this type of posture in upcoming retreats, classes, and workshops in Canberra, Colombo, and Bali. Looking forward to sharing with you in person.

Happy and safe practicing.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Padmasana Without Hands

Here I wanted to introduce you to my friend Ramali so that you can see how a more natural bodied person can come into a pose like padmasana (lotus) with ease and without hands.

Ramali can come into padmasana with as much grace and ease as she can fold her arms. 

When Ramali first came to my classes I was able to do padmasana—using my hands though. 

I would go through all of those ‘cradling’ the hip type poses to ‘warm up’ my hips and ‘open’ them and then carefully place the legs into padmasana. 

Actually, I understood this was not the best approach as my own teacher, Paddy McGrath (, always guided us to work into padmasana without using our hands.

Paddy would tell us to use the intelligence of our legs and move our legs using the muscles of our legs.

I would dutifully try and could always manage to get one leg in but the other leg sort of lay there like a dead fish.  Attached to the notion of padmasana I would use my hand to put the second leg in place. 

Then Ramali came to class one day and it was time for sitting meditation at the end of the class and there I was saying to everyone do your best not to use your arms and showing my one-legged version.  Ramali neatly and quickly and modestly just popped both legs into position without batting an eyelid. 

It was a great moment of realization and humility for me and from that time on I said, well, no more padmasana for me.  I won’t continue along this path of fooling myself padmasana is a pose for me. 

 It did not mean I gave up on the pose altogether, although I abandoned practicing it for many months. 

Instead, I went about my normal practice of active movements with the usual standing hip opening poses (forward bends, lunges, trikonasana variations, warrior variations, gadjastan variations) as well as moving actively (no hands) into sitting poses. 

I made sure to actively externally rotate the hip that should be externally rotated in those postures.   I made sure to remain active in the pose so I did not sink into my hips.  I used principles of activating muscles while in lengthened positions.

This was part of my regular practice. 

And then one day, several months later, I thought I might just try padmasana again. 

Voila.  My legs went into the pose of their own accord. 

Now, my legs still do not go into padmasana with as much ease as Ramali’s do. 

While I can do it first thing in the morning, with no preceding warm ups or movements, as you can see in the video I still have a slight ‘sawing’ action to get there.  

Ramali takes her legs into position in two smooth movements. 

I wrote this post not to dishearten.  But for you to think about the truth and reality of what your body is able to do of it’s own accord. 

Based on ideas of active movements and trying not to force your body into position I encourage students to try to move their legs into postures using just their legs. 

One of the reasons is that there is always the risk of damage to your knees if you are really straining to get into position.

Ramali is one of the few people I have met (Georgie in Australia, you are another one!) who have always been able to perform these movements so smoothly.  I am very fortunate to have come across them and have the good sense to watch and learn from what their bodies had to teach me.  Thanks guys!

Perhaps you can watch and learn as well.  

Happy and safe practicing.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

3 Ways To Beat Overindulgence I Learned From My Father

One Christmas my uncle was found hiding in the bushes in his underpants Ninja-ing people as they passed by (or so family legend has it).  

He was fitting in with the sort of shenanigans that are, ironically, synonymous with the Christmas-NewYear period.  You will be familiar with them I am sure.  

You know, things like eating too much and getting into awkward situations, typically involving scenarios like getting drunk and kissing someone you shouldn't, having sex with someone you shouldn't, wearing (or taking off) something you shouldn't, saying something you shouldn't and generally just 'letting go' of a lot of 'shoulds' that are probably in situ for the rest of the year for a good reason.

This time of year also calls for a gazillion articles about how to live a better life and be a better person and avoid overindulging etc etc. 

In this spirit I have decided to share some pieces of wisdom from my father, who has a lot of sensible things to say in general.  This does not include any nutritional advice about what to eat, more an approach to how you eat and live.

Number 1 Way To Beat Overindulgence: Take All You Can Eat But Eat All You Take
Back in the day when there were all you can eat buffets at places like Sizzler (not sure they exist anymore), Dad would take us there as a treat.  

Emphasising the fact it was a treat, and allowing general parenting food rules to fly by the wayside, he didn't mind if we decided our dinner was going to be at the dessert buffet. 

Our ventures to buffets were always tempered with this piece of advice, however:

"Take all you can eat but eat all you take."

At first glance, this might seem like a sure-fire way to obesity.  The sort of instruction that tells you to eat everything on your plate and don't even think about leaving the dinner table until you have!  

However, it was not.

Dad was very mindful of waste.  He grew up in a time where you were lucky to have a pair of shoes to walk to school in and, despite limited travel opportunities, knew enough about the world to understand there were plenty of people who were lucky to get one meal a day, let alone three.

So Dad's advice was about being mindful and appreciative of what you had.  He would always tell us we could go back for more if we were really hungry but perhaps put only the amount of food on your plate that you are sure you can eat.  At the same time he would remind us that sometimes your eyes can be bigger than your stomach so perhaps take a little and then wait and see if you need more.  

Having lived in countries like Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka I have seen for myself how some families throw out more food after one meal than other families get to eat in a day and I always think of my Dad's advice when I see food bins overflowing with 'scraps'.

This piece of Dad advice is very much in line with common sense ideas about listening to what your body really needs, which many of us who have always enjoyed plenty, can easily forget.  

Number 2 Way To Beat Overindulgence: Or When it is Ok to haveMars Bars for Breakfast
Dad also gave us Mars Bars for breakfast on weekends before our athletics meets.  To this I think most kids would go hooray and most parents would probably raise their eyebrows.  

But Dad was always about activity.  His approach to eating was very much about balancing input with output.  He knew that after eating that Mars Bar we would spend 3 hours out in the sun running around competing in 1500m runs, sprints, long jumps, shot puts, and all of the handstand competitions that went on in between events. 

You might think Dad was all about junk but that is not true.  He was thinking about nutrients based on the information he had at the time, combined with how much energy we would need and giving us something to eat that would not make us feel full and sluggish.  

Dad was not just handing us rubbish.  You see, Dad also made our sandwiches with multigrain and wholemeal bread back before they were popularised telling us that eating white bread was like eating fresh air (i.e., basically nutrient poor).  

Anyway, his approach to food was that you needed to balance intake with output, consider whether what you ate would give you the energy you needed to do what you wanted.

On days where we weren't doing much you can bet we were not being offered chocolates, although this was a rare day indeed as Dad would always have us engaged in something fun and active. 

Actually, Dad was unknowingly following the only diet ever known to actually work in the long-term, which is to balance what you eat with what you do.  

So, this piece of Dad advice is extremely important:

"Eat to live don't live to eat."

While those are not Dad's words, they are what he modelled and still models to this day.  If you don't do very much, then don't eat very much.  If you are doing a lot, then eat so you can do the things you need to do.  In this regard, our Christmas Day with Dad always started with a family bike ride so that we might feel hungry enough for Christmas lunch rather than eat the food because it was there.  

Number 3 Way To Beat Overindulgence: Don't Pop Your Buckle
This last piece of advice is actually what Dad's Dad used to say.  Or, at least Dad always quotes Grandfather when he says it.  

"Always leave the dinner table feeling that you could eat a little more."

This is excellent advice and stops you feeling like a python when you get up from the Christmas dinner table.  

This is related to both the first and second pieces of advice.  It is about eating what you need, and about ensuring whatever you eat does not prevent you from doing the things you want to or need to do.

The idea of eating so much that you could not go out and play with the kids or fix the car or tinker around in the shed was/is abhorrent to Dad who, to this day, will make sure he gets up to 'unblob' himself (as he puts it) if he has had a big lunch that is putting him to sleep.   

In Sum
Dad's advice comes from a person who was physically active, and who appreciated that your body needs to work and move well so you can participate in a variety of daily activities.

Dad was a runner and did not practice physical yoga.  He does not have much idea of yoga beyond the knowledge that it is something I go and teach and do and which seems to be associated with me spontaneously doing handstands in the driveway or hanging from the beams of his verandah.  However, to me his advice is very much in tune with ideas about respecting the interrelationship between body and mind and community that I have read in yogic texts and have learned from my teachers.  Thanks Dad!  

Merry Christmas to all.  Happy and safe practicing.  Learn from my Dad.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Another reason I teach...

Some of the beautiful people I have shared yoga with this year!

Today I had at least 5 people in class who had severe injuries/illnesses.

There was a person with an active foot injury (we are not sure what.  I did suggest she go and see someone as it is not getting better).

There was a person who had experienced a mini-stroke earlier in the year.  He walked into the class with numbness in his hands.

There was a person who'd done something to muscles somewhere around his shoulder blade.

There was a person recovering from severe spinal injuries.

There was a person with cervical spine injuries.

In the mix there were auto-immune diseases, stress and worries about daily life, and just general getting older.

Goodness.  When I write it down I wonder how did I manage?

I taught this class the same way I teach every class.

By giving people basic tips about free movement.  About pain free movement.

About how to move their spines so they lengthen and do not squash.

So that they firm but do not tense.

So they are active and not passive.

And you know what?

I taught this entire class in silence.

Not a single word was uttered.

I know these people.  They were not new to class.  They had come to class before.

They had listened to me talk about transforming their yoga practice to something that was healing.

They listened to me give key instructions about moving.

They applied these basic principles and instructions.

They were of mixed ages and abilities.

They all came out feeling better.

Numb fingers had gone (the numbness, not the fingers!).

Pesky shoulder muscles moved more freely.

Lower backs released a little.

Feet were better off.

Necks were happier.

We were all generally happier.

This is the nature of a great practice.

So pleased to be a part of it.

It is why I teach.

For me, performance is not measured by how many people come to class.

It is measured by how much I can help, even if that is just one person.

And that one person could even just be me.

Because if I help myself, I am also helping you.

Just a word of caution.  Not everyone can teach this way and I do not recommend teaching people with illness or injury unless you have more advanced training.  It is not the 'yoga' that healed but the way the yoga was taught and then integrated and practiced.  Incorrect instructions or practice can make you worse.

Happy and safe practicing!

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Silent practice and the art of letting go

This week, at the end of our silent classes, we meditate and 'savasanate' to the sounds of nature!

This has been the week in my sequences were we practice in silence.  For eight weeks we have been 'practicing' and 'learning', and now it is time to just do what we know and are capable of at this moment in time.

I am not the type of teacher who talks throughout class about philosophy.  It does not mean my classes are not infused with philosophy, however.

And the silent class is deeply philosophical.

In the silent class you follow my clicks and movements, as is taught in the Yoga Synergy style.

This gives you the chance to integrate what it is that you know about the movements and postures that we have been learning.  

Because I only give visual instructions (i.e., by exaggerating/miming body movements) your body has to be ready for a pose in order for it to happen.  

And you must accept that if you do not know the posture, if your body is not sure how to move into it, or if on that particular day your body does not want to move into that posture, then you are not ready for that posture.  

It does not mean you will never be ready. 

Just that you are not ready for it at this moment in time. 

You must accept the simpler version of the posture.  The version that you can do right now.  

It means you need to let go of ideas about doing something else.  Something more.  

The silent practice is a practice of non-attachment.  Of letting go.  

Actually, our practice should always be like this but the silent practice sort of forces your hand, so-to-speak, since I am not answering questions or giving minute refinements or telling you how to do things.

It is always a great pleasure for me to lead our silent practices.  From my place up front I see us as a school of fish moving gracefully together.  I see people struggling less, 'reaching' less.  I see people just doing and being.  And that is a joy. 

As those of you have been to these classes will attest, we generally do more in these classes than we ever do in spoken classes.  And when we sit at the end to meditate it is generally much easier.  This is because we have tensed less, stretched less, thought less, and breathed less, which has allowed energy to move more freely.  It helps to calm the mind.

Happy and safe (silent) practicing to you all!

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