Saturday, 31 January 2015

Working Towards Hanumanasana/Splits (James Brown Version—Gotta Go Up To Go Down)

Working Towards Hanumanasana/Splits (James Brown Version—Gotta Go Up To Go Down)

Hanumanasana (henceforth to be called the splits in this post) is a pose to work towards with caution. 

It looks so impressive most people’s egos get the better of them.

Or, perhaps it was just my ego?  As I tell my students, when I first started yoga I injured myself with over-zealous practice of the posture.

Actually, the practice was not over-zealous.  This was a case of pure ego.  I actually practiced mindfully and diligently.  The day I made it into the pose after many months of practice I was so pleased with myself that later on (several hours after my practice and we could almost call it the next day) I met a friend and said ‘Look, I can do the splits!’

I proceeded to do the splits right there and then, with no preparation.

Well, let’s say I managed the position but did something to my butt that had me limping for a month!

These days I can do the pose almost first thing in the morning as I have been practicing for many years.  However, most people will need quite a bit of preparation. 

Hopefully my previous posts should have lead you towards an understanding that the splits should not feel like too much stretching. 

It is not about splitting apart. 

Using active movements means the pose is actually about coming together again. 

If you are working towards this posture I recommend you work with an experienced yoga teacher to guide you.  Do not confuse flexible with experienced and also, I think it is better to make sure your teacher can do any pose they are trying to instruct you in. 

In the photos below I have shown one progression.  Watch the video above to see the movement in action.  The video at the end of the post shows advanced variations of the posture (intended for demonstration not for practice).

You remain at whatever stage you feel comfortable in (feel like lengthening and relaxing, not stretching and tugging).

There are two key things I am doing in each stage.   The first thing also has a little subplot. 

First, my front thigh is rolling out and my back thigh is rolling in. 

This means the thigh bone of the front leg feels as though the side butt (near the crease) is firming slightly.  What you see is that the knee might roll away from the centre line of your body.
The back thigh is rolling in, which means you might feel the inner thigh firming a little.  If you could turn around and see your knee is trying to move so it is more towards the centre line of your body. 

The subplot here is that I am also trying to move the side of front hip back and draw side of back hip forward. 

If you are not mindful the opposite tends to happen.  That is, when you roll the front thigh out it can often bring the side of front hip forward and when rolling the back thigh in it can often send the side of back hip backward. So you need to watch out for this.

The second key thing I am doing is to try to suck my legs or feet together. 

Yes.  I am not actually trying to split them apart. 

Sucking them together could be likened to someone at foot trying to push your legs back together (what I am doing). 

Whereas most beginners just try to let their legs come apart, almost as though there is a person at either foot pulling them in a tug-o-war.  Actually, they do not even do that so much as let the weight of their entire pelvis and torso just hang and sag in the middle. 

Ouch!  It is obvious when put that way that it would not be a pleasant feeling.

Sucking it up is key. 

This is where I put in the James Brown analogy in class.  He was a guy who sort of did a type of a split while on-stage singing but leapt straight back up again.  It looked really cool as a dance move.

In our yoga practice of this pose we need to be thinking of trying to draw our feet back together again (while they move apart). 

This makes the posture active rather than passive.

It will help make you stronger and more mobile.

Step 1

A standing lunge.  Stay here.  I am trying to pull my feet together.  No need to go further unless comfortable.
Step 2

Kneeling lunge.  Be soft on the back knee by being active in the legs and feet.  I am drawing front heel back and back knee forward.  You can stay here.  No need to go further.
Step 3

I start to move the front foot further away.  I go slowly so I don't elicit a stretch reflex.  You can see the back knee slightly raised.  I try and draw my feet together as though trying to stand up.  I am not sinking into my shoulders or hands at all.
Step 4

That front foot just keeps moving slowly forward.  
Step 5
I have come all the way forward.  I have moved my torso back while trying not to arch my lower back (tummy firm but calm).  I am reaching forward and up through my armpits to lengthen my spine.  

Of course, there is really no reason you need to do this pose.  It is fairly extreme. 

One of the benefits (which is not going to make you a happier or healthier person by any means) is that if you are coming into some other inverted postures like pincha mayurasana you can tap into the pose with greater ease. 

 Below is a video of me coming into active hanumanasana with a variation.

Some additional points you might notice from the videos:

  • I am not sinking into my hands or shoulders at any point.  I am trying to cultivate lift and length and freedom in the spine through the actions of my legs.  This is clearly shown in my fuller versions of the posture where I take my hands off the ground, arms overhead, and reach for the sky.
  • I am using my back foot strongly.  You can do a  top of foot down version if you like.  I just prefer this one.
  • Most people think of this posture as something to do with hamstrings.  As soon as you practice you should get an appreciation that the front of the thigh of the back leg needs to be lengthened.  If it is not you can squash your lower back.
  • You can see that in my versions I begin to move the whole spine back over the pelvis, trying to lengthen my spine while coming into an upright position.  This is actually a pretty tough back bend and you need to monitor that the spine is not squashing.  I am firm in my tummy in a way that I can still breathe into it, which helps.
  • I am reminding myself periodically to relax my face, my tongue, my lips.
  • I am breathing naturally. 
  • I am enjoying the sun on my face, the chirps of the birds, the call of loud children in the background playing with their dog.  I am feeling radiantly alive! Firm but calm.  Delighted with where I am and what I am doing, whatever that is. I am connected to my body but not so inward looking that I cannot sense others and I smile and nod as they pass by.
This is the type of thing we workshop in classes, and in our retreats in Bali and Sri Lanka.  Hope to see you there.  (

Happy and safe practicing!


Saturday, 24 January 2015

Active Vrksasana (One Way to Help You Come Into Padmasana Without Hands)

An active extension of vrksasana

Vrksasana is commonly called tree pose.

Most people do tree pose by grabbing for their ankle and pulling it up into their inner thigh.

This is a missed opportunity to develop better strength and mobility around your hip joint.

So next time you try vrksasana, why not follow the steps in this post!  It will boost your practice I promise.

Below I show the steps of active vrksasana, some extensions of the pose, including a side plank variation.

The video at the end of the post shows live action transitions so you appreciate the movement.

Over time this is the sort of action and movement that will help you come into a pose like padmasana (lotus) without hands.

Step 1
Transfer weight to one leg (I will call this weight bearing leg, or WBL).  Make sure you do not let the hip 'sink' or push out to the side.

Be on toe tip of other leg (I will call this non weight bearing leg, or NWBL).

Roll thigh out of NWBL.

You should feel that the lower part of your butt starts to get firm.  If you are not sure then start again and put your hand at the crease of your butt and turn the thigh out again.  You should feel it has become firm.

It is enough to stay at this stage.  You should feel you are doing active work.

Step 2
Keeping thigh rolled out, lift knee of NWBL.

Be careful not to sink into WBL hip.

Be careful not to take the knee back.  You are just taking it up.  It will not (for most people) be directly out to the side.

Step 3
Actively pull the heel of the NWBL as close to your bottom as possible while keeping thigh rolled out and knee to the side.

Step 4
Keeping these actions, put the foot into the thigh.

You will find it does not go as high as it normally might but you should feel you are much more active in the posture.

As always, push foot into thigh and thigh into foot.

Extension Step 6
Go further if you like!

Release the foot and take the knee higher while maintaining the thigh rolling out action.

Extension Step 7
Straighten the knee, keeping the NWBL thigh rolling out.

This is tough!!

Extension Step 8
Go back to extension step 6 and take your heel.  Push heel into hand and hand into heel .

Straight the leg again.

Here I actively push my heel into my hand as though I am trying to put the leg back on the ground.

Fun Side Plank Variations
You can do active vrksasana variations in side plank!

Be mindful not to sink into the bottom shoulder/armpit.  I stay lifted out of it, just as I would stay lifted out of the hip in the standing variation.

Video Transitions
Still photos are never great as you cannot see what is happening between one shot and the next.  To appreciate the active movement, watch the video below.

Remember, it is always better to work with a teacher.

Move slowly, stretch less, tense less, think less, and breathe less.

No hamstrings or adductor muscles were injured in the making of this video.

This is precisely the type of movement and step-by-step gradation of poses that I teach in class and we will be working on at our retreat in Bali. Sign up before it fills up!

Happy and safe practicing.

Much metta.


Friday, 23 January 2015

Is That Real Yoga? (Or, How To Improve Your Natarajasana And Relax Hip Flexors)

Full natarajasana

‘Is that real yoga?’

That was a comment from a passerby who chatted to us as we practiced our outdoor class last week. 

It certainly felt very real to us as we all attempted to hold our active natarajasana!

Below is a photo of me in active natarajasana.  Look, no hands!

Active natarajasana

If the passerby had have walked past a few moments later when I was in full natarajasana (picture at top of page) then no doubt she might not have even asked whether we were doing 'real yoga'.  

The thing is, the top pose looks really impressive, but the active, less impressive looking one, is, in many ways, harder.

In this post I talk about how to progress to full natarjasana.  A video of me coming into the posture is at the end of the post. 

What is Active Natarajasana?
Active natarajasana is where you try to initiate the pose without using your hands. 

It is relatively easy to pull your foot to your bottom using your hand. 

It is much, much, much harder to try and draw your foot close to your bottom without using your hands and then try to push your shin back and foot up (still without hands). 

It is challenging for a number of reasons.

For a start you are trying to balance on one leg as you do something tricky. 

Then, while many people may have tight hamstrings, not many have strong hamstrings (note you can be tight and weak).

Bringing your heel to your bottom without hands activates hamstring muscles. 

Try it yourself and see how much you can bend your knee.  

If you are like many people it wont be very far. 

In fact, you might be lucky to get it past 90 degrees. 

Then, if you do manage, you might find that you start to get a cramp either in your calf or foot or hamstring or any combination of these and you somehow need to figure out how to come into the pose without this happening!

Here I had a special note, it helps if you do not point your toes and foot and if you move slowly.

Why would I do active natarajasana?
Active natarajasana does not look that impressive—until you try it for yourself!

I suppose that is one reason why the passerby thought we were not doing real yoga.

But active natarajasana will help your practice a lot.

Coming into poses actively helps you build strength and reduces the chances of overstretching.  And I generally find that hamstrings are always in danger of being over-stretched by yoga students.

In this pose using the hip extensor and knee flexor muscles to draw the body into the posture will help opposing muscles (the ones that will be lengthened—the hip flexors) to relax. 

This helps you come more deeply into the pose without feeling like you are stretching since the muscle is more relaxed.

That means you improve mobility. 

You can also learn to relax chronically over-tense muscles. 

Hip flexors are some of those muscles that tend to be chronically short and tight given most people sit with them in that position all day.

For some people this can, in turn, help relieve low back tension.

If you find you cannot lift the leg at all, then you can get good work with just toe tip on the ground, as shown below.

What next?
We don’t stay in active natarajasana, although some of us choose to.  That is where we might be at.

If we want to move deeper, we then go to an active-assisted version of the pose.

What is active-assisted natarajasana?
The active assisted version is where you do take hold of the ankle. 

It is the way that you take hold of it and what you do next that is important.

When you hold the ankle you cultivate a push-pull action.

That is, you try to push the ankle/shin into the hand as you pull with the hand (as though to bend the elbow).

When you do this you should find that some of the muscles that have been lengthened now start to activate. 

They are activating in a lengthened state. 

This posture is not about pulling your leg up with your hand. 

After I push my shin into my hand I then push my foot up.

I will be able to take my leg higher in this way.  But the key point is that it is still active.

At the same time there are other elements to the posture. 

I am trying to unsquash my lower back through two main actions.

First, pushing sitting bones to heels and top of pelvis back., which lengthens lower back.

Second, by using the free hand to push the armpit forward and up, which has a whole spine tractioning effect. 

Why do active assisted natarajasana?
Start by remembering, you don’t have to do it.

If you are in the posture you will find that the muscles that are being lengthened are now also being activated, which creates a relaxation effect when you come out of the posture.

That means you will have released even more tension in those muscles.

However, you are also teaching your body to be both strong and flexible.

Is this for everyone?
Well, you should let your comfort be the judge of that. 

For people with chronic tightness in their hip flexors such that they tend to get aggravated with activation I tell them to stay with just the active version and avoid the active-assistive version. 

That means they get the relaxation effect in their chronically tight muscles by activating the muscles on the opposite side of the joint. 

As a teacher (remember you are the teacher of your own self as well even if you do not teach other people) you don’t take a one-size fits all approach to people’s bodies.

For people with chronic tightness in their hip flexors that get aggravated by activation, I also modify postures that tend to oblige hip flexors to be active.

While it might now sound like I am back-tracking on active movement, it is actually that I am using a whole of body approach to balance the activation that is required to move towards freedom.

Here it starts to get very technical and where you want to make sure you talk to a skilled yoga teacher before just reading something on a blog!

Below I have taken a video of me going through the steps to come into the full natarajasana.  It takes a lot of shoulder mobility.  It is definitely not for everyone.  Most people I know cannot get enough shoulder rotation to do this and you must move slowly.  I do not encourage people to try without a teacher's guidance and it is only shown for demonstration purposes.  You can see that I let my hand go at key points and try to hold my leg in position without the hand for a small moment. 

Have fun with your active natarajasana.  You tell me whether you think that is ‘real yoga’ or not!!

I teach active movements in classes and workshops and this is definitely something we will workshop on our retreat in Bali.  Spaces are filling up fast so sign up soon.

Happy and safe practicing.

Much metta,

Weekend Class Location January-February 2015

These photos show where we will be practicing (if not raining) on the weekends for the next little while.  Ben and Jerry's cinema has set up.

Both photos were taken from the same spot--one looking towards Black Mountain tower and the other with my back to it.

This is in front of where we normally practice (i.e., we are normally on Patrick White lawns--this is a bit closer to the lake).

The best way I have of describing this is for you to go to the Zimbabwean Flag (it is the last one on the left if you are standing facing the lake).

Then turn to your left and walk about 100m.  You can see the loop road in the second photo.  Just go over it and that is where we are.  In the second photo the flags are just behind those trees.  

Call me if you get lost: 0457 532 858.

Wet weather is still under the eaves of the National Library.

Saturday at 8am
Sunday at 9am

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Look At All The Fun We Have Been Having!

Feel free to join in the fun!  My main intention is to inspire you to get out and move.  

Playing around!

Phew, relaxing and basking in the sun for a few moments!

Learning a few tricks.

Inspiring passersby!  Look, we found yoga props in nature!

Saturday, 17 January 2015

How I Stopped Yoga and Got Better (Or Is Overstretching Ruining Your Practice?)

Active movements help me create the strength and flexibility to come into this posture (no hands!)

An unlikely post for a yoga teacher!

A student came to class today and told me about her hip problem.  It is chronic.  She said she had been doing yoga for a while but it was not getting better.

The thing is, I am currently teaching a series that emphasises mindful movement around the hip joint for greater movement and stability and spinal freedom.

Now, some people might say "Oh, great, you have come to the right class.  It is all about hip-openers!"

But my advice was the opposite.

"Stretch less and tense less," I said.

I advised her to focus on gentle, pain-free movement instead to encourage the flow of circulation and energy.

"Move and lengthen but don't feel tension or tightening.  If it starts to feel like stretching then stop," I said.  Firmly but calmly of course.

I explained that stretching might be aggravating whatever it was that she was experiencing (I did ask whether she had seen a physio/osteo/etc and she had not so we were in murky area here).

And I offered that as long as the movement did not hurt (not even a little bit) then she might try.

She was looking at me and nodding all the while.

"Yes," she replied, "when I stopped doing yoga it felt much better!"

Hallelujah, I thought!

Empirical (okay, anecdotal) evidence had arrived in our class for everyone to hear.  Stretching more can contribute to a problem rather than alleviate it.

When she stopped yoga and all the hip stretching that was supposedly 'good' for her she actually got better.

I was so pleased she had the motivation to still come to yoga after all of the problems she had been having.

I don't want to imply that all stretching is bad.

I learned from senior teachers Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss, of Yoga Synergy, (they are also trained physiotherapists) that stretching is sometimes something that a trained professional might guide you through for therapeutic reasons.

However, in general, it is better to experience lengthening rather than stretching.

For me I think about stretching as simply pulling on a muscle that is already tight.

What I look for in my yoga practice is to try to lengthen and relax my muscles rather than 'stretch' them.

It does not mean I am passive and weak in my postures, flopping around like a rag doll.

It does not mean that I just sit there stuck and unmoving so nothing 'stretches'.

Quite the opposite.

I use active movements to help bring me into and out of postures and to keep me there.

When you use active movements in a thoughtful way you can become stronger and more flexible without feeling that you are either being pulled from limb to limb or that you are shuddering from the effort of it all.

What happens instead is you get more movement.

You get pain-free movement.

You get ease and grace of movement.

It is a delicious experience.

Here Tilak uses active movements to strengthen hip flexors and knee extensors and relax and lengthen hip extensors and knee flexors.  All with a smile!

 This is the type of thing I teach in class.  It is what we will work on for 7 days at our upcoming retreat in Bali (

It is what I learned from amazing teachers like Simon and Paddy ( and  

Of course, there is more to it than that.

At the beginning of every class I say move slowly, tense less, stretch less, think less, and breathe less.

These are some of the key principles I learned training with my teachers.  Read Simon's excellent post about how not to hurt yourself in any style of yoga by applying some key principles here:

 Happy and safe practicing!