Category Archives: Asana

Slow Yoga

Hello and thanks again for checking out Beechworth Yoga.   I know my posts have been a bit erratic but felt it best to write only when I had something that I thought was really important to say.

I have been contemplating the question of what has now been coined as slow yoga.  What is slow yoga you say ? Well from my understanding it is a desire to get back to the basics of yoga to develop a practice that allows for reflection.   Postures are held with an emphasis on the breath and allowing yourself to explore the sensations within the body and the fluctuations of mind.   Perhaps it has been a reaction to the westernization of yoga to be another form of exercise to tone and shape albeit with a focus on breath.

We live in a fast paced world where there is pressure to achieve, attain and move on with little opportunity for savouring the experience and yoga is an experience.  It is not something that you do as you would a bike ride or a cross fit class.  It is much more about the way in which something is done and making it a way of living.

To experience yoga in the true sense is to live yoga.  How do you live yoga?  To live yoga you must be prepared to live consciously.  To be aware of the effects of your actions, your thoughts both upon yourself, others and your environment.  You need to discipline yourself to slow down, to find  balance in all things.  To become aware of the effects of all things on your body and mind, from what you eat to what you read.  If this sounds familiar that is because it illuminates Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga ..the yamas the nyamas,  ( your ethical practices and and self discipline) asana, ( your movement of the body to enhance it) pranayama, (your control over breath ) pratyahara, (your ability to withdraw the senses) dharana, ( your concentration) dhyana  ( meditation) and finally samadhi. (the state of bliss ..transcendence).

Winter is a great time to reflect on these things..to find the still in your life for yoga is not about the shape of your body but the shape of your life.

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The Koshas 2

100_8643The second Kosha or layer identified by the yogis in yogic physiology is the Pranamaya Kosha .  Prana is the vital force permeating the body and every layer of matter.  It is related to energy.  In fact Prana is associated with all the koshas and it is vital for life.  It animates the body.  However there is energy specific to Pranamaya kosha .

It occupies only about 2 per cent of our awareness and takes up the same space as the physical body.  According to the ancient yogis prana flows through energy channels in the body referred to as Nadis which correspond to the physical nerves.  There are said to be 72000  nadis with three prominent ones — Ida, Pingala and Sushumna.  Both Ida and Pingala wrap around the main energy channel Sushumna like the double helix…where the networks converge at 7 points are the chakras ( or wheels of energy ).

In different parts of the body  the yogis believe that prana serves different functions and they identified 5 pranas or pancha pranas as they are called:

  • Vyana – flows through the whole body and is always present, it is said to be the last to leave when we die
  • Udana – flows through the head, arms, legs and is associated with the mind and senses and movement..energy used in actions.
  • Samara – is equalising and balancing  the mid torso and has a side to side movement.  It regulates the flow of prana and Apana.
  • prana – is the upper torso navel to throat flowing up with inhalation and down with exhalation ( Think of the practice of the So Hum breath here)  ..the lungs, heart
  • Apana – flowing from navel to pelvic floor.. a downward movement associated with excretion and childbirth

Obviously breath has a very close association with Prana and the way to become aware of the actions of prana and to effect change is through breathing (Pranayama) practices By practising these techniques even something as simple as natural breath awareness  you become aware of your own personal breathing patterns.  You notice changes in breathing patterns associated with your state of mind.  However things like meditation and asana also affect Pranamaya kosha so your yoga class may contain all of these elements.  A balanced personal practice would include not just asana practice but also time for pranayama practice and some meditation.  Remember this does not have to be a long time but it is worth thinking about making your practice (or sadhana) well rounded.

 

Restoring the soul

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I have just commenced teaching my first fully restorative yoga class having completed Level 1 training in restorative yoga teaching last year.   Since this course I have introduced a few restorative poses into my mainstream classes to stimulate interest and invested in some bolsters with a view to running a group that was dedicated to restorative yoga.

 

So what is restorative yoga and why do we need it?  A restorative yoga class typically has only 5-6 poses which are held for longer periods of time using the support of props such as bolsters, blankets, blocks and even straps.   These poses are designed for you to move more deeply into the stretches while your body softens and rests on  the supports.     They include, forward bends, backbends, twists, lateral stretches and passive inversions and many are based on the teachings of BKS Iyengar.  As you are holding poses for longer there is greater capacity to tune into the breath, to explore the effects of breath on the physical body and the mind.

Some of the benefits of restorative yoga include, soothing the nervous system, encouraging mindfulness, cultivating heightened body awareness, creating a sense of acceptance and detachment and feeling safe and nurtured.

At the time when I was looking for a restorative practice myself I was grieving the death of my beloved mum.  I felt that I just wanted to be held in a warm and comforting space where my body could release the tensions both physical and mental that had built up during that time.  It was about letting go of doing anything in particular and just experiencing the present moment in a safe and comfortable environment.

According to Liz Koch international teacher and author “We need more capacity to endure pleasure…we only do something to get out of pain.  We don’t do something because it brings us pleasure; a sense of calm and nourishment.  We don’t know how to nourish ourselves with movement as well as food…we need to learn to take care of ourselves and to explore this concept of nourishment.”

Restorative yoga is about that exploration.  It is about taking more time to feel into poses,  to allow for rest, rejuvenation and not trying to “fix things”.  It is about surrender… whether it is to your day, your life, your pain, your grief (as it was and still is on many days in my case), your happiness or joy, and loving and respecting your body.  So of course what better time to start a restorative class than in winter when we look for comfort and restoration?

 

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Building a foundation

DSC_0125As we move into the season of Autumn it could be a great opportunity to look at what is truly important in your life. It can be a busy time over the summer with friends, relatives, holidays, work and getting children back to school.  It is at times like this when our yoga practice can suffer as we get caught up in all the “doing” of life, but one thing is for sure if you have built a  strong foundation in your yoga practice then it will support you as you navigate your way around the “busy-ness” of life.

How do you build a strong foundation?  One of  the most important features of yoga is its ability to keep you grounded.  When all around you seems to be flying off in many directions…taking  time to be still and focusing on the breath is the perfect way to ground yourself.  The many pranayama or breathing techniques taught in yoga provide tools to help (literally)  keep your cool ( try Sheetali or Sheetkari breathing) and focused on the here and now.

Asana practice too will provide you the opportunity to be in your body…. to feel the parts that feel good, the parts that need more TLC, the parts you worry are not quite right and the parts you love (yes loving your body is part of a solid foundation!!).  As you move through a small sequence of postures listen to the messages from your physical body, not the chatter in your head and allow your body to move with the breath.  No matter what state you are in when you move to your yoga mat it is as if all the other stuff dissolves  (sometimes it takes a little longer but it will happen) …

Developing your own meditation practice is also the basis of a strong foundation in yoga.  There are many different meditation techniques and it is worth exploring different ones to find what suits you.  If you find sitting still difficult try a walking meditation.  You don’t have to meditate for very long for meditation to be effective.  Again it is the practice of often being present …of allowing yourself to simply be.  Some people find the regular activity of simply lighting a candle and some incense or exploring nature as way to stop the clock for a brief moment.

All of these practices contribute to what we call a sadhana.  A sadhana  is a regular spiritual practice that helps you to find balance in your life by giving you the opportunity to turn inward.  It is not a religious “thing” ( you may or may not have a connection to some higher God and you could incorporate this)  but it is an attempt to connect with the bigger picture…nature, your place on this earth, the bigger YOU.

Having a sadhana means you are making a commitment to yourself.  It requires discipline (even if it only 10 mins a day) so cultivates this.  It allows you to grow as a person affecting your relationship with yourself and others. A sadhana  provides an opportunity for self reflection…to look at the patterning of the mind, to see your thoughts as they come and go…to discover that your thoughts are not you.  And of course it builds a foundation…just like your sankalpa ( see post from Jan 2012) .  A strong platform from which you can make decisions about your life, your work, your health, your relationships with others.  This foundation is strengthened by the repetition and regularity with which your sadhana is performed.  No matter how small you start, by developing this regular practice you will slowly notice a shift in the constant demands of the mind…you will not feel so swayed by the fluctuations of mind and emotions and find yourself more accepting of yourself and life ups and downs.

So how do you go about this?  First of all find a space that you feel comfortable in – a part of your room,  a separate room, somewhere outside.  Decide how long you wish to practice each day and what your sadhana components will be.  Remember this can be as small as lighting a candle and sitting quietly for a few moments.  It may include asana practice, breathing practices, chanting, singing, meditation, walking in nature…choose what you know makes you feel good.  It does not have to be a long session…it is the regularity that provides the benefit not the length of practice.

I find practising my sadhana first thing in the morning the best for me..it allows me not to get caught up in the day and make excuses for missing it and I always find mornings more peaceful (mind you I am well past the age of having little ones awake before me and making their own special demands on my time!!) so if mornings don’t suit find a time that does and make it your time.

May you find time to be you.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sideways stretching

In all of my classes I try to include some sideways stretching of the body.  In our normal everyday activities the muscles on the sides of the body do not get a lot of stretching and strengthening  yet they are very important in maintaining good posture.

The muscles we are talking about here in particular are the obliques, serratus anterior and the lattisimus dorsi.  Twisting practices are excellent for stretching these muscles as are practices which require you to lengthen each side of the body whilst contracting the muscles in the opposite side.  A great practice to awaken and work with these muscles is Tiriyaka Tadasana  or swaying palm tree pose.  In this standing posture the hips remain facing the front whilst the torso  moves from side to side with arms above the head.

It is important to make sure that the body does not lean forward or back whilst practising.   I like to visualise the body between two panes of glass…unable to move forward or back only side to side.

“The tendency in bending sideways is always to twist the pelvis or the         shoulders. We can help prevent this by flattening the lower back and tucking         the tailbone under before doing postures like Trikonasana variation 3         (triangle sliding the hand down the side of the leg).

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Another way to fix  the pelvis so that it cannot rotate is either by squatting against the  wall, or by beginning in Shashankasana (child pose) and bending to the  side.”  (Swami Bhaktipoornananda Saraswati 2000 Yoga Magazine)

 

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Stronger sideways stretching is achieved in Trikonasana or triangle pose.

In Trikonasana the aim is to eventually straighten the legs whilst leaning to the side and taking the hand to the foot…however for most people this is not achieved without leaning forward which diminishes the effect of the sideways stretch.  Initially you should practice with the knee bent and only take the hand as far as it will comfortably go whilst keeping the pelvis fixed.  Again a  good way to practice this is by practicing against a wall …you will soon discover if you are leaning forward!

Aside from stretching the muscles in the sides of the body Trikonasana strengthens the legs , knees, ankles arms and chest and helps open the hips groin and hamstrings.  There is also a benefit to  internal organs with the gentle massage of the digestive system that occurs.

 

Is your energy feeling a little low?

There is a selection of asanas concerned with improving the energy flow in the body and breaking down neuro-muscular knots.  This group is called the Shakti Bhanda asanas.  The word shakti  in sanskrit means energy and the word bhanda is a sanskrit word for holding or locking so  the shakti bhanda series of asanas is concerned with releasing the energy blocks within the body, mainly in the pelvic region, the spine and the chest.

These asanas are  particularly helpful for those whose energy is feeling low and needs a boost.  In winter you may find that long periods indoors, lack of sunlight and reduced exercise routines can lead to a reduction in your energy levels so this is a good time to explore the practices of  the Shakti bhanda group.

According to the APMB* these asanas clear the energy blockages, activate the heart and lungs and improve endocrine function.  They are  especially helpful for menstrual problems and can be used before and after pregnancy.

Some of the practices like Chakki Chalanasana (churning the mill) are excellent for toning the nerves and organs of the pelvis and abdomen whilst Namaskarasana (salutation pose) has a positive effect on the nerves and muscles of the thighs, knees, shoulders, arms and neck.  As this posture is practiced in a squatting position it also helps to increase the flexibility of the hips.

Kashtha Takshanasana (wood chopping pose)….. a favorite of mine, which can be performed squatting or standing  helps to open the hips and works the muscles of the back between the shoulder blades as well as the shoulders and the upper back muscles.

It is also useful to raise the prana shakti during times of lethargy by focusing on different types of breathing practices such as Bhastrika or the bellows breath.

This breathing practice where you focus on taking short sharp inhalations and exhalations through the nose generating  a pumping action in the abdomen, whilst the chest, shoulders and face remain relaxed, burns up toxins  and charges the pranic system, creating alertness, heat and arousing  body and mind.  The rapid exchange of air in the lungs increases the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide into and out of  the bloodstream., stimulating the metabolic rate and producing heat, flushing out wastes and toxins.  The practice of Bhastrika, however  is contraindicated for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, hernia, gastric ulcer, stroke, epilepsy and retinal problems.  Generally speaking    you should seek guidance from a teacher before commencing bhastrika as it is a strong practice and needs to be done correctly to be effective.

Of course another way to keep warm this winter and beat that winter sluggishness that often strikes about the middle of winter is to reconnect to your practice of Salute to the sun or Surya Namaskara.  The dynamic movement of this practice and the added visualisation of drawing within the qualities of the sun such as  vitality, light, warmth and life force have a profound effect on all levels.

for more information on shakti check out …http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1980/emay80/sechealth.shtml

* APMB or Asana, Pranayama,Mudra ,Bhanda by Sw Satyananda Saraswati Yoga Publications Trust, Munger , Bihar, India

 

Getting to the core of the matter

Well hello again to all my yoga friends. I wanted to share with you a few thoughts on the notion of core strength as it is certainly something that has been a focus in most of my classes.  It became very popular to talk about “activating the core” with the increasing interest in Pilates many years ago and although perhaps not always discussed in terms of “core strength” it is still very much a part of a good yoga asana practice.  It is more often referred to as developing abdominal strength and there are specific asanas that work this area of the body.  However we are not merely talking about the rectus abdominus or “six pack” as is commonly identified with your abs but the deeper muscles of the abdomen including the transverse abdominus, the obliques, multifidus, diaphragm and pelvic floor.

Developing strength in this area is important because it is these muscles that support the lower back in particular and play a significant role in posture. As we age our abdominal strength can be diminished through lack of exercise, childbirth and poor postural habits.  By including regular practices that maintain and strengthen the core you will definitely help to support your back and experience less back pain.  Many of the practices found in the PMA 2 series of the asana handbook by Sw Satyananda  focus on this muscle group.  These include the boat pose (Naukasana),  leg raises (Paddotthanasana) cycling (Pada  Sanchalanasana) and many more.  Stronger practices can be found in the plank pose (Santalonasana), the spinal column pose (Merudandasana) and of course any balance pose will rely on core strength to maintain stability.

Is core strength just about strong abdominal muscles then???

I personally think Manipura Chakrathere is much more to it as this area of the body coincides with the energy centre or chakra known as Manipura chakra. Manipura chakra is symbolised by a bright yellow lotus with ten petals,  a fiery red triangle, the yantra of agni tattwa, or  fire element and is the seat of the digestive fire or agni.  The animal which serves as a vehicle for Manipura is a the ram, the symbol of assertiveness and energy.   So  this is the chakra which is  involved in self-esteem, warrior energy, and the power of transformation.

A balanced, energised  third chakra helps us to overcome lethargy (Tamas). It can kick-start our way of being and attitude so that we can take risks, assert our will, and assume responsibility for our life. This chakra is also the place of our deep belly laughter, warmth, ease, and the vitality we receive from performing selfless service or karma yoga.

Manipura chakra  is closely connected to the psyche and it is often the case that psychic problems give rise to digestive problems. For example, many people react to fear or stressful situations with abdominal pain or diarrhoea. Building strength in Manipura is way to help manage stress and anxiety.

Self-awareness and self-confidence are other pearls of the Manipura chakra. 

So when you are practicing your asana to build your core strength try to keep your awareness at Manipura…..to feel the strength building not just in muscles but in your whole being.  You may even want to mentally repeat the bija  mantra Ram!

Maintaining the momentum

Have faith ...keep following the path.

Have faith …keep following the path.

One of the difficulties you can encounter when you commit to any significant change in your life is maintaining the momentum.  People often come to yoga because there has been an impetus for change in their life.  They have decided that they need to “become more flexible”, “learn to relax” or “combat stress”.  Whatever the reason for commencing yoga there is guaranteed to be some benefits that you never expected and some times when you feel that because of changes in your circumstances or health,  it is difficult to maintain.

How do you maintain that momentum?  Well the first thing to realise is that yoga is all about listening to your body.  In some instances your body may just need some rest.  There may be times when the most important part of your practice is simply doing a yoga nidra and some breathing practices.  At other times sitting quiet and still for meditation may seem impossible and what is really needed is some solid asana practice to ground yourself.

Listening to where you are at is the first part, having compassion for yourself is essential.

That is a little harder for most of us. Living in a world where we are supposed to “toughen up”, “be strong” and “keep on going” is not such a compassionate place to be. Compassion requires really opening the heart and listening ….listening to the birds, listening to the breeze, listening to the breath, listening to the feelings and often makes one feel vulnerable but vulnerability in itself is a beautiful and honest expression of self. It does not mean that you put up with everything that is thrown at you and devalue your worth but it means being true to who you really are…that wonderous inner spirit of self.

So if you are having trouble hanging in there ….STOP…listen and love. Be gentle with the practices, do only what feels right not what you think you ought to be doing or what you used to be able to do and you will soon find that yoga WILL bring you back to your equilibrium, BUT please be patient !!!

 

Compression Versus Tension

Earlier this year whilst doing some teaching at the Rocklyn Ashram I had the opportunity once again to watch Paul Grilley’s Anatomy and Physiology DVD and I feel the need to remind all of my yoga students and interested readers of Paul’s message that no two people will look  or experience the same yoga pose in the same way.

Yes that is right!  We could all be doing a mountain pose (in some traditions called the downward dog) but none of us would look exactly the same or be experiencing it exactly the same for that matter.  Why is this the case?

Well according to Mr Grilley the difference lies between experiencing compression or tension in the body.  In this instance compression is literally the meeting of bone on bone in a joint that restricts further movement whilst tension is tightness in muscles and ligaments that restricts movement of the joints.

Although each of us has the same sort of bones in our skeleton they are very unique to each person.  For example some people will have a large femoral head on their femur whilst others will be smaller.  Some will have more rotational capacity in their radius than others, some will have bigger hook on their ulna connecting ulna and humerus etc etc…Therefore a persons inability to move into a posture in the same way may well be due to structural differences.

Tension on the other hand is where muscles and ligaments are tight through previous injury, scar tissue or lack of appropriate stretching.  A person may not be able to hold a pose in the same way as another simply because they lack the muscle flexibility and strength and this over time can be improved.

What does this mean for all of us out there practising yoga?  It simply reinforces the idea that every one’s yoga experience is a very personal one and that what suits some people will not suit others.  Your yoga experience is unique and you can measure your transformation not on whether you look the same as someone else but how you feel in the pose…what is happening for you personally and how these experiences change over time for  you.

For more information about this check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ve_GUyEHdfI

Parvartasana or mountain pose

See the world from a different perspective

Do you remember when you were a child and you hung upside down on the monkey bars with your arms dangling in the air?  Or perhaps it was when you were on the trapeze swing, gliding through the air, your hair hanging down and the breeze in your face?  How much fun it was to see everything upside down..it made you feel like Alice in Wonderland at the Mad Hatters tea party.  Notbirds of a feather 2010hing seemed  the same.

There is something quite invigorating in changing your perspective and seeing things differently and the yogic practices of inverted asanas provide you with just that opportunity.   We can all get “stuck” in our way of seeing things or doing things – being led by the ego and striving to fulfill our desires or feeling that we are “right”.  Often it is necessary to break that pattern by getting out of our comfort zone and “tipping everything upside down!”  I regularly open my eyes and look behind me whilst practising Parvatasana (mountain pose or downward dog as it is known in some traditions).  It always surprises me, makes me smile, reminds me that there is more than one way of viewing things  and I feel so  refreshed  when I come back to upright.

Of course that is the point of inverted asana, they do turn everything upside down not only on a physical level but also on an emotional and psychic level, throwing new light on old patterns of behaviours and being.  Thus giving you the opportunity to reflect, to modify and change habitual practices.

From a purely physical point of view, the inverted asana, by reversing the action of gravity on the body, provides a rich blood supply to the brain, nourishing neurons and helping to flush out toxins.  The accumulated blood and lymph in the lower limbs is drained and purified with fresh oxygen.  The pituitary gland, a tiny organ near the top of the spine in the brain, is stimulated and this adjusts the whole endocrine system.

Whilst Parvatasana and Pranamasana (bowing pose) or simply placing the legs up the wall give some of the benefits of inverted asana the stronger inverted asanas like Sarvangasana (shoulder stand), Halasana (plough pose) and Sirshasana (head stand) should only be attempted under the guidance of an experienced yoga teacher as they put quite a bit of pressure on the neck.  These practices are actually contraindicated for people with high blood pressure, back and neck problems.  Women should not practice these asana whilst pregnant or during menstruation.  If you are new to yoga or  not sure if these asanas  would be suitable for you please consult your teacher.

For more information about inverted asana check out the following:

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1979/ajan79/theryog.shtml

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1980/ldec80/ed1280.shtml

http://www.ayl.com.au/pdf_docs/Headstand_ART_23.pdf