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.

 

 

 

 

 

Spring practices to get you bouncing!

Spring is a time of new beginnings when we feel the vibrant surge of new growth amongst the plants and emergence of new little birds and animals.  The bees and butterflies dart from blossom to blossom drawing up the bountiful nectar, pollinating plants as they go.  You can almost feel the energy in the air.

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After a long cold winter everything is on the move again.  If you have been struggling to maintain your yoga practice during the winter now is the time to move forward with renewed vigour and commitment with a few of these simple practices.

One of the most invigorating practices is the practice of salute to the sun or Surya Namaskara. This practice of 12 postures performed dynamically is designed to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and the energy channel known as Pingala.  This energy channel corresponds to the left hemisphere of the brain and is said to be concerned with masculine aspects of the self.  It provides an antidote to lethargy, generating heat and burning up toxins in the body.  You can begin with 3 rounds and build up 10 or more.  Be sure to lie in Shavasana for a good 5 minutes on completion of your rounds to allow the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and maintain homeostasis.

Spring also heralds a time of hay fever for those people who are susceptible and the yogic cleansing practice known as Neti is a great boon for sufferers.  Neti practice involves using a small pot (known as a neti pot) filled with warm slightly salty water to cleanse the nasal passages…this removes trapped pollen and dust from the nasal passages and results in an amazing sensation of clarity.  From a yogic perspective the practice also awakens ajna chakra at the eyebrow centre..allowing you to tap into the energy at this centre.

If the sun is shining, grab your props and head outdoors.  Practicing your yoga outdoors can be a good way to ground yourself and reconnect to the rising energy of season, even if all you do is take your shoes off for a bit and feel the grass underneath your feet.   It helps you to be present and get out of that headspace that we often get stuck in.  Nature has a way of soothing the soul and inspiring a feeling of gratitude.

Guru Poornima

What a wonderful opportunity to get  together with like minded people to celebrate last week’s full moon, the first stirrings of spring ( I know it still seems a bit away but the daffodils and wattle tell a different story!!) and the auspicious occasion of Guru Poornima.

Guru Poornima is a Sanskrit term which when translated means a celebration of the teacher or guru on the brightest full moon of the year.  Of course all the negative publicity recently of fallen gurus makes one naturally suspicious of such a celebration.  Even for myself, with scandal coming from the Royal Commission last year about Satyananda yoga.  I was deeply distressed to discover the pain and suffering of so many people and needed to reflect on my own relationship with Guru or teacher.

There is no doubt that the yoga I was taught through this tradition has been a wonderful transformative tool.  It has allowed me the opportunity to recover both physically, emotionally and mentally from serious illness.  In my darkest times the simplest act of focusing on my breath bought me comfort when nothing else would suffice.

These were the things I had learnt from my first teacher (or guru) although she did not claim to be a guru and I am forever grateful to her quiet insistence that I come to a yoga class.  It was one of the best decisions of my life!

Having discovered the benefits of yoga personally I sought to learn more and came into contact with many more wonderful teachers during my own teacher training and yes I even came into contact with those more often referred to as Guru’s.  But  as we have so painfully learned even gurus are subject to ego and can lose their way.

So what then have I learnt about guru and why celebrate Guru Poornima?  Who is the true guru? If we look to yoga itself for the answer, you discover that the true guru lies within…It is your own inner knowing of what is right for you.  If you practice mindfulness and live your life consciously you will hear the inner voice of the guru.  It is the voice that tells you what is the best type of work for you, how you should spend your time, who are the right people to be around etc…

Of course there is always opportunity for ego to take over…for us to think we have found the one or know what is the best course of action but in reality guru is about feeling …connecting to the inner feelings of what brings us peace and contentment.  Unfortunately in modern life we have become suspicious of our feelings; often dismissing them in favour of what we think will be best for us.  (who would leave their job? partner? based on a gut feeling?????)   These are huge changes in one’s life and we always want that certainty of knowing we are doing the right thing.  The reality is we can never really know if something is right for us.  If someone had of asked me 15 years ago was it the right choice to go that first yoga class I would not have really known.  I could only tell them how it felt.

So when we celebrate Guru Poornima what we are really celebrating and invoking is that inner guru or teacher.  We are consciously connecting to our own intuitive knowing which unlike putting our faith in some external guru to show us the way,  will never let us down.

International Yoga Day

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June 21st was declared International Day of Yoga  by the United Nations  last year after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the UN to acknowledge the valuable gift of India’s ancient tradition…the gift of yoga.  Thousands of people around the world rolled out their yoga mats in parks, streets, shopping malls, yoga studios and on beaches as yoga enthusiasts sought  to share this wonderful gift.

In my small community we were able to share a beautiful winter’s morning bathed in sunlight at the local park.   It was such a joy to see so many people coming together to not only practice their yoga but to acknowledge the benefits that yoga has brought to their life.  Later that day  I sat down to reflect on just what those benefits that I had experienced were…..

Of course the obvious is an increase in my flexibility and strength which  is probably the primary reason why many people join a yoga class. Then  I thought about the more subtle changes in my life.  The fact that I was often “noticing my breath” , observing how my breathing changed with the different situations I found myself in.  By practicing the pranayama in class I had become attuned to the relationship between breath, activity and  most importantly emotions.  I had learned ways to control my breath and use this to alter what was happening in my body and mind.

I have also found it easier to relax.  The techniques I have learned mean that it is quite easy to develop stillness in my body by either sitting or lying down.  It is as if my body now has a cellular memory for being relaxed  as soon as I get into a comfortable sitting (padmasana)  or lying pose ( shavasana). My body wants to become still and as my body stills, my mind seems to follow suit.  Of course this does not mean that I never experience tension in the body and mind but it is as if I have found an “escape button” when things seem overwhelming.

By practicing yoga I have become more attuned to myself and subsequently more attuned to others and the world around me. I see flocks of birds wheeling in the sky in perfect formation sparkling like bits of tinsel; I see small shoots bursting forth defiantly from frozen ground, lambs playing “tiggy” as they dash around the paddock, with all four legs leaping off the ground.  I see sadness or joy  in the face of strangers.  I see hope and triumph in the faces of children as they learn to master new skills.  I hear the rain, the wind, the silence ….the songs of nature. I smell the freshness of the country air, the sweet scent of lemon gums, the rich soil beneath my feet.  My world has become so much more three-dimensional.

Yoga has also taught me about discipline.  The need to set aside time for myself for physical movement not associated with work, for relaxation, for fun, for reflection.  I am continually developing the ability to simply “be” not “do” and it is wonderfully liberating.

Yoga has given me the opportunity to share  all of these benefits with others by teaching.  There is nothing more rewarding for a teacher than to see the joy of discovery on his/her student’s faces..that “ah ha I get it” moment and in my many years of teaching, especially in my yoga teaching, this has been nothing short of pure joy.

When you first set foot tentatively on a yoga mat, hoping this might ease a bit of stiffness in the body,  you could not imagine how profoundly it will change your life.  So thank  you President Modi and members of the UN, thank you to all those students who came to join me in the park and thank you to the ancient yogis for sharing this beautiful gift.

http://www.ndtv.com/cheat-sheet/pm-narendra-modi-launches-international-yoga-day-celebrations-773715?site=full

A day in silence

Having just returned from  a wonderful yoga retreat in Ubud Bali I would like to share some of my experience of the the beauty of a day of silence.  What better place to explore the joy and peace of silence than in lush tropical jungle surrounded by timeless rice paddies.

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On waking on the day of silence I was able to be fully present in my surroundings to explore the splendor of nature.  To notice the vibrant colours of the birds, the vivid and varied shades of green of the jungle, to  see dragonflies and insects industriously going about their day.   Everything I observed seemed to leap out at me …as if I was truly seeing it for the first time.

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Each mouthful of food was savoured as there was no distraction from conversation to the business of eating.  I was able to discern subtle differences in taste and texture..my sense of smell was heightened.

There is something very freeing about not having to speak to anyone..to make conversation ( which I might add I normally love!).

I spent my time simply using my senses to be fully present at each moment as the day stretched out.  It seemed almost timeless with no pressure to be anywhere or do anything in particular.

We were given instruction to try to avoid reading as reading in itself engages the left brain.  If anything we were encouraged to explore using our right brain….to be creative.  I chose to make a flower mandala and found this to be very calming.  Playing with the colours and textures of the flowers felt so natural and I was soon deeply engrossed in the activity.

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Earlier in the day I spent time simply staring out into the jungle whilst  using the singing bowl ….feeling the vibration of the sound in my whole body.  Eventually every cell in my body began to sing with the sound.

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It was not until the following morning after practicing our sun salutations to the rising sun overlooking Lake Batar and the surrounding volcanoes that we were able to speak again.

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It felt strange to hear the chatter of voices and although I was pleased to talk with others and share my experiences I could not help feeling a little sad that the time of silence was over. Experiencing a day like this is something we could all incorporate into our lives, allowing  the richness of silence to fill our hearts, minds and souls…it is so refreshing!

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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.

 

Yamas and Niyamas

fresh and newWe are almost to the end of another year and many of us are reflecting on the year that was…..What we achieved, what we failed at, how we have changed and in what ways that we  grew ?  So how do we live our best life and what part does yoga play in this?

Perhaps we can look back to the writings of one of the forefathers of yoga Patanjali for guidance here…in his sutras Patanjali suggests that you should follow the eight limbs of yoga.  These eight limbs make up what is known as Raja yoga or (royal yoga).  The eight limbs include Yamas, Niyamas, Asana Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samhadhi.

As yoga practitioners we are familiar with the terms, Asana, Pranayama and perhaps even Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) but that is only a small part of the system of Raja yoga.  It is interesting to note that Patanjali places Yamas and Niyamas ahead of Asana and Pranayama.  So what are we talking about here and how can  this have any bearing on living our “best life”?

Yamas are guidelines for how we relate to others  — the yoga aspirant becomes aware of others and makes greater demands/disciplines on themselves.  These yamas include satya (truthfulness), ahimsa (non violence), asteya (honesty), aparigraha (non-possessiveness) and brahmacharya (celibacy or non gratification at the expense of others on any level).

Satya here refers not only simply speaking truth but to an awareness of what is correct, right and true as it is manifesting from within and the ability to express it.  Ahimsa or non violence is not just an external act of eliminating violence from our actions but the absence of the violent nature in our personality… with regard to our interactions with others but also ourselves.  Asteya relates to finding the honesty, simplicity and sincerity of our true nature.

Aparigraha or non possessiveness is concerned with non attachment.  When we become attached to people, things, experiences we can become possessive, driven by the ego and selfishness.  This non attachment does not mean not caring but it should not be associated with selfishness and your own desires.  Finally Brahmacharya has often been seen as celibacy but in fact the word literally means higher consciousness …Brahma ( higher reality) and acharya (one who is established in ) and of course one established in higher reality is not stuck in the sensorial realm merely wanting to gratify sensual needs.

The Niyamas are guidelines relating to the self — you understand the self better and become more accepting whilst still working to create a sense of discipline in your  inner life.  The niyamas include shaucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity), swadhyaya (self-study) and ishwara pranidhana (generation of faith).

Here shaucha or cleanliness refers to cleanliness of the body, the mind and the environment.  Santosha  refers to finding happiness with whatever one has and enjoying living in the present moment rather than craving more.  Tapas or austerity means following a process of change or transformation for the better which may involve some sacrifice. (perhaps getting out of bed earlier for your yoga practice!)

Swadhyaya or self-study is becoming aware of our strengths, weaknesses and the individual qualities that make up our personalities…..observing your reactions and actions in the many different situations of life. Ishwara pranidhana is the cultivation of faith in an unmanifest reality which may take on any form but in itself has no name or form or attribute.

So perhaps as you reflect on the year that was you might consider some of the Yamas and Niyamas in your life.  As we move into 2015 you may even  wish to take one of these each month and work on it , meditate on it and find ways to incorporate these ancient teachings to help you create your best life.

Om Shanti and Happy New Year !

Swami Satyananda's Garden in Rikhia

What shapes your life- drama or Dharma?

And the blossom unfolds

The blossom unfolds

As the change of seasons continues  I find myself contemplating the wonders of nature.  So much can be learned by spending time in nature and really seeing what is happening.  The birds are being industrious and raising their young, seeds are forging their way through the dark soil to emerge into the light, each plant relishes the cleansing rains, the warmth of the sun, whilst all of the insects are busy going about their business.  What has this got to do with Yoga you ask???

Well I am guessing that the birds here are not worrying about what will happen to themselves or their young in a few days, months, years.  The insects are simply following some inbuilt understanding of what it is they are meant to be doing in their life.  The plants are trusting that the light and the rain will be there to cleanse and nurture them.  Unlike us these living things are not obsessed with “getting it right”,  making sure that they prevent any foreseeable or unforeseeable disasters, or living a life that someone or something else dictates.

In yogic terms they are following their Dharma..they have an intrinsic understanding and trust in their own nature,  something that so many of us sadly lack .  Swami Niranjan said that “Dharma does not mean religion but commitment to the process of attaining total fulfillment………it cannot be understood by the intellect, the limited mind. Dharma is an experience which unfolds spontaneously from within as one begins to understand one’s place in relation to the rest of creation and beyond.”

Of course this would lead you to wonder ” can we ever be totally fulfilled?  What is this total fulfillment that he is talking about?” I think the answer to this is yes.  Total fulfillment is achieved when you become truly aware of yourself..who you really are and your deep connection to all things..your heart is filled with compassion and love….you no longer feel the need to judge, criticise, fear. As my very intuitive daughter once told me ..”things just flow mum when you are on the right path”.  Does this mean you no longer have dramas?  Of course not!  Life by its very nature is colored by birth and death..of people, of dreams, of relationships.  Some of those little birds will not survive very long.  Some of the insects will lose their way and some of the plants will thrive whilst others die off..all of this is perfectly right.  It is our perception or judgement about it that can create the dramas.

How does yoga help us on this path?  To begin with the practice of asana allows us the opportunity for self-study—to observe the effects of the asana on the body..not with the aim of perfecting the pose but of understanding and transforming yourself. Yoga asana begins the inner journey.

By meditating we can observe the mind and this also helps with an understanding of ourselves.  We use pranayama or breathing practices to help balance the body and mind. When we  experience the ups and downs of life we can use these tools to ground ourselves to remind oneself that this too will pass just as the spring which has sprung will pass.

Self discovery…exploring our strengths and weaknesses gives the opportunity for self acceptance and once we begin to accept ourselves without guilt, and frustration we can begin to discover the natural role we have to play in life.  Life becomes more about Dharma than drama!

Photo: Asana...;-) :D

 

 

For more reading on Dharma:

Yoga Darshan Vision of the Upanishads by Sw Niranjananda Saraswati, Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India 2002

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1998/esep98/dharma.shtml

 

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 the most out of your class

IMAG0528Ok so you have been going to your yoga class for some time now or perhaps you have just started to attend a class on a regular basis.  How do you get the most out of each session?

Well the obvious thing is to get to class on time.  This may sound silly but you would be surprised by the number of interruptions you can find that stall you in your efforts to get to class with enough time to settle yourself.  You do not want to be stressing yourself rushing to get to your yoga class where presumably part of the practice is really to de-stress!!!

Make an appointment for yourself to be at your yoga class.

When you get there leave all the complexities of your life at the door with your shoes.   Remember yoga is about exploring your body, your breath and developing a relationship with yourself…getting to know who you really are.

You can set an intention or sankalpa for the class.  For example it may be that you want to explore what is happening with your left hip or  to be more compassionate with yourself or just to stay with the practices and not let yourself be drawn into the distractions of mind.

If you have any new injuries or health concerns be sure to arrive with enough time to let your teacher know.  He or she should then be able to suggest modifications for some of the practices or provide alternative practices.

Stay with the breath  and the movement.  If your mind wanders then gently bring it back.  Use the breath to help you ease into and stay in postures.  Do not force or start comparing your range of movement with others. …remember it is your yoga.