Tag Archives: asana

Be Here

Well 2020 has certainly given us our challenges as we grapple with fires here in Australia and now a global health crisis to send us all back into our homes and many out of work.

It is hard to adjust to the changes we are experiencing at the moment and many people are feeling stressed and anxious about the future. What can yoga teach us about being here – not running away from the present moment to something that has passed or into the future and something that has not eventuated?

To stay in the moment, to just do this minute, this hour, this day . Your yoga practice teaches you just that .. to be in that moment. …to hear your breath and your heartbeat, to feel your muscles moving and stretching, to keep your mind with the practice and notice as it wanders.

Now is the time to draw on your yoga toolbox. The asana, the pranayama, the meditation and deep relaxation that yoga brings.

Some of the asanas I find really helpful are those grounding asanas like the warrior series or Virabhadrasana. This is especially helpful if you can do this outside with your feet grounded into the earth. Inversions are a great way to stimulate blood flow to the brain and boost immunity and confidence. You can do a simple inversion like downward dog or mountain pose (Parvartasana) as we call it in our tradition or a head stand if this is something you are experienced in . Twisting practices stimulate the digestive system and the circulation in general, boosting metabolism. The key to good twists is to keep the spine elongated ..no slumping and exhale with the twisting action ..allow the neck as part of the spine to follow the twist. Let the twist gradually unfold up your spine, as though you were walking up a spiral staircase, so that each vertebra participates in the twist.

Another great asana at this time is the bridge pose or Khanderasana. This gentle backbend allows for the stimulation of the thymus gland as the chin moves toward the chest. The thymus gland is a small organ behind the breastbone that plays an important function both in the immune system and endocrine system. It also calms the body, alleviates stress and opens the heart space.

The best breathing or pranayama practices include Bhastrika (see post from July 21 2014 or bellows breath that stimulates the digestive system and alternate nostril breathing or Nadi Shodana to balance the breath and the mind.

And of course our tool box would not be complete without meditation or a Yoga nidra. I find yoga nidra to be a very essential element to good health. It has the capacity to allow us that deep relaxation and release of mental tensions. In this restorative state, your monkey-mind abates and the body maximizes it’s ability to take in nutrients, regulate hormones and glucose levels, and boost immunity.

So there are many ways in which yoga can help you through this difficult time. Be patient, allow time for slowness and be kind to yourself and others.

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

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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

Glorious Spring

What better way to make the most of the beautiful spring weather than to take your home practice outdoors?  The mornings are still quite fresh but it does not take long for the warmth of the sun to penetrate the body and combined with stimulating asanas,  pranayama and a relaxing meditation the effect can be perfect.

Being in touch with nature is such a good way to ground yourself.  Feeling the grass beneath your feet and hearing the sounds of birds as they go about their early morning activities is also a great way to connect with something bigger than yourself.

You might try starting with some  standing asanas to loosen the back and sides such as Tiriyaka Tadasana (swaying palm tree) Tadasana (heavenly stretch)  and Kati Chakrasana (waist rotating pose). This little combination is often referred to as TTK in the Satyananda tradition and it is part of a sadhana recommended by Swami Niranjan in 2006.   Even Surya Namaskara can be used as a warm up however you may like to do Marjariasana (cat pose) in place of Ashtanga Namasakara (eight limb pose) and Bhujangasana (cobra pose) in the first few rounds.  Once you are warmed up then you can  lie down on the mat (or grass if dry) and work through some of your favourite asanas.

Yoga everywhere

Using twists to get the kinks out of your life!

There are a number of reasons why you should include a twisting posture in your home practice sessions.  Even the simplest of twists such as Kati Chakrasana or the waist rotating pose can provide excellent benefits such as the toning of abdominal muscles, massage of abdominal organs and stimulation of the digestive system.

According to Bhaktipoornananda, ” When we twist the body it is the thoracic spine that  twists most, not the lumbar spine. When we have one leg shorter than the  other we get a lot of wear and tear on the junction between the 12th thoracic and the 1st lumbar vertebrae because the twist on the pelvis is imbalanced  as we walk. The lumbar spine does not turn much so this lob-sidedness  increases wear and tear on the first vertebra designed to twist (i.e.  12th thoracic).

Meru wakrasana (spinal twist) and ardha matsyendrasana (half spinal twist) are important twisting practices  which keep the whole spine supple without straining ligaments. They should  be practised initially with one hand resting close to the sacrum and the  arm straight so that it lifts the back upright and supports it.”                        (Swami Bhaktipoornananda Saraswati  2000)

Many of the twists are actually practiced from a sitting position you need to prepare sufficiently by strengthening the trunk and developing flexibility in the legs and back…so having a good sitting posture is important.  Often beginners will need to raise the buttocks slightly by sitting on a folded blanket or firm cushion.

Twisting practices help to improve the flexibility of spinal joints and muscles and stimulate the spinal nerves. They encourage digestion  and energy flow in the abdomen.  Twists also promote strength and flexibility in the trunk muscles.

On a psychic or mental level practising twists and learning to relax into these positions will help  you to realise that you can breathe through the more “knotty”or difficult parts of life. That these “kinks” in life merely serve to strengthen our core if we remain centred and move with the flow of breath.

Often people find a great sense of relief after practising twists ….as if the twist itself has allowed something on a deeper level to be released.

As with all asana practice awareness of where your body is at and it’s limitations is important.  Beginners need to be careful not to twist the trunk more than flexibility will allow and those people with serious back complaints would need to consult with their health professional prior to practising.