Tag Archives: Yoga postures

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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.

 

Changing seasons, changing direction

Having just returned home from a wonderful yoga retreat in Bali with One World Retreats I have found myself looking out at the most glorious autumn color here in Beechworth.

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The retreat in itself was a great opportunity to stop, reflect, challenge myself and meet new friends but returning home has reminded me that with the changing of each season we also get the opportunity to stop, reflect and challenge ourselves…you may even meet new friends ..people who will help you on your journey of inner discovery.

As the trees prepare for winter by shedding their leaves so too can we prepare for the next stage in our lives by looking at what is no longer serving us and letting it go.

We had a lovely ceremony in Bali where during the week each person was asked to write down on small bits of paper what we would like to let go of and at the end of the week we gathered together to burn these unnecessary thoughts or behaviors and send them off down the river with a colorful spray of flowers.  It was very moving for all and I somehow suspected that much of what we had written down would be the same! Bali retreat

We often find ourselves plagued with doubts, fears and negative thoughts,  all of which do nothing to serve our higher purpose but these patterns of thinking can be very hard to let go of as they are quite entrenched. The old saying that what you practice you get good at comes to mind here!!

So here is the challenging part!  To look closely at ourselves…not with anger and judgement but simply to observe the way we think and behave.  The practice of silence or mauna is a wonderful way to do just this.    Learning to be silent is a practice of pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses.  According to Swami Sivananda the practice of mauna develops will power.  It checks the impulse of speech and is a great help in the observance of truth.   Spend some time each day not interacting just watching and notice what is going on…you may be surprised! You may notice thoughts and patterns that you want to let go of and just like the autumn trees you can choose to release them.  You may even like to create a small ceremony for yourself ..using the autumn leaves.  It is up to you.

I know that it is not easy to let go and it may be that this becomes a regular practice of yours but then again the changing of the seasons is a regular practice too!

 

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.

Salute to the Sun…Surya Namaskara

As winter settles it can be difficult to keep active and vitalised.  Levels of  energy can drop quickly  and one of the best ways I know to keep the pranic energy active is through the practice of Surya Namaskara or “salute to the sun”.

This practice  combines  several asana or postures into a series of 12 movements each designed to stimulate different parts of  the body and in this way all the body systems are massaged,  charged with energy and finally relaxed.

The sun in Surya Namaskara represents your inner light…it helps you to recognise the radiance and power within yourself…your potential to expand beyond the known into higher realms of clarity and consciousness.

Care must be taken to become familiar with each pose and maintain the correct alignment so slow practice is best to begin with.  This can be accompanied with slow rhythmical breathing to strengthen, stabilise and to take the awareness within the body (pratyahara).  Once you are familiar with the practice you may wish to practise more quickly, making the practice more energising and revitalising.

The practice of Surya Namaskara can be modified to suit different levels of yogic experience and different physical abilities. (you could talk to your teacher about this)

This practice is both a physical and mental practice as you need to concentrate on the transition from one posture to the next  and counting the number of rounds you have decided to do.  Swami Niranjan suggests that 4 rounds each day is sufficient for general health and wellbeing whilst practising 10 rounds each day will lead to higher levels of spiritual development.

You may have experienced practising Surya Namaskara whilst mantras have been repeated for you and if you can learn these they will strengthen  and uplift the mental state making the practice a complete sadhana.

It is wise to always rest in Shavasana after completing the practice of Surya Namaskara.  This allows the full benefits of the practice to be integrated as the para sympathetic nervous system is able to “kick in” so to speak after the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (stimulated by the practice) and the body is brought back into balance.  Resting until the heart rate and breathing returns to normal is recommended.

For more information on solar energy and the practice of Surya Namaskara see the following link:

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1977/haug77/solar.shtml

A balancing act

How do you get a more balanced perspective on life and develop equanimity?

You are standing on one leg with your arms raised above your head and feeling very wobbly as your teacher asks you to breathe through the practice…to ground yourself in the supporting leg, to focus your awareness and  feel the strength of the pose.

Then one day without realising it you suddenly notice that you are not wobbling anymore.  All the conscious effort in the practice evaporates and the pose seems to flow smoothly as you maintain your awareness on your breath.  What has caused this transformation? How have you been able to ward off the wobbles?

Through balancing asana you develop physical balance but also a mental and emotional balance.  The strength required in these poses develops a strength of will.   You know that you are supported and consequently you know that no matter what life throws at you…. ..you will manage it.

The steady breathing required to maintain the pose is exactly the same steady breathing you need when faced with the ups and downs of life.  All too often we panic when things start to get difficult …we breathe shallowly and allow the mind to race off predicting the future or reliving the past rather than staying present.  It is the balancing poses in particular that teach us to be present.  (you may have noticed that you become wobbly all over again if you let your mind drift and the awareness is lost).  To balance successfully you need to feel your whole body, to focus the awareness, to breathe steadily and ground yourself into the supporting leg.

If you are interested in exploring balancing asana a bit more here are a couple of useful links:

http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/1242

http://www.ayl.com.au/pdf_docs/Adam_asana_25.pdf