Wednesday, February 12, 2014

3 simple, awesome hamstring stretches

I have been meaning to write this post for ages, and was reminded of that intention by a reader comment the other day requesting some stretches for the back of the knee. As you might know, that big old hamstring muscle attaches at the back of the knee, so here are a few stretches to help you get into that tight area.

There are lots of ways to do this, but I like these ones because they are simple, straightforward, and safe on the back, which many hamstring stretches are not. I don't think any additional descriptions are required, but if you have any questions, just ask in the comments! And don't forget to let me know if there are any things that YOU'd like to see covered on the blog. Enjoy!

[NB: Knee pain, especially from bent knees, can be a symptom of wear to the knees' precious, protective cartilage. If you experience joint pain in your knees - and especially if you are high risk for cartilage damage, e.g. you are a runner or have a history of being overweight - you should definitely see your doctor! These stretches will ease muscular tension only.]

(click to see a larger image)

(click to see a larger image)

[For the anatomy geeks: These stretches are based on the principle of isometric muscle activation. Essentially, in the body's everyday movement, muscles work in pairs: when the quadriceps (thigh muscles) contract, the hamstrings lengthen. So, by strongly contracting the thigh muscles in short bursts, we encourage the hamstrings to lengthen. It's a great, no-pressure way of stretching.]

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: Sage Balance II (Eka Pada Koundinyasana 2)

This week's yoga tip is a about a challenging arm-balancing posture, eka pada koundinyasana 2 (one-legged sage pose 2), EPK2 for short! This pose often follows Lizard Pose in more challenging vinyasa classes, and for those of you who are comfortable in Lizard and want to challenge yourselves a bit more, the preparatory steps towards EPK2 are a great way to explore your boundaries and push out of your comfort zone a little.

Before you start working on this pose, make sure that you have warmed up the hips, hamstrings and upper body. You'll need a nice strong chaturanga to take the full balance, but if you are still working on that, the preparatory postures are good at building strength, too!

Remember if you are just starting to work on this pose to take it easy! There's no rush. You may play with each step in the process for weeks or even months at a time. Take each challenge as it comes, be patient with yourself, and be consistent, and you will see results in time. As a guideline, you should aim to be able to hold each step comfortably for up to a minute before progressing to the next step.

Start by taking a long, deep Lizard Pose on each side to warm up. Then come back into Lizard pose on the first side.

  • If you can get your elbows to the floor in Lizard, begin by walking your elbows back as far as you can. If you can't get your elbows quite there, then walk your hands back. Either way, you should end up with your arms in chaturanga.
  • As you bring your arms into chaturanga, one arm will come into contact with the back of your leg (in the photos below, the left arm and left leg) and the weight of the leg will start to transfer to your upper arm. This contact point is really important so play around with it until it feels comfortable. As a general rule, you can't to get the contact point as high on your upper arm as you can. (2nd picture, below)
  • Once you feel comfortable, begin to walk your front toes forward and out on a diagonal. You'll feel more of the weight of the leg transferring onto your upper arm. At this point stop and make sure your body is properly supported: squeeze your upper arms towards the midline and press strongly through the pads of the fingers, lift from the core (like in plank pose), and strongly engaging the back leg and heel.
  • Now we're going to try and straighten the front leg. To support yourself in this half-balance, you'll need to drop into a strong chaturanga. At this point I find it helpful to turn my head and look towards my toes: this helps me focus my efforts on what I'm doing!
  • Next, extend strongly through the front thigh and begin to straightening the front leg. Really think about lengthening, not about lifting: by virtue of extending, your toes will eventually lift off the ground.
  • Once you can get the toes off, refine the posture: flex or "floint" the front toes, keep the back leg super-engaged, and see if you can come up onto tiptoes on the back foot. When you can get the back foot high, high on tiptoes, then you're ready to try the next stage.

  • Think of the body as a seesaw, with your elbows as the centre. The easiest way to get the back toes up, is for the weight of your front body to move forward and down. So this critical stage is mostly about pivoting your weight forward until your back toes can't help but lift off. Keeping the front leg strongly engaged and extending will help you bring your weight forward without collapsing onto the mat.
  • When you're just getting started with this pose, it can help to take tiny 'hops' to lift the toes off the ground. Keep in mind though that these hops should be really tiny and that the main "work" of this stage is shifting your weight forward enough so that the back leg becomes light. I also find that it really helps to turn your head to the side here. This eliminates any risk of nose-squash if something goes wrong and helps keep your focus on your front leg, which needs to stay really strongly extending through this step.
  • Once you have a bit of lift-off,  keep the forward leg strongly engaged, keep squeezing in through the upper arms, and keep lifting from the core. It's hard work!!
  • Over time, refine the pose by trying to find a more even distribution of weight, lifting the chest away from the floor, extending from the breastbone, and bringing your gaze forward.

  • PS: I've included a picture of the other side here, because when I was first starting out with this pose I couldn't figure out what to do with my other arm. In fact when I first played with this pose, I used to cheat by sneaking that free elbow underneath my hip. I don't discourage this little 'cheat' if you are just trying to get a feel for the pose, but in the full pose the elbow is free and hugging strongly into your side. Squeeze as if your life depended on it!! (Note how you can really see that this is my weaker shoulder from the photos!)

I hope this was helpful! Readers, are there any poses that you'd like to see on this blog?

Friday, January 31, 2014

How soon after eating can I can do yoga?

As a teacher and a blogger, I hear this question a lot, so here is a quick post on the food & drink before (and after) yoga question!


You have probably heard that yoga is ideally practiced on an 'empty stomach.' Anyone who has accidentally tried to do a vigorous yoga class after a big lunch can relate to the truth in that!  But that is more or less where the advice begins to diverge.

When considering this question, remember above all that in the yogic worldview, everyone is different. While yoga teachers often try to give simple and straightforward answers, because we think that is what people are looking for, the truth is that every individual has a unique ayurvedic constitution, meaning that there are no 'hard and fast rules.' Rather, think of these as guidelines that you then need to explore to see which is the most appropriate for you.

There are so many variables here (ayurvedic type, climate, season, diet, lifestyle, what else is going on in your life…) that I think the 'ideal' answer requires a solution that is tailored to your unique needs. One way to think about it is to keep a journal detailing what you ate before practice, when you ate it, and how you felt. Over time that may help you to hit upon the right solution for YOU.

Remember also that your needs are going to change throughout your life, depending on what else is going on - so just when you think you've got it figured out, you may have to change it up again!

If you practice in the morning:

Many schools of thought teach that yoga should be done first thing in the morning, before you eat or drink anything (other than room temperature water). Some people find this pretty comfortable, but I know others who feel light-headed or even faint if they so much as attempt a sun salutation on a completely empty stomach.

If you wake up hungry (which in ayurvedic terms is a good thing!), if the length and intensity of your practice requires a bit of fuel, or if you struggle with low blood sugar in the mornings, try the following:

  • Have a glass of room-temperature or warm milk 15-30 minutes before practice. Milk temporarily buffers stomach acid, so it can be good to tide you through your practice. However, once the milk is digested your stomach will produce even more acid, so if you are in the habit of drinking milk, make sure you eat a nice alkaline breakfast after your yoga. 
  • Have a (small) cup of milky coffee or tea 15-30 minutes before practice. Yoga guru BKS Iyengar began all of his days like this, and, well, he's going on 96 so it must work for him! Coffee also helps to empty your bowels which is another (less often quoted in a public yoga class!) recommendation for before you start practicing asana or pranayama.
  • Have a small piece of fruit about 15 to 30 minutes before practice. It should be something light, like a peach or an orange, not a banana, and if possible, something fresh, not tinned.  I prefer solid fruit to fruit juice because with solid fruit you get fibre as well as just liquid and sugar, but then, that's just me!
  • You don't have to wait too long after practice, even an intense practice, to head straight to a nice big breakfast. Wait about 15 or 20 minutes (just time for a shower and to get dressed) and then tuck in!

If you practice in the middle of the day:

If your favourite class is in the middle of the day, it's going to be a bit of a balancing act to figure out the right times to eat before and after practice. In the middle of the day, your energy is high and your digestive fire is at its peak. You might find that this means you are able to eat a light snack before practice and burn right through it, or you might find that you do better eating a big meal after practice. Try some of the following and see what works best for you:

  • Have a light or normal breakfast followed by a high-energy mid-morning snack. The usual advice would be not to snack on anything within an hour of practicing.
  • Have a big breakfast and don't eat again until after your practice.
  • If you are hungry right before your class, try having a piece of light fruit about 15-30 minutes before class.
  • You may find that you need to leave a bit of time after practice in order to be able to digest a big meal. If you are hungry right after practice but when you eat, you feel like it doesn't digest well, try having a light snack (fruit or a granola bar) right after practice and waiting about an hour before having a meal.

If you practice in the evening:

Personally, I find evening practices the most difficult to schedule healthy eating around. Eating too late is bad for my digestion and sleep, but so is a vigorous practice late in the evening. If you have similar issues, try the following:

  • Try swapping your biggest meal of the day to lunchtime. Make sure it is a balanced meal that will give you enough 'fuel' to make it through the rest of your day and through your yoga practice. Then, have a light meal for dinner after practice (a soup or a salad for example). Remember that if you usually eat with your family you might have to warn them in advance on those days, too!
  • If your class is too late for you to have dinner afterwards, try mixing and matching your breakfast and lunch quantities and timings (e.g. big breakfast, medium lunch, or small breakfast, big early lunch) so that you can eat an early dinner of something small and light. Try to leave at least 2-3 hours between dinner and your class for ideal digestion.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Quick Tip: How to check your knee alignment in Warrior II and similar poses

Knees are delicate joints, which is why yoga teachers tend to go on (and on!) about correctly aligning the knee in yoga poses. Unlike hips, which can move in many directions, knees are designed only to move in one direction. So when we do yoga poses, it's important to respect the way that knees are designed to move, otherwise we risk injuring this relatively delicate joint. Knees are hinge joints, designed to move on a single axis, just like the hinge of a door. And just like a hinge, they are especially vulnerable if you twist them away from that axis.

In standing poses where the knee is bent, correctly aligning the knee is especially important because the knee joint is bearing weight. In poses where the hips are facing forward, the body finds a safe alignment fairly naturally, just as it does every day when we walk or run. However, in poses such as Warrior II and extended angle pose (and Warrior I to a lesser extent), we put the body in an un-natural stance, with the pelvis facing sideways and the front foot facing forwards. When we then bend the knee, our body often comes out of its safe alignment, for a number of different reasons (stiffness in the hips, short adductor muscles, distraction…).

You'll often hear teachers cue "bring your knee over your ankle" to try and correct for this. But we all know that bringing the knee directly over the ankle in these poses can take years of practice! Instead, don't worry about how far forward your knee is: check the alignment of your knee by thinking about lining up two straight lines. The first (in pink) is a line that goes through the middle of your foot: approximately from the base of the second toe to the middle of the heel. The second (in blue) goes from your hip socket in the middle of the upper thigh to the middle of the kneecap. When those two axes are in line, you are good to go!

The pictures below hopefully makes it pretty clear. In 1) and 2) I've shown two common mis-alignments that I often see in class, just to help illustrate the point. 3) shows what it should look like.

(PS: You usually can't see your foot from standing in Warrior II, so lean forward to check your alignment, and then straighten up again).

My cat has recently been taking a renewed interest in disdainfully watching me do yoga, so you also get a bonus of some cute little cat feet off to the side!!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: Lizard Pose

Happy new year! Yes, readers, I'm back at the blog. The final 3 months of last year for me were very intense work-wise, and blogging just didn't fit in. But now all that is behind me and I have lots of time for all things yoga - hurrah!

Now, we bloggers tend to start the new year with deep, reflective posts, but I'm going to skip that step and launch straight into a post requested by a reader a little while ago, on a lovely but challenging hip opener called Lizard Pose. Also, stay tuned for the sequel on how to use Lizard Pose as a starting point to work towards a challenging arm-balance: eka pada koundinyasana (sage pose) II.

A little while ago, a reader contacted me through Facebook and asked for advice on modifying Lizard Pose. She commented: "My thigh can't seem to stay straight - it wants to poke out to the side. Then I am having problems with my shoulders. Even getting to where my shoulder is by my knee is troublesome."

First of all, from my perspective, it's totally OK for your front thigh to be angled outwards. After all, your femur sits side-on and forward of your hip joint, as shown in the picture below. As you can also see, this is more exaggerated in women than with men.

The way that the femur and the hip are aligned means that in forward-facing hip-openers (like Warrior I, lunge and lizard), you should always set up for the pose with the feet at least hip width apart on your mat. For women, aim for shoulder distance. This means that the right foot is to the right side of the midline, and the left foot is to the left side. This alone might alleviate any discomfort you're feeling by creating more space for the hip joint to move through.

Next, you can create even more space for the hips with one simple movement: turn your forward toes outward, towards the front corner of your mat. This reflects the natural alignment of the femur, so when you come deeper into the pose, bringing your hands to the mat, you should feel more spaciousness in the hip joint. You can walk your foot further out to the side to get even more room.

When you can comfortably hold the pose for 5 breaths with your palms flat on the mat, you can play with coming a bit deeper into the pose by bending your elbows. Another way to explore this pose is with the back knee on the ground. This takes some of the weight off the hip joint and can be a great variation for those with especially tight hamstrings.

Eventually you might place your elbows on a bolster, block, or on the floor. However remember that this pose is not about how far down you go. It's totally fine if your shoulders never go lower than your knee - as long as you are feeling a good stretch in your hips, glutes and hamstrings. Be respectful of your body: since hips are joints, there is no joy to be had in straining to push your limits. Rather, let go of your ego, breathe deeply and work on holding the pose longer while staying relaxed through the breath, allowing your body to slowly change old patterns of movement.

Lizard Pose is a big hip opener, so before coming into this pose, do some warm ups like hip circles, supine pigeon, and lunges. Enjoy!!

Readers, what are some poses you'd like to see featured on Yoga Tip Tuesdays? And yes, I know it's not Tuesday today, but whatever! ;) The name is catchy.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Arjuna and December (in which I manage to bring Jesus, Arjuna and Harry Potter into the same blog post)

Well, yogis, it's December, which means a lot of things. Firstly, I will be returning to regular blogging soon since my assignment in East Timor is nearly done! Secondly (and a bit more universal), it's hard for most of us not to notice that Christmas is coming.

Which makes me think about Arjuna. (Oh yes, it's one of those posts).

'Uhhhhhh, what?' I hear you asking. Well, let me explain. It all started last year when my partner and I had Christmas with our five-year old niece. By the end of the holiday, after a week or so of "brush your teeth or you'll be on the naughty list" culminating in a paper-shredding-present-opening-crazy-fest, we felt pretty spiritually disenfranchised. The pop-culture-materialistic version of Christmas, as you may have noticed, is pretty hard to avoid these days, whether you are a Christian (my partner is) or not (I am not). So we reflected a bit on what the deeper meaning of the season is for us, and how we could create new traditions for ourselves that possibly wouldn't involve quite so many plastic toys discarded moments after being torn out of the wrapping paper. We reflected on the transition to a new year, marked by the solstice and the calendar. The commemoration of another year of life on this planet shared with people that we love. The commemoration of the birth of a man who tried to teach those around him the values of love, generosity and a moral life.

Which, ironically, every time I come to the christmas season, feels like more of a battle than usual.

Which is what brings me to Arjuna. For those of you who haven't read the Bhagavad Gita (on which I am no expert), Arjuna is a prince who, on the eve of a terrible battle, has a crisis of faith. Paralysed by the realisation that he must fight against his own uncles and cousins to win back his rightful share of the kingdom, he freezes, confused, and his bow slips from his hand. He calls upon Krishna (who happens to be his charioteer, sweet!) for guidance. Krishna responds by introducing Arjuna to Yoga, a practice for self-realisation. Krishna goes on to say that through Yoga he can gain control of his mind and liberate himself from the 'false reality' of the senses. In this state, the yogi can perform actions without any mental or emotional attachment to their consequences. So he can fight because it's the right thing to do, and not be distraught by the result of his actions.

Now, wait, says Arjuna, surely if I become all enlightened, there is no need to perform action at all? Shouldn't I just withdraw from the world and contemplate it all from a cave somewhere? But Krishna points out that abstaining from action is an action in itself, but not a very constructive one. Better to continue consciously performing actions, because as an enlightened person you can do actions for the good of the world. Krishna tells Arjuna that each person should do his duty according to his nature, performing actions without attachment. This is the Yoga of Action.

There's more to the story, but we've come to my essential point. I remember reading the BG for the first time and struggling immensely, as Arjuna did, with this concept. How could it be right to go to war, to kill his kin for a kingdom? What kind of spiritual teaching is that? And how did this text become an inspiration to Ghandi, the man who led India's peaceful revolution?

But I was missing the key point, which is that it's a story, a metaphor, not to be taken quite so literally. In the story, Arjuna is a warrior. It is what he is born to, it is his destiny, and therefore it is his duty to fight. It is the right thing to do, and nobody else can do it. He's basically your ancient Indian version of Harry Potter (who after all, could have just hopped on a Thestral and flown off to Australia, right?).

What the BG is saying, then, is that yoga is really about is doing what's right, according to our own individual nature. Now I am not a warrior (maybe some of you are, readers, or wizards!). But I am many other things: a friend, a daughter, a sister, a partner, an employee, a teacher. And with each of those 'destinies'  comes a set of 'rights,' a set of choices about how I live my life (horcruxes or hallows?). The path of yoga is the path that leads me to choose my actions wisely, to do the right thing in each set of circumstances not because I am seeking personal gain or seeking to please others, but because it is the right thing to do. Not to put off doing something because it is hard or because I am afraid, but doing it because it is the right thing to do. The right thing according to me, to my true self, to my true nature, not to what others tell me to do or want me to do.

And the practice of yoga, the practice of inquiry in order to gain self-knowledge, of course, is there to help me to make those choices based in true wisdom, free of attachment or ego or self-deception.

So, readers, if you are still with me, that is what I will be reflecting on this December. On who I am, and on doing Right Things For Me because they are Right Things For Me, and not for any other reason. On what my battles (choices) are and how to 'fight' them with wisdom and integrity.

Happy new year everyone!

La Gitane

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On remembrance, action and typhoon Haiyan

Yes, I am still out here in the universe, and very much alive. Although you wouldn't know it from reading the blog of late, I have been soaking up life like a sponge, and I can promise you that many new posts and other things are in the pipeline. Patience, and all is coming! As you may remember, I am currently back in East Timor, which I called 'home' for many years and apparently is not finished with me yet.

On Remembrance

Yesterday was a big day here: the 22nd anniversary of the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, when occupying Indonesian troops opened fire on a crowd of several thousand unarmed civilians. The people, mostly young, had come to demonstrate at the grave of a young man who was shot in cold blood by Indonesian soldiers. It was an act of resistance for which many paid dearly: when the crowd reached the large cemetery in the centre of town, the troops opened fire. At least 250 people were killed in under an hour.

This horrifying event also marked a turning point in East Timor's fight for independence, as it was witnessed by several foreign journalists including one who managed to capture the massacre on film and smuggle the footage out. When the footage was released to the world, it sparked an international solidarity movement for East Timor's self-determination, and brought the governments who were supporting the Indonesian militarily under strong criticism - including the US which had trained the Indonesian military and sold them the weapons they used to invade and force the country into submission. Many regard it as the first step on East Timor's path to independence, which they would finally achieve 8 years later.

Each year the massacre is marked by a national holiday, and the day closes beautiful tradition: after sunset, every household goes out into the street and lights candles in memory of those who died. Children play in the streets and adults sit and remember the past as they watch the future generations frolic with a lighter spirit than in the days of occupation or colonisation. Wherever you are in East Timor on 12 November, the streets will be lined with row upon row of lit candles. In the years before independence, it was a brave thing to do, a sign that the spirit of the East Timorese could not be quashed by intimidation and violence. Now it is a holiday of particular, poignant beauty, all the more so when the post-independence road is rocky, and national unity feels fickle and evasive.

As a foreigner, I can't help observing the contrast with the traditions of my own country, which by contrast feel trite and commercialistic. Tinny christmas carols in shopping malls and chocolate Easter bunnies feel pretty empty compared to such a powerful, simple thing as an entire nation lighting candles to remember. It makes me realise how much my heart cries out for more meaningful traditions, how much I hope to create those for my present and future family.

A father and his children light candles in remembrance, Baucau, East Timor, 12 November 2013

What does this have to do with yoga?

Well, nothing and everything honestly. When I reflect back on the Santra Cruz massacre and the thousands of other, un-rembered acts of resistance (whether noble or stupid), I am reminded of Arjuna in the Baghavad Gita gearing up to fight. Knowing that the consequences would be terrible, but acting anyway because it was for the greater good.

Yoga is action - and this, we must not forget. It is showing compassion to those in need, it is speaking for those who cannot, it is a thousand nameless acts of kindness or one single act of bravery. Each of us is called to act in different ways, each day we are presented with dozens of opportunities to do something good, something right, something that challenges our apathy. Something that stills the vicious tongue of our ego-self, the voice that fills us with scepticism and doubt, the voice that says "I can't make a difference, why bother, someone else will take care of that, it's not my problem."

Through action we change our karma and purge our samskaras. Through action we put our fundamental beliefs to the test. Through action we open up to our true natures.

A post-script: Typhoon Haiyan

This post was not intended as a call to action on Typhoon Haiyan. But it is in the news, and as someone who has worked on humanitarian issues and responses, I shouldn't be surprised to have found myself here.

If you are distressed by what you see, if you wish you could help but your ego-voice is telling you that you can't make a difference, why bother, other people will take care of that, it's not your problem, please know that your donations, however small they may seem to you, really do help. Forgo your weekly coffee and donate $5, or your weekly lunch date and donate $25. It's not about how much you give - it's about taking action if your soul is calling for it. Because it's the right thing to do.

Marianne Elliot has put together a wonderful post with some advice on what kind of help is most useful - I encourage you to read it, but don't stop there. Take action, however small. If you are called to help, listen to your true, compassionate nature.