Friday, February 26, 2010

Holiday - and some amazing Acro-Yoga pix

Yes, it's that time! I am off on holidays for 2 weeks and will have rest, relaxation and limited or no internet connectivity. Hooray!!

I shall probably not be posting but I have to say I will miss my blog community. :)

In a random online moment, I stumbled across some amazing pictures of Acro-Yoga. I have some friends who are into this so have seen demonstrations, but this stuff is another level. I mean, these ladies are serious super-acro-yoginis! Check out more pictures by following this link.

I am not sure this stuff would be considered 'regulation' in the what-is-and-is-not-yoga debate, but there can be no doubt that these yoginis have strength, flexibility and talent - not to mention playfulness! It makes me want to run out and take a class. What about you? Have you ever tried it or want to?

Namaste and see you in 2 weeks!!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

My amazing students: overcoming chaos and staying in the flow

On Fridays I teach a gentle flow class. It's my favourite class of the week - calm music, breath-focused flow - it even leaves me, the teacher, feeling refreshed!

This evening we had a bit of a 'special' class. First of all, we practice in a small conference room annexed to the back of a local NGO. For the past few weeks the air conditioners haven't been working properly and it has been HOT. Like, hot-yoga-hot, but the heat and humidity are 100% natural and you can't just turn them down or open a window! Said NGO office is adjacent to a local football (soccer) field, and today just before yoga class the inevitable happened: yes, you got it, ball through the window. Glass everywhere, chaos, and, yep, gaping hole for noise, mosquitoes and yet more humidity to come in through.

As we started our practice, the game next door continued, seeming louder than ever through the broken window. When the game finished, the guys decided to string up a net between the field and the NGO building. Great idea! Also, loud, chaotic and complicated idea which meant that we had 15 young guys standing on the wall in between the NGO and the field, shouting to each other, holding a net, trucking ladders back and forth, and yes, staring in at whatever-on-earth-the-wacky-foreigners-are-up-to-now: our Yoga class.

So there we are in our 100% humidity, mats sliding on tiled floor, mozzies buzzing, footballs flying, ladders clanging, boys shouting, and I am turning up the music and practically shouting
"stay with your breath"... And somehow, we manage to stick with it, somehow, we manage to stay in the flow. As we hit Savasana night falls, I turn off the lights, turn up the music, and finally find that teeny bit of stillness.

And then, after the class, one of the students comes up to me and says: "I think that was the best yoga class I've ever been to in my 60 plus years."

So this post is dedicated to my students. As I said to them tonight, they never cease to amaze and inspire me. There we are in our far-from-perfect conditions, and yet they keep coming, week in and week out, to practice Yoga. Here they are, far from home and family, from country and loved ones, living in the crazy uncertainty of this chaotic town and yet, they practice. They practice through sticky heat, power-outages, mosquito bites, broken glass, football games, and shouting youth. They come to practice through the dust and the heat, or wade through the muddy, flooded parking lot in torrential rain. Despite all the obstacles this place can throw at them, they practice. And THAT, I was reminded tonight, and reminded them, is Yoga.

Because life is unexpected. You never know what it's going to throw your way. It's not a smooth, easy road - it's a 4x4 obstacle course and the ride is going to be bumpy! Yoga is about self-discovery, and it is in facing adversity that we really learn about ourselves, it is how we deal with the challenges and the potholes that teaches us who we are and helps us to grow. And if we can keep a soft breath and a steady gaze amidst all the chaos - then truly, what can we not do?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Restorative Flow: Gentle

Hi all, I have been offline a lot this week due to overwork, and no connectivity on my internet. When my life runs away with me, I often turn to restorative Yoga to help me bring back the balance into my mind, my body and my day.

So here is a gentle restorative sequence that should leave you refreshed and, well, restored.

Before You Start:
Turn down the lights, light your favourite incense or essential oil, and put on some mellow music... I highly recommend Jai Uttal and Ben Leinbach's "Loveland" for smooth, entrancing listening.

This sequence works best with the help of a few props, especially: one or more blankets, rolled up; one or more yoga blocks or big books; a yoga strap or any exercise strap or bit of fabric; and some large pillows.

The Sequence:

Begin this sequence by lying on your back, hug your knees to your chest, and gently rock side-to-side on your sacrum (the hard part on your lower back). Hold each pose for as long as you like - I recommend at least 5-10 long, slow breaths in each pose.
Happy baby pose (Keeping your feet close together, let your knees come apart and gently pull your knees towards your shoulders. Then, keep your knees bent and raise your feet up towards the ceiling. Either keep holding the thighs orgrasp the bottom of your feet from inside, and gently pull the feet towards you)
Supta padangusthasana I (Bring your left foot to the ground. Loop your yoga strap around your right foot and gently lift the right leg towards you.)
Supta padangusthasana II (Grasp both ends of the strap with your right hand and slowly let your right hip open up, lowering your right leg to the right hand side. Place a block or pillow under the right foot, and look back out over your left shoulder.)
• Repeat on the left-hand side, then come to sitting.
Seated Twist (Bring your right hand to the left knee and twist gently to the left side, then do the other side)
Cat and Cow, 5-10 rounds (Come to all fours. On an inhalation, let the lower back curve downwards and look up, on an exhalation curl your back upwards and bring your chin to your chest).
Downward Facing Dog (optional. Can also be done with your head resting on a block, OR your hands resting on a chair for a more restorative version).
Supta kapotasana (reclining pigeon - from Down Dog, inhale, stretch the right leg behind you, and then exhale and bring the right knee forward between your hands. Exhale, and slowly lower yourself forward and down. After 10-25 breaths, inhale up to centre, step back to Down Dog, and repeat on the left-hand side).
Paschimottanasana, supported (Come to sitting, with your legs together. Place a rolled-up blanket under your sitting bones, and another under your knees. Place one or more pillows on your legs. Inhale and stretch gently forward, exhale and rest your head and torso on the pillows for 10-25 breaths).
Baddha Konasana, supported (Inhale back up to sitting. Bend the knees, bringing the soles of the feet together. You can loop a yoga strap around your feet and then back around your sacrum, tightening it to ease the stretch. You can also place pillows or yoga blocks under your knees).
Upavista Konasana, supported (Bring the legs wide, and bring a yoga block or a bolster/pillow in between the legs. Inhale and reach forward, exhale and rest your torso and head on the pillows.)
Janu Sirsasana (From upavista konasana, bring your right foot to the inside of the left thigh. Place the rolled-up blanket under your left knee, and a pillow over your left leg, and then gently stretch forward over the extended leg, resting on the pillow. Repeat on the other side.)
Supported Bridge Pose (Lie on the mat with your knees bent. Inhale and gently lift up your hips, placing a yoga block underneath your sacrum for support. Keep your spine lengthening, and breathe deeply and evenly into the belly.)
Half Shoulderstand (Before you begin, lie in the middle of your mat and place a chair or yoga block at the head end of the mat. Place a folded blanket under your shoulders. Inhale, lifting your hips up and supporting your hips with your hands. Let your legs stretch behind you, leaving you balanced and light in this pose. See my previous restorative sequence post for more details!)
Plough Pose (From shoulderstand, bend the knees slightly and let your legs come down behind your head. Rest your feet on the chair or yoga block.)
Fish Pose (Gently roll back to the mat and come to sitting. Place a yoga block or small pillow in a way that it will support your upper back. Gently lean back onto the block so your back and shoulders are supported but your head can hang back.)
Supta Baddha Konasana (Lying down, bring the soles of your feet together. You can prop your head up on a pillow and support yourself with pillows or blocks under the knees. Close your eyes and turn up the music!)
Savasana (Indulge in a long, restorative savasana for best results).


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Om Tara Mantra

I love mantras. Being a generally musical being, they move me deeply. When I get a mantra in my head, listen to a chant, or join in one, I feel it resonating to every fiber of my being.

I'm not religious (not to be confused with "I am an athiest" - because I'm not!), and when I first encountered mantras I felt extremely uncomfortable, almost afraid of them. They seemed "cult-y" and foreign to me, and I disliked that they named deities I was unfamiliar with or didn't believe in. A while later down the yoga path, now I love the joining of voices that mantras and kirtan give us. It is such a blessing to sit in a room full of people and all sing along - no more culty to me than a campfire or a kindergarten round of "row row row your boat"!

One mantra in particular I love: the Om Tara mantra. It is a mantra dedicated to the female incarnation of the Bodhisattva (one who follows the path of compassion), Tara. Tara's name means "star" or "she who ferries across", and she symbolizes Compassion in Action. Her mantra goes like this:

Om Tara Tuttare Ture Svaha

Essentially the Om Tara mantra represents a progression towards spiritual liberation through compassionate action. Om Tara invokes the essence of compassion in our being. Tuttare represents liberation from delusions that cause suffering. Ture symbolizes liberation from the perception of duality; i.e. to truly be compassionate one must link the suffering of others with one's own suffering, and therefore devote yourself to ending all suffering, not just your own personal suffering. Finally, Svaha is a closing syllable that asks for the meaning of the mantra to take hold in your own mind. [For a more detailed explanation, check out this site.]

Do you like mantras, or dislike them? Does the idea of chanting together with others make you joyful or uncomfortable? What are your favourite mantras?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Adjustments: the magic of touch

This post was inspired by a lovely post over at Bab's Babble!

Adjustments - to give or not to give? - is a big topic among yoga teachers today. Perhaps it is our puritan heritage, but in Canada, America and Australia, touching strangers (or even friends) is not a big part of our daily lives. [Woe betide the traveller who goes to continental Europe and is faced with the barrage of face-kissing strangers!] So it's not surprising that many of us have trouble bridging this uncertainty in the yoga studio.

For me, verbal cues are the foundation of teaching - an adjustment is never a replacement for that. But physical adjustments are like the icing on top of the student-teacher exchange. As a teacher, I personally give a lot of adjustments for the simple reason that I love receiving them. I absolutely love feeling the strong, competent hands of a teacher helping me to expand my limits in a pose and taking my body to places I didn't think it would go. I quiver with happy anticipation when a teacher stops to connect with me and take my postures to a deeper place.

For me, touch is a very important resource as a teacher, and the student-teacher energy meld that takes place is one of the parts of teaching that I treasure most. It is one thing to tell someone to do something and totally another to feel under the palms of your hands the way in which their muscles move and to work with them in a pose. When you adjust someone you get a deeper sense of how their body works and that in turn enables you to give them better instruction. I also find that adjustments help me connect with my students individually, and give them one-on-one attention even in a group setting, which I think every student seeks from a teacher. For this reason I try to touch every student at least once during a session, even with a big group.

Here are some things I have learned about giving adjustments:
  • Every now and then remind people that they are not doing something "wrong" in order to receive an adjustment! but rather that you see their potential to do more in a pose. Say something like: "If I adjust you, it means that you're doing something right, and I'm just helping you to explore it a bit further." A lovely teacher friend of mine bypasses negative perceptions by calling them "assists" instead.
  • Never go straight to a new student - let them see other students getting adjusted first. Always start with a simple "feel good" adjustment like Child's Pose or Supine Twist until they become comfortable with your touch and you feel confident adjusting them.
  • Body language is a big indicator of whether or not people will be receptive to a 'big' adjustment. Watch them carefully as you approach and if the student seems unreceptive, use a verbal cue or a simple touch instead.
  • Always follow up an adjustment or verbal cue with encouragement: "very nice", "great", "beautiful", "well done", so that the student feels they are getting something for what they are giving!
  • Instruct their breathing ("inhale - lengthen", "exhale - soften") as you adjust and ask how the pressure is to get a sense of how they are feeling in the pose.
  • Even the most advanced students can benefit from an adjustment - don't avoid them. Fellow teachers are probably especially likely to enjoy a good assist - and if taking a fellow teacher's class, encourage them to return the favour!
  • Be mindful of the other student's time when giving an adjustment. Occasionally you get distracted helping someone and leave the rest of the class in a pose for far too long! With experience you get a sense of how long to adjust the student while still leaving yourself time to get back to the front of the class for the next pose.
And finally, remember that giving adjustments requires training and practice. Don't guess - KNOW what you are doing and how to do it. Learn how to use your hands in an appropriate, non-sensual way and how to give adjustments to sensitive areas of the body, including thinking about when you need to ask someone's permission. Know which parts of the body you should (muscles) and should not (joints) touch. When learning a new adjustment, always practice first on a willing yoga-friend who can give you feedback on things such as pressure and placing of your hands and body.

My absolute favourite adjustments (NB these are vague descriptions only and not intended as instruction on how to give the adjustments!) to give include:
  • Downward-facing Dog: Standing in front of the student and pressing back on the sacrum. Alternately since I am very small, on larger students especially men, I stand behind them and bring a strap around their mid-thighs, then lean my weight back against the strap. Both of these help bring tension off the arms, lengthen the spine, and work the weight onto the heels.
  • Child's Pose: simultaneously press down on the sacrum and forward and down between the shoulders, lengthening the spine.
  • Twists: You can always get deeper in a twist with someone giving you a helping hand!!
  • Halasana: I love the way people gasp in surprise as their feet touch the floor behind them for the first time, with only minimal guidance. I love this one because people really feel a sense of 'accomplishment' after this adjustment and next time will be confident to try it on their own.
A great resource for adjustments is Stefanie Pappas' "Yoga Postures Adjustments and Assisting" - lots of photos and great explanations of verbal cues as well as hands-on adjustments.

So what do you think folks? As a teacher, do you give adjustments? As a student, do you like receiving them? And what are your favourites to give or receive?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Upward Facing Cat Pose

Urdvha Mukha Marjariasana

To come into the pose:
  • Lie on your back with your legs apart and feet resting against a favourite object.
  • Inhale and gently bend the arms at the elbows, allowing the wrists to curl over for maximum relaxation.
  • Exhale, and release your torso to one side.
  • Remain in the pose for 2 - 4 hours or until someone scratches your belly!
[Photographed with utmost indifference: Jasmine Stripes]

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Restorative Flow

I have been struggling with a head cold these last few days, so yesterday I swapped my morning Ashtanga with an evening restorative flow. This one is for a practitioner who is used to a fairly dynamic routine and is looking for deep stretches in a restorative practice... I'll post a more gentle one soon, I think!!

You will need: several pillows or bolsters, a yoga strap, yoga blocks (Harry Potter also works...), a thick blanket and an eye-pillow. Put some nice essential oil on (jasmine or lavender are lovely for relaxation) and go with the flow! Remember, the breath is the most important element of this flow, so take time to establish smooth, deep breathing.

Restorative Flow: Intermediate

(From left to right: Top Row: Supta Kapotasana with pillows, baddha konasana with blocks, paschimottanasana with pillows, Krounchasana.
Middle Row: Preparing the block, Ardha Salamba Sarvangasana, Supported Halasana
Bottom Row: Bridge pose with a block, Setu Bandhasana with block, Supta Baddha Konasana with pillows and blocks.)
  • Sukhasana (easy pose) and Brahma Mudra
  • Child's pose (10 breaths)
  • Inhale to all fours and do Cat (exhale) & Cow (inhale), optionally adding bent-knee lifts
  • Exhale to puppy pose (5 breaths), or inhale to all fours and exhale to Downward-Facing Dog (5 breaths)
  • Kneeling Sun Salutations A & B variations (see the unsinkable Suburban Yogini's variation of these for a good place to start!)
  • From standing, take Utanasana for 5 breaths, then move back to Downward-facing Dog
  • Inhale and lift the right leg behind you, then exhale and bring the right knee forward and place it between the hands. Inhale, open up the chest, exhale bring the elbows and head down for Supta Kapotasana. Place a pillow under the head and remain here for 10-25 breaths. You can also use a pillow under the hips. Then push back up to downward facing dog, and do the left side.
  • From downward-facing dog, come to sit on an exhalation by bringing the right foot halfway forward, crossing the left ankle behind it, and lowering down to a cross-legged position. Take a few breaths here, and then come into:
  • Baddha Konasana (seated), 10-25 breaths. You can use a strap (around the outside of the feet up and around the lower back) to take the tension off, and also prop up your knees with blocks and pillows.
  • Paschimottanasana with support, 10-25 breaths. Straighten the legs and place a large pillow or bolster over the legs. Inhale and lengthen the spine, exhale and fold forward, resting your head and/or torso on the pillow. Keep the feet and toes slightly relaxed and allow for a deep stretch.
  • Upavista Konasana, 10-25 breaths. Bring the legs wide apart and place the pillow or bolster between them. Inhale and lengthen the spine, exhale and fold forward, resting your head and/or torso on the pillow.
  • Triang Mukaekapada Paschimottanasana. Bend the right knee behind you (ardha virasana) and bring the pillow over the left leg. Try to keep your hips in line as you fold forward over the left leg on an exhalation, and remain there for 10 breaths. Come back to sitting, bend the left knee and then grasp ahold of the left foot and lift it towards you while extending the leg for Krounchasana (Heron's pose), 5-10 breaths. [You can also use a strap around the left foot, and if you have knee issues, do this pose with the right leg straight or the knee bent towards you.] Focus on lengthening the spine and look up towards your toes. Release the left leg, and unfold the right leg, bringing the right foot inside the left thigh. Open up the right hip, inhale and centre yourself over the left leg, and exhale folding forward into Janu Sirsasana. Use a pillow under the head and torso and remain here for 10-25 breaths. Come back up to a seated position, bend the right knee towards you and place the right foot to the outside of the left leg. Then bring your right arm behind you, left arm on the right knee, and twist to the right-hand side for Ardha Matsyendrasana. Come back to centre and repeat all four poses on the other side.
  • Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (bridge pose). Exhale down onto your back with the knees bent. Bring the feet close in to the sitting bones, hip-width apart, and inhale up into Bridge pose. Place a block under your sacrum to give you some support, and stay here for 10-25 breaths. You can also try a variation: place the yoga block on the mat so that the long thin side is facing up and parallel to the mat. Lift up your hips and place the block so that it runs from your tailbone up your spine. Gently extend the legs and release your head backwards so the crown of the head is moving towards the floor. You can adjust the block up and down your spine depending on what feels best for you. Stay for 10 breaths. To come up, bend the knees, lift up the hips and remove the block. When you are done, hug the knees for at least 5 breaths.
  • Fold up a blanket and place it under your torso from the upper back to the shoulderblades. The shoulders should be resting on the blanket, the head on the mat. In addition, place a yoga block at arms length behind the head. Lift up the hips and support them with your hands, extending the legs upwards and back at a 45 degree angle for Ardha Salamba Sarvangasana, half-shoulderstand. Keep the neck long and either bend the knees or extend through the toes. Alternatively, support the lower back and head with pillows and bring your feet to rest up the wall in Viparita Karani. Stay for 25 breaths, then lower your feet down onto the block behind you for supported halasana. [You can use a chair, two blocks, or the wall to make halasana even more restive.] Stay for 10 breaths, then bend the knees and gently roll down onto your back.
  • Keeping the left leg bent, inhale and straighten the right leg for Supta Padangustasana I. You can use a strap or your hands to gently pull the leg toward you. Then, straighten the left leg and let the right leg open out to the right hand side for Supta Padangustasana II, looking back over the left shoulder. Repeat on the other side.
  • Prop your head and torso up on some pillows and lay back. Bring the soles of your feet together for Supta Baddha Konasana. Support your knees with pillows or blocks, close your eyes, and stay here for 25 deep breaths.
  • Extend your legs and cover yourself with a blanket. Put on your eye pillow and a guided relaxation or good tune for Savasana. Stay for approx 10 minutes.