Friday, December 28, 2012

Sea Change: on leaving East Timor, growing up, and welcoming the new year

Dearest readers, 2012 is drawing to a close. The world didn't end and the solstice has passed, so in solar terms, a new year has already begun. Many have been saying that 2012 marks the end of an era of humanity, and the dawn of a new one. For me, 2013 is certainly going to bring about some major changes.

On December 31st, I am leaving East Timor, my adoptive home for most of the past 8 1/2 years. It's hard for me to begin to write about the significance of this to me. I came to this half island nation when I was just 23 and I am leaving now, 31 years old. How to sum up the changes that take place during a quarter life? In this place I found friendships that transcend all boundaries and will last a lifetime, loved and lost a soulmate, and through this loss learned the meaning of fleeting pure happiness. I have climbed mountains in the sunrise, heard the Old Magic humming, swum with whales and dolphins, dived with a dugong, four-wheel-driven up a rocky escarpment with a flat tire, camped on beaches under the stars, slipped into a career and become a yoga teacher.

I have held babies just born and witnessed the death of a child; I have sat on the floor listening to gunfire while a teenager sobbed with terror, spilling stories of past horrors that he witnessed as a boy. I have been displaced from my home and returned to find it looted, but while others ended up in a tented camp, I still had a roof over my head. I have learned time and time again what it is to be privileged: a well-fed, well-educated testament to the top tier of the geographic and social birth lottery into which probably everyone reading this blog is also born, free to choose my own destiny, to make my own choices, to have any job I choose, to marry and have children if I choose, and only if I choose. I have been constantly humbled by the everyday hardships of the other 80% of the world's population, by the barefooted men who walk miles over the mountains, by the women who bear their babies year in and year out, by the children whose lives are more work than play and who go to bed hungry every night of their lives.  I have seen the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets of my life, felt peace in the midst of chaos, found love amidst the woodsmoke and the flowers.

In essence, I grew up, here in the hot, humid air. Like a migratory bird, I landed in this place to shed the awkward feathers of a fledgling and grow a pair of wings. And now it is time to fly - away from this land I have lived in but that could never be my home, leaving behind great chunks of myself that have bled into the earth, the sea, the sand and the sky. A part of me forever to remain here; a part of here forever to remain with me.

There are no words for these sea-changes, these great transformations. Most of us mark them with life's big events; my tribe, the global nomads, we mark them with entry visas and exit stamps.

So where to next, dear readers? Well, for a little while, I will be returning to Canada, the country of my birth. Living a mere 600 kilometres (400 miles) from my birthplace - the closest I have lived since I was 8 years old! For the next few months you will find me nestled in the mountains in Whistler, British Colombia, soaking up the cold, the snow, and the crisp clean air. From the tropics to a Canadian winter, from the sea to the mountains, from one of the poorest countries to one of the richest, it is harder to imagine a bigger contrast, and I am reminded that in my nature I gravitate towards extremes.

Everything changes and yet nothing changes, dear readers, and I will still be blogging here, about yoga (a lot) and life (a little bit), and probably about skiing, and snow, and the dislocation that only a returning expat knows. About a homecoming to a place that is no longer home, about an affluent society unseeing of its own good fortune. I am trying to go without expectations, but of course that is impossible, so I hope to study and teach yoga, to reignite my practice in the chilly air of winter, to reconnect with old friends and the land of my birth, and to keep blogging about all of this, the yoga of life.

As always, if you're reading this, I am both humbled and honoured that you have taken the time to do so. Happy new year, readers - what changes, big or small, will 2013 bring for you?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Good Giving: A Karma Yogi's Guide to the Holidays!

We are into December already and most of us - especially if you are, like me, not hyper-organised! - are probably now dealing with the familiar question of holiday gifts. And maybe you, like me, feel just a little bit fed up with the commercial and material mentality of the whole thing. Maybe you, like me, feel like you don't really NEED any more stuff - and nor do your loved ones. Yet if you celebrate Christmas, most likely you can expect to both give and receive gifts.

There are lots of ways to be environmentally conscious about gift giving. Yet the most truly ecologically and socially positive gifts are those that don't involve an exchange of material objects at all!

Karma yoga, the yoga of action, celebrates DOING rather than giving or receiving. So if this speaks to you this holiday season, instead of or in addition to exchanging material gifts:
  1. Give a donation to a charity that is close to your or your loved one's heart.
  2. Donate a Christmas hamper to a family that is less fortunate than you are, so they can have a hearty Christmas meal (I think many big cities have charities that organise these things).
  3. Think Global: give a gift to someone who wasn't so lucky in the "birth lottery." Check out the fabulous online shops of Oxfam. You can give a gift in someone's name to support a good cause (for example, providing economic opportunities to women, or children's books to a school).  In the UK there is also
  4. Donate your time to a worthwhile cause or pledge to donate time in the future (e.g. run that half marathon for charity).
All of the above are wonderful activities to do with partners and especially (in my humble opinion as a non-parent but as an auntie!) with kids. As they say, if the tradition doesn't work for you - create a new tradition.

Have wonderful holidays everyone. :)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sweat and detoxification - a yoga mythbuster!

If you have been doing yoga for a while, you have probably at some point heard that one of the benefits of yoga (especially "hot" yoga) is that sweating detoxifies the body.

Now, I am not a biologist by any definition, but something in this has never quite rung true for me. Yes, we have all had our experiences with some of the more noxious secretions of the sweat glands, both on the mat and off, but is that really "detoxifying"?  Well, I decided to do a little yoga mythbusting and find out!  I apologise for not sourcing all the information below, but I am fairly sure that I have got the science right.

Myth No. 1: Sweat removes toxins from the body

Actually, it turns out that the main function of the sweat glands is to regulate body temperature. They do this by secreting what is basically water plus salt and electrolytes.

Science seems to contradict itself on whether or not sweat actually removes toxic elements from the body. Some studies seem to show that it is an important pathway for excreting certain trace metals like zinc and copper. Others suggest that the amounts of toxic substances such as heavy metals found in sweat are so small as to be irrelevant - less than 1%. The 99% are eliminated the good old fashioned way, via the digestive system.

The verdict? I guess this myth is not confirmed but not busted. Sweating may release some amount of toxins from your body, but not really enough to get excited about. But let's look at the second part of this myth.

Myth No. 2: Sweating more = greater detoxification

If sweat is an efficient way of detoxifying, then we would assume that the more we sweat, the more toxins our body releases.  However, here is where the myth has got its biology upside down and backwards. The body has a highly effective system for detoxification: the liver and the kidneys, which filter toxins from our blood.  These organs rely on a high level of hydration in order to function properly - if the body becomes too dehydrated, they can't function.  In extreme circumstances, sweating too much can actually reduce detoxification if the body becomes dehydrated and the water you lose is not replenished.

So I think it's safe to say that this myth is: BUSTED!  While you could argue that sweating a lot in yoga makes you drink more, which helps the liver and kidneys to detoxify the body, you don't actually need to sweat in order to drink more water. So, still BUSTED!

So what's the bottom line for detoxification?

Well, since the liver and kidneys are the critical organs for detoxification, the best things we can do to support the body's detoxification and increase our elimination of toxins are:

- Drink lots of water
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet
- Get enough sleep
- Stay healthy!

I would say that yoga, whether it makes you sweat or not, definitely supports all of the above.  So Myth No. 3: Yoga Detoxifies the Body is... CONFIRMED!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Yoga for Back Pain / Vinyasa Yoga with Wrist Injuries

Today I am most lucky to have not one, but two guest posts up on some of my favourite yoga blogs.

Please check out the blog of the fabulous Nadine Fawell for another detailed, photo-illustrated sequence of therapeutic yoga stretches for low back pain.

And then, head on over to Nobel's ever-philosophical Ashtanga yoga blog, Yoga in the Dragon's Den, for a post on how I maintained a vinyasa practice with a wrist injury.

Enjoy, comment, share, and keep the yoga blogsphere buzzing!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Adjustments, assists, and when/how to say no

Grimmly posted an interesting reflection on adjustments and assists the other day, asking questions like: "what's the difference?" "are assists necessary?" "are assists too intimate?" He had some interesting thoughts and got some great comments, so I encourage you to head on over and check it out.

I pretty much agree with Grimmly in terms of the difference between adjustments and assists, although I don't think there is a clear line and I probably don't apply the differentiation as rigorously as maybe I should. In my view, adjustments are when a teacher either says something or touches/moves your body in a way that helps you find the right alignment in a pose or refine an element of your engagement in a pose. They can be verbal or physical and can range from cuing subtle processes to plain old physical modifications. Adjustments might sometimes be necessary, say if a person is at risk of injury, or other times may just be a way for a teacher to pass on an insight.

Assists, the way I see them, are when a teacher physically helps you to get deeper into a pose. They may not involve direct touch - for example one great assist is to loop a towel around someone's thighs when they are in downward facing dog and pull back. But there are many assists that involve a high degree of physical contact between the instructor and the student, on areas of the body that might otherwise be reserved for intimate touch: thighs, back, belly.

Generally good assists are possible when the student and the teacher have already established a high level of trust and familiarity. In addition the teacher's touch has to be professional and respectful. In yoga teacher training, as with other hands-on disciplines, we are taught how to touch people in a professional way: with the palms of the hands and not the fingertips; firmly and decisively, not brushing or lingering; asking permission before touching an intimate area of the body. Nonetheless, bad assists do happen, and happen rather a lot I'm afraid - I personally know several very experienced practitioners who have been injured during a bad assist. Thankfully I never have been, although I have been privy to an uninvited view of a male teacher's, errrr, "family jewels" in one memorable assist. Whether intended or not, there are the endless possibilities for sexual energy to come into play when it comes to the act of touching or being touched.

At the end of the day, we are all individuals and everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to being touched. Both teachers and students will have to figure theirs out the hard way: by trial and error. That said, I think it's important for all practitioners of yoga to know that you have the right to refuse an assist, and you don't need to justify or explain this. Period.

So, if you are uncomfortable with the idea of being assisted or with assists that you are getting from a teacher, what can you do?
  • If you have an injury, past or present, be sure your teacher knows about it. In a perfect world, teachers would get to spend time getting to know each individual student. But in the real world, you need to take responsibility for your own safety and comfort in a class by arriving early and letting the teacher know.
  • If you are in the course of getting an assist and it feels wrong, vocalise it straight away. Don't be embarrassed to use your voice in a yoga class! Say "a bit gentler please" or "that's enough thanks" or, if worst comes to worst, "stop, please". If your teacher is any kind of good teacher, they will stop what they're doing immediately. Afterwards, you can talk about it together.
  • If you don't want to receive assists during the class or if you are uncomfortable with the assists you have been getting, talk to your teacher about it and ask them to respect your comfort level.  Chances are your teacher will welcome your feedback and be happy to work within your comfort zone, but they might not know what this is unless you tell them.
Ok, now on to a trickier subject: What if you feel like a teacher has been touching you in an inappropriate way?

There are going to be many different ways to deal with this depending on the situation. But I think one rule applies no matter what, and that is this: don't keep silent.
  • If you can, address it straight away with your teacher by talking to him or her in private outside of class. There is always a possibility that it was an honest misunderstanding. In this best of worlds, you might simply ask if you can give them some feedback and say "I wasn't comfortable with how you touched me in that pose," and that would be that.
  • If you don't feel comfortable explaining (but assuming you want to continue with this teacher), you can simply ask them to stop giving you assists and to give you verbal instructions only. You DON'T have to justify your request - it's your body and you are in charge of who touches it.
  • If you don't feel comfortable talking directly to your teacher, or you want some moral support,  talk to another teacher, student or a friend, and that person can help you communicate with your teacher.
  • If you suspect a deeper problem, you may want to reach out to fellow students to see if anyone else is feeling the same way. Chances are that if the teacher is abusing their position, you are not the only one to have noticed it.
  • Finally, if you have asked the teacher to stop and they disrespect your request, or if you believe that some serious abuse is going on, then it might be time to talk to the studio.
Does anyone have any experiences to share or tips to add?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

In search of a balanced practice, and why the Ashtanga Primary series isn't one (for me)

There's a discussion going on over at the Confluence Countdown about "holding students back" in the Ashtanga system. The blogger, Bobbie, makes some very interesting points about the system from a philosophical / psychological perspective, the discussion of which I'll leave to her blog. I'm outta that relationship, remember? ;)

What is interesting to me is the question of whether it's good for students to practice exclusively the primary series for too long. Bobbie and many of the commenters come to the same conclusion that I did, that practicing exclusively the primary series for years on end does not give your body a healthy or balanced practice. And since the system seems to have developed rules over the years about when/how students are "given" (I agree with Bobbie, I also dislike that word!) the next pose or series, e.g. being able to bind in Marichyasana D or being able to stand up from and drop back to Urdvha Dhanurasana, many students find themselves practicing primary for years.  Many, like myself, don't have regular access to a teacher who can "give" them the next pose or teach them 2nd series. Nonetheless, we are told not to do other yoga, to "pick a system and stick with it," that doing other yoga will somehow dilute the transformational power of the practice.

Bobbie and many commenters on the post feel what I felt, deep inside my body, and what led me to "break up" with Ashtanga and start practising other poses - that the primary series is not, IN ITSELF, a balanced practice. And quite possibley it wasn't intended to be that way, but that is another conversation. In any case it's good to hear that many of the senior teachers seem to agree.

Essentially the points made in the post and the comments, which may not be experienced by everyone, but which me and my body agree with wholeheartedly after practicing Primary for 3 years:

[NB: In response to a comment left on the blog, I realised that my original post used language that was a bit too absolute, so I've edited the original wording a bit to emphasise that what I'm talking about is relativity within the sequence. I've also added some more anatomical precision.]
  • Primary has a relatively greater emphasis on forward bending, stretching the muscles of the  back (in particular the erectors spinae and the quadratus lumborum) more often than it strengthens them (one of the best poses for that is shalabasana). In some people, an overemphasis on forward bending can be destabilising for the SI joint. Sciatica or SI pain, anyone?
  • It develops relatively more upper front-body strength (pec minors) without developing the corresponding upper back-body strength (rhomboids and rotator cuffs). My yoga therapy teacher believes that this is why many Ashtangis (and others who practice vinyasa-based yoga) develop shoulder injuries, because those crucial muscles that stabilise the shoulder blades can become relatively weaker on the back than the front. Another effect of this is that the front body, especially the front of the shoulders, while getting very strong, may become tight and "closed", as there are relatively fewer poses to open it up (the best stretches for here are back-bends with the arms extended behind the body, e.g. purvottanasana, ustrasana, shalabasana, dhanurasana).
  • While Primary certainly stretches the hamstrings, it doesn't provide space for deep hip-opening in certain directions. There is a lot of external rotation and flexion of the hip joint, but relatively little extension or internal rotation. The sequence also strengthens the psoas, the quads and the external rotators of the hip (the glutes, the piriformis) relatively more than it stretches them. These muscles are key muscles for postural stability and the health of your spine, and balanced hip-opening (internal and external) is important for maintaining the safety of the knees and the lower back.
Since I stopped practicing Primary about 6 months ago and moved to a more balanced practice, I am feeling my body in a whole new way. Most noticeable is that my back body is much stronger as a result of the targeted postures I have been doing, and this has significantly reduced the shoulder pain I used to often experience (which was also related to my scoliosis). This has also made my posture better and I've made some progress towards reversing the forward-hunch that my shoulders had developed through a combination of too much computer time and too much emphasis on forward-body strengthening (in particular the pec minors). No thanks, kyphosis, not for me!

The moral of the story, for me at least?
  • Listen to your body and think about finding balance in your long-term yoga practice. 
  • If you stretch a muscle, strengthen it. It doesn't have to be the same day, but overall!
  • If you stretch/strengthen somewhere, be sure to also stretch/strengthen its opposite (antagonist).
  • If you feel like your body is imbalanced from a practice you are doing (chronic pain or recurring injuries are a good sign), listen to those feelings and find a teacher or yoga therapist who will help you identify what's going on.
And above all, remember, it's only asana!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On change, letting go, and lighting up your life

The equinox has passed, the Earth is shifting on its axis, and everywhere I look, change is in the air.

In times of change, we ourselves shift on our axes. Perhaps, unawares, we simply begin moving to a different rhythm, but it may be that we find ourselves questioning, doubting, or resisting the shifts in our bodies and minds. Perhaps we are clinging to the way things were before. Perhaps we are grasping at a future that has not quite manifested.

The changing of the seasons brings changes to our routines. As householder yogis, a change in the season will almost invariably bring about a change in our asana practice. We may find ourselves unable to practice as much, or practicing in a different way. As I browse around the blogsphere, I notice a degree of anxiety about these changes. I read words from bloggers who are hard on themselves, who judge themselves, who "beat themselves up" in their minds if they don't practice long enough, hard enough, if they don't do that pose. Now, we have all been there, and maybe this is part of the process that we all have to go through in order to let go of our egos, but it makes me think that it is easy to get too attached to our asana practice.

Now, wait, isn't that what yoga is all about? Well - no. In times like this I remind myself that asana is only 1 of the 8 limbs of yoga. I remind myself that the fundamentals of yoga are the yamas and the niyamas (the restraints and the self-restraints). They are like the roots of the tree, the soil that nourishes the soul, and they are a practice in themselves.

The yamas and the niyamas ground us when the road is smooth, and guide us through the bumps of transformation.  Like all ethical codes, they are there to help us handle hard choices. Most of all they are a lens through which we are asked to see ourselves - and this, of course, is the hardest journey of all.

The inspirational Nadine Fawell is no stranger to hard journeys. She has had to confront the emotional scars of childhood abuse and the damaging cycle of fear and self-sabotage that it left her in. She dug deep, and emerged on the other side with a profound insight into how to use the transformational power of yoga to "cut through your emotional B.S., get strong and comfortable in your body, and learn the art of radical self-acceptance."

And the best part? She wants to share it with YOU.  She has taken what she has learned and created a 4-week e-course called Light Up Your Life.  Combining yoga, yoga philosophy, journalling, healthy eating and relaxation techniques, Light Up Your Life is designed to help you identify the areas of your life, or yourself, that you want to shed light on - and to realise that desire.  I think what she has put together is amazing, and I am super-proud to be an affiliate of the course.

Does lighting up your life sound like just what you need this fall/spring? Head over to her website and bring on the light!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Because I am a girl

We take it for granted that we can realise our dreams. We take it for granted that we can choose who we will marry or spend our lives with. Choose our careers. Pursue an education.

Millions of girls around the world can't.  (I dare you to watch this video without tearing up!)

October 11th was the first-ever International Day of the Girl, a day to celebrate how girls make communities stronger and richer.  Feel moved to get involved? Find out more here.

Stuck for inspiration? How about setting up a donation bucket in your yoga studio, donating the proceeds of your next yoga class, organising a fundraising or awareness raising event, or donating your time to a local cause?

It's your yoga. Live it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

When elephants fly, or, how a non-religious yogi interprets "Ishvarapranidhana"

I am not usually one to re-post old posts. But I came across this one from my archives the other day and couldn't help but re-post it.  

When you begin to dive deeper into the philosophy of yoga, some of the first things you encounter are the ethical principles that serve as guidelines to a 'yogic life'. Known as the Yamas (abstinences) and the Niyamas (self-restrictions), these principles are the foundations of any practice of yoga that goes beyond the physical body.

As a person with no religious upbringing, the ethical code of yoga both inspired and daunted me. And since I have never had the inclination to devote myself to a deity or God, I initially struggled with many of the devotional aspects of yoga philosophy, and with teachers who are on a devotional path. It wasn't that I didn't respect their views - I simply couldn't relate to their journey or understand their explanations of things. One concept in particular that stumped me was the requirement, as expressed by the Niyamas (which every yoga teacher must sort of 'swear' to uphold) of "Ishvarapranidhana" - Devotion to God.

So if you, like me, struggle somewhat with this concept, perhaps the following story about a loveable, big-eared elephant will speak to you, too...

Ishvarapranidhana: When elephants fly

Yoga is about transformation. In yoga philosophy, the five Niyamas, or "self-restrictions", teach us how we can prepare ourselves to receive this transformation, to become the change in our lives. By cleansing our bodies and our environment (saucha), we get rid of what is unhealthy, making space for positive growth. By accepting ourselves as we are and feeling gratitude for all our blessings (santosha), we are able to appreciate even the smallest transformations in our lives as a gift. By being disciplined and putting in effort (tapas), we turn wasted energy into the fire of transformation. By studying ourselves (svadhyaya), we strip away the ego and allow our True Self to manifest.

The final Niyama is "Ishvarapranidhana", or "devotion to God". It is a concept that I have struggled with, not being, or ever having been, of any religious creed. So for those of you who may also struggle to untangle this concept, I offer you the story of Dumbo. Yes, Dumbo - the baby elephant with the enormous ears.

Because of his huge ears, Dumbo is a social outcast. When his mother tries to protect him from a judgmental mob, she is imprisoned as a mad elephant. The people who run the circus make him an object of ridicule, dressing him as a clown and forcing him to fall from a high platform into a vat of pie filling. But then, Dumbo is given a magic feather and told it will make him fly. Desperate to change his situation and get his mother released, Dumbo grabs the feather and flaps his ears. And sure enough, he flies!

The next night he takes the magic feather to his act, but at the last minute he loses it. As he plummets down, Dumbo finds out that the feather has no magic at all, and, finally believing in himself, he opens his ears and soars through the air. The audience is thrilled, the circus loves him, and his mother is freed.

The moral of the story is that the feather never had any magic powers - it was the power of Dumbo's belief that allowed him to go beyond the limitations he was stuck in, and perform miracles.

Ishvarapranidhana, then, for me, is not about devotion to God, but about devotion to the Self. It teaches us that if we believe in transformation, it will happen, if we open our minds to the possibility of new patterns, we can manifest them. If we have faith in ourselves, walls can crumble, barriers can come down, and we can be free.  If we devote ourselves to the process of change, then miracles can happen and yes, even elephants can fly.

Readers, how do you interpret Ishvarapranidhana in your yoga practice?

Friday, September 28, 2012

The bravest thing I can think of

I tell myself that I am a brave person. I take deep breaths, confront my fears, and try to do "the right thing".

But this post is dedicated to an incredible woman, and one of my best friends, who has done the bravest thing I can think of:

She has written a book about losing her child.

You may not think of writing a book as an act of courage. But as someone who is no stranger to grief, I cannot even find words for how brave I think my friend is for opening up her heart and baring it to the world, for publicly standing up and talking of her loss, her trauma and her journey. And as with all true acts of courage, her motivation was not selfish, but to help others.  If that's not yoga, I don't know what is.

The book is a beautiful achievement of courage. It provides practical advice for grief-stricken parents and for anyone supporting someone who has lost a child.

You can read an interview with the authors here, and, although I hope you never need it, you can find it on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble. You can also visit my friend's website here.

Here's to my friend, a truly brave woman, a true inspiration, a beautiful soul. I love you.

Things I'm good at

I thought I'd balance out my last post by finding 7 (non-yoga related) things I'm good at! Here we go:

7 things I'm good at
  • Dental hygiene. I'm an AWESOME tooth brusher - twice daily at least! And I floss, too. :D
  • Wearing sunscreen. I wear SPF 30+ EVERY DAY on my face & neck, even if I'm not going out in the sun. If I am going out, I lather the stuff on. The only exception is if I'm in a high-latitude winter and it's an overcast day - then I wear SPF 15.
  • Self-teaching. I am good at learning independently, and I'm a learn by doing kind of person. So much so that I actually make my living using software programmes that I have never had formal training in. Hooray for internet tutorials and you tube!
  • Swimming. I guess I can thank my parents for this! They put me in the pool as a baby and I took weekly swimming lessons up until I was about 11. I had one teacher who was a former competitive swimmer and he really taught me how to do the strokes. To this day I'm a strong swimmer and I love the water!
  • Scuba diving. Again, I have my parents to thank for putting me in the water at an early age! I first scuba dived at age 12 or 13. When I came to Timor, a diver's paradise, I took it up avidly and in 2010 earned my Divemaster certification.
  • Singing. I have only the Universe to thank for the fact that I have a voice and can keep a tune!
  • Cooking vegetarian meals. I got into cooking around age 17 and have been at it ever since. I'm not so good at following recipes, but pretty good at taking random ingredients and turning them into something tasty!
Readers, what are you good at?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Things I suck at

This post was inspired by a wonderful post at Fusion Massage + Movement (written by the artist formerly known as Suburban Yogini), which in turn she got from elsewhere.

Loving yourself is just like loving another person: you have to embrace that person wholly - and that means embracing their flaws as well as their best qualities. And us yogis and yoga teachers, just like everyone else, are full of flaws just waiting to be embraced! In that spirit, here are:

7 things I suck at
  • Cartwheels. I have never been able to do them. Not even on - not even close!
  • Finance (whether personal or at work). My eyes just glaze over and my brain floats away. I can’t help it!
  • Math. This probably explains a lot about the previous point, but math just doesn’t make sense to me. In high school I was so bewildered by calculus that to this day my recurring stress dream involves not having studied for my math final. Seriously.
  • Drawing. Apart from stick figures, just forget it! This is a bit of a limitation considering that I do graphic design work some of the time...  I have learned ways around it, and still can't draw much more than a scratchy doodle.
  • Making decisions. Yep, I am the queen of second-guessing, third-guessing, and agonising for ages over the simplest things. I blame it on being a Libra.
  • Saying "No". I am getting better at this one. But I am usually the type of person who wants to make everyone happy, and says "yes" to please others.
  • Left & Right. Let's be clear here. I KNOW which one is left and which one is right. I just can't always SAY the one I mean!
Readers, what do you suck at?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Practical tips for accommodating late students, and other reflections

There is a wonderful discussion taking place on Nadine Fawell's blog which was sparked by a post on being late for yoga class.  It started with a post about the role of a teacher when students are late for class and evolved into a discussion of the idea of "individual sovereignty" in your yoga practice. There are some great discussions in the comments section, which is actually where this post started.

I agree in principle with the idea of individual sovereignty, and agree totally that respect for a teacher must be earned through a process of relationship - not automatically given. But I don't agree that my sovereignty as an individual entitles me to behave in a way that might be disruptive to those around me, and in a class setting, that sometimes that needs to be enforced.  And so there is really a contradiction in group yoga classes, because while we constantly hear that "your practice is all about you", it's not actually ENTIRELY about you as long as there are other students with you in the room.

Reading the discussion makes me reflect on how, as a teacher, I struggle to find the balance between showing compassion and being accommodating for the one or two or five latecomers, while still showing the same compassion and respect for the 5 or 10 or 15 students who were on time.  I struggle to create a safe space for ALL our students to practice - which may mean understanding and accepting people who arrive late, but it also may mean setting boundaries so that their lateness doesn't have a negative impact on other students.  This of course depends on the setting (is there plenty of space, or will students have to shuffle around to make room for the latecomer?), the timing (is everyone a bit late because traffic was awful, or is the same person constantly walking in during meditation and noisily unrolling their mat?), and other specific factors.  I don't think that teachers should set rules arbitrarily - but I have observed that sometimes individuals behave in a way that negatively affects others, and as a teacher we do need to mitigate the effects of those actions.

It seems to me that there are 3 approaches that teachers (or studios) can take in dealing with lateness:
  1. Have a strict on-time policy and lock the doors when class starts
  2. Have a 5-10 minute grace policy but don't allow people in who are more than 10 minutes late
  3. Allow people to come into class whenever they arrive
Personally I teach somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd options. I think we need to be flexible - if a student arrives late, and I know that the person can warm up and safely join the practice, and if there is space for them to do so without disrupting anyone else, then I don't see why they shouldn't come in for what's left of the class.  But if I think the student might injure themselves from not being warmed up, or if other students would have to interrupt their practice to make room for them, I would ask the person to come back next time.  And if someone was chronically more than 15 minutes late I would likely talk to them to understand their circumstances and see how we could work around them. This approach suits my space and my circumstances - I teach dontation-based, drop-in classes that are often large groups - if I were teaching in a more intimate space with small groups, I might enforce Option 2.

If you are going to have students walking in after class has begun (which, let's face it, most of us always will) are some other practical things you can do to minimise the disruption on other students:
  • Ask students to leave some free space near the door so latecomers won't be stepping over anyone when they arrive.
  • Encourage students to set up a mat for a friend if they know s/he is coming late.
  • If the class is full and can't accommodate any latecomers, put a sign on the door explaining the situation so the class won't be interrupted unnecessarily.
  • If people enter during a meditation or breathing session, ask them to wait outside or to sit quietly by the wall until the meditation is over, OR
  • Don't schedule a meditation period at the very start of the class if you know for sure that people are going to be coming in late. Instead teach warm ups first and leave time for a period of stillness during or at the end of the class.
  • Hold discussions in class to get feedback about how people feel about lateness. Encourage people to be on time while also encouraging others to be accepting and compassionate of latecomers.
What else have your teachers (or you) done to ease the disruption of students coming in late? I'd love to hear your experiences or ideas.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Coffee and Yoga: An Ayurvedic Answer

Coffee and yoga. Some swear by it. Some swear off it. Some swear by swearing off it! Since coffee probably didn't come to India until at least the 17th century, it is unlikely that anyone will dig up an ancient scroll to light our way... So what's a yogi to do?

Thankfully, yoga's sister science, Ayurveda, has kept pace with changing diets over the centuries, and modern ayurvedic doctors have some pretty clear guidance to help poor confused yogis navigate the dietary perils of the modern world.

For those of us who need a refresher: Whereas yoga is primarily concerned with the subtle body (pranamaya kosha) Ayurveda deals directly with the physical body (anamaya kosha). The goal of Ayurveda is to keep the body healthy, and in doing this, Ayurvedic practitioners believe more than anyone in that old saying "you are what you eat". Essentially, the health and balance of the body is regulated by our diet, and dis-ease is caused by "pollutants" that we consume which then wind up in our tissues. Yuck.

Ayurveda is not, however, a universal prescription. It recognises three fundamental "qualities" of the human body - called doshas - and says that everyone is made up of a unique combination of those three qualities, which in turn are made up of a combination of the 5 elements. Of course, we all have each element within us, but it's the combination that makes us way we are. As a reminder, the 3 doshas (and their elements) are:

- Vata (air, ether)
- Pitta (fire, water)
- Kapha (earth, water)

According to Ayurveda, every individual is born with a combination of the elements that give them their prakriti, or nature. A person's essential prakriti never changes, but of course everyone will move in and out of balance in their life, depending on their diet, their environment, their age, and even the seasons. To keep optimum health and balance, therefore, your need not only to eat right for your dosha, but also to be aware of imbalances (vikriti) creeping in, and to modify your diet to deal with those.  To find your dosha, take a quick online quiz (this one is pretty good and part 2 gives you your vikriti)... Although it's no substitute for a detailed diagnosis by an Ayurvedic doctor, it should at least get you thinking.

Anyway, back to the original point, what does Ayruveda have to say about coffee?  Well, first we need to think about the qualities of coffee. We all know that coffee is stimulating and drying (dehydrating + a diuretic). In the language of Ayurvedic tastes, coffee is pungent (stimulating), bitter (lightening/diuretic + laxative) and astringent (drying/dehydrating).

So what does this mean for coffee and the doshas?  Well, the general ayurvedic wisdom is as follows:

Most Balancing Most Aggravating
Vata Sweet, Sour, Salty Bitter, Pungent, Astringent
Pitta Sweet, Bitter, Astringent Sour, Salty, Pungent
Kapha Pungent, Bitter, Astringent Sweet, Sour, Salty

Which lets us easily see that Vatas should NOT drink coffee, Pittas should drink it in moderation and favour decaf, and for Kaphas, coffee is positively recommended (within reasonable limits of course!), although without milk or sugar, which are not recommended for Kaphas.  For people with combination doshas (e.g. Vata/Pitta or Pitta/Kapha), use common sense in finding the right balance - for instance, a Vata/Pitta with Pitta predominance might drink decaf occasionally.

Finally, in Ayurveda you eat first for your imbalance. So if you are a Kapha but you have a Vata imbalance, coffee is out... And if you are a Pitta but you have a Kapha imbalance, then you can have a cup - but only until your imbalance is resolved!

And as Ayurveda is all about customisation, here are a few ways you can help to moderate the negative effects that coffee might have on your dosha:

Vatas: drink weak or decaf coffee mixed with plenty of warm (boiled) milk (at least 1/2 the cup) - almond milk is even better! - sweetened, and spiced with cardamom (the best spice for Vatas),  nutmeg, cloves or cinnamon.

Pittas: drink coffee mixed with warm (boiled) milk, sweetened with sugar or honey.

Kaphas: drink coffee black or use rice milk instead of cow's milk. Avoid sugar and instead, sweeten with honey, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Mmmmmmm. Enjoy!

This post is mainly based on class notes with my Ayurveda teacher, but I am also super-grateful for the wisdom found on the following websites & blogs:

- Hey Monica B (Ayurvedic blog): Customise your cup o'joe
- Eat, Taste Heal: The 6 Tastes

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Why I am not registered with the Yoga Alliance

Ok, so I have mixed feelings about the Yoga Alliance in general but I don't really want to get into that debate here. So please don't take this post to be a structured or informed discussion on the YA - it's just my personal perspective.

So yes, although I am a yoga teacher, I am not registered with the Yoga Alliance. I used to maintain my registration, but recently I let it expire and decided not to renew it or update my membership with my 500hour certification.

Most of my reasons for this are practical: I don't run any courses or offer any certificates, I'm not employed by a yoga studio or anyone else who requires or prefers their teachers to be registered, and since I don't teach yoga for money (I collect donations through my classes, and those go to charity), I don't need professional insurance. Even if I did, I don't think that YA registration is a requirement to teach yoga or be insured for it - certainly not where I live!

So from a practical perspective, I don't see the point. Why should I pay the YA $80 per year so that I can have a few letters next to my name? What do I get out of it?

The YA, on their website say that I should register to "enhance my credibility" as a yoga teacher, since their "designations are the premier forms of recognition for Yoga teachers".  According to their criteria posted online, if I were to register, I could call myself an "E-RYT 200, RYT 500", which sounds pretty impressive and gives me a momentary ego-boost, but that's really about it. Oh, except they will send me a graphic image that I can use on my marketing materials. Ooooooh.

What bothers me is that there's no method of really verifying those certifications and what they mean. So while I support the notion of having set standards for yoga teacher training, what good is a standard if it's not upheld?  Yes, I have to scan and upload my YTT certificates, but nobody verifies the quality of those teachings or the standard of my knowledge. I would also have to log my continuing education hours, which are also unverified, and finally, my teaching hours, which, again, nobody has to verify. So I could easily pretend that I have tons of continuing education and thousands on teaching hours, even if this weren't true. Now I know we expect all yogis to be honest, but let's be honest - not everybody is!

This strikes me as a pretty big problem for something that claims to be the international industry standard in yoga teaching.  Of course, as yoga becomes more widespread, I suspect we will see more state or country-based regulation of yoga teachers, as in some countries already, which has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. But in the meantime, I don't think I'll be re-registering with the YA anytime soon.

The only thing i can think of that would make me change my mind would be if I wanted to teach on courses or offer my own trainings, in which case I think itis only fair to give students the option of registering with the YA themselves. Of course, I might think differently if I were employed by a studio or trying to teach full-time - what do you readers think?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Taking Yoga (Injuries) Seriously

I usually don't weigh in on the heavy yoga debates, and I'm not about to start now. I have the curse of always being able to see both sides of an issue. But this article about how a woman quit yoga after an injury has been making the rounds and caught my attention.

A few bloggers have criticised the author of the article for quitting, but personally, I don't see that as an issue. Yoga is a personal practice, not a panacea. It's not right for everyone and not everyone will like it. Some people will quit.  So what? The author of the article made her choice, learned something about herself in the process, and found a physical practice that she thought suited her better. It sounds like a happy ending to me.

The issue that I have is that this woman was medically diagnosed with high blood pressure and was not aware, or made aware, of the potential impacts, or told that she shouldn't be doing inversions, especially not intense inversions like headstand and handstand.  The resulting injury she suffered led her to quit yoga, rather than to quit inversions - which is her personal choice and it's really not my place to judge, opine, or argue with that. It's a free world, as they say.

From my perspective, reacting to tales of yoga injuries by denying them, defending yoga, or attacking the injured person or their teacher is not a constructive response. Yoga-asana is a physical discipline and the possibility of injury is always there. Find me one yoga practitioner who has never felt the twinge of over-stretching a muscle, fallen over while attempting a balancing pose, received a bad adjustment, or simply wound up feeling dizzy or nauseous while practicing. I think it's our responsibility to acknowledge that the risks are there and to do our best to become safe and knowledgeable practitioners and teachers. We need to remember that the principles of Ahimsa (non-harming), Aparigraha (non-grasping), and Satya (being truthful), among others, are more important to a yoga practice, or teaching yoga, than the asanas.

Being a pragmatist, I have tried to draw out some lessons from this story, and here are a few that I can think of.

1. If you have a medical condition, discuss it with your doctor and your yoga teacher, and do your own research, so that you can make safe choices - and then make them! (Ahimsa!) Don't make the mistake that this woman made, of keeping silent about her new medical condition and finding out the hard way what the consequences were. If neither of them know what to tell you, find a new doctor or a new teacher! And of course, do the research yourself - including drawing on your personal practice - so that you can make safe choices. Everyone is different - it's ok to explore and test your boundaries and find out where your personal limits are - but don't ignore them (Aparigraha - let go!).

2. If you are a teacher, know your contra-indications and always state them. (Satya!) In the reality of teaching large-group classes, we can't always know the medical histories of each and every one of our students. But we can take 10 seconds to make sure we talk about the contra-indications of the classes we are teaching and the poses we are instructing.  Especially with "higher-risk" poses like inversions. [I say higher risk because in a person with untreated high blood pressure, holding a long inversion could potentially lead to serious medical complications, possibly even a stroke. And that deserves to be taken seriously.]
  • Because students often come in late, what I have found best is to make a short announcement after the opening meditation or when I bring the class to standing for the first time. I talk about the level of the class, and if it's a physically demanding class (as I usually teach), I warn people that it might not be appropriate if they are pregnant, or have medical conditions or injuries. 
  • When I talk about contra-indications, I often say "please". As in, "were going to do shoulderstand now, but if you have high blood pressure, please don't go into this pose straight away - just relax until I can come around to you".
This also means learning about conditions that might affect your students as they age - more and more people are practicing or even starting yoga in their golden years, and it's worth the extra study to find out about osteopenia/osteoporosis, high blood pressure or Type II diabetes, for example.

3. If you are a teacher, create a safe space, and actively encourage people to acknowledge their bodies' limitations and explore alternatives.  This doesn't mean you can, or should, force people to stay within artificially drawn boundaries. But you should be able to set the foundation for your students to make informed choices, and create an atmosphere where nobody feels pressured to go too far. (Ahimsa again!)

I'd love your comments and thoughts... Readers, from your experience, what would you add to these suggestions?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: Warrior 3

This week's Yoga Tip is about Warrior III - a challenging standing balance.  Once again, one of the keys to finding a safe & stable expression of this pose is to engage the core muscles and keep the pelvis stable so you support your lower back.

The fundamentals of the pose are to stand on one foot and extend the other leg straight out behind you while bringing the torso parallel to the floor. Already this is pretty tough - it requires strength in the quadriceps and quite a bit of flexibility in the hamstrings to extend the lifted leg straight out. And as if that wasn't tricky enough, in the full expression of the pose you also extend your arms out in front of you.

Whether coming up into this pose from Warrior I or coming down into it from standing, I usually like to approach this pose in two phases: getting the standing balance, and then extending the arms.

Since this is a challenging pose, it can take a long time to find a steady, comfortable expression - they aren't called Warriors for nothing! But no matter where you are with this pose, when coming into the standing balance, here are 2 "don'ts" to watch out for:

1) Don't let the raised hip 'float' up

Since this is an asymmetrical pose, it's almost instinctual for the hip on the raised leg to 'float' open a bit.  This is also an "escape valve" if your hamstrings are tight.

When the hip lifts (external rotation), the pelvis  - and therefore the torso - twist, the standing thigh internally rotates, and this puts pressure more on the knee (and to some extent the ankle), which is supporting the whole weight of the body.  Since the knee is stabilised by ligaments, and since ligaments are connective tissue and can't stretch, putting too much strain on them is a bad idea, and can lead to injury.

Counter the floating hip by:
  • Dropping the raised hip down by flexing the toes and pointing them towards the floor (which internally rotates the thigh); and strongly pressing through the lifted heel. 
  • Engaging the standing quadricep and adding some external rotation to counteract the body's tendency to let the thigh - and therefore the knee - work inwards;
You might feel an increased hamstring stretch as you do this but will also have more stability as you bring the pelvis back in line. Remember not to lock the standing knee!

2) Don't over-arch the lower back

With the combined motion of extending the arms and the back leg, it's easy to give in to gravity and let the front of the body pull downwards, increasing the arch in the lower back. Furthermore, we usually tend to crane our necks to look forward and up in this pose, which exaggerates the arch even more.

  • Keep the tailbone lifting as you lift the belly button strongly upwards and 
  • Bring your neck in line with your spine. 
  • Imagine extending between the heel of the raised foot and the crown of the head so the spine lengthens and the arch in your back is minimised. 
The strong core is, eventually, what you will need to hold your arms out in front of you as well.  Remember that your lower back is naturally curved, so we are not trying to eliminate a curve, just to make sure that we are not putting too much strain on the

  • Do the pose with your hands in prayer, hands stretched out behind you, or even with arms entwined, (it makes for a nice vinyasa up to Eagle pose!)
  • Do the pose with your palms pressing into the wall
  • Do the pose with your back heel pressing into the wall
  • If your hamstrings are too tight, allow your knees to bend while trying to keep the rest of the alignment of the pose.
What are your thoughts, challenges, creative modifications or vinyasas of Warrior 3? 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Simple Stretches for Ankles and Calves

A commenter left a note on my blog recently asking for some stretches for the "tight calves and stiff ankles". Since I love writing these little therapeutic posts, here is my response!  I recommend doing these exercises at least once a day for maximum benefit.

I hope that these stretches will be helpful... And as always, I love hearing from my readers and am happy to respond to any ideas or suggestions that you'd like to see a post on. Namaste!

Exercises for stiff ankles

Since the ankles are a joint - and a pretty complex one - the main focus of exercising the ankles is on moving the joint through the full extent of their possible movement. This can be done sitting in a chair, or sitting on the floor as shown in the photos below. Repeat each of the following exercises about 5 times.  It doesn't hurt to do this more than once a day, especially if you spend a lot of time sitting.

Extension / flexion
Sitting on the floor with straight legs (sit up on a pillow if that's not comfortable), point and flex your toes.

Inversion / eversion
Next, bring the soles of your feet towards each other, and then press them away from each other.

Do circles with your ankles, trying to get as wide a circle as possible. Don't forget to do both directions!

Stretches for tight Calves

The main calf muscle is called the gastrocnemius muscle (say that three times fast!!), which originates at the back of the knee, and attaches to the heel via the Achilles tendon. Tightness in the calf muscle can limit the extension of the knee, and it's fairly common among anyone who practices bent-knee sports like running or cycling, or among people who spend a lot of time sitting down.

The best way to get good results with the calf muscle is from a straight-legged position, using a technique of facilitated stretching, which means alternating active engagement and passive stretching of the muscle.  Here are a few ways to do that.

Standing lunge

Stand about an arm's length from the wall and place both hands on the wall. Take a step forward with your left leg, keeping both feet pointing towards the wall. Make sure your right foot stays flat on the floor.

Now, press the ball of your right foot into the floor, using about 60% of your maximum effort, and keep pressing for 3-5 deep breaths.

Then, relax your right foot and lean forward, bending your left leg, until you feel a stretch in the back of your right calf.  Keep the right foot flat on the floor. Hold the stretch for 6-10 deep breaths and then repeat on the other side.  Do each side 2-3 times.

Standing foot press

Stand about half an arm's length away from the wall. Bring your right foot forward and place the ball of your right foot on the wall, with your heel still touching the floor.

Now, strongly engage the calf muscle as if you wanted to draw your toes back and up towards your body. Keep engaging the muscle for 3-5 deep breaths, using about 60% of your maximum effort.

Then, relax your leg as much as possible and lean your torso into the wall, bending your elbows and lifting the up the back heel. Find a level of stretch that you can hold and stay for 6-10 deep breaths. Then repeat on the other side. Do each side 2-3 times.

Seated inner calf stretch

This pose uses the basic set-up of Janu Sirsasana (nose-to-knee pose), but instead of making it a forward bend, we are going to use the posture to get a nice deep stretch to the inner calf.

Begin by sitting on the ground with the right leg straight and the left knee bent. If you have tight hamstrings, sit up on a pillow (or several blankets) until you can get your leg comfortably straight, since the stretch won't work unless your right leg is straight.  You might also want to support your left knee. Then, take a towel, bathrobe belt or yoga strap and loop it around the ball of your right foot, like this:

Now gently pull the ball of your foot back towards your body as far as it will naturally go. Keep your back straight and your shoulders relaxed.

Next, keeping the tension in the strap and the angle of the foot constant, press the ball of your foot strongly into the strap and extend through the heel.  Use about 50-60% of your maximum effort, and keep pressing for 3-5 deep breaths.

Then, let your leg relax and keep it relaxed while you gently pull the ball of your foot further towards your body. Find a nice stretch and stay there for a few breaths. Repeat this 2-3 times for each foot.

Seated outer calf stretch

Yogis will recognise this posture as paschimottanasana, where typically we focus on forward bending. However, as in the previous pose, in this variation we're going to focus just on stretching the calves.

This is exactly the same as  the previous pose, except this time sit with both legs together. Loop your strap over the balls of both feet.  Using the strap, gently pull the balls of your feet back towards your body as far as they will easily go.

Next, keeping the tension in the strap and the angle of your feet constant, press the balls of your feet strongly into the strap and extend through the heels.  Use about 50-60% of your maximum effort, and keep pressing for 3-5 deep breaths.

Then, let your muscles relax as much as possible and carefully  pull the balls of your feet further back towards your body until you feel a deep but not uncomfortable stretch. Hold for 6-10 breaths, and repeat if you like, starting from your new maximum stretch position.

Downward-facing dog (modifications)

Downward-facing dog is the ultimate calf stretch - but only if you have the flexibility in the hips, shoulders and hamstrings to allow you to get into the proper pose.  Since many of us don't have that ability, here are some ways you can modify the pose to get a better stretch.

a) Do the pose with your heels against the wall, allowing you to press through the heels and stretch your calves.

b) Do the pose with some height under your hands (yoga blocks are good, or even a low coffee table) allowing you to stretch the heels towards the floor.

c) Get a friend to give you the following assist in the posture: when you are in downward facing dog, get your friend to stand behind you and loop a towel or strap around the tops of your thighs. Have your friend stand in a wide, stable stance with knees slightly bent, and gently pull the strap upwards and back. They may even be able to lean their weight back into the strap, giving your hamstrings and calves a nice, deep stretch.

An all around leg-restoring inversion

(Pic from Yoga Journal)

Anyone dealing with stiff ankles and tight calf muscles or hamstrings can hugely benefit from this simple, highly effective pose, called (creatively) "legs up the wall" pose. Practiced 5 minutes a day, this pose allows "stale" blood to return to the heart and when you are done, new, oxygen-rich blood flows into the legs, rejuvenating the muscles.  It also helps reduce swelling and varicose veins.  Here's how it works:

  • Lay down some padding on the floor next to a wall.
  • Sit sideways against the wall and lie down on your side
  • Gently bring your legs up the wall as you roll onto your back.
  • Play some gentle music, cover your eyes, and relax.
  • For an added calf stretch, get (or make) some sandbags and rest them on the soles of your feet.

To come down, first gently bend one knee and then the other to restore a bit of circulation.  Then slowly roll off to your side. Take your time coming back up so you don't get a head-rush!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: Utkatasana (Chair Pose)

I have always found chair pose (utkatasana, or "fierce pose") to be a challenging posture for me, and every couple of years I realise that I have been doing different elements of the pose incorrectly. In my recent YTT, I worked on this pose quite a bit, and here is what I have come up with.

First, start working your alignment from the foundation.
  • Your feet should either be together, or a small distance apart (i.e. aligned underneath the sitting bones);
  • Your weight should be evenly distributed between the heels and balls of the feet - don't rock back onto your heels or lean too much into your toes;
  • When you bend your knees, look down along your nose: you should be able to see your toes over your knees.
Once the foundation is set up, move your focus to the pelvis and lower back.  Here we continue in the spirit of my post about pelvic alignment in the transition from plank to upward dog, and apply the same fundamental principles.

Remember that a lot depends on the natural alignment of your spine, in this case of your lower back and pelvis.  There is no one-size-fits-all rule for spinal alignment because we are all starting from very different places! So:
  • If you naturally have a pronounced lumbar curve, you will probably need to tuck your pelvis and reduce that curve; 
  • If you naturally have a very flat lumbar spine, you will want to encourage your pelvis to tilt forward a bit and allow your back to retain some curve;
  • If you have a pretty "neutral" spine and pelvis, then you don't need to do much except maintain that neutrality.
Next, move upwards from the pelvis:
  • Engage the abdominals and draw the belly button towards the spine;
  • Lengthen the sides of the torso and lift the collarbones;
  • Drop the shoulders back and down;
  • Engage the arms as if they could lift you higher in the pose! I have tight shoulders so I keep my hands shoulder-width apart. If even this causes too much tightness, you can also practice the pose with your hands in prayer
Finally, bring your attention to the top of the spine:
  • Keep your neck and head in line with your spine (it feels like you are tucking your chin slightly, instead of craning your neck forward);
  • Keep your gaze (drishti) straight down along your nose.
  • Smile!

I'd love to hear if anyone has tips or stories to share about this pose. :)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Photos from a homeland

Sorry for my absence, dear readers - I took a last-minute trip to my 'homeland' for my Grandma's 90th birthday, and have been playing catch-up ever since. Lots of little posts in the making, don't worry.
In the meantime, a few photos of beautiful Vancouver island in summer. I find few places  as peacefully breathtaking as the temperate rainforest in British Colombia. It's funny how after all these years of living overseas, in some ways that part of the world still feels like 'home'. It's an area where I spent many summers as a child, sailing up and down the coast, playing in the ocean and camping the forests. Looking back, I'm so grateful to my parents for having given me that early education about the natural world - the rhythms of nature, the creatures of the land and sea.  I remember encounters with deer and racoons, and then there were the expeditions to the beaches and tide-pools, which usually resulted in my sister and I bringing back buckets full of crabs, limpets, starfish and even gooey jellyfish. I am still fascinated by all the ocean's creatures, but nowadays I prefer not to bring them home!

Before you ask, no, I didn't practice yoga in that forest or by that lake - but walking around them in the company of loved ones was as good as any yoga practice - and I did get lots of good practice in. Jet-lag (and a 4:30am sunrise) is great for early-morning yoga!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: Transitioning to Upward Facing Dog

Last week I linked to Nadine's post on pelvic alignment for upward facing dog. This week, more on that pesky SI joint in the tricky transition between plank pose and upward facing dog.

For me, plank pose really sets the tone of your sun salutations, so it's worth spending some time to make sure you are set up properly. If you have SI issues and you naturally tend towards an anterior pelvic tilt (or as Nadine calls it, "sexy back" - LOL), then plank pose is another pose where you want to tuck the pelvis anteriorly. The best way I have found of 'feeling' this is to think about tucking the tailbone while hugging your belly button up towards your spine and holding it there. It's useful to employ the abdominal muscles to stabilise the pelvis in a neutral or anterior tilt, because if you then keep the belly muscles engaged as you start your transition, your pelvis will most likely stay in the right position as well.  (NB: If you have a fairly flat lumbar curve or you naturally tend towards an anterior pelvic tilt, you can just focus on keeping the spine long and the abdominals and legs engaged. Don't try to tuck your tailbone too far in the other direction!)

From plank pose, the next tricky bit is to maintain the pelvic tilt as you come down towards the floor. This is quite challenging because you are fighting against gravity. It takes a fair amount of muscular engagement from the arms, abdominals and legs to get this stability in chaturanga dandasana, and probably years of practice! If you are having SI issues or lower back pain, I recommend working with your knees on the floor until you are able to keep your back stable. Doing it this way still builds a lot of arm and abdominal strength, but makes the transition much easier on the SI joint because it is easier to keep your pelvis tucked and your back "flat" as you come down.

Finally, work on coming up into the backbend. Here again, if you have SI issues or are experiencing lower back pain, I recommend working with cobra pose instead of upward facing dog. A super-safe way of doing cobra pose is to perform the pose with your hands lifted off the floor, like this:

With your hands lifted off the floor, you have to use your abdominal and back muscles at the same time to lift your chest, meaning that the SI joint stays nice and stable. Resist the temptation to lift the chest higher by pushing the hands into the floor and hyper-bending the SI joint!! That is a sure recipe for lower back pain in the long run!

If your back is feeling OK and you are comfortable keeping the abdominals engaged and the pelvis tucked, then work on coming into upward facing dog. Remember, keep the abdominals firm, the pelvis tucked, and the legs strongly engaged in this pose.  This will help to reduce the angle of the bend in the SI joint and help you get a longer, smoother curve in your lumbar spine, as you can see in the pictures below!

How do you practice (or teach) this transition?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: Link - Protecting your SI joint in Sun Salutations

Ok, so it's no longer Tuesday, but I couldn't help posting this excellent link to Nadine Fawell's blog about How to Protect your SI Joint During Sun Salutes. In particular Nadine focuses on protecting your back as you transition from up dog to down dog.   It's an excellent post with some great diagrams of different pelvic alignments. Plus, Nadine gets extra points because she is a self-made business woman, has her own yoga DVD, and lives in Australia! Which is, like, way cool mate. ;)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Not the easy road... More on "breaking up" with Ashtanga

Last week, I posted a letter to Ashtanga about "seeing other yoga". I didn't really mean it to be a controversial post, but it did spark some discussion.  For some more good reading, Damn Good Yoga posted a perspective on her blog which also generated a lot of comments and discussion.

In any case, upon browsing the Ashtanga blogosphere, there seems to be a perception that people leave Ashtanga because it's too hard, or because they can't handle the discipline and commitment, or they are shying away from ego-destroying transformation. And maybe some people do - but I'm not really in a place to judge anyone else's reasons or motivations.

I find this interesting because for me, the decision to branch out from the Ashtanga path was a decision to leave my comfort zone, both physically and on more subtle levels. You see, as I mentioned in my letter, I was taught that Ashtanga was all the yoga I needed. That it was a complete system that would heal and balance my body and my mind, well, completely. So when I recently realised that this wasn't happening for my body, it made sense to me that I needed to modify my practice. It honestly wasn't a big drama for me - after all, my "loyalty" is to myself and my journey, not to one asana system or another. [Not to mention that as a teacher, I feel like I need to learn as many different approaches as possible, to be able to teach to as many different needs as possible!]

The realisation that Ashtanga wasn't working for me in a "complete" way came during my Level 2 yoga teacher training, and in particular I had 3 major "breakthroughs":
  • I realised that my shoulders have become imbalanced - partly this is the way my body is put together, and partly it's postural and work-related (damn computers). Basically, the front of my shoulders are quite strong and the muscles on the backs of my shoulders are comparatively quite weak, and this was causing my shoulders to round forward and causing me a certain amount of back pain. When I say "realised", I mean the kind of realisation that is accompanied by immense physical and emotional release - not the kind of passing thought you can just ignore. Yogis will know the kind I mean. Unfortunately, Ashtanga with its emphasis on forward-and-down vinyasas had made that imbalance worse. According to my Yoga Therapy teacher, this is pretty common among Ashtangis - many of whom suffer from shoulder injuries or pain at the back of the shoulder because those muscles remain comparatively underdeveloped. The good news is, it's fairly easy to work on and with the help of some yoga therapy moves, in a few short months since my TT I have already made huge progress in that area.
  • As I've already mentioned, I realised that my psoas and hip flexors were just not getting the love they needed. The psoas is of particular concern to me since it affects lower back pain and imbalance, which I already have my dose of thanks to my scoliosis. This became crystal clear to me when we were working on Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana / King Pigeon pose. I couldn't BELIEVE that after 3 years of Ashtanga I had made absolutely no progress with this pose. Wow. That just didn't seem right to me - but once my teacher observed where my limitations were in the pose - those pesky psoas and hip flexors among them - it made sense - and became clear that my Ashtanga practice was just not addressing those muscles in the way that my body needed.
  • Finally, as I mentioned, I have scoliosis. Luckily for me, it's quite mild, but it is progressive - i.e. the muscular imbalance, unless counteracted, gets worse with age. When I first started Ashtanga, I accepted the idea that the primary series was "yoga therapy", and therefore, my practice would be enough to relieve my imbalance. And while it did make the weaker side of my back stronger, over time it also caused the QL muscle on the strong side of my back (that's the thick muscle that runs either side of your lower spine) to become a rock-hard, ropey knot, which is exactly the kind of imbalance I need to avoid if I want to manage my scoliosis as I get older. Cue more massive release, and the realisation of just how badly I NEEDED to do some kind of practice that would allow me to dig deeper and really work on that area.
Now, I honestly think it would have been easier to just stay in my comfort zone and keep practicing Ashtanga, maybe throwing in a quick yoga therapy sequence in the afternoons to work on some of those target areas. Easier to remain attached to progressing along the Ashtanga path, and keep working towards second series. Easier on my ego, because I wouldn't have to face Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana or go deep, deep into that damn psoas and feel like I'm losing my mind.  But that would not have been in line with Satya, truthfulness, Aparigraha, non-grasping, or Ahimsa, non-harming. And so I'm taking the other path, moving out of my comfort zone, and into practices that challenge the imbalances in my body - and take me to the edge both mentally and physically.

Is it easier? Heck no. Am I less committed to my yoga? If anything, I'm more comitted. Is my practice suddenly less disciplined, more comfortable, or less confrontational? Actually, the opposite!  Of course I do write this with the caveat that I've been practicing yoga (self-practice) for nearly 10 years, have worked on these issues with an experienced Yoga Therapist, and have 500 hours of formal yoga teacher training that have given me the skills, maturity, and self-knowledge to design asana sequences that both nourish and challenge my body, that are well-balanced but also target my imbalances. And when it feels right, I'll keep practicing Ashtanga, too.

Funny, so much fuss about which type of asana we are practicing, when really, it's only 1/8th of the practice! I have found that as time goes on, I become less and less attached to WHAT I am practicing and more focused on HOW. Which is what yoga is all about, I guess. :)

Readers, what have been your "yoga realisations" or your experience with attachment?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Things I love Thursdays: Aung San Suu Kyi

True leaders are hard to come by. But every generation has their shining stars, and Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the truly inspiring figures of our time. Without going into a history lesson, I hope you know that Aung San Suu Kyi is a pro-democracy activist from Myanmar (more commonly known as Burma).  In 1990, her party won a landslide election against the military regime in that country - but the Generals refused to hand over power. Between 1989 and 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi spent more than 15 of those 21 years under house arrest, including a few terms in prison - but she never stopped campaigning for democracy in Burma.

It's really not possible for me to put into words how much I admire, respect and am inspired by this incredible woman, but here are just a few reasons why I love Aung San Suu Kyi:
  • She is a peaceful activist who has always taught - and lived - a path of non-violence (ahimsa) and compassion.
  • She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 - although she was only able to travel to Norway to accept it last week.
  • She used her Nobel Prize money - 1.3 million USD - to establish a health and education trust for the Burmese people.
  • She didn't choose to be a leader - she originally returned to Burma to care for her ailing mother - but her belief in democracy led her to take part in a wide popular uprising in 1988, and when asked to lead, she accepted the responsibility with awe-inspiring grace, despite the sacrifices it has entailed for her personally.
  • She was given an easy way out (to return to the UK, where her family was) - but she refused to take it, choosing instead to stay and stand for what she believed in. [Many have looked upon her harshly (who are they to judge?) for leaving her British husband and her two teenage sons to grow up without her - but it is almost certain that if she had gone back to the UK to be a wife and mother, she would never have been allowed back into Burma. Between 1988 and 1999 she saw her husband only 5 times - and was not even able to be with him when he died of cancer in 1999.  I can't imagine the emotional weight of this type of sacrifice, but I respect that she stood by her principles and didn't take the easy road out.]
  • On 1 April 2012, she finally won a seat in Parliament, from where she continues to push for reform in Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi may be free, but Burma's jails are still full of political prisoners, jailed on trumped up charges after unfair trials

If you are inspired, be a Karma Yogi and consider a few things you can do:
  • Read Aung San Suu Kyi's book "Freedom from Fear";
  • Talk about Aung San Suu Kyi in your yoga class or with your community, or teach an Aung San Suu Kyi-inspired class on standing up for what you believe in;
  • Give your children a history lesson on Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi;
  • Learn more about human rights and support one of the many local and international campaigns to bring rights and dignity to millions of people around the world.

Cover photo: Amnesty Australia

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: How to Breathe in Yoga

I was chatting to someone recently and she commented to me "I've been to all these yoga classes, but I'm just not clear about the breathing".

So today's Yoga Tip - first in a new series on my blog! - gives us a few simple guidelines about breathing in yoga.

First of all, a quick review of what happens when we breathe.

When we inhale:
- The diaphragm descends towards the abdomen
- The rib cage and lungs expand in all directions: up, sideways and backwards

When we exhale:
- The diaphragm rises
- The rib cage and lungs contracts
- The abdomen contracts

Generally speaking there are 4 types of movement in yoga: forward bending, back bending, side bending and twists.

  • Forward bending and twisting compress the abdomen, diaphragm and lower rib cage; so these should always be done on an exhale.
  • Side bending compresses one side of the abdomen and lower rib cage, but expands the other side. Generally we do side bending on an exhale, but it can also be done on an inhale, depending on the intention.
  • Back bending causes the abdomen to elongate and the ribcage to expand, so generally we backbend on an inhale.  However, when the abdomen expands it can reduce our core stability, which might lead to more strain or pinching on the lower back - so for a more protected and stable back bend, try back bending on or at the end of an exhale, while focusing on contracting the core muscles.

So, with those basics in mind, we can figure out how to breathe in almost any pose. For example, Utanasana is a forward bend, so we would do it on an exhale. Conversely, coming back up from Utanasana, comparatively, has the same effect as back-bending (the rib cage expands), so we would do it on an inhale. Triangle pose is a side bend, so we would  generally do it on an exhale.
Of course, sometimes it gets a bit complicated. What about headstand? Well, the way I think about it is that the preparation pose for headstand is like an inverted forward bend, so coming up from headstand is like coming up from Utanasana - done on an inhale.

Remember that these are just guidelines - at the end of the day, you should always do what feels right!

Any topic you'd like to hear tips on? Just leave a comment!