Thursday, December 19, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy new year everyone!

La Gitane

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On remembrance, action and typhoon Haiyan

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

On Remembrance

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

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

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

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

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

What does this have to do with yoga?

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

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

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

A post-script: Typhoon Haiyan

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

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

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

Monday, October 14, 2013

Finding relaxation in a busy life: a guest post

A few weeks back, Alisa won the Barefoot Yoga silk eye pillow in a giveaway here on this blog! I asked her to review it for us so you all can hear about it, and I love what she has written: an honest story of a mom, student and yogini trying to find relaxation in a busy, multi-tasking life. Thanks for sharing your story Alisa, and keep remembering to relax!


Hi, my name is Alisa.  I am a wanna be yogini. I have been doing yoga for 2 years, and am in love with not only practicing yoga but reading about yoga!   I am a new mom and wife, and a full time student in a demanding program.  I am really so lucky I won the silk eye pillow give away, because my life can be very stressful (as I’m sure most of yours are) and this eye pillow has given me the desire to meditate and relax more!

The day after I received my new amazing silk eye pillow I was walking and slipped on some liquid and fell right on my tailbone. It HURT really bad for a couple of weeks.  I couldn’t practice yoga like I wanted to, and I knew my body needed lots of REST!  Sometimes these bad things happen for a reason, to remind us to slow down and rest, something I am working on!!!! 

The silk eye pillow is the perfect accessory for my resting! After I hurt my tailbone, I would lay down in bed with lots of pillows and support for my poor tail bone, and put the eye pillow over my eyes.  Breathing in deeply, I immediately loved the light lavender scent (which is not too strong, but strong enough to enrich my nostrils with calming lavender with each inhale)  I continued to breathe deeply and relax my stressed, sore, tight body...

After a few minutes I realized that I LOVE the slight pressure the silk eye pillow puts on my eyes and surrounding area. It wasn’t too light or too heavy, but the perfect amount of pressure to help remind me to relax my face and all of the tension I hold there.   I feel like sometimes we are so used to relaxing the rest of our body in savasana and meditation but we forget to relax our face!!

Some other things I love about the silk eye pillow are: the silk case it comes in – perfect for storing it, and the beautiful pattern and silkiness/softness of the fabric that feels almost cool on your eyes.
After having the silk eye pillow for a couple weeks, and testing it at least a few times a week, I realized that consciously relaxing my face really helps me a lot with relaxing my racing mind!  Which in turn helps me relax my whole body too. 

This being the first eye pillow I’ve ever used.  I was surprised by how much I love it. The silk eye pillow has definitely took my savasavas and lying down meditations to a whole new level J

I also have a little advice with using the silk eye pillow:  Make sure you have some time to ease back into reality after using your eye pillow. The eye pillow blocks out light completely!  So I found it rewarding to take a couple of minutes to keep my eyes closed after I took off the eye pillow ……slowly easing back into the bright world eased the transition!

I think the Barefoot Co.’s silk eye pillow would make a good gift for anyone really, but especially for those women in your life!  I feel like a lot of women these days worry too much, or stress about everything, trying to carry the world on their shoulders.  I know that ALL women have those days, and life is busy!!! But our lives would really improve if we took the time to settle down and relax our bodies and minds!  The silk eye pillow could benefit both those who are already familiar with savasana and meditation, and those who have never done it before!  I ordered my mom and mother in law a silk eye pillow for Christmas, and I’m going to include with my gift instructions on how to do a full body scan, relaxation meditation.  I’m hoping it will help them!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The yoga of connecting; simple is enough

Hello dear readers,

Technically a blog has no obligation, but every time my life gets away from me and keeps me away from my blog, I always feel the need to apologise! So readers, I'm sorry for the long absence from this space, and I'll do my best to keep the posts coming for the next little while.

True to my gypsy name, I am traveling at the moment, this time a long work trip that will keep me away from home for 3 months. I'm once again visiting the half-island nation of East Timor - long time readers will remember that I used to live here. It seems that my fate is entwined with this place, for life keeps drawing me back. With a whole world out there, incredibly I am sitting in an office that is only a few doors away from the very first office I sat in 9 years ago when I first came here. Perhaps some places are truly magnetic to our souls, or there is some karma that I have with this place that I have yet to work through.

Morning commute ;)

This time I have the wonderful opportunity to be spending most of my working hours traveling around the country and talking to local people. I will be on the road a lot and my yoga physical yoga practice will most certainly suffer from it, but there are other kinds of yoga. The yoga of connecting to people is one that we so often neglect. The yoga of getting to know other human beings, of asking for their perspectives and listening to what they have to say. We get so engrossed in our personal practice that we forget that the real practice is how we live our lives, minute by minute, day-by day.

Being back at a desk job is also a shift for me. Gone are the long, leisurely morning practices that I have had over the past few months. Now, I am rising in the hot, humid darkness, stepping on my mat still half asleep, swatting mosquitoes. Every step between bed and the mat is a struggle with myself, trying to keep the fire of tapas, discipline, burning long enough to get me to the first breath. But once I am there, everything flows. One breath turns into another and before long a thin sheen of sweat has sprung to my skin, and my body moves into life.

These mornings feel like a homecoming, an echo of years worth of morning practices. To do them (and still be at the office by 8am!), I have stripped back my practice to the basics, trying to get the most out of my limited time on the mat, and it has surprised me how well this simplified practice "fits." It's as if I have stripped away everything that was not serving me, and am left with a practice where every breath, every asana, meets a need. Nothing is extra, no energy is wasted, no thoughts or emotions flung into attachment to "goal poses" or the length of my practice. The reward: I am calm, focused, and (I think!) pleasant to be around. I can go about my day of listening to people with ease and relaxation. I notice a huge increase in my productivity at work on the mornings I do yoga, and a huge loss of focus on the mornings when I trade my practice for an extra hour of sleep. It's nice to be reminded of the transformative power of a simple practice and to remember, in the midst of our complicated lives, that simple is enough.

Dear readers, I promise shortly a return to our regular programming, with some highlights from trips around East Timor thrown in as a bonus.

For now, go on, get on your mats - or get off them - and see what happens. :)

Friday, August 23, 2013

How to create a yoga habit

Hello readers! First of all, apologies for the long silence - things in the non-virtual world have been super busy lately, chiefly because my partner and I have been moving house - an exhausting task now complete! Yes, as I type this I'm sitting in our new apartment that will be our home for at least the next 12 months. For a gypsy like me, that's pretty darn exciting... Too bad I'm off on a 3-month work trip in a few weeks!!

Anyway, as part of last week's giveaway, I asked readers to leave questions or suggestions for posts on the blog, and this post is in answer to one of those comments (don't worry, the rest will be coming along!). The request was for a post on how to make a daily commitment to yoga as part of a healthy lifestyle.

SUCH a good question! We all know that we feel better when we do some yoga - but many of us get to a point where we are going to as many classes as we can - a few times a week, or maybe only a few times a month - but we want to get more out of our yoga! Yet making the transition from practicing in class to a daily practice can be daunting and many of us don't know where to start.

First of all, many of us might ask: is it worth it? Well, if you are feeling the urge to bring more yoga into your life, then of course it is worth it! Everytime you follow your instincts, you come closer to living a lifestyle that allows you to express who you really are. I have had a regular home practice since about 2005. Now, I can hardly live without my yoga - and those who live with me would agree! My regular practice (usually 5 days a week) helps me stay happy, healthy, balanced, and be generally a nice person to be around.

How to create a yoga habit

Building a home practice is like creating a new habit. The good news here is that people are creatures of habit. Just try depriving us of our morning cup of coffee or our 2pm cookie-break and it becomes clear: we gravitate towards our habits, in fact, we crave them. So the secret to creating a home practice is to let yoga become a new habit. Thankfully this is something that people have been researching for years! Read some fascinating insights from a Zen perspective, here.

Step 1: Make it so easy you can't say no
The most critical part of creating a new habit is to make it easy for yourself. For most of us, the idea of taking 90 minutes every day to practice yoga is not easy. So while a 90-minute home practice might be your eventual goal, you won't be doing any favours by trying to make it a habit right away. In fact, trying to do your full goal straight away is one of the top reasons that people fail to make the changes in their lives that they dream of.

So instead of picking something difficult that you will then have a hundred excuses not to do, pick something that is SO EASY YOU CAN'T NOT DO IT. And once you've picked that, REALLY COMMIT to it. The easier you make it, the more certain you will be that you can fulfill your commitment.

My recommendation? 7 minutes. 7 minutes is a perfect amount of time to start out with. It's more satisfying than 5 but not as long as 10. Even the busiest among us can carve out 7 minutes (say, the time we spend staring at Facebook) in our day. Now, you might not be busy - you might be able to immediately commit to 10, 15, or even 20 minutes. But remember that when you're starting out, keep your minimum commitment to something that you can really do. If you do more, great, but make sure you can always do that minimum.

Then, decide what you're going to practice. Again, the key at this stage is not what you do, it's simply doing it. So start with something familiar and easy - perhaps cat and cow, followed by a few sun salutations. Or, choose a short online class and follow along.

Whatever you do, don't give in to negative thoughts! Acknowledge them, let them go, and stick with your plan.

Step 2: Pick a reminder from your daily routine
One of the hardest things about creating a new habit is to remember just to do it! And the best way to do this is not to rely on our fickle human memories, but to make sure that we are reminded.

A good reminder is not the same as a beeping noise from your smartphone. To be really effective, it should be connected to something that you already do in your everyday life, so that your new habit becomes a part of your daily routine.

First, think of the time of day when you would like to practice. For the purpose of forming a habit, it's really helpful if this can be the same time everyday, or at least a scheduled time if your daily routine varies too much. Then, think of other things that you regularly do around that time of day and make a list of the things that you do without fail.

For example, my morning list (without yoga) might look something like this:

- Get up
- Shower
- Make coffee
- Drink coffee
- Check my email
- Have breakfast

Next, decide where you want to insert your yoga practice. For me, it comes after I check my email. If you are able to pick the right spot for your practice and regularise the sequence of events around it, your yoga habit will form MUCH more easily.

Second, when you are starting out, use a strong visual cue that can't be ignored.

For example, when I used to practice in the mornings before going to the office (now I work from home), just setting an early alarm clock was not enough, so I would do 2 things to remind myself to get up for yoga in the morning. First, I would get out my yoga clothes and set them by my bed. Second, I would move my furniture and unroll my yoga mat. Setting the alarm wasn't a good enough reminder for me - I had to a) make it easy for myself and b) give myself a visual reminder that made sure I got on my mat in the mornings.

So, if you want to practice in the morning, you could unroll your mat the night before and set up your yoga space. Or, if you want to practice in the evening, unroll your mat before you leave the house, to remind you to do yoga when you get home.

Step 3: Reward yourself when you stick to it!
Getting a reward is a critical part of habit formation. Your subconscious will be much more likely to stick to your new habit if it knows that a reward is coming. For example, my reward after my morning practice is a nice hot shower and a good, big breakfast. Your reward can be as simple as just saying to yourself: "I did it! I'm awesome!"

Step 4: Take your practice with you, everywhere

The wonderful thing about yoga is that it's so much more than just a few postures or meditation. The practices that underpin yoga are things that you can take with you everywhere. I like to call these things "tiny yogas" - breath and body awareness, being present, taking a few deep breaths, and practicing the yamas and niyamas - things you can do anytime, anywhere.

Monday, August 12, 2013

And the silk eye pillow giveaway winner is...

Hey everyone, apologies for the delay in announcing this, but we have a winner!

The winner was chosen by assigning all the entrants with a random number, and then choosing a number using a random number generator. So, without further delay, the winner is...

Alisa Rosenkrance

Congratulations Alisa! If you send me an email to: lagitane (at) mac (dot) com with your postal address, Barefoot Yoga will mail your gift to you.

Once you get it, enjoy it for about 2 weeks and then send back your review and I'll post it on the blog.

Hopefully, dear readers, I'll have some other goodies for you soon. :)


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Yoga Tip Tuesdays - Triangle Pose: Choosing what's right for you, with 5 awesome variations

Ah, triangle pose (tri-kon-asana - three-angle-pose). It's one of the foundational postures of modern yoga (ancient yoga didn't involve any standing postures) and you will probably find it in nearly every yoga class you go to. Because of that, you'll probably find that different yoga styles approach this pose differently, and you may have seen different teachers doing quite different variations of this pose. So all that might leave the yoga student wondering: "which one is right?" Which is totally understandable, but it's not the right question.

The real question is: "which one is right for me?" Now that question, we can work with!

When exploring a yoga pose, whether it's a new one or one you've done a hundred times, there are three simple steps that I have found really helpful over the years.

1) Start with the foundation, and work your way up and out.
2) Remember: function over form!
3) Try different variations

Triangle: The foundation

The foundation of triangle pose is, of course, the feet, which form the base of the pose. The classic alignment cue for the feet is to turn your front foot forward 90 degrees, turn your back toes forward between 30 and 45 degrees, and align the heel of the front foot with the inner arch of the back foot. This is picture b), above.

However, triangle pose requires a fair degree flexibility and range of motion in the hip joint (not to mention flexibility in the hamstrings and groin), so if you are just starting out, if your hips are stiff, if you have trouble balancing (for example because you're pregnant!) or if you're recovering from, say, hip replacement surgery, you can make the base of the pose more stable by having your feet hip-width apart, as shown in a), above. Some teachers cue this by asking people to imagine that their feet are on "railroad tracks," so if you stand with your feet hip width apart, you can move the feet forward or backwards but not wider apart or closer together than hip width. This (a) is the most stable, safest placement for the feet.

Finally, a note on what not to do: don't let the back heel stray backwards of the mid-line of your body! This really destabilises the pose and puts unnecessary strain on the hip joint.

[There is actually a third option which is to keep the feet parallel - we'll talk more about that in the Variations section, below.]

Function over form

Ok, let's be honest. We have ALL seen the photos in the yoga magazines with people doing triangle pose with one palm resting flat on the ground. And even though we are trying to be all "one with where we are," we just can't help it: we WANT that hand to touch the ground. So we creep a bit lower, and a bit lower, and a bit lower, and even though we have kind of lost the stretch a bit, we finally arrive, triumphant, with our palm flat on the mat. Victory! Or not?

Well, have a look at the first picture, above, for an idea of what this kind of thinking actually looks like on the mat. It's a pretty typical illustration of how the mind plays tricks on us and gets in our way (what Patanjali called "false perception," (1.30))! We are confusing the form of the pose, a form that we have seen in a picture, with the actual function of the pose. Our ego drives us to achieve the form, and suddenly we are out of our bodies and our breaths and catapulted into a mentality of hand-to-floor-OR-DIE!, when in fact the function of the pose has absolutely nothing to do with where your hands are.

The actual functions of triangle pose are to stretch the front hamstring and psoas, and the upper side and back muscles (with a secondary stretch in the back hamstring and groin muscles).

So keeping that in mind, if we look at the first picture above, in my desire to get my palm to the floor, I have lost the lengthening stretch in the upper side and back. The photo shows just how far off my alignment I have come, all because of that pesky fixation on the floor! In order to get the stretch that I am supposed to be getting, I want my hips and shoulders to be more or less in line with back foot, creating a big lengthening stretch in the upper side-body. Depending on the day, the temperature, the time, and of course, on my body, I may want to explore a number of different variations to get that wonderful, therapeutic stretch from this pose.


Triangle pose probably has the most variations of any pose I know! ALL of the poses shown below achieve the function of the form. Once you've understood what the function of the pose is, try them all to see how the different variations feel, and which one gives YOU the best stretch.

PS - the "ticks" and "xs" below are definitely not a comprehensive list of recommendations or contra-indications for these poses... Just suggestions. We are all different! If you are recovering from an injury or have a condition like osteoporosis, work with an experienced teacher to find out what's right for you!

  • Hand-to-shin variation: This variation is definitely the most versatile and accessible (no props required!). Simply place your hand on your shin, below the knee, as you extend sideways. To get a deeper stretch, bring the hand lower on the shin, towards the ankle. I don't recommend this variation if: you tend to hyper-extend the knee backwards (because the weight of the hand can make this worse), or if you have weak joints or osteoporosis (same reason).
  • With a block: This variation closely resembles the previous one, but using the block is safer for the knee joint because you can put weight on the block, instead of on your knee! For that reason, this variation is excellent if you are very heavy set or if you are pregnant. Depending on the person and the height of the block, this variation might be suitable if you have osteopenia or osteoporosis, but because yoga blocks are generally quite low to the ground it does still require a fair range of motion in the hips, which is not suited to everyone. I would not recommend this variation if: you have a lower back injury, or if you have severe osteoporosis. If you have  had hip replacement surgery and have recovered your normal range of motion, this would be a good variation, but not during the recovery phase.
  • With a chair: This variation is, in a word, awesome. Using the chair creates a safe support for the stretch that makes it accessible to almost anyone. For extra stability and support (helpful if you are heavily pregnant or for older people who are afraid of falling) you can also do this stretch with your back against a wall to make it safe, supported, and truly sweet.
  • Viniyoga triangle: This is a fantastic variation if you have a more limited range of motion in your hips. This might apply if you are still recovering from a hip replacement, if you have osteoporosis, or for any other reason. In this variation, your feet remain parallel and you simply stretch to the side. You lose the hamstring stretch, but there are other ways to get that. The side stretch is spot-on!
  • Open chain triangle: This is a good option if you have strong joints and are generally injury-free, and want to add a strengthening aspect to your triangle pose. Doing triangle pose "open-chain" (without the support of the hand) means that the side-stretch also becomes load-bearing, so you are strengthening and stretching at the same time. This also creates a greater risk of injury, so I would not recommend this variation if: you have lower back injuries, if you have weak/injured joints or osteoporosis, if you are still recovering from a joint replacement. If you have hypermobile hips, I would not recommend this posture until you have some yoga experience and have built up the strength in your lower back and core, because otherwise you are likely to "hang" into your hips and put extra pressure on the joints. However once you have built up your strength and know how to support your joints, this is an excellent variation for you.
  • Fully extended triangle: These versions are the ones you are most likely to see in books and magazines, and they are wonderful if you have a strong, flexible and healthy body, and no injuries or issues with your lower back, knees or hips. Just make sure that you are retaining the function of the posture as you work towards the form! Note that if you have hypermobility, generally the most extended versions of postures aren't recommended.
 [NB: I've shown different variations here mainly focusing on the hips - if you have a shoulder injury you would also adapt this pose by changing the position of the arms.]

Yoga is about self-inquiry - so be curious!

Don't forget that yoga, fundamentally, is about self-inquiry. Use the poses as a chance to express your curiosity ("what happens if....") and try as many variations as you can. With each variation ask yourself: "how does this feel?" "what feels different?" "what feels good or not good?" And when you find the one that feels best for you in that moment (because everything changes, always!), be bold, and express yourself, no matter what everyone else around you is doing. Because at the end of the day, it's YOUR yoga.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Interview with Kino MacGregor: Thoughts on meditation, menstruation, pain, and chocolate

A few weeks ago I reviewed Kino MacGregor's new book, The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, on the blog. As a follow-up, Kino agreed to answer a few questions for the blog! I am super honoured and appreciative that she took time out of her busy schedule to answer my random philosophical musings... So please read, digest, enjoy, and comment!

Oh, and have you entered the giveaway yet for the chance to win a fabulous lavender silk eye pillow from Barefoot Yoga? No? What are you waiting for?


Interview with Kino MacGregor

YG: You don't talk much in your book about meditation, but I know from your other writing that you have a personal meditation practice. I have heard Ashtanga practitioners argue that the Ashtanga asana system is a complete practice that already incorporates elements of pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dhyana, so there is 'no need' to meditate. What brought you to a meditation practice and what are some of the effects that you have experienced?
KM: My interest in Ashtanga Yoga came from a desire to quiet my mind and live a more peaceful life. When I went to Mysore to study with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois I would ask him whether I could try meditation practice and he would often respond that if I tried to sit for a long period of time my mind would not be settled. The tool of the physical practice of Ashtanga Yoga is meant to train the body and mind to be strong and steady so that it is fit for deep states of concentration (dharana). The experience of meditation (dhyana) is only possible when the mind is able to maintain continuous unbroken connection with the object of meditation. Most often we experience distractions that draw the mind’s point of focus away. It is not that the traditional practice of Ashtanga Yoga does not recommend meditation but that it is only recommended as a practice when the student is ready. Guruji would say that it would never harm us to sit and try to meditate but that if we merely sit and think for the whole time devoted to meditation that it was “no use”.
My mind is not naturally calm, in fact, it is more naturally jumpy and kinetic. I turned to the discipline of Vipassana meditation to train my mind to steady and strong. I’ve done three 10 day Vipassana meditation courses and I plan on taking another. My daily sitting practice settles my mind. Working with the mind without the addition of a physical posture helps me focus more clearly on the subtle body and the subconscious emotions. Some days (maybe most days) I end up just sitting and thinking as Guruji warned, but other days I am able to slip into a thoughtless, wordless connection with the inner self. When that happens my sense of peace is restored as a deep and fundamental level.  I think every student of yoga can benefit from at least five minutes of seated meditation practice as a supplement to daily asana practice.

YG: I was so appreciative to find that your book had such an emphasis on the spiritual journey that is the heart of yoga, especially given that modern yoga sometimes seems so far removed from its roots as a journey of self-realization. On my blog a while back I mused about how as a yoga teacher, I often contribute to this narrative by assuming that my students are seeking a predominantly physical practice and being too 'shy' to introduce the idea of spiritual transformation for fear that students will run away screaming that you're trying to induct them into a cult. Can you share any advice for teachers who are hoping to incorporate some of these teachings into their asana classes?
KM: The thread that connects all human beings is inherently spiritual. We are drawn to yoga in yearning for a direct experience of the true self.  The epiphany moments of our lives are not based in purely physical experiences, but are a blend of the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual. If you speak from your direct experience of the inner work of the yoga practice you will open a door for others to attain that same experience. If you want to introduce the spiritual essence of the practice to your students the key is to keep it based in your real world experience. If you find yourself speaking too esoterically or too intellectually then people won’t be able to relate. The spiritual side of the practice is an invitation to go deeper.

YG: In your book you talk about how the practice of yoga is not just about performing asanas, but is about transforming the way we live our lives and our relationship to ourselves and the world around us though the yamas and niyamas. You talk passionately about adopting a vegetarian diet as a way of practicing ahimsa towards our planet. What are some of the other practical ways that you live your yoga off the mat? 
KM: Ahimsa, non-violence, is the first of the yamas on the Ashtanga Yoga path and it is a conscious choice to allow peace to be a value. Not only is it asked to live a non-violent life but true ahimsa asks you to leave the world a more peaceful place.  If it is possible to do less harm by eating a vegetarian diet, is it possible to actually heal the planet with a new type of agriculture or paradigm about food?  If it is possible to do the daily sadhana of Ashtanga Yoga, is it possible live every moment in accordance with the yoga lifestlye? For example, when you speak are your words aligned with the yogic path? Adopting a non-violent style of communication is an important conscious step for yoga practitioners. This speaks to the ability of yoga to transform your personal life because our personal relationships are our foundation.

YG: Related to that last question, there has been some critique within yoga community in recent years for being too inwardly-focused, or glorifying the personal journey at the expense of a healthy engagement in the outer world. What led you to look outwards and commit yourself to teaching and sharing yoga with the world?
KM: At some moment there is no difference between the outer journey and the inward journey because what you seek to share with the world is what you seek to discover within. As you delve deeper and discover new layers of the inner self then you will be drawn outward to share that with others.

YG: There is quite a discussion going on in the blogosphere at the moment about pain and Ashtanga. You talk a little bit about pain in your book - what advice do you have for people who are trying to decide whether to "take it and practice with it" or to "back off if it hurts"?
KM: Pain is an important part of the yoga student’s journey. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali state that when dukha (suffering) arises it is associated with the purification of obstacles. If you run from every painful circumstance you will create aversion towards pain. Aversion towards pain is a stated obstacle in the Yoga Sutras. That being said, when pain arises we do not necessary need to hunker down and just “take it”. It’s a sign from the body that some obstacle has arisen and we need to develop a new way of relating with that pain. For example, instead of fighting against it or running from it a way to practice when pain arises is simply to “be” with the painful experience, not going any deeper and especially not to the point of injury, but just allowing the pain to be as it is without any judgment, placing the pain in the purity of the light of awareness. If you allow the pain to simply speak to you it might tell you that the muscle fibers are burning but not being hurt or it might tell you that the joint is impinged and that you are at risk of injury. Once you have that clear sight you can take appropriate action that is based on clarity rather than fear. This is the liberation that the practice offers all students.
Pain in the practice is a great teacher of our emotional response to pain in our life. What do you do when you experience uncomfortable life experiences? Do you run, escape, avoid, fight or collapse? The experience of pain in your yoga practice gives you the forum to develop a new neurological response to adversity in life so that when you come face to face with difficulty you will learn how to walk the middle way between attachment and aversion into a clear, strong path forward and appropriate action.

YG: In my review, I mentioned that I’m surprised that your book doesn’t include any mention of contra-indications for the postures, could you explain what your reasoning was behind that choice?
KM: I believe that with practice and careful direction from a teacher all the postures of the Primary Series can be made accessible over time. It is more important for me to focus on technique that will one day lead to your experience of the posture. I gues I believe, perhaps, naively, in the limitless potential of the human spirit and that yog is an expression of that. In my book I advise students to follow the traditional method and not skip ahead more fun looking postures but to stay at their places of difficulty allow those postures to teach them. While there are clearly some medical conditions that requires extreme care, such as people with auto-immune disease, people who have suffered a heart attack or stroke, or diabetics, the postures can be modified to suit their conditions with the guidance of a qualified teacher. Pregnant women can also continue their practice under the guidance of a qualified teacher.

YG: I really enjoyed the section in your book when you talked about overcoming gender stereotypes (your own and other people's) in your practice. (I was particularly amused by the quote you shared from P. Jois saying that "before, not possible" that women could have performed "correct asana!")  One issue that has always brought up passionate discussion in my teacher trainings has been whether or not to practice during your menstrual period. If it's not too personal, would you mind sharing how you deal with this in your personal practice and/or any advice you have for women practitioners?
KM: Guruji advised women to take the days of heaviest flow of the menstrual cycle (usually one to three days) totally off. The downward flow of energy during that period directly opposes the idea of yoga practice which seeks to bring energy up the spine. The  ovaries are also in a state of flux during which it is not advised to squeeze on them with the deep work of the bandhas. I’ve noticed that women who practice too regularly during their menstrual cycles sometimes experience disruption of the cycle or even infertility. If a woman wants some activity during the cycle I recommend going for a walk, taking a bike ride or even doing some easy restorative yoga but not the intensive Ashtanga Yoga practice.

YG: Ok, enough of the heavy stuff! You and your husband are not only married but you run Miami Life Center together. I'm marrying my partner and best friend early next year, any advice?
Kino: If you are going to work with your life partner I can suggest to set up clear boundaries for work and private life. Tim and I recently switched roles, where he is now the Director of our yoga center in Miami, Miami Life Center and I am focusing more on developing my own teaching both at the center and in my workshops and trainings. I wanted more time to focus on my writing, my online classes and videos and new ventures that I simply didn’t have time to look at while I was involved in the daily operations of a business.

YG: I travel a lot so I know the importance of getting your luggage right. When you travel, what is in your suitcase that you simply can’t live without?
KM: I am attached to my electronics and I love watching movies on my iPad on longer flights, so I need a constant power source. I always have a power adapter for international travel and a double USB cigarette charger with me to plug into the power outlets on airplanes.

YG: Anything else you'd like to share with us? Such as, your thoughts on chocolate-chip cookies or any great books you've read recently?
KM: My favorite chocolate dessert is a really rich lava cake.  I’m a little obsessed with sprouted almonds right now—I think they’re amazing with a little sea salt  and dehydrated to be super crunchy.
I love a really good novel. One of my favorite all time books is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Marukami.

Kino MacGregor is an international yoga teacher, author of two books, producer of six Ashtanga Yoga DVDs, writer, vlogger, world traveler, and co-founder of Miami Life Center ( You can find details of her current book tour, her books, DVDs, videos and other goodies at


Wow. Some amazing and inspirational words there! I suddenly have a massive craving for chocolate cake... What about you, readers?

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Giveaway: win a silk eye pillow from Barefoot Yoga!

I'm excited to be collaborating with Barefoot Yoga to offer Yoga Gypsy readers a giveaway! Barefoot Yoga is an India-inspired, Seattle-based company offering environmentally friendly yoga products.

Originally, I was going to do a review of one of their products for the giveaway, but given the cost (both financial and environmental!) of shipping things all the way to my current location in Australia, we came up with an even more brilliant idea, which is that the giveaway winner will write their own review, which will be posted on the blog.

So here's how it's going to work!

1)  To enter the giveaway, simply leave a comment on this blog and/or on my Facebook page before Friday, August 9th. Sadly, they can only ship to the US or Canada so if you enter, you will need an address there.

2) In your comment, ask a question or make a suggestion for a future post you'd like to see at Yoga Gypsy. Be as specific as you like!

3) Be sure to include your name in a way that will be unique and easy to recognise, because the winner is are going to be chosen by a random generator, and we don't want any confusion over who the winner is!

4) By entering, you agree that if you win, you will write a review of the product for the blog within 2 weeks of receiving it at home.

5) The winner will be announced on Saturday, August 10th.

And now, here is what you could win:

A Barefoot Yoga Silk Eye Pillow! And here is the gorgeous product itself:


Here's what Barefoot has to say about it:

Escape from it all with our 100% silk aromatherapy eye pillows. Made in India from ceremonial sari designs. Filled with flax seeds and dried lavender, these soft and cooling eye pillows work as a mood tonic, antidepressant, headache remedy and detoxifier.

The shape of the pillow contours to your face adding gentle pressure and blocking out light, relieving tension and calming active muscles around the eyes. Used for deepening relaxation during Savasana, meditation and afternoon naps. The pillows are hand-washable, refillable, and adjustable (zippered opening).

All of our silk eye pillows come with a storage pouch with zipper closure, and the eye pillows are not microwavable.

So, what are you waiting for?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Unpacking Karma: a (badly) illustrated philosophy lesson

 If there is any sanskrit word that has become completely mainstream in western culture (other than yoga, of course!) it's probably karma. We use it in everyday conversation and we think that we know what it means. We interpret karma as an invisible force that ensures that "what goes around comes around:" Like, if you throw your gum on the street and then the next week you step on gum - karma, right? We tend to see Karma as some type of avenging angel who will mete out justice to those who have done us wrong, or we believe that karma somehow explains why bad things happen to people: "you get served what you deserve."

Once you start on the yoga path, however, it's useful to back away from our Hollywood appropriation of Karma as a stiletto-wearing-bad-girl-avenger type, and dig a little deeper to understand how yoga and karma are linked together. To help with this, I've created some little drawings, which if nothing else clarify that I do NOT have the karma of an artist. :)

What is karma?

Karma in sanskrit means action.  At the most basic level then, our karma is simply the sum of our actions, thoughts and words. And like any moment in time, our thoughts/actions/words don't exist in isolation, but they build upon what we have already done/thought/said, and play a role in creating our future thoughts/actions/words. In modern behavioural science, we call this habit formation, and it's an essential part of being a human being - on a basic level we use our talent for habit formation to learn language (associating words with objects or feelings), remember people's names, pick up essential motor skills like walking, or learn how to do new things, like swimming or standing on one leg.

In yoga philosophy, every action leaves an imprint, like an echo or a small seed planted as a result of this thought/word/action. These imprints are called samskaras, and they accumulate in our subconscious. The more we repeat a particular type of thought/word/action, the more seeds are sown, and similar seeds group together to become clusters. These are called vasanas, and as you might imagine, the bigger the cluster, the more ingrained the habit.

These patterns begin forming from the time we are just infants. As children we are not born into a neutral environment: we are born into a family, a place, a culture, and the karma of the world around us begins to imprint on us from a very early age. As we grow up, we emulate the actions/thoughts/behaviours that we see around us, thus planting the first seeds and starting the accumulation of samskaras.  In traditional philosophy, we are also born with vasanas that we have inherited from our previous incarnations, and we take them with us into the next incarnation.

You are creating your karma every day

The key thing to understand is that karma is not some scales-and-balances system, with all the vasanas waiting passively around to be weighed out on a final judgement day. The cycle of karma is an active, ongoing, day-to-day process. Our samskaras and vasanas manifest in our daily lives as subconscious desires, and around these desires we form habits that, over time, become deeply engrained patterns. As we act out these patterns over and over, the vasanas grow and become like powerful magnets: we become subconsciously attracted to people or actions of the same nature, and go around the wheel again. The bigger the cluster, the more powerful the attraction. As the saying goes, "like attracts like." The vasanas are so powerful that they become compulsions: we think we are making choices, but in fact our lives are being directed by our subconscious impulses.

It's important not to immediately attribute judgement to this picture. Some of our vasanas are our highest qualities, and these increase our joyfulness. But we also have vasanas that manifest in ways that make us unhappy, too. Have you ever found yourself emotionally over-reacting to something small, and taking it out on others? Do you make poor choices and then wonder "why did I choose that?" Have you ever mused to yourself "why do I always do this to myself or to others around me?" Do you freeze when you wish you had acted, or act impulsively and then wish you had not? Do you constantly revisit a choice you made and hold on to regret or bitterness about that situation? These are some of the symptoms of vasanas that are NOT serving you. When these vasanas hijack our choices and our relationships, it causes us suffering. This is samsara - being stuck in the endless wheel of karma, hostage to our own subconscious.

Anyone who has dealt with addiction (theirs or someone else's) can probably relate to this. Or, just watch any soap opera ever made!

Yoga helps us become aware of our karma

There are two things that are important here. One is to understand that our "karmic" addictions here are not just physical, but they are mental, behavioural and emotional patterns as well. The second is that karma is not an external force striking blows for or against us: we actively create our karma every day, through our thoughts, our actions and our words. This is fantastic news, because it means that by changing our words/actions/thoughts, we can sow new seeds, and grow new clusters, and create new magnetic forces that attract happiness instead of suffering. But of course, first we have to become AWARE of our subconscious habits, which is trickier than it sounds.

This is where yoga comes in. The practice of yoga is the practice of self-awareness. What we are learning through yoga is to observe ourselves so that we can become aware of our vasanas, our deeply rooted patterns. What we encounter on the yoga mat is ourselves: our thoughts, our emotions and our reactions to our practice are a mirror for our everyday lives. We seek to become aware of ourselves so that we may  transform our thoughts, actions and words, and create new habits, new patterns, that don't cause us pain.

The eight limbs of yoga are a roadmap for this transformation, with the ultimate aim being liberation, moksha, to free ourselves from the wheel of karma and from the compulsions of the subconscious. To be self-realised is to be mindful of our every action, thought and word, allowing us to create our own destiny.


Readers, was this interpretation of karma useful to you? Has your yoga practice helped you let go of any habits or break out of any patterns? I'd love to hear about it!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Thoughts on pain in yoga: 4 types of pain and how to practice with them

Last week there was some lively discussion in the yoga blogosphere about pain in yoga practice. As you can imagine, commentators had a wide range of opinions, ranging from: "if there's no pain you're not practicing hard enough" and "injury is inevitable in yoga, just get on with it", to, on the other side of the spectrum "if your practice injures you, you are letting your ego dominate" and "if it hurts, you're doing it wrong," and of course everything in between.

I remember my early yoga teachers talking on occasion about "good pain" versus "bad pain", which is pretty vague and therefore not very helpful. In addition, pain is highly subjective and each individual has a very different tolerance to pain depending on their individual physiology and their past experience (just imagine if a full-grown woman began screaming and wailing in public over a skinned knee; yet it's perfectly understandable that a 4-year old would).

From my perspective, it's not very useful to make generalisations about pain except to say that we will all experience it at some point or another. You really cannot know what another person's individual experience is, or judge whether their pain is "transformative" or just really, really annoying.

I do think it's useful to reflect on a few different types of physical pain and how these might affect our yoga practice. Here are four main types that I can think of:

1) Muscular pain: It is perfectly normal when you are working the body in new ways and pushing your limits to experience some soreness afterwards. This kind of muscular pain is usually isolated in areas of the body that you've been working hard, and might feel like tightness, stiffness, achiness or soreness, and is a sign of a normal, healthy body that is getting stronger and more flexible. Especially if you are practicing on a day-to-day basis, you are going to feel the residue of yesterday's practice when you first step on the mat. Generally with muscular pain of this kind, you can take a few deep breaths, observe the sensations, and keep going through your practice.

There is a big difference between observing pain and ignoring pain. In yoga, we never ignore any sensations. Observation is critical: if you have muscular pain that gets steadily worse, or the area where you feel pain starts to become inflamed, you may have an injury.

2) Joint pain: Joint pain is probably the most important type of pain to recognise in yoga. Joint pain can be dull or acute, but generally it's pain that you feel deep within your body around your critical joints: ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, or anywhere along your spine. It might feel like pressure building up against something solid. Other symptoms of unhappy joints include swelling, unusual stiffness or soreness in these critical joints, and continued discomfort when you use the joint throughout your day.

Joint pain is a serious sign telling you that you are doing something that is wrong for your body. If you try to "push through" joint pain you may end up with a very severe injury - the kind that will be with you for the rest of your life. In my experience, joint pain in yoga often occurs when people try to force their way into a pose that their body is not fully ready for: for instance, injuring your knees while trying to force your body into full lotus position. Joint pain is the type of pain that you work around in your yoga practice, never through. Often this might mean refining your technique or changing your alignment to reduce stress on joint, or modifying a pose.

3) Acute pain / injury: Acute pain is a sharp, intense pain that can't - and shouldn't - be ignored. Pain from an injury is not necessarily acute - it may vary in intensity, but it will usually be accompanied by other symptoms include feelings of heat, swelling, or redness over the affected area.

Unfortunately, injuries can occur suddenly and there may not be any warning signs. In yoga, especially if we are pushing our physical limits, injuries can occur in any number of ways. They can happen to you in your very first class or your thousandth, while trying a new pose or doing a pose you've done a dozen times. Often injuries occur when we push ourselves too hard or try things we are not quite ready for, trying to run before our muscles have really got the hang of walking. Sometimes we don't fully realise that we've injured ourselves until after our practice is over. The first few hours after an injury are critical, so it's important if you do injure yourself to immediately stop and look after yourself, whether that means applying an icepack or seeing a doctor. This can make the difference between a speedy recovery and a long, slow one.

When you're dealing with an injury (whether it happened in yoga or off the mat), the only yogic thing to do is to practice ahimsa (non-harming) and to let the injured area rest, so it can heal.

4) Chronic pain / recovering injury pain: Many people come to yoga because of pain. This is a totally different type of pain than the previous three, which we are assuming occurred during your practice, because this is pain that you are living with everyday, and bringing to your yoga mat.

Chronic pain or the pain of a recovering injury is different for everyone, so there's not a lot of use generalising here. The best advice I can give is to work with an experienced teacher or a yoga therapist to find the right mix of practicing with, through and around your pain, and devising practices that will help you feel better, and not make your pain worse.

So to sum up:

Type of Pain Feels like Practice recommendations?
Muscular Soreness, tightness Breathe through it and observe how it changes.
Joint Pressure, swelling, stiffness, inflammation Practice around it, never push through!
Injury Acute pain, swelling, redness, heat Rest and heal! Practice around it.
Chronic Constant, of varying intensity Practice with, through or around, depending on the individual case.

Readers, what are your thoughts and experience? Would you group things differently or could you add to this summary from your experience?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Yoga with hypermobility

The benefits of yoga have become so popularised these days that even my 5-year old niece can rattle a few of them off. But with that popularisation has also come a process of questioning whether yoga is really good for everyone, a discussion in part started by stories of yoga injuries. Generally we associate these yoga injuries with people who are stiff or inflexible trying to push or pull themselves into a pose; but what about the opposite? What about the people who are so flexible that they can fold in half without even trying?

What is hypermobility?

People whose joints have a more-than-normal range of motion are called hyperflexible or hypermobile - the clinical term is joint hypermobility syndrome (HMS), which may also be an expression of the more serious Ehlers Danlos Sydnrome. Research suggests that up to 3 in 10 adults may be hypermobile to some degree, with women being more likely to be affected than men due to the relaxing effects of female hormones. Many people with hypermobility have a 'harmless' variety: that is, they experience no unusual effects except being more bendy than the rest of us. But for others, HMS can be debilitating, causing chronic pain. In either case, people who are hypermobile are generally more prone to injuries, fractures and dislocated joints, because their joints have more mobility than stability.

Yoga and hypermobilility

Hypermobile people may come to yoga because of an injury, one of those inexplicable "I was just walking/running/surfing/playing tennis and then I felt this pain..." injuries that are common among the super-flexible. Or they naturally gravitate to yoga because of their flexibility. Once in a yoga class, super bendy people are often told they are "amazing" by teachers who don't recognise or understand their hypermobility. Some may even quickly want to become teachers themselves, since after only a few months of practice they find themselves doing "advanced" poses with ease. And in a yoga culture that increasingly idolises the physical performance of postures that require extreme flexibility (just do a pinterest search for yoga if you don't believe me!), it may be hard for people to believe that extreme bendiness is not actually what yoga is all about.

However, underneath that ease in bending a hyper-flexible body is the danger that hypermobile joints are lacking the muscular resistance to properly support the joints in the range of motion that yoga puts us through. This may manifest slowly, through unexplained aches and pains after a seemingly "easy" practice; or it may manifest all of a sudden through an injury: a dislocated joint, a chronic pain, or a repeatedly inflamed muscle or tendon.

And yoga is not a miracle-cure: over time, the sustained practice of yoga without counter-balancing hyperflexibility can lead to a dangerous instability in the joints, that can manifest in chronic joint pain and even symptoms of early arthritis.

How can I tell if I'm hypermobile?

You may be hypermobile to some extent if any of the following sound familiar to you:
  • You have always been able to place your hands flat on the floor in a forward bend or flop into the splits
  • Your friends and family all remember your "crazy" flexibility as a child
  • You feel a constant need to stretch but it never seems to satisfy you
  • You are deep in a pose that is supposedly challenging, but you don't "feel" anything
  • After hardly any time at all, you put your body into the positions of 'advanced' yoga poses such as the splits, one-legged king pigeon pose, or touching your head to the ground in wide-legged standing forward bend
  • You sometimes feel fatigued after simply stretching or doing gentle yoga
  • You find it hard to sit comfortably in a chair for a long time and are constantly folding yourself into different positions
In addition, you may be hypermobile in some joints while having a normal or less than normal range of motion in others.

So, should hypermobile people do yoga?

It's easy to understand why many doctors and physiotherapists who work with hypermobile people advise against doing yoga. However, many hypermobile people find that the right yoga practice can help them a great deal by building body awareness and helping them to develop the strength that they will need to balance their natural flexibility. The key thing to remember is that yoga is about balance: in this case, achieving a balance between flexibility and strength.

Guidelines for choosing a yoga class if you are hyper flexible:
  • Find an experienced and well-qualified teacher, preferably someone with some yoga therapy experience or someone familiar with hypermobility, and make them aware of what you are working with. Get them to help you create some goals for your practice that don't rely on flexibility alone.
  • Avoid styles of yoga that emphasise short, fast movements, such as ashtanga or vinyasa flow, until you have built up a solid foundation of strength that will keep you stable and safe from injury in these movement-oriented styles.
  • Instead, choose styles of yoga that emphasise proper alignment, stability and strength, such as Iyengar yoga or Viniyoga.
  • Complement your yoga with simple strength and resistance training, and with core strength building exercises like pilates (again, with an experienced teacher who understands hyper mobility) that will help you isolate important muscles and begin to build strength in key areas.
Some advice for practicing yoga if you are hypermobile:
  • If you can, see a qualified yoga therapist for a one-on-one session to get a personalised assessment and advice.
  • Avoid starting a practice on your own or with a DVD: until you have more experience, you should work with a teacher who can tell you if you are hyper-extending.
  • Don't move too quickly in and out of poses. Take your time to get into poses, making sure you are engaging your muscles during the transitions. For example in any forward bend, strongly engage your quadriceps and feel as if you are trying to "suck" the floor up through your leg muscles.
  • Once you are in a pose, avoid the temptation to go as deep as you can. Try practicing to the "80%" rule - only going 80% of the way into a pose, and stopping there to work on stability. Focus on engaging the muscles around your key joints: ankles, knees, hips, shoulders to make sure they are all strongly supported.
  • Make sure you always put a micro-bend in your knees and elbows to avoid putting too much stress on your joints - combine this with muscular engagement, and you will be properly supporting your joints!
  • Keep your head supported by your neck muscles, and avoid the temptation to let your head flop all the way back in upward-looking poses or backbends.
  • Consider 'gapping' your joints - for example placing a small rolled up towel in between your belly and your thighs in a standing forward fold, placing your hands behind the backs of your knees in a seated forward fold, keeping your feet on "railroad tracks" for Warrior I and other front-facing poses.
  • Avoid hyper-extending backwards in backbends by strongly engaging your abdominal muscles and focusing on the sensation of lengthening your spine instead of letting yourself "flop" backwards.
 Advice for teaching hypermobile students:

Check out this great article for lots of advice, written from the perspective of a hypermobile person who is herself a yoga teacher.

Readers, are you hypermobile or do you think you might be? What have you learned along the way in your yoga practice?