Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: Rolling your toes over in the transition to upward-facing dog

I love it when people a) comment on my blog, b) find my blog posts useful, and c) ask for particular things on the blog! Please don't hesitate to let me know if these posts are useful (or not!) to you and just leave a comment if there is something you'd like me to post about!!


This post is in response to a reader comment - yay! Anonymous said: "I'd love a tip on how to transition your feet from plank to upward dog then downward dog. I always have difficulty rolling my feet from plank to upward, and when I "fudge" it I worry I'm doing it wrong."

This is a great question! And don't worry, Anonymous, you aren't alone: this is a really difficult move and it took me (and many other yogis I know!) years of practice to make this a smooth transition.  Also, don't stress if you don't get it right away. As long as you aren't injuring yourself the way you are doing it, just view it as a step in the process, and keep working at it. As with everything, eventually, with practice, it will come!

First: Warm up your feet! Feet are delicate and deserve our respect, so it's a good idea to first establish that your feet have the flexibility to make this transition without injury. For some foot-stretching ideas, check out this old post on Yoga for Feet.

Next, do a practice-run.  Once your feet are warmed up, you can work on transitioning your toes from a flexed to an extended (pointed) position to make sure your feet are strong and flexible enough to do this comfortably. To isolate the feet from the rest of the transition, do this from plank pose.

1. Start in plank pose, with your toes tucked under and your heels strongly pressing back.

2. In plank pose, shift your weight a tiny bit forward, lift from the core, and come up onto your tip-toes. Don't try to roll your feet over yet - just see how high you can come onto tip-toes, hold for a breath, and then come down. Do this a few times.

3. Finally, come up onto the very tips of your toes and then gently shift your pelvis forward until you roll over onto the tops of your feet. You may want to practice this with your hands forward of your usual alignment to maintain your stability. Practice this until it feels smooth and comfortable.

If your toes don't feel comfortable rolling over, don't force it. Feet are delicate, so be careful!

Next it gets a little more challenging, because in between plank and upward-facing dog, we have four-legged staff pose, chaturanga dandasana, a pose that requires a great deal of strength.  For this exercise, we're going to use a yoga block (or something equivalent - a small ball or box) that you can squeeze between your thighs.  This isn't strictly necessary but it helps by keeping the legs engaged and therefore encouraging you to move from the core and the pelvis.

Before you start, read this post on the pelvic alignment in the transition from plank to upward-facing dog. Got that? We don't want to be injuring our SI joint while we're doing this, and finding that 'lift' from the core and the pelvis is a key part to making this transition.  The key thing to remember here is that the origin of the movement is from the pelvis.  Think of your pelvis as the engine that is driving the movement - try to move just the pelvis, and the rest of your body will follow.  

1. Place your yoga block between your thighs and come into plank pose. Set your mental mantra to moving from the pelvis, and as you inhale, lift (from the core!) up onto your tiptoes.

2. Begin to exhale and lower yourself as far down into chaturanga as you can hold for a few seconds - it doesn't have to be all the way! Keep lifting as high as you can onto the tips of your toes and look forward. Keep squeezing your block! This puts you in the perfect preparatory position to move yourself forward into upward-facing dog.

3. As your exhalation reaches empty, look forward, lift strongly from the core and move your pelvis forward while pressing into your hands to straighten your arms. Open up your chest and keep your spine long. With luck - and practice! - your toes will slide over at the last second as you go forward.

And back to downward-facing dog...   The final step is to take this from upward-facing dog back to downward facing dog.  Again, focus on the pelvis as the origin of the movement.

1. From upward-facing dog, begin to exhale. Press into your arms and as you near the end of your exhalation, strongly suck your belly button up and lift your pelvis UP and back.  As you come up to a plank-like position, you will come towards a full extension of your feet, which is pretty uncomfortable, so try to make this a smooth, continuous movement.

2. Before you think about going all the way back, try to get as high as you can onto the tops of your feet as you lift your hips up.  When you can go no higher, send your hips back and your toes will have nowhere to go but up and over!  If they won't quite go together, roll them over one at a time but practice alternating which foot goes first.

Here is a short video showing how it all comes together. I've tried to really emphasise the role the pelvis plays in driving the movement - I hope it helps!

A few extra tips:

- Keep your core strongly engaged by lifting the belly button towards the spine.

- Synchronise your hardest movements with the end of your exhalation, and move when your breath is empty. This automatically engages your abdominal and pelvic lift, which will compliment these movements.

- Try tiny variations in the position of your hands. While the general guideline is to line your hands up directly under your shoulders, a centimetre forward or back can really make the difference in finding the 'sweet spot' that will serve you in both Chaturanga and Upward-facing dog.

- Also, check out this video where Kino talks about using the bandhas (that pelvic and abdominal lift) to move through this transitionhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0Hji2I4ZQM


If you've read this far, I'd love your feedback! Was this helpful? What are you struggling with when it comes to this transition? What advice or practice helped you?

Monday, January 28, 2013

On trying without trying to "achieve", setting yourself up to succeed, and never giving up

Sometimes I hear people say: "I've accepted that I will never be able to do that pose", or "that pose is just impossible for me."

In fact, I've probably said exactly those things. I've "embraced my body's shortcomings" or "accepted my limitations" more times than I can count in yoga. I've said things like "well, my arms are just too weak / legs too long / back too crooked to be able to do that pose".

And I thought it was pretty yogic, you know? "Letting go" of my attachment do being able to do a particular pose. "Accepting my body the way it is", with its "too long / too short / too weak / too crooked" limbs or joints or regions.

But it wasn't. Yogic, as in "rooted in and therefore justified by yoga philosophy." I was not being philosophical, I was being escapist. I was not being "enlightened", I was being defeatist.

Because what yoga philosophy really says is: try anyway. Don't worry about what you achieve, or don't achieve. Don't worry about too short / too long / too weak / too crooked. Just try, and then try again tomorrow.

Of course, that is easier said than done, because we are human beings and we want results. Not results next year, but results next week. We want movie-musical-montage kind of progress, where within the space of 2 emotionally stimulating minutes set to a swelling score, we overcome obstacles and achieve the hitherto unachievable. But there's a reason that those scenes are done in a montage, and that is this: the reality is very, very dull. Monotonous even.  There are days, and weeks and months, and probably years in which you don't "achieve" that impossible pose.

But from the philosophical sense, that doesn't matter.  It doesn't matter where you get, or how quickly you get there. What matters is that you DID - because doing is infinitely preferable than restraining from doing.

Now, that doesn't mean getting straight on your mat and attempting headstand in your first week of practice. Or your second. Or your first year. Or your first decade. What it does mean, is keeping an open mind that ONE DAY, you may be able to do headstand. That's all - you don't have to do it, or even consciously work towards it - just don't rule it out. Whether it happens or not is another story, the outcome of which you needn't concern yourself with. Just as long as you never give up on yourself and the potential that lies within you.

You may be quick to point out that this approach has obvious limitations: a person with compressed vertebrae should not be believing that they could do headstand. Or should they? Because you have probably already realised that this philosophy is not really about the physical practice of yoga, but our approach to our everyday lives, our infinite potential in terms of relationships, career, love, life and happiness. The physical practice merely offers us the opportunity to put it into practice every time we get on our mat. Not giving up. Believing in our potential.

So next time you are struggling with an "impossible" pose, say to yourself instead: "this pose would be possible, when..." and identify one, or two, or three things - no matter how small! - that you can work on, that will set you on the path towards that pose, and do those instead. So you are not setting yourself up to fail, but rather, you are setting yourself up to succeed at steps along the way.

For instance, if your impossible pose is handstand (mine was), you might break the pose down into: arm and wrist strength, open hamstrings, and confidence being upside down - and work on those instead.  You might VISUALISE yourself doing the full pose, while integrating into your practice the little steps that might eventually get you there. You might set yourself on the path, and make it about the journey, and not the destination (it will be about the journey, in the end, regardless).

Don't surrender to self-prescribed boundaries of what's impossible. Don't chain yourself to results. Surrender to possibility, and let the outcome surprise you.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Two words for 2013

Well, it's been a while since I posted as I have been settling into my new home in Whistler, BC. It's hard to express how lucky I feel to have a few months to just be in this beautiful place, nestled amidst the snowy mountains. I get to spend my days outdoors skiing through magical white snow, and my nights curled up next to a fireplace. Amazing.

As much as these few months are a time-out from my regular life, they are also tinged with uncertainty - where to next? What city, state or country will I be in when winter ends and spring rolls around? My partner and I are looking for jobs and the world is our search frame. I could end up literally anywhere.

In my last post I wrote about change, and the metaphor of the ocean seems appropriate: a sea-change is never a smooth, instant transition. There is always an in-between period, a slow and turbulent shift; wind over waves, tides turning, the surface turning choppy before settling into a new rhythm. Being in the middle of a sea-change, I am both delirious with possibility and anxious at the uncertainty of it all.

Thankfully, years of yoga (and life) practice have taught me to breathe into both extremes, to be in the moment, and to just sit with where I am now. Let go of the past, let go of the future.  And so my two words of 2013 are:


Transformation to represent the (chosen and unchosen) changes that have, are and will occur, and acceptance to represent letting go of what I can't control, being open to possibility, and accepting whatever comes, whether it's what I hoped and intended, or whether it takes me completely by surprise.

Readers, do you have words for this year or for what's going on with you at the moment? I'd love to hear them!