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?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A question for my readers

Hi everyone,

Through Yoga Gypsy I often get offers to review various yoga products and services, host giveaways etc. So far I have kept the blog yoga-product free, but since this blog is just as much (probably more!) for you as for me, I'd be really interested to know what you think, friends and readers? Would you like to see reviews of things like yoga mats and yoga clothes on Yoga Gypsy? I'd love to hear your thoughts & opinions! I asked this on my Facebook page, too, so if you like you can comment there.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

And now, here's a totally gratuitous picture of some kittens....

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Book Review: Kino MacGregor's "Power of Ashtanga Yoga"

A few weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised to receive a copy of Kino MacGregor's The Power of Ashtanga Yoga in the mail - I had quite forgotten that I had agreed to review it!

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my personal journey with ashtanga yoga, and why I decided to move to a different asana (postural) practice. So in reviewing this book I have both personal experience with an ashtanga practice, but also some distance from it.

The book is large-format and about 200 pages. It stays open easily if you lay it flat on the floor, which is always a bonus for a yoga book! The book is divided into two main sections: Part One: Theory, and Part Two: Practice, and it also includes an introduction and some appendices (mantras, full vinyasa count, full primary series in pictures). As a bonus it has a helpful sanskrit glossary at the back.

Part One: Theory

I think that, for me, the strength of this book is in the way in which Kino shares the philosophy behind yoga as a transformational and spiritual practice. This is obviously a testament by someone who has undertaken - is undertaking - a deep and powerful spiritual journey, not just someone who is strong and bendy and famous. The depth of her personal journey shines forth in every word of the book, and for that I have the utmost respect.

History and Tradition
Right from the outset, Kino presents yoga as more than just a physical practice, and she has a humble and accessible tone as she weaves yoga theory into her introduction to the Ashtanga tradition. She starts with a brief history of yoga poses from ancient to modern times, including the evolution of Pattabhi Jois' Ashtanga yoga and  an overview of Patanjali's Ashtanga yoga, the eight-limbed spiritutal path of yoga of which the physical practice of asana is one limb. [I have to say here that I am not really comfortable with the way she uses the term Ashtanga interchangeably to refer to Patanjali's and Jois's systems. She does clarify that in her view, Jois' system is a blend between the Ashta-anga yoga of Patanjali and the Hatha tradition of postural yoga descended from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, but nonetheless uses the same label to refer to both throughout the book.] She then goes into more detail about the physical elements of (modern) Ashtanga yoga and the theory of how spiritual transformation - letting go of or becoming free from deep-rooted patterns - is realised through physical discipline, which is in itself 'heroic' in nature.

[Oddly although she explains that ashtanga is a six-day-a-week practice, I can't find anywhere where she talks about not practicing on moon days, nor where she discusses whether or not to practice while on your menstrual cycle. The latter seems to me a missed opportunity given that this is one of the only ashtanga books out there actually written by a woman. Did I just miss it?

It also irks me a little that the book presents ashtanga yoga as the only type of yoga - equating modern ashtanga with Patanjali's Ashta-anga, and not mentioning how the other types of yoga, both asana-based and non-physical, fit into the yogasphere. Obviously I get where Kino is coming from, but in an otherwise relatively thorough discussion of yoga's history, it feels like a gap to me. Readers, what do you think?]

Kino then goes into quite a bit of descriptive detail about the heart of the Ashtanga method, the tristana: breath, pose and gaze, and talks a little about how the practice works to free up blockages, or granthis, in the energetic body. She describes the origins of the Vinyasa 'ritual' as a sacred, purifying practice; an oblation to burn away our negative habits and set us free.

The yogic diet
Kino devotes an entire section of her first chapter to the yogic diet. She talks in a very grounded way about the practical and ethical arguments for a vegetarian diet and how these relate not only to the physical practice of yoga but to a spiritual and ethical awakening that stems from the practice. I appreciate that despite her obvious passion for ethically-rooted vegetarianism, Kino takes the time to point out that the desire shift to a vegetarian diet needs to come from within each individual practitioner, and that practicing the ritual of vegetarianism without a true commitment to ahimsa - nonharming - is not truly 'yogic.'

One sentence strikes me as particularly important: "If you force yourself to eat a strict vegetarian diet, you may be committing a subtle act of violence against yourself. It is not useful for force yourself to be a vegetarian or anything else. Instead, the path of yoga patiently waits for a day when you feel the desire to change your lifestyle into a more peaceful relationship with yourself and your planet." I wish she had emphasised the first part of this sentence more, because I don't believe - and more pertinently nor does Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of healing through diet - that strict vegetarianism is the right health choice for everyone. Also, it is entirely possible that a vegetarian diet can be harmful to the planet (google how soy bean cultivation contributes to the deforestation of the Amazon for example). Anyway, that is perhaps fuel for another post.

Suffice it to say that Kino is evidently passionate that developing a healthy and nourishing relationship with food is fundamental to a yoga practice on both a physical and spiritual level, and I think it's a fantastic and important inclusion in a 21st century yoga book (a century in which the state of both human excess and suffering will be increasingly defined by our relationship to food and the food chain, given the necessity of feeding 7-9 billion human beings).

The spiritual journey of asana
This section gets to the heart of yoga as a spiritual practice. Kino blows away the temptation to become obsessed with the physical accomplishments of yoga, recounting Jois' words when presented with a photograph of someone doing an impressive physical posture: "That not yoga. That only bending. Yoga means self-knowledge."

The emphasis of this section is that the cultivation of a healthy body is part of a spiritual practice, in that it provides the spirit a clean and healthy environment in which to reside. It is not a goal in and of itself. The real transformation of yoga, Kino says, occurs when you let go of your deeply entrenched psychological and emotional patterns. The practice of asana puts us in honest, often brutal confrontation with these entrenched patterns that dictate how we see the world and see ourselves. Through the journey of asana, we come face-to-face with our fears, anger, frustration, tears, laughter and joy. We learn to experience these states of being instead of running away from them, and over time, we experience powerful releases that eventually transform us and liberate us from those deep-rooted patterns (samskaras) and towards a place of knowing our true self and being at peace with ourselves. The practice of asana without that transformation is "only bending."

Part Two: Practice

The second part of the book is a pose-by-pose rundown of the Ashtanga Primary series. I think Kino has achieved a very difficult thing here, in that she gives information that is both suited to beginners but that will also satisfy the experienced practitioner. She also gives tips for how to approach the Primary Series if you are new to it, in terms of 'gateway poses' and suggestions for where to check your energy levels and consider moving to the finishing poses.

She rounds up Part Two with a section on strength, where she explains the bandhas and the concept of strength from the inside out, and provides some tips on working towards jumping through, jumping back (including from lotus), and chakrasana. She also has a few paragraphs here countering the contemporary gender dogma of "man strong, woman bendy" and other such assumptions that we may be bringing to our practice or that others may bring to us.

For each pose Kino gives a very detailed description - sometimes more than a page - of the alignment, energetic focus and effects, and benefits of the pose. This could be massively overwhelming for someone new to yoga, and thankfully she also offers beginner's variations (including photographs) and tips for working towards the full poses.

The one thing I think is missing here is a discussion of contra-indications for the postures. Some of these may seem obvious to someone who has been practicing yoga for some time: if you have a herniated disc you should generally avoid forward bends, if you have high blood pressure you should approach inversions with caution, if you have recently had a hip replacement then you want to avoid weight-bearing hip openers, etc. But for the yoga newbie, none of that is self-evident. More and more people are coming to yoga because of health issues that they have in their life: diabetes, stress, chronic fatigue, back pain, sports injuries, the list goes on. The risk here is that if people pick up this book and read about all this incredible transformation that is possible through the practice of yoga without having any guidance as to what may or may not be right for them, they may undertake a practice that is harmful to them or worse, cause them injury or pain.

As a book that markets itself to beginners, I think that's an unfortunate omission.


I would strongly recommend this book to current Ashtanga practitioners (or other hatha yoga practitioners) who want to grow their understanding of the roots of the system and seeking to deepen their knowledge of the philosophy behind the practice of postural yoga as a spiritual or transformational discipline.

I would recommend this book to people who seeking to begin an Ashtanga practice and who are generally healthy and have no current medical conditions, although I would of course advise them (as Kino does) to seek out an experienced teacher as a complement to a home practice.

I would not recommend this book to people who are seeking to begin a yoga practice and who have a medical condition, have recently had surgery, or who are looking for a healing practice for an immediate physical condition. In my opinion the book doesn't provide enough guidance on contra-indications to make it a safe option for someone dealing with an immediate physical injury or health issue, and the rigid sequencing of the Ashtanga series may not suit people dealing with certain medical conditions or injuries. Instead, seek out a yoga book with a therapeutic orientation such as the thereapeutically-oriented work of BKS Iyengar, Gary Kraftsow or Mukunda Stiles. Still better, find an experienced yoga teacher, preferably a yoga therapist, and work with them one-on-one to get recommendations for what type of yoga practice is best suited to you. Once you have some personalised guidance and experience working with your body in a healthy, holistic way, then this book would be a nice complement to that.

And finally, to wrap up, some great quotes:

"Yoga is a sanctuary where you learn to listen to your body."
"At its best, yoga is a nondogmatic, nonreligious path toward self-realization."
"The untrained human mind runs toward pleasure and away from pain, and this constant effort fuels the cycle of suffering. Regular asana practice teaches yoga practitioners how to maintain a balanced state of mind and ultimately break free from this addictive pattern."
"The best gift that yoga gives you is the retraining of the mind's habit patterns to help you face difficulty directly with a brave heart."
"Toning the body or perfecting a high level of physical performance is never an end in itself. In fact, yoga actually teaches you how to release attachment and identification with your body, as well as your mind and emotions. It helps you learn how to identify with the seat of the soul within yourself."

If you do decide want to purchase the book, it's available online through the publisher, Shambala Publications, here.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: 3 great ways to modify Pigeon Pose

Pigeon pose (we are talking about supta eka pada rajakapotasana here, to be precise) is a hip-opening forward bend that is a staple of modern vinyasa-style yoga classes. And for good reason - it stretches the psoas and hip flexors of the extended leg, and the gluteus minor of the bent leg, all the while opening the hips. Yum!

However, supine pigeon can be a tough pose if you have a more limited range of motion in your hips, or if you have delicate knees (the two are often connected by the way). So here are three great ways to modify your pigeon pose in class or at home, and stay safe while still getting all the great benefits of this pose.

Note: If you have recently had hip or knee surgery including a hip or knee replacement, the third pose - Upside-down pigeon - is the one for you! I wouldn't recommend the other two until you have recovered at least 70% of your normal range of motion - and even then, practice them carefully and preferably with the supervision of a qualified and experienced teacher.


First of all, a few thoughts on the alignment of this pose. As a teacher, I see a lot of lop-sided pigeons: that is, where people's bodies create an 'escape valve' for the big hip-opener by collapsing off to one side. I suppose that a lop-sided pigeon probably doesn't do anyone any harm - but I'm not sure it ever did anyone any good, either.

To truly get the benefits of pigeon pose, you ideally want your pelvis to remain square towards the front of the mat, with the hips more or less at the same height. Now, unless you have naturally very open hips, this is going to be tricky for most of us - which is where these modifications come in.

Now, I have encountered many yogis and yoginis who are reluctant to modify poses, especially if it involves using a prop. Personally, I think this attitude is more likely to be driven by ego than by wisdom, although to each their own. In any case, I like to think of it this way: doing poses with the appropriate modifications and props is like taking practice questions before an exam. It's not a 'cop-out': it's a smart way to prepare your body for going deeper and, above all, to protect yourself from injury.

1. Propped-up pigeon

This is a perfect modification for those people who can approach the shape of Pigeon but feel a bit of a twinge in their knee when they try to bring the front leg a bit more parallel to the mat.  It is also ideal for those who feel restricted in the groin area while doing this pose.

Let me start by saying that I am a HUGE fan of this variation. It's simple, retains the form of the pose, and all it requires is for you to grab a blanket, block or bolster at the beginning of your practice and have it handy by your mat. Then, when you come into pigeon pose, simply place the blanket/block/bolster underneath the buttock and upper back of the thigh of the leg with the bent knee. Et voila! A propped up pigeon that will allow your pelvis to be forward-facing and even so that you can externally rotate the front hip, bringing the front knee more parallel to the front of the mat for a deep but safe hip-opener.

NB: You will probably find that you need to work with different heights on different sides of your body, as most of us have one hip that is more open than the other. That's normal - embrace the difference and don't try to force both sides to be the same.

2. Swirly pigeon

I call this second variation 'swirly' pigeon, because your legs are doing a sort of a swirl around your body. [Points to the reader who comes up with a better name!]

For this variation start by sitting with one knee bent (this will be the back leg) and the other shin reasonably parallel to the front of the mat. Slowly swing the bent knee back so that your back thigh is parallel to the front shin. At this point you can asses whether it will help you to add some padding underneath the buttock of the front leg - I recommend it!  Finally, twist your torso slightly so that you can place your hands on either side of the front thigh. Either stay there, or deepen the stretch by coming into a forward fold.

3. Upside-down pigeon

Of the three, this variation is the safest and most accessible. You can do this variation even if you have recently had a hip or knee replacement or any other kind of surgery on those areas. This is also a safe and satisfying hip opener for anyone with lower back or sacrum issues, because your back is fully supported by the floor. And, it means that you don't have to sit this pose out while in a group class: simply flip it upside-down and get exactly the same stretch, without all the strain.

For this version, start by lying on your back with one knee bent. Gently bring the other knee towards your chest and carefully place the ankle of the lifted leg over your knee. Next, reach your hands either side of the grounded leg and clasp the back of the thigh or front of the shin, using a small towel or strap if appropriate - your head and shoulders should stay on the ground. Slowly draw your grounded leg in towards your body until you feel a deep stretch in your floating hip and buttock. Breathe deeply and try to relax! To get a deeper stretch, try to open your floating knee away from your body as you draw the other leg closer.

I hope that was helpful! I'd love to hear your experiences with pigeon pose and any tips and tricks that you've picked up along the way to make this pose enjoyable and safe. :)

Monday, July 8, 2013

Sun salutation ideas for injured wrists

Hi all!

First of all, apologies for my long-ish absence from the blog - life has been busy, and I have been busy enjoying it!

Anyway, last week a reader (who also happens to be my Aunt!) asked me for a variation on the sun salutations and vinyasas that could be done with a severely sprained wrist. Having had this type of injury before, I've recorded two short videos that show you what I recommend.

1. Sun Salutations (from standing)

This sequence replicates includes back-bending and forward bending, just like a traditional sun salutation, but it used only the legs and the abdominals - no weight on the wrists. So it's safe to do even with a badly sprained wrist.

However, if you are not used to doing the roll-up shown in the video, it can take some practice until you are able to come back up to standing all in one go. As you are coming up, make sure you hug your belly button to your spine so you can lift to standing from the core. If you're not sure you can do this without "catching" yourself with your hands, just skip this step and come back to standing after navasana (boat pose) by crossing your ankles and standing back up.

You can also reverse this to do a vinyasa-style movement in between poses from sitting.

2. Vinyasa (not for severe sprains as it puts weight on the elbows)

This sequence could be used to replace a vinyasa from downward-facing dog. Because your weight is on your elbows it is fairly safe for the wrists, but some of the weight does radiate down the forearms, so I wouldn't use it while you still have an acute injury - it would be more appropriate for the recovery phase.


Were these helpful? I always like hearing your feedback. Readers, if you have delicate wrists, how do you modify your practice?