Wednesday, 21 November 2018

There's always more to learn

Teachers need to go back to school sometimes!
I have just returned from training in Italy with the masterful Sianna Sherman and feel enthused, revitalised and ready to share. There were just 10 of us on this second part of an advanced teacher training, making for a specially intimate and immersive experience. We were there to dive more deeply into the juicy flavours of Rasa yoga — Myth, mantra, mudras and magic weave through each class, while great attention is paid to healthy alignment and sound biomechanics. It's a multi-faceted, full spectrum experience for students — the difference between watching a film on an old-school TV set, compared to watching at an Imax cinema!! I hope a little of the magic has rubbed off on me so I can sprinkle it over my students ;)

I am a perpetual student — when not off training abroad, I fit in workshops and intensives with visiting teachers. It keeps me fresh, looking at Yoga and students from different vantage points. I recommend it to anyone!

Some highlights! 

Co-teacher Greta Hill around the flame in the cave ritual

Chanting Gayatri as the sun rose in the early mornings

Beautiful trees around the amazing grounds for walks and meditation ....

Marc-Henri, truly inspirational, warm and kind fellow-teacher,
whose leg had been amputated since the last immersion in May.
Here with Sianna. Marc-Henri and wife Evalise are friendly,
full-of-life and talented teachers.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018


Morning Magic
Ever had one of those days when you wake up with a lengthy to do list and seem to be running from one job and place to the next, whizzing between chores like dealing out cards in a busy casino? Every day? Stop right now! That used to be me, and still is if I am lured off course! I have found that even a few minutes of silence and inner focus first thing, can improve my day immensely and make it a little more productive or at least give me thinking space and chance to put things into perspective!

I have always done some yoga when I got up, even if it's just 20 minutes of lying on my back and rolling around followed by a sun salutation or two. I know I can move more easily and genuinely feel better, more alert, afterwards. But for the past year or so I have been able to establish a meditation practice to go with it. This has been the catalyst, bringing much more peace to my mornings and hence my days.

It's not easy! Three mornings a week I am up well before everyone else in my home as I'm up between 5 and 5.30 am to teach early classes. I have always had a set morning ritual which is an essential part of those early morning starts for me (though at that time it cannot be long as I need to be at the studios where I teach in time and don't want to have to get up before 5 when I haven't got home from teaching evening classes til 10 pm sometimes).

The place is totally quiet and feels completely different in the magic of those early mornings. I can even go outside now it's not always raining and feel the early sun on my skin — if I have time to unlock all the bolts on the door! Sometimes I have to share my outdoor space with local cats or foxes, but often it's just the birds, insects and me!

The other days when I am up an hour or so later, the family are milling around and my other half switches on the radio even before his eyes are open — and does the same in every room he enters including the bathroom! If you have little ones jumping on you, you will find it very hard to start the day with silence. And you won't want to get up much earlier than you have to when sleep is such a luxury for most parents. There are ways to integrate silence and meditative thought into even the busiest lifestyles. Sometimes just concentrating on your breathing or chanting repetitions of a simple mantra can clear the mind and calm the nervous system, and little children may want to get involved in a good way! If they know what you are doing they will get used to your habit rather than thinking you are ignoring them ;)

You can start with just a few minutes of focusing on the feel of the breath flowing in and out - maybe as soon as you wake up, or maybe by the kitchen window or when you pop off to the bathroom. (I have a yoga mat rolled up in the shower room and often escape there even though I have a studio on the floor above.) Your practice will build gradually and become a comfortable and comforting habit. Many people consciously think of three good things to be happy about or thankful for the moment they wake up and that helps give the day a rosy tint, so they don't get out of bed with a sinking feeling in the belly. That can be a good starting point for meditation.

And once you have cleared the mind, it will be easier to work out which of those pressing chores need to be sorted first as everything gains a little more perspective!  The other time I like to meditate and always found easier, is in the evening. Sunset is supposed to be a magical time, though it's hard to be around at the right time. For me, meditating late at night helps to clear my mind, calm me down and help me sleep a little more easily.

If you want more tips and encouragement on meditation and breathing practices, go along to a class! I have three public Pranayama and Meditation sessions coming up in Stoke Newington. Saturday June 9th, June 23rd and July 21st at 5.15pm to 6.15pm at YogaHome, N16.
It would be lovely to have solitude and a quiet place to sit for morning meditation.... but the real joy is being able to focus inwards in the midst of the hubbub of daily life!

Friday, 4 May 2018

Mudra Magic and the use of Sanskrit

Why Sanskrit?
Teaching the lovely year 5 school groups yoga today, we were focusing on mudras, and how mudras help the, erm, focus, directing and changing our energy. We were using mudras with breath and in postures.

They loved Mushti mudra, both the name and the actual mini fist mudra, especially when we put it in to a Warrior one to Warrior III balancing sequence. The kids were keen as always, though we did a modified version of Kapalahbhati, aka shining skull breath, as a train ride and a couple of them thought it was “totally weird”. They have no idea! They also thought "shining skull" was a kooky name.

In kids yoga, I always use the general translation/common name for the poses, so they know Dog, Cat and Cobra, not the Sanskrit names. They love the animal asanas the most. But I do like to throw in Sanskrit here and there. I'll explain where it comes from, so it was a great chance to explain that Kapalahbhati gets its name from two Sanskrit words – skull Kapala and Bhati light, but it does help to clear the brain and help you focus when done properly so it's like having a clear shining skull! They did all reckon they felt tingly and alive, and they certainly acted invigorated ;)

I couldn't send them back to the class teacher all stoked from shining skull train rides and warriors with mushti mudra, so we did some gentle rounds of bee breath/humming breath and I said it was called Bhramari, the Sanskrit word for a large bee.

“Why are they in an old fashioned language? Why not just be more modern?" one of the 9-year-olds demanded? Well… funnily enough, yoga is an ancient practice!

But does he have a point? I've been to adult classes as a student where the teacher hasn't mentioned a sanskrit word once, just triangles, planks, forward bends and so on, so it can be done.

Personally I like using and hearing the Sanskrit names for poses, it reinforces the feeling that yoga is an ancient practice steeped in tradition, and I'm doing something that many, many people, all over the word have done on this planet for thousands of years before, although it has been played around with over the years. I like to pass on that feeling to my little (and big) charges so they can carry on the tradition, and treat it with respect rather than regarding it as just another form of exercise, though exercise is of course an excellent habit to instill!

We used the "six gates" Mudra (Shanmukhi Mudra) which they found amusing, and talked about withdrawing from the senses (Pratyahara to you yogis out there!). Young as they are, they could see how handy it could be to be able to ignore what was happening all around and stop being disturbed, especially as during relaxation, the kitchen staff started singing loudly in the room next door! Imagine you were in an exam or trying to sleep in the summer with the window open, I told them. The giggles subsided and they all fell silent…. for a few minutes!!

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Sankalpa V new year's resolutions

Resolving – to do or not to do

I am not sure I am that fond of making resolutions. I think it can make us dwell on our bad points. So many people say: "I must give up cake/alcohol/coffee, lose weight, get a better job" .... Probably admirable but if you make a resolution like that it surely means you are unhappy about yourself and being overly critical.
Yoga students often "resolve" to try harder, attend more classes and beat themselves up about not being able to do a particular pose. Maybe that sounds perfectly fine, but again it is a negative way of approaching yoga practice.

Perhaps it is the languaging. Just phrasing the resolution as a positive intention — like the sankalpa (a brief postitive intention or resolve we make during certain yoga practices), can create a totally different mindset, reaction and ultimately a better outcome. Goal setting but without the aggression! Of course we are working towards a goal with a Sankalpa — it may be that your Sankalpa is  something like "I have a job I love", if you are seeking that, or " I am healthy" if you are suffering from a long term illness, but it could equally be "I am happy",  "I trust my intuition" or "I find my path in life". A Sankalpa is always brief, couched in positive terms and something that you feel will bring about a good change in your life. 

Formulating a Sankalpa that resonates deeply isn't always easy. Generally it is private, not shared with anyone and personal to you alone. A Sankalpa is generally repeated often, using the same words each time, and kept for a long time. When it comes to fruition you may choose a new one, if it was a short term goal. There are times when you might choose a short one, usually times of transition, as in pregnancy, a Sankalpa may be "I have everything I need to birth my baby', or  "I am a confident mum". Sometimes with teens, a yoga teacher might suggest ideas to help set them thinking, or they may end up sticking with materialistic "wishes" about the latest iphone or wads of cash! Theirs could be "I am successful", or "I know what I want to to", and a common one is "I am confident".

For kids and teens, thinking about and repeating a Sankalpa can help them take ownership of their thoughts and feel a little more in control of their life and future. Decision making and sifting through choices can be very hard for anyone, a chance to be quiet, listen to what your heart or inner voice is saying is a useful tool to staying calm.

Yoga Nidra, deep guided relaxation, is the best time to repeat your sankalpa but you can also do it before a yoga or pranayama practice, as you are settling into meditation, or first thing in the morning when the mind is a little less clouded.
When you repeat your sankalpa, especially in the deep relaxed state of Yoga Nidra, or meditation, you are planting a seed for something to grow and bear fruit, and hopefully it will. It seeps into your unconscious.

So back to yoga resolutions. There's a saying in yoga, to observe ourselves without judgement. Every individual and body type suits some groups of postures more than others, and we should all acknowledge what we are good at and choose to get in touch with the subtleties of yoga, observing the breath and how different postures, breathing exercises and styles of practice affect our thoughts and emotions, rather than strive to create what we think is a picture perfect pose. That said, I am very glad when people take up yoga and resolve to enjoy it more regularly ;)
When we are deeply relaxed in Yoga Nidra, we are more receptive,
the perfect time to plant the seeds of your Sankalpa

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Stoking the inner fire

Winter brings out the inner animal in many of us... I'm thinking grizzly bear. Not that we are (all) grouchy and irritable, though some of us get a little spiky when it's cold, but generally, that wish to hibernate, withdraw from the cold and just retreat inside, whether that's to the safety of the sofa, duvet, or pulling up our shoulders and huddling inwards in our personal space. When I look around at my students I see that last one so clearly and feel it in their tense upper back and neck muscles.

Tempting as it is to cuddle up in your cosy home when you get in from work, or stay in bed in the mornings, come stoke the inner fire (or agni) at a yoga class and you will walk out warmer, taller, more energetic and confident... and in fact more resistant to those winter bugs!  

Using breath work and postures can stimulate the third chakra (or energy point), the solar plexus, which is our personal powerhouse and seat of confidence. While creating heat in the belly improves the digestion, which in turn strengthens the immune system.

Most of us humans (and bears probably) hold far too much tension in the belly — both physical and emotional, and releasing that can help not just with warming and energising the body but if you can release tension in the belly, your digestion improves and you can boost your immune system. In the Ayurveda system, a warm belly means a healthy gut and immune system and having a cold sluggish belly creates health problems.

Stimulating the prana, or energy in the belly, improves our moods, lifting anxiety, and depression. As one of my favourite yoga teachers, Bo Forbes, a clinical psychologist who mixes yoga with psychotherapy, explains in her courses, the "belly brain" or our enteric nervous system, holds 75% of our immunity. The system creates hormones, such as serotonin, which work to balance our moods. Most of us have noticed how being anxious, tense or upset, can cause stomach upsets and change our relationship with food, which in turn affects our health... 

So, where do we start? Put your hands on your belly. 
It is always good to start with some deep belly breathing, feeling the belly move into the hands on the inhale and soften towards the spine on the exhale. You can lie on your belly with a yoga brick lengthwise from just above the pubic bone to the lower belly, or over a folded blanket to focus your efforts. The light pressure increases the stimulation and gives greater feedback.* One you have got into an easy rhythm, you can add a gently mulha bandha, gently engaging the pelvic floor muscles (see my last post) and gently drawing in and up with the lower abdominal muscles, to activate uddiyana bandha.*

*Do not do this if you are pregnant or if it is the first few days of your monthly bleed, ladies. Stick with gentle breathing into the hands, and if there is a baby inside your belly, visualising the little bean and sending and receiving warm thoughts through your fingers and breath.

And, while your hands are on your belly, give yourself a belly massage. You can do this sitting up with a tall spine or lying on your back with your knees bent (still in bed is fine if you haven't made it out of the blankets yet!)
Gently massage the belly in circular movements moving clockwise to follow the direction on the large intestine. Belly massage is comforting, warming and great for wind and constipation, for babes and kids too. You can do this after your morning shower or bath using oil, too, and make it part of your morning ritual.

Let's hot things up — add breath of fire
Inhale through the nose and as you exhale strongly through the nose, draw the belly in and up, release on the inhalation. In breathe of fire you are trying to keep the inhale and the exhale even but short, so best avoided if you are asthmatic or suffer from breathing difficulties. As always, start very gently and slowly, and as you become more comfortable, increase the speed a little, keeping the same amount of power on inhale and exhale. Once you find your rhythm, you should be able to keep going for a few minutes without tension. Always observe your body and stop if you become breathless or your shoulders hunch! You can also add breathe of fire in dog pose during your sun salutations or posture practice. Breathe of fire is also known as bhastrika or breath of bellows, so the intention is to fan the inner heat, activating the navel centre.

Heating postures
Sun salutations are warming and energising, though some of you may want to start with gentle floor-based stretches on your back to ease tight psoas, hamstrings or lower back, and it's always good to add in a few rolling cats — on all fours — before you begin salutations, to ease the body into the day.

You can also add in heating breathwork during your asana practice (the postures).

Rolling cat
In Marjariasana, or cat posture, as you arch your spine towards the ceiling on your exhale, draw the lower belly in and up to stimulate uddiyana bandha (the body's upward lock) and draw the tailbone down. Sit back on your heels into child pose at the end of the exhalation, then draw your chest forward between your hands almost coming to cobra, on the inhalation — keep the belly lifted so you don't drop into the lower back! 

To take it further, arch the spine to the ceiling as you exhale, then at the end of the exhalation, draw the lower belly in and up to activate uddiyana bandha, and "on empty" tuck the toes under and lift the hips into downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana). Your belly will disappear like an inverted bowl. When you need to inhale, come back to all fours and lengthen the spine (without dropping the belly!) Repeat 2 or 3 times.

Add in lunges — stepping forward with the right foot first, again to follow the workings of the digestive system, and add twists, remember to keep the spine long, with crown of the head reaching away from the tailbone, as you twist.

Boat pose with breath of fire 
Finally, as my ashtangis and vinyasa students know well, I love Navasana, the boat pose. You may want to sit to the front of a flat foam block if you have a pronounced coccyx or a bony bum! Engage your pelvic floor and stomach muscles and lengthen the back as you bend your knees and lift the feet and legs from the floor. Lift your chest and reach your arms out in front of you. Hold for a few breaths if you can. Keep your knees bent (and perhaps toes on the floor) if you have a weak core or if you feel it in your back. If you are fine, straighten your legs. And, if you want to really get the heat going, add in breath of fire here. No slouching, soft jaw and relaxed forehead, please. 

Breath and mudra
Finally, one of the mudras (symbolic hand positions) associated with restoring harmony in the inner powerhouse that is the manipura chakra is matangi mudra. To do it, sit with a long spine, bring your hands together and interlace the fingers, except the middle fingers. Extend the two middle fingers to touch. Hold your hands by your navel with the fingers pointing away from you, as you breathe in and out perhaps visualising the inner fire that you have created, burning brightly within. 
Matangi mudra - draw you hands towards your belly
as you breathe deeply into the belly

Warmer now?

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Finding the master key

I love it when students ask questions in class. It rarely happens — other than when you are giving an individual assist or cue up-close. Kids do all the time and make comments when you teach them yoga. Youngsters are surprisingly intuitive and often ask why they should do something, where they might feel it or why so many poses have animal names. They love to communicate. But in flow and ashtanga classes, it’s a rare occurrence. Afterwards I'll always invite questions, but then the moment has passed.
Recently, I had a particularly intimate class setting during the improvements to the ashtanga studio at YogaHome when we were in a much smaller space, and it brought us all a little closer...

As students worked into Janu Sirsasana b, a seated forward bend where you are sitting on the heel (see below), I was reminding everyone that the heel presses gently into the perineum to encourage them to engage Mula Bandha, the "root lock", and one of my regulars looked up and asked "Should my heel press up my vagina?"

Mmm, not exactly... 

But great question. The short answer is the heel presses gentle into the perineum between the genitals and anus, encouraging a contraction of the pubococcygeus muscle (or PC) to be precise. However, it is hard to isolate the muscles of the pelvic floor at first. 

A little human geography lesson
The pelvic floor is not just one muscle but a hammock-like layer of muscles and connective tissues strung at the bottom of the pelvic girdle to support our organs. So how can we find mula bandha?

Pattabhi Jois (father of the ashtanga practice as we know it) was famed for saying: “squeeze the anus”, an instruction still given in some yoga traditions. While it's true, that action does put you in the right area and direction (drawing in and up from the pelvic floor), and for most students squeezing the anal sphincter will activate the right muscles too, it is far more subtle than that... as dealing with the body’s energy always is. Go ahead, as American yoga teachers like to say, and squeeze your anus right now, as if were about to break wind and of course you are too polite to let rip (and please remember not to in class). You can definitely feel a general lift in and up of the pelvic floor. Now you need to begin to refine your focus.

Location, Location
Bend in one knee, place hands flat
on the ground, lift up, slide
forwards and sit on your heel.

It is different for men and women. Women have three sets of pelvic floor muscles, the anal sphincter at the back known in yoga as ashwini mudra, the urethra at the front (sahajoli mudra) and the muscles around the cervix; men have two sets. Basically, the centre of the pelvic floor is the area we are concerned with here, the perineum located between the genitals and anus. So for men, contracting the perineum is to focus on the muscles between scrotum (genitals — vajroli mudra for men) and anus (ashwini mudra). As Swami Buddhananda says in his book, Moola Bandha the Master Key, "we are just not taught to do that in the way we are taught to isolate and use separate muscles of arms and legs. The pelvic muscles are mainly required for all subconscious and unconscious activity." This lack of conscious nervous control is why you will find it hard to pee and defecate at the same time… Yup, go ahead and try when you next need to!

Why do it? 
The pelvic floor has an important role in keeping sex organs of males and females healthy.
Any mum or pregnant woman will tell you that exercising the pelvic floor muscles should be done several times daily to counteract lasting effects of that downward push of the baby in pregnancy and childbirth and indeed of gravity. But slack pelvic floor muscles can lead to incontinence and sexual dysfunction for males too, and exercising the pelvic floor muscles is much easier and better for you than a prescription of viagra…
Just breathing properly puts pressure on your pelvic floor muscles since the diaphragm moves down as it contracts on the inhale to allow space for the lungs to fill. Regular rhythmic contractions of the pelvic floor will strengthen the muscles around your bladder, vagina or penis, but it has much more far reaching affects, according to some ancient texts such as the Gheranda Samhita, it can help destroy death and decay in the body, and thus hold back the signs of aging. It has even been linked with the expansion of consciousness.

Using mula bandha, or lifting the pelvic floor muscles, also supports and aligns the spine. Mulha means root and in yoga mula bandha is known as the root lock, the root being the base of the spine. Engaging it gently will also help to activate the lower belly muscles, initiating the lift of the next bandha the muscles at the lowest part of the belly or uddiyanah bandha (known as the flying upwards lock). Bandha is often described as a lock or bonding — bonding of movement with the breath and the awareness together, and thinking of it like this helps with understanding the more subtle side of the practice.

There are philosophical reasons for learning to control the pelvic floor muscles. Controlling your energy, being the most important. Prana is the upward energy and Apana the downward flow of energy. Simplistically, imagine a tube as the central channel running from your pelvic floor upwards.

According to ancient philosophies, one of the effects of mula bandha is to block the downward flow of consciousness which could lead to laziness, apathy and overindulgence, to name but a few slothful side affects of too much Apana in the body. So use of the bandhas or locks can be used to remove blockages in your energy channels, or perhaps just little kinks that prevent the natural and full flow of energy through the body.

While exploring the subtle side of the action, it's not a gripping in, but a gentle gathering, like pulling together the edges of a drawstring bag. Or sweeping in a mound of leaves... one of my favourite descriptions read somewhere. You shouldn't tense your shoulders or pull odd faces as you practice mula bandha. But I can't actually tell you what it should feel like in your body — especially if you are male, as I am not! Everyone should feel that for themselves, that is after all that is what yoga is about, becoming aware of different parts of the body, and learning to deal with discomfort, breathing through it and seeing how that makes you feel emotionally, rather than just a physical level.

Anyway, now we are back into the newly decorated, designated upstairs studio at YogaHome, or indeed in any of my classes, please feel free to ask that burning question. Just throw it out there... chances are someone else is wondering the same thing too!
Janu Sirsasana B: Smiling (though not laughing
manically) helps to relax the pelvic floor muscles, so
the right amount of pressure can be applied.