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.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Postcards from my yoga mat

One of the best things about travelling, is the chance to practice yoga with a new perspective... I don't mean concentrating only on the breath one day, having a different anatomical focus such as backbends, or open postures as opposed to closed, or with one of the 8-limbs of yoga in mind throughout... but having a totally different view from the actual yoga mat! It can make a huge difference to how I feel and the kind of practice I do. When I get to a new destination, hotel room, Airbnb or friend/family home, one of the very first things I do is to peruse the place and lay out my trusty travel mat to find the perfect spot for my morning (or daily) yoga practice. Sometimes I go around inside or outside doing handstands, reverse warrior or dog at tree poses — the last posture included because my other half says I'm like a dog marking its territory! It's not just to make sure I have enough space for a sun salutation or a suitable, clean surface, but the view. I have been very lucky to have some amazing outlooks from my mat, including a sultry Italian island last week.
Western Ischia, Italy
Ocean view, Santa Cruz
Overlooking the bay of Naples
Saluting the morning sun, Provence

Sirsasana by the pool, France!
Watching the waves rise and fall can help remind us of the watery quality of the human body and keep a fluid element weaving through the yoga, big squishy clouds rolling over the sky are a reminder of the softness needed to counterpose the strength, and wildlife (birds, animals, trees and flowers) keep us at one with nature. Often when surrounded by trees, hearing or seeing birds, can inspire lots of the bird balances to pepper the flow, such as Bakasana (Crane) or Garudasana (Eagle).

You don't need to go on holiday, just moving your practice outside (to the garden, park or terrace), or waking up and really looking around and tuning in to what's going on outside can provide fresh inspiration for your practice.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017


As I've surely said before, yoga teachers must be the only people who work to make themselves redundant... since the idea is to teach, encourage and inspire all our students until they are confident enough to practice on their own, at home (or anywhere they fancy)! Of course we hope that our students love our classes so much that they will come back anyway just for the shared yoga experience - or Satsang. It's also good for even the most experienced yogi to show up at class occasionally, just for a few alignment cues. Sometimes you can get a little complacent and develop bad habits, and a good teacher can remind you kindly when that's happening.

For those who feel you just wouldn't have a clue where to begin or just keep putting off the idea of practicing yoga at home, help is at hand. In fact a mere click away! (See below). Recently I contributed ideas on postures you can do at home or work to the British Heart Foundation magazine, Heart Matters. These are suitable for anyone of any level, including beginners, but they make a good starting point for anyone, a reminder that you can always fit in yoga to your day.

So what's the excuse? No room for a yoga mat? No time? So check out the piece on yoga you can do while sitting - at the desk or in the kitchen, so there's no excuse for not being fit!  See Rainy Day Desk Yoga

For some ideas of gentle yoga postures you can do at home - and some other exercises for good measure, see Get active indoors

And for those who need more of a guiding hand, or a bit more Satsang, I am running an afternoon workshop at Yoga Junction, Crouch End, London N8, with sequences, suggestions and tons of encouragement and handouts to inspire and nudge you into developing you own self practice at home! Hope to see you there! 

Yoga anywhere: Sadly we will not be out in the sun for the workshop in April,
but it might just inspire you to take your yoga with you wherever you go!

Monday, 2 January 2017

Looking in

Like most people I've been using the special energy of the passing into the new year to cultivate an intention for my practice in 2017. Many people see the time as an opportunity to examine their life and make a resolution or several. It's often to do with fitness or diet, health or energy related. Sometimes it's a blanket change or lifestyle change; sometimes a series of little steps, or just one thing that could make the difference to how they will feel in 12 months' time. Often it is the little intentions that are the most far reaching, not to mention achievable.

Yoga studios are buzzing as students new and experienced alike come along with a fresh vigour and are committed to doing more yoga, more regularly. Yay, keep it up; it's great for us teachers ;) Some have a list of postures they want to master, finishing the primary or second series in Ashtanga, mastering a headstand, or developing their meditation practice... All noble challenges, if that's where you are at.

But while still in this cocoon of nurture, with friends and family around, and with the world in so much turmoil, it's been a chance to stop and appreciate how lucky I am. And yes that feeling of being loved and held makes me want to extend that feeling to all my students and beyond. Don't worry, I won't invade your space and hug you mid warrior ;)

If as yet, you are still cultivating the perfect resolution for your yoga practice this year, how about making a collective resolve to appreciate, or notice what we are good at.
That each time we get on the mat — every morning or the start of each class — to check in with the body and mind and notice what feels good about us; where we are feeling good, where we are feeling space... and then breathe from there, expand that feeling of spaciousness.

It's interesting to see how it differs each day. Spaciousness behind the heart, the feeling of breath in the belly, relaxed limbs, a clear head... And start from there. Try it. Start from the point of pleasure, rather than pain and see if it changes anything about the quality of your practice.

Make 2017 the year you notice what is good about your practice and yourself and then, keep it up! And yes, take up meditation if you don't already, it really helps you check in with your mind and body and to feel that space.
Good luck.