Thursday, 12 March 2020

Yoga boosts the immune system

Tripod headstand, Garuda legs

Immune boosting yoga
Sadly amidst all the concerns over Covid-19, many people are missing attending their usual classes or fitness sessions whether it's football, swimming, dance or yoga.

Exercise of all sorts is important for humans - we need to move our body to stay healthy both physically and mentally. Movement also makes us feel better in ourselves, it releases endorphins, chemicals that trigger positive feelings in the brain, lowers stress levels and anxiety, especially if that exercise comes with built-in breath practice and mindfulness/meditation techniques - as with yoga. So remember to keep up exercise and especially yoga if you can’t get outside for other exercise for whatever reason during this time.

Any yoga?
Tias Little of Prajna yoga, who I was training with in London last week, has sequences of floor-based sliding, gliding and rocking movements which create a pulsation throughout the tissues of our bodies, plumping up fluids, keeping us hydrated and improving the function of the organs. Importantly, they also stimulate the network of lymph vessels which lie under the skin, encouraging them to work harder, finding new paths, which helps lymphatic drainage. This is a vital part of our immune system, helping us to fight off viruses as well as bacteria that enter the body.

You can also do self-massage techniques, and rolling around on tennis balls. Sliding, gliding movements help to improve the elasticity of the fascia too, which in turn helps to develop and sustain neural plasticity improving our brain function. Slow, rhythmic movements calm the nervous system and support deep relaxation in the body's tissues, promoting resilience and health.

It can also be a form of meditation.

Whether it's moving or walking meditation, chanting or sitting quietly concentrating on breathing, meditation can have a positive affect on your mindset and thus, your health. Harvard University researchers used MRI scans to show how meditation positively affected and changed the brain activity and have found that meditation can change brain regions that are specifically linked with depression.

I asked my son to take a pic of me in a headstand ;)
Tias-style, using a block behind the head 

Strong, grounding poses
For all-round health we need both the gentle, contemplative side of yoga and some strong grounding poses.

When there was a viral outbreak in Pune, India, some years ago, the Iyengar Institute based there was closed and sent students a sheet of yoga practices to boost their immune system to keep them going at home. These are mostly inversions, Adho Mukha Svanasana, downward facing dog to you, Prasarita Padottanasana, a wide legged forward fold, backbends over a chair, lying with legs up the wall, and importantly, headstand and a long-held shoulderstand with variations. More of the same was recommended in the evening with headstand, shoulderstand and settabandasana (bridge pose), all propped, and Savasana – rest.

Of course for most of these, you would need to have an established yoga practice or have a teacher guide you through them, which I'd recommend :)

Tias Little sent out his Prajna students a list of asanas which also had a big emphasis on inversions... Why?

Tias explains that inversions rest and revitalise the body, stimulating the lungs to perform better and improve circulation. Shoulderstand "the mother of all poses" is nourishing for the throat and chest area. Placing the head below the heart is tonic for lymph vessels in the upper body, irrigating lymph through lymph nodes in throat, tongue and jaw region. An inversion could equally be a dog pose, ideally with the head resting on a block.

David Coulter, in his excellent book, Anatomy Of Hatha Yoga, says if you can remain in headstand or an inverted posture for 3-5 minutes, blood will drain quicker to the heart from the lower extremities, abdominal and pelvic organs, but also tissue fluids will flow more effectively into the veins and lymph channels, which will create a healthier exchange of nutrients and wastes between cells and capillaries. Sivanada, the yoga guru, was known for calling the headstand "a panacea - cure-all for all diseases".

*Remember inversions of any kind are not suitable for everyone, Pregnant women, those with high blood pressure and certain eye problems included, so check with your teacher or doctor before you go upside down.

Twists are also important to revitalise the spinal column and they are energising, which will help beat lethargic tendencies. Back bends lift the spirits, and they don’t need to be huge ones. Apart from bridge pose, you could lie down over a rolled blanket or rolled towel placed behind the heart area, which will also boost your lymphatic flow and energy levels, and counter the tendency to hunch forward over keyboards and other technology.

So whatever you do, keep up your yoga, even though you can only do it in your home! Obviously as social animals, humans also like to interact with each other or they can suffer from feelings of isolation. I guess that’s where social media comes in and the lurry of online yoga and other exercise sessions being offered (including by me!) see Online Classes
Iyengar's immune boosting routine

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

in rhythm with the seasons

In rhythm with the seasons

I often take my inspiration for my own practice and my classes from what's going on around... Sometimes World events, but more often the cycles of nature, seasons, and phases of the moon.
Right now, in the northern hemisphere, we're in the Imbolc time of the year, when the stirrings of spring are happening, often deep underground, so for me it feels right to honour those feelings in our own bodies and minds. Many of us have felt the need to stay huddled inside or under layers, feeling a little closed in, conserving energy and appreciating staying home. That can be a good thing, like nature we need to honour that need to hibernate and recharge our batteries! But sometimes it can make us a little lethargic and our bodies feel tight, closed off, perhaps even our minds and emotions, dwelling on ourselves...?!

Imbolc then, is a time to recognise the signs of life in our bodies, planting or nurturing the seeds of what will sprout later this year. Can you feel the turning point from dark winter to light? It's the perfect time to shine a light on your practices, both physically, easing those limbs into action, cultivating strong roots, and mentally, tuning in to your breath, taking time to create space in the mind to discover what you need.

What sort of practices?
Again, with the analogy of plants, simple grounding practices, attention to your foundations, toe exercises to awaken your feet, watching your standing and sitting posture, using blocks between thighs and hands - in utkatasana (chair pose) or tadasana (standing tall/mountain pose), and salabasana (prone lengthening/simple backbends) to cultivate that sense of hugging in to expand, alongside gliding, wriggling movements to plump up the fluids in the body.

Simple breath practices, such as watching the pauses between at the end of the inhale and exhale and welcoming the turning point of the breath. We need to let go for the next cycle to begin.

It's also a full moon this Sunday, and my favourite yoga practices are circular helping to lubricate and strengthen the joints.

Join me, or a yoga teacher near you, or just get moving, at home. Then when you come to stillness you will notice those signs of life inside!

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Teen yoga

Teen Yoga 
Teens were made for yoga! Those transition years are the perfect time to discover yoga – not just the asana but the subtle aspects, too: breathwork, relaxation techniques, mudras and meditation, all play of part in helping the teens develop a sense of self as well as improved self confidence and equip them better to face the variety of challenges and changes in a calmer more mindful way.

The asana – postures – are vitally important alone. Years (already!) of sitting slumped over desks, computers, hot games consoles and the rest, coupled with carrying heavy school and sports bags asymmetrically as well as that cowering inward posture of 'protection/distrust' adopted by so may teens, especially girls, as they try to avert their eye gaze from the outside world, needs to be addressed before bones calcify and it becomes more difficult to even out the kinks they create. Back and shoulder aches are so common among the youngsters I teach. Wriggling movements alongside alignment tips can help ease aches and protect the spine. Sometimes teens are totally unaware of what they are doing as they round forward and hunch their shoulders and dump into their lower back. It's lovely to watch them getting back into their bodies (slowly and cautiously for some of them) and re discovering the freedom of moving.

Many of the teens have poor or limited diets and gentle twists are great for getting sluggish digestive systems going - that's true for most kids! Simple sun salutations with lunges, and adding a gentle kneeling twist are easy for them to remember and do daily.

Pair and group postures can give a sense of support, help build teamwork skills, and create bonds. It's also great fun. I always bring in a few poses that can be done in pairs including a few easy acro yoga drills.

Pranayama techniques such as single alternate nostril breathing and the amusing sounding Sitali (pronounced with a 'Sh' at the start) and Bhramari (humming bee breath) practices are great for drawing teens attention to the feel, sound and general awareness of their breath. Then it's easier to help them use breath techniques to calm themselves as they need it e.g. before exams, or in the presence of someone they fancy! Similarly mudras have a great role in focusing the mind and also aiding dexterity, especially Hakini, Eagle and Fearless heart mudra which they all seem to enjoy doing.

Meditation? I often challenge the teens (and younger kids) to stay still and think of nothing for a minute.... try it yourself with a timer, harder than you think it will be! Trataka candle gazing is usually a big hit and gives them something to focus on as well as being good for the eyes.

Many have trouble sleeping so the idea of observing the breath as well as Savasana and yoga Nidra are always popular... in fact I'm sure some come for the "lie down bit" ;)

If you do yoga and haven't thought about it, try and practise at home with your teens, and teens if you do yoga, get the old folk doing it too. My public teens classes are currently Mondays after school, 4.30pm - 5.30pm at Yoga Junction, Crouch End, London N8. If you're in the area pop by.


It's hard to beat the feeling of doing yoga and meditation outside, especially on sunny mornings or early evening when you can witness the sun rising or setting as you practice or sit.

I love doing yoga on the beach and for years I would only attempt it in the early or twilight hours to avoid crowds and embarrassing stares, but I've grown so used to it now, I just forget who's around, and sometimes the busier it is, the less bothered I (and others) seem to be! It's especially lovely to practice with family and friends.

My sons seem more bothered about stares of passers by, but even they are becoming less self conscious! Bank holiday weekend on a busy, sunny beach in North Devon with not much space between bodies and boards, one of my sons actually suggested a yoga session to help him pop-up on his board, and to make sure I was warm enough to entice me into the chilly waters!

He's game for experimental sequences and we were midway through a fun energetic flow when we noticed three famillies around us standing and staring and some of the younger family members copying us! I just projected my voice into busy class mode and changed the tone to suit their tender age adding lizards and frogs and puppy dogs so they didn't feel left out! Maybe they'll remember the beach yoga and keep it up at home!

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Finding balance in chaos

Yesterday, after teaching what I thought was a particularly chaotic mum and toddler yoga class, where half the mums took time out to feed babes or chat between themselves, while others tried keenly to enjoy their yoga with all the tots dancing and congregating around their mat, several of the mums said the sessions were the highlight of their week! One said it was the only thing that made her leave home in the cold and brave getting a bus with her toddler. It made me laugh out loud and realise just how much we see things through our own eyes and perspective. Of course the classes can never go as planned, life with a toddler is always chaotic, and full of the little unpredictable moments, generally initiated by the tots, that add colour to our existence and make us appreciate the nuances of life.

That has been one of my big goals for the year, to get out of my way, and leave space to let life reveal more, yet while there is freedom to explore, still remain clear and focused.

The eagle - celebrated in Garudasana, which I teach a lot in post natal and mums/toddler yoga – is an amazing creature on many levels. An eagle has incredible peripheral vision. When it flies high, it has about a 340-degree field of vision, yet it can hone in on one tiny thing, like a prospective snack, spotted more than 3 km away.

What a great asset, to be able to see the big picture, the whole world, yet hone in clearly on what's important.

The reason Garudasana is so good for us, and especially postnatal women, is that the standing balance with the arms and legs entwined encourages drawing into the mid-line, engaging the pelvic floor muscles and regaining internal strength and support. It is energising and uplifting, yet all the while we are drawing into the centre, finding inner strength and balance, we are spreading our wings to fly and broaden our horizons. Life is all about balance, and staying calm and focused in the midst of challenges, such as balancing on one leg in yoga with a tot climbing over or under you ;0

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!