Hands off!

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I might be unusual, but I don’t do a lot of hands-on adjustments in my yoga classes. I prefer to watch carefully and adjust my verbal cues to encourage students to find their best alignment in posture work. I believe that this is a safer way to work, as people are more likely to find a way that works for their body, one which lies within their own comfortable limits.
From watching someone, however carefully, I cannot always tell why they find if difficult to move in a particular way. I am not an expert in their body and their medical history in the way that they are (they live it, after all!) And therefore, if I start manually adjusting them, I may do more harm than good. I myself have been hurt as a result of over-enthusiastic adjustment by a yoga teacher at the start of my yoga journey. I have been sat on in a sitting forward bend to force my lower back a little lower. I have had my arm pulled into alignment overhead in triangle pose. The second of these exacerbated a pre-existing shoulder problem, and meant that I was unable to continue with the class.
And so I am very wary of manual adjustment. It was on my Dru yoga teacher training that I found my own way to work with, rather than against, my own body, with all its history, all its weaknesses, as well as its strengths. It was here that I found how to align my arm in triangle pose, whilst accommodating my shoulder injury, and without pain. No, it wasn’t as quick as being pulled into position, it took time and patience, but it was safe. Working this way increased my range of movement, rather than restricting it further. And surely, this has to be one of the main aims of yoga!
Whilst some students come to yoga in search of the ‘perfect body’ and quick results, I see it as part of my job as a yoga teacher to help them find that patience, to help them to see the benefits of taking their time, to help them differentiate  between a quick fix and a long-lasting improvement in their posture, their flexibility, their  physical and their emotional wellbeing. The rest of the world can move fast, forcing us along with it, but yoga is an escape from all of that. For some of us, it may be the only place we can move slowly, take our time, and deeply let go. And that can be the most healing thing of all.

What’s stopping YOU from trying yoga?

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When it comes to reasons for not doing yoga,  I’ve probably heard  them all….

  • I can’t do yoga because I’m not very flexible
  • I can’t do yoga because I find it difficult to relax
  • I can’t do yoga because I can’t touch my toes /stand on my head/wrap my legs round my neck/I’m not a contortionist etc….
  • I can’t do yoga because I don’t look right…like the people in the magazines
  • I can’t do yoga because it’s not for men / older people / larger people / unfit people / people like me
  • I’m not healthy enough to do yoga

You get the idea…in many cases, people feel intimidated by the image of yoga as portrayed in the media.  In the majority of publications, you’ll see largely fit and healthy, young, thinnish people (most often women) practising advanced yoga positions, which is enough to put off most of us mere mortals from even trying! Which is a shame, as in many classes, those advanced postures are a rare thing – teachers will teach a variety of movements, and offer alternatives and modifications when they are tackling something tricky with more advanced students. If you look for a beginners, or mixed-ability class, you’ll find that there will be plenty more you can do than you can’t do.  If you look around, you’ll most likely find several classes full of people like you – ordinary people, with their own struggles, rather than the superfit, superskinny, superyoung people you might think make up a yoga class. You just might need to try one or several classes before finding one where you feel completely comfortable.

And if you worry that you’re not very flexible – well, most people share that concern to begin with! The only way to increase flexibility is to work at it, and learning yoga is an ideal way to do that safely and at your own pace. If you never start increasing flexibility, it won’t just happen on it’s own, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be the only inflexible student your teacher had ever seen! Just don’t expect instant results – if you have never been able to touch your toes, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to after your very first yoga class!

If you don’t feel very healthy – well, that’s the very reason that many people get into yoga initially. I started my home yoga practice after a lengthy illness, way back in my early twenties, thinking of it as a way to get moving gently, whilst building up my strength.  I became hooked, and never looked back, starting my teacher training a few years later. I certainly didn’t start yoga because I was already fit, happy, healthy and able to demonstrate tricky poses on a beach somewhere! Just the opposite!

And if you can’t relax – welcome, along with the rest of us, to the twenty-first century! We live life at a frantic pace these days, our brains are bombarded with news from all around the world, we’re seldom far from our devices alerting us to the latest disaster or sports result. Not being able to relax is one of the very best reasons to head to a yoga class and find a bit of peace! Believe me, most people find it tricky to relax to begin with – lying down, in a room full of strangers?! But most people find that, actually, after a good stretch, plenty of movement, an hour or more of peace and quiet, and then a lovely comfortable relaxation  position – it’s easier to relax on the floor than it is at home in bed! Perhaps not in their very first class, perhaps not until they’ve tried it several times  – but sooner or later, most people find a stillness they maybe haven’t experienced  before.  They’ve learnt to relax, body and mind.

Alison x

For more articles, tips and information on all things wellbeing, AND a free relaxation recording, sign up to my e-newsletter at http://bit.ly/sunfishnews

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So thankful for yoga…

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This weekend, I had an accident – nothing too major, but just a fall at home.  I’d like to say I fell slowly and gracefully, as would befit a yoga teacher, but sadly, no, it was far from graceful and I hit the ground with a definite thud!

I was a little bit shaken but otherwise fine, until later that day, when I first noticed the aching in my lower back, my hip and my leg. Really not what I need at all, when I’ll be teaching classes every day. Fortunately, however, I know from my training that it is far better to move gently than to stop completely, and, in the absence of serious injury, it is more than safe to continue with my practice.  Even more fortunate, perhaps, that I have recently returned from the Dru yoga back care course, and so had a fabulous range of movements and postures to practise specifically to prevent the stiffness from setting in. So two days later, I have a very slight ache in my hip but otherwise feel totally fine and have taught the first class of the week with no issues.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I like getting injured or enjoy pain, far from it, but there have been many things over the years which afterwards I am grateful for, as they show me, time and time again, how lucky I am to have the career and knowledge that I have, and help me to help others  even better.

It can be so easy to have a minor accident like this and then, at the first sign of discomfort, start to move gingerly, protecting or ‘bracing’ against the pain. The stiffness then escalates, and the muscular tension which results can cause even more significant pain. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you fling yourself around if you have an injury, but it is worth knowing that even injuries like prolapsed discs  are likely to heal within a relatively short space of time, and that ongoing pain can result more from the muscular tension and stiffness of reduced movement over the long term. I’ve been there – I had a lumbar disc lesion and then a cervical disc lesion in my early to mid twenties, and on both occasions was advised total rest, and to ‘stop doing my yoga’. On both occasions, the pain lasted way beyond the time you would expect for healing to take place – even for quite some years, in the case of the neck injury. In the end, the only thing which really helped relieve the pain was movement, and the gradual resumption of my full yoga practice.

Of course many yoga postures are strenuous and best avoided for certain conditions, but luckily there are a whole range of  soft, flowing movements, combined with strengthening moves, included in the back care classes. Whilst still feeling a bit of a numpty for falling over in the first place (!) I am pleased to have gained first hand experience of just how  beneficial these classes can be for those with back pain, and can’t wait to share them with my students.

For more articles, tips and information on all things wellbeing, AND a free relaxation recording, sign up to my e-newsletter at http://bit.ly/sunfishnews

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A ‘typical’ yoga day…

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person-1281607_1280As part of a business challenge this week, I’ve been evaluating my working day – frequently so busy it’s a smoothie for lunch (yet again!) and often fairly unpredictable! On one day last week, I wasn’t sure if I had any bookings at all, all were dependent on whether babies had arrived or not, or on childcare arrangements…. I could have had three visits, or none (in the event, there were 2!) From a business point of view, it can be hard to plan ahead, aside from the definites such as group classes. It can be hard to know for sure when the downtime will be, when there’ll be time for accounts, marketing, writing this blog…and even eating!

But I won’t bore you with the business side. What about the yoga? What about making that time for myself (that I’m always banging on about for those I work with!)? For every one of my students who builds up a daily practice, there must be at least another ten who just don’t know how that could ever be possible.

So, it’s all about discipline – but also flexibility. My work schedule means that often things will crop up unexpectedly, or, at times, cancellations happen and I can seize the moment rather than  wasting that time. I have discipline in my morning routine – waking early to fit in  my first practice of the day:  a little movement – activations, energy block release (EBR) sequence,  perhaps a posture or two – and then meditation to set me up for the day. I really need to have this time: despite all the hours of teaching I do each week, my own practice is a time to work on the things I need the most. Without it, it’s hard to function at my best for the rest of the day.

Throughout the remainder of the day, it’s the flexibility that helps. Yes, it would be great to stop and  practise yoga whenever I felt like it – but that’s not the reality of my life! So, instead of writing off the whole day if I don’t have an hour to set aside, I might spend a few minutes being mindful of  my breath at odd times during the day, I might do some chanting in the car (silently if I have company!), I may stop and practise a flowing tree posture whilst hanging out the washing! If I’m in the middle of a day of therapies, I might take a couple of minutes to stretch  into a back bend and then a forward bend, or twist a couple of times, between clients, to stop that stiffness that likes to build up in my shoulders! I’ll do the same if I’m at my computer, catching up on emails, writing, doing my  accounts….

I practise mindfulness or a breathing technique when I’m cooking the dinner, and washing the dishes afterwards. I do also like to stand in tree pose while washing up!  And at bedtime I’ll usually practise a short relaxation, tensing and relaxing each muscle group ready for sleep. So much can be fitted in to a  busy day, without devoting hours that most of us just don’t have. The more you do, the more you’ll want to do, so these helpful practices will stay at the forefront of your mind, ready for you to take your pick according to your mood and what you’re doing at the time. So while you might need to make a huge effort to remember in the beginning, it will become more of a natural response to the demands of your day. You’ll start to know what your body and your mind are in need of as you build up a repertoire of favourite practices. So yes, do try to attend a class. Do read books, blogs, anything you can, but most of all, find what works for you.  It doesn’t have to be lengthy, it doesn’t have to be difficult, it just needs to work with your life.

For lots of ideas for things you can try at home, take a look at my facebook page http://bit.ly/sunfishfb or website http://bit.ly/sunfishyoga.

Or sign up for my monthly newsletter and receive my FREE 15-minute relaxation recording:  http://bit.ly/sunfishnews

 

 

Finding your foundation

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barefoot-87879_1280Let’s be honest….we all have times when we feel unsteady, unsure of ourselves, lacking in confidence and direction.  We can feel unsafe, insecure, as if a puff of wind could blow us away. We could feel this way for a variety of reasons – perhaps we have moved to a new area, moved on from a relationship, lost our job, or our sense of purpose.  We may be facing a challenge which feels too overwhelming.  Our emotions may be all over the place.

When we are in one of these times, we need to get in touch with our most basic instinct, that of survival. We all have this instinct, we share it with every sentient being on the planet. Sometimes it may get lost in a whirl of emotional turmoil, but it will resurface when we take time to let the dust settle. And we can take steps to strengthen our foundation, our sense of who we are, and of where we belong.

In yoga philosophy, our base chakra, mooladhara, is the key to our foundation, our survival instinct, and is our connection to the earth. We can tune into it when we spend time outdoors in nature, walking or practising yoga (perhaps barefoot on the grass or the beach when the weather warms up!). Gardeners have a particularly strong connection to the earth, which can be extremely healing in times of distress – growing and nurturing plants is now widely used as therapy, with patient volunteer groups attached to some clinics and medical practices.  Growing and cooking your own food could be a wonderful way to strengthen mooladhara, and could be practised in a small way if you have no garden – even adding a few fresh herbs from a pot on a sunny windowsill can have a dramatic effect on both the taste of your food and your emotional wellbeing.

When we moved house, we inherited two huge rhubarb plants, and I remember that it was in pulling that rhubarb and baking it into a cake in our new kitchen with my son (then 4) that the feeling of ‘being at home’, of belonging, started to set in. Even before many of the boxes were unpacked.

So in times where life unsettles us, making us unsure of our footing, it is our foundation we look to, our foundation we strengthen. In our yoga, we focus on grounding our standing posture through our feet in tadasana, through the weight of our pelvis in sitting, through the back of the body when relaxing in savasana. Lying down on the front of the body in makarasana we inhale and exhale with the earth, letting go into the earth on the exhale and drawing strength in on our inhalation. We let gravity ease our posture and the aches which our emotional unease can often exacerbate so much. We let our tension and worries drop away, down into the earth, and we start to feel strong again….in as many breaths and as many tiny steps as it takes.

Alison x

Take a break and align yourself!

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As a yoga teacher, I obviously aim for all my students to go away from a class feeling better, more relaxed, stretched yet relaxed. However, it always warms my heart when someone tells me that they are practicing at home, and feeling the benefits of their practice in their daily lives. Taking our yoga off the mat and into every part of our day is an amazing way to improve our lives and boost our wellbeing, so I advocate taking ‘minibreaks’ of just 5 or 10 minutes whenever you can through the day, which will ultimately increase your productivity as well as making you feel amazing! During these brief pauses, you may like to take your awareness to your breath, to your surroundings, or, as in the practice below, to your posture….

So, how long have you sat at your desk without a break? It’s so easy to get caught up in our work and stay in position for hours at a time, and only realise once we move how stiff and uncomfortable we have become!

So, if you’re in need of a break, maybe change position as you read this and then try the visualisation to help improve your posture – and your energy, creativity and productivity as well!

So, if you’re sitting (un)comfortably, let’s begin!

Did you know that as your body stiffens up, you are blocking the free flow of energy around it? In yoga we think of the spine as housing the main energy centres of the body, whirling around and distributing energy all around the body (you can learn more about this in my upcoming workshop here). If you don’t warm to that image, you can just think of the central nervous system and all the nerves emanating from the spinal cord to convey their messages to the body as a whole.

So, if we hunch ourselves up and restrict that flow, not only are we setting ourselves up for a variety of aches and pains – think backache, neck and shoulder tension and pain, headaches – we are also limiting ourselves in other ways. We might find that we keep pushing on to get through our workload, but that it’s getting harder and harder to think straight. That our ideas are starting to dry up. That we are never ever going to finish and will have to work late into the evening…..aaaargh!

This is exactly the time to stop and have a break. It might seem counterintuitive, the idea that stopping will help us get things done more quickly, but I’ve found exactly that, time and time again. And our posture itself can sometimes be to blame.

So, right now, stop and think about how you are sitting. Are your feet flat on the floor, or do you have your legs crossed? What part of your body is making contact with the seat? (Yes, I know it’s likely to be your bottom, but how is the weight distributed – central or to one side? Are you sitting on your tailbone or your sitting bones? Bet you can guess which ones you are meant to sit on!) How is your spine feeling? What about your shoulders? Your neck and your head?

Now, to adjust your position, place your feet flat on the floor and rest your weight on to your sitting bones (those two pointy bones in your buttocks – it can help to physically move the buttocks out of the way a bit with your hands!) Try to make the weight even between them as much as you can. If you can, adjust your seat height or use a cushion so that your hips are level with, or higher than, your knees, to ensure a good balance through the pelvis. Feel the spine lifting up from the pelvis, letting it lengthen, and then roll the shoulders back and down, letting the points of the shoulder blades slide down either side of the spine. Let your arms relax, maybe resting your hands gently in your lap, or letting them hang down by your sides. Now for your neck and head – let the neck lengthen and the head lift effortlessly…imagine your head is like a balloon, really light and free, and the spine is like the string – no tension at all. Now, just before you float away (you are meant to be working, after all!), think about the end of your string going down into a weight (like the weights you get on a helium balloon to hold them down). This weight corresponds to your points of contact with the seat and floor – your feet and sitting bones. Let your weight really drop down through them, letting gravity ease out your tensions and allowing your upper body to find more space.

Pause and observe your breath in this position for a while, letting any tension fall away with your outbreath.

And, when you feel better, and more refreshed, you can return to your work with a clearer head, and letting your energy flow freely – watch out, world!

Alison x

Mindfulness or meditation?

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peace-of-mind-349815_1280Being mindful is very popular these days. ‘Mindfulness’ is a real buzz word.  It’s become mainstream in a short space of time in the way that ‘meditation’ never quite has.  ‘Meditation’ still has that slightly exotic taste to it, and conjures up the idea of sitting uncomfortably, or, as one of my students (wrongly!) once put it, trying to ’empty’  the mind.

So mindfulness just sounds a little more achievable. A bit more everyday. Our mind doesn’t have to be ’empty’, it just has to be noticed. We regain some control over our wayward minds and notice where it wanders off to, time and time again. Even more, mindfulness can be practised anywhere, any time…during any activity.

Of course, mindfulness and meditation are really one and the same thing, just like two sides of a coin. When I originally trained as a yoga teacher,  we were taught that, with regular meditation practice (that is, the formal, cross-legged kind!), the benefits would start to spill over into everyday life.  We would gradually apply the calm, spacious mind we experience in meditation to more and more of our lives – and, hey presto! that sounds just like mindfulness.

And so, when I teach meditation, I am also teaching mindfulness.  When I teach yoga, I am teaching mindfulness too.  Dru yoga, the style of yoga I teach, is soft, flowing and performed with awareness, finding the grace and ease of our bodies rather than trying to force anything. Joints are kept soft, not locked. We generally flow in and out of postures rather than settling in for a long hold. We listen to our bodies, which change daily, and the way we feel, and select the practice which seems right, in the moment. Mindfulness in action, in every movement, prepares the body and the mind for a more formal seated practice. We find the stillness in the movement, and also the movement in the stillness.

So now, when I teach mindfulness, I teach a whole range of things – from simple flowing movements, performed with awareness, to breath awareness, to meditation in both seated and standing positions, and lying down full-body and mind relaxation. I teach how to apply the principles of mindfulness to daily activities, to eating, to walking, to relating to others. I show how it can be hard, to begin with, and yet easy to fit in to our busy lives.  It can be as easy as bringing our awareness to the quality of our breath in a heated moment, as simple as savouring a lovely meal, or enjoying a hug.

I would love to read your experiences of mindfulness  – please leave your comments below!

Alison x