Tag Archives: strength

So thankful for yoga…

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yoga back care stretch relax Sunfish Yoga and Therapy

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.

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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

Exchanging ourselves for another

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Everyone has heard, at some point in their lives, the advice that they should  ‘think of someone worse off than themselves’.  It’s not always welcome, and it’s not always that easy to do.  Our own pain, whether physical or emotional, can be so overwhelming that it can be hard to imagine anything worse.  Unintentionally, we are frequently rendered more selfish, more self-absorbed, by our own suffering.

But if we can, for one moment, put that pain aside, we will be able to see that, yes, indeed, there are many others who are in worse pain, who are suffering more than we are.  So we have a choice. We can allow our own suffering to shut us off from others, or we can use it to connect more deeply with the trials of those around us.  To acknowledge our common humanity.  To realise that even those who we feel ‘have it all’, will be struggling with their own private demons.

And so the first step is to not run away from our pain, but to look straight at it. To really see it for what it is.  To truly feel our emotions and to stay with them.  If we are sad, to really be sad, not to shut it away and numb ourselves with something else.  If we are angry, to experience how that anger makes us feel, without acting it out – yes, it’s hard!

And then we can start to think of others who are feeling the same thing – in their own way, and their own circumstances, yes, but just to acknowledge that there are others who we know, as well as millions who we don’t know, who are suffering  the same despair, fear, anger – whatever it is.  Millions of people experiencing their own pain.

And this is not just a logical, mental acknowledgement, it is an emotional process.  We feel our own pain, and we feel that of everyone else.  And, ironically, this can help to strengthen us in our own time of need.  We are not alone in our suffering any longer.  We no longer feel so helpless.  We are more able to extend ourselves to help others.

Because strength isn’t all about solidity, it’s about softness.  In Dru yoga, we soften the joints, even in ‘strong’ postures, so that we don’t block energy from flowing freely around the body.  Whilst we move from a strong core, we maintain a fluidity of movement through the body, learning where to soften and let go.  True strength comes from flowing through our lives with courage and determination, not from standing still and building up the walls between ourselves and those around us. Knowing when to accept help from others, and when to offer it. It can be wonderful to feel the effects of a beautiful yoga posture or sequence – but even more wonderful to send those benefits to someone who is in need of them –  whether or  not they are capable of accessing them for themselves.  When I teach Energy Block Release 3 in my class, a profound heart-opening sequence, we always pause at the end, hands in Namaste, to experience the peace generated by the movements, and each of us is then able to ‘send out’ that peace to anyone who comes to mind in that moment.

The Buddhist practice of tonglen is the exchange of ourselves for another. It reverses our natural tendency to run away from what we perceive as bad (suffering) and instead encourages us to embrace it.  It turns our natural tendency to shield ourselves from hurt on its head.  It gives us courage and strength, by allowing us to truly experience our weakness.  As Pema Chodron writes,

‘It is a method for overcoming our fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our hearts’

~ Pema Chodron,’When Things Fall Apart’

We start by identifying our pain, and we breathe it in. On our outbreath, we breathe out softness, relief, and send it out.  This is a very powerful practice – instead of saying ‘no’ to what we see as ‘bad’, we say ‘yes, OK, this is how things are’.  We are accepting what is. Then we can think of someone else who is in similar pain – physical or emotional – and we breathe in their pain, too. We allow all this pain to open us, to free us, and we breathe out, softening and sending out this softness to them as well.  We can then move on to everyone who is sad,  angry, has a headache – whatever it may be – and  on our outbreath, send out that relief to them all.

When we have had a disagreement with someone, instead of isolating ourselves and allowing ourselves to make ourselves right and them wrong, we can instead try to breathe in their anger, opening ourselves to their viewpoint, and breathe out the softness, the spaciousness that we find. When we are anxious and troubled about someone, we identify with their pain, making it bigger than our own feelings about them.  We breathe in their pain and send out relief on our outbreath. There really are no limitations to this practise.  Whenever we feel good, we send it out.  Whenever we feel bad, we breathe it in. We can use it in formal meditation practice, or on the spot, whenever we remember.

If you have experience of working with tonglen, I’d love to hear about it.  If you haven’t and decide to give it a try, let me know how you get on.