- Stability comes before flexibility: if it’s a beginners class, you should be working on standing poses for the first few weeks to build a strong framework. All this ‘flow’ stuff is for people who don’t have the stamina for (or understanding of) real yoga, yet.
- Cultivate humility: however much experience you’ve had, you need to listen to and follow the teacher’s instructions. Yoga is a huge subject so loosen up your brain and be prepared to be broadminded, open and flexible in your thinking.
- Wear modest clothing: from the perspective of your teacher, or the person behind you when you bend over, neither a thong nor a tiny tank top is a good look. No-one needs to see your tattoos or body piercings.
- Avoid baggy leggings and short waisted tops: your teacher needs to see what your legs, ankles and feet are doing so wear high-waisted leggings and/or modest shorts (please mind the gap, chaps…). On top, wear a short/long sleeved t-shirt, long enough to tuck in for inversions and it won’t ride up when you raise your arms over your head. A wardrobe malfunction in the middle of a blissful pose is deeply annoying.
- Don’t bring water into class: it’s a trip hazard and a distraction. Drinking during class disturbs your digestive system and, unless you have a medical condition, you should already be properly hydrated.
- Food: a good yoga class calms your appetite. Have an empty stomach or a little food an hour beforehand. If you have low blood sugar, fruit is a good standby to have afterwards.
- Change your perspective: don’t cling to the same space every week and don’t ask someone else to move – move yourself. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.
- Never say, “I can’t”: we cannot avoid our own weaknesses or use them as an excuse not to try. We learn to cure what can be cured, endure what we must endure, and how to tell the difference. A 90-minute weekly class is enough to feel the benefits after 6 weeks.
- Sooner or later, we have to go inside: a good teacher will use different methods to achieve specific effects. The same pose can be energising, relaxing, challenging or healing, depending on the approach. To find out what’s going on, go inside.
- Leave the outside world outside the door: allow your perspective to change and even the most intractable of problems will shift.
Category Archives: Beginners etc.
Yoga is not about the outward form of a pose, the asana. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali define “asana” as a position that, “is steady and comfortable”. Patanjali also mentions the ability to sit for extended periods of time as one of the eight limbs of his system.
One of the stories Abhijata tells is of her pride at staying in Sirsasana for over half an hour. She went to Guriji and said, “Grandfather – I stayed in Sirsasana for over thirty minutes!” She assumed he’d be delighted, amazed at her progress. Instead he said, “But what did you DO?”
If we’re not waiting for the flashbulb to go off and record our moment of perfection, what exactly are we supposed to be doing when we hold a pose? And what do we do if it is not “steady and comfortable”?
At first, before we are able to stay and hold a pose for any length of time, we have to go the the edge of our capacity, connect with each part of the body, check the balance and alignment of the body. At this point, yoga becomes a science.
It helps to think of your body as a laboratory. Your skin, muscles, organs, bone and breath are your equipment. Your mind is the clipboard where you record your results. You apply the shape and form of the asana to the body. What happened? On the left? On the right? Will a prop extend, release, facilitate, inform the results? Where did the breath flow, touch? What shape was it?
Yoga is to explore your internal world, using the asanas and the breath to map your universe. You may find surprising things there – pain, sorrow, anger. These are like the boulders in your path. Sit for a while with the boulder and examine it. Resist the urge to blame others, your teacher, yoga. These are the best learning experiences we can have, for this is when yoga truly begins to heal.
- A bottle of water: drinking during class disturbs the digestive system. If you need to hydrate, do so before or after class. And anyway, it’s a trip hazard.
- Baggy leggings: your teacher needs to see your legs, ankles and feet. Baggy pants fall down during inversions. And again, they’re a trip hazard.
- Food: have you noticed how a good yoga class suppresses your appetite? Have an empty stomach or a little food an hour beforehand, and if you have low blood sugar, fruit is a good standby.
- Your own space: don’t cling to the same space every week – change your perspective and help others change theirs. So don’t ask someone else to move – move yourself.
- Resistance to change: if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got. You cannot avoid your own weaknesses or use them as an excuse. Resistance is futile.
- Pre-conceived ideas: teachers use different methods to achieve specific effects. The same pose can be energising, relaxing, challenging or healing, depending on the approach. Go inside and see what happens.
- Modest clothing: think of it from the perspective of your teacher, or the person behind you. Believe me, a thong/tiny tank top is not a good look and no-one is interested in your tattoo/navel ring.
- Humility: our attitude can often be narrow, limiting and rigid. With humility we allow our yoga practice to change and re-shape us, body, mind and spirit.
- Humour: good humour is strength of character. Laughing at ourselves, we challenge our difficulties and overcome them. Don’t give up on that handstand: laugh and try again.
- The outside world: by definition, things that are common in normal life but are not part of your experience. Leave it all outside the door. Allow your perspective to change and even the most intractable of problems will shift.
If you put the phrase ‘yoga leggings’ into a search you’ll see a lot more than you wanted to see. (And a lot of it is not tasteful, especially on Twitter!)
As ever, when it comes to what the body needs rather than what the ego wants, BKS Iyengar was a pioneer. He designed and perfected all the yoga props we see in use today. Arguably his most universal gift to the yoga community is what we now call Pune Pants. The design allows complete freedom for the body whilst protecting the modesty of the people in the class. They are designed like a pair of bloomers but with an extra piece in the gusset so you can bend, extend, squat and twist with no limitation imposed on the movement of the body by the fabric clinging to your skin, and pulling it in the wrong direction.
Try Eka Pada Sarvangasana (see image from RIMYI, left) in your usual lycra, then try it in cotton Pune Pants…..see? Your groins will love you for it!
For more choices, lovely Indian fabrics , hand-made in the UK, see this site: www.frannixon.com
So if you want to see yourself as others see you, push your fist into your leggings – if you can see your knuckles, we can see your knickers. And you won’t have to throw away all your cosy leggings – just wear them underneath in the winter. The opportunities for colour co-ordination and fashion statements are endless…..
Photo credit: Ray Burmiston http://www.rayburmiston.com
Yoga, Pranayama and Meditation – why is home practice so difficult? With a little more time and effort between classes you could develop your practice and begin to understand and enjoy some of the more intangible benefits that yoga has to offer. These five simple steps will help to capture the enthusiasm from class and bring it home into your private practice. It’s really very simple and the only question is what path you might take between steps four and five.
1. Make space – a corner will do, somewhere you can put your mat down and shut the door. In this space, create a sense of the sacred. Use a windowsill, shelf or side table and make a shrine – a tea light, a statue, a flower in a vase – any objects which bring focus to the mind and humility to our intentions. This space reminds and encourages us to do better, to go deeper, and the people around you will appreciate and respect it too. (Saucha – Cleanliness.)
2. Have a plan. Even if your plan is to go with the flow you’ll find it helpful to have structure to act as a reminder once you’re ‘in the zone’. If you want a sequence, write it down. Preparation is an important part of the process. (Santosha – Contentment.)
3. Use a timer. To build up your strength and stamina by holding poses, staying in inversions, and for recuperative poses, in home practice the timer is our teacher and our best friend. For Savasana, Pranayama and meditation, a timer can help you to release more and in the end, you won’t need it. If you use a phone or tablet, use it to store your practice notes, make use of the timer, but always put it in flight mode. (Tapas – Discipline.)
4. Always begin by sitting for a few moments. This quiet time prepares the brain and the body: it instills the essence of yoga practice from the outset and reconnects the brain with the body. (Svadhaya – Self Study.)
5. Always finish with Savasana. The healing benefits of your practice need to percolate through all the cells of the body and this takes time. Offer up the fruits of your labour (however bitter!) to a higher self. Lie flat, a blanket for the head and/or a chair for the legs, if necessary. Set your timer and if you fall asleep, so be it. (Isvara Pranidhana – Surrender to a higher being.)
Satya is the Sanskrit word for truth. It also refers to a virtue, to being truthful in one’s thought, speech and action. In Yoga, satya is one of the five yamas. It is the virtuous restraint from falsehood and, crucially, the distortion of reality in one’s expressions and actions.
A student recently asked me why I didn’t give positive feedback to individuals in class. It’s a question that comes up from time to time. Speaking as a school teacher, she said she spent her working life encouraging and praising pupils for effort and achievement. Why is there no praise in a Yoga class?
There is a stock answer: when I say to a yoga student, “Well done”, I am giving myself a pat on the back. I am saying, “Look! My teaching is so excellent, and this student is living proof!” Is that Satya?
What about all the lessons that student has not learned, the basic actions avoided and evaded even after months and years of practice? Shoulders back, lift your chest – do I still need to say this every time? Clearly yes – I have not taught them this lesson yet. That these actions are not coming tells me their mind is elsewhere or their ego is still in the driving seat, and I have not dealt with those issues. That is the reality, the Satya in this situation. To say “Well done” is to distort reality for both of us.
How many of us experience moments of dread when the teacher moves on to our ‘worst’ pose, the one we love to hate? Somehow we struggle through, cling on and breathe a sigh of relief when they move to the next pose. And then when we are practicing, when we see the results begin to come, is there a part of us that looks forward to showing off our new-found skills and achievements in class, anticipating admiring glances from our fellows and praise from the teacher? Is this Satya?
Some students just seem to flow into the most demanding of poses – deep twists, spring up into handstands but how is their practice in, say, Savasana for instance?
And is it so very wrong to quietly say, “Well done” to someone who has been struggling and finally gets up into Urdhva Dhanurasana? When I’m immersed in my teaching, sometimes the words just pop out of my mouth! But what if a student is unlikely ever to achieve that pose? Maybe there’s an injury, a difficulty that precludes them from the final pose – is their effort any the less because of that?
Saying, “Well done” to someone in a Yoga class is the quickest way to stunt their progress. When someone is praised, in that moment, the learning stops: out come the laurels and the ego, effort ceases and is replaced by laziness, apathy and then disillusion. The brain takes over and their experience of yoga narrows down to a few postures they can use to demonstrate their experience and ability. Satya includes the reality of our inexperience, our inability too.
In Iyengar Yoga the challenge is to learn the essence of the pose, not just its technique or shape. If it was all about form and beauty, Yoga would be an Olympic sport, like gymnastics. When Mrs. Urdhva Dhanurasana finally lifts up from the floor, to say “Well done” creates a distortion of reality: the discipline and effort are gone and the student gets mentally ‘stuck’, believing that’s all they have to do. Their practice will suffer because getting into the pose is only the beginning. My teaching therefore is at fault. That is Satya!
Releasing muscle tension to improve posture, alignment and movement is significantly more effective at reducing chronic or recurrent back pain than typical prescription treatment. (BMI 2009) According to Frederick Alexander, the founder of the Alexander technique, we “translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual into muscular tension”. The resulting poor posture compresses the neck and spine and can irritate the nerves leading out to various parts of the body. Painkillers do have their place in a treatment programme but only as short-term relief. What can we do to treat and prevent back pain in the longer term?
Many people advocate strengthening the ‘core mucles’. Whilst this might be helpful, in the sense that any exercise can be, it’s far too general to help people who already have a problem. People need specific advice and guidance on musculo-skeletal alignment: they need to feel its effects for themselves and re-train their bodies to adopt better habits under all circumstances, sitting, standing, walking, driving, exercising.
Iyengar Yoga practice encourages us to use a range of postures to become more conscious of our alignment, and of the relationship between different parts of the body. This can be as obvious as the position of a leg or arm in relation to the trunk, or as subtle as our sense of the direction of an area of skin or the angle of a joint. In this way, by identifying and correcting our physical tensions and mis-alignment, we can have a corrective effect on many systems of the body. We can easily release tension, thus correcting musculo-skeletal problems, preventing further injury and pain.
In terms of your ‘core muscles’, Geeta Iyengar had a lovely analogy for this. Think of a baby monkey clinging to its mother as she swings high up through the trees of the jungle. The relationship between the back of the abdomen and the spine, what we call ‘core muscles’, should echo this.
Here’s a quick and easy example – are you sitting comfortably? Consider the position of the front and back of your lower trunk. The position of the pelvis is the critical factor in supporting the weight of the abdomen: everything else, including ‘core strength’, is secondary. So here’s a test for you. Lift your pubic bone up at the front and draw the back of the pelvis (your Sacrum bone) down. Now roll your shoulders back and lift your navel area up and slightly back. It shouldn’t feel hard – this is not about creating a six-pack, which incidentally could just as easily pull a weak lower back out of alignment.
Yoga postures can help you to realign your pelvis, identify your core muscles and release lower back pain, one step at a time.
These yoga postures form a simple daily routine with three key benefits:
- They help to keep your lower back muscles and your spine healthy and supple.
- They help to re-align your pelvis, esp. the first three poses.
- They will strengthen the longitudinal, transverse and oblique muscles around the front and back of your abdomen, to better support the weight of the abdominal organs.
You will feel some benefits immediately, but this kind of conscious re-training takes practice, so keep it up!
- Lying – lie down flat on the mat, and push your feet into a wall. (Have them 4-6 inches apart.) Feel how your thigh bones press down towards the floor. Become aware of the pubic bone at the front of the pelvis and the sacrum bone at the back. Draw your pubic bone towards your navel, your navel slightly inwards towards your spine, and lengthen your lower back and sacrum away. This realigns the pelvis and the thigh bones. Now fold your arms, hold your elbows, inhale and take your folded arms over your head. Breathe normally for 5-10 breaths. Change the link and repeat, lifting the chest and pressing the legs down as you go.
- Sitting – try the same alignment sitting on a chair. Draw your navel back towards your spine, lift your chest and take your shoulders back. Feel better? What you have just done is to lift your lower abdomen up and lengthen your lower back down, which levels the bones of your pelvis and puts the weight of the abdomen into the ‘bowl’ of the pelvis, where it belongs, instead of dropping over the front of your pubic bone and giving you a belly!Lifting your chest and taking your shoulders back makes more space around the front and back of your abdomen, keeping this girdle of muscles firm, and of course relieving the pressure on your digestive organs. REMEMBER: this is not about creating a hard abdomen: it’s about realigning the skeleton-muscular structure.
- Bharadvajasana – sit sideways on the chair, feet flat on the floor and knees pressed together, with the back of the chair to your right. (If your feet don’t reach the floor, place a block under your feet.) Repeat the abdominal lift as above. Then, keeping your knees and hips steady, turn your trunk towards the back of the chair and hold with both hands. Keeping your knees and thighs together, push gently with the right hand and pull with the left, so your trunk turns and your spine revolves.Keep your shoulders level, breathe steadily, and keep your chin in line with your breastbone. Hold for 3 breaths. Slowly turn to the front and pause for a breath. Swivel round on the seat so the back of the chair is now on your left. Repeat to the right and left once more, pausing between each twist. (Ladies: Miss this one out if you have your period.)
- Navasana – face the seat of your chair. One at a time place your heels on the seat, holding a strap round the soles of your feet. Begin to straighten your legs. Tightening your kneecaps and extend the backs of your legs, pushing your heels away, and pulling on the strap with your hands. Learn to lift your chest, waist and lower back away from the floor. Keep your head, neck and face relaxed. Breathing evenly and smoothly, hold for 3-5 breaths.Relax the pose, bring your feet down if you need to, then repeat twice more, rolling your shoulders back as you lift your chest. Try to perch on your buttock bones! If you find the chair too high to start with, use a wall and gradually work your way up to chair height.
- Jatthara Parvatasana – lie down on your mat. Bring your knees up over your chest and push gently into your heels, keeping your legs firm, your feet and knees gripped together. Place your arms on the floor, straight out at shoulder height, backs of the hands to the floor. Keeping your knees together (that’s the tricky part!) and well bent, roll them slowly to your right and left, keeping a slow and steady rhythm to the movement and the breathing. Keep your face and jaw relaxed.Repeat this three times on each side, then rest with your feet hip width apart on the floor, knees bent and together. Repeat for three each side again.
- Urdhva Prasarita Padasana –lie down on your mat with your knees bent up. Lift your hips and put a yoga block under your sacrum. Bend your knees over your chest and put a strap over the balls of your feet, holding one end in each hand. Breathe in. As you breathe out push your heels up towards the ceiling, keeping your feet together and aiming to straighten your legs. The shorter your hamstrings, the more challenging this will feel.Hold this ‘L’ shape for 2-3 breaths, and then bring your knees back down to your chest on an exhalation. Rest for 2 breaths. Repeat this three times. If you find it difficult to straighten your legs, take your legs and feet further away from your face by using a longer strap. Experiment until you find an angle at which your legs feel comfortably straight, backs of the knees open. You can also rest your heels on a wall, as with Navasana. Finally put your feet down on the floor hip-width apart, knees bent and together, to allow your abdominal muscles to rest. Eventually, lift your hips and slide the block out, and rest your back on the mat.
- Legs over a Chair – lie with your back on the floor and your legs resting over the seat of the chair. (Put the chair sideways so you have room for your feet.) The edge of the seat should come right into the backs of your knees, so your calves rest completely on the seat. If you are less than 5’6” you might be more comfortable with a yoga block under your sacrum. If you are over 5’9”, you will find a well folded blanket on the chair seat more comfortable. Your thighs should be slanting slightly away from the chair. This particular pose relived a tight lower back and relaxes the spinal muscles.
- Savasana – To finish, lie with your back on the floor. It’s important to release the whole spine. You may be more confortable with your knees over a rolled blanket or bolster. Stay resting for 3-5 minutes, keeping the mind quiet and breathing normally.
Click HERE for a printable pdf version of this sequence.