Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Bit About Breathing

Breathing Room
If you don’t breathe, you die.  It is very simple.  “Hasta la vista, baby,” as Arnie might say.  Fortunately we don’t have to think about breathing 24 hours a day or we would not be able to sleep and that would be very annoying and inconvenient indeed. 
Unfortunately, because we don’t have to think about breathing, many of us don’t.  And that’s a shame because aside from being important, the breath is very interesting and, moreover, awareness of the breath can transform your life.  Really.
Awareness of the Breath
It’s a pretty big call to say awareness of the breath can transform your life some of you might say.  But have you ever really stopped to listen to it?  Feel it?  Have you ever noticed how it changes when you are anxious or when you cry those great big heaving sobs we all do from time to time?  Have you ever noticed the effect of taking a few deliberate long, slow, deep breaths can have on you?  If the answer is no, see if you can remember to take a few of them next time you start to feel overwhelmed by any emotion and see what happens.  And, if you can remember to take such breaths when you are doing difficult or ‘scary’ postures in yoga, you will notice a huge difference.
A part of your yoga practice always includes breath awareness.  Sometimes this is just at the beginning of the class, but, as you become more experienced, you will find that you become aware of the breath as you practice.  As the awareness increases, and as your practice develops, you will come to be able to consciously use the breath to assist you in your practice, and your day-to-day life. 
Breath awareness helps connect you to the present moment, which is why it is often used at the beginning of a class.  It also is the first step in learning to control the breath. 
Breathing Basics
There is a lot of anatomy and physiology about breathing that you can read out there, and I am going to grossly over-simplify it.  I am not an expert and if you want to read more then do a Google search using the key words “Leslie Kaminoff”, “Roger Cole”, or “H. David Coulter” and “breathing” and you will find some excellent reading material by highly qualified yogis.  Here, I just want to outline a few different types of breathing.  To do this, I will start with giving a really simplified version of how we breathe.
First, you have ribs.  Your ribcage holds and protects all sorts of important things, for instance your heart and your lungs.  Your lungs are basically ‘stuck’ to your chest wall (held in place by a vacuum that exists between the outer surface of the lungs and the inner surface of the chest wall). This means if your ribcage expands, your lungs also expand and if your ribcage gets smaller then the lungs will too.   
[Obscure but interesting fact #1: if you were to get stabbed in your chest the vacuum that holds your lungs to the chest wall would be penetrated and the lung would then collapse.  Because your lung collapsed you would not be able to breathe.  Because you have two lungs this would probably not be deadly unless both sides of your ribcage were penetrated although you would definitely need to go to a hospital.  In general, it is a good idea not to get stabbed]. 
Your ribcage can expand because of muscles that you have between the ribs (called intercostals).  These muscles can expand and contract and, as they do, the ribs (and the lungs) move with them.  The movement can be enhanced using other muscles as well.  It is helpful to think of your ribcage as a three-dimensional structure that can expand in all directions.  Importantly, the contents of the ribcage can change shape and volume.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Remembering Yogic Roots: Happy Australia Day!

Remembering Yogic Roots: Happy Australia Day!
January 26 is Australia Day.  I wondered what message I could post on such a day.  More importantly, what picture do I have that can send that message?  So I looked through my (limited) pictures folder and found the perfect one; a picture of my dad in front of a Queensland pub taken by my sister.  My dad, ever thinking of us, dressed down deliberately for the occasion by wearing a singlet with an unbuttoned flannie (that’s flannelette shirt for any non-Aussies).  This is not the type of outfit he would normally wear to the pub (he’d at least do up his shirt) but my sister did not have anything other than sports clothes to go out in that night and he wanted to make sure she felt comfortable.
Now, what does my dad in an unbuttoned flannie standing in front of a Queensland pub got to do with anything? Well, a lot.  My dad does not do yoga but he did instill in me from a very young age the importance of being healthy and treating your body with respect.  Sure, he fed us mars bars for breakfast sometimes, but that was only on a Saturday before we went out to Little Athletics to run around for three hours.  And when everyone else was eating white bread at school, we had brown bread—dad used to say eating white bread was like eating fresh air. 
My dad also gave to me the joy of long-distance running (see my earlier post about the marathon in Hips Don’t Die).  I was never a sprinter and I was never that fast, but I loved to get out there and go for really long runs.  It was while training for the marathon that I realized the connection between those long runs and meditation.  There is a certain point on a long run where tension in mind and body starts to dissolve and you come into a joyful place of flow.  Your breathing is steady and your body connects deeply to the continual rise and fall of the breath.  For me it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get into that place, after which point there is a place of mental clarity where peace and calm enters the mind and there is not a problem in the world that matters at that moment. 
Some people might call this a runner’s high.  I am not so sure.  I never felt high.  I always felt still, peaceful, and calm.  No matter what problem I had going into the run, it became so much more manageable coming out of it.  Nowadays just thinking about a long run even starts to put me in that frame of mind and I find myself connecting to my breath automatically. 
So, there we have it, I managed to squeeze in a birthday message, a picture of my dad in a flannie drinking a beer, and find a way to tie it into my yoga practice. Excellent work if I do say so myself, although not too hard really since there is likely a yogic tale or lesson in nearly all aspects of our life.  Go and explore and see what you can find!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dragonfly Does Handstand!

Even Yoga Teachers Are Still Learning...
She’s got no hands but she does a great handstand!  I wish I could feel so steady in this tricky posture (otherwise known as Adho Mukha Vrksasana—hard to say and hard to do). 
Sometimes people might think that just because I teach yoga I must find all yoga postures easy.  But handstand is one of those postures that I have actually been working on for a good two years now!  I guess you could say I am a bit of a slow learner. 
But that’s the thing about yoga, we are all constantly learning.  And that’s part of what makes it so fascinating.   The more you practice yoga the deeper you penetrate the layers of mind and body.   Every time I step onto my mat I learn something new.  This is even if I am doing the same old postures I have been doing for more than ten years.  What it means my practice is never the same.  It means each posture is never the same. 
In my classes I hope that I can encourage you to take an inquisitive approach to your yoga practice and come onto the mat with the attitude of an explorer; that way your practice will never become dull or stale. 
Thanks to one of the truly great explorers, Karen Conniff, for sending me this photo.   Karen was the first person to ever give me some handstand secrets so it is very fitting that she sent it to me!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Practing Yoga For Yourself, Not For Anybody Else

Practicing Yoga For Yourself, Not For Anybody Else
Teaching is one of those professions where you can receive as much as you give and often learn just as much as you teach. 
This week we said goodbye to one of our long-term yoga students—Jagath.  As with all students who I spend time with each week in class, I learned a lot from him.
As Jagath would be the first to tell you, he came to class with some pretty tight hips.  When your hips are tight a lot of yoga poses can become difficult, especially if you are sitting on the floor. 
But Jagath had a knack for coming up with interesting ways to come into postures so that he could practice yoga in a way that suited his body.   He never gave up and he always found a way to practice, even if it meant he was doing something a little different from everyone else when it came time to some of the floor-sitting postures in particular.
This is the true spirit of yoga.  To find out more about yourself and cultivate a practice that can transform you so as to bring about health, peace, and joy. 
I know a lot of us worry about whether we are ‘good’ at yoga, wonder whether everyone else is better than us, or, conversely, derive more positive feelings when we can see that we are better than someone else. 
But the thing is, none of this matters.  It does not matter if someone looks better in a pose than you do or if you look better in a pose than they do.  It does not matter if you have to take a modified version of a posture when others are doing something different. 
What matters in your practice is how it feels inside. 
We all have different bodies, different abilities, and while a dedicated yoga practice will bring about transformation you are still going to be uniquely you.
A large part of the transformation that has the potential to take place on your yoga mat—if you allow it to—is a psychological transformation.  This transformation happens as you recognize that you have come to practice for yourself, and not for anybody else.  That you are there to practice to the best of your ability, and not to critically compare yourself with anybody else.    
And while it may be hard not to notice that someone else is doing a full backbend and you are not, perhaps instead of lamenting you can also take a moment to try one of the following.  First, could you stop and ask yourself whether your life would really be any better if you could do that pose? Second, could you use this as an opportunity to practice santosha--being OK with who you are, accepting what you are, without feeling the need for anything extra to make you happy?  Third, could you find pleasure in their joy (mudita) rather than begrudging it or finding fault with yourself?

With that, thanks to Jagath for some lessons learned.  Good luck in your future ventures and hope to see you soon—maybe on your path to becoming a yoga teacher yourself! 
To Jagath and everyone else, may your practice be peaceful and joyous!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Happy Birthday Tilak (the doorman in the sarong)

Today is Tilak’s birthday.  Tilak is my husband and is also commonly known as the doorman to yoga students. 
Behind the man in the sarong is a genius, an amazingly generous person, and one of the most honest people I know. 
Thank you sweetheart for so many things.  My yoga classes would be so much more difficult without you. 
We all know Tilak does doorman’s duties, but he also cleans the roof so we can practice yoga, and tidies up the floor space inside the house just in case it rains. 
Tilak does these things, like other things, out of love and does not expect anything in return.  He is about the only man I know who works, cooks, cleans, and washes up just because it needs to get done.  It is because of all of the things that you do that so many people get to experience the joy of yoga. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Five Reasons To Catch The Bus To Yoga (if my 75 year old aunt can do it...)

OK, here are five EXCELLENT reasons to catch the bus—not only to my yoga class, but in general:
1)      The bus is CHEAP! 
No doubt about it, for those of us on a budget, the bus is definitely the cheapest mode of transport.  For example, if I wanted to enjoy a nice walk on Galle Face it would cost me Rs 400 to get there in a taxi, Rs 180 to get there in a metered trishaw (don’t get me started on the non-metered ones—you could pay more than a taxi!) but only Rs 15 to get there on the 112 bus!!  It might be free to cycle but I could not be certain what I might pay in future costs for the lung problems I might develop from inhaling those fumes on Galle Road or the hospital bill after getting run over (hopefully not by a bus!) 
2)      The bus is greener. 
I am not sure I can call some of the belching buses green exactly but, aside from your bicycle or feet, the bus is certainly greener than a car.  The bus can fit more than 50 people on at a time (admittedly, it is more pleasant when there are less people but, hey, it’s the environment and we need it to live) whereas your car, for the most part, is probably only carrying you.
3)      The bus goes where no other vehicle can or dares. 
In the recent Colombo floods I reckon I was about the only one who got to work nearly on time, thanks to the bus.  While all of the cars were stopped by the metre-deep pool of water that submerged Thumulla junction, my bus powered on through.  Sure, the water came up to the bottom step and our wake created some pretty big waves, but we bus commuters stayed dry inside and got to work.
4)       The bus is full of normal people. 
Contrary to popular opinion which labels bus commuters as full of perverts, I have not experienced any more ogling or harassment on the bus than I have encountered walking down the street minding my own business.  No-one on the bus pulls up beside me, winds down their window and asks me if I am Russian (their code for prostitute).  The bus driver, unlike many three wheeler drivers, has never dropped me at my stop and asked me if he could come inside.  The bus is basically filled with people just trying to get to and from work and their appointments.  They just cannot afford a car, taxi, or trishaw. 
5)      I live 100m from the best bus route in Colombo. 
It certainly makes it easier to catch the bus when you live near a good bus route.  The 138 and 120 rocket by every few seconds it seems.  They are joined by the 122, 125, 112, and 135.  You can get just about anywhere by bus. 
6)      You see cool things.
Ok, I know I said five reasons but I realized there is an important sixth reason.  The bus let’s you peek over those fences you never get to see from ground level.  I have seen some pretty interesting things riding the bus.  I am not going to tell you, of course, but let you catch the bus and discover for yourself. 

Hooray for the bus!  Why not give it a go?


Monday, January 17, 2011

But My Hips Didn't Die...

But My Hips Didn’t Die…
Hmmm, I wonder if his hips hurt?  Wait a minute, he doesn’t have any hips!  Which is exactly how you should start to feel after the Hips Don’t Die sequence finishes in a few weeks time—as though your hips have become empty and light (or at least emptier and lighter). 
We’ve had some interesting comments coming from the Hips Don’t Die class.  One I have heard a few times is: “I didn’t feel any pain the next day”.   Which I think is great as it means you are one step closer to those empty hips.  And I thought to write this blog to talk about the issue of “feeling it” the next day—why some people do and some people don’t and whether it really matters.  I am, of course, limiting myself to the idea of “feeling it” in your muscles. 
“Normal” aches and pains
Some of us are going to feel a few aches and pains the day after a yoga class as new and interesting parts of our bodies ‘awaken’.  And this is pretty normal, although I will say again what I often say in class because it is well worth repeating.  If you ever have a sudden pain anywhere, or if you ever have any pain very near to or ‘inside’ a joint, then please let me know; we are looking to move around the joints in yoga and not lock into them or strain them in any way, and we are looking to help the muscles into a place of ease rather than pull and jerk them around. 
Delayed onset soreness
Anyway, the type of soreness you may (or may not) experience after a yoga class is a delayed onset muscle soreness that usually appears a day or two after the class.   You can get this in a lot of activities and not just yoga.  Whether or not you feel this sort of soreness depends on a lot of things and even experienced yogis can get it after attending workshops or classes where they have re-connected with parts of their body they may have let lay dormant.  I know that when I first started going to my teacher’s weekend retreats—she does some pretty intense back bending—the muscles all up and down my spine would be protesting on the second day.  If they could speak they would surely be complaining “Aiyoooo!  Aineeeee!” like an aging relative telling me I didn’t visit them enough.  And, if the truth be told, if you visited more often (muscles and relatives that is) they probably would not complain as much! 
Pain is good mentality
Dormant muscles and aging relatives aside, we don’t need to associate muscle soreness with a ‘good class’.  Just because you do not feel sore the next day does not mean your yoga is not helping you.   It is likely that it is a sign that your body is already slightly more awakened in that area.  So if you don’t feel sore that is great news!  And let’s face it, if you were walking like you’d just run a marathon every time you came out of yoga class, would you really want to come back?!
By the same token, for those of us who do feel sore the next day, this does not mean there is something wrong.  You should also rejoice because it means your body is waking up.
Now, if you don’t even feel your hips during the class then you do have to ask yourself whether or not your technique is correct. 
Playing the edge
The thing about Hips Don’t Die class is that while you are in the class, holding some deeply challenging hip-opening postures, your hips should be talking to you.  For some of us they may even be shrieking like a gang of parrots.  This is ok and it is important to keep in mind that many of the deep hip-openers are, in fact, all about playing the edge. 
If your hips are not even whispering to you as you practice then perhaps you need to increase the intensity just a little bit so you can hear them.  Not so much that you are deafened by them, but just enough to be reminded that you have hips; a bit like that sometimes annoying person who stands with their toes just inside your personal space.  That is, close enough to remind you that they are there but not so close that you feel the need to tell them to back off, while all the time being mindful that if the person gets too close—and if the feeling in your hips become too intense—you can take measures to ease off and move back into a manageable intensity. Practice like this with your hips and pretty soon your comfort zone will widen as your hips become more spacious and light. 
Pouty Hips, Smiling Hips
All in all, those messages you feel from your hips are just their way of pouting a bit to remind you not to forget them.  For those of us who might have to dust off the cobwebs from our hip sockets, they will probably pout for a bit longer.    
Having said all this, maybe the next time you are in class you might imagine that any sound that is coming from your hips is actually not a pout or a shout at all.  Instead, can you imagine that maybe, just maybe, the voice you hear is a big sigh of relief and a thank you for all of the time you are giving to them!     
Here’s to empty hips.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hips Don't Die

I started the year thinking I needed to do something new.   So I came up with the idea to jazz up my Thursday night class a bit.  It is now called YogaSequence and we will be practicing a specific sequence for 8 weeks and then rotating.  The current sequence is called Hips Don't Die--thanks to Ruwanthie for coming up with the name.  I am going to post a few blogs as thoughts emerge from that class.  The first one is below.  Maybe I will see you Thursdays at 5:45pm at the Women's International Centre, next to the Lionel Wendt in Colombo 7!  Bring your hips.  I promise they won't die!
Hips Don’t Die
I once fractured my hip.  It seems funny that I can’t remember if it was my right hip or my left hip, I mean it’s not a small or usual thing to do.  Although come to think of it, I broke my arm once and cannot remember which one.  I do remember that I climbed up a slippery dip backwards and fell off to cause it though.  And I definitely know which foot I had surgery on a few years back, but that’s easy because I had surgery on both!  
The hip was broken due to a stress fracture and I got it training for a marathon.    I must have been pounding away on the pavement for about three months leading up to the marathon, each step adding to the burden of my poor hip.  The final straw (that broke the runner’s hip) happened sometime during the marathon.  I remember around the 28k mark feeling a distinctly odd sensation in my leg—I couldn’t be sure where it originated—and altering my stride to compensate.  I thought I was reaching the legendary marathoner’s “wall” and kept on going.  My run turned to more of a plod and finally to a pseudo-Quasimodo step and drag.  I remember my dad from the sidelines asking whether I had run out of petrol, to which I quipped, “Got plenty of petrol but there’s something wrong with the parts”.  Despite the odd leg situation I was pretty cheery.  I kept up my step-drag routine all the way to the finish line, at which point I collapsed with relief, sadness, joy, passion, wonder and amazement.   Somehow I remember falling into the open arms of my father and sister, although I can’t quite remember if this is just an embellishment to my memory or if it actually happened.  In any case, it feels like it would have been the perfect thing to do.
Quasimodo takes possession
A week later, when Quasimodo still had possession of my stride, I took myself off to the sports doctor who quickly gave me crutches, told me not to put any weight on my leg what-so-ever and sent me off for scans to confirm his diagnosis of a stress-fracture.  That was followed by six months of non- and partial weight bearing, leaning heavily on devices like crutches and walking sticks (I found a really cool one at a local market that did not make me look 75 years old).
Anyway, there are a lot of lessons I learned from this experience.  But I still wonder why it was that one hip fractured and the other didn’t?  I am not sure I know the real answer but I my own guess is there was some slight asymmetry or imbalance that placed more stress on one side of my body than the other.  Where was the asymmetry?  Where was the imbalance?   Questions to which I don’t have an answer.  What I do know is that years later I became aware of a difference in my hips while doing pigeon pose (eka pada rajakapotasana) in yoga—one leg slipped quite readily into the posture while the other put up a picket line in protest. 
Growing awareness
The awareness on the yoga mat gradually lead to awareness sitting in my chair at work; I realized I sat on one side of my bottom more than the other.  It lead to awareness while standing in a supermarket queue; I realized I tended to lean on one leg more than the other.  It lead to awareness on the bus as it sped up going around the round-about at Thumulla Junction each morning; I realized I gripped one hip more than the other to keep me upright.  Always the same side, the same hip tightening. 
Our body develops habits over a life-time.  Part of the process of yoga is becoming aware of these habits and learning to discard the unhelpful.  These can be postural habits our body has formed, but, equally, they can be emotional or thought patterns that keep recurring and having a destructive influence on our lives. 
You can learn about your habits anywhere but the Hips Don’t Die class will definitely give you the chance to reflect on any differences that might have been forming in your hips over the years.   Because some of the deep hip openers are held for a few minutes, and because this can feel very intense, you also have the opportunity to reflect on some of your typical reactions to managing intensity and perhaps discover new ways to manage it.  We will explore some of these in class and I will write more on that later. 
See you in class.  And remember, no matter how they might feel in the midst of a deep pigeon pose, your hips definitely won’t die!

Yoga Classes In Colombo

The photo above is of Tilak who used to sit at the door and let people in at the old yoga venue.  I can't bear to take it down so I have left it posted but please not this is not where we do yoga from anymore!!

Yoga Class Timetable for May 2014.  Please check calendar on the blogpost for most up-to-date timetable and for any changes.
All classes @ 49 Skelton Road, Colombo 5 unless otherwise stated.

Afternoon/Evening Classes
Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays 6.30-8pm 
Saturdays 5-7pm

Looking forward to seeing you somewhere soon. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Yoga Among the Gum Trees

This blog is called, the .lk being a suffix for Sri Lanka.  When I was at university I used to love to go to my favourite cafe and sit and write and contemplate.  Now that I live in Sri Lanka I haven't found 'my cafe' so I thought I would make this space something close to it.  Here I will post news about yoga (and maybe a few other things) as I experience it here in Sri Lanka.  Having said that, I am an Australian, so don't be surprised to see some photos of the Aussie bush in my cafe!  Thanks to my sister for taking this photo.  What an amazing place.