Monday, March 21, 2016

Knees away, groins emerging for better back bends

This week I will be running a workshop delightfully titled 'Groins Emerging'.  Here is a little taster of Harry and I doing a little bit of synchronous work along that theme!

One of the key things we will be working on is the idea of softening and lengthening around the front of groin area as one of the 'tricks' to free the spine in back bending positions. I call this position knees away, groins emerging.  They don't get pushed or forced up.  They 'emerge' and soften as the knees move away.

This is slightly different to how many people are used to initiating a backbend.  To people newer to my class what I see are lots of pelvic curls and groins thrusting going on.  I don't want to suggest that this is a wrong movement.  But for my spine freeing purposes it can tend to jam you in the lower back.

So we will be working on figuring out some ways to first get length in your lower back.

Then we will move to some arms away and chest emerging, as shown below.

From there we might work towards combining those two elements (knees away, groins emerging and arms away, chest emerging) to see how it can support a possible spine lengthening back bend.

From there some people will possibly work on a bit more arms away and chest emerging to go deeper. But that is pretty tricky.  It is not for everyone.  

Harry and I went back up to our backbend to take a foot up.  But you could also do this (and we can try in the workshop) with the elbows on the ground like in the start position.  Maybe not.  I will be there to see what type of position will be helpful for you and it might be something different.  

We ended up where we started.  In our case this was on the road in front of what turned out to be the rubbish tip.  No wonder it smelled so bad.  Still, through it all we smiled and kept in touch with the core theme of knees away, groins emerging.  
Finishing up with a bit of eye contact, some shared laughter at our antics.  This felt beautiful to do together, almost like we were synchronised swimming yogis on the road.  

So join us for an extra special workshop on Good Friday if you are round, 9-11am (probably a bit later).  This is not for 'advanced' or 'extreme' back bending but for people who want to learn to move more freely in their spines, stop over arching their lower back and feeling all scrunched, and who want to hang out and share a few laughs.  

Happy and safe practicing. 

Much metta,

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Screaming Sounds of Silence

Quiet sitting with Yoga Frog
Struggling with silence?  In this post I try to dispel some myths around silence, highlight my own fall from a pedestal I had put myself on, and give a few thoughts on how you might manage the silent class.

The back story
About 10 years ago I lived alone in Sri Lanka in a small room.  I had no radio or television.  Just a room with a bed, table, a little kitchenette, bathroom, and myself.

I was busy working and not at home that much.  When I was at home there was plenty of street noise going on.  A temple down the road chanting over load-speakers, horns horning, buses belching.  There was a war going on at the time so there were sirens wailing intermittently.

But at home there was never any spoken words.  I was by myself after all and am not prone to talking aloud.  But there were still the silent words.  The silent voice.  The one inside my head chattering, commenting, planning, and wondering.

When I was busy doing something like cooking or washing up or getting dressed or cleaning the floors or practicing my yoga it was less chatty.  The voice had only had a few things to notice or mention.

I relied on that voice most when I was not busy.  That was not much of the time mind you as I avoided non-busy time (more on that shortly).

I was a little smug that here I was living this life without the trappings of technology (no wifi or smart phones then either).  I would sometimes think I was on a good road to a simple and mindful life.

"I don't need a TV.  I don't need a radio," I would think.  I was pretty chuffed at what I thought was as my lack of attachment to those things.

Instead of radio or television or videos I sought out newspapers, books, and journals.  Things that I thought of as somehow better.  More nourishing brain food or mind food was the line of thinking.

Whenever I was not doing something I had those books or readings handy.  This included the 'not-doing' activity of eating.

One day I came home and realised I had read all of the newspapers that week, all of the books, and it was time for dinner at my little table and I had nothing to read.

I went into a panic.  The voice inside was a bit frantic.  'What will I do? What will I do? What will I do?'

It was a bit like the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland looking at his watching saying 'I'm late, I'm late, I'm late' and just as anxious as well.

I could feel the anxiety in my body.  My heart pounding, body tensing.

I suppose I was lucky I had the good sense (and perhaps the good reading of a few books on Buddhism behind me) to stop and notice and think 'Hey, look at you all in a panic!'

To stop and ask, 'Is this something to really be worried about?'

And to have the presence of mind to be able to pause and wonder and realise in one of those eureka moments, 'By gosh, you have become attached to busy-ness.  And you have become attached to those words.  You think you are comfortable here on your own but you are not.  You need to anchor yourself to those words to distract you from being on your own.'

What I realised is that I had simply found something else to do to keep my mind occupied.   Far from being present and mindful I was just substituting one form of distraction for another.  Instead of moving images across a screen or sounds vibrating in my ear drums, or the movement of my body to rock and calm me, I had that voice reading aloud some words on a page.

When I was busy doing things and moving my body I found I did not need that voice--perhaps because I love movement and I love to sense the movement and I can go inside and just feel and sense and be.

But when I had to be still with something I was not particularly interested in (I have never been a foodie and I suppose some people would find it delightful just to feel and sense and be with their food and would never want to be distracted from that) I found I had an enormous challenge.

I had to be quiet, and pretty still, with just me and my thoughts to occupy me.

It was a bit scary.  I realise for me I was scared of my own thoughts.

Fortunately I had enough insight (but obviously not that much that it took me so long to realise this) and some basic practice in me that I could start to sit down and just eat that night without the need for  those written words.
Me learning some mindful eating!
Smiling away at this delightful dhal and pol sambol.

So I sat and ate in a much truer silence.  The silence of me, my body, and my food.  I continued that practice for some time.  It was hard and I suppose that is why it is called a practice.  I tried to just chew and eat and enjoy that experience.  It took much longer to eat and was a process of retraining myself for this simple task.  I tried not to allow myself to then get distracted by some internal mental chatter and would keep bringing myself it my eating and (again trying to apply some of the things I had been reading) perhaps just had some nice thoughts about the food and who had grown it or where it had come from (trying not to whizz away on other thoughts from there).  I guess it was an act of appreciation.

Sounds of silence?
You are never in complete silence.

Even if you can stop talking there are still sounds.

There are the sounds around you and the sounds within you.

Thoughts are not sounds but in the sense that you can 'hear' yourself talking they are.

My dad has chronic tinnitus and the fire alarms, as he calls them, that are going off in his head are not sounds to me but are a very real and disturbing noise to him.

There is stuff (very technical word) inside most of our heads going on all the time to produce some internal noise or clutter.

If you can sit and be quiet and manage to quiet your inner voice (very hard) you might notice your ears drawn to sounds like the birds chirping, your clothes rustling, maybe your stomach gurgling, a pulse in your ears.

Or, conversely, if you draw your attention progressively to those sounds you might help yourself to quiet your inner voice.

I have had meditation teachers who  have used that type of progressive turning of attention to various sounds as a way of supporting concentration on something other than your own chatter.

Our silent class that we rotate through every 9 or so weeks is another way of practicing silence and practicing drawing awareness to something else than 'hanging on' to the sound of your teacher talking you through how to do everything.

There is a time and place for verbal instruction but there is a time and place for letting go.

But without the teacher's words to hang onto what do you do with your auditory sense?

Language and language processing take up a massive part of our brain's processing capacity.  One of the reasons I believe you can feel so calm after a silent class is because your brain has not had to use all of some much energy on processing language.

But what if words are what you cling to?  Not just words but the sound of words?  Even if they are the sound of silent words you speak in your own head?

Suddenly, deprived of those external words from the teacher, you are left with no words but your own.  It can be difficult and even disturbing for some.

Trying to slow down this internal chatter is one of the most challenging parts of our practice.  And it is a practice.

So what can you do if you are in one of my silent classes, or even at the end of the class in meditation?

A few tips for the silent class and meditation
If your thoughts are really chatty and you find yourself caught in the whirlwind of their currents, you might need to anchor yourself to something else and draw your concentration to that.

If you have a part of your body that needs relaxing you could try to sense that part and do what you can in each posture to release and relax it.

You could try to bring yourself back to natural breathing, and just keep bringing yourself back to that.

You could try to bring yourself back to relaxing your tongue and lips--these are parts of the body that tend to get tense even without you thinking about it.

You could do a mental scan of your spine each posture and check in that it feels good and then do something about it if it does not.

All of these would be techniques of drawing your concentration to one (internal) thing.

You will likely find that you soon forget about that thing and your mind has wandered and you are thinking about something or chatting to yourself.  That is normal and ok.  Just notice that it has happened and remind yourself what you were trying to concentrate on or notice.  Try to be forgiving of yourself rather than judgemental at those times.

With that in mind it is perhaps helpful to think of something you could use at a sort of 'anchor' while you practice if you need it.  Perhaps think of it before you start the practice if you can.

Over time and with practice you might find you do not need that anchor to be firmly secured and you can allow yourself to float and wander free without flying away.
Being part of the group can help.

Some other thoughts I had would be, if you are in the class, is to make sure you keep some proximity to the group.

I tend to find that people positioned outside the group or way to the side tend to get more 'lost'.  A bit like Nemo swimming out of the reef.  The group practice is time to be a part of the group.  A part of that school of fish--swimming around and moving with the group.

It does not mean you are doing precisely the same thing.  I like to think of this silent group practice as like the troupe of Botswanan dancers I saw recently who kept a general rhythm and movement but still had individual personalities and moves that were distinctly their own.

You need to remind yourself to free yourself of comparison to others, that it is ok to be doing what you are doing.

Remember what I say at the beginning of each class?  Try your best, but without being attached to an outcome.  Without stress or strain.

Remember what I say before that?  The main purpose of this practice is to move circulation and energy through your body.  That happens best when you move slowly, stretch less, tense less, think less, and breathe less.  All of these things, done in excess, will actually block your practice.

Remember what I say at the end?  Be content with what you have done, and where you are right now.

It can be helpful to enter the silent class with an overall attitude that reflects you will try your best, without being attached, and being content with whatever comes about.  Who knows what it will be?

In sum
To be clear, I am not a meditation teacher.  I have some experience with it but I could never think to be telling people or teaching them about it.  But I have had some great teachers in the past.  If people ask me about learning meditation I try to pass them on to someone who has a long lineage that stems from a whole life practice and philosophy that supports a meditation practice.

To be clear, I am far from perfect in any type of practice.  I am still practicing.  I am practicing moving.  I am practicing being still.  I am practicing being a good person.  I still have lots of fails.  I still needs more practice.

To be clear, it is not that I am trying to suggest you stop thinking.  You won't.  You might, however, learn to be a little less attached to those words so you don't start flying away or get carried away with something that immobilises you from practicing and being.

As an addendum I remember saying to a lovely meditation teacher friend around this same time that I did not want my mind to be quiet.  I remember telling him how I wanted to have my overwhelming enthusiasm and joy and be able to speak all of those things and be awash in those lovely feelings.  I had misunderstood the essence of the inner peace and calm and joy of which he was speaking.

Perhaps I still misunderstand (very likely).  With practice I have come to sense that there can be a most wonderful glow of joy and peace that can radiate from this beautiful quiet stillness that is much more powerful and longer lasting than the temporary thrill of excitement that comes with an over-aroused nervous system.

And finally, to be really clear, my intent in writing this is to support you in a joyful and peaceful practice that is long lasting.  It is not to tell you what to do or what you should be doing.  If it does not feel right then don't do it.

Take care of yourselves and others.  And why not try all or some of these things in my upcoming yoga retreat!  We will be in Sri Lanka in April 2016 enjoying moving, breathing, nature, ourselves, and each other (um, don't read too much into that last bit!).

Much metta,

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Big Little Hip Sequence To Challenge You

Wow, what a title.  I must try and make it live up to its name.

Here I share with you a short sequence we are practicing at the moment in class.  It involves two basic postures although you transition through other positions to get there.

Most people will experience some sensation around their outer hip (outer or side butt area), which will be working and lengthening at the same time.  That can help you get stronger and more agile.

The standing leg is working strongly very deeply on the inside and outside of the thigh to help keep the pelvis stable as well.  This type of stability is essential for standing postures and especially one legged standing postures.

Remember, there is lots of goodness to be had here.  Just don't overdo it.

I will sequence the postures, layering additional movements.  Try not to 'lose' what you cultivated in a previous action by striving too hard to get to the next.  Do not be attached to a particular outcome. Be content wherever you happen to be.  Enjoy, sense, and experience.

I have sped up the video below but you can play it at half speed to get the sense of the very slow movement I am doing.  It took 2 minutes for me to cycle through these two postures in real time while this video takes about 54 seconds.

Below are step by step instructions.  Two key things I am focusing on throughout (they are not the only things you could focus on) are: 1) rolling front thigh out and back thigh in; 2) lengthening the back of the spine (doing a little back bend in my middle upper back) while keeping lower ribs hugged in.  This is not about a straight front leg.  If that straightens then so be it.  It is not about getting the back leg raised as high as you can either.  If it comes up then so be it.  Pay more attention to the two key things I just listed.

Standing to folding forward
Basics throughout include trying to unsquash front of groin and lengthen lower back.  Also, to roll the front thigh out (back thigh in).  To support these two ideas start in standing.  Sitting bones to heels, top of pelvis back (opens groins and lengthens lower back).  Roll both thighs out (you can start with big toes touching, heels apart and try to squash heels together if you like).

As you fold forward try to keep those actions.  It is not important that the legs straighten.  Push your front of groins forward as you lower.

 Stepping back, lengthening, rotating
Step a foot back.  As you step back be sure you do not drop or sink into the standing leg.  Try to feel you are pressing your outer hips towards one another.  The standing leg tends to swing out to the side so try your best to avoid that. The standing leg also tends to roll in.  That means your knee tends to drop towards the big toe side of your foot.  Roll the thigh out so it is pointing more to the baby toe side of your foot.  Firm your inner thigh.

 Straighten the back leg and roll the thigh in.  Lengthen in the middle back (try to do a backbend there) while keeping the lower ribs in.

Press your front of groins forward and lean forward.

If your back foot is feeling light, if your front hip feels strong and stable, then perhaps raise the straight back leg.  It is not important how high it comes.  It is not even important that it comes off the ground.  Just keep it straight and rolled in wherever it is.

From there, maybe you turn your navel, ribs, and chest.  Possibly take the arm up.  You could put that top arm on your hip.  The top arm is in a flat plane level with your upper back.

Two feet on the ground, lengthen, rotate
You basically repeat those same steps but this time with both legs on the ground, back heel grounded.  Some people will be able to reach the ground with their hands and front leg straight.  However, in this variation the front leg does not need to straighten, nor do you need to touch the ground.  For many people this will not be possible unless they compromise some other part of the posture.

Here I step back, raising my body and bringing hands to thighs.  You might raise higher.  See my front knee is bent.  I have my back leg a little bent here too until I sort my hips out.

Front thigh is rolling out, back thigh is rolling in.
 I keep my ribs into my spine but try a little back arch in my middle back to lengthen the spine.  It is not an arched spine but a lengthened one.  In fact, I am sort of doing a forward bending manoeuvre in my lower torso (a sit up in my tummy) while I try to do a little lengthening in the middle part. The net effect is a softening lengthened feeling of the back body.  I stretch the mat with my feet and straighten the back leg (I have somehow kept my own a little bent here).

I stay or turn.  In the video you see I turn first and then put the arms in place.  That is important.  I turn with my spine NOT by yanking myself into position with my hands.

I possibly take my hands lower, without losing any preceding actions.
From there I maybe straighten the leg.  
And finally, I possibly take that hand over to the inside of my foot.  

I am calm and happy.  My neck is in a comfortable position throughout.

The end
This is not the only way to come into these postures.  It is one way.  You should feel challenged while doing this without strain.  If there is strain then do something else.  Remember, it is best to work with an experienced teacher rather than learn from the internet.  We all have out little niggles and differences.  Also, learning about movement is something best done with a living person in front of you.

Hey!  If you are free in April 2016 and able to join me then come to my Sri Lanka yoga retreat!  I would love to see you there.

Groins Away: A Way To Firm The Tummy, Lengthen Spine, and Try Bakasana

This shape of spine is key throughout the sequence

Here I give you some key instructions that can support a beautiful transition from kneeling plank to down dog to bakasana.

Watch the video first.  You can see the a side view and the front view in the same video.  I have sped this video up so this whole sequence actually took 2 minutes in real life.  I am really trying to emphasis some good slow mindful movement. 

The instructions below should help firm the tummy and armpits while giving a sense of length in the spine (neither stretching nor tightening).  

The key instructions here are to push front of groins to armpits and armpits to front of groins.  Then, if you can add something else, press your hands forward and your knees back.  You should start with feeling relaxed in your tummy.  You should be able to breathe naturally into your belly throughout although it will become firm through the instructions (but not by sucking it in). 

Kneeling plank
 In this kneeling plank make sure knees are behind hips, shoulders over wrists.

Sitting bones move down towards backs of knees, front of pelvis lifts to the lower back to lengthen the lower back.

Lift lower ribs towards the back of chest to lengthen around the middle and upper back.

Press front of groins towards the armpits and armpits towards the front of groins without moving the body forward.  This should bring a postural firmness to your tummy.

If you can manage, press hands forward and knees back while you maintain groins and armpits moving towards one another.

Half child pose
Quite honestly I did not know what to call this position.  It is halfway between kneeling plank and balasna (child's pose).

I move very slowly back into this position.  I am not trying to get my bottom onto my heels.  I am thinking about maintaining the key actions I established in the previous position.  As I move back my challenge is to keep feeling as though I am moving my groins forwards.

See the spine stays the same shape.

Partial lift
Here I focus on keeping the groin-armpit connection then go back again to pressing hands forward but toes and heels backwards.  This combined effort causes my knees to become light.  They start to lift of their own accord.

Downward dog
I keep with those four actions:
  • armpits to groins
  • groins to armpits
  • hands pressing forward
  • feet pressing backward

Walk forward
Maintaining those actions (you might need to let up on pushing feet back because they start to be less on the ground), bend your knees and walk your feet forward.  I tip-toe forwards trying to stay as light on my feet as possible. 

If I keep pressing armpits to groins and vice versa, press hands forwards, lift knees up to chest, rest them lightly on the back of my arms, press elbows back and towards one another and just keep breathing and leaning forward then you might find yourself floating.  Maybe you stay on tip toes.  Wherever you are be happy wherever that is.  Keep working on being where you are and staying for a little bit longer until you feel comfortable moving to the next stage.  

Remember, nothing should hurt.  If you have not developed the correct strength and actions around the wrists then you need to work on clawing with your fingertips and pressing the wrists into one another and just have less weight on the wrists until you are ready to shift more weight there.

Have fun.

Remember, these videos are primarily intended for my own students so I can give adjustments and comments and personal feedback.  It is always best to go to an actual teacher rather than learn off the internet.

Oh, and don't forget about my retreat in Sri Lanka this April 2016.  Come along if you can!

Much metta,