om gam yoga

Melbourne yoga instruction by Sophie Langley

Category: Asana

On Yoga Injuries and the Ego

Last week the New York Times ran a story entitled ‘How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body’. A number of different people sent it my way, asking for comment. To be perfectly honest, my initial response was to roll my eyes. Of course you can hurt yourself doing yoga — just as you can hurt yourself running, walking, rolling over in bed. To move at all is to risk injury to a certain extent.

The problem, I think, lies less within the system of physical yoga practices and more in the expectation that’s placed upon them. Yes, yoga asana can improve your wellbeing, it can make you feel amazing, but it isn’t going to fix everything. And yes, it may in fact cause some injury. But yoga is not just the physical poses. It’s about finding balance between opposing forces — sometimes those forces are just within the physical body, but more often they’re in the interplay between our physicality and our thoughts and emotions. We think or feel we should be able to do something — or that we shouldn’t — and sometimes that’s in direct opposition to the abilities of our physical body. Our ego rears its ugly head; sometimes pushing us further than we should go, sometimes holding us back.

That’s part of the practice though, as far as I’m concerned. When you’re on a yoga mat, it’s just as much about testing and observing your own ego as it is about watching how your body works. The two are, really, inextricably linked.

The very first part of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (one of the seminal ‘how to’ yoga texts) says, ‘yogash chitta vritti nirodahah’, which translates as ‘yoga is calming the fluctuations of the mind’. Some people interpret this as ridding oneself of ego, but I find it more helpful (albeit more complicated) to think of it as stepping away from the ego (and the body) in order to witness their activities. And it’s in the witnessing that the calmness lies. The ego itself is not a problem; blindly following it can be.

All that said, as a teacher, I do worry about my students injuring themselves, and it’s a very real possibility that they will. It’s absolutely vital that I keep learning more about human anatomy and physiology so I can create a space that’s as safe as possible for my students to practice in.

In fact that word, ‘practice’, is a really important part of how I plan and conduct my classes — and how I think when I’m on the yoga mat for myself. It’s in taking our practice — practising, in other words — slowly but surely that we learn about ourselves. Slowing down enough to notice the breath, and to notice the physical sensations in the body is at the heart of a physical yoga practice. The body gives warning signals if you’re coming too close to injury; it tells you to back off by giving off the ‘pain’ message loud enough that your breath becomes laboured. But you need to be moving slowly enough to notice those signs — and to have practise recognising them.

In no way am I suggesting that yoga injuries are all the fault of the student — it’s a shared responsibility between student and teacher. What I am saying is that, as yoga teacher Bernadette Birney points out, yoga is a therapy and the risks are similar to the risks in any other type of therapy, physical or otherwise. It’s perfectly valid to be concerned about those risks and an excellent idea to talk about them. Slowing down will help, but my advice to anyone concerned about the risks is to talk to your teacher/s about them. Tell your teacher/s about your injuries, and about anything that doesn’t feel quite right, even if it’s not exactly painful. I’m certainly interested in building a relationship with my students so they can get the most out of my classes, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a teacher who isn’t.

I should also add that yoga teaching in itself is a yoga practice. I certainly do not have my ego all figured out — if I did, I wouldn’t be interested enough in yoga to be teaching it. Keep this in mind if you talk to your teacher, just like you would if you were talking to your doctor or other healthcare professional about a treatment. Your yoga teacher is a person too, and they are not infallible. Chances are they’ve also had injuries — I know I’ve had my fair share, some from yoga, some not. Injury can actually be a fantastic opportunity for learning how your body does (or doesn’t!) work, and to observe your internal response to the injury. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should all injure ourselves in the name of learning. But human bodies break sometimes, and they definitely wear out. We will not necessarily be able to do things today just because we were able to yesterday, injury or not, and, at least in part, the physical yoga practices are designed to help us find that elusive sense of calm regardless.

If you’re interested in reading some other responses to the article, look here and here.

~

This is cross-posted on my writing blog.

Relax and restore

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Resting and relaxing is really important for your overall health and wellbeing — especially at a time of year as busy as December usually turns out to be. My birthday is in December, so as well as the usual plethora of Christmas parties and catch ups before the holidays, I often also have a birthday celebration (or two) thrown in there as well. Combine that with all the organisational parts of the festive season — shopping, food, travel — and my schedule becomes very full very quickly, despite my work time slowing down. And I know it’s a similar story for most people around this time of year.

This year, in Sydney at least, we’ve also had the weather going back and forth between cold and hot, which can be very tiring for the body, as it works to try and keep our body temperature and other systems at some sort of equilibrium.

Around this time last year, I wrote about my housemate and I pausing our cooking marathon to lie with our legs up the wall. It’s really a brilliant exercise, and can be used at any time of the year — I think hardly a day goes by where I don’t find a quiet spot and a wall, actually — but it’s especially helpful during busy periods. It helps the body (and the mind) slow down, take a breather. It’s fantastic for your nervous and immune systems, and helps reinvigorate your circulation.

Here’s how:

Sit with your right hip close to the wall. If you are quite flexible in the backs of the legs, you can sit quite close to the wall; if you are less flexible in the backs of the legs, sit further away. Using your hands behind you on the floor to support you, left your feet up off the floor and bring them up onto the wall. You’ll need to roll to your right as you do this and wriggle around a little so that you come to be lying on your back with your buttocks close to the wall, and your legs up the wall, with the backs of the legs resting on it.

It’s okay to feel a very mild stretch in the hamstrings, but if you feel anything more than a very mild stretch, wriggle the buttocks further away from the wall. If your hips or lower back are uncomfortably pressing into the floor, you might like to use a neatly folded blanket underneath your lower body.

Let your hands rest wherever they feel comfortable. Now let your attention come to your breath. Allow your physical body to completely relax (your feet may go to sleep – don’t worry, this is normal, and you will get feeling back when you come out of the pose). Close your eyes. Focus on your breath. See if you can encourage your breath to slow down, and your exhales to be slightly longer than your inhales.

Stay for 2-10 minutes. You might set a timer, or you might pick a nice relaxing piece of music, and stay in the pose for the full length of the track. I have a selection of piano pieces that I use for this purpose – they’re usually between 3 and 10 minutes long.

To come down, slide the heels down the wall so the knees come towards the chest. Roll onto your right side and rest here for a breath or two as the blood flows back into the legs. Then use your hands to help you slowly get up. Take your time, as you might be feeling a little sleepy, and your legs might take a little while to feel normal again.

Legs up the wall is honestly one of my favourite poses. When I’m really stretched for time, I might only stay in the pose for a minute or two, and even that tiny amount of time makes a huge difference. There are also all sorts of ways you can more fully support the physical body in this pose, if you’ve got access to props. The idea is really just to give yourself space to pause and do nothing at all.

If you’ve got any questions, either before or after you try the pose, please feel free to contact me. I’m always happy to offer more suggestions.

Sitting still

I’m a fan of action. I like to move, to do things. I’m often impatient.

And so I often need to be reminded that sitting still, not running around like a madwoman, is sometimes the quickest way to achieve something.

I teach both vinyasa and yin yoga, and I firmly believe that finding a balance between action and inaction is vital. Stupidly, even though I strive for this balance in my teaching, I often forget about the sitting still in my personal practice.

Over the last week or so, I’ve been struggling to work out some emotional uncertainties. The last two days in particular have brought with them a rollercoaster ride of feelings: sadness, anger, despair, shame, relief. And I’ve spent much of my time moving. At times it’s been my mouth moving, talking through all the emotions; at times it’s been my physical body, cleaning and rearranging my environment.

Finally, this afternoon I got on my yoga mat and took some time to sit still. I got out my jitters with a brief vinyasa sequence, before spending the majority of my practice on yin poses. Yin poses are passive; the idea is to relax the muscle tissue, find the point in the pose where the body just begins to resist, and just sit there breathing. On the edge.

Sitting still here, just at the edge of discomfort, forces you to look at what’s really there, be that physically, emotionally or mentally. I got a surprise; I found myself looking at someone who was doing okay, really. And I found I already knew the answers to some of the questions I’ve been agonising over.

Yin Yoga teacher Sarah Powers says that emotions are like clouds passing in the sky. Yes, they’re real, and sometimes they seem to have replaced the sky, but they can neither be pushed away nor clung to. They will pass, and the sky will remain.

Sitting still on my yoga mat today, I saw through the clouds and found the sky, just for a moment. But sometimes a moment is all it takes to remember that the sky is always there.

What’s your yoga?

I love Alison Hinks’ yoga infographics. They’re fun.

Her latest is this quiz — What’s your yoga?

Click to get a PDF copy from Alison's page

Visit Alison here, and check out her other infographics here.

Leg warmers

This morning I got a package in the mail from my parents. It included some plumbing tape (thanks Dad) and a pair of maroon leg warmers that my Mum made for me.

My Mum’s been a knitter ever since I can remember. Her mother (my Grandma) is a knitter too, but is perhaps better known for her crocheting. She crochets blankets, doilies, fold-up string shopping bags, pretty edges for hankies and face washers… you name it. Mum picked up the crochet needles recently. She’s made me a blanket — and she’s made blankets for several family friends.

She admitted that she was vaguely horrified when I asked her if she’d make me some leg warmers; she was thinking of the fashion disasters of the 80s. “But they’re occupation appropriate, Mum!” was my response.

I spend a lot of time in yoga tights, which aren’t really the warmest pants. But now, when I teach and when I practice, my legs will be toastie warm.

Thanks Mum. You’re wonderful.

Awe and yoga

I practice yoga every day, and most days am reminded by that practice of how amazing the human body and mind are. Every now and then I come across a video of someone else’s practice, and find myself thinking: “I could never do that.”

This is one of those videos.

(I found this over at Garden Yoga; and Jo found it at yogachick.)

I think it’s interesting that my immediate response is “I could never do that”. I remember thinking the same thing about touching my toes. And about being able to step my foot all the way forward between my hands from downward facing dog. And about practicing a headstand, or a handstand. I can do all of those things now. Half the battle, I think, is getting past that “I could never…”.

So, you know, maybe one day I’ll be able to do this.

~

This is cross-posted over at my writing blog, avocado and lemon.

Yoga for Moving House

This last fortnight I’ve been using my Sydney yoga practice a little differently. I’ve been moving house. Reluctantly. As well as taking up all my time and energy, it’s been a sad experience for me.  The move was not a voluntary one – our landlord was returning from overseas and wanted to move back into her house. This house has been one of the best houses I’ve ever lived in; my housemates have become almost like family – and it’s the longest I’ve lived in one place since I left home all those years ago.

Unfortunately, it’s also taken up so many of my resources, material and otherwise, that my yoga practice has been substantially reduced. Again. It’s been frustrating.

Looking back through some of my Sydney yoga class plans, I came across one I taught on the theme of impermanence. The series of poses I’d chosen when planning the class seemed to accurately represent the process I felt I was going through moving all my things to the new house: physically demanding, alternately concentrating on balance, strength and letting go, and requiring high levels of concentration.

Patanjali begins the Yoga Sutras with this statement:

Atha yoga nushashanam

This translates as, “Now, here is yoga as I have observed it in the natural world.” Sanskrit is not a language in which there are superfluous words. Each word in this phrase is just as important as the next, including the word “now”.

Change and impermanence are a part of life. Moving house became a big, long extended reminder of this. As much as I am looking forward to new adventures in my new house, there’s also an underlying resistance to the change and a hesitation that I’m sure will take some time to fade.

But permanence is an illusion anyway, according to yogic philosophy. Everything is in a constant state of flux, and clinging to the idea of permanence will only cause us distress. My hesitation too will change.

The Buddha said, “This existence of ours is as transient as the autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.” Buddhists argue that, because of the fragile impermanence in our lives, all we really have is right now. The “now” of Patanjali’s Sutras.

The brilliance of focusing on now is that it can both help you more fully enjoy moments of joy – make the most of them, because you cannot be sure how long they will last – and move through difficult times – they too will pass, you can focus on just getting through one moment at a time.

In a yoga class, we can practise what Buddhists call ‘mindfulness’. In any pose, we can draw our attention to any areas of tension, as well as any areas where we might feel more flexible. We can notice those parts of our body that are touching the ground, notice how the ground feels beneath our feet at that moment. If a pose is particularly difficult, I often tell my students to focus on their breath, making sure they can still breathe fully; all they need to do is get through that one breath. After that, all they need to focus on is getting through that next breath, and so on.

Of course, the same practice could apply to me, settling into my new house and moving through my sadness about the end of the old house. Over the next few weeks I’m trying to focus on unpacking just one box at a time. I’ve unpacked all the major things; the boxes that are left are me settling in, like I might slow my breath down gradually in yoga asana practice.

Yesterday I went for a walk around my new neighbourhood; on Saturdays there’s a farmers’ market just around corner from my house, I found a new strip of cafes, and some interesting streets.

The frustration of moving has given me a chance to try and take what I’ve learnt about impermanence and change on the yoga mat into my life in a new way. On my walk yesterday I also came across the type of opportunity that often presents itself with an unwelcome change: just up the road from my new house is a beautiful new Sydney yoga studio space.

Yoga and Resolutions

Sydney yoga is interesting in January: classes are busier; summer deals at various yoga schools allow students to try out classes they might not otherwise or attend more classes than they usually would; yoga rooms are steamy with the sticky Sydney summer weather and extra bodies. There’s a sense of expectation in many Sydney yoga classes – and no doubt in other classes that involve moving your body around.

The expectation, perhaps, is that this year will be the one; it will be the year in which people will get fit and healthy, be kinder, and take more care of themselves and the world around them.

At the breaking of the new year, many of us make resolutions about the areas of our lives we’d like to improve. I’ve never been big on new year’s resolutions. But this year, in trying to decide between the two or three options I had for celebrating the beginning of 2011, I found myself thinking about what this ‘New Year’ business is really about.

Putting all the celebrations and fireworks aside, marking the new year is about letting go of things that have passed, and looking forward to things that might be. In the northern hemisphere, New Year’s Eve occurs at around the same time as the Winter Solstice. This is a time where people in some cultures perform rituals to figuratively rid themselves of the things they no longer want in their lives, so that there is space for the things that they do want.

Of course, we could do this any day of the year, but there’s something nice about collectively moving on, and that process coinciding with the beginning of a new year.

Heading back to work, school and normal life after the holiday period, however, it can be difficult to integrate our plans, be they humble or grand. Regular life for many of us is busy – I know for myself that rushing between the various yoga classes I teach each week, the writing projects I’m working on, and keeping up with the administration required to run a small business, the end of each week comes around quickly, and usually with far too many things left on my To Do list.

We need savasana after a yoga class to allow the benefits of the practice to be fully integrated into our minds and bodies. For this reason, the final relaxation is perhaps the most important part of the class – even though it might seem like you’re just lying there. Similarly, if we want to make changes in our lives, we need to allow ourselves some stillness in which the desire for change can become motivation to move towards actually making that change.

“Perhaps the simplest and most profound practice for deactivating old patterns,” say Mary and Rick NurrieStearns – a pyschotherapist and yoga teacher, and meditation teacher respectively, “is taking the time to be still and quiet. Sitting down and doing nothing gives you a chance to unwind and let your mind relax. You literally stop moving long enough to get your bearings, to see where you are and what’s going on.”

At this time of year especially then, it’s important we allow ourselves to take some quiet time if there are changes we’d like to see in our lives. A slow walk through the local park has always helped me, as has sitting quietly with a cup of tea for ten minutes.

The NurrieStearns suggest sitting quietly and noticing the small space between your breaths. Notice the pause, however brief, before and after your exhale. Similarly, they say, you might sit and notice the gap between your thoughts. Some days the gap between your breaths and thoughts will be very brief, perhaps almost imperceptible. Other days you might notice a longer pause.

Of course, if you’ve been meaning to for a while, now might be a good time to take advantage of one of the many deals that Sydney yoga schools are offering – and allow yourself to really enjoy the stillness of the final relaxation.

Holiday Yoga

In the last few days before Christmas, while I was still at home in Sydney, yoga had started to disappear much further down the To Do List than it might normally be. (Of course, with all the last minute organising, yoga is probably exactly what I needed to keep my mind reasonably sane.) While I stood over pots of onion and chilli jam, despaired at failed shortbread (something I’ve never managed to fail at before!), and rushed out to the shops for panicked additions to presents, I realised that my usual yoga practice just wasn’t going to happen – at the yoga studio or at home. I needed to start thinking about what kind of practice I might be able to foster while I was rushing around all over the place.

I have a fairly dedicated home yoga practice. I was reluctant to give it up or change it. But, as I eventually realised, either it changed to fit the craziness that seems to come with the festive season, or I wouldn’t get any yoga in at all.

Of course, yoga is as much about flexibility of the mind as it is of the body. And in inner-city Sydney, yoga is almost always competing with chaos. The yoga studio I frequent most as a student sits right under the flight path and next to a scrap metal recycler; another studio I attend is just across the road from a popular (read: noisy) Newtown pub. Even in the classes I teach I’m often working around traffic noise or slotting into the lunchtime of a busy corporate student. And really, the festive season – and the interruption to routine that often continues well beyond 25 December – is just a heightened version of the balance between chaos and control that comes with everyday life.

As Sally Kempton, renowned US yogic philosopher says, “Whether consciously or unconsciously, we are all engaged in pas de deux between our desire to keep things under control, and our longing to ride with the unpredictable. One on hand, control is essential. Without it we would never mature, never accomplish our goals, and never transform bad habits… In so many ways, control is good, necessary and admirable… [But] that useful, necessary control mechanism has a tendency to turn tyrannical… since life is basically out of control, your attempts to control outcomes will often end in frustration. If you can’t let go of your need to control when necessary, you’ll be at the mercy of your stress hormones.”

And this is true with a yoga practice too. Sometimes life just gets in the way, and we might have to be content with a reduced or altered practice. I might not be able to have as expansive a practice as I’m used to, but surely some yoga is better than none at all.

Two days before Christmas my housemate and I took a break from our cooking marathon and lay with our legs up the wall in our front hallway; we realised we’d never seen our house from that angle before. Most mornings leading up to Christmas I practiced some form of pranayama, which is usually only a very minor part of my practice; I rediscovered the amazing impact this practice has on your energy levels. And quiet meditation – even just five minutes – has helped me get my thoughts into order and settle into the new places I’ve found myself as I’ve travelled around to visit my family.

Trying new things in my yoga practice has given me a fresh outlook – never a bad thing as the new year rolls around. I have a whole lot of plans (yoga-related and otherwise) for the new year, and they involve a shake-up of what was my routine before the Christmas period. I’m sure when I return to Sydney, yoga will change for me all over again, and I’m okay with that.

Compassion

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

For the Dalai Lama, compassion is the key to finding happiness. Fellow Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, also emphasises the importance of compassion: “In order to have compassion for others we have to have compassion for ourselves. In particular, to care about other people who are fearful, angry, jealous, overpowered by addictions of all kinds, arrogant, proud, selfish, mean — you name it — to have compassion and care for these people means not to run from the pain of finding these things in ourselves.” In other words, to feel true compassion for yourself and your own suffering, however big or small, helps you find the ability to show compassion for others who suffer.

In a yoga practice, finding compassion for yourself isn’t always easy. We’re often frustrated by the tension in our hamstrings or hips, or by our inability to master a strong pose like sirsasana (headstand).

Yogic philosophy calls for compassion too. The Vedic chant lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu translates roughly as ‘may all beings everywhere be happy and free; and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom’. The chant doesn’t say ‘may everyone except me find happiness’ — ‘all beings’ includes you too. And you can practise encouraging compassion for yourself in a yoga class.

Yoga, in many ways, is a process of getting to know yourself. Unfortunately, for most of us, that means becoming acquainted with our limitations, physical or otherwise. As unpleasant as that can be, it’s the perfect opportunity to practise fostering feelings of compassion for ourselves.

At the beginning of my yoga classes, I often ask my students to come into balasana (child’s pose) and take a moment to notice any areas of tiredness, tightness or strain, and any feelings that might be associated with those unpleasant physical experiences. The next step is to try and direct a feeling of compassion towards that area. For me, the easiest way to do that is to personify whatever it is that’s feeling the strain — “Poor hips,” for example. “You’re really feeling it today, aren’t you?” It can feel slightly silly, but that’s half the reason it works — in laughing at yourself for talking to your hips you gain some distance from the discomfort itself.

Hopefully the distance will help you muster up some compassion for those parts of you that feel uncomfortable in a yoga pose. And this should help you slightly modify your yoga practice to avoid further irritation to that area, or maybe even to bring some relief to it.

The same basic principle works when we extend feelings of compassion to others — either during our yoga practice or beyond the mat. Feeling compassion for others who are suffering, and wishing happiness for them can radically modify our thoughts and behaviour, and ultimately help us feel happier ourselves.

In his commencement speech to Kenyon College students in 2005, writer David Foster Wallace suggests that the way we think about other people in everyday situations can have a profound effect on how we live our lives. “I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do,” he says. “If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is… then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention… it will actually be in your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

It takes practise, of course, just like any other form of yoga. But if compassion can help make a supermarket a more pleasant place to spend time, then the effort is well worth it in my books.