om gam yoga

Melbourne yoga instruction by Sophie Langley

Category: Hatha yoga Sydney

Promising Scientific Studies on Yoga & Health | Alison Hinks Yoga

I love Alison Hinks‘ infographics. Her latest shows some of the results of scientific studies into yoga and health.

(See Hinks’ original post here)

Shake, shake, shake

My leg muscles almost always start to shake when I hold uttanasana. Standing, folded forward, pressing my feet into the mat to encourage my legs to straighten a little more and my tailbone to move closer to the ceiling, my legs inevitably start to wobble.

In uttkatasana (chair pose) that wobbling is even more pronounced, and usually accompanied by a burning in my thighs. Uttkatasana and I have a love-hate relationship.

I often have students ask me quietly and sheepishly after class what’s happening to them when they get the shakes in class. The first thing I tell them is that this shakiness is not uncommon. It happens to almost everyone at some point. For me it’s in uttanasana and uttkatasana; for others it could be the warrior poses. Usually, it seems to be poses asking for strength from the muscles.

Yoga Journal has an excellent explanation for what’s going on anatomically.

Muscles are made up of many fibers. When a muscle is used, not all the fibers contract at the same time. Some rest while the others work, and then they trade places. When the muscles are really challenged, the changeovers can get a little ragged.

A little bit of shaking is okay — it’s a sign that you’re challenging yourself — but really shaking could be a sign to take it a little easier. Use the breath to decide how much shake is too much shake. If you’re shaking but you can still breathe slowly and fairly calmly, then you’re probably okay. But once the shaking starts to affect your ability to keep the breath slow it’s time to back off a little. And remember that point will be different for everyone — and will probably depend on the pose.

If you’d like to read the rest of the Yoga Journal article, you can do so here.

Home

A few days ago, my friend Sam posted this essay about his impending move away from Adelaide. He’s moving to Sydney (which means I’ll see more of him — hurrah!) sometime in February.

Although it’s about different places, the essay quite aptly describes my own struggle to figure out where to call home. I’ve lived in Sydney now for as long as I lived in Melbourne. In between the two, I lived in Canberra for a few short months. Growing up, I called Forbes, a small town in Central West New South Wales, home.

In a way, all of these places are still home for me. It’s like they contain different versions of me — almost as if, visiting, I might run into myself. And in a way I miss all of these places. Or maybe I just miss those versions of me. Nostalgia is a funny thing.

When it comes time for me to bid Sydney farewell, I’m not sure how I’ll feel about home.

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This is cross-posted on my writing blog.

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.

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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.

Meditation doesn’t have a reason…

“We could say that meditation doesn’t have a reason or doesn’t have a purpose. In this respect it’s unlike almost all other things we do except perhaps making music and dancing. When we make music we don’t do it in order to reach a certain point, such as the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music then obviously the fastest players would be the best. Also, when we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor as in a journey. When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point. And exactly the same thing is true in meditation. Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.”

Touching My Toes

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about forward bends this week. Very commonly, one of the first things people say to me when I say I’m a yoga teacher is that they’re not flexible — they can’t even touch their toes!

When I was in high school we had to do flexibility tests as part of our Personal Development/Health/Physical Education classes, and I always found them mortifyingly embarrassing. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t touch my toes, it was that I scored something like minus 20 on the scale — which meant my fingertips were 20cm from my toes when I reached for them. Most other people in the class had a positive score; that is they could touch their toes, and then reach further.

I grew quickly, and was unco-ordinated and gangly. My muscles just didn’t keep up with my bones. And, in the way of most teenagers, I was hugely self-conscious about my body.

These days, after years of yoga, I can touch my toes with ease. But I also now realise that folding forward in pashimottinasana or uttanasana is not about touching one’s toes. That might be one outcome, but forward bends are far more than that.

They’re about turning inwards, and surrendering. Energetically, they’re about calming and cooling. They open up and lengthen the back of the body — the back of the neck, down the length of the spine, the buttocks and the back of the legs. It’s true that they stretch out your hamstrings, but they also stretch and lengthen many other muscles besides.

But the level on which I find forward bends most interesting is the level of thoughts. Intellectually, they can be a huge challenge. Many yogis will reach forward and down with their head, rounding the spine, really struggling to touch their toes. I’ve done exactly this myself. But (with a few notable exceptions) rounding the spine in a forward bend is a big no-no. Instead, you should lead with the heart, which will help lengthen the spine. But our heads don’t particularly like being overruled. The mind is used to being heard above all else. Of course, our intellect deserves an awful lot of credit — it gets us through so much. But it also needs to learn to share.

And so, for me at least, the biggest challenge in a forward bend is telling my mind to be quiet for a moment, and, quite literally, letting my heart lead the way. Letting go of any expectations of myself in the pose, and just surrendering into whatever shape I can manage that particular day is often very difficult. But if I manage it, the reward is sweet. Often, surrender means the body lets go, and I can actually go deeper than I would have been able to were I trying to pull my way in. As well, letting go of this expectation of myself leaves me room to notice all sorts of other things about myself in the pose — physically, mentally, sometimes emotionally — that I would otherwise have been distracted from.

Some days surrender is far more of a challenge than other days, even though I’m well aware of the rewards. But that’s okay. And those changes themselves are interesting to notice.

Next time you’re practicing forward bends, see of you can forget for a moment about touching your toes or touching the floor. You might be surprised at what you notice.

I’d be interested to hear what your experience of forward bends is — do you love them? Hate them? What do you like about them or find challenging about them?

[Funnily enough, this morning in my inbox came an email directing me to a great article on forward bends on the Yoga Journal website. Have a look at that article here.]

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Update: I just found this picture of a penguin attempting a forward bend. For reasons too silly and complex to explain here, I drew this little guy a few months ago. His frustration typifies my response to those days where I’m bothered by tightness in the back of my body.

The Yoga Factory

As of this week, I’m teaching a whole lot of extra classes at a lovely little studio space in Camperdown, Sydney. The Yoga Factory is a beautiful space — warm, cosy, inviting.

There are lots of amazing classes, with some really wonderful teachers, on the timetable. The timetable is quite diverse, so chances are there’s a class for you. I’ll be teaching a general yoga class, as well as restorative yoga, yin yoga, beginners’ yoga and pre-natal yoga.

The beginners’ course will start in a couple of weeks on the 19th of October. If you’re new to yoga (or new-ish and want to get a good grounding in the basics) a beginners’ course is an excellent place to start. Bookings are essential for this course, so if you’re interested, please contact The Yoga Factory here.

Outside

On days when I’m working from home, writing, like today, I have to make a conscious effort to move away from my computer and get outside into Sydney’s beautiful weather. Sometimes I head into my backyard and practice a few quick half sun salutes. Sometimes I just let myself sit and look at the plants that I’ve tended, and that seem to have grown as if by some miracle. This is my favourite corner at the moment. A nasturtium gone mad, broccoli flowering, and a little bay tree surrounded by all the colour.

nasturtium, broccoli and bay

Your Words Can Change the World

As part of my research into urban agriculture (for something I’m writing), I’ve just stumbled across The Lexicon of Sustainability. Lots of fascinating people doing a huge variety of different and interesting things to find and produce food.

This is their ‘About’ video. And the last sentence really struck me: “Your words can change the world.”

Introducing … The Lexicon of Sustainability from the lexicon of sustainability on Vimeo.

The idea is to try and explain some of the terms we see bandied around — ‘sustainbility’, ‘organic’, ‘locavore’ — in a way that’s accessible, and lovely to look at. I have to say that I’ve often found that this kind of information is not presented in a way that makes you want to keep looking at it. Which I’ve always thought is counter-productive. The Lexicon, however, manage to be informative and beautiful at the same time.

Take a better look here.

I have a feeling I might end up playing around here for hours…

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This is cross-posted over at my writing blog, avocadoandlemon.