om gam yoga

Melbourne yoga instruction by Sophie Langley

Category: yin yoga

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.

Exhaustion

This week things have shifted. I’ve finally let go of some things, and some new opportunities have presented themselves. Work is beginning to pick up more and more, and I start back at uni again next week.

The change of pace, and the shifts in my thinking and doing have found me feeling lighter, and a little bit excited. I’ve found it difficult to sleep this week. As soon as my head hits the pillow, my mind is off, following all sorts of little paths and trails, guessing at how things might unfold now that I’ve thrown off some of the thought-stuff I didn’t need anymore. Each night this week I’ve lain awake for hours, imagining. Just like a child who can’t sleep because something exciting is happening the next day.

I’ve been aware of a lingering tiredness all week, but it hasn’t really bothered me until this afternoon’s yoga practice. I had lots of energy at the beginning, enough even to practice some fairly intense back-bends. Then I lay down in savasana to relax for a few minutes and was surrounded by exhaustion. My legs and arms tingled with it, my head felt suddenly much heavier. It was almost as if I’d just covered myself in a blanket of tiredness. ‘Surprise! You can’t really cope with very little sleep! Had you fooled, didn’t I?’

But this is part of the reason I love working the way I do (all over the place, and at weird hours, in other words): if I’m exhausted on a Friday afternoon, I can usually take it easy. There’s usually some work I can do that involves sitting on the couch with a cup of tea (and maybe a chocolate biscuit from a bout of procrastibaking earlier in the day). And I think I’m getting better at down time. I’m a really active person (hence the active job), and always have been. But I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly good at… well, resting. I guess many of us aren’t.

Next week will be extremely busy. I think an afternoon of reading and writing is justified. So excuse me while I put my feet up, munch on some baked goods, and get some quiet time.

~

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

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.

Grief and yin yoga

My beloved grandmother, Mamie, died early last Friday morning.

It brings tears to my eyes to type that, and I’m sure it will for quite some time. My Mamie had class. She had a sweet tooth, and a fondness for a G&T or a whiskey. She also had a wicked sense of humour, which she retained until the end. I loved her dearly.

Fridays are usually quiet days for me, work-wise. I made last Friday a quieter one than usual. Mum had called me with the sad news just before I went into my usual Friday Yin Yoga class (as a student, thankfully), and I’d spent the entire class watching the waves of tears and quiet calm come and go. Yin Yoga has come to play such an important role in my life. It’s a quieter form of yoga than the Vinyasa that I mainly teach, and often practice; it’s passive, reflective, it allows you time to notice things that are sitting below the surface. The challenge of this style of yoga is to just let those things be, even if they’re not pleasant or ideal, which is really tough sometimes. Last Friday was one of those tough times for me.

The poses were more challenging physically. Every time I moved into balasana (child’s pose) the tears would come. As I sat in stillness, they ran down my face and dripped onto my mat. My nose blocked, and I had to breathe through my mouth if I wanted to breathe at all. Keeping my breath slow and even was extremely difficult. Hip stretches were almost unbearable (according to yogic teachings, we store the effects of strong emotions in our hips).

But more challenging still was my mind. It traversed a lifetime of Mamie-memories, and fixated on other members of my immediate and extended family, who I knew would be feeling grieved too. Every time a new thought arose, the lump in my throat would return, and my breathing would become shallow. In Yin Yoga, the idea is to notice your mind wandering and continue to gently bring it back to focus on your breath. For so much of that class, my mind was so far away from any kind of breath focus, and it did not want to come back. Being patient with myself, rather than being angry at my lack of focus, was extremely difficult.

After class, I realised that attempting the editing or research work I had been planning to do would be completely ridiculous. So for the rest of the day, I pottered around, catching up on some reading I needed to do, writing a few bits and pieces. And crying a whole lot more.

Mamie is not the first person close to me to die. Grief is not new to me. But this way of dealing with it — actually allowing myself to just sit and cry — is. And it feels far more natural than anything else I’ve tried. Not denying those feelings, actually expressing them, while not pleasant, is liberating. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel sad, but I feel like I’m allowed to feel sad.

My Mamie was not at all well by the time she died. She’d had dementia for quite some time, and in December last year, she’d had a stroke. She was frail, and she was ready to be free of this life. I am truly glad for her that she can be now.

My sadness is all for myself and the other people left behind. I’ve often thought this about grief: it’s so strangely selfish. Understandably so, obviously. But it’s still an odd thought. And it’s such a mixed bag of feelings. There’s just plain sad; there’s regret and guilt; there’s anger, frustration; there’s holding on for dear life; there’s fear. In the last few days I’ve felt all of these things. At times I haven’t known where the tears were coming from, I haven’t been able to attach them to a specific part of my grief. They’ve just come, almost spontaneously. And I’ve let them.

But maybe I’m wrong; maybe grief isn’t entirely selfish. Grieving for someone shows they meant something to you, it acknowledges that they’ve made an impact. And I can’t say that’s entirely selfish. Mamie was very dear to me — and indeed to many people who knew her. That saying goodbye to her is difficult shows how deep the groove she made in my heart is.

One of my favourite bloggers, Claire Bidwell Smith, writes beautifully about grief. (You can read some of her posts on the subject here.) She has known so much grief in her life. Both her parents had died by the time she was 25, and she often writes about how much she misses them.

I already miss my Mamie, and I will continue to — probably for the rest of my life.

I will miss her smile. I will miss her voice. I will miss her saying things are ‘glorious’ and calling me ‘darling’. I will miss her soft hair, which resisted grey for so long. I will miss her big old glasses, without which she could hardly see a thing. I will miss her telling me I’m in her prayers, which I always loved even though I’m not religious myself. I will miss her asking me how old I am, and being shocked each time that the number is so high. I will miss her silliness. I will miss her wicked sweet tooth. I will miss her handwriting. I will miss her hands. I will miss so many more things about her — many I’m yet to think of or realise, I’m sure.

Goodbye, dearest Mamie. You will stay in my thoughts always.

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