om gam yoga

Melbourne yoga instruction by Sophie Langley

Tag: yoga

Too many things

Last week I finished a masters degree that I’ve been doing on and off now for four years. It’s a degree that I’ve enjoyed immensely at times, and loathed at others, but that, overall, I’m so glad to have done.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of myself when I finished. I guess I expected some relief, and maybe some sadness. But actually what I’ve ended up with is a kind of confusion about what to do now, and about a million suggestions from within my own mind about how to manage that confusion. Since Thursday (the day of my last class), I’ve had this odd excitable (bordering on manic, actually) energy.

“Energy”, when your day job is teaching people yoga, is a troublesome word to use. When I say it, people sometimes look at me strangely, thinking, I suppose, that I might start talking to them about hippy-dippy energy healing or something. I do know (and respect) people who work in that kind of therapeutic field, but when I use that word, I’m aware of those links, but that’s not really what I mean. I’m just talking about the feeling that tells you whether you’re tired or sluggish, or likely to burn through a long To Do list in five minutes flat. And for the last few days, my energy has been the latter. Well, it would be if I could only pin it down long enough to focus on something.

Yesterday morning I half-made myself three separate breakfasts because I couldn’t focus long enough to decide what I wanted. I made plans for some exciting stuff happening later in the hear, I did some reading for some writing work I’m about to start, and i planted some new green-leafy stuff in my garden. Today I made pies for some friends for afternoon-tea-lunch, but I also made a loaf of bread and a bunch of other small things. And walked around in circles in the kitchen because I kept forgetting what I was doing. Tonight I’ve started no less than four writing projects, some small, others not so. I’ve started reading about three different books since Thursday.

As I wonder which of these various projects I’ve started will actually get off the ground, I’m reminded of this talk on the paradox of choice. Because right now I feel a little like that’s what finishing uni has left me with—too much choice (yes, I know: first world problem).

I worry too that at some point I’ll crash, because that’s usually what happens for me. In fact, I’m a little surprised it hasn’t already. What I would love to learn is how to sit still with this energy and just watch it, but I so often feel like I need to use it while it’s there. I wonder how much that feeling is dependent on the pattern of energy-burn-crash-energy-burn-crash, and if I could learn to even it out a little.

This is why I do yoga. Focus. Learning to sit still. Learning to do nothing. (Which, incidentally, is what my essay in this lovely book is about.) Or, at the very least, to be aware of what’s going on and try to work with that. I wonder if it’s something I’ll ever be good at.

~
This is cross-posted on my writing blog.

Stillness

Stillness is not the absence or negation of energy, life, or movement. Stillness is dynamic. It is movement, life in harmony with itself, skill in action. It can be experienced wherever there is total, uninhibited, unconflicted participation in the moment you are in—when you are wholeheartedly present with whatever you are doing. ~ Erich Schiffmann ‘Yoga: the Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness’

I must’ve read this paragraph at least ten times over the last two years. It still strikes me every time. Stillness, on the rare occasion we manage to get it right, is dynamic. I love that idea.

Yoga flow video from YogaChick

I love this flowing sequence from YogaChick. She’s recently been experimenting with short-ish videos of her own practice, and they’re really lovely to watch — and have given me lots of ideas for my own practice, and for teaching! If you’re interested in seeing a few more, you can find them on her blog, or on YouTube.

Yoga & body shame

“Yoga is really trying to liberate us from shame about our bodies. To love your body is a very important thing. The health of your mind depends on your being able to love your body.” ~ Rodney Yee

From: Garden of Yoga (reblogged from geeky-yogini).

Yoga: Changing The Brain’s Stressful Habits | Psychology Today

This is perhaps the most accurate description of why, once I started, I continued to practice yoga. Physical exercise, sure, but mainly because it’s helped me manage better my stress reaction. Think calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean.

As a neuroscientist, despite my initial incredulity, I came to realize that yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit.

via Yoga: Changing The Brain's Stressful Habits | Psychology Today.

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.

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.

End of Year

Before writing this post, I decided that I’d have a look at what I posted here this time last year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the general gist of it was very similar to what’s in my mind as I approach the end of the year now. Last year I said I’m not big on resolutions, but I do like to think of New Year’s Eve as a chance to reflect a little, and to let go of some things that have passed to make room for things that might be. This year I feel much the same. I probably won’t make any specific resolutions, but there are some things I’d like to let go of, and some small changes in attitude and behaviour that I’d like to encourage in myself.

Today I’ve read two very different things that have contributed to the Let Go and Look Forward ideas in my head (I was going to call them lists, but that implies some kind of logical structure that just doesn’t exist). Rather than share those half-formed ideas, I’ll simply link to the two posts; one written by my cousin Julia, and another by a yoga teacher, Yogitastic, I’ve become friendly with on Twitter.

In last year’s post, I included this quote from a book I’ve got — and often refer to — on Yoga for Anxiety. The last two months or so have been frustrating for me, and I’m not entirely sure why (which probably means it’s no one thing — although it could just mean that I really needed a holiday), so this is a good reminder for me.

“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.”

In that spirit, I’m going to spend at least a little time today or tomorrow just sitting quietly, encouraging reflection.

Happy new year.

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.