om gam yoga

Melbourne yoga instruction by Sophie Langley

Tag: 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.]

~

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

Quiet time

I wrote recently about how lots of things were shifting, lots of things were up in the air, and I was hoping they’d settle soon. Yeah. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen anytime soon. In fact, things seem to be picking up, rather than settling down.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s all exciting stuff. But I do feel like I’ll be in desperate need of a very quiet holiday sometime soon.

While I wait for that opportunity, I’ve been rising ten or fifteen minutes earlier than usual most days, and just letting myself sit in the quiet for a bit. There is, of course, a whole lot of research about the benefits of meditation (and, being a yoga teacher, it’s not like I’m new to the idea that it’s beneficial), but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how much of a difference to my day ten short minutes of sitting still and quiet can make. Doing this with some kind of regularity (my meditation practice has always been sporadic, at best) makes those benefits even more noticeable.

Of course. It’s obvious. And I knew it already. It makes me wonder why it is that we avoid doing something even when we know for sure that it’s good for us — or, even more than that, that it will make us feel better immediately. Not some time down the track, not even in an hour, but straight away. Why avoid it? It’s very strange.

~

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

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.

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.

Worry

Last night I went along to one of my favourite Sydney yoga classes — the restorative Kundalini class at Jivamukti Sydney.

Our teacher, Aleta, told us one of her favourite Yogi Bhajan quotes:

“If you worry about something, it has the same effect as praying for it to happen.”

Indeed.

Don’t worry, be happy.

(Incidentally, this was one of my favourite songs when I was a kid.)

Gardening

I never thought I’d be a gardener.

The house I grew up in had an enormous front and back yard, and my brothers and I spent many hours playing in the garden, making cubby-houses out of bushes and soup out of mud and berries. A trip to the local nursery on a weekend with Mum and Dad was a fairly regular occurrence. But I never really understood the appeal of being on hands and knees, with dirty hands, at risk of attack from any number of nasty creepy crawlies.

And yet, as an adult, most weekends I find myself looking forward to spending some time in the garden. I get distracted by nurseries. I notice when my neighbours have planted something new, or pulled something out. These days, gardening for me is very much like yoga: it requires a regular commitment, is full of frustration and disappointment, but made entirely worth the effort by the joy that comes with any achievement, no matter how small. Gardening, like yoga, gives me a chance to really appreciate small things.

The switch from non-gardener to gardener has been a gradual one, and I can’t say exactly where it started. My Mum, a certain former housemate and a few other people have helped me along the way. Hey, maybe I was never really a non-gardener in the first place.

My love of gardening can be directly attributed to my love of food — most of my garden is edible. (Except the jonquils. They’re just purdy.)

In some of my research for a writing project on food and culture, I came across this article on The Conversation (an independent source of information, analysis and commentary from the Australian university and research sector, launched earlier this year):

“Food. It is the great unifier of place and race, the common ground sustaining our very existence. Why then, does food production feature so minimally in public space and urban design?

Under the weight of looming threats to energy, population and economy, the time is ripe to rethink our design focus.

Traditionally, urban design has been dominated by the use of ornamental exotic and indigenous plants while edible species have been minimally utilised.

Now, as we move towards a potential crisis in food production it is more important than ever to rethink our design practices.”

(Read the rest over at The Conversation.)

I firmly support the idea of bringing some food production into cities. It’s unlikely that cities will ever support themselves entirely, but I don’t think that’s the point. My garden does not produce enough to be my sole source of food, but it does contribute to what ends up on my plate. Perhaps more importantly, it gives me a much better idea of where the food I do buy has come from, and the kind of work that’s gone into producing it. That increased awareness, I think, can only lead to good things.

So much of any yoga practice is about noticing what’s there — often below the surface. Food gardening, for me, is another way of practicing yoga without a mat.

~

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

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.

Learning and yoga

Alison Hinks, who’s a yoga teacher in Durham NC, posts a lot of really insightful and interesting things on her blog — in fact, I’ve share some here before — but this I particularly loved this one.

“If it feels wrong, don’t do it.” Applies to all areas of life, as Alison says, whether that be deciding if a tertiary education is for you, or if you want to try a particular pose in your yoga class.

Read more here.