This week I return to another reflection by Liz Huntley in Elephant Journal. (http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/11/words-to-breathe-by-10-poems-to-ignite-your-yoga-practice-liz-huntly/), this time on her chosen poem for movement. I cannot say it better, as she remarks” As long as we are alive, we are in motion. The transition between asanas, the care with which we move in and out of a pose, are as important as the poses themselves. Even within the held space of an asana, we find the dance of the breath; the constant subtleties of tuning that align the body [the self] more harmoniously.”
I love the phrase “held space of an asana”. Just as in conversation, there are subtle and refined skills to effectively hold the space for all parties to be heard. For this to be achieved, we need to be anchored in the present moment, not anticipating a rebuttal, not pre judging words yet unspoken.
And so it is with our yoga practice. We hold the space for ourselves with each breath: we listen, we probe, we feel, we begin to understand. We practice unconditional friendship and compassion toward ourselves so we can then take it into the world.
Week 4- April 2016- Tempting Tempo
Last weekend I attended yoga workshops at Stillpoint Yoga in London http://www.stillpointyogalondon.com/. The teachers were inspiring, truly trying to live their yoga moment by moment in the “real world”, and like us all, not necessarily succeeding 100% of the time! So there needs to be a constant renewal of intention.
Connection with our breath can help us stay connected to our intention as it helps to draw us into the present moment. Variation in pace and tempo this week, with space for reflection, allows us to notice how we respond when things heat up, but also how we cope when things slow down markedly. Both place demands on our focus and attention but in very different ways. How do we react and adapt? All good stuff in getting to know ourselves just a little better, with open heart, and a healthy dose of humour!
My Yoga teacher Ian Davis recently shared a quote from the following article https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201109/yoga-changing-the-brains-stressful-habits. “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.” He goes on to explain the mechanisms at work. It is an interesting read.
Sometimes in preparing students for a challenging asana I find it helpful to remind them (and me) that yoga asana is not about perfectly executing the poses. The work is being done in the figuring out and being okay with that: learning to coordinate movement, noticing what needs to work and what doesn’t, monitoring your efforts with the breath, reflecting on your attitude and feelings.
Some students begin yoga but they are disappointed in their performance and give up quickly. They blame their body and yet it is their mind state where they face their greatest challenge. Yoga exposes you to yourself, and this can be a hard thing to see.
Also consider this: if you feel you have mastered a yoga pose (or anything), it may be time to ditch it and give yourself a new challenge. Or time to question your sense of self mastery and perhaps discover you have only just scratched the surface of it. All with a sense of equanimity, no recrimination, no judgement. Calm amidst the chaos. What’s not to like??
Last week’s class theme was inspired by Liz Huntley in Elephant Journal. (http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/11/words-to-breathe-by-10-poems-to-ignite-your-yoga-practice-liz-huntly/). On the theme of trust, she chose the poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann:
“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
Her reflections on this poem are to “Endeavour, in your practice (and your life), to do what you intuit is best, or to follow the sound advice of others. And know, still, that you will make mistakes and that good fortune will not always appear to be on your side.”
An injury, a pose that is eternally frustrating, an experience with a teacher that irritates you, are lessons that become threads in the strong weave of your practice. In yoga (in life), we do our best to stay the course, but we also trust the wind to carry us home.” My further thought on this: let your breath be that wind that guides you home, back to your centre.
Breath control is regularly referred to in our yoga asana classes: let the breath initiate and capture movement. Perhaps it can help to think of the breath as a needle that pulls the thread of the movement to create a single stitch. The moment the thread is completely pulled through, that breath finishes. The needle then changes direction as we then pull through the next movement. So we need to orchestrate the pace of the movement with the pace of the breath. Too fast and the thread may snag or break. Too slow, and we run out of air before we have completed the stitch. And so, breath by breath, we weave together our practice.
Intermittently, we can pause movement, stay with the breath, and gaze at a distance to review our work. Does the tension in the weave vary where we rushed or lost concentration, were there places where it felt just right? Did the breath and movement separate and we had to re-thread the needle?
Both the weaving and the reviewing are necessary and vital acts in creating our own personal tapestry. We have choices to change pattern, colour, texture, to make it stronger or more supple. At times, we may want to ask advice, gain a trusted opinion.
The stitches we weave are but one part of a universe-wide tapestry, too large to gaze upon but there nonetheless. It connects us all and we all are a part of it. When we learn, teach, share, laugh, love, care, we experience this, and the tapestry grows more beautiful and more resilient. So make your stitches count, one breath at a time.
This week’s classes draw our attention to Spring-time energy, and the effect it can have on us. The span of daylight seems to increase quite quickly, as though gathering pace. The energy can sometimes seem stirred up. We may notice our own energy levels and mood improve or perhaps feel a sense of restlessness. Hay fever can leave some feeling depleted and low in energy. Notice what this change of season brings for you.
The spring season may lead us to alter some of our routines- sleep, diet, attending to more outdoor activities, etc. Take time to reflect in what ways you might move yourself toward better balance, or ways to better harness what this season offers to you.
Adjust your yoga practice accordingly to enhance your own well being. If feeling full of energy, channel more into your physical practice, perhaps explore challenging pose variations more fully. If flagging, seek to maintain mental focus on fuller, deeper, and smoother breath control to keep your body energised and nourished, give yourself permission to go easier in your physical practice.
Each time we come to our mats, we must acknowledge the present moment and how we feel in it. Always make your yoga a move toward wellness and better balance, in whatever way that may be for you.
Yoga is often translated to mean union, but of what? For me as student and teacher, there is the intent to move body, breath, mind and spirit into better harmony. They all feed into each other. With asana, the body and also breath can be the catalyst to alter the mind and spirit. As we turn our mind to positive thoughts and let go of judging ourselves and others, we can feel a sense of lightness in how we carry ourselves and breathe more freely as tightness in the chest releases. When we start to notice these interrelationships, we can find our own ingrained patterns that pull us away from balance, and then intercede in numerous ways to reconnect the threads of ourselves.
If we tend to live in our heads, and suppress the needs of our body, it can be helpful to cultivate the space and silence to invite the body to let us know what it needs. Time on our mat with our yoga practice can give us this. We can ask the body what it needs, and with open heart, be receptive to what comes back. We can learn to be a friend to ourselves. Similarly with our sense of spirit, we can ask if there is anything we can give it to better nourish it. So go ahead and ask the questions: You may be surprised by what you hear.
Take your mind to the sensations of being startled: sharp intake of air, tensing of muscles, heart rate increases. Now take yourself to the state that follows when you realise there is no danger. Fully experience this release: exhale with audible sigh, muscles relax, heart rate slows. Now imagine you are landed with a cumbersome task and short deadline. You face competing demands, long hours, cancellations and reschedules. In all likelihood, a stress response has been activated. When this is repeatedly triggered by situations that occur routinely, we can get trapped in this stress state, never knowing when it is safe to let our guard down. Our body, breath, and mind forget how to let go: we habituate to this heightened state of tension, as though continually bracing against rough seas.
There will be challenges in our yoga class and tension can creep in, much like in life. Observe how you respond to it. Notice when more effort becomes counter-productive, as though swimming against the tide. And then stop fighting it. Feel tension diminish with each exhale or maybe a change in approach. Learn to move with the current and embrace available resources- breath, attitude, knowledge, curiosity. Be an explorer and make discoveries. Cultivate a sense of ease as you apply focused effort. Move toward freedom with purpose. Enjoy it!
Panto season may be over, but it can be helpful to be reminded of what is behind us, what we cannot see. In classes this week, we use our sense of touch to become more familiar with our lower back: alignment, tension, symmetry, space. We can feel the muscles each side of the lower (and mid) back, and whether their tone feels the same or different; then guide fingers from the upper rims of the pelvis behind and downward, toward the spine to find the sacrum. We can also feel our bellies as we engage and release Uddiyana Bandha, whilst we use our inner eye to feel what changes in the lower back and pelvis as we do this. The sacrum connects spine and pelvis. As we explore asanas which tilt the pelvis forward, back, to the sides, we can again roam with our inner eye to notice where we feel muscles contract, which ones are stretched, and how small shifts in the pelvis within a pose change this. Notice too how a shift in our intention e.g. to make the sacrum feel broad and spacious causes our bodies to engage differently. As we learn to feel what is happening with our bodies, our in-sight develops and we are free to roam and explore.
We have spent quite a few weeks exploring energy themes in our yoga practice. We move back into the body now, and more specifically, the spine. Given that many of our Chakra energy centres were located along the spine, we do not cast this aside, but bring it along with us as we explore directions of motion of the spine and how we experience them. The following link has some nice diagrams showing the five directions of movement of the spine http://sequencewiz.org/2015/03/04/movement-of-the-spine-in-yoga/ .
Last week our focus was primarily axial extension, that sense of lifting up at the crown of the head, creating space along the spine. When standing, this action works in opposition to gravity, so we need to exert some effort to extend the spine upwards. If we are lying on our backs, gravity can help to create a sense of space as we completely relax the body. When standing or seated, we can notice this lifting action results in the weight of the torso being more self-supporting, rather than resting on the pelvis. Hence axial extension helps create more space in the hip joints (and as the upper vertebra lift, in the shoulder joints as well.)
This week we move the focus to spinal rotation and lateral movement, yet axial extension is still there. And it features too in extension (backbend) and flexion (forward bend.) We can notice the difference in effort between a seated twist versus a supine one that harnesses gravity. Where the hips are not well anchored e.g. in standing or kneeling twists (e.g. Revolved Utkatasana), we can draw attention to the natural tendency for the pelvis to also rotate. We can then take action to leave them out of it, to isolate rotation through the spine, and then feel the effect this has. We can reflect on the difference in the mind state too.
Once you let go of the idea that you are trying to reach some final destination, it becomes easier to simply be where you are, noticing, learning, exploring. There is a directional intention to our movements, but as you apply your focused effort, know that you are exactly where you need to be, and enjoy the ride.
Ruth teaches yoga in Cheltenham UK, weaving yoga philosophy into the asana practice to help students connect yoga on the mat to their lives off the mat.