Each week in my yoga classes in Bristol, I see people come in to class feeling tired, perhaps agitated by their day, and usually more than a little lack lustre. When they leave, there is a noticeable difference in how they are. They are usually settled, calmer, and more comfortable in themselves. A better version of themselves. They have changed.
During the class we move the body, opening, expanding, stretching, challenging, engaging and working the entire body in some way. We breathe deeply for the full class, slowing and extending the breath where possible. And we try to focus on ourselves and our breath.
I came across a fascinating talk by Amy Cuddy recently called 'Your body language shapes who you are'.
Amy is a social psychologist. She researches body language at Harvard Business School and she was interested in researching how body language not only effects other people's perceptions of us, but how it actually effects our own body chemistry.
In her research she concluded that by standing up tall with the feet apart and with the arms raised and open for only 2 minutes daily, we can raise our testosterone levels (dominance hormone supporting a confident outlook), and reduce cortisol levels (stress hormones). Simply by changing our body position in this way, we are altering our hormones and brain chemistry. We are changing ourselves to not only feel but become more powerful, confident and laid back.
In yoga classes it is very likely that you'll do a lot of arm raising like she describes, standing with the feet apart, reaching up, opening up. Also combining this with bending forwards, twisting and so on. So her research suggests that we are actually changing ourselves and our hormones in a very real way by doing this.
I took two things from Amy Cuddy's inspiring talk
- firstly, that yoga postures seem very aligned to the body changes she talks about, and that by doing them you'll actually become more confident and laid back.
- and secondly, that only a little practice, taken regularly, can make a big difference!
Pass it on...
PS. I love TED Talks!
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I've recently been inspired by reading about minimalism as an approach to living. I've been enjoying how it reflects many values that I hold close, and that I've been cultivating through my study and practice of yoga. It has also inspired me to have a really good clear out of my home!
The idea of living simply with less to enjoy life more is one that has taken more prominence for me since becoming a yoga teacher. I teach viniyoga - yoga that is applied carefully and adapted to suit those who are participating. Viniyoga embodies a minimalist approach to yoga practice. It doesn't require a super heated yoga studio, or any special kit (no blocks, belts, bolsters or even mats required). Nor does it require a certain level of fitness or skill to participate. All you need is you, your body, your breath, and your attention. In fact this is why it initially appealed to me. I wanted to start practicing yoga at home but found the foam blocks, folding chair, bolster, strap and bricks used in class rather unwieldy and off-putting to home practice, and questioned how essential they really were. Upon discovering the simplicity of viniyoga I was hooked, home practice became encouraged, and there has been no looking back.
I often do use a sticky yoga mat, but at home I'm equally happy practicing on a carpet (or even floorboards if necessary as I did last week when I was away but it's a little less comfortable). I use my body's own weight to create resistance to help strengthen and energise as I practice the various postures (asana) of yoga.
Viniyoga has a minimalist approach to the repertoire of asana usually practiced. At it's core there are a carefully selected set of primary asana, each serving an important purpose. These asana are gradually explored in further and further depth, with a deepening emphasis on breath and focus and techniques around these as the practice advances. This makes it a very accessible form of yoga practice as you can deepen your yoga practice and continue to develop without the need for a gymnast's or dancer's body. Let's face it, if you started practicing yoga as an adult, that isn't a realistic ambition for most people.
And beyond the daily bodywork and breathwork to maintain and develop our health, yoga cultivates mindful compassionate living, minimising the dependence on material attributes in our lives so that we have space to spend each day in an enjoyable, meaningful way. A wonderful way to live with amazing potential.
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A common complaint - stiff shoulders, limited mobility in the neck and discomfort in the upper back, shoulder, neck area. Accumulated tension, often caused by working at a desk, poor posture, cycling etc. all contribute to tension and stiffness related pain. There are some great yoga postures that gently get to the root of the problem and release blockages and free up the area. And without them, or regular massage, it doesn't resolve by itself. We don't really do any natural movements that will release that part of the body, unless we make the extra effort. So it just gets worse over time. So many of us hunch our shoulders and have a rounded upper back as a result.
It is good to see yoga being clinically researched to demonstrate how it can help. I see benefits in my students and anecdotally hear how it helps them regularly. I currently have two yoga therapy students who are greatly benefitting from the gentle releasing of the shoulders and neck. You need to work carefully and gradually, but gentle stretching and movements will help. See more on the research here:
Journal of Pain Research paper
Yoga Journal Article
Get in touch to find out more about how yoga can help you if you suffer from neck pain. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Running the Bristol Half Marathon this Sunday?
What you learn on the yoga mat either at your group class or in your own home yoga practice can be invaluable to help keep you injury free, focused, motivated, energised and able to stay the distance. Here are some top-tips:
1) Tall posture
Yoga practice often starts by standing on the mat, focusing on standing with awareness, with attention and length in the spine, having an open chest, and then relaxing your shoulders and breathing deeply. Bring this feeling of readiness yet relaxation into your pre-run preparation and take some deep breathes to stay focused and relaxed. Stand with both feet evenly supporting you and be aware of the shift of balance from side to side of the feet and body. This awareness of balance can carry on through into your running to help keep you centred and grounded for the duration of the run.
2) Stay aware to prevent injury
It is easy to become part of the crowd and lose your internal awareness, meaning your perhaps not listening to your body and maybe accumulating tension into your running. This is when injuries are far more likely. Stay focused and aware of your running and how your body is responding. Keep aware of how your breathing is, and try to relax and let go of any tension as you notice it coming into the body. During the run, every 10 minutes or so, spend 10 breaths checking that you are breathing well, with a good exhalation, that your shoulders and body are relaxed, and that your posture isn't starting to collapse as you become tired. Reenergise yourself and keep your focus going.
3) Open your chest to breathe
Breathing properly is very important to ensure your body is working at its optimum, and many people only use a portion of their full breath, meaning their bodies have to work harder. As you tire, everything wants to collapse downwards, including your chest and shoulders. Or perhaps you become tense and your full capacity for breathing 'seizes up' as you will yourself on. Keep your chest open, shoulders back and relaxed, shoulder blades down, arms and hands relaxed. Maintaining this openess will enable optimal breathing.
4) Take time to exhale
Your yoga practice will have taught you to exhale completely, and this takes time and practice. If you become out of breathe during running, it usually is because your not breathing out deeply enough. Focus on your exhale, breathe out from the belly drawing your belly button in towards the spine, take a few deeper exhales and than relax into a breathing rhythm that allows full exhalation.
5) Some Downward Facing Dog
After the run, fully stretching will help your recovery and leave you in less discomfort the next day. Include some time spent in downward facing dog as this can be great for stretching your calves, hamstrings and your back. Stay in the pose for at least 8 full breathes (breathing slowly), longer if comfortable for you. Each inhalation spend time lengthening the spine and extending the hips away from the shoulders, each exhalation allowing the legs to take a little more of the stretch. Taking some time to relax and stretch here to help your recovery from the run. (Not advis
Most of all, enjoy your run and good luck!
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Below is a link to an interesting article providing a backstory to Yoga and how it has emerged in the current more physical form that we find it in this country.
It focuses purely on the physical teachings of Yoga however this if you have every practiced much Yoga you'll soon realise that this is just the tip of the iceburg. Yoga when taught well, skillfully uses body and breath to develop a still mind, and also offers a wealth of knowledge for self-development and wellbring through key texts such as Patanjali's Yoga Sutra (2000 years prior to this). The physicality and postures have emerged with influences from western culture and some classes this is more obvious than others. Some interesting video clips too.
Also see this article I wrote last year covering a related aspect
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I went to a lovely yoga workshop this weekend where we were invited to rediscover the spring in our feet, ankles and knees.
As someone who has struggled with dodgy knees in the past, and who works hard to keep my knees and legs strong to avoid the pain that creeps in if I don't, I was particularly interested in what the teacher said... that if your feet aren't animated and vibrant, your ankles and knees and the whole rest of your posture can suffer.
I looked down at my feet, trained from years of yoga to be more alive than many I see, to notice that they are rather less than the vibrant source of life that they could be.
We were invited to try this...
stand up tall, but without locking out any part of the body, you should still be able to move through the shoulders, knees and ankles. Then bend the knees just a little, and try lifting the heels of the ground. Perhaps one, then the other, and then both if your balance permits. Try springing a bit, staying on the balls of the feet, sort of bouncing, feeling the feet come alive.
The strength and activity required will soon become obvious, you might find you tire quickly, or if you are strong, you might start to feel more alive and springy after doing this for a few minutes. Allow the spring to move up through the body, the legs, hips, spine, and shoulders and neck responding and working with the springy balance.
Our foot foundation
The feet are the foundation for most of us. They are the basis for standing and for supporting the whole rest of our posture. They are the source of our balance and connection to the rest of our bodies. They are packed full of nerves, alert to many sensations once we pay attention. Our focus and awareness can be heightened by developing our attention back into our feet. To neglect them is tantamount to letting the garden get rather weedy so you can't see the ground anymore.
For those with disengaged or even flat feet, there are a few postures that will be great for bringing them to life. You could try...
- Tadasana (Mountain Pose, arms and heels lifted)
- Utkatasana (Squatting)
- or Vrksasana (Tree Posture, one legged balance) to reenergise yourself from the feet up and reinvigorate them back into focus.
See this link for a few more ideas:
(although some of the more advanced postures I would avoid without supervision)
Guess what my classes will be exploring this week...
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I'm biased I know, but I think most people could benefit from yoga practice! I work with a lot of mums, especially in my private yoga therapy work, where women come to me without much time or space for themselves, and have a range of physical, mental and emotional issues such as stiffness, aches on one side from carrying children on one hip, stress through the shoulders, poor sleep, over-eating, worrying, and an over-active mind that refuses to slow down at the end of the day.
These are common complaints but particularly so for mums whose days aren't their own anymore and who struggle to find time to take care of themselves.
Yoga doesn't have to be a weekly class, although this is often the best way to ensure you actually make it on to your mat at least once a week and spend a good hour doing a full yoga practice.
Yoga can also be fitted in to your busy schedule, requiring perhaps as little as 15-20 minutes a day to help keep you physically, mentally and emotionally supported. Think of how you might tend to a garden - keeping it tended to little and often is as good, if not better, than a big session every now and again to keep it all under control.
A practice that is customised for you is ideal, incorporating some physical postures to help energise the body, stretch and release tension, strengthen the posture to help alleviate aches and pains. Plus perhaps some breathing work to settle the mind and restore balance, and perhaps even meditation if interested (which has well known stress-relieving and healthful attributes). All of these practices will help you create and maintain some well-earned space for yourself, and can be fitted in to those small pockets of time once the kids have gone to bed, when they are napping, when they are watching tv, or before you go to bed.
In my group classes I always encourage students to try some yoga practice at home if they are interested. Part-way through the term, I'll often offer them a small handout with a short practice to try for themselves at home. Sometimes students keep it up and come back weeks or months later reporting how much more benefit they get from yoga once they have started regular practice at home.
Of course a daily healthful practice doesn't just have to be yoga, there are other things that you might find you enjoy that keep you motivated to continue with it. But what better way to nurture your health and wellbeing than by giving yourself the gift of a short yoga practice a few times a week to help maintain balance and health in your life.
We do it all day long, and most of the time we don't even think about it. Maybe we notice our breathing if we are climbing a flight of stairs and we breathe more heavily. Or perhaps if we are upset and our breathing becomes affected we become aware of it. But mostly it just carries on unconsciously.
In yoga we become trained to listen, feel and even count our breath. We see it as a mirror reflecting how we are and learn to observe it and even control it sometimes, for beneficial effects.
A smooth, flowing, regulated breath helps to stabilise our thoughts and our minds. Steady full breathing encourages relaxation to set in and helps release deeply held tension that we aren't even conscious we are carrying.
Students often first come to yoga without having consciously listened to their own breathing before. This alone can be challenging for some but eventually it is deeply rewarding. We almost need to 'learn' how to breathe properly. This sounds silly as we manage quite successfully to breathe all day long. But often we don't breathe very effectively or efficiently and there is usually room for improvement. There are even projects dedicated just to improve our breathing, like The Breathing Projectin NYC.
Ultimately better breathing can promote better health. The shallow every-day breathing that we often use can be encouraged to be deeper.
Try this for a moment
Try taking a full, deep, slow inhale. Keep inhaling until the belly expands, notice the chest rise up gently. Then slowly exhale and feel the body gradually soften as you do so. Breathe out until there is no breath remaining in the lungs. Try using the tummy at the end, pulling it in to squeeze any last air out of the body. Notice how much longer that breath took than usual, and then perhaps realise how much more fully you could breathe if you paid attention to it. Allow the shoulders to relax and take another full breath.
The benefits of breathing properly are broad and wide ranging. To name a few, they include reduced anxiety, stress and even blood-pressure. Relaxed respiratory muscles and some neck muscles. More efficient breathing and oxygen exchange and improved cardiovascular system. Strengthened diaphragm and intercostal (rib) muscles. Better posture. Improved physical endurance. And of course, a calmer state of mind.
Yoga dedicates a whole aspect of its teaching to Pranayama or breath control and many techniques take years to master.
The breath is more powerful than we realise. Try noticing it at a few different points today and see if it tells you anything about youself. It almost certainly will if you take the time to listen.
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This question is one that I get asked regularly. The responses are different for different people and of course, there isn't a right or wrong answer, yoga is different things to different people...
Yoga for fitness?
People take to physical activity for the challenges that are supposed to help keep us supple and healthy. Yoga can provide a range of challenges, some intense and others more relaxing depending on the yoga practice. The movements can help you feel better in yourself (as long as you work within your own limits and progress sensibly), can strengthen you and keep you suitably supple. However here is definitely more to it than a regular fitness regime, otherwise why not go to the gym?
Yoga for stiffness?
Yoga is notorious for its bendiness and many people believe they need to be bendy to do yoga.
The bendy poses are not in the majority, and many postures are completely accesible for stiff people too and over time the stiffness will ease up so yes, great to help improve stiffness.
Yoga for posture improvement?
Yoga is perfect for strengthening and improving posture. After all, the physical postures or asana were originally designed to keep the body strong and stable to enable hours of meditation by the yogi. So the benefits of practising yoga asana can support our modern day posture needs too.
Yoga for relaxation?
Stretching and limbering up the body can help encourage the body to let go of tension. Along side this, focusing our minds on body and breath work can help relax our minds from the tensions of daily grind. Yoga can help us ease up on tension and encourage the body, and the breath, and even the mind, to relax.
Yoga for stress-relief?
It is well known that the work in yoga leaves people feeling calm and with a pervasive sense of well-being. Some people report this also from running, swimming, eating chocolate... Yoga definitely helps both release stress, and also to have the ability to recognise it earlier. By taking the time to listen to our bodies and minds, and recognising the signs of stress early, and by understanding what the causes are, we can begin a deeper pattern of change to prevent stress-related problems.
Yoga for healing?
Yoga is known for its therapeutic help, and I work with a lot of private yoga students who will testify to this. For a variety of reasons, they find a regular yoga practice helps improve their bodies and also helps them with much more besides. Movement and good breathing can help heal the body and mind and encourage repair, renewal and strength.
Yoga can be as gentle or as strong as is needed to ensure it is beneficial to whoever is practicing it. I work with people recovering from sometimes serious illness who physically are very limited. But there is always something you can do that will gradually lead to greater ability and hopefully progress you back to health either physically, mentally or more often than not, both!
Yoga for spirituality?
Yoga has the ability to calm down and settle an overactive body and mind. We can stop worrying, still the incessant chit chat of the mind and move towards creating a refreshing calm, a reprieve to help us handle every day life. This in turn can lend itself to meditation and contemplation of what spirituality might mean to us. By accessing a still and settled mind we can experience the world from a different perspective and perhaps notice things we hadn't noticed before, bringing us closer to who we really are.
Yoga to support personal change
The philosophy and psychology of yoga has many teachings on how we perpetuate our habits, good and bad. It teaches how we can reflect on them, what their triggers and patterns are, how to know ourselves well enough that we can ultimately move towards changing them and ourselves. Yoga practice is a starting point for personal change and development.
As I told a private student today, one of the joys of yoga is that it is sooo efficient. It can do all this and more in a relatively short practice, the more you practice, more the of these benefits you can get.
So why do we practice yoga?
Is it so we can become a little bendier than we were before? Or perhaps there is more purpose than this?
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Finding a yoga class or yoga practice that suits you is a fine art and finding a range of postures that are right for you can depend on what you are looking for from yoga.
Some yoga postures are physically demanding, and some are completely inaccessible to many, but even postures that are relatively easy to get into initially, can actually be some of the toughest.
This yoga postures website www.santosha.com lists a range of postures and then grades them based on how hard it thinks they are. Interestingly it gives 'Savasana' the corpse or lying relaxtion pose the easiest grade. I At first glance you could easily agree with this rating, surely you just have to lie there? However I regularly see students in my yoga classes struggling with this pose. It is a personal challenge to many to actually lie and relax, close the eyes and keep the mind attentive while the body releases onto the mat. People can fall asleep in a class in this posture, indicating that they are over-tired rather than able to relax the body. Or they find it hard to close the eyes or feel comfortable lying face up. Or their back bothers them and they don't find it relaxing. Or they just can't let go of the tension in their shoulders and hips. It is a tough posture in many ways, and the stillness of the mind, one of the goals of yoga, is challenged here as the body isn't moving to provide focus and distraction.
Postures, or asana as yoga terms them, can be deceptively difficult, and getting into them is only the very first step of practicing yoga. Deepening the work in the more 'simple' postures, advancing your work in a seemingly straightforward asana rather than trying more advanced asana in a physical way can often lead to much greater rewards.
So finding a class with advanced postures isn't always the way to develop your own yoga practice. Advancing your work in the primary yoga postures is a good approach for many practitioners rather than reaching for the headstand. And it is this basis which makes yoga accessible to everyone, not just those who are super bendy or super strong!
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