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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Yep, she has finally arrived --
Yoga Teacher Barbie!
Complete with pink yoga mat, puppy dog and sparkly pink and blue outfit, perhaps she can inspire the 3+ year olds to find out more about yoga.
She comes from the 'I can be...' series of dolls to help the aspirations of the next generation. Her figure still remains impossible, but she has a serene look on her face, and maybe taking up yoga practice will help her relax a bit more.
She reinforces all the girly pink, image driven stereotypes that children and young women have to negotiate. But before we reject her as a bad idea, perhaps we could remember the teachings of Krishnamacharya... aim to meet people where they are and teach them yoga in a way the can understand and accept.
So introducing children early, in a way that fits into their every day, childhood landscape, could be a helpful introduction to yoga that hopefully will bring them into a more realistic understanding.
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I'm regularly asked to help people choose a Yoga class that will suit them. There are lots of styles, and flavours on offer in Bristol, so here are a few pointers and guidelines to help get you started: Please feel free to get in touch for more information.
Different styles of yoga offer different degrees of either physical or mental challenge and discipline or more entertainment (music etc.). What are you interested in initially? Do you want to get fit, find some calm and mental space, learn how to meditate, reduce stress, lose weight, reduce stiffness, become more grounded and centred, ease tension, aches and pains, relax more, have a physical or emotional injury that you want to improve, explore something beyond everyday life? Yoga can do all of this and more. Your personal interests will help direct which class would be most suitable. See the styles of yoga below to see where you might want to start.
Try some yoga classes
There isn't really any substitute for trying the class to see if you enjoy it and get along with the teacher as it is such a personal experience. Even if your friend loves the class, it just might not suit you. Try classes out until you find one you really want to go back to. Most yoga teachers are happy for you to come along and try their class and see if it is right for you. You are much more likely to stick with it if you find a class and a teacher you are happy with. Classes vary hugely, so don't be put off from yoga if you go to a class and it wasn't what you expected or didn't enjoy it. But don't shop around forever, at some point, you should commit to a class to gain not only breadth of practice but depth to your practice.
Talk to the yoga teacher
Every teacher is different and will focus their class on what they understand is important. Talk to them to see if it fits with what you are after and if they have the skills to work with any special needs you may have. All yoga teachers are passionate about what they do but not all of the have the skills or experience to guide or teach others well.
Enjoy the class
Sounds obvious, but some people enjoy endurance and believe in the old adage 'no pain no gain'.
The class should leave you feeling refreshed, revitalised, relaxed, energised, calm, settled and more positive. An overall good feeling that should speak for itself and make you want to continue. If you didn't enjoy it, or feel unwell or are in pain, feel frustrated, unsettled, uncomfortable, competitive, agitated, then perhaps the class doesn't suit you or try talking to the teacher. The effects can be accumulative so be sure it is serving you well.
Feel comfortable with the teacher
You should feel comfortable in the class, and confident in the teacher so you can immerse yourself in the yoga practice. You should feel able to ask your teacher questions (before or after class usually or get his/her attention during the class) to help support you. As a beginner, or as you begin to deepen your practice and potentially encounter obstacles, a supportive and experienced teacher will help you work through these.
Find a regular class and commit to it
Regular practice with a teacher who you get to know, is really important to gradually develop and deepen the benefits and practice safely. Finding a yoga class that is convenient for you to get to, and is at a time that you can usually make, will give you the best chance of sticking with it. when getting started.
Once you have found a class that you enjoy and are becoming regular in your practice, avoid continuing to 'shop around' for a yoga class and commit to staying at least a few months with your class (if not years!). Continuing to scoot around to lots of different classes will keep you working with great breadth and variety, but it will be at the detriment to the depth and refinement of your practice.
Relaxing class or challenging class?
Should you take a more challenging, intense or difficult class (either physically or mentally) or a more gentle yoga class? Or find one that is somewhere in the middle. This is where classes vary the most and finding something that suits you and suits your lifestyle is really important..
If you are relatively healthy and fit, then a more physically challenging class may suit you. If you are interested in meditation and breath focus then some classes offer physical and breath/mental challenge too, beyond just the physical aspects, and are well worth seeking out. If you already have a really busy lifestyle and are a fast-paced person, then perhaps consider exploring a more calming, supportive Yoga class that will help balance your life. You might find yourself typically attracted to a strong, intense yoga class (e.g. Bikram yoga, Vinyasa Flow yoga or Ashtanga yoga), but this might be counterproductive. After a few months/years you could find it leaves you feeling 'burnt out'. Consider trying a different approach as a counterbalance to your usual pace and lifestyle and see what happens. Stick with it, avoid being drawn by entertainment and see what hidden depths yoga can offer you.
If you have an injury or medical condition, then a smaller class where the focus is on safe alignment and modifying the practice to suit each person in the class is recommended, with a well trained teacher who understands your condition.
If your lifestyle is quite sedentary, perhaps your not too motivated or feel lethargic or suffer from depression, then perhaps a more uplifting and energising class to switch your pace could be helpful. Start gradually and work within your physical abilities, especially at first, and see what the results bring over the months / years.
Well trained teacher
Yoga is a vast and ancient body of knowledge. There is much to study and as yoga teachers we are always learning more. Along with the many Yoga postures, there are many breathing techniques that are learned over time, Yoga philosophy, anatomy and physiology, and lots more besides. We recommend at least two years teacher training to even begin to get to grips with the basics and be able to teach and adapt the class safely to suit the participants. Then the teachers experience, depth of knowledge (not just breadth) and their refinement of that knowledge and skill are all important. Organisations such as the British Wheel of Yoga provide accreditation to meet this standard. (They are the only Yoga body to be approved by Sport England).
Styles of yoga class
Here are a few 'types' or flavours of class to help orientate you. They are all Yoga and all dealing with the same things but might feel different and focus on slightly different aspects when you try them. So this is just a rough guide, feel free to add more descriptions below in a comment to help others choose a class...
~Hatha Yoga Classes~
Classic yoga postures which also incorporate a focus on the breathing and include relaxation. Variations on postures include staying in postures, or moving into them dynamically but more slowly. Classes can range from challenging to more gentle and relaxing so try the class or check with the teacher to see what they are teaching. They usually suit all levels from beginners so good for everyone. Most YogaSpace classes are a form of Hatha Yoga.
~Viniyoga Classes~ (what I teach)
Classic Yoga postures which include slow flowing movements and a close integration of breath. Generally small classes where the teacher will help adapt the postures to suit the students and will offer optional challenges as you progress. Focus on breathing and gradually deepening and developing the breath to intensify the practice when the student is ready. Good classes for all levels including beginners and working on specific goals and they are well trained teachers :-)
~Iyengar Yoga Classes~
Iyengar Yoga offers physically challenging classes where you hold classic yoga postures for a period of time to develop good strength. Strong focus on alignment, making use of equipment such as belts, blocks, bricks, chairs etc. to assist you in getting in to the posture. Less focus on breathing until a couple of years into your practice. Usually well trained teachers.
~Ashtanga Yoga Classes~
Ashtanga Yoga is a set sequence of dynamic movements which you learn over time and will work through each class. A physically demanding practice with focus on moving steadily with the breath. Physically demanding and some quite extreme yoga poses. Good level of commitment required as you need to keep this up regularly to be able to do it. Good for physical and mental stamina and an intense experience. Go carefully, especially at first.
~Bikram Yoga Classes~
Hot Yoga classes, offering a set sequence of 26 postures practiced in a hot (super-hot!) humidified room where students sweat and work hard in each pose. Often beginners will sit out some poses and just enjoy (?!) the intense heat and humidity. Teachers have learned a set class formula which Bikram Choudhury developed and has taught to all his teachers during their 9-week intensive teacher training programme. An intense experience.
~Vinyasa Flow Yoga Classes~
Dynamic movements linking poses together and flowing the movements with the breath. Often a physically challenging and focusing practice which requires some coordination to join in and keep up. Some classes are quite fast, some involve music, some are very creative and expressive, good coordination needed to practice this safely. Variable teacher training, some good but some can be trained in only a month or few months so recommend finding out.
Try a class or a few classes and see how they suit you.
Please add more class descriptions or suggestions below to help others in finding the right class for them.
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I'm enjoying a good book by Tim Parks at the moment, 'Teach us to sit still: a sceptics guide to health and healing'. It's a brilliantly honest account of a middle-aged academic's journey to overcoming chronic health issues through relaxation and meditation. I highly recommend it, a good read (perhaps skipping the literary references if not your thing) with amazing descriptions of what it is to struggle with the process of meditation. And he really is a sceptic so one I'll be passing it on to a couple of people who might be able to relate!
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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.
Worth sharing, the Guardian website has just published their 'How to Meditate' series. They have some step-by-step guides, videos and podcasts designed to support people wanting to meditate. Worth trying if you have wanted to give it a go or tried and found it hard in the past.
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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On the BBC website there is a news report about the rising levels of stress and the amount of time employees take off work because of it. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-11617292
Life has never seemed busier and the holiday season is no exception! Working, commuting, relationships, family, health - they can all be richly rewarding but also take energy and effort and stress can accumlate along the way. Generally we keep going until we reach a point where we collapse in a heap and need to rethink what we are doing. My students often come to me with chronically stiff shoulders, holding their stress in their posture or they talk about having difficulty relaxing or sleeping. And of course they come to yoga to take the time and make the effort to release and relax.
Yoga helps us to take time out to allow the body and mind to relax, helping to release some of the tension that builds up. It gives us time to reset, to reevaluate the stress we take on and to have some perspective on what the causes are. Stress is notoriously tricky to spot early, it can sneak up on you and then spill out over into your life before you really realise you are stressed at all.
Yoga is an obvious choice for relieving stress and tension and the benefits are becoming widely known. It gives us a regular space to help release it and restore our natural balance.
Here is a suggestion to help you release some stress over the holiday period...
- First find a quiet, comfortable place to sit where you won't be disturbed and place a lit candle before you
- Settle into a soft gaze into the heart of the flame
- Try not to hold your gaze too firmly, feel free to blink as you need to and not force it
- Continue gazing into the candle for a few minutes if possible, noticing the variations and gentle movements of the flame
- After a few minutes, gently close your eyes, seeing if you can maintain the image of the candle in your minds eye. Hold the image of the candle for as long as possible. If you lose it, open the eyes and gaze at the candle again and repeat
- Mostly, enjoy the candle meditation and enjoy the calm, still feeling it can leave you with.
Tip - if you find this difficult, some yoga postures beforehand can help settle you before you start.
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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