Saturday, 26 February 2011

YOGA TO ALLEVIATE SCIATICA

 
Following a few recent enquiries from some of my students after class I have posted this blog which I hope will be of some help to anyone who is suffering from sciatica. 

Yoga poses that will help with sciatica include poses that stretch the periformis muscle, which attaches the sacrum and hip. For many of us this muscle can get really tight which can mean that it compresses the sciatic nerve.

To stretch this muscle do seated twists. Bend the left knee and placing in front of the groin and then placing the right foot to the right of the left thigh, place the right hand behind your back and the left elbow on the right of your right thigh or knee. Make sure both of your sit bones are grounded. Spend some time breathing deeply into the pose creating length through the spine as you inhale and moving into the spinal twist as you exhale. Visualise yourself working your way up the spine breath by breath.

Then take hold of your right ankle and pull the foot closer to your left hip to come into cow faced pose sit in this pose breathing into your hips and then without collapsing the spine hinge from the hips forwards over the top thigh taking your forehead as far as you can over the top knee. Keep your core engaged and your back flat. (Do these two poses on both sides.)

Follow your seated twists and cow faced forward bends with a classic seated forward bend with legs outstretched and hinging once again from your hips to ensure that you keep your back from rounding. Take long deep diaphragmatic breaths in this pose and focus your breath into the back body

Then lie on your back and with a strap hooked around you right foot stretch your right foot up on to the ceiling above your hip. Hold the strap in both hands and gently move foot to the floor beyond your head. Then take strap into right hand and guide leg out to the right without allowing your left buttock to lift from the floor. Change the strap into the left hand and take foot towards you left shoulder meanwhile place the webbing of your thumb joint against the top of your right thigh where it meets the hip and press the thigh bone forwards. Change the strap to other leg and do same stretches on the other side.

Downward facing dog can also be good to help alleviate sciatica - although not if bulging discs in the spine causes your symptoms. If bulging discs are the cause then you could try lying on your belly for some gentle back bends like cobra and sphinx holding the poses for up to a minute providing that you can do so without discomfort. You could also try a supported shoulder stand with your legs up the wall.

 Also try a standing side stretch (see right). Bend your right knee above the heel but don’t sink too low into the joints to ensure the pose remains muscular and core remains engaged. Stretch out the left leg and firmly ground the back foot at an angle of approximately 30 degrees. Lightly place your right elbow on to right thigh and stretch left arm forwards palm facing down beyond the right foot.  Look up under the left armpit and try spiralling the navel and heart to look up to the sky as well. Keep the weight in your back leg and keep the core engaged and the breath steady.
 Do this side stretch on both sides.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

TRANSFORMATION THROUGH CHANGE


Partly through demand and partly through personal preference, in recent years my yoga style has tended to predominate towards teaching and practicing vinyasa flow yoga. I was recently at a training workshop where the whole premise of flow yoga was put under scrutiny as to its benefits and in the mind of the yoga teacher and practitioner leading the workshop, the implications of the possible complications in the body that can arise after a strong long term flow practice. 
However while I am not prepared to abandon what I consider to be my mindful and moderated blend of vinyasa flow in favour of constructing asana from a static starting point, I can see it does have many benefits. It is also well worth taking the opportunity to deconstruct our yoga asana from time to time to ensure that we are not compromising ourselves physically as a result of misalignement in our practice which can so often happen when we find ourselves been overtaken by the flow!
I am often asked by students if we only have a few moments a day to squeeze in a quick practice what should we choose to do when there is so much on the menu. When this is the case and time is in short supply I feel it can often be a really good idea to do fewer poses and hold them for a longer length of time. While some sun salutations are great to warm us up, oil the joints and get the heart pumping afterwards try and put your foot on the breaks and slow things down. It is this that for many of us can become much more challenging. 
Here are some words of encouragement and advice to help.
When we hold a pose for long enough for it to feel a bit uncomfortable, we not only begin to build strength in our muscles but we are also building strength in our minds. We begin to demonstrate to ourselves that we are stronger than we think and this self-realisation can be an invaluable gift.
SO next time you find yourself in hurry or even in a yoga class where the teacher asks you to sustain a pose for longer than you normally would try and resist the urge to adjust your vest, brush your hair out of your eyes or itching your nose remember that by fidgeting or becoming distracted you are taking your mind and your body out of the pose and therefore you are no longer practicing yoga.
You also need to really relax. Spend time scanning your body with your mind’s eye and notice whether you’re holding tension anywhere in your body unnecessarily. Notice whether you’re clenching your teeth, if the muscles surrounding your eyes are tense, if your tongue and your shoulders are relaxed. Try to relax anything that doesn't have to be tense in order to support you in the pose. The amount of people I see in class in Boat Pose (Navasana) with fixed grimaces on their faces and yet not one of their facial muscles are helping them to hold the posture!
Try and encourage yourself to breathe into every area of sensation.  Your breath plays an enormous role in every yoga pose. Try with every inhale imagine that you are creating space within your body and with every exhale go just a little deeper.
You also need to pay attention. When you let your mind wander off into your thoughts during a yoga pose, you are not just putting yourself at risk for injury as you have stopped listening to your body but you also begin to lose the quality of the pose and are forfeiting its ability to work deeply in your body.
Finally try and add a little bit of variety to spice your practice up a little. If you practice in the exact  same way that you have always practiced yoga, you will ultimately find that you get pretty much the same results each time.  I like to think yoga needs to be a little bit like life, or to quote Forrest Gump - “a box of chocolates - you never quite know what you are going to get”.

While routine is not always a bad thing it won’t necessarily bring real transformation and change either. By making little adjustments to the way that you practice yoga day to day you may well begin to see a huge difference. Subtle changes like lengthening your tailbone towards the floor, lifting your chest toward the heavens, or engaging your leg muscles and lifting your kneecaps can activate a whole new series of muscles and help you get closer to a more challenging variation. Or just as I said at the beginning of this blog spending longer in poses and not flowing straight on to the next one , allowing enough time to experience how it feels in your body and by waiting in the present moment can bring with transformation to your  state of mind as well as your physical body.

Monday, 14 February 2011

YOGA FOR VALENTINES




If you have time for a yoga practice today try making your focus anahata chakra, with some heart-opening back bends to enable you to be fully open in your heart to give and receive love.

'The health of our heart centre registers the quality and power of love in our life. In Sanskrit, the heart chakra Anahata, means “unstruck” or “unhurt.” Its name implies that deep beneath our personal stories of brokenness and the pain in our heart, wholeness, boundless love, and a wellspring of compassion reside".

Sun breaths

Stand in Mountain Pose. Become aware of your breath, of your heart beating, of your whole system working in unison. When you are ready, inhale to raise your arms out to the sides and up, rising on to tips of your toes, bring your palms to meet overhead and look up. Exhale to bring hands to your sides like angel wings and  lower your heels to the mat.
(Repeat these sun breaths 6 times.)

Vinyasa incorporating Warrior 1 and 2.

Step your left foot forward, your right foot back, aligning the feet through the midline of the body if possible. Inhale to come into Warrior 1 exhale to straighten the front leg and draw your hands to your heart in namaste.  (prayer mudra) Then inhale to come into Warrior 2, exhale to straighten your front leg and draw your hands to your heart in namaste.
(Flow on your breath through this vinyasa 6 times on each side).

Sun Salutations

Practice as many as you wish but to open your heart spend extra time in your lunges and upward facing dogs


Reclining Goddess Pose

Then lie down in the comfortable supported backbend Supta Baddha Konasana also known as Reclining Goddess Pose. Sit in front of a bolster or two cushions and lie back with them under your back and head. In this position, let your breath become smooth and even, matching inhale to exhale. When you feel relaxed, and your breath feels steady and comfortable, imagine that you are sending love to those who need it with every exhalation, and receiving love with every inhalation. Notice who comes to mind when you think of giving love, and who comes to mind when you think of receiving love. Spend as long as you want with this imagery in your mind’s eye.

When you have finished your practice, think about phoning the people who visited you during your visualisation and get in touch with them today to let them know that you care about them.

The most powerful way to open, energize, and find balance not just the heart chakra but all of our chakras is to love ourselves and others. Love is the greatest healer. In our yoga practice, remembering what we love and appreciate as we practice asanas enhances the power of the poses and our general sense of well-being.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

TAKING IT SLOW

When most of us arrive on our yoga mats it is usually with the intention to do our best..  We want to learn something new, get closer to our goals, burn some calories, and feel like we're making improvements. 


We exist in a work hard, play hard, go getting society and when we do fail, we often fail pretty spectacularly.One of the key things that I have learnt over the years that I have been practicing yoga is that trying hard doesn't always lead me to succeed. Sometime it is possible to try that little bit too hard. 


 When we try to force our body into a pose that we aren't ready for we might get away with it for a while but after time the outcome could be something we live to regret. Learning to make our practice slow and steady is almost always much more effective in the long run. While there does need to be a little bit of challenge and effort,  it is important  that we learn to recognise the tell tale signs that we are pushing too hard.One of the first clues is when we stop breathing. When we try to force ourselves into a variation of a pose that's too advanced, we may notice that our breathing momentarily seem to stops.


 Sometimes just by backing taking our foot off the accelerator a little bit and taking a conscious deep breath will help us to go deeper and put less strain on our body.When we injure ourselves while practicing yoga is another big clue we're pushing too hard. Its our body's way of telling us to ease off. For some people it is only by actually being injured and in pain that they learn not to push so hard.


Our face is another good indicator of whether we're over exerting ourselves in our practice. When our facial muscles start getting involved, the brow wrinkles, the teeth clench together and our eyes pop out on stalks then these are all sure signs of overworking!
These characteristics displayed in the face can crop up in other places off the mat as well of course. Sitting behind a desk at work, on the telephone of even in an intense conversation when we're maybe trying that little bit too hard to press our point home.




A common sign is when we notice ourselves furtively comparing ourselves to someone else. We need to learn not to make comparisons in yoga. Our practice isn't supposed to look like anyone else's. Yoga teaches us to become happy and content in our own body. It is only then that we make progress on our yoga path.


Many people really struggle to relax during savasana and other restorative postures. The go-getters amongst us often dismissing these vital asana as a waste of their valuable time when they should be building up a sweat by limbering, flexing, toning muscles not simply lying around 'doing nothing'. This indicator is common and not just on the yoga mat as a sign we're working too hard. It is impossible to unwind and be still when we are trying too hard in our lives as well. Meditation will remain out of reach if we are stressed out, our bodies tense and our minds wired.


For many of us trying too hard might always be a temptation but the mere fact that we show up on our yoga mats means that at least that is something we can learn about ourselves and through consistent practice we can learn to take our foot off the accelerator both on and off the mat.  
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Tuesday, 8 February 2011

YOGA AND CHRONIC PAIN



If you're suffering from chronic pain - whether it's back pain, knee pain or some other type of persistent pain, you might have heard about the benefits of yoga to relieve those aches. When I started to practice yoga over 20 years ago I had been suffering from low back pain for years but what I didn’t know until I learnt to understand my body better was that practicing yoga could actually make my pain worse.

However this doesn't mean that you shouldn't turn to yoga in an attempt to ease your pain. Yoga is a great way to relieve chronic pain without using painkillers.  It’s just that you can't assume that every yoga class will automatically make it better. The most important thing is to choose the right style of yoga and the right instructor to meet your needs and help you to alleviate your pain.

If you are someone with a herniated disc for example, many yoga poses in classes such as the Bikram sequence of 26 poses, involve bending forward, grabbing on to your feet and pulling hard. If you have a herniated disc that is one of the worst things you can do.
  

There are many poses to choose from in yoga and many will be helpful to your specific condition, But it is the pace at which you go through each pose that can be drastically different.  Many classes these days can be faster-paced flow-style classes. If you are a beginner or have come to yoga as a way of managing specific chronic pain issues then it is advisable to find a class that is more detailed. Where the yoga teacher encourages students to slow things right down. It is also really helpful to spend some time examining the poses to ensure you're doing each one correctly and sometimes a one to one session with the teacher is a very good way to do this. 

Gradually as you become more practiced then you can enter a general flow class but always be prepared to set your own pace and not allow yourself to be whisked along in the crowd. Your body is your best teacher  and your only home so listen to your body before anyone else and be prepared to take your foot off the gas and back off! Time spent building the foundations of your practice and getting to know your body intimately through mindful practice will reap untold rewards in managing and alleviating chronic.

It is always vital to talk to your yoga teacher. Even an experienced yoga instructor can't help you if they don't know that you have any chronic pain issues. It is important that you speak to any teacher before the class and let them know of anything you may being working with.  All good teachers will ask their students for any concerns at the beginning of the class and will offer modifications and cautions throughout the class. That way, they can ensure that you don't do any poses that could aggravate the source of your pain.

Yoga is great for helping relieve tension and improving alignment, all of which can help to ease pain. But it's always helpful to know what it is that is causing your pain. For example, you may have a sore, tight neck and want to stretch that out in yoga to ease the pain. However, it could actually be the alignment of your chin or shoulders that is causing pain in your neck, and you need poses that will help strengthen you in those areas.

Also don't zone out during your yoga practice. Many people make the mistake of thinking that the yoga mat is the place where your mind can wander off on its holidays: You can't expect yoga to help you if you tune out and don't connect properly with your body while you're practicing. Become aware of your body and educate yourself as to how your mind, body and breath are all connected. Yoga is a practice of listening.



Thursday, 3 February 2011

YOGA GOES MAINSTREAM BUT WHAT ABOUT SPIRITUALITY?



I listened to a fascinating programme this week on Radio 4 called Corporate Karma. 
(Mon 31st Jan 2011) 
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00y28q3
In this programme, Jolyon Jenkins investigates what's happened to yoga. Asking if the arrival of chains and franchises, all selling an identical product, mean that independent yoga studios will go the same way as independent coffee shops.Whether the inner journey has now been replaced by competitive narcissism? And how can you franchise a spiritual discipline anyway?



Jenkins presenting style did bring a smile to my face however. There were several moments in Corporate Karma where Jenkins explored the commercialisation of yoga and the move away from a spiritual emphasis towards fitness. What made it entertaining for me though was when Jenkins sniffed out what he thought might by a load of old twaddle and how he didn’t hold back in saying so.
A particular highlight was his interview with Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga. He let Choudhury tell some of his well rehearsed anecdotes about teaching yoga to the Beatles in 1959, and President Nixon in 1972, before quashing them with his own. Notably the fact that the Beatles didn't exist in 1959 which he then followed with the understatement ; "Bikram's anecdotes may not be completely accurate."
In another quote Choudhury claimed that he was working with Nasa, only to be followed up by another of Jenkins cutting postscripts : "Nasa could find no trace of a research programme into yoga for astronauts."

In the programme, most of those interviewed who are currently riding the wave of the yoga mass marketplace insisted that there is no contradiction between spirituality and material gain. However Jenkins didn’t sound convinced by this for a moment, as he visited the London Yoga Show at Olympia, a yoga championship competition, and even a Bikram class where his whispered report was reminiscent of David Atttenborough on the trail of a pride of lions, and the experience clearly left him horrified. "The man in front of me is dripping sweat from his shorts, his shoulders, his belly" and references to the prevailing smell of ‘toxic sweat’.
Another chuckle came when one Bikram yoga teacher said of Choudhury: "He's ostentatious but underneath he really cares."


Meanwhile in New York a yoga "talent agency" is marketing yoga teachers as superstars, hoping to cash in on yoga's wholesome image; while one yoga clothing chain preaches new age self-help while specialising in stretchy fabrics that accentuate and flatter the female figure.  Ugh.

As Bikram and the Indian government compete with one another to try and patent the ancient poses essential to most yoga practices, we can only hope that more people including the US patent department will see through the fog of sweat, dollars and to a point national pride and realise that the whole point of yoga is to achieve enlightenment, and that unlike Bikram the most revered practitioners, whether known as yogis, swamis, mahatmas or even simply just calling themselves yoga teachers all transcend religion and capital gain. Yoga was India’s gift to the world and it would not be in the spirit of yoga for that gift to end up being legislated back in its box.