I think one of the greatest benefits of yoga is that it brings you into the present moment. It allows you to connect with here and now.
Even when practicing yoga it is possible to be elsewhere. I have certainly had days where my mind just won’t shut up. These are the days where yoga is a real challenge and yet these are the days where we need yoga the most. Don’t run from your mat, stay be with yourself. Don’t judge your mind, accept everything as it is and go back to your breath. Notice subtleties in your movement, gradually bring yourself back, here.
Why is being here and now so important?
The mind is an incredible thing. It just doesn’t seem to stay still. Sometimes life is great and sometimes it is challenging. It doesn’t matter how much yoga you do, challenging things will happen and great, wonderful things too! Everything is changing all the time and yet the mind can cling to some fixed ideas about reality. Sometimes our minds repeat the same thoughts again and again, strengthening them, feeding them. These thoughts may have nothing to do with what is actually happening to you. Often they are about some possible future or some past experience.
I have observed that when something is happening, the mind often is not fully present with the experience. Instead it can think about what will happen because of this, even though it doesn’t yet know the future. Sometimes we also filter things through our past – neither of these filters are real. If you are present then you have no choice but to surrender to what is happening. As you experience this more and more life becomes more beautiful and less stressful. You get to experience life in it’s many colours and embrace it each and every moment.
Believing and feeding a negative future in your mind can’t be helpful. If you must have a vision of the future in your mind make it one that inspires you and makes you smile.
How to stay present in your day to day life
- Practice it preferably daily, through yoga, meditation or just when going about a daily task like washing up.
- Be compassionate with your mind, if you notice it’s not being present, be with it. Learn to laugh at it and tell it to shut up if it’s not being helpful.
- If you feel panicked notice what is actually happening, is it as bad as your mind thinks it is?
- Use your breath to make you aware of here and now. Notice your breathing as it is or take a few deep breaths.
- Feel what it’s like to be in your body. Feel the contact with the floor or the chair.
- Notice the sounds that are around you.
- Listen to what others are saying. The mind can get so busy planning it’s next move. Take the time to really listen to what other people are saying instead of planning what you are going to say next.
- Focus on the every day things that are actually happening. Where are you right now and what are you doing?
- If you catch your mind creating stories, notice it without getting involved, like a cloud passing in the sky.
- If you feel you’ve got stuck living in the past or the future, that’s okay. Now is the only moment you have, be here now and don’t worry about the past.
Do you find your mind likes to create unnecessary drama? What helps you to stay present?
Robert Lustig writes that it’s sugar, not fat, that is the major cause of obesity. Lustig is a paediatric doctor who specialises in treating overweight children in San Francisco.
Yoga can help you maintain a healthy weight and help overweight people to lose weight. There is some research to support this. I think that one of the ways that yoga does this is by making you more aware of your body and health and helping you to make healthier choices. I have noticed that if I eat sugary foods, at times like Christmas it makes me feel hungry even when I am not. I did not fully understand why this happened but was curious. This book more than answered the questions I had.
Fat Chance: The bitter truth about sugar explores the role of the hormone insulin, in weight gain. Insulin causes energy to be stored in fat cells. Robert Lustig is talking mostly about the molecule fructose. Fructose is one of the two molecules found in sucrose, the other is glucose. Robert Lustig argues that a calorie is not a calorie. He explains a calorie from fructose is much harder for the body to breakdown, especially if there is not enough fibre in the diet. He reviews a number of diets which have been successful in promoting health and maintaining healthy weight. He concludes that what these diets have in common is that they are high in fibre and low in sugar.
Surprisingly to me, he also talks about fruit juice. We usually think of fruit juice as being healthy. Robert Lustig that it supplies the body with a big dose of fructose. Fruit is also high in fructose. Whole fruit contains fibre which slows down the metabolism of fructose. This makes fruit a healthy choice. He says that one of the major problems is that people drink too much sugar, be it in fruit juice or soda.
So what does he think we should I eat?
Lustig recommends we eat real food. There is no need to go on a fad diets, just eat wholefoods. He says that that this is a dose dependent problem. A little sugar is fine and if you are a healthy weight and very active it may even be beneficial. The problem is that for many people processed foods and sugary drinks have become the norm.
Is sugar addictive?
Lustig likens sugar to other drugs. He presents a strong argument for how it messes people’s hormones up so much that they eat more of it and more food in general. His explanations are great for explaining the difficult cycle that many people struggling with their weight find themselves in. He also offers some advice that will help most people get on track.
What are his tips for food shopping?
2. Shop in the periphery of the supermarket, buy real food.
3. It shouldn’t need a nutritional label. Eat processed foods in moderation.
4. Real food spoils. This is good. If bacteria can digest it so can you.
5. Watch out for hidden sugar. Lots of foods you don’t expect contain sugar.
It is hard if not impossible to completely give up sugar. As with many things moderation and common sense are key. Personally I like to occasionally give myself a complete break from it, just to make sure I am not becoming a sugar addict
Would I recommend the book?
I really enjoyed this book because it was backed up with lots of research and scientific explanation. I think it is an important book and I am glad he wrote it. I think it just depends how much you want to learn about nutrition. I think it may be too in-depth for some people’s interest.
You can also check out Robert Lustig youtube videos if you want to learn more.
Are you addicted to sugar? Have you ever given it up?
In Ashtanga yoga there are two traditional chants. One at the start of the class and one at the end. In my classes I only do this chant in my non-beginners classes. I do this because I think chanting can be a bit intimidating to some people. This can be especially when they are just beginning their yoga journey. People come to yoga for all sorts of reasons and I think that is fine, yoga has many benefits.
When I do teach the chant, it is is optional. I know many of my students love it and some people just listen for whatever reason and that’s fine. I would hate someone to miss out on the many benefits of yoga because they don’t feel comfortable chanting.
Why do the chant?
I think the chant is really useful as a way to seperate your yoga practice from day to day life. If you don’t want to to chant you could take a moment to connect with your breathing.
What language is the chant and what does it mean?
The chant is in Sanskrit – an ancient language of India. The opening chant gives thanks to Patanjali, who wrote the yoga Sutras. This ancient text can be considered the philosophical underpinnings of yoga. If you are interested in deepening your understanding of yoga, you should definately read the yoga sutras. It was written approximately 200 years BC and has amazing relevance to our lives today. In my mind when we say this chant we are also giving thanks to all the yoga teachers who have passed on the yoga tradition so that we can practice today. The closing chant is more about taking the benefits of our yoga practice and putting them out into the world. You can find a full translation of the chants here.
Religion and the Chant
Some people may not want to chant because they feel it is religious. Yoga is not a religion. It has a philosophy and can be practiced by anyone, regardless of whether they have a religious faith or not.
Pronunciation of the chant
This post came about because some of my students said they struggled to pronounce the chant when they are practing by themselves. Last week I came across this wonderful video on yoga mammas blog. The video shows Sharath and his grandfather Pattabhi Jois, saying the opening chant. Pattabhi Jois was the founder of ashtanga yoga, he is no longer with us and the current head of the lineage is his grandson Sharath. I feel very grateful for having had the opportunity to study with both of them. This video shows a beautiful transmission of the tradition.
Here is another video of Sharath chanting the closing chant.
Do you like chanting? What do you like or dislike about it? Do you have any questions about the chants?
Emotional release can play a part in the transformational benefits of yoga.
At my recent Backbending Workshop my students and I had an interesting discussion about emotional release in yoga. I would like to open up this topic for further discussion here. Backbending is one of the places where people can experience emotional resistance and release. Hip opening is another common area where people report experiencing it.
What do I mean by emotional release?
A commonly held belief by yogis is that we store emotional tension in our bodies. Though yoga we release these emotions and give ourselves an opportunity to heal. I think the emotional transformations that can happen in yoga also happen as we change the way we move to a more confident open posture. This may initially make someone feel vulnerable and will ultimately empower you to shine.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Spiritual teacher, author and lecturer
Where’s the science?
I have always been interested in science’s understanding of these seemingly alternative ideas. Whilst there are many things that science can’t yet understand, there is some interesting research about emotions. Many years ago I read Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel. In this book neuroscientist Candace Pert discusses research which shows that the molecules of emotion can can be found in the body. These findings provide a scientific framework to understand the mind and body connections.
Does Everyone experience emotional release in yoga?
I don’t think that everyone does, although most long term practitioners seem to accept that it part of the journey. It has certainly been part of my personal journey with yoga. As much as I think this is a real phenomena, even with some scientific backup, it is just a belief that I hold. It is part of my model of reality and yet I am always keen to keep an open mind about my beliefs as believing in something often makes it happen and can close my mind to other possibilities.
If I feel upset what should I do?
Emotions from our past can come up for all of us, whether we are doing yoga or not. A yoga practice can really help you to remain calm and not get overwhelmed. Here are my tips for dealing with challenging emotions.
- You don’t have to understand it it to let it go. Don’t get too involved as that will just feed the emotion.
- Stay present – tune in to what is happening right now. Notice where you are and what is actually happening rather than getting wrapped up the story in your mind.
- Use your breath to keep you present and calm.
- It is not a concrete permanent thing – it is constantly changing, notice it’s impermanence.
- Observe it without getting involved and it will pass.
As you develop your yoga practice you will find it gets easier to let go rather than cling to your emotions. If you find yourself getting hooked, give yourself a break. You are noticing which is an essential first step. I have found this process of letting go so liberating and healing and one of the wonderful benefits of yoga.
Have you ever felt emotional release during your yoga practice? What has helped you to let go of these emotions?
I would like to show you how you can complement your yoga stretching with self massage techniques. This a great affordable way for you to release any trigger points in your muscles and a great thing to do as part of your warm down after cycling, running, etc. If you want to include it in your home yoga practice, I suggest doing it before your practice as it will help warm your body up.
Why self massage?
Self massage is an excellent complement to stretching. It is a great thing to do if you have especially tight areas and is easy to do. Self massage is an affordable way to get regular massage. I still like to get a good professional massage every now and then but I certainly can’t afford to get a massage every day and sometimes that’s what a tight muscle needs.
You can use a foam roller
The easiest way to massage the legs is with a foam roller, you can buy these cheaply online. As a big fan of self massage I have invested in The Grid Foam Roller. Which is a bit more expensive but smaller and longer lasting and I prefer it to my regular foam roller which eventually got worn down.
What is a foam roller?
A foam roller is a roll of foam that you roll up and down on, you may have seen one down the gym. In fact if you are a member of a gym you could have a go of there’s so you can see what you think. You roll up and down on it and when you find tight, painful spots you can either stay still for a minute or you can cross friction it gently rocking back and forth.
How do I massage my hamstrings?
To massage your hamstring roll up and down on the back of your thigh. You have three hamstrings muscles. To get all 3 of them you need to rotate the leg in and out, as well as rolling on the bottom your thigh. If you find a tight spot stop and use yoga breathing to help ease into it and relax, stay for one minute. You can control the amount of weight you put onto it if it’s really tight, don’t over do it. Spend about 5 minutes on each leg, a once a day if you need it or after a run, etc. Here is a picture of one of my students who uses the foam roller every day.
How you can learn more about self massage
You can also use a ball for self massage to get a little deeper, I find sitting on a chair useful for this. Athletes Treating Athletes is an excellent resource for you to learn how to do this for yourself with some great videos. Their is a wealth of such videos on you tube, the athletes treating athletes resource is by far the most informative, I have found and is ran by a physiotherapist who is also an athlete. You can see her video for the hamstrings, below. If you want to learn more about this topic and learn how to self massage yourself, I can also recommend The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment for Pain Relief (Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief)
In part one of how to open up your hamstrings, I explained why you should stretch them and gave explained how to do a great yoga pose which is excellent choice for safely stretching out your hamstrings. I have even more to share with you about hamstrings! Stay tuned for part 3……..
Have you been practicing the stretch I suggested in part one? How is it going for you? Do you use self massage to complement your stretching?
Last weekend myself and some of my yoga students planned to join together with Ashtanga Manchester for a Mysore style yoga class with Joey Miles from Ashtanga Yoga Leeds. It was to be a meeting of Ashtangi’s of the North of England. We all got up early on Saturday morning eager to get to class, despite the cold and snow. Unfortunately Joey got stuck in the snow and was unable to make it. Hopefully he was able to get home again.
We found out the news just as we were putting our yoga mats into the car, so we had a chat about our plan of action. I felt bad that my students had made the effort to get up early etc and so offered to teach an impromptu yoga class in my home. My yoga students, ever considerate of me insisted that instead we should practice together, it was my day off afterall. So we went to a house with a nice big practice space and did a self practice together.
It was so lovely to practice with my students, I had to pretend they weren’t there to resist the urge to teach, lol. In ashtanga yoga we have a focal point called a driti for each pose. Dristi and the breath helped keep me focused and it was nice to share the groups energy rather than practice alone. I was also pleased for my students who from practicing Mysore style, now have a practice they can do on their own, wherever they are and whatever change of plans may come their way.
After practice we went to Lark Lane for a well earned brunch.
What is a Mysore Style yoga class?
A Mysore style yoga class is a traditional Ashtanga Yoga class as taught in Mysore India. In a Mysore Style class the student self practices at their own pace and learns the sequence gradually. The teacher assist the student in a very individualised way. There is no need to memorise the sequence before coming to your first Mysore Style class, as the teacher will show you.
Were your plans changed because of the snow? Do you practice Mysore Style? What do you like about it?
This is a common question from within our local yoga community and I was asked again last week so I offered to write a blog post about it. Ashtanga Yoga’s Primary Series, the sequence I teach, has many forward bends in it. As such a regular Ashtanga Yoga practice will open the hamstrings up quite quickly. People tend to have difficulties with this if they don’t have the space for a regular practice in their life, they are exceptionally tight and find forward bending challenging, they have a history of back problems and or they are very active and need to stretch out their hamstrings after their activity. Liverpool half marathon runners from yesterday’s race, take note
Hamstrings and Back Pain
If you are really tight in your hamstrings it may prevent your pelvis from tilting when you bend forward, which can put your back at risk. As your body is very much interconnected a tight back will often lead to tight hamstrings and vice versa. The causes of back pain are numerous and are beyond the scope of this blog post. If you have a problem with your back I recommend you work with a professional to work out how to best recover.
What Causes Tight Hamstings?
Many people have tight hamstrings. You are not alone. Causes include:
- Back tightness
- Compensation from weakness elsewhere such as the glutes
How to Stretch Out Your Hamstrings
If you can’t grab your foot or leg easily you can use a belt as my student Charlie is demonstrating. Aim to get your leg to go straight up gradually over time, that is a good range of motion, Charlie is nearly there through dedicated practice Make sure the leg you are stretching is straight. You should feel the stretch across the length of the muscle either in the back of the thigh or even the calf and not in the joint, back of the knee or in the buttocks. If you feel a sharp pain there or anywhere, something is wrong. Keep your leg completely straight and engage the front of your thigh, this will help to relax the hamstring through what as called reciprocal inhibition. If you are still having difficulties let me know as there are other suggestions I can make.
Guidelines for Practicing this Pose
- If it hurts back off and modify. If you are not able to do it pain free contact a professional and stop doing the position
- Take deep even breaths through your nose and allow yourself to relax into the position
- Do not push too hard, gently and consistently allow the hamstring to open
- Practice this regularly, at least 3 times a week
- If you are running or cycling etc do this afterwards
- Hold for at least 30 seconds, around 10 deep breaths
- You can do this stretch up to 3 times
- If you have one leg tighter than the other, start with that leg and do an extra one on that side.
I would like to thank Charlie for allowing me to use his photo in this post. More student pictures coming up. I would also like to thank my students whose questions have led to me to learn so much and whose dedication inspires me to continue to do so.
In part two I am going to give an alternative hamstrings stretch and talk about how you can use self massage to help release the hamstrings. Do you have tight hamstrings? Have your hamstrings opened up through practicing yoga? Do you have any questions or is there anything else you would like me to write about on this topic?
I was asked to write a blog post about this question by a student of mine on Facebook. When we are ill we have to respect and listen to our bodies perhaps even more than usual to make sure they have energy to heal. Her question is a great one, I have been asked this many times, so it’s great to get a chance to write more about it. Hopefully it will help you out too.
Illness can vary from just not feeling 100 per cent to something majorly debilitating. Ashtanga Yoga can be very challenging for the body and there may be times where you are simply too ill to do anything. At these times rest and/or medical care may be necessary. After a period of rest if you are used to being active you may be itching to get moving again but not ready to do what you usually do.
It’s good to know what you’re like as a person, as this will help you discern how you approach your recovery. After many years of practice, I know that I am highly motivated and don’t like to miss a practice, so if I think I am too ill to practice, I know I am too ill to practice. When I start practicing again I know I am more likely to do too much than too little, so I know I need to reign myself in. What type of person are you? Are you like me or are you looking for any excuse to take it easy and overly cautious about doing too much. Maybe you have a balanced approach to it all. Get to know your mind so you know when to listen and when to tell it to shut up.
What should you practice? If you’re feeling quite rough and the idea of a sun salutation makes you want to lie down but you want to move. Explore some of your favourite stretches, you won’t be warmed up so move gently and hold the poses a little longer. Listen to your body and do what it intuitively feels it needs. I am not normally a fan of just doing the poses you like but hey if you’ve been ill, cut yourself some slack! Legs up the wall, is a really restorative yoga position to do when feeling unwell. To do this just put your legs up the wall with your back on the ground, if you have tight legs you can be a little bit away from the wall. You can also practice Viparita Karani, which is even better but requires more set up.
Once you’re ready to start doing some sun salutations you can begin to do a more traditional Ashtanga practice. Just get on your mat without an agenda, good advice for any day and see what happens, when you feel you have had enough stop and take your relaxation. If you come to Mysore Style classes, you can easily take this approach in class.
You want to finish your practice feeling better than you did when you started so you have some energy left for your recovery. So take it easy and just be greatful that you have some time to connect with yourself in whatever way you can.
When you are better, you may feel you are not 100 per cent or have lost some of your previous stamina. It is important that when you come back to your yoga class, that you make the practice work for you. If you are my student you are always welcome to miss some vinyasa’s if you need to, rest in child’s pose when necessary. This is true for any day, our bodies are never the same, always changing and through yoga we learn to connect with that and do what’s right for us, now.
Do you have any questions? What would you like me to write about next?
I was given a copy of ‘May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga and Changing my Mind’ by Cyndi Lee in exchange for an honest review. The book is about the author, a yoga teacher in New York, and her path towards her self acceptance. I decided to write the review because I thought the book dealt with an important issue that of body awareness and issues arising from that. Cyndi’s biography is very honest and she talks in depth about her struggles to accept her own body image. I love the way that she freely admits her own failings. Yoga teachers are sometimes expected to be radiant beams of ultra health and inner peace and whilst yoga is amazing, we are human beings too and Cyndi deals with this in a candid way. Cyndi writes informal style which makes you feel you are somehow engaging in conversation with her.
There are some good gems and conversations with friends and teachers along the way. I like biographical writing as I always learn something about humanity and how we are similar as well as how we are different. As a yoga teacher the issue of body image does come into conversation with my students and I have learned a lot from listening to how people feel about it. Some people, of both genders, experience issues surrounding their body image. I have to admit I have never given it as much thought as Cyndi has and my heart goes out to her. I also felt that much of the book explored her struggles and not enough of the solutions and as such I wonder if it may not ultimately be a good choice for somebody who is experiencing similar issues.
Yoga is great for your health and wellbeing and physical styles of yoga such as Ashtanga Yoga can also help with weight loss. You have to combine this with a healthy lifestyle and diet in order for it to be effective. For some people weight loss is a good step towards a healthier body and is a great thing. I feel the health and fitness industry occasionally exploits this a bit and I am frustrated to see the numerous fad diets and fitness regimes which people seem to torture themselves with. I feel that these extreme behaviours seem to often become a cycle whereby someone puts on weight then tortures themselves with an exercise regime and diet which they hate and so do not maintain and then they repeat the cycle. My advice, if you need to lose weight, would be to find an activity you like doing and make gradual changes to both your eating and exercise regime.
Unfortunately, the situation sometimes runs deeper than this. The author Cyndi Lee honestly illustrates how some people who are in healthy active bodies can still struggle with their body image. There are also people who are overweight who are concerned with their image of themselves. Who you are as a being is not defined by your weight. There are many people, just like you, who are waking up to this possibility and are learning to enjoy their bodies, and themselves as beings, for all the amazing things they can do. It is my hope that through yoga you can take steps towards self acceptance and begin to make peace with yourself one breath at a time.
What has helped you on your journey to self acceptance?