How to change yourself and others and how yoga can help you.

It’s easy to categories ourselves and others. Maybe it’s even necessary in order to allow us to create our own unique model of the world with expectations and understanding of the people around us. However as we categories ourselves and others we create boxes, we form beliefs about what we expect and this can reinforce behavior.

I truly believe you can be and do anything. Gaininga new skill may require a lot of work and learning – it may even require that we give something else up. There are clearly only so many hours in a day and we have to decide who we want to be and what we want to do with them. When we find that who we desire to be is different to who we are, we may need to change in order to achieve our goal, but we can do it.

Believing that other people have the capacity to change can help us believe in our own ability to change. However let’s be clear, the other person has to change because they want to, not because you think they should change. Trying to change someone else against their will is not a good use of their time, but believing that someone can change is really useful. There have certainly been times in my life that I have felt that other people have believed in me, perhaps more than I did at that moment, and this has helped me to gradually see that I am capable of more than I ever imagined.

How does yoga fit into all of this?

In yoga you develop concentration through movement and focus on the breath. As you do this you start to become more aware, and as you become more aware you start to notice beliefs that you hold about yourself, some of which are limiting beliefs. As you start to notice them, realize that – far from being predestined – these limiting beliefs are actually choices.

As you reflect on these limiting beliefs and behaviors, they can seem so strange. You may wonder ‘why would I sabotage myself like this?’ Much of our behavior is governed by unconscious patterns, and probably when we created this pattern of behavior it was useful in some way, even if it is no longer useful any more. The problem is when we generalize these behaviors out into the world we sometimes forget that we have a choice about them.

Namaste- I bow to the divine in you with a picture of Helen Aldred in a yoga poseAs we make changes in ourselves we may notice the surprise in others who expect us to behave the other (old) way. One of the best ways to help other people to feel capable of their own inner transformation is to demonstrate it through our own example. We cannot make another person change and yet we can inspire them and help them to realize that they can make changes if they want to.

In order to allow ourselves and others to change, I think we have to see the magnificent, limitless being that they and we truly are. Namaste is a Hindi greeting often said at the end of a yoga class. It means I bow/ acknowledge the divine in you. So I will end this holding in my mind that inside all of us is limitless potential and the belief that you can make whatever changes you want to.

Namaste

How Yoga can help you manage your emotions

Occasionally a student will say something to me like I can’t imagine you getting upset, angry etc. My long standing practice of yoga have certainly given me a sense of inner calm. It hasn’t made me immune to negative emotions though. I have them and I don’t want to get rid of them. Sometimes sadness and anger are appropriate, if I went to hug someone who was attacking me it probably wouldn’t help me very much.

I got thinking about this topic because it came up in the book we are currently reading in Liverpool Yoga Book Club, Yoga the Quest for the True Self. In chapter 12 Stephen Cope references a study by Dan Brown and Jack Engler on long term meditation practitioners, what they found was that the advanced practitioners continue to experience negative emotions

“What changes was not so much the amount of or nature of conflict but awareness of and reactivity to it… (the… practitioner) may note the intense desire until it passes, like every other transient mental state; or he/she may act on it, but with full awareness” Dan Brown and Jack Engler

I found this interesting as it matches my own experience. It’s not wrong to feel negative emotions and it sometimes even appropriate to act on these emotions. I don’t think that yoga and meditation are meant to send you into dazed state of inactive bliss. What I have found is that I am able to notice the feeling and observe it with curiosity. Oh I am feeling frustrated I wonder what that’s about? Often we don’t have to react to something straight away and it can be good to sit with the emotion and see if it passes as well as work out what the source of the feeling really is. If possible, I will always let at least the bulk of the emotion pass before I act and often there is no need to do anything at all.

Perfectionism on the yoga path

I think it’s important to clarify this as perfectionism is something that can impact many areas of life. I think sometimes people expect that when they have a yoga practice they will never get a negative emotions again and then they may feel like a failure in some way when they do. This is such a shame and this self judgment will only help the individual cling to the emotion rather than let it pass.

Experiencing here and now

The main problem with negative emotions isn’t that we have them or even that we act on them although both can obviously be challenging at the time. The biggest problem people have is they recreate them or manufacture them based on possible futures which they hallucinate and then worry about. Yoga and any other kind of mindfulness practice will help with this because we are training the breath to be present in this moment and so we experience now fully rather than reliving the past or worrying about the future. Of course reflecting on the past and envisioning the future can be useful but worrying about either is generally fruitless.

What do you think? Has yoga changed the way you manage your negative emotions? How?

 

Ancient wisdom applied to modern life – How yoga can help you transform your habits

As special as we all are as individuals, it never ceases to amaze me how similar we are. Not only with each other, but with our ancestors also. Yoga offers an ancient philosophy that is just as applicable and helpful in the modern world. Indeed many of the things we struggle with today were discussed in the yoga sutras, which were written prior to 400 CE.

samsara deeply ingrained habits written with smasher in sanskritHabits can be positive or negative. We all probably have some positive and some negative ones. In yoga these deeply ingrained habits are called samskaras. The word samskara is from an ancient language called Sanskrit. It comes from the root words sam (complete or joined together) and kara (action, cause or doing). You can think of these as neural pathways in your brain that help shape your behavior.

Samskaras are not all bad, much of our behavior is habitual and we all have a mixture of positive and negative habits, which shape our behavior.

How does yoga help?

When you practice yoga, you develop more awareness. In yoga philosophy the Sanskrit word for awareness or seeing clearly is vidya. As you develop this awareness you become more aware of the habits you have. You start to notice how your actions are affecting your outcomes. If you have noticed you have a problem that reoccurs in your life this may be an example of a negative samskara.

You may notice your samskaras on your yoga mat. So for example if you have a habit of pushing too hard you may notice you do this in your yoga practice. Alternatively you may give up too easily or whenever you can’t do something. Both these tendencies can have a negative impact on your life beyond the yoga mat.

Ancient wisdom and modern neuroscience

Modern neuroscientists have observed that we have neural pathways in our brains for these ingrained patterns of behavior. No wonder our habits can be hard to change. The good news is you can create new neural pathways.

Awareness is just the first step

Becoming aware of our negative samskaras is not enough to change them. Noticing and becoming aware though is a crucial step on the path to change. Sometimes you may become aware of a negative habit a few times before you decide to change it. Crucially here I think is your own belief in the possibility of self-change. Start with something small like changing your morning routine. Instead of trying to do too many at once, make one change at a time, repeat it for at least 2 weeks until it starts to feel like a habit. Over time you will develop the ability to notice and change your habits and slowly one habit at a time you can build the life you want to live.

Has yoga made you more aware of any negative habit? Have you made any changes to your life because of this?

 

Achieve your goals in 2018 and beyond – Why doing less may mean achieving more

I love setting goals and I know I achieve a lot more when I set them. Goals help me move my life in the direction that I want it to go, rather than letting circumstance or other people decide what I am prioritizing. It seems like there is more and more to do, and with these wonderful possibilities more choices to make. That said I have in the past had a bad habit when it comes to goal setting. I sometimes used to set too many goals. There are only so many hours in the day after all and my sleep and health are top priorities for me.

Although I set and achieve goals year round, I tend to review my goals and get lots of ideas about changes I want to make around Christmas/New Year time. This is because I have some time off from teaching at this time, and I find a break from my regular routine really helps me get perspective and come up with lots of ideas. It’s really exciting and inspiring to have lots of ideas, and the New Year is always full of potential and possibilities.

What do you want to do with your time in 2018? Picture of diary and a coffee with the aforementioned text at the top.This year I knew I had to commit to less to achieve more. I have always done this to some extent. Yoga is the made focus of my life, I practice it I read about, I talk about, I teach about, I keep learning and I keep sharing. I know even with this immense dedication to yoga I will never know everything but I also know that I am someone who likes to know a few things really well than lots of things a little bit. As yoga is my full time job this is an appropriate level of dedication for me, each person it will be different and of course we all have more than one thing to focus on. Our job, our hobbies and our families are 3 key areas of focus, each important and requiring time and attention. As you say yes to one thing you may have to say no to others. You want to go to a yoga class in the evening but you usually watch TV in the evenings, which will help you the most? I know which I would choose ;-).

When we say yes we are also saying no, what you say, “no too will help you to achieve your goals because goals require action and action requires time. Most new years resolutions fail. Does this mean we shouldn’t set them? I don’t think so but once you have set your goals you need to work out what you need to do to achieve them. By the way my husband Marc, who is a certified NLP Trainer, has taught me a lot about how to write down my goals in the last year. It has been a big game changer for me. He has written a great blog post about how to write smart goals here. Once you have set your goals you need to work out what the most important things to do in order to achieve your goals are. Then you need to do them. It sounds simple but this is perhaps the most challenging part. Most goals require more than one action and sometimes the actions are less exciting than the end goal. Often they are things you don’t want to do, or have struggled to do in the past, or else why would you need to set it as a goal?

If you want to do more of something this year, what are you willing to do less of, even if it is procrastinate less. If you can commit to just one goal and really focus on that I think you will achieve amazing things. I have managed to narrow my goals down to five, which is still a lot, but they are all essential to me in some way. My process at the start of each week is to look at each goal and commit to what I can realistically do to move that goal forward. I will review what I have achieved the week prior and work out what is realistic and attainable whilst still moving things forward.

essentialism book coverOver the Christmas period I listened to an audiobook called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeon also available as a good old-fashioned book. This book is about decluttering your life to focus on what is most important to you. Often we do things out of habit or because we have already committed to doing them or done them in the past. He uses the metaphor of cleaning out your wardrobe as you look at the things you do in your life, ask yourself how much effort would I make in order to get this into my life if it wasn’t already there. It’s a really good book, I recommend it.

Whatever your dreams and goals are for this year I wish you lots of actions in the pursuit of your dreams. Do you set goals? What has helped you achieve them?

 

Liverpool Yoga Book Club – Join in and Help us Choose or Next Book

Helen Aldred and Ashley Bromilow

Helen Aldred and Ashley Bromilow

Last year I started Liverpool Yoga Book Club with the help of one of my senior students Ashley Bromilow. The aim of the club is to encourage reading and discussion of yoga books within the city of Liverpool. We discuss our reading online on our Facebook page and meet up in person every 2 months. Our first event will be on January 12th where we will discuss our first book Bringing Yoga to Life by Donna Fahri. This is a great book and I have really enjoyed re-reading it as well as discussing it with the community both online and in person. Ashley and I are really excited about our first event. We are meeting this week to plan it and will announce more details on the Facebook page this week. If you are not on Facebook and would like to come, email me and I will keep you updated.

picture with all 6 of the yoga books you can vote for, with the text what shall we read next.Choosing our next book

We thought we would open the decision of our next book to the community so I have created a poll, you can vote here. I have written this post to give you a bit more information about the books you can choose from. They all sound great, I will do my best to be impartial and give you a brief summary of each with a link to find out more.

Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffman

A practical guidebook to yoga and meditation by World renowned yoga teacher Erich Schiffman. Useful regardless of the style of yoga you practice.

Find out more

Yoga and the quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope

A psychotherapist and yoga teacher, Stephen’s book explains the philosophy, psychology, and practice of yoga, and how it applies to our most human dilemmas.

Find out more

Autobiography of A Yogi by Paramahabsa Yogananda

Paramahansa Yogananda autobiography, shares his encounters with many saints and sages during his youthful search around India for a teacher, ten years of training in the hermitage of a revered yoga master, and the thirty years that he lived and taught in America.

Find out more

Heart of Yoga- Developing a Personal Practice by TKV Desikachar

An exploration of yoga philosophy and practice, includes a translation of the yoga sutras at the end.

Find out more

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda

The yoga sutras compiled prior to 400 CE by Sage Patanjali are one of if not the most important text on yoga. Sri Swami Satchidananda’s book has the original Sanskrit followed by a translation, transliteration and commentary.

Find out more

Yoga for A World Out of Balance by Michael Stone

Using the five yamas described in the Yoga-Sutra’s of Patanjali, Michael Stone explores ethical action and the spiritual path in the modern world.

Find out more

You can vote for the next book here. Let me know if you have any other thoughts about the yoga book club, thanks to everyone who has contributed so far you can join our Facebook Group here.

Stretching out your psoas and why it is important

The psoas muscle is an important hip flexor and low back stabilizer that often gets tight. Stretching it will help you deepen your backbends but the benefits do not end there. It’s a key muscle and if out of balance then it can cause you back pain and freeing it up will help you move with greater ease. Due to its relationship to your glutes stretching out is key to your functional strength and therefore better posture and comfort.

What is the psoas muscle and why does it get tight

The psoas muscle can be found in the abdomen and attaches from the lumbar vertebrae. It is a key hip flexor, which means it works when the leg lifts towards the body. This is obviously a key movement, walking, running, cycling and sitting can all lead to tightening up this muscle.

Why is it so important that I do yoga and stretch it out?

A tight hip flexor is almost always at least involved in back pain so if you are suffering with back pain then it’s a good stretch to try. If the hip flexors get really tight then they pull the glutes into a slight stretch meaning that they don’t work properly. Weak glutes lead to poor movement patterns and potentially an unstable pelvis. In this case you may need to both stretch out your hip flexors and strengthen your glutes to get them firing properly.

How you can stretch out your psoas in your yoga practice

Backbending is great for stretching out your hip flexors. If you feel pinching in your back you may need to work on your technique. Make sure your feet are parallel and your knees are not splaying outwards. If you are in Liverpool and are one of my yoga students tell me and I will help you work on it. Sometimes the psoas is so tight that backbending is difficult no matter how good your technique is, in this case a lunge may be a really good option for you.

3 different lunges

I have found it is good to practice lunges in order to focus specifically on opening up your hip flexors. As a keen cyclist I have found this really important to help keep me balanced. It’s good to stretch it out in different ways as it’s a large muscle and different stretches will target different aspects of the muscle. Here are the 3 stretches that I have found useful to help stretch out my psoas. I also do dynamic walking lunges to keep my glutes working strongly.

Upright lunge- photo by Nata Moraru

Psoas stretch 1, upright lunge

Place one of your feet in font of the other, placing your back knee on the floor. Keep your back upright and bend your front knee forwards until you feel a stretch at the top of your thigh. Use your breath to help relax into the pose. It’s fine to let your front knee go beyond your ankle but do make sure your foot and your knee are pointing forwards.

Low lunge -photo by Nata Moraru

Psoas stretch 2, the low lunge

This stretch is also good preparation for splits if that is something you would like to work on. Come into the upright lunge, as above, then drop down placing your hands or fingertips on the floor. If you don’t feel a stretch then bend the front knee more and if you still don’t feel a stretch bring the front foot further forward and drop your back hip more towards the ground.

Backbending lunge – Photo by Nata Moraru

Psoas stretch 3, Backbending lunge

This is a fantastic stretch but it can be quite challenging so take your time with it. Come into the upright lunge and then bend backwards. You can do this gently or more deeply depending on how open and adventurous you are feeling. To keep it gentle keep the arms low and just gently arch the back, taking the head back if it feels okay. To take it deeper gradually take your arms back, hanging back completely if you feel you can. Breathe!

You can practice these stretches everyday and that would be best, especially if you have an issue in this area. However a little often is best and even doing it once a week will help, so do it as often as you can find time. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds to one minute and repeat up to 3 times.

Being strong as a woman is not only okay it’s incredibly good for you

One of the benefits of a more dynamic style of yoga like ashtanga is that it will build strength. Some women may be scared to be strong fearing that they will somehow make you less attractive. Don’t panic, women build strength differently to men in fact it’s more difficult for women to build strength so chances are you won’t end up looking like Arnie especially not with the bodyweight exercises in Ashtanga Yoga.

Why challenging your strength is good for women

  • Photo by Nata Moraru

    Builds stronger bones and reduces the risk of osteoarthritis

  • Muscle burns fat at rest so increases your metabolism helping to build a lean healthy physique
  • It’s incredibly empowering and fun to be able to lift your own body weight
  • Challenging your strength physically challenges your mind mentally making you stronger and more resilient on the inside and the outside
  • It looks beautiful, whoever says woman can not be strong has an outdated view of what a woman is in my opinion, we are many things and some of us are incredibly strong
  • It helps you do stuff like lift things and have a stronger core and thus be less prone to injury

Women face a few challenges when building strength. The common thing you will hear is that because we don’t have as much testosterone it is harder for us to build strength. This is true. On top of that our hormones change throughout our monthly cycle. During the two weeks just before your period the levels of oestrogen and progesterone are elevated. During this phase of our cycle it is harder to build up strength.

Just keep going, it is possible for women to get strong it will usually just take longer than a man takes. My husband seems to grow muscle overnight that I swear it would take me months to build!

Building strength in Ashtanga Yoga

Helen doing yoga arm balance Karandavasana

Photo by Nata Moraru

Yoga isn’t about being stronger or achieving the next pose it’s more about learning to relax and accept things as they are. That said ashtanga yoga is physically demanding and it will make you stronger so it makes sense to consider your physiology and work with it. Your muscles get stronger when you challenge them and then allow them to recover. Both the challenge and the recovery are equally important here. If you just do what you normally do and don’t challenge yourself then you will maintain your strength which is great but you won’t get stronger because there is no challenge. Also if you challenge yourself everyday then your body will struggle to build muscle because it doesn’t have enough recovery.

If you practice yoga 2 or 3 days a week your body will have plenty of time to recover. If you practice Ashtanga Yoga six days a weeks as I do then make some of the days easier from a strength perspective by just doing the movement using your current strength rather than challenging yourself further. It’s fine to keep moving whilst recovering, and stretching everyday is really good for you.

Have you gotten stronger through practicing ashtanga? How has this changed you?

 

When you don’t want to practice is sometimes when it’s most important to get on your mat

Yoga is great! I love it so much and it’s a fundamental part of my day and my life.  Most of the time I enjoy practicing and am happy to get on my mat but it’s unrealistic to think that would I always want to practice. Sometimes I don’t.

Most people don’t experience this when they first start practicing as at this point you are still discovering how amazing it is. Obviously, there are times when not practicing is the right choice. If you are ill for instance. Most of the time however, these are the best practices. They are the ones you need and benefit from the most.

Helen practicing a yoga forward bend

Photograph by Nata Moraru

Yoga has a multitude of benefits that go beyond the general improvements in your health and wellbeing. It is a practice that teaches you to connect with yourself, your body and your mind as they are. This can be incredibly transformational but sometimes you don’t want to see things as they are. Sometimes you want to distract yourself from it and this. I guess this is one of the reasons drinking alcohol and watching tv are such popular pastimes.

Ashtanga yoga is traditionally practiced 6 days a week, which is how I practice. This means I practice on good days and bad. I respect that it is not possible or practical for everyone to commit to practicing daily. What is good then is to commit to the days that you do practice so that you don’t just practice when you feel like it. If you do that you miss out on the opportunity to bring your mind back when it’s distracted, to learn to accept your mind even when it’s chaotic, to accept your body when it’s not at it’s best and to give yourself the practice when it needs it most.

Life isn’t always easy and your yoga practice should reflect that. We practice when we are happy, sad, in love, angry, lonely, lost and busy.  Yoga practice isn’t about perfection it’s about being present with whatever you are experiencing at the time.

If my mind is feeling particularly busy, I just take my practice one breath at a time. I let my mind do whatever it is up to. I don’t judge it but whenever it wanders, I just bring it back to my breath. Without fail, in all the years of doing this, I have always been grateful that I practiced.

Do you practice yoga when you don’t want to? How has it helped you?

How to deal with the mental aspect of being injured

I have helped so many students with injuries over the years. As well as helping students with the physical aspect of an injury, and referring for more help when appropriate, I have discovered that there are some common mental aspects to being injured.

Being injured can be a real challenge. If you are injured then you may need to seek out specific advice about how to manage the physical side of the injury. You may need to see a physiotherapist and also talk to your yoga teacher about how to adapt your yoga practice. The range of possible injuries is vast and so I am not going to deal with that here, if you’re my student and need to talk to me about your own individual case then, of course, you can.

If you get injured and you are used to being physically active then there is usually a mental journey that you go on too. You may feel that your progress will be hindered but as yoga is an internal practice usually the opposite is true. It can be difficult to see that at the time but the patience, awareness and compassion you develop from being injured will teach you a great deal about yourself.

Blame

When you get injured it is logical for you to ask why did this happen. It’s good practice and worth asking. If you can find the cause it’s good to learn from it, particularly if you were pushing too hard. Sometimes it’s not your fault! Not every injury is caused by you or someone else doing something wrong, maybe you fell or maybe you just had some underlying imbalance you were unaware of. So take a moment to learn what you can to help you in the future but be compassionate about it – you are not invincible and sometimes things just go wrong.

48 hours rest

trikonasana yoga pose

Don’t be afraid to go back to basics – photo by Nata Moraru

If your injury is severe it is generally advised to rest it as much as possible for 48 hours. Again I am not going into specific injuries here, so seek advice on your individual injury and circumstances. After that, it is generally advised to resume activity but only to the extent that you can do so without aggregating your injury further. This may mean you do a different activity or you modify the activity – you may need help working this out. You need to be prepared to take a step back from your normal practice. It is tempting to rest completely but usually this is not optimal, as exercising helps blood circulation, which in turn helps an injury to heal. However you don’t want to aggravate things further, so I would generally advise you do less than you think you can, and gradually and carefully build back up, under the guidance of you teacher. Mentally you have to be prepared to back off and take it easy, which can be harder than stopping completely. It can seem hard, because you have to face the injury, and it can be frustrating but it’s incredibly useful as a practice because life doesn’t always go as planned. Sometimes you have to keep going when things are not going the way you had planned. You can battle internally with this or you can learn to accept and embrace your current circumstances whilst taking steps forward to help you get better.

The process of dealing with an injury is very universal, so despite feeling like you are the only one going through what you are, you will probably find others have had similar experiences at some point in their lives. Yes, you are special but so is everyone else. Realizing this can help you let go of your own melodrama, so talk to others about how you feel.

Practice ahimsa. One of the ethical precepts of yoga is ahimsa, which means nonviolence. Like many things in life, it’s good to start learning to practice this on yourself before branching out into the world. It sounds easy to practice not hurting yourself but again and again, I find myself teaching this. Your body is the most amazing gift you have, it is incredible, take good care of it.

Yoga is not about advancing your physical practice, it is easy to get distracted by that. The real yoga happens practicing when you don’t want to as well as when you do. Take some time to reconnect with the bigger reasons of why you practice, be it because it makes you calmer, more focused or enhances your wellbeing. Remind yourself of that and work with what you have.

Have you ever been injured? What did you learn from it?

 

When life doesn’t go as planned, can you accept it as it is

Suffering is caused when there was a mismatch between expectation and reality. Such a simple concept, but understanding it has really helped me to handle challenges that life inevitably throws at us.

Things don’t always go our way. It’s inevitable because not everything is within our control. Life would be pretty dull if it was probably. So when things are not going your way you have a choice. You can accept reality as it is even if you then do whatever you can do to change it. Or you can get frustrated, angry and anxious about the way things are. You can try to fight it, but that in itself will probably not change the reality you find yourself in.

Yoga can help you develop flexibilty in your expectations as will as your body. Photo by Nata Moraru

Yoga can help you develop flexibilty in your expectations as will as your body

I think it’s very natural to feel frustrated when things aren’t gong your way. It’s not particularly useful though. I am not saying you should lie down and accept your fate and not do anything to resolve your problem. You absolutely should. But sometimes that starts with accepting things as they are. If you don’t accept reality, it will still be reality – it’s just that you will be fighting it.

This all sounds really simplistic I know, but it really has had a major impact on how I handle life’s curveballs. How does yoga come into all this? Well yoga can help you to be more aware of the present moment and as you become more aware, that you have a choice about how you respond to something. As you notice these moments of choice more and more, you will become aware that often getting frustrated doesn’t get you anywhere. You might still feel frustrated. That’s normal. And you should absolutely not judge yourself for that either! Just notice it and see how quickly you can accept what is actually happening. And if it’s appropriate, or possible, to do something about it.

I know this is so much easier to say sometimes than to do. It’s important not to judge yourself if you find it difficult to accept your circumstances or your pain. We all go through challenges sometimes and some problems are easier to embrace than others. Just apply this whenever you can, I hope it helps you as much as it helps me.

Has yoga helped you to embrace life’s challenges? How….