Do advanced yoga poses matter?

Does it really matter if you can put your legs behind your head or grab your ankles in a backbend? Will your life be enhanced? Will you be a better person? Why do you do yoga? People practice yoga for all sorts of reasons and you may find your reasons changing with time, I do.  So keep asking.

Sometimes you may get frustrated with your lack of flexibility. This may happen whether you are already flexible or not. When you are practicing yoga asana you are working with your tight edges, playing with them, exploring them. You may do yoga to become more flexible.  That’s fair enough, you’re in the right place. As you learn to accept your body as it is, you will feel so much better about it.

If you are tight you might find that tightness causes discomfort in your body.  As you work gently and repeatedly on this area you may find that you can feel better than you have ever imagined. There is a certain amount of flexibility that is functional, that helps you move about, that helps work against all those hours sat in front of your computer. Yoga is great for your body, it can do so much more.

Helen doing yoga pose supta kurmasana

Supta Kurmasana – sleeping tortoise a challenging yoga pose which became possible after years of practice

I taught my beginners a very challenging pose on Monday.  I showed them how to get into it gently and they had a go, they are great like that, very willing explorers.  We talked about it, they wanted to see me doing the full version of the pose, supta kurmasana. I don’t demonstrate that much, I don’t want to overwhelm people but they were very keen so I showed them.  Here is a photo for those of you who weren’t there.

And then one of my students asked what the benefit of that pose was?  Such a great question! One of my favourite things about being a teacher is the questions. I said that to me it was a very quietening pose, the pose name means sleeping tortoise and it’s like going into a tortoise shell, some people don’t like it because of that.  I am sure I could look in a yoga book and find a list of benefits but I always like to teach from my own experience so I did. I’m not sure if that is exactly what she meant, I could be wrong.. but I think that she wanted to know the benefit for the body.

The truth is I don’t think that it’s necessary to be that flexible. I shared with my students that it took me many years of daily practice to be able to do that pose.  It wasn’t easy.  It is now but thats because I put my legs behind my head every day . Was it worth it?  Absolutely!  What were the benefits to me?  I am glad you asked!

  • There will always be things that seem impossible in life, it’s great to learn to work at them regardless in an safe environment where it doesn’t ultimately matter if I fail.
  • Attempting seemingly impossible things keeps my ego in check
  • It took years but I did it and it made me feel like I could do anything if I persevered
  • Doing something challenging forces me to become aware of my body, bringing me more into the present moment
  • It makes me accept where I am not where I want to be

The truth is you could apply these lessons to any yoga pose, it doesn’t matter what is challenging to you, it doesn’t have to be an advanced yoga pose. Whatever challenges you, here is a place you can learn. What can be problematic is if you don’t stop to enjoy the journey, if you forget that you were really practicing yoga to relax and that instead it has become another way to compete with yourself.  Those of us who find time to practice on our yoga mats are privileged I think.  It is a wonderful opportunity to connect and accept yourself.  To get away from the hustle and bustle of life and just see how you feel today.  So yes work on something impossible, go for it, I love a good challenge but don’t lose perspective.  Being more flexible doesn’t make you better at yoga, being more accepting does.

What yoga pose seems impossible for you right now? Do you enjoy working at it or do you find it frustrating?  Why do you practice yoga and have your reasons changed?

Visiting Rosie and practicing yoga in London

One of my long term students Rosie has recently moved to London. Rosie has studied yoga with me for at least 5 years? She was a regular part of my classes and a big part of the Ashtanga yoga community. I am sure she will be missed by many and we hope she will visit us from time to time.

In the meantime I was fortunate enough to be able visit her and attend some yoga classes with her in London. As many of you know I come to London once a month to study with my own teacher Hamish Hendry. These trips are very important to both my practice and my teaching. It allows me to focus in my own development in yoga! leaves me recharged and reminds me of what is like to be a student and to surrender to a teacher’s guidance.

I travelled up on the first train on Saturday morning 5:47 am, an early start but I slept some more in the train. I arrived in Euston at 8:00am in time for a Mysore class at Primrose Hill Triyoga with Ryan Speilman. I met Rosey there and we went to class together.  Great class, lovely relaxed atmosphere and a lovely kapotasana assist for me.  I then took Rosey to my favourite vegan cafe in London for brunch – Inspiral Lounge.  That gave us time to catch up and I can confirm that she is doing great in her new life down South.  Most importantly she has been a bit of a yoga tour and has been to 6 different ashtanga yoga teachers, since her arrival which shows real determination in finding her new regular teacher in London.

We then went to yin yoga class at the life centre which was really relaxing. In yin yoga, you hold the poses for 3-5 minutes. It was a lovely compliment to the morning ashtanga yoga practice. We felt so relaxed and mellow afterwards we went to a cafe before getting back to the hustle and bustle of the tube. Such a lovely way to spend a day.

On Sunday we went to another Mysore style class with Louise Newton.  Lovely to see her again, it had been a while and a lovely atmosphere of focus in the room.  We went back for brunch in Camden, I love that place!

This morning (Monday) I got to practice with my teacher, Hamish. Always so nice to practice with him in the room.  My practice felt relaxed and focused and was a bit quicker than when I practice by myself.  Must focus on removing any faffing!  I will be back again in just 3 weeks and am looking forward to it already.

Did you do any yoga over the weekend? Do you practice at home and with a teacher? What do you like about going to a yoga class?

A poem about Yoga – Surrendering to Yoga by Helen Aldred

Helen's creative journalWhen I was younger I used to write a lot. As soon as I learnt to write I would love to write creative stories then later as a teenager, poetry.  It was something spontaneous and necessary that was very much a part of me. As a teenager I used to have a book where I would collect quotes and write poetry. I would carry it with me everywhere so that I could always write should the urge hit me. It was by my bed as I slept, it was in my bag at the beach. In recent years I have written creatively less, not due to any conscious decision – I love writing – but it rarely grabs hold of me the way it did when I was younger. I am grateful to blogging for reigniting the writer in me. Recently I decided I would like to write more and I started by buying a beautiful notebook, a special place to journal and share my thoughts.  It is in this book that one morning before my yoga practice I felt moved to write this poem.

Surrendering to Yoga

Helen dropping back into a yoga backbendOh yoga sometimes you ask so much,

There is no place to hide.

Every part of me is invited, here I am,

I offer complete surrender.

Open, open, open body, mind, heart,

Expose all the hidden parts

Here, here, here, everything is bare.

In this moment, I open it all,

Here it is, all these treasures

The love ,the hurt , the vulnerability,

The anger, the pride, the invincibility

I clung to them but I need not.

They are not mine, they are not me.

Thank you yoga for asking for it all,

For not letting me hide, for allowing me to soar.

 

Kino MacGregor’s recent yoga workshops in Manchester and London

Kino MacGreggor and Helen Aldred

Kino and me in Manchester

This week I have managed to do four workshops with the ever inspiring with Kino MacGregor in Manchester and in London. I have studied with Kino a number of times and always learn something new. It is great to have a senior teacher who is female and and a similar age to myself, she has a unique way of helping you find your edge and encouraging you to explore it.

On Tuesday Kino came to Manchester to teach for the first time, as ashtanga yoga continues to grow in the North West it’s great to see more teachers coming this way.  The daytime workshop on Tuesday was an adjustment workshop for teacher or experienced students wanting to deepen their practice.  As a teacher it’s always great to practice adjustments and have a chance to discuss them and all the different body types that come to the practice.  I learnt a lot from this workshop and continue to learn from it as I integrate it into my own teaching and understanding.

In the evening Kino’s workshop was called Ashtanga Yoga Power elements. A number of my students came up from Liverpool for this and it was great to see everyone.  For some reason I didn’t think this workshop was going to be that hard…. Like I said Kino has a unique way of helping you find your edge! This workshop was a challenging exploration through shoulder and core stability with lots of great tips.  When I talk about the challenging nature of Kino’s workshops, people often think they are not ready but this workshop was for everyone, options were given and you were just encouraged to find ‘your’ edge.  So the next question might be why….

I think my favourite part of the workshops was when Kino said that we needed to be strong so that we would have the strength to be the change that we want to see in the world.

“You must be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Gandhi

How strong do we have to be? Really strong…The practice offers us an ideal way to develop this inner strength and discipline so that we can then bring it into the world.  It’s not about what you can do or what you can’t do, it’s about what you learn on the journey.

On Sunday I did a Mysore practice with Kino, in London, which essentially means I got to do my own self practice and get help and advise from Kino. This is the traditional method of teaching ashtanga yoga as taught in Mysore India.  I learnt a lot today even when Kino wasn’t teaching me, her presence woke my practice up and made me work.  She stopped a couple of times to talk me through some of the areas I need to work on next, such as kapotasana from the air, she says I should work on, to open my shoulders. At the moment I walk my hands into my heels from the floor, she thinks I can do it and her belief is contagious so I am inspired to challenge myself in this yoga position which strips me to the core more than any other yoga position has. Thanks for the homework Kino… I will work at it and will challenge my mind to be strong and surrender each and every practice.  I feel so fortunate to have this tool to use and explore myself with…

Sunday afternoons twisting workshop was also great, lots to share in my teaching…..and this morning I went to practice at my teachers Shala. Now I am Liverpool bound on the train, inspired and ready to share what I have learnt.

Did you go to any of Kino’s workshops. Share your experiences.

How has your yoga practice helped you to be stronger in your life?

Still so much to learn – the yoga journey – challenging your boundaries

I have been practicing yoga for over 15 years now and yet sometimes I feel like a complete beginner.

When my students talk to me about my practice, they sometimes ask if there is

Helen doing yoga pose pincha mayurasana

Picha Mayurasana – It took me hundreds of attempts to learn to balance this yoga pose.

anything I can’t do.  I answer emphatically yes.  In all honesty I am surprised by the question, the topic of yoga is so vast. I have practiced the primary series now, thousands of times, my body knows it well and can get into the poses without being warmed up. Still there are always more detailed refinements to make and more challenging asana to work on. Even though I am fortunate enough to be able to dedicate my time to practice, study and teaching, there will always be more to learn.

For me that’s a relief!  I love doing something impossible every day, challenging my ego and my sense of what’s possible. As those of you who study with me probably know, I love to understand how the body works anatomically, both in my body and in others.  I love to delve deeper to challenge my perspective on life through my study of philosophy and the fruits of practice. I love the journey.

Ashtanga yoga has a reputation for being hard. It is but it meets you wherever you are. If you can’t do something all you can do is work where your at today. It’s great to find these boundaries, use them as tool to challenge yourself.  Working on a posture that challenges you requires you to bring a whole new level of awareness to your practice. Delve deeper, this is where the lessons are.  Does your ego think you should be able to do it. My ego sometimes does, the ego is a funny creature, learn to not take it so seriously, surrender to where you are right now.

As you work this way, challenging your beliefs about what you think is possible will become second nature.

Why is it important to do impossible asanas?

No it’s not so you can pull off a snazzy move on the dance floor or because you will have the body you always dreamed of, although these things may happen ;-). The real benefit of doing a pose that you thought was once impossible is that you can apply that to your life. If you can’t do something yet, work at it consistently, observe people who can, ask for advice but if you want to do it you can. It’s not impossible it just needs work. Removing the barriers from your life can be liberating to say the least.

Of course once you can do that impossible pose, they’ll be another one waiting for you. In Ashtanga yoga there are 6 series, the first series, the primary series is enough to keep most people challenged and only the naturally flexible or those who start very young will reach series 6.  Do you know what, that’s a relief to me, I thrive on a challenge.

What do you find impossible right now in yoga or in life? Has yoga helped you to challenge the boundaries of what you think is possible?

Change of Plan – How we ended up having a yoga adventure closer to home than expected

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.

 

Yoga students practicing Downward dog

Here's the gang, my mat is in the corner of the picture

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?

Practice or Talent – How You Can Get Good at Anything

My boyfriend and I recently had some friends around for dinner.  As we sat around

Marc playing guitar

My boyfriend Marc playing guitar

chatting the subject of learning a new musical instrument came up.  Two of the people present are very talented musicians.  I am not one of them, unless you count my digeridoo explorations in teenage years.  At one point I did consider learning the guitar.  I even had a lesson from my boyfriend once.  What I realised was I could indeed play the guitar if I was willing to put the practice in. The truth is I wasn’t.  It’s not that I am not a committed person, in fact I have taught myself to be very dedicated.

 

You see I believe that you and I can do anything and become good at anything. What we need is practice. This has been a pivotal belief for me as it has allowed me to achieve all sorts of things. I recently redesigned Ashtanga Yoga Liverpool’s Website. I have always designed my own websites although I have no background in web design. I do this partly because I am a very small business and it saves money and partly because I enjoy doing it as well as the challenge and the learning. This is the first site I have built using css and html code and it has been and continues to be a big learning curve for me. I have taught myself using books and videos and a lot of trial and error and I still have a lot to learn.

 

Apparently it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an “expert” at anything. That’s a lot of practice and I am certainly no where near that in my web design journey.The thing is that some people have beliefs that they are not good at certain things or that they don’t know much about a particular topic.

 

As a yoga teacher, I am completely dedicated to learning about yoga. I feel I owe that to you, my students. Sometimes this suprises people, they think I should know enough by now. After all I have been doing yoga for 16 years. I practice it, I read about it, I write about it, I talk about it and I teach it. There is always more to learn and I feel it is my job to keep learning and experiencing so that I can pass on what I discover.

 

When you see others with amazing yoga practices, I think it’s easy to forget the many hours of dedicated practicing that led to that. Yoga is about so much more than just being able to do the positions, called asana. Yet with dedicated practice the body will change, things that were once impossible will become possible. I realise some people don’t have the time to put into their practice and maybe that’s because your practicing something else, like being a dedicated  Mother or becoming specialist in your chosen subject or career. These are all choices that we have made. I find it empowering to know that the reason I am not able to play the guitar is simply because I choose to do other things with my time.

 

So yoga is my subject, I may learn other things like web design or cooking but never with the same dedication. After all there are only so many hours in the day. I can’t possibly put that level of dedication into anything else and I am fine with that because I love yoga and I love teaching it, so it’s easy for me to find the motivation to delve deeper every day.

 

I have not always been as strong and as flexible as I am now. In fact I used to be clumsy and uncoordinated, yoga has transformed me physically and mentally and continues to do so. When you see someone practicing yoga and find it inspirational, it shows what years of dedicated practice can do.  What was once impossible turns into a reality with dedication and hard work.

 

What would you like to learn to do?  What can you now do that once seemed impossible in yoga or in life?

 

From Backbends to the Kitchen Sink – Goals and the Present Moment

Happy New Year!  Christmas and New Year is usually a time of reflection for me, I think this is because I usually have some time off work, away from my usual routine.  This gives me a bit of perspective on the way things are going and seems like a good time for me to set some goals for my future.   I think goals are important because if we don’t decide on our own direction, we put ourselves at the mercy of other people’s whims.  I  wonder how goals fit in with a commitment to being here and now, which I also have. I think that whilst we can have a version of a future which we will do anything we can to get to, all we ever really have is here and now.  It’s important to not only enjoy the journey but realise that we build the future in the here and now, in many baby steps and as we do this we interact with a world which is beyond our control and ever changing.  So we may need to adapt our plan but it is still worth planning, in fact if you didn’t plan at all you wouldn’t even get out of bed.

 

One of my main goals this year is to be tidier.  In yoga philosophy cleanliness is one the Niyamas (ethical guidlines concerning ourselves).   In truth this has been a goal of mine in the past and I have learnt a lot in my previous attempts which will surely help me to make the necessary changes.  I also have a wealth of experience of which to draw on.  I know that I have made other changes in the past and I know that this is something which is mostly within my own control.  It is easy for me to write blog posts about maintaining a daily yoga practice because I have been practicing yoga for years and I love it, tidying and me have had a different relationship in the past and it is possible for me to draw on what I learn from yoga and apply it to my life, sometimes in surprising ways.

 

I posted this picture of my practice on Christmas day.  I am doing a deep backbend whichHelen doing Kapotasana, yoga pose by Christmas tree is part of the Intermediate Series of Ashtanga Yoga. It is called Kapotasana and although I may look comfortable enough in this pose, it has been a really difficult pose for me to do.  Obviously it requires a great deal of flexibility, this has taken many years of daily practice for me to open my back up. I also find it emotionally and mentally challenging, I think there is something about having my chest that open, it has been very healing and empowering for me.  Recently I noticed that I would start to dread this pose about 5 poses before I got to it.  With this sense of dread I also had a mental dialogue that went something like this “you will never be able to do it today, your body’s too tight/tired/strong. Why are you even trying, blah, blah, blah! ” Once I noticed my little story, I think noticing is often the first step in change,  I started to notice the feeling of dread for what it was, a feeling at the pit of my stomach that I have habitually created.  Sometimes I would even laugh at it.  Sometimes I could do the pose, sometimes I couldn’t, ultimately it doesn’t matter, it’s a yoga pose. Day by day, this sense of dread started to lose it’s power, as it was no longer being fed by my thoughts.

 

Part of my plan in order to be tidier is to wash up immediately after eating.  I was doing washing up with faded picture of kapotasanathis a few days ago and I felt this amazing sense of dread at the pit of my stomach.   When I noticed, I laughed and told my partner about it. Hello dread, I know you, I thought. No wonder I have struggled to make this change in the past, there is so much emotion attached to it, to deal with it requires dealing with not only a lifetime of habits but also all the emotional negative feelings associated with not doing this.  Thanks to yoga, I am able to notice them and let them go. They don’t really relate to here and now, where I am washing up – it’s not  dangerous, there is nothing to dread.  When you make goals for your future, look back at your past and see how you have changed other things, then notice the present moment again and take it one step at a time.

 

Do you have goals yet?  What can you do right now to make them more real? How has yoga helped you?

When you are Busy? How do you Make Time for yoga?

I have been fairly busy recently. I have sometimes had to work late and my routine has gone thrown out a little.  This doesn’t happen to me as much as a yoga teacher as it used to when I was a school teacher.  It got me thinking about you, my readers, whether your my students or not.  Do you sometimes find it hard to make room for yoga in your life?  As we enter into the Christmas season, things seem to be getting busier for everyone as we make room for Christmas parties and shopping. During this time we often have to drop something in order fit it all in.  In the midst of it all, do you find time for yourself?

 

I have had to be flexible recently about when I practice yoga.  I am really grateful that each day, whatever is happing, I stop and practice.  It is so easy to feel that there is no time to practice yoga when life gets chaotic, busy or when we are going through a difficult time. It sometimes seems there is no time to practice.  I am very grateful that I have practiced long enough to know that this is complete nonsense.  The busier you are the more you need yoga in your life.  I am also grateful to you my student as you inspire me to get on my mat, each and every day, you give me so much dedication and I owe you the same.

 

There is always more work to be done, other things I should be doing but I feel it so important to just stop and have some silent time.  Time away from work, email, Facebook, mobile phones, even socialising, time for you.  This can sometimes seem selfish but I know that I have so much more to give as a result of this daily commitment to spending this time with myself practicing yoga.

 

Obviously the more time you have for this the better, remember though that just a few moments will help.  Five minutes watching your breath at the bus stop, 15 minutes to do some sun salutations or  making time to get to a yoga class.  Yoga can benefit the mind in so many ways and when your very busy it may be hard to switch off even when your doing yoga.  One of the many things I love about Ashtanga Yoga is that it flows from one position to another with connecting vinyasas, breath movements.  This helps to keep my mind engaged with the present moment as it is so busy keeping up with what’s happening on the mat.  I also love the challenge of ashtanga yoga, to attempt something impossible everyday and know that if I fail it’s okay.

 

Do you find time for yourself over Christmas season?  Do you think it is important too?

The Beauty of Imperfection From the Yoga Mat to Life

For me my yoga practice is like a microcosm of my life in general and who I am in the Helen siting in a meditation pose, world is reflected in who I am on the mat. Sometimes images of yogis or meditators looking at peace, lead people to believe that they will be at peace as soon as they step onto a yoga mat. Whilst yoga will certainly help you to be calmer and more at one with yourself and others this may not always be what you find when you step on the mat.  I hear this particularly from people who meditate for the first time but I think it happens in yoga too.  I think sometimes people think everyone else just gets it and they are the only one who is distracted.

 

This is to me part of our current culture at this particular time in our history, we feel we have to be good at everything or at least I do 😉  That is until I notice and tell myself to get real!  Anyone who has practiced yoga for a few years will realise that there is always more to learn.  Some people don’t believe me when I tell them that I still have things to work on with my standing positions despite having practiced yoga for 15 years.  In reality however, I am always noticing more and aligning my body better in subtle yet important ways.  This asana refinement is never ending and yet that is not what yoga is about.  The refinement is a useful tool for realigning the body and perhaps more importantly the  mind. It helps us to tune into what we are doing rather than do it without thinking. It enables us to bring our awareness back into our body and in the context of this post it helps us to realise we are not perfect and more importantly, that this is absolutely fine.

 

Chasing perfection is like chasing your own tail. It will always be somewhere in the future, meanwhile the real juice of life is right here waiting to be noticed. Hopefully yoga will help us to experience it more.

 

Sometimes this is easier said than done.  Life can throw challenges at us that can make it hard to focus on this moment even with the help of the practice.  I think it is important to realise that we all have days when the mind is distracted.  My practice was certainly like that today.  I had a thought flapping around in my mind that would not go away until it was acknowledged.  Mid practice it was so acknowledged that it was having it’s own party.  It was at that point that placing that thought in the context of the entire world helped me regain some sense of proportion and then returning to my breath helped me gradually get back to the actuallity of my practice.

 

I mention this because I feel that some people give themselves a hard time if they get adjusted or if their mind is cloudy or if they can’t relax.  They often think that they are the only one that feels like this and because of that the belief we fail to share what we view as our imperfections which means we don’t get to realise we all go through fairly similar things.  This is all very understandable and as we take our approach to life onto our mats we may find that some aspects don’t serve us as well as we thought they did.  The beauty is that the yoga mat is such a safe place to work this stuff out and we get to revisit it every time we step onto our mat.  So next time you feel everything isn’t quite how you thought it should be try and experience it for what it actually is and give yourself a break for making time to be on you mat at all.

 

One final note many people have said that they would love to comment on this blog but that they feel that their comments are not insightful or interesting enough. This saddens me. If you have something to say, I would love for you to share it on the blog. For one thing you might help the other people who also want to write on the blog find their courage. You will also find as I have that many people are actually thinking similar things and would benefit greatly from hearing your thoughts. We don’t have to wait for the perfect moment, to write the most interesting thing ever, what you have to say write now is perfect in it’s own way.

 

Do you ever find practice challenging?

Have you found that yoga has helped change your attitudes towards life in general?