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?

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….

Balancing your strength and flexibility – how to stretch your shoulders

One of the great things about Ashtanga is that it builds both strength and flexibility. Sometimes people graduate towards one side of this spectrum rather than the other. Flexible people tend to like to become more flexible and strong people tend to want to become more strong. What we should really be doing is moving towards balance but sometimes the ego likes to do what it is good at and sometimes the body has a natural ability towards one or the other.

For me personally I feel like I have moved from one end of the spectrum to the other. I remember a teacher once telling me that I was naturally flexible and I should work on my strength. So I did. I worked really hard on it and then I was told that I was naturally strong and I should work on my flexibilty. Ha! I worked hard for all of it.

As you get stronger you can get tighter but the shoulders can get tight from life too. It’s important to keep the shoulder flexible not just so that you can do deep backbends but to help maintain an upright posture and release tension in this area. One of the postural changes that can happen as people age is that the shoulders, upper back and neck come forward. That’s because activities such as working at a computer, driving and riding a bike can make it hard to maintain good posture. Eventually your body decides it should stay in this slouched position but not you! You do yoga!

Here are some great stretches to keep these areas free.

Pectoral muscles and upper back

upper-back-stretchPlace a yoga brick or two under your upper back, the top end should be at the base of your shoulder blade (vary height depending on your flexibility). You can experiment with taking the block higher but don’t go too low, you want to focus on the upper back not the lower back which is a lot more flexible. Start with your arms by your sides as shown in the picture and experiment with moving your arms up above your head gradually looking for any tight spots in the front of your shoulder. This shouldn’t feel too intense if it does start lower. You can stay here for up to 5 minutes but I usually find a minute is enough to release it. This is one of my post bike ride stretches. It’s nice because you don’t have to do anything!

Pectoral doorway stretch

pec stretch1One of the best way to stretch the pectorals is in a doorway. There are 3 different positions I like to do. Place you arms in the positions shown with your hands on the doorframe, for the first position your upper arm will be on the door frame too. Step through the doorway, hold for about 30 seconds. Try all 3 positions and repeat the one that is tightest. The pectorals are commonly tight causing the shoulders to come forward which can cause faulty shoulder mechanics.

pec stretch 2
pec stretch 3

Arm behind your back

This stretches the external rotators of the shoulder. It may be noticeably tighter on your dominant arm. If this the case do the tight side first then repeat on the tight side after doing the more flexible side. You can do this as as and active stretch if possible using the other arm to gradually bring the elbow up the back. You can also do it as a yin pose (holding it for up to 5 minutes). To do this put the arm behind you, start in a relaxed position i.e not too deep, then carefully lie down on your back, make it less or more deep depending on your needs, go gently.

Latissimus dorsi (lats) stretch

This broad muscle goes all the way from the shoulder to the lower back. If it’s tight it can limit your overhead arm position. In yoga this makes poses like downward dog and urdva dhanurasana difficult. It is important to be flexible here in any sport that requires an overhead position – such as swimming, climbing, catching a ball overhead, hand-standing etc. It’s good to stretch it out in different ways. Here is a couple of my favourites.

lat stretch

    From child’s pose with hands out in front come up on to your knees take your hands forward about one of your feet’s distance. Keep your hips high and take your forehead, nose, chin or chest towards the ground.

sidebend-lat-stretch

    Standing with feet hip width apart. Reach hand up overhead to whatever extent you can, hands touching if flexibility allows, parallel if you are very tight. Then side bend, anchor through your feet and reach up and over with your arms.

 

If you try out all these stretches you may find some of them are tighter than others. Those are the ones you will obviously get the most benefit from practicing.
Do you have tight shoulders? Where or how are you tight? Do you have any great shoulder stretches to share?

Raw vegan chocolate cake with Cashew nut cream – recipe

People ask me for this recipe all the time so I thought this was the best place to share it with everyone. It’s so delicious and quick and easy to make.

The cake recipe

raw chocolate cake with cashew nut cream

Raw vegan chocolate cake with cashew nut cream

What you need:

  • A food processor
  • walnuts 350 grams
  • Dates (medjool are best) 10-15
  • Cocoa powder 3 spoonfuls – you can use raw cocoa if rawness is important to you
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
  1. Put the walnuts in a food processor and grind down to crumbs. Do the walnuts by themselves as this makes them easier to process.
  2. Add the cocoa, the dates and vanilla essence and process together. Add the dates gradually until mixture starts to bind.  You can add a little water if the mixture seems dry.
  3. Take mixture and press into cake tin using a spatula.
  4. Voila, you have your cake. Place in fridge for at least 30 minutes. You may like to add some fruit to the top, such as strawberries or whatever  you fancy.

Cashew nut cream

You can make the cream into a pouring cream or a thicker cream that can be used to ice the cake. Change it’s consistency by the amount of water you add.

  • Cashew nuts 200 grams
  • Vanilla essence 1 teaspoon
  • agave nectar (sweeten to taste)
  • water
  1. Process the cashew nuts in food processor
  2. Add agave if you want it sweeter to taste, add vanilla essence and water. Add more water if you want to use it as a pouring cream, less if you want to use it to ice the cake. Mix ingredients together in food processor.

This cake is rich and delightful. It costs a fair amount to make because nuts are expensive but it’s a perfect treat for special occasions or whenever you have the chocolate urge. The cashew nut cream cuts through the intense flavours of the cake. Enjoy….. Have you got any great recipes to share with our community?

Next Pose Please And Surrender – Traditional Mysore Style Ashtanga

Do you practice ashtanga Mysore style and ever wonder why your teacher stops you at a certain pose. Do you know what a Mysore style class is? Read on…

What is a Mysore style class?

Mysore is the city in India where Ashtanga has it’s roots.  A Mysore class is a traditional self practice class where students practice the ashtanga sequence as given to them by their teacher. It is highly individualised and therefore suitable for complete beginners and advanced students of yoga.

In ashtanga yoga there are six series of yoga poses. They are progressively difficult but the primary series is far from easy so many people this will be challenging enough. Within this system there are fundamental gateway postures and if you can not do this pose you stop your practice there and do the closing sequence.  When your teacher thinks you are ready you will be given the next pose. This process is highly individualised  – different teachers have different standards and also the reasons for stopping one person and moving another person on vary, it might be their breath needs work, or they lack stamina or flexibility. We are all so individual both in body and in mind and this is all considered.

When I first learnt ashtanga I did not have very traditional teachers and I was not aware of this approach of stopping student but I have come to love it. For me it has been very beneficial but I know others have taken a different route through the system and I am fine with that. I am happy for anyone who practices yoga regularly because I know how beneficial that can be, regardless of the approach. I have been in the ashtanga scene long enough to have heard dogmatic arguments on both sides. I know for instance that back in the olden days people were not stopped so readily even in Mysore itself. That’s cool, just practice, that’s the most important thing. I have learnt to like being stopped and given postures by a teacher and I therefore teach my Mysore classes this way. So I just want to share why I think it is a good approach and how I have benefitted.

About 5 years ago my Mysore teacher Gail left Liverpool. By that time I was practicing ashtanga daily and was about to become a yoga teacher myself.  Around the time that she was leaving I was practising the full primary series and had just learnt to stand up from drop backs. This was a weird time for me, I had spent 5 years practising ashtanga and had grown to love working on poses that seemed impossible when all of a sudden the primary series was possible. It was possibly time to start learning second series.

I had a daily self practice at home so in the absence of a teacher I started to give myself poses. I did this based on my own capabilities but it had many pitfalls.  For one I needed more guidance about the yoga positions themselves. I needed someone to teach me how to them correctly, what to work on, I also wanted someone else to stop me and tell me where my last pose was. I can to some extent decide what is best for my body, I know it well but it is very subjective. One of the things I love about my daily ashtanga practice is that I do not have to think about it. I know what sequence to practice on what day and which pose to stop at, this becomes a very meditative practice.  All of a sudden I had to think about my practice, what should be my last pose? It became a distraction.

I decided to go to London in search of a teacher where I dutifully practiced the poses I had been given by previous teachers, fully primary.  I went to a few different teachers looking for the one I connected with most but as soon as I went to my teacher Hamish, I knew I had found my teacher.

The process of surrender to my teacher wasn’t easy. I travelled to London, every month as I still do. It was a year before I was given the first pose of intermediate. There were times I thought I should be doing more, I missed the challenge of doing something impossible every day. I wanted more…but did I really need it and should we collect asanas like other possessions in this materialistic world?

Since then there have been many other times when I have felt like I wanted more but mostly I find that amusing. My practice for me is mostly a place to practice being present so that I can be here and now more often. It doesn’t matter what my practice is only that I surrender to it. Through being stopped at a certain pose, I have learnt a lot about my own mind and it’s yearning but mostly I have learnt to surrender. To practice what is given and trust in the process. This allows my practice to become more meditative.

Do you practice ashtanga Mysore style? How do you feel about having your teacher decide what your last poses is?

How to manage your email and remain focused in your life

Using texts, email, Facebook, twitter and other social media platforms we can now be in constant contact. This is great but it can be overwhelming. The smartphone made all this communication even more accessible. You can now read this blog post on your mobile, email someone and use social media, wherever you are. I love technology and I love all these different ways I can communicate and share with people all over the world. As a yogi I also don’t want to let the technology overwhelm and distract my mind. As a busy, self employed yoga teacher I don’t want it to undo my productivity. As a human being I don’t want it to take over my life.

I still remember being taught how to write an email. It wasn’t that long ago. I was 18 and it was 1998 and yet now 15 years later it is rare to find someone who doesn’t use email at all.  Many of us receive hundreds of emails a day. The invention and growing popularity of the smart phone makes email even more accessible throughout the day.

As a busy professional who moves around teaching yoga this is great.  My iPhone and more recently my ipad allows me to interact with my students wherever I am.

The first few years I had my iPhone I had it set to automatically update my inbox. So every time I got an email it would go bing. Bing…..bing…bing, all day long. After a while I  became conditioned to the bing. Actually when you’re in the middle of some work it can be a welcome distraction to check your email but utterly unproductive. If your inbox is busy you could spend your entire day checking email. Believe me I have been there.

Sometimes your brain needs a break from all this bombardment. Some tasks require you to focus your mind in an uninterrupted way. Your job may require you to keep up to date with emails.  Mine does. I love getting emails from my students, it’s a great way to communicate with them outside of class. So what’s the answer? Here is some tips that have helped me.
Check emails 1 -5 times per day. I check mine around 3 times but what works for you will depend on your job.

image

  • If an email is urgent or can be responded in less than 3 minutes, reply straight away.
  • Have a folder for emails that you don’t want to respond to or read straight away. Check this folder daily – read, respond, delete or file.
  • Delete unwanted email.
  • Clear your inbox daily, your mind will get clearer too.
  • If you need to really focus on something place your phone on silent

It’s good to be flexible, rather than rigid. When on holiday I check my email once daily. If I am having an important email conversation I might check it more often. If it gets out of hand I go back to my rules. What is important is to fully engage with whatever you are doing.  When checking email, check email, when writing write, when thinking, think – focus your mind, be here, you can not be everywhere – here is where it is at.Do you find emails distracting? How often do you check your email in day? Do you have any emailing tips?