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?

 

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?

 

Guest Post – Nata Moraru tells how yoga has changed her life

“Home is neither here nor there, home is within you or nowhere at all.” Herman Hesse

One of my favourites quotes. Always liked it but never felt it 100% even if I thought I did. It was just after I started to do yoga (about a year ago) when I truly felt it. With all my bones, chest and water.

I felt in love with yoga the first time I went. I went for the body, stayed for the mind and soul. Because at the beginning I didn’t feel much changes in my body (the body changes came later and they were amazing), but my mind and soul was like a cherry tree in spring. During Savasana (relaxation) I started to feel that “home within” that Hesse is talking about. And it was amazing. I felt the whole universe is in my chest. I felt like I was lifted from the mat and at the same time was melting in the floor. Never felt that before. It was truly amazing. I always had a “special relationship” with water but since I started to do yoga it became stronger. When I am doing yoga I feel like I’m the whole sea and a boat that is floating on it. Both at the same time. Very interesting feeling. One time during Savasana I had tears in my eyes, totally unexpected, like the sea I was feeling inside me, that I always see an feel during yoga flowed through my eyes. Same water, same salt. At that moment I felt one with everything. I felt home. The “oneness”.

The breath is the bridge between mind and body and a very powerful tool.
I started to feel my body differently. I wasn’t ashamed of it anymore (as I’ve been my whole life, because of my twisted spine and because I was always very skinny and so many people were reminding me about it every day and telling me I should eat more).
And I think that’s why it started to respond to all the exercises. Because I started to feel my body differently. I also started to become more aware of my body and how I was standing outside of yoga.

Nata-before-and-after

Before and after photographs show how Nata has gained weight as she has become more in tune with her body

I stopped hiding my back (as I’ve been always doing, with long hair or hoodies). I’m not ashamed of my back and body anymore. It feels really good. I gained about 11kg since I started to do yoga, even my eating habits didn’t change. I feel healthy and feel good in my own body.

Then the pain disappeared. The back pain, I had my whole life, especially past 5-6 years when I couldn’t stand up for more than two hours without having killing pain in my back. I few weeks ago, after a very long day at work, about 12 hours standing up I noticed that I have no pain in my back, at all. Yes, my feet were hurting my arm was tired from holding the heavy camera, but no pain in my back. My lower back that was always in pain.
It’s an amazing feeling – not to be in pain, after so many hours of standing up, when a year ago I had to crawl out of bed because of the pain (it hurt too much just to sit up from lying so I always had to crawl out to the floor then stand up).

This x-ray of Nata’s spine shows her scoliosis clearly.

I had a twisted spine since I can remember. I think I was about 7-8 years old when my mum noticed that my back was just a little bit uneven, and we had the bad luck to go to a doctor that didn’t really know what he was doing and only cared for the money. I started to do some exercises with him, and some pretty “violent” and painful massage when he was pushing my bones, I found out later that It was very bad for my back and in no time from a slightly uneven back my spine became S shape and nobody couldn’t help me.

Unmeasurable gratitude to Helen for all her help. I am very lucky and thank the gods to have decided that winter day of 1st December to go online and look for yoga classes in Liverpool and to have found Helen’s class. Over the last year I have tried to go 3 times a week because I think it’s important to go regularly. There are many more things I could say about how yoga makes me feel and how it changed my life but sometimes there are not enough words…

Don’t just go to church, be the church. Don’t just go to yoga, be yoga. Don’t just lay on the grass, be the grass. Don’t just. Be. Be.come one.

Bless.

Namaste x

This post was written by Nata Moraru. As well as being a dedicated yogini, Nata is also a photographer, you may have seen some of the photo’s she has taken of me on instagram recently, you can find her photography here on Facebook.

How to start your own yoga self practice at home

Finding time for yoga can be hard. Life gets so busy and there are always more things to be done than can be done. The busier we get the more useful the yoga can be, everybody needs time to relax. So whether you are finding it hard to get to class as often as you like or if you would like to practice between classes, here are some tips.

  1. Set a time for your practice and defend it. You need to make sure you have some time to yourself when you can do some yoga, it might just be 15 minutes. There will always be other things you could be doing so don’t let them take over, prioritise this time.
  2. Get your mat out. When the scheduled time arrives you may or may not want to practice but you should get your mat out regardless. Once you get started you will probably feel better, so put your mat out and see how it goes.
  3. Doing a short practice is a great start. It’s better to start short because then you are more likely to be able to find time and energy for it. Start with some sun salutations and the last 3 seated positions. If you have more time and energy then by all means do more but if this all you can do, it will still do you the world of good.
  4. Respect your body – sometimes you will be tired, ill or even injured. Sometimes this will mean you should rest completely or modify your practice, don’t beat yourself up. There is a principle in yoga called ahimsa it means non-violence start with yourself. If your unsure talk to a yoga teacher or medical professional, whichever is appropriate.
  5. Allow yourself some time for relaxation. Do not rush off your yoga mat give yourself some quality time to relax. If necessary set a timer, you need to allow at least 5 minutes. The timer will stop you rushing off because you feel busy but it will also allow you to relax more fully.
  6. Use a book or a dvd to motivate you. David Swenson created short versions of the ashtanga sequence which could be a great option if you’re busy or just starting to build up a practice. You can find this sequence in his book and his DVD. If you want to practice the full primary series, Kino MacGreggor has a great primary series DVD.
  7. Come to a Mysore style class. A Mysore style class is the traditional method of teaching Ashtanga Yoga. It is self practice with teacher’s assistance. This allows for much more personalised instruction as well as a personalised practice. These classes are suitable for all levels including complete beginners and are especially useful if you want to develop a self practice. If you are in Liverpool I teach Mysore style classes on Monday evening as well as running regular Mysore intensives.

Do you have a home yoga practice? What tips can you share to help others develop their yoga practice?

 

Bringing lessons from your yoga mat into your life…

Yoga sometimes feels like an escape from your day-to-day life, but who we are in day-to-day life gets brought onto our yoga mat and who we are on our yoga mat gets brought into our world. Each is practicing the other.

Sometimes having a practice like yoga in your life can seem selfish – putting some time aside for you when life is already so busy. However I have come to realise that I am more useful to others precisely because of my yoga practice.

Life is a journey. Sometimes we do things really well, and sometimes we know we could have done better, but for some reason we fell short. I am far from perfect. Yoga hasn’t turned me into some perfect being, but it has helped me to become progressively better and it has taught me to be more accepting when I am not as good as I’m aiming to be.

How yoga has helped me interact with other people better

I am becoming more present, which means I am noticing more about the world around me. I pay attention to what people are saying and sometimes I notice that there is more to what they are not saying than what’s on the surface. Yoga helps me to listen to the deeper meaning in communication.

I am becoming more patient. I understand that some things take time and that sometimes people are not perfect – because I know I am not.

I’m feeling more and more connected to humanity. Yoga teaches interdependence. Nothing is separate; everything is interdependent on everything else. Yoga helps me to feel more connected both to my environment and to my fellow humans. This may be easier with my peers and harder with people who do not share my values and lifestyle, but yoga has taught me to see my shared humanity in others and it continues to be something I practice when I interact with them.

How yoga has helped me in my life

I am comfortable achieving things that seem impossible. I know that with enough patient practice, even the most challenging things will become more possible. Yes sometimes I still feel scared to move out of my comfort zone, but I do it anyway. I observe the fear, acknowledge it and then enjoy transcending my own boundaries.

In becoming more present I am enjoying each moment more and more because I am experiencing it more fully. For me this is probably the biggest benefit of yoga and something I am always experiencing as my main focus while I practice. I know that the more focused I am when I practice the easier it will be for me to be present in my life.

I am also becoming more patient with myself. I know that sometimes life is not how I expect it to be and sometimes that can be challenging. Yoga teaches me how to deal with the curve balls life inevitably throws at me. Of course I don’t always know what to do about it but I am constantly becoming better equipped at dealing with it because of my regular yoga practice.

What about you? How is yoga changing the way you interact with yourself or others?