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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

How To Transform Your Dedication To Build The Habits You Do Want

Have you ever looked at the achievements of other people and thought how dedicated they were?  Would you like to have that kind of dedication in your life? I think you already have it. It’s just a matter of channelling your dedication to do the things you really want to do.

When talking about my 6 day a week yoga practice, people often say how dedicated I must be. People think I am very dedicated to practice, mostly on my own. For me it’s easy. I love yoga and have learnt how it has enhanced my life.

Getting up at 4 am to go to a yoga intensive in Manchester every day last week, certainly took some determination but it was well worth the effort

Getting up at 4 am to go to a yoga intensive in Manchester every day last week, certainly took some determination but it was well worth the effort

I think everyone is dedicated. My yoga practice has taught me that with enough dedication I can build whatever habits I want into my life. After many years of practice, yoga is an unquestionable part of my life. If my schedule changes, the first thing I think about is when I will be able to fit in my yoga practice.  This daily practice did not come until after many years.  My first 8-9 years of yoga was mostly Hatha yoga, which I loved and got great benefit from, but I did not have a daily consistent practice. It wasn’t until 9 years ago when I discovered Ashtanga yoga that I started committing to daily practice. At the time I had a stressful job and the yoga would leave me feeling refreshed and renewed. The flowing style allowed me to become absorbed in my movement, becoming more present and less stressed in my job. I felt I was unravelling who I really was but if I got too busy and wasn’t able to practice, I started to feel disconnected and stressed once more. For me, having gaps of not practicing, really helped me realise why I wanted to practice daily. Without the experience of life without it, I wouldn’t have found the dedication to commit.  If you feel like this, but can’t find the time to do a full practice daily, see if you can find 15 minutes. It’ll be worth it.

We all have things we are dedicated to doing.  It might be your job, listening to music, reading, meeting up with friends, eating or even sleeping. You probably have a number of things that you are dedicated to doing, many of which you do without thinking. At this point they have become habits. That’s great if it is a happy healthy habit that you want in your life but if you want to do more of something else you may need to do less of another activity.  Time is not limitless. It doesn’t expand unfortunately. I could easily fill 24 hours with the things I love but I need to find time to sleep too.

So if you want to read more, maybe you need to watch television less. If you want to do more yoga, is there something else you could do less of to make time for it?  Maybe like me, you already have a life jam packed with the things you love doing. Lucky you! Maybe you want to do more than you have time or energy for.  Does that mean you should not take on the challenge at all. If you want more of something in your life see if you can find 5-15 minutes each day for it. You may find in time you are able to make more time but you may find that a short time is enough.

It takes a while to build a new habit. At first you have to be truly dedicated. Think clearly about why you want to build this new habit and all the benefits it will bring. Motivate yourself and prioritise it like you would an appointment. After a while your new habit will simply become, what you do, as automatic as brushing your teeth in the morning.

What are you dedicated at doing? Is there any area of your life you would like to be more dedicated to?

Yoga is not a Competition – How to Embrace it

One of the great things about yoga, often said by yoga teachers is that yoga is non competitive. That sounds lovely doesn’t it.  Yoga is a place where you can just be and be accepted for what you are and accept yourself where you are.

We live in a competitive world, we are taught we need to compete to survive and to thrive, from school grades to getting that perfect job. Without some competitiveness would we even get out of bed? Often we don’t compete with others but have our own standards and desires which we work hard to reach.

“When I get this toy, job, car, man, woman, money, you name it….. then I will be happy,”  is often a mantra that keeps us moving in a direction until we get there, and then we find we want something else. It would be great if we could set this aside and go to yoga class and enjoy being where we are here and now. To be here and now is to accept things as they are right now. The conditioning of the mind can be strong though and the mind loves to make simple things complicated.

Yoga teaches us to be more present. Many people love yoga for it’s non-competiveness and yet many people, myself included struggle with their competitive nature. I have found this is actually the hardest thing I have ever had to teach anyone. I think ultimately it can’t be learnt it has to be discovered.

I can tell you that

  • yoga is not a competition
  • the girl next to you has been practicing for 10 years and is a teacher
  • we all have different bodies, that everyone has different strengths and weakness
  • your body is a result of everything you have done with it up until this moment, and is unique and beautiful
  • when you can do this or that asana you won’t suddenly become enlightened
  • a person who is more flexible or more strong isn’t necessarily the better yogi
  •  yoga isn’t about the asana (yoga position), the asana is just a tool to bring you into the present moment.

You might agree with me or you might think, it’s okay for you, you can touch your toes, do lotus or whatever your pose of frustration happens to be.

And yes let’s say you are right and I can do blah blah, I have come to realise that there will always be someone more flexible than me. It doesn’t matter if I spend the rest of my life doing yoga and I hope I will, there will always be something I can’t do. Indeed as I age I might not be able to do some of the things I do now. This is true for almost anything by the way, there can only be one world best at anything.  Is this never ending escalator annoying then, you get to the top and find your at the bottom again.  Actually I think it’s a relief to know there is nowhere to go but here, it helps me to surrender.

Having said all this. I love to work on asanas.  When I first stared my journey with ashtanga yoga there was so much I could not do. My mind loves a challenge and I love to work on something that I can’t do.  I know that with dedication, eventually it will become possible and sometimes it helps motivate me to complete my daily practice.  Is this competitive? Maybe, but yoga also teaches me to be where I am, to surrender to it, to unravel it each day and notice it as it is.  It forces me to work with this body in this moment no matter what I think it should be, it shows me what it is, right now.

When a bird sings it doesn't sing for the advancement of music.In fact if you find yourself noticing your competitive nature in yoga don’t be too hard on yourself. Yoga is a safe place to notice these things about ourselves and it is perfectly natural that you should feel some level of ambition within yourself.  Notice it, don’t feed it, that’s the trick.  Don’t judge it as good or bad.  Accept it as it is, just a passing thought.

Those of us who practice yoga are so lucky.  We are fortunate to have the time and health, to move our bodies to breathe and be part of a wider community that embraces these things as much as we do.  It is such a privilege each and every time we step on our mats regardless of whether you can touch your toes, I hope you enjoy the journey because the only destination is right here.

Do you feel competitive with yourself or others in yoga?  Does yoga offer you a rare opportunity to not compete? What has this journey taught you?

Habits – how to build great habits of your own choosing

A habit is a practiced and repeated action which may or may not be done unconsciously. When we think of habits we often think of bad habits that people may  struggle to give up, such as smoking. However in reality we all have many habits which literally shape our lives. Realising this, and learning to change the habits that no longer serve you, and building new ones which do serve you is transformational. As many who have stepped onto this path will realise it is not always easy.

In yoga philosophy the word samskara refers to the imprints on the subconcious mind from previous actions. Scientists have found that when we repeat a behaviour we strengthen the neural pathway in our brains. This is great news if we are building good habits such as eating healthily, getting enough sleep and practicing yoga ;-). As we repeat the behaviour the neural pathways become stronger and in time we reach for a piece of fruit without thinking.

Yoga can be great at making us more aware of our habits. Awareness is a great tool and will help you understand why you do something. For example, I had a bad habit of reading for too long in the morning before practice.  My schedule is sometimes flexible in that I can do that, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do and it wasn’t helping me get the most out of my day. It had become a habit though, so there must be something I was getting out of it. I realised I needed some free time to do as I pleased. So now I give myself this time to read but it has a cut off time at 8 am when my yoga practice begins.

For me that’s one of the keys to changing habits, as I think you have to work out what the old habit is serving. Do you watch TV instead of being active because you’re tired? Do you need more sleep? Do you smoke because you like to take a break from work, socialise with friends or relax? Can you find new ways to get the same benefits that are more in line with the person you want to be.

We become good at what we practice. The trick is to choose what you want to practice and shape your life into your own groove. We all have good and bad habits. We can learn and gain strength from the good ones and use them as a model to work from. You can literally rewire your brain that way, building new pathways and a new you.

As a side note I hope those of you in the UK are enjoying this amazing weather.

Do you have any habits you have changed? How did you do it?

A Morning Yin Yoga Routine to Open Your Hips for Padmasana Lotus and Life!

Most of us have tight hips, mostly because we spend so much of our time sitting in chairs. At my recent hip opening workshop we discussed how the benefits of opening your hips expand beyond your ability to do lotus pose. Having freedom of movement in your hips is so important for posture, especially as it is so close to the centre of your body. Lotus often features in images of the yogi and as such this posture has become a goal for many. That’s fine but remember to accept and enjoy where you are right now too. You also need to respect your body whilst attempting lotus and follow the guidelines of Patanjali ahimsa (non-violence). Be particularly careful about your knees, if your hips are not open enough then your knees may try and help out, this is not their job. If you ever feel even a little bit of discomfort in your knees doing lotus, come out of it, even if you can usually do it. Seriously, you only get one set of knees look after them. Regular  practice of the primary series of  ashtanga yoga will do wonders for your hip mobility.

My journey to lotus

About six or seven years ago, I was struggling with many of the lotus based poses in ashtanga yoga. I was practicing ashtanga yoga daily and it was coming slowly but I decided to do some additional yin yoga. As I was going to a lot of yoga classes most evenings at the time and working as a school teacher, I decided to do this practice in the morning before work. It was a lovely way to start the day. It gave me some space which I am sure made me a better teacher and I walked to the bus stop with much freer hips and a smile on my face.

What is Yin yoga

In yin yoga, you hold the positions for a longer period of time about 5-10 minutes. It’s almost the opposite of ashtanga yoga, which is much more fluid coming in and out of the poses. The idea behind yin is that it helps to release the fascia. Fascia is the interconnecting tissue between your muscles. I found yin yoga worked particularly well in opening my hips.

The morning hip opening yin yoga sequence

The great thing about this sequence is that it is highly adaptable. Each position is help for 5-10 minutes so if you have 15 minutes, you know you can do 3 poses for 5 minutes each. You can do this as an asana practice or you can do it when your doing other things, like reading. If you already have a yoga practice, then I think that’s fair enough. Obviously there will be more benefit to doing a focused practice but do what works for you.

Badhakonasa yoga pose against the wall

My student Rosey demonstrating Baddha Konasana against the wall Baddha Konasana – bound angle pose

 

Baddha Konasana – bound angle pose

You can hold this pose for 5 to 10 minutes but start with five and build up. Place your back up against the wall. I used to have my breakfast like this in the morning. If one side is tighter than the other then prop the more flexible side up, otherwise the tight side doesn’t get as much of a stretch. A pair of socks works well for this but use whatever you have handy and put under the more flexible hip.

Gabor practicing hip opener

Gabor practicing hip opener, made upasana

 

 

Made upasana (lol)

This is a variation that I teach for Marichyasana B, for people who can’t do half lotus. It is great for opening your hips. It releases the piriformis, which if tight can be one of the causes of sciatic pain. As this muscle connects the upper and lower body, it is important to keep it relaxed. Sitting on chairs tightens it and if you want open your lotus, this will really help you. Place your right foot over your left just above the knee, then place your back against the wall, gradually bend your left leg until you feel a stretch in your right hip. If you are very tight or are having problems with your back, I recommend you do this instead  for 30 seconds to a minute.  You can hold this yin variation for 5 minutes, repeat on the other side.

So there’s a 15- 20 minute sequence….

Agnistambhasana - fire log pose

Agnistambhasana – fire log pose (my legs) -fold forward

Agnistambhasana – fire log pose or double pigeon

Want more?  Try fire log pose also known as double pigeon and or half lotus with the other leg in pigeon. In the first variation stack your shins on top of each other and lean forward gently.

half lotus pigeon

Half lotus pigeon (my legs) -fold forward in lotus withthe other foot under your knee.

 

 

For half lotus pigeon place one leg carefully place one leg in half lotus and place the other foot under your knee. Hold each pose for 5 minutes and be sure to do both sides.

 Upavashta Konasana – seated angle pose

Matylda practicing yoga pose upavishta konasana

Matylda demonstrates upavishta konasana, bend forward gradually from your hips

If you have more time, then upavishta konasana is a key pose which works great as a yin pose.  This is a great pose for opening your adductors (inner thigh) and will help free your hips.  Find a way of being comfortable here, don’t overstretch.  If you feel pain in any of these positions back off and talk to your yoga teacher.  This post can’t replace the advice of an actual teacher who can see and adapt these poses to suit your needs. If I am that teacher, hopefully you already know I welcome questions.

At the end of your practice, gently see if you can do lotus, listen to your body and ignore your ego, repeat….

Would like to thank my students Matylda, Rosey and Gabor for allowing me to use their photos and Joana for her photography help :-).  This post was requested at my recent hip opening workshop if you have something you would like me to write about, please contact me.

My next workshop in September will be more about hip openers and yin yoga. Details will be on my website in July. If you want to keep updated  subscribe to my newsletter.

Do you do any extra poses, outside of your ashtanga practice?  I won’t tell the Ashtanga police honest ;-).

Fat Chance : The Bitter Truth About Sugar by Robert Lustig – Book Review

Robert Lustig writes that it’s sugar, not fat, that is the major cause of obesity. Lustig is a paediatric doctor who specialises in treating overweight children in San Francisco.

 

Yoga can help you maintain a healthy weight and help overweight people to lose weight. There is some research to support this. I think that one of the ways that yoga does this is by making you more aware of your body and health and helping you to make healthier choices. I have noticed that if I eat sugary foods, at times like Christmas it makes me feel hungry even when I am not. I did not fully understand why this happened but was curious. This book more than answered the questions I had.

 

Fat Chance: The bitter truth about sugar explores the role of the hormone insulin, in weight gain. Insulin causes energy to be stored in fat cells. Robert Lustig is talking mostly about the molecule fructose. Fructose is one of the two molecules found in sucrose, the other is glucose. Robert Lustig argues that a calorie is not a calorie. He explains a calorie from fructose is much harder for the body to breakdown, especially if there is not enough fibre in the diet. He reviews a number of diets which have been successful in promoting health and maintaining healthy weight. He concludes that what these diets have in common is that they are high in fibre and low in sugar.

 

a glass of orange juiceSurprisingly to me, he also talks about fruit juice. We usually think of  fruit juice as being healthy. Robert Lustig that it supplies the body with a big dose of fructose. Fruit is also high in fructose. Whole fruit contains fibre which slows down the metabolism of fructose. This makes fruit a healthy choice. He says that one of the major problems is that people drink too much sugar, be it in fruit juice or soda.

 

So what does he think we should I eat?

Lustig recommends we eat real food. There is no need to go on a fad diets, just eat wholefoods.  He says that that this is a dose dependent problem.  A little sugar is fine and if you are a healthy weight and very active it may even be beneficial.  The problem is that for many people processed foods and sugary drinks have become the norm.

Is sugar addictive?

sugar falling out of a glassLustig likens sugar to other drugs.  He presents a strong argument for how it messes people’s hormones up so much that they eat more of it and more food in general.  His explanations are great for explaining the difficult cycle that many people struggling with their weight find themselves in.  He also offers some advice that will help most people get on track.

 

What are his tips for food shopping?

fruit and vegetable in supermraket1. Don’t go shopping hungry.  Doh! Been there 😉

2. Shop in the periphery of the supermarket, buy real food.

3.  It shouldn’t need a nutritional label.  Eat processed foods in moderation.

4. Real food spoils.  This is good. If bacteria can digest it so can you.

5. Watch out for hidden sugar. Lots of foods you don’t expect contain sugar.

 

It is hard if not impossible to completely give up sugar.  As with many things moderation and common sense are key. Personally I like to occasionally give myself a complete break from it, just to make sure I am not becoming a sugar addict 😉

Would I recommend the book?

I really enjoyed this book because it was backed up with lots of research and scientific explanation. I think it is an important book and I am glad he wrote it.  I think it just depends how much you want to learn about nutrition.  I think it may be too in-depth for some people’s interest.

You can also check out Robert Lustig youtube videos if you want to learn more.

 

Are you addicted to sugar? Have you ever given it up?

 

Can yoga release emotions and if so how and what should I do?

Emotional release can play a part in the transformational benefits of yoga.

Emotional Backbending

At my recent Backbending Workshop my students and I had an interesting discussion about emotional release in yoga. I would like to open up this topic for further discussion here. Backbending is one of the places where people can experience emotional resistance and release. Hip opening is another common area where people report experiencing it.

What do I mean by emotional release?

A commonly held belief by yogis is that we store emotional tension in our bodies.  Though yoga we release these emotions and give ourselves an opportunity to heal.  I think the emotional transformations that can happen in yoga also happen as we change the way we move to a more confident open posture.  This may initially make someone feel vulnerable and will ultimately empower you to shine.

 

Helen looking at extinct Volcano in Lanzorote

Montana Roja, Lanzarote

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Marianne Williamson

Spiritual teacher, author and lecturer

Where’s the science?

picture of the book emotional intelligenceI have always been interested in science’s understanding of these seemingly alternative ideas.  Whilst there are many things that science can’t yet understand, there is some interesting research about emotions.  Many years ago I read Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel.  In this book neuroscientist Candace Pert discusses research which shows that the molecules of emotion can can be found in the body.  These findings provide a scientific framework to understand the mind and body connections.

 

Does Everyone experience emotional release in yoga?

I don’t think that everyone does, although most long term practitioners seem to accept that it part of the journey. It has certainly been part of my personal journey with yoga.  As much as I think this is a real phenomena, even with some scientific backup, it is just a belief that I hold. It is part of my model of reality and yet I am always keen to keep an open mind about my beliefs as believing in something often makes it happen and can close my mind to other possibilities.

 

If I feel upset what should I do?

Emotions from our past can come up for all of us, whether we are doing yoga or not. A yoga practice can really help you to remain calm and not get overwhelmed. Here are my tips for dealing with challenging emotions.

  • You don’t have to understand it it to let it go. Don’t get too involved as that will just feed the emotion.
  • Stay present – tune in to what is happening right now. Notice where you are and what is actually happening rather than getting wrapped up the story in your mind.
  • Use your breath to keep you present and calm.
  • It is not a concrete permanent thing – it is constantly changing, notice it’s impermanence.
  • Observe it without getting involved and it will pass.

As you develop your yoga practice you will find it gets easier to let go rather than cling to your emotions. If you find yourself getting hooked, give yourself a break. You are noticing which is an essential first step. I have found this process of letting go so liberating and healing and one of the wonderful benefits of yoga.

 

Have you ever felt emotional release during your yoga practice? What has helped you to let go of these emotions?

 

 

How You Can Open Up Your Hamstrings – Part 1

This is a common question from within our local yoga community and I was asked again last week so I offered to write a blog post about it.  Ashtanga Yoga’s Primary Series, the sequence I teach, has many forward bends in it.  As such a regular Ashtanga Yoga practice will open the hamstrings up quite quickly.  People tend to have difficulties with this if they don’t have the space for a regular practice in their life, they are exceptionally tight and find forward bending challenging,  they have a history of back problems and or they are very active and need to stretch out their hamstrings after their activity.  Liverpool half marathon runners from yesterday’s race, take note 🙂

Hamstrings and Back Pain

If you are really tight in your hamstrings it may prevent your pelvis from tilting when you bend forward, which can put your back at risk.  As your body is very much interconnected a tight back will often lead to tight hamstrings and vice versa.  The causes of back pain are numerous and are beyond the scope of this blog post.  If you have a problem with your back I recommend you work with a professional to work out how to best recover.

 What Causes Tight Hamstings?

Many people have tight hamstrings. You are not alone. Causes include:

  • Back tightness
  • Compensation from weakness elsewhere such as the glutes
  • Running
  • Cycling
  • Sitting

How to Stretch Out Your Hamstrings

Charlie stretching out his hamstrings in a yoga pose, lying on his back and using belt to stretch the leg back.

If you can’t grab your foot or leg easily you can use a belt as my student Charlie is demonstrating.   Aim to get your leg to go straight up gradually over time, that is a good range of motion, Charlie is nearly there through dedicated practice 🙂 Make sure the leg you are stretching is straight.  You should feel the stretch across the length of the muscle either in the back of the thigh or even the calf and not in the joint, back of the knee or in the buttocks.  If you feel a sharp pain there or anywhere, something is wrong.  Keep your leg completely straight and engage the front of your thigh, this will help to relax the hamstring through what as called reciprocal inhibition.  If you are still having difficulties let me know as there are other suggestions I can make.

 

Guidelines for Practicing this Pose

  • If it hurts back off and modify. If you are not able to do it pain free contact a professional and stop doing the position
  • Take deep even breaths through your nose and allow yourself to relax into the position
  • Do not push too hard, gently and consistently allow the hamstring to open
  • Practice this regularly, at least 3 times a week
  • If you are running or cycling etc do this afterwards
  • Hold for at least 30 seconds, around 10 deep breaths
  • You can do this stretch up to 3 times
  • If you have one leg tighter than the other, start with that leg and do an extra one on that side.

I would like to thank Charlie for allowing me to use his photo in this post.  More student pictures coming up.  I would also like to thank my students whose questions have led to me to learn so much and whose dedication inspires me to continue to do so.

In part two I am going to give an alternative hamstrings  stretch and talk about how you can use self massage to help release the hamstrings.  Do you have tight hamstrings?  Have your hamstrings opened up through practicing yoga?  Do you have any questions or is there anything else you would like me to write about on this topic?

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?