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 ;-).

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?

New Years Resolutions a Month on – 10 Tips to Create a New Groove

So it’s  February, every one has gone quiet about the  topic of new years resolutions.   Why is that?  Well………. change can be challenging can’t it.  If you decided to make a new year’s resolution the chances are you have to change your previous habits in order to succeed.  You may find that your old habits die hard.  Unfortunately statistics show that many people do not manage to keep their new year’s resolutions.

According to yogic philosophy we are born with mental and emotional tendencies which shape out actions.  The more we do a particular action the more more strong the groove becomes and the harder it is to change it.  Should we give up then?  No, I think the challenge of change is what makes goal setting so transformational.  It becomes less about making a specific change and more about being able to take conscious action rather than get stuck in a groove which is no longer serving you.

Scientists have found that when we repeat a particular we strengthen the connection in brain pathways.  However we are capable of creating new pathways whenever we want it just takes practice.  Eventually the new behaviour will become natural, so how do we get there?

Here are my 10 tips?

1) If you make a mistake, give yourself a break.  Think about what you could do differently next time?

2) Talk your goals through with friends, make them real.

3) Believe in you, you can do anything you want.

4) Be realistic and shoot for the stars.  You need a goal you can believe in and one that inspires you to make changes.

5) Recommit, if you find that you have slipped back into old pattern make a plan for how to make the changes you really want.

6) One step at a time, big goals can be overwhelming, always ask yourself what the next action is?

7) What was holding you back?  What benefit are you getting from any old behaviour that is stopping you from moving forward with your new goal.  What do you need to let go of – old view of self, watching less TV to create more time, etc. Can you think of another way to get that benefit?

8) Why do you want this?  What difference will it make?  Get motivated!

9) Know that change is not always linear, what can you learn from any steps that might have seemed like steps backwards.

10) Be here and now.  You are not your past or your future you are what you are right now, decide what that is and don’t let anything hold you back.

Did you set any new year’s resolutions?  What has helped you stick to your plan?

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?

 

Impossible Possibilities – From Yoga To Life

 

As I have been practicing yoga for many years I am able to do things with my body that would have never seemed possible in the past.  People often look at flexible people and think that they are born that way and sometimes they are. If you practice yoga regularly, changes inevitably occur.  It is the inner change that is important not the result.

 

Some degree of flexibility is healthy and enables us to move our joints  freely without pain.  So to some extent flexibility is functional.  However many yoga poses go beyond this functional range of motion.  Yet I find people wish they could do such and such a pose and I myself have been susceptible to the allure of a challenging asana myself.  But when you can do crazy stuff with your body it doesn’t make you any happier, more spiritually progressed or whatever.  It just means you can put your leg behind your head now, it isn’t really important but the journey is.

 

There are many things that I used to think were impossible both on and off the mat.  My yoga practice allows me to attempt the impossible every day and over time see it change. The pace of modern life is fast and yoga has taught me the patience necessary to work at things which seemed impossible to me.  The greatest result isn’t my outer physical flexibility but my flexibility in life to see past any limitations I may have otherwise placed on myself.   Many if not most impossible things are possible with work, this is one of the wonderful things I take from yoga to life.

What has yoga taught you that you are able to bring to your life?