Tag Archives: Yoga

Towards Downward Facing Dog with beginners

I don’t teach headstand or shoulderstand – the first because I can’t do it, and the second because I don’t like it, so I’m a bit stuck when it comes to inversions (although I do count as an inversion, any posture that takes the head below the heart, if it is held for several breaths).  I have been looking at ways of working towards Downward Facing Dog,  by using modifications and alternative versions. I don’t like the classic posture much because the obsession with placing the feet flat on the floor (which most beginners cant do), takes all the fun out of it and risks rounding the upper back and only reinforcing bad postural habits.  Equally, if you are very flexible and you can do it, then there is always the temptation to overstretch in the shoulders. However, there are aspects of working in Downward Facing Dog that are very appealing – the chance to work with the breath in this posture (by extending the out-breath for example), can feel wonderful – especially if you are doing a version where your hamstrings aren’t screaming at you.

I have found two books extremely useful while I’ve been researching this.  The first is my rediscovered ‘Moving into Stillness’ by Erich Schiffmann, which I’ve had on my bookshelf for years and years and forgotten all about (1).  The second is Michaelle Edwards’ YogAlign(2).  (I really like Michaelle’s approach to yoga so I often have my nose in this book).  Erich Schiffman offers us Quarter Dog and Half Dog, done from a kneeling position, and Michaelle offers us Downward Facing Dog working on tiptoes.

In my initial warm up, I’m including supine leg stretches based on Supta Padangustasana . (If you want a book reference, my favourite is  Moving into Stillness p. 239 onwards, and including Urdhva Mukha Upavista Konasana – or the lying down version of the wide legged forward bend (1)). Erich makes all of these look easy, but I’ll be passing round the straps and urging people not to overdo it.

leg stretches

I’ll progress to a series of  shoulder limbers from a sitting/kneeling position. (Erich Schiffmann again, see page 182 following ).  I am reading a book about facilitated stretching which is very interesting (3) and from that,  I’m including a couple of exercises for the shoulder and wrists.

shoulder stretches

 

 

 

 

 

Next I’m moving on to variations of the Cat pose: including the moving version because this is a good preparation for the arms and wrists  and I might add a twist in the all fours position.

Cat twist

 

 

 

 

Moving up to standing via Plank and a lunge (good for the Psoas muscle group).   Somebody told me recently that if you work on placing the undersides of the knuckles of your index fingers on the floor in these wrist-challenging postures like Plank, it can take some of the pressure off.  See what you think.

I like to work carefully on placing the feet for Tadasana because it makes such a difference to the arches and then to the ankles and onwards and upwards …. before adopting a standing balance. Tree pose probably.  If you have a tendency to wobble – (and at the end of a hard day, many people do, including me), Erich Schiffmann has a tip for using the wall.  Instead of steadying yourself with a hand, he suggests aligning yourself with the wall so that the bent knee touches the wall.  This seems to work  because as well as helping to balance, it also maintains the rotation in the hip joint.

using the wall in tree pose

 

 

 

Returning to Tadasana, I’m envisaging a side bend followed by Ardha Uttanasana (half forward bend) – again using the wall but this time placing the hands on the wall and lengthening the spine.  Knees are soft – in my opinion everything works better with soft knees.  We could take this into the full Uttanasana by turning around and leaning against the wall.  If you take your feet away from the wall just the right distance and then fold foward keeping the sit bones against the wall, it’s an excellent way to experience the posture.

using the wall for ardha uttanasana & uttanasana

 

 

 

Then finally, we can return to all fours and begin to work on Downward Facing Dog modifications, beginning with Erich Schiffmann’s Quarter Dog (see page 122).  Starting in neutral Cat pose, rest on the forearms.  Bring the right hand behind the left elbow.  Root down through the right elbow and stretch the left arm away, stretching into the fingers of the left hand and placing as much of the left palm as possible on the floor. You are aiming to keep your outstretched arm and torso in a straight line, so you may need to press the hips backwards.  Rest your forehead on your right forearm.  Once you are fully in this stretch, you may lift your head and look forward (very carefully) or not.

Half Dog begins the same way, in neutral cat but resting on the forearms, but this time stretching both arms away. Rest your forehead on the floor and press the hips back.  Erich offers raising the head and curving the chest towards the floor, but this is a very intense stretch and I would avoid it with beginners.

Both these postures offer all the benefits of Adho Mukha Svanasana without involving the legs.  I like them very much.

Dog pose variations

 

 

 

 

Michaelle Edwards’s version of Downward Dog is lovely.  (See page 268).  She advocates staying on tiptoes in ‘High Dog’.  This then becomes a traction pose that keeps the spine in alignment, stabilises the core and preserves the integrity of the joints.  You don’t need to press your chest towards the floor – what you are aiming at is to keep a definite V shape.  Michaelle warns all seasoned yogis that if they do Downward Dog on auto-pilot (even with her variation), they will miss the point, especially if they lock the knees, push the shoulders towards the floor and hang off the ligaments.  This will only result in compression of the spine.

I would finish in Child pose, then knees-to-chest lying on our backs.

Breathing and relaxation.  Namaste.

(1)   Yoga – The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann, Pocket Books, 1996

(2)  YogAlign – Pain-Free Yoga from your Inner Core, by Michaelle Edwards, Hihimanu Press, 2011

(3) Facilitated Stretching by Robert E. McAfee & Jeff Charland, Human Kinetics 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Do you know the story of Virabhadra?

Virabhadra, a monstrous warrior, with thousands of arms, all of which carried weapons, was created from hair from the head of Lord Shiva.  Shiva’s wife, Sati, threw herself into the fire at her father’s yagya, or religious ceremony, because he was very unkind to her.  On hearing what had become of his wife, Shiva was so grief stricken that he tore his hair with his hands and flung it to the ground in despair.  From these matted locks, Virabhadra was created.  As you might expect, it did not go well for Sati’s father, Daksha, because Virabhadra decapitated him.  However, Sati was eventually reborn has Shiva’s beloved Parvati and Shiva forgave Daksha.  He brought him back to life, but gave him a goat’s head.  Seems fair.

I love hearing these stories of gods and goddesses – like the Greek myths, there is something about them that is always alive and vital for us.  So next time you perform any of the warrior poses, remember who you are impersonating!

Veerabhadra

 

 

 

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The reason I do yoga

My problem was that I needed to exercise but that, for as long as I can remember, I have loathed all organised sports.  At school I was the shortest goalkeeper in the netball team, which explains why we always lost so heavily to the Convent of the Sacred Heart down the road who were all tall.  I was no good at batting in rounders – my hand/eye co-ordination was pathetic – so I was always a fielder and, if you’ve ever played rounders you will know THAT BALL REALLY HURTS when you catch it.  So I didn’t bother. In winter we played lacrosse and I was always a defender.   Defenders get their noses broken if they get in the way of the ball, and their thumbs broken if they get in the way of the stick.  Then at some stage it was decreed that one-handed cradling was allowed (that’s how you carry the ball in the lacrosse stick – you sort of wiggle the stick from side to side with the ball ‘cradled’ in the little net). That meant that short people like me would have needed a pogo stick to be any use at challenging.  I never thought challenging was a great idea anyway so that didn’t matter.  I didn’t even like playing Chinese Chequers with my mother, and I hate Monopoly.  I have never really cared much about winning.

By the time I was about 26, I had a fairly stressful job in London organising conferences and special events.  I needed to do something to unwind, but what?  Not far from my office, I saw a yoga class advertised on Monday evenings and I decided to try it. My teacher had trained at the Iyengar Institute and the classes were very rigorous.  Iyengar yoga teaches you to pay great attention to how you place your body, the position of the feet etc, in order to do the postures correctly.  I have always been grateful for this start on my yoga path.  Even though my yoga has changed a great deal since then,  this good grounding has always helped me.

I can remember very well the whole class holding the boat pose for what seemed an eternity and our teacher saying, ‘And smile ….. it’s got nothing to do with your face muscles…’.

This class attracted a number of students from the contemporary dance studio around the corner.  I soon had to learn ‘Santosha’ – self-acceptance.  I was never going to be as bendy as those professional dancers.  I know now that such flexibility is a mixed blessing in yoga. Being a bit stiff can be a better guide to how far to take a posture.  Hyper-flexible people can’t always tell when to stop.

But that’s the point, isn’t it?  Yoga is for everyone.

I found myself going back week after week, term after term.  Yoga makes you feel well.  It isn’t just a set of physical exercises.  It isn’t religious either.  But it is a path to a peaceful heart. It’s not complicated – it’s all about breathing really.  Being aware that you do breathe for a start, because you do it 24/7 until you stop.  Learning to use the breath when you move.  Observing where it goes.  Learning to direct it.  I might ask you to breathe out through the soles of your feet, for example.  Obviously you don’t – but you can visualise it. Becoming aware that when you breathe, you are breathing in the breath of every living creature that went before you, of all the living creatures that surround you now.  And they are also breathing in YOU. We are all connected – every living thing – when we perform the simple act of breathing in and out.

Most importantly, yoga teaches us to be kind to ourselves.  We are all so lacking in self esteem these days – who knows why?  But you and I are as valuable to this life and this planet as everybody else, even if we don’t have perfect shaped bodies or drive expensive cars. Yoga tells us that we already have the right stuff inside us.  We don’t need to look outside.  Just follow your breath, and you will find your marvellous, beautiful, peaceful self and that is the best gift you can bring to this life.  Just imagine, if everybody did that.

 

 

 

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Designing a yoga class for ‘Knowledge of the truth’

In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Svatmarama tells us that in order to succeed in yoga we need: Openness, Determination, Courage, Enthusiasm, Knowledge of the Truth and Solitude. By knowledge of the truth, I don’t think he means academic or intellectual achievement, but the clear vision we catch a glimpse of sometimes, when our minds are still.  Even so, according to Krishnamacharya, practice and knowledge must always go together.  He used to say, practice without right knowledge of theory is blind.  This is also because without right knowledge, one can mindfully do a wrong practice.  Brain ache?  Me too.

What I’m aiming for is a yoga practice that keeps the mind occupied whilst still paying attention to the breath, the movement of energy in the body and the mindful execution of the postures.  I have a wonderful book on my shelf called the Yoga Sequences Companion by Vani Devi (Kool Kat Publications 2012) and my attention was drawn to a Figure of Eight Sequence.  If you have ever done any Energy Medicine classes, or Brain Gym exercises, then you’ll know that the figure of 8 is a powerful thing in modern kinesiology, as well as being significant in ancient civilisations.  The idea of the figure of 8 is that is balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

In Vani Devi’s book she begins by tracing figures of 8 with the eyes, then limbering the neck by drawing figures of 8 with the chin, followed by shoulders (challenging for my brain), figures of 8 in cat pose, in a hip limber, using the knees and finally standing on one leg and describing figures of 8 with the raised foot.  The recommendation is to follow this sequence with the Swimming Dragon and she gives a description of that sequence too.

Swimming Dragon is a Qigong exercise.  I have done it in yoga classes before, but I wanted to be sure I could teach it well so I trawled Youtube for a good demonstration.  My favourite instructional video  for Swimming Dragon is the one by Dashi Chu Kocica.  She makes it look very elegant and it’s easy to follow.

As for the yoga postures, my lesson plan is heading towards Sasangasana (Rabbit pose) via Utkatasana (Fierce Pose) and Uttanasana (standing forward bend).  I don’t teach headstand, so Rabbit will do nicely.  I was originally taught it as the one to do if you have a tension headache or a cold coming on.  But apart from that, it releases tension in the neck and shoulders and lengthens the spine.

My balance posture is the Pipal Tree.  It is said that the Buddha obtained enlightenment meditating beneath this Holy Fig Tree, so that seems appropriate.  If you’ve never done it, it’s very simple.  Stand in Tadasana, take the right leg behind you until only the big toe is in contact with the floor. Inhaling, take your right arm out to the side at shoulder height and raise the left arm above your head.  If you feel balanced, you can lift the back foot off the floor.  Try to keep the hips level.  Hold for three to five breaths and repeat on the left side.

Nadi Shodana Pranayama would seem to be indicated as it is a balancing breath, and for relaxation I like the visualisation offered by Thick Nhat Hanh – to see yourself as a pebble sinking gently to the bottom of the river bed.

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Enthusiasm – set fire to your rubbish

In my yoga classes next week, we shall take a look at Enthusiasm (one of the six qualities you need to succeed in yoga).  What does the word enthusiasm make you think of?  For me, it conjures up the word Fire:  People who are enthusiastic get all fired up.  It all conjured up the idea of passion:  You tend to enthuse about things you are passionate about.

Yoga teaches us that we have an engine room in our bodies, situated around the navel area, and in this engine room there’s a special kind of fire called Agni.  The job of this fire is to burn all the rubbish that builds up in our system – impurities brought on by energy blockages, poor breathing habits and some things that are outside our control  We call this rubbish Apana.

Our yoga practice can include physical postures and breathing techniques aimed specifically at burning the rubbish – sending Apana to Agni.  Learning to extend the out-breath, until it is twice as long as the in-breath can help us, as can practicing inverted postures.

So this week I’ve chosen Downward Facing Dog as the peak posture, a) because it’s an inversion and b) because it’s beneficial to hold this pose and work on extending the out-breath at the same time.

Getting rid of your rubbish means that you can fill your system with Prana (the opposite of Apana), the energising life force that connects us all.  In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali likens this to a farmer irrigating his fields – if he has designed his irrigation channels well, he only needs to open the the dam at the top for the water to flow even to the furthest field.  (Yoga Sutras 4,3). So if we unblock all our energy channels, we can send our breath to the farthest reaches of our system, infused with life-giving Prana.

(I am indebted to Mr T K V Desikachar for his book ‘The Heart of Yoga’ Developing a Personal Practice, Inner Traditions International, 1999,)

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My little blessing is a quote from Confucius

A yoga teacher of mine called Judith Hayes, (sadly no longer with us), used to recite this little blessing sometimes at the end of a class.

‘If there is righteousness in the heart,
There will be beauty in the character.

If there is beauty in the character,
There will be harmony in the home.

If there is harmony in the home,
There will be order in the nation.

If there is order in the nation,
There will be peace in the world’.

The only copy I could ever find of this simply said Author Unknown, but listening, as I do, to Jack Kornfield’s talks on Buddhism for Beginners, and The Roots of Buddhist Psychology, I discover that this blessing is a quote from Confucius.

To me, one of the joys of yoga (which I think I might also describe as a Psychology) is that it is hopeful. When you look at the news on TV, or read the newspapers, there is so much suffering in the world and you are just one person – what can you do? Well, you can start with this little blessing – put righteousness in your heart and watch the ripple effect.

I think it was the Dalai Lama who wrote that if you think small things have no effect – try sharing your bed with a mosquito!

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New Classes starting soon

I am starting two new, hour-long classes at the Mercure Hotel Swansea.  These will run from 18.30 – 19.30 on Tuesday evenings starting 29th July and 15.00 – 16.00 on Thursday 31st July.  It’s an unusual time of year to start up a class, but if you are missing your regular class during the summer holidays, or you just want to come along and see if you like yoga, you would be very welcome.

The classes are both drop-in and operate on a first come, first served basis.  The cost will be £5.00. Please bring a non-slip mat and a blanket with you, and wear loose, comfortable clothing.

The Mercure Hotel is at Phoenix Way, Llansamlet, Swansea SA7 9EG.

If you have any questions, you can contact me on beaconsyogaswansea@gmail.com.

Namaste.

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