Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: Link - Protecting your SI joint in Sun Salutations

Ok, so it's no longer Tuesday, but I couldn't help posting this excellent link to Nadine Fawell's blog about How to Protect your SI Joint During Sun Salutes. In particular Nadine focuses on protecting your back as you transition from up dog to down dog.   It's an excellent post with some great diagrams of different pelvic alignments. Plus, Nadine gets extra points because she is a self-made business woman, has her own yoga DVD, and lives in Australia! Which is, like, way cool mate. ;)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Not the easy road... More on "breaking up" with Ashtanga

Last week, I posted a letter to Ashtanga about "seeing other yoga". I didn't really mean it to be a controversial post, but it did spark some discussion.  For some more good reading, Damn Good Yoga posted a perspective on her blog which also generated a lot of comments and discussion.

In any case, upon browsing the Ashtanga blogosphere, there seems to be a perception that people leave Ashtanga because it's too hard, or because they can't handle the discipline and commitment, or they are shying away from ego-destroying transformation. And maybe some people do - but I'm not really in a place to judge anyone else's reasons or motivations.

I find this interesting because for me, the decision to branch out from the Ashtanga path was a decision to leave my comfort zone, both physically and on more subtle levels. You see, as I mentioned in my letter, I was taught that Ashtanga was all the yoga I needed. That it was a complete system that would heal and balance my body and my mind, well, completely. So when I recently realised that this wasn't happening for my body, it made sense to me that I needed to modify my practice. It honestly wasn't a big drama for me - after all, my "loyalty" is to myself and my journey, not to one asana system or another. [Not to mention that as a teacher, I feel like I need to learn as many different approaches as possible, to be able to teach to as many different needs as possible!]

The realisation that Ashtanga wasn't working for me in a "complete" way came during my Level 2 yoga teacher training, and in particular I had 3 major "breakthroughs":
  • I realised that my shoulders have become imbalanced - partly this is the way my body is put together, and partly it's postural and work-related (damn computers). Basically, the front of my shoulders are quite strong and the muscles on the backs of my shoulders are comparatively quite weak, and this was causing my shoulders to round forward and causing me a certain amount of back pain. When I say "realised", I mean the kind of realisation that is accompanied by immense physical and emotional release - not the kind of passing thought you can just ignore. Yogis will know the kind I mean. Unfortunately, Ashtanga with its emphasis on forward-and-down vinyasas had made that imbalance worse. According to my Yoga Therapy teacher, this is pretty common among Ashtangis - many of whom suffer from shoulder injuries or pain at the back of the shoulder because those muscles remain comparatively underdeveloped. The good news is, it's fairly easy to work on and with the help of some yoga therapy moves, in a few short months since my TT I have already made huge progress in that area.
  • As I've already mentioned, I realised that my psoas and hip flexors were just not getting the love they needed. The psoas is of particular concern to me since it affects lower back pain and imbalance, which I already have my dose of thanks to my scoliosis. This became crystal clear to me when we were working on Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana / King Pigeon pose. I couldn't BELIEVE that after 3 years of Ashtanga I had made absolutely no progress with this pose. Wow. That just didn't seem right to me - but once my teacher observed where my limitations were in the pose - those pesky psoas and hip flexors among them - it made sense - and became clear that my Ashtanga practice was just not addressing those muscles in the way that my body needed.
  • Finally, as I mentioned, I have scoliosis. Luckily for me, it's quite mild, but it is progressive - i.e. the muscular imbalance, unless counteracted, gets worse with age. When I first started Ashtanga, I accepted the idea that the primary series was "yoga therapy", and therefore, my practice would be enough to relieve my imbalance. And while it did make the weaker side of my back stronger, over time it also caused the QL muscle on the strong side of my back (that's the thick muscle that runs either side of your lower spine) to become a rock-hard, ropey knot, which is exactly the kind of imbalance I need to avoid if I want to manage my scoliosis as I get older. Cue more massive release, and the realisation of just how badly I NEEDED to do some kind of practice that would allow me to dig deeper and really work on that area.
Now, I honestly think it would have been easier to just stay in my comfort zone and keep practicing Ashtanga, maybe throwing in a quick yoga therapy sequence in the afternoons to work on some of those target areas. Easier to remain attached to progressing along the Ashtanga path, and keep working towards second series. Easier on my ego, because I wouldn't have to face Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana or go deep, deep into that damn psoas and feel like I'm losing my mind.  But that would not have been in line with Satya, truthfulness, Aparigraha, non-grasping, or Ahimsa, non-harming. And so I'm taking the other path, moving out of my comfort zone, and into practices that challenge the imbalances in my body - and take me to the edge both mentally and physically.

Is it easier? Heck no. Am I less committed to my yoga? If anything, I'm more comitted. Is my practice suddenly less disciplined, more comfortable, or less confrontational? Actually, the opposite!  Of course I do write this with the caveat that I've been practicing yoga (self-practice) for nearly 10 years, have worked on these issues with an experienced Yoga Therapist, and have 500 hours of formal yoga teacher training that have given me the skills, maturity, and self-knowledge to design asana sequences that both nourish and challenge my body, that are well-balanced but also target my imbalances. And when it feels right, I'll keep practicing Ashtanga, too.

Funny, so much fuss about which type of asana we are practicing, when really, it's only 1/8th of the practice! I have found that as time goes on, I become less and less attached to WHAT I am practicing and more focused on HOW. Which is what yoga is all about, I guess. :)

Readers, what have been your "yoga realisations" or your experience with attachment?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Things I love Thursdays: Aung San Suu Kyi

True leaders are hard to come by. But every generation has their shining stars, and Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the truly inspiring figures of our time. Without going into a history lesson, I hope you know that Aung San Suu Kyi is a pro-democracy activist from Myanmar (more commonly known as Burma).  In 1990, her party won a landslide election against the military regime in that country - but the Generals refused to hand over power. Between 1989 and 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi spent more than 15 of those 21 years under house arrest, including a few terms in prison - but she never stopped campaigning for democracy in Burma.

It's really not possible for me to put into words how much I admire, respect and am inspired by this incredible woman, but here are just a few reasons why I love Aung San Suu Kyi:
  • She is a peaceful activist who has always taught - and lived - a path of non-violence (ahimsa) and compassion.
  • She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 - although she was only able to travel to Norway to accept it last week.
  • She used her Nobel Prize money - 1.3 million USD - to establish a health and education trust for the Burmese people.
  • She didn't choose to be a leader - she originally returned to Burma to care for her ailing mother - but her belief in democracy led her to take part in a wide popular uprising in 1988, and when asked to lead, she accepted the responsibility with awe-inspiring grace, despite the sacrifices it has entailed for her personally.
  • She was given an easy way out (to return to the UK, where her family was) - but she refused to take it, choosing instead to stay and stand for what she believed in. [Many have looked upon her harshly (who are they to judge?) for leaving her British husband and her two teenage sons to grow up without her - but it is almost certain that if she had gone back to the UK to be a wife and mother, she would never have been allowed back into Burma. Between 1988 and 1999 she saw her husband only 5 times - and was not even able to be with him when he died of cancer in 1999.  I can't imagine the emotional weight of this type of sacrifice, but I respect that she stood by her principles and didn't take the easy road out.]
  • On 1 April 2012, she finally won a seat in Parliament, from where she continues to push for reform in Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi may be free, but Burma's jails are still full of political prisoners, jailed on trumped up charges after unfair trials

If you are inspired, be a Karma Yogi and consider a few things you can do:
  • Read Aung San Suu Kyi's book "Freedom from Fear";
  • Talk about Aung San Suu Kyi in your yoga class or with your community, or teach an Aung San Suu Kyi-inspired class on standing up for what you believe in;
  • Give your children a history lesson on Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi;
  • Learn more about human rights and support one of the many local and international campaigns to bring rights and dignity to millions of people around the world.

Cover photo: Amnesty Australia

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: How to Breathe in Yoga

I was chatting to someone recently and she commented to me "I've been to all these yoga classes, but I'm just not clear about the breathing".

So today's Yoga Tip - first in a new series on my blog! - gives us a few simple guidelines about breathing in yoga.

First of all, a quick review of what happens when we breathe.

When we inhale:
- The diaphragm descends towards the abdomen
- The rib cage and lungs expand in all directions: up, sideways and backwards

When we exhale:
- The diaphragm rises
- The rib cage and lungs contracts
- The abdomen contracts

Generally speaking there are 4 types of movement in yoga: forward bending, back bending, side bending and twists.

  • Forward bending and twisting compress the abdomen, diaphragm and lower rib cage; so these should always be done on an exhale.
  • Side bending compresses one side of the abdomen and lower rib cage, but expands the other side. Generally we do side bending on an exhale, but it can also be done on an inhale, depending on the intention.
  • Back bending causes the abdomen to elongate and the ribcage to expand, so generally we backbend on an inhale.  However, when the abdomen expands it can reduce our core stability, which might lead to more strain or pinching on the lower back - so for a more protected and stable back bend, try back bending on or at the end of an exhale, while focusing on contracting the core muscles.

So, with those basics in mind, we can figure out how to breathe in almost any pose. For example, Utanasana is a forward bend, so we would do it on an exhale. Conversely, coming back up from Utanasana, comparatively, has the same effect as back-bending (the rib cage expands), so we would do it on an inhale. Triangle pose is a side bend, so we would  generally do it on an exhale.
Of course, sometimes it gets a bit complicated. What about headstand? Well, the way I think about it is that the preparation pose for headstand is like an inverted forward bend, so coming up from headstand is like coming up from Utanasana - done on an inhale.

Remember that these are just guidelines - at the end of the day, you should always do what feels right!

Any topic you'd like to hear tips on? Just leave a comment!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Dear Ashtanga: I'm seeing other Yoga

Dear Ashtanga,

Well, this has been a while coming, so I'm just going to be straight with you: I am seeing other yoga.

Yes, the mere fact that I am writing this is indicative of the problem - you see, Ashtanga, your system is just not flexible enough to meet my needs (no pun intended!). I guess this shouldn't come as a great surprise - just like any partnership, you can't rely wholly on one other person (errr, yoga system) to meet ALL of your needs. And yet, Ashtanga, that is kind of what you wanted me to think, which is, in hindsight, setting the bar a bit unrealistically high, right?

But don't worry, Ashtanga - it's not you, it's me. I've changed. I've grown in my practice, and you, of course, have been a part of that. But as I have become more in tune with my body - and my spirit - there are things that I have become less comfortable with, too.

You see, I'm not a dogmatic person. I don't have a religion, and I don't subscribe to the idea that any one system is better than another. Yet when I was introduced to you, Ashtanga, that sense of superiority was somehow present in the subtext. Now, I know that you're saying "it's not my fault I'm misinterpreted!" - and you know what, you're right. It's not your fault! But somehow that's the message that slipped through - "Ashtanga is like the ferrari of Yoga", one teacher said to me. The implication being that other 'vehicles' will get you there (wherever there is!) all the same, but that Ashtanga will do it faster. And with a bit more panache, perhaps. And I admit, when I first come to the practice, I certainly felt a bit of that turbo charge from the fast pace of the sequence and all those vinyasas! But I've come to a time where I'm suddenly thinking that a Ferrari is maybe not the only car that I need, because really, a Ferrari is only good if you have perfectly smooth, wide roads - say, a healthy, fit, injury-free body.  To be honest, I'm more of a 4x4 girl myself - because life is not a smooth ride, and I'd happily sacrifice a bit of speed to make sure that I have enough flexibility to deal with anything that comes along!

And that's the thing, Ashtanga. In real life, I think that in order to be effective, a system has to be able to evolve and change. But in Ashtanga, there is no evolution of the system. We are taught that the system is perfect as it is, that it is enough, that it cannot be changed or modified. I imagine the reaction of my Ashtanga teachers if I suggested we just "slip" shalabasana into the primary series, or "skip" Marichyasana D and do something else instead. According to the system, they would have good reason to be outraged! Everything is sequenced for a reason, everything in it's rightful place. You have to take things one step at a time! Which is wise advice, for sure. But it also assumes that one particular sequence (or 6, if you like) is right for every possible human body on earth. And the more I practice and the more I teach, the more I believe (as Krishnamacharya himself is reputed to have taught) that yoga should be adapted to the individual - and not the other way around.

Now that's not to say that your sequencing isn't beautiful, Ashtanga, because it truly is. But there are things that my body is missing, and I need to look elsewhere to find them. Lunges, for example - deep stretches into the psoas and hip flexors. So important for my back!  Piriformis stretches for keeping that pesky sciatica at bay - achieved when your leg crosses to the other side of the body, in easy twist for example - missing until ardha matsyendrasana in second series, and even that doesn't really isolate the muscle.

I could go on, but see, that is just me, and everybody's body is different. The point is, Ashtanga, that I spent a few years believing what I was taught - that Ashtanga is a complete system, that it is a system for anybody and everybody, that "practice [Ashtanga] and all is coming", and to practice other types of yoga would just be messing with the results. That, say, a Land Rover Defender might be robust, but a Ferrari is better. That with Ashtanga, there is really no need to practice anything else.

Well, for me, for my body, that just isn't working anymore. And so, Ashtanga, while I will probably still visit often, I am seeing other Yogas. And it feels good!



Readers - what are your experiences with yoga systems? ;)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Things I love Thursdays: Lunges

I love lunges. Until recently, I was mostly practicing the Ashtanga primary series in my home practice, which doesn't include any lunges.  I know, I hear you gasp: "no lunges!" Crazy, right?

Because I think that lunges are some of the most wonderful stretches around, and here are a few reasons why:

  • Lunges stretch the Psoas muscle, which is one of the most critical muscles used in walking, standing, sitting, and generally holding your spine in place. Which is pretty important, you know?! A shortened psoas can lead to all kinds of trouble, including long-term postural habits that can cause chronic back pain. Ouch. Stretch with a nice deep low lunge where one hip is trailing slightly.
  • Lunges also stretch the rectus femoris muscle, or hip-flexor, one of the quads that attaches to the hip bone and runs all the way down to attach below the knee, also important for walking,  running, and the relationship between the hip and knee. Stretch in a low or high lunge with the hips square, or go deeper by bending the back knee from a low lunge to catch the foot. Bliss.
So, here's to lunges. Stick them in your sun salutations! Use them as a base to twist or backbend! Dig deep and hold them for minutes on end (and notice when you come out how one leg actually feels a bit longer than the other - that's the psoas and hip flexor letting go a bit!). Enjoy!

Readers, do you love lunges?

(Cover photo:

Friday, June 8, 2012

Never miss an opportunity...

To take yoga photos in nature!!

What yoga opportunities do you never miss?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

In pictures: Langkawi, Malaysia

True to my gypsy name, I am in my third country in as many weeks... Visiting my mom in Langkawi, Malaysia! Apart from some wonderful mother-daughter time (including yoga - remember last time?), Langkawi itself is a beautiful island with much to offer.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this part of the world, Malaysia is a country that includes a peninsula connected to South-East Asia (south of Thailand), as well as part of the island of Borneo. Langkawi is a small island just south of Phuket. Predominantly a muslim nation, Malaysia has three main cultural / ethnic groups, mainly Malay, Chinese and Indian, making for an diverse tapestry of local life! Here close to the Thai border there is a lot of Thai influence as well.

Anyway, the other day Mom and I went up to the Friday market (because it happens once every Friday!) and I used my Leme Cam app (it's free!) to take some snapshots.


The Friday market is the place to be after evening prayer on Fridays!

Fresh, local (mostly) fruits and veg - yum!

Malaysian tofu delicacies

Busy shoppers

Girls being girls...

The beautiful new mosque around the corner

Our friendly tree frog (one of about 4 who live in the house!)