27 July 2018

Intention? or focus?

                          Image result for yoga meditation   


This was The Latest Thing, a few years ago. Known as Sankalpa by a large yoga organisation. Teachers everywhere, took it, and ran with it. Made it Seriously Special. Teachers here, there, and everywhere could create something deep and meaningful, by making intention a special aspect of their classes.

Originally it was part of the above-mentioned yoga organisation's technique of yoga nidra. The idea being that the mind was receptive as it slipped from wakefulness into sleep, or from deep sleep back to wakefulness. For this is when  that little window of opportunity when one's mental barriers are  down, and a resolve, intention, vow, sankalpa, whatever you want to call it, could take fruition, from being implanted during those brief moments.

I no longer teach like this. Frankly, the whole sankalpa thing, it irritated some of my very savvy clients. They were already doing great things with their lives, they didn't want to do sankalpa. Looking back, I now feel that it wasn't too good to use it. Now I feel that it's too much like self hypnosis.

And, now, sankalpa, intention, is mainstream. Well established. But, used differently. It is usually done to start a class.

Now, to start a class, you could use sankalpa in a number of ways:
  • select a crystal
  • choose a tarot or similar card
  • get read a virtue
  • get read something like one of Patanjali's Sutras
  • or just start the class with an intention

This intention could be for a myriad of reasons:
  • focus on the breath
  • focus on your abs in some form or another
  • be aware of your body
  • just be aware
  • and so on

What is the benefit of intention?

There is a benefit. It brings our entire being into a one-pointed aspect. When we can be relaxed within an intention, we can learn much about ourselves, especially if we are doing something as seemingly mundane as watching the breath, in class, from beginning to end. In this instance, a person will feel quite energized in some cases. If it's a class with very soft ujjayi (whispering breath) throughout, one will become meditative.

If you are observing the body throughout the class, you may discover many things about yourself. How your body fits into the poses. What suits you best. Your stamina, your tension, aches and pains, and much more.

Intention, or focus?

And, importantly, when we have something to focus on, it is less tiring than daydreaming. I do this focus differently than using intention at the start of a class.  Depending on whom I'm teaching, and when.

I frequently start a class with a visualisation. Nothing fancy. But always meaningful. I don't make up stories or anything like that. Mainly because I find that sort of thing rather silly. I use special symbols for the people, the time of day, the season.... a myriad of reasons.

I give a focus throughout the class. And not always the same focus throughout the whole class. Occasionally, it's breathing in a certain way. Or chakra awareness. Sometimes it's bits and pieces of a posture whilst everyone is doing it.

Yoga teachers can have a focus, too

I want people to feel good when they have finished. And I also want whatever focus I am using, to have a purpose, be meaningful. I don't want to indoctrinate anyone regarding words like sankalpa, intention. It's all too charismatic for me. I walked away from all of that nonsense years ago. And became a better teacher for it.

And that is a great focus: make it about your students, and about you doing your best for them.

18 July 2018

Dealing With Exhaustion

                                    Image result for bhairavi mudra images
                                      (bhairavi mudra -  internalising version)

I often think that people probably think that yoga teachers have different lives, than they actually do. I only ever knew of one who had a family, a large house which she was mostly responsible for, a partner, taught many excellent classes a week, did all of the advertising, book-work etc, for her yoga business, and managed a daily practice.

Whew! She was unique, for sure. I really admired her.

I find that daily practice is one of the most difficult things for many yoga teachers, to fit into their life. I certainly constantly experienced this, too. Why does this happen?
  • Exhaustion. Driving around a city taking classes all over the place, to groups of people with differing needs, is tiring. One is constantly 'giving out', which most yoga teachers do. Because they care about people.
  • Taking morning classes, then maybe a mid-morning one, then an evening one or two, leaves very little structured time to fit in some time to do a small practice.
  • The biggest obstacle for yoga teachers, I feel, is simply trying to practice too much yoga each day. 
Hints For Dealing With Exhaustion

One of the ways that I dealt with the chronic exhaustion and stress from trying to fit too much in, in order to make a (humble) living, was to arrive at a venue at least 10 minutes early, and park my car around the corner. I'd push my seat back, drop the back of my seat, close my eyes, let myself go limp, and do a hasta (hand) mudra (gesture), for five to ten minutes. Bhairavi mudra, with the left hand on top of the right. Thumb tips touching.

It was nothing sort of miraculous, as I would become instantly energised, yet completely relaxed. It was my little secret for coping with a massive teaching load.

You can even sit in this position, with your eyes open, whilst your class ambles into the room. It will revive you. And everyone will feel great and inspired that you are so relaxed.

Learning to relax whilst you are teaching, is definitely one of the 'tricks of the trade'. Being calm. Slow down your breathing: it will slow down your brain waves, and make you calmer. Smile: it will also make you feel less tired.

When I was teaching a lot of yoga, I really needed some quiet time. Basically, I would get over hearing the sound of my own voice, and just not want to speak. These periods of being quieter, will also revive and calm you.

Having to talk so much with teaching, especially teaching long week-end workshops, taught me a lot about not expending too much energy when I didn't have to! As a method for being able to be a good teacher. 

The first Swami - Guru whom I ever met, Dr Swami Gitananda, said that too much unnecessary talking, depletes one's prana. Weakens our life-force. I learnt this decades ago, and have followed this advice most of my life.

But I can offer some tips for being able to talk for hours on end, whilst teaching:
  • Talk clearly, and a bit slower.
  • Learn how to give verbal instruction for each pose, without non-stop chattering.
  • Talk to the back of the room. This is projecting your voice.
  • Drop the tone of your voice. A slightly deeper voice is easier to project.
  • Have the sensation of your voice as though it is coming up from your navel area (manipura chakra). This will give a strong energy to your voice.
  • Manipura is the gateway to our prana sheath, which provides life-force to our whole being, so we are connecting our voice to our life-force. 
Demonstrating Poses

I know that some yoga teachers do the postures with their students. And this is great, if you are not holding the poses too long. Personally, I prefer to watch people practising, as I like to be able to see who can do what, so that I can modify poses to the overall group.

But, it's not very self-nurturing for some yoga teachers to always do the poses with the class. I always found it exhausting, but you may not. I know that in some gyms, people can expect the teacher to do the whole class with them.

Again, learning how to teach without demonstrating is vital. If you are teaching a class when your throat is sore, you feel unwell, or your ankle is swollen, you will soon find this out! These are the times when it really helps if you can use less words. For example:

Warriors and Triangles: "push your feet down and apart" 

                                     Image result for warrior 2 pose

This automatically takes the pressure off the knees, and makes the back leg have more of a supporting role, giving your students standing stability. It also means you won't have to add extra about ankle and/or knee locks, lifting kneecaps, pressure on outside edge of the back foot... etc

I am sure that you also have many tips: feel free to share them.


11 July 2018


                                 Image result for vintage yoga
               (film actress Mitzi Gaynor, probably 1950s)

Sometimes I think that I am too stuck in the past, regarding yoga. I'm not tweaking my downdogs, I'm not doing core activation, (actually I do in some poses, for myself), I am not extending prana (life force) out through my limbs. I am way out of touch.

I care not.

During decades of teaching yoga, I learnt some unusual things:
  • when you're teaching you have to think. Fast. You look up and see that someone is nursing their shoulder, or has a wrist bandage on. I have even had people come to class with a leg in a plaster cast.
  • I have had yoga teachers turn up to my class, stop doing it, and then writing down everything that I am saying
  • I learnt that teaching yoga in an alzheimers, dementia and psychosis unit, meant that I had to rethink absolutely every thing that I knew about yoga, and do something else instead
  • I learnt how to teach people who were heavily medicated, due to mental health problems
  • I learnt that people who were heavily traumatised were unsuited for meditation, and going within
  • I learnt, decades ago, that I may have known all about chakras et al, but I really didn't know where to put my big toe in trikonasana (triangle pose), nor what muscles to contract in a forward bend (but I did quickly learn!)
  • I learnt that the more the yoga was "made better', the more the essence of it was lost
And this last point, was the most important aspect:

that the essence of a very effective system, was being lost. Due to the poses being "made better"

The asanas (postures) are about the physical body, yes, for sure. When I first learnt yoga, a l-o-n-g time ago, they weren't actually for great muscles and intense stretching. The older type of muscle structure from yoga, was for the muscles being small and toned, yet long. I find that today, people have different muscle formation from yoga. The muscles are now more bulky, and this is, I believe,  from doing a predominance of standing poses. Like Warriors, and big Triangle poses, and holding them for a long time, too.

And also from emphasis on form. Form being how to get into, how to hold, and how to come out of, a pose. This includes all poses when one is talking about form.

When muscles are being contracted, whilst others are deeply stretched, whilst holding a pose, this does, of course, create muscle development. Beautiful, strong, defined, muscles. And, really, I am not criticising this, as such. I am just pointing out a direction which yoga has taken.

Going back to those big standing poses: it wasn't until I went to a new style of yoga which had been brought to the west, Iyengar Yoga, and this was decades ago, that I ever did a modern warrior pose. Iyengar Yoga is very much involved with musculature. 

It was that class (I never went back to that teacher!) which destroyed my back. Forever. Doing a pose I was well familiar with, that I could do easily - up till after The Back Incident. It was the plough pose. It had been made "better".

I had already been going to a teacher who allowed us to do the postures, at our own level. No way could I do a plough when I first started yoga, but after a few months, I could, without harming myself. I got there, into that pose, as my body slowly adjusted. Bit by bit. And then I wrecked all my efforts by going to a teacher who "knew how to do the poses properly".

When I was training yoga teachers, which I did for many years, I did have to know how to teach the new  "accepted standard" of yoga, and by this I mean the whole lot - poses, breathing, prana locks, meditations, yoga nidra. And I did do this. I was most particular about details, as I knew that the people whom I was training would be judged by how well they knew all of these modern bits and pieces.

I also, many years ago, introduced how to do poses if, for example, a student in a class has back problems. And how to modify poses, for various reasons. I am assuming that everyone knows this sort of information, nowadays. I understand how the standards of professionalism, do matter.
                                Image result for vintage yoga

But, at the same time, I was sad about it all. Sad that the true essence of all of the practices, was being last. You could call this "progress", "keeping up with things", whatever.....

The asanas, the poses, were originally for:
  • getting the body fine-tuned. On all levels
  • building up the various nervous systems
  • correcting the endocrine system
  • getting the organs healthy
  • clearing the emotional content stored in the body
Now we have "shakti bandhas" for clearing the body. "Pawanmuktasana" series for joint or digestive health. Long Ashtanga Yoga series for doing things like building up the nervous system. Iyengar yoga to build muscles and bones. Prana Flow Yoga, Vinyasa, Power Yoga, Yin, Bikram, so many different styles. 

Which is great. Something for everybody. But, in many cases, I still do feel that the essence of a great system, is lost there, somehow.

7 July 2018

The bridge pose: old and new versions

                     Image result for muscles used in bridge exercise

I decided to look at the evolution of the bridge pose, today. Old and new styles of it.

The very old style

When I first learnt the bridge pose, decades ago, we did it from 1/2 or full shoulderstand, taking one leg down into the pose, then the other,so in the full pose we were up on tip toes, doing the bridge pose, with our hands still supporting our back. Then back up into the 1/2 or full shoulderstand, again.

I met someone during these years, who guest-taught my class, once. He did the modern style of the bridge pose (and was most derisive of the way that I taught then....) As I recall this, I realise that he was trained in the Iyengar system, which was not so widely known then.

Old Ashram style

Then, years later, when I did "ashram" training, (also decades ago) we went into that same pose from:
  • lying on our back, with knees bent, and feet flat on the floor.
  • feet were wide apart, at least shoulder width apart and toes turned out a bit. 
  • we held onto our ankles throughout the pose. 
  • the chest was wide open
At the time, it was the precursor to chakrasana, the wheel pose. It still is. And, of course, the bridge pose is an excellent alternative to chakrasana, for those who, for one reason or another, are not doing that more advanced pose. And to be honest, I had already learnt this method from my second yoga teacher, and, yes, it did enable me to then learn how to do chakrasana.

Modern style

Now the bridge pose is done with Good Form. For muscular reasons:
  • Lie flat on the floor
  • Knees bent
  • Feet hip width apart, and parallel. Hip width referring to placement of the hip bones, rather than the sides of the torso at hip level. 
  • Arms alongside the body, with the palms flat on the floor. 
  • We raise our hips to the ceiling, pushing into the feet. 
  • It will feel as though the weight is on the feet and the shoulders
  • Push down onto the big toes to activate the inner thighs by rolling them inwards 
In the final position:
  • We might do a straight line from collarbones to knees
  • we might have more of a gentle curve with the chest lifting higher
  • We might open up the chest (done by placement of the hands).  
The arms might:
  • Stay as they are - the hands may, or may not, press into the floor, for support
  • the fingers might be interlaced under the body. 
  • The next move is to roll the upper arms outwards in this position. Inwards would be the upper arm muscles going in towards each other. (opens the chest)
  • A third, effective variation, is to briefly lift up onto the toes whilst you put your elbows on the floor, and cup your hips with your hands. (opens the chest) Then put the feet back flat on the floor.
Some people find it easier to do the pose more effectively, if they take the arms overhead to the floor, whilst they hold the pose

Benefits of the modern version

Which of course, is all amazing. Wow: 
  • core activation
  • great buns (buttocks)
  • beautifully defined hamstrings
  • toned inner thighs
  • strong thigh
  • beautiful calves
  • strong back
The secret of the older method

In reality, none of the modern benefits were what the bridge pose was originally about. The first style that I learnt it in, from the 1/2 or full shoulderstand, was specifically for the endocrine system, and in particular, the pancreas. For hormones which are released directly from the pancreas into the blood stream. As we went into the pose, we got like a "squirt" of these hormones. 

Without being too technical, these various hormones, and other functions, of the pancreas did many things. Briefly:
  • Regulate blood sugar
  • Are an important glucose regulator, so they also affect our brain and liver
  • Are responsible for the storage of fat and glucose after a meal
So, someone like myself, when I first started yoga, who could only do a very minor attempt at the bridge pose, from an inverted pose (as described), still got a quick squirt of beneficial hormones and elements from the pancreas, with my (cautious) attempt. This was major, as I had severe blood sugar problems when I first started yoga. Over time, these problems mysteriously disappeared.

How to merge old and new styles

As a yoga teacher, and a yoga teacher trainer, of course I am aware that many people could not and should not do this old form of the bridge pose. And of course, many cannot do a 1/2 nor full, shoulderstand. Which is fine. What I do, in this instance, is substitute a modern bridge pose instead. Why?
  • it can be held
  • most people can do a variation, whether beginners, or more advanced
  • it is an inversion (head lower than the heart)
  • it is beneficial for thyroid (as are 1/2 and full shoulderstand)
  • it opens up the lungs, so benefits breathing
  • I do feel that it does have a benefit to the pancreas, but less than the older version
  • great for adrenals
I usually finish it with reclining butterfly, as the pelvic area gets "drained" (sort of....) in the bridge pose, and reclining butterfly following it, allows a freer flow of blood and other fluids around the pelvic area.