Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A little lunch, a lot of learning

I had a very informative lunch time chat with someone yesterday, and came away with some grist for my mental mill.

Firstly consider this:

The people who are best on the mat are not always the best yogis.

This is a great reminder of what we all know: being able to do splits/ back-bends/ fancy arm balances is great, and has a lot to recommend it, but if you are still grumpy and mean, the yoga is not working. You know your yoga practice is doing what it should when you are a nicer person, happier, calmer, kinder than you used to be.

This came up for me a couple of weeks ago when I was trying to illustrate to a class what 'advanced' yoga is. I was trying to show them that a fancy pose, done without paying attention, is less advanced than a simple pose done with full attention to the breath, body and mind. Only I couldn't come up with a fancy pose to demonstrate! It was an interesting moment; I guess there are a few poses I can do that count as 'advanced'- splits, some interesting shoulderstand and headstand variations, the odd arm balance. But the poses I experience yoga most intensely in are the simple ones - forward bend, child's pose, tree pose. So it was a real 'aha' moment.

Secondly, this:

There is more than one kind of yoga teacher.

I should really know this, but, bless me, I forget. I always think that for someone to be my teacher, I need to be studying yoga postures with them. My teacher Ann is one of those people whose yoga is clearly working in their lives. I go to her with student issues, life issues, issues in general, but I hardly ever go to her asana classes. She is still my teacher. It seems for me right now, I need a spiritual teacher - the asana side of things is to some extent under control or maybe (gasp!) not as important to me as it once was.

Has anyone else had the experience of their yoga changing before their very eyes?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

My (not so) secret journal

When I was little, I had one of those diaries with a teensie little lock to keep prying eyes out. I lost the key after about two entries. I tried my hand at journal keeping again in my early twenties, when I was living in London. I wrote sporadically in a black notebook for a few months, then gave up. When I re-read the entries later, they reeked of despair; probably because I was in a strange city, an unhappy relationship, and dealing with the grief of a close friend's suicide. Not a great combo for upbeat writing.

A few years ago, as part of my preparation to become a yoga teacher, I undertook a year-long vibrational healing course. There was journaling. I sucked at it. I know all the stuff about how healing the practice can be, but I just can't seem to sustain the momentum.

The truth of the matter is this: I have always felt a little silly writing for an audience of one. This blog represents my longest-standing record of my thoughts ever. And it continues because someone else reads it (I hope!)

I would love to know how you feel on this topic!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Bendy Backs!

A lot goes on when we are bending backwards, and how our back-bends look and feel depends on many factors, including the structure and health of our shoulder and pelvic girdles, our general strength and flexibility, and the structure and health of the spine.

A good back-bend has the perfect balance between flattening the thoracic spine (mid & upper back) and increasing the arch in the lumbar spine (lower back). The lower back is designed to arch - that is what it does already! The upper back, one the other hand, is designed to round forward slightly. The shape of these curves and whether they are healthy depends on our genes and also our movement habits, all of which influence our ability to bend backwards. And yes, too much slumping in front of a computer makes for uncomfortable back-bends!

All the girls in the pictures below are very comfortable in urdvha dhanurasana (upward bow pose), but all their back-bends look different. The factors I have already talked about play a large part, but so do their bones (yes, it's another bone post!)

The spinous processes are those bits of bone sticking out of each vertebra where the muscles and ligaments attach. If they are longer, you will not be able to bend as far back before they crunch together as someone with shorter spinous processes. Also, the relative length of the spinous processes differs along the spine and from person to person.Have a look at the pics and see the differences for yourself!

Andrea in Urdhva Dhanurasana, originally uploaded by LORatliff.

Julie in Urdhva Dhanurasana, originally uploaded by LORatliff.

Note: Thanks to Debbie and Karen for the photos, wikipedia for the anatomy pic, and to the lovely folks who share their pics on flickr!

Friday, March 16, 2007


I have been looking at pictures of bones on Paul Grilley's website. They are amazing! It's one thing to read an anatomy book and quite another to see, in comparison, how one person's skeleton differs from another's. For example, in the picture below, Grilley clearly shows how the skeletal structure will restrict mobility in the hips:

You can see the hip sockets in the example on the left, because they are oriented forwards, but not those of the one on the right. So if you have a pelvis like the one on the left, your baddha konasana (bound angle pose) will look like this:

Baddha Konasana, originally uploaded by rutke.

And if your pelvis is more like the one on the right, your baddha konasana will look more like this:

Baddha Konasana, originally uploaded by simalay.

And there ain't all that much you can do about it! You can stretch the connective tissue and the muscles, but at some stage you are going to hit the wall. Or rather, the bone. So go easy on your body - maybe the reason you can't get your knees to the ground is that you shouldn't! Not a new theme with me, but an important one.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Breathing Feet

sleeping feet, originally uploaded by poppycatopetal.

As many of you know, I think feet are quite important, as do large numbers of yogis and yoga authors. My friend Geraldine passed this lovely poem on to me. It's from Breath - The Essence of Yoga by Sandra Sabatini:

Breathe wtih your feet
be in your feet
go and live inside your feet

and at the very end of the exhalation
dismiss the heels

it's very important that at the end of the exhalation
the feet receive the message of spreading
so that contact with the ground become more intelligent
then the roots grow stronger and thicker
into the ground
and the impulse that travels through the spine
up towards the base of the skull
encourages the opening and expansion
of the upper part of the body

I would love to hear how you all feel about your feet - on and off the mat!

In the meantime, enjoy this gorgeous pic from poppycatopetal at Flickr.

Friday, March 09, 2007

All Roads Lead to Yoga

I was reading Fortune Elkins' post about bad poses on yoga blogs, and it got me to thinking. My first thought was that I am responsible for some of those bad bad pics - they are on my blog. I must admit that I had to think (more than) twice before I posted them, because they are spectacular. In the bad way. The problems with my alignment are too many and humiliating to mention. But then I got to thinking some more, and what I came up with was this: my dodgy practice makes me feel better. Therefore, it is good enough.

The main goals of my asana practice are to keep me healthy enough to teach, and to feel my connection to that which moves me, to Life (although as Mark Whitwell says, we are always connected, no need to get connected.) If my goal was to achieve physically difficult poses, then alignment would necessarily be far more important. Poor alignment, especially in the more challenging poses, does lead to injury. But I suspect there is a larger range of acceptable 'bad' alignment than we tend to think.

If you have practiced yoga in India, you may have noticed that alignment seems almost a foreign concept to many Indian yogis - yet you don't hear of widespread yoga injuries in India - interesting. Perhaps because there, it is practiced for more than just physical gains; I agree with what Yoga Station has to say on this topic. Really, it depends on why you are practicing, and in the end, as my sister-in-law says, the yoga does its work - whether you realize it or not. All roads lead to yoga.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


My student dilemma is sorted out - to my complete shock. Just so you all know: if you are honest and open and do what you said you would, the results are good. Or as Pattabhi Jois is famed for saying, 'Practice and all is coming.'

And the amazing thing is - she is still my student, we haven't even parted ways. Wow!

Now enjoy this gorgeous photo I found on flickr, taken by danurasana. It's kinda how I feel right now.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

But am I enough?

I seem to be having a problem with boundaries. This is not a new problem. It stems at least from my teenage years, but probably from even earlier. The thing is, before I was a yoga teacher, it was fairly easy to avoid situations in which I would have to enforce my boundaries - I could be a happy little doormat.

Now I find myself embroiled in a situation (not the first) with a student in which I thought I had made the boundaries abundantly clear, and the student is denying all knowledge of this, and saying I am behaving unfairly. Of course, I don't like being called unfair. At all. In fact the doormat in me (that would be the largest part of my personality) wants to start violating boundaries to make this student happy. But this time, uncomfortable as it is, I am going to stick to my guns. If I don't, situations like this will keep coming up. I know I am doing the right thing because I get an unpleasant feeling in the pit of my belly when I think about backing down and saying, 'Oh, okay, you must be right, I must be wrong - please like me.'

I think this is why teaching yoga is as much of a sadhana (spiritual practice) as practicing yoga. What have I learnt from this? Perhaps I need to put things in writing to make very sure I have been heard. To this end, I am working on terms of service between me and students. I will publish them when done - maybe it'll help some other struggling teacher or student out there!

It has been a long, long week. I think I preferred bumbling along with no desire to do the right thing. Sigh.