Yoga

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What is Yoga?

Yoga is about releasing and letting go, rather than the use of effort or force.  The postures are a concentration of mind and movement in which the breath undoes the stiffness and tensions of the body, strengthening its weaknesses and restoring breath.

Mary Stewart

If we are brave enough often enough we will fall

If we are brave enough often enough we will fall.  (Brene Brown)

Most of us, when we get beyond our infant years, have some fear of falling.

(And as I was typing this I mis-typed falling and wrote failing instead.  And fear of falling and fear of failing are not so different when you think about it.)

If we never reach out beyond what is comfortable, we cannot challenge ourselves and taste the fruit right at the end of the branch.  We won’t test ourselves to see if doing this particular something, or going to that particular place might be as joyful as we imagine it to be. 

When we stick with what we’ve always known, we get what we’ve always known.

That’s one of the riches to enjoy going to a Yoga class where the teacher invites us to try a new posture, or extend a little further in a familiar posture.

It doesn’t always work. 

We might wobble in Vrksasana – the Tree Pose.

We might need the support of a chair in Ardha Chandrasana – the Half-Moon Pose. 

And even when we have support we might shake and fall.

We might fall forwards in Bakasana – the Crane Pose.  

We might find that some poses that seemed impossible a month or so ago, are almost within sight today.

Or they might not.

It’s helpful to remind ourselves that Hatha Yoga practice is that – a practice. 

We are not aiming to ‘achieve’ anything.  It’s actually the side effects that are the most beneficial:

  • When we practise something, anything, regularly, you get used to noticing that some days things come more easily than others, and that’s okay.
  • We find that we can make time in a busy week for something that nourishes us.
  • We learn to trust ourselves more: in Yoga practice we learn that our body might not let us down as often as we might have once thought, and this can extend into other areas of our lives.
  • We learn that our mood can affect our Yoga; and that Yoga can affect our mood.
  • We find delight in the increased strength in our physical body on an everyday basis.
  • We get to know our bodies better, and become aware of changes in it sooner.
  • We might sleep more easily.
  • We might find that we can reduce medication for some health conditions.
  • We learn that comparisons with others are less fruitful than we might once have imagined: in the Yoga class might be people of all ages, body types and personalities, and if we continue to compare our ‘progress’ with another’s we will miss out on the joyful experience that is ours alone in practising the postures – no matter how long we can balance, stretch or hold our breath.

There are so many benefits which can translate directly or indirectly to our everyday lives.  And no, Yoga is not the only one.  But I know of few others that offer such a wide variety of benefits, accessible to anyone, of any age, of any level of health or fitness, of any means, who wants to explore its many aspects and gifts.

 

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There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

I used to think that this was a quotation by Leonard Cohen, and now I’m not so sure – he may have borrowed it.  And I don’t mind whether Cohen wrote it or someone else.  I think it’s a great concept, which reminds us to avoid clinging on to perfection.

And I learned about Kintsugi, which is an Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with gold, silver or platinum.  It shows the repaired pot as a part of the history of the pot, rather than something to disguise.  The beauty of the pot combines the skill of the original maker with that of the repairer, making something new; embracing and celebrating the imperfect; and showing us even a broken pot can be something beautiful, useful and something to treasure.

So what have these to do with Focusing or Yoga?

I have heard so many people say, ‘I can’t do Yoga because I’m not flexible enough‘, or ‘I can’t even touch my toes, so why should I try Yoga?’, and many other reasons for not trying Yoga, Meditation (‘I can’t sit still‘, or ‘My mind is too cluttered‘ are the the reasons here), or any other activity or pursuit that is unfamiliar to them.

I’ve used similar reasons myself. ‘I can’t paint because I’m not artistic‘, has been one of my excuses.

I would never want to persuade someone to do something that they have an aversion to, but it’s good to recognise that none of us is perfect.  We all have shortcomings, some of which are visible to others and some are not.

And it is in our differences that we shine.

Like the golden cracks in Kintsugi pots.

And Nature celebrates the individuality of each plant.

So please don’t ignore fulfilling practices such as Yoga, Pilates, walking, art, Focusing, sailing, trampolining, writing, embroidery, acting or any of those other activities that may have tempted you – even just a tiny bit – because you think you’re not good enough, or because someone will see the cracks in your facade.

These are all part of our histories – what makes us how we are today.

Honour and celebrate your differences.  Please.

And let the light get in to you, and shine out of you.

 

 

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Is your body feeling stiff?

Is your body stiff?

I am interested in the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, and in his book Embodied Wisdom, he writes:

A general improvement in the way we use our skeleton allows us to enjoy the full range of movements of the joints and intervertebral discs.  All too often, the bodily limitations that we believe are due to not being limber are, instead, caused by a habitual contraction and shortening of our muscles of which we are not conscious.  Unwittingly, our postures become distorted, and the joints of our bodies suffer unequal pressures.

“Degeneration of the joint surfaces imposes, in its turn, a further restriction of muscular activity so as to avoid pain and discomfort in movement.  Thus a vicious cycle is established, which gradually distorts the skeleton, the spine, and the intervertebral discs, resulting in an elderly body whose range of movements is reduced long before we have become old.  Actually, age has little to do with this sad event.  On the contrary, it is quite possible to restore the body’s ability to perform every movement of which the skeleton is capable.

“Up until sixty years of age, anyone of good health who is not suffering serious illness can attain this optimal ability with little more than an hour of retraining for each year of one’s life.  It is possible to attain this condition even beyond sixty years – depending on the person’s intelligence and will to live.”

Elsewhere in the same book he says:

Old age, for instance, begins with the self-imposed restriction on forming new body patterns.  First one selects attitudes and postures to fit an assumed dignity and so rejects certain actions, such as sitting on the floor or jumping, which then soon become impossible to perform.  The resumption and reintegration of even these simple actions has a marked rejuvenating effect not only on the mechanics of the body but also on the personality as a whole.”

Yoga is very good at achieving all that Feldenkrais advocates.

Well, that’s good news isn’t it!  

And I agree.  I have seen people in my Yoga classes who have denied that they would ever stand on one leg, said it would be impossible for them to touch the floor with straight legs in Uttanasana* (standing forward bend), would never be able to hold the Vasisthasana / Side Plank pose*.

And I have seen them come to accomplish these, as well as many other Yoga postures.

Students in their middle years have grown in height as their spinal columns realign, the intervertabral discs find more space to do what they’re supposed to do, and all the rest of the body takes its cue and breathes a sigh of relief as it begins to move more freely and with more ease.

I am amazed at how many Yoga students seem to avoid many of the age-related illnesses of middle and older life: for example, diabetes, heart problems, lung disease.  Or if they do get them they don’t seem to be so severe.

This isn’t to say that we practise Yoga or Feldenkrais technique for ‘accomplishments’ such as these, but it is rather wonderful when people find they can do things they thought they never would.  And I also believe that training our bodies in these ways makes us feel more alive, and as a good friend told me:

You are not stiff because you’re old.  You are old because you are stiff.

This good friend is nearer 80 than 70, and her Yoga practice and teaching ensure that she is energetic, strong, flexible and still able to practise the very strong postures such as “Wild thing”*, which many much younger people find difficult.

So my message to you is to commit to your practice – whether it’s Yoga, Feldenkrais technique, or another that ensures flexibility and strength.  Once a week is good, but as Feldenkrais says, you get better results if you can practise more frequently.

I can’t guarantee you a long life, but I think you’ll find that you’ll enjoy it a lot more without the stiffness, aches and pains that might otherwise hold you back.

(*I am sorry that my drawing skills are not up to posting pictures of these posture on-line – please look them up!)

Mind-Body Connection

I call my newsletter Mind-Body Connection, because I find that both Focusing and Yoga can be transformative in sensing into the connections that are there between mind and body, and we often don’t see or dismiss.

When we first learn Yoga, it can take a while to move from our need to ‘get it right’, and find out how to make our bodies form a triangle or an eagle, say.  Apart from not injuring yourself, it doesn’t matter too much – Yoga can be adapted so that it benefits all people, no matter their age, flexibility, strength, or any other restriction you might think of.  It’s for everyone

Our teachers help us find the best way to gain the most benefit from our Yoga postures.  And as we move through that, we begin to feel the benefits of our practice.  We discover how Hatha Yoga can energise us, calm us, relax us, soften tense areas, bring awareness to forgotten parts of our bodies, and sometimes can heal us – all of which work on the mind as well.

Focusing works in a different (and complementary) way.  You may be familiar with meditation (and Mindfulness is one form of meditation), where we pay close attention to what we are doing in this moment, or our thoughts as they come in and out of our minds.  Meditation is excellent at this, and helps many people (including me). 

Focusing goes further. 

Focusing is a very respectful Mind-Body awareness that helps us access the connections between mind and body.  And by doing this it helps us release old patterns which can keep us stuck and unable to move forwards in some areas of our lives.  Even very difficult emotions can be transformed and you can see them as opportunities for growth.

And Focusing can be a joyous and sometimes spiritual experience.

Focusing has been well studied, and if you’re looking for evidence of its benefits, there is much to read here.

And you don’t need to visit a therapist to learn Focusing.  Focusing is taught by therapists, and also by many Focusing Practitioners who are not therapists. 

Once you’ve learned Focusing, you can choose whether to continue Focusing with your practitioner, and you can also Focus with a Focusing partner in a peer relationship, or by yourself.  So it’s a skill that’s with you for the rest of your life, and doesn’t take long to learn. 

Contact me here to find out more, have some one-to-one Focusing, or join a workshop.

Click here to sign up for my occasional newsletters – The Mind-Body Connection (at the bottom of the page),

Do you find yourself wobbling in the balances?

That’s actually good.  Our bodies are not static.  All of the time we are moving – even in sleep our hearts continue to move blood around our bodies; our lungs continue to inhale the air from which we extract oxygen. 

Oak tree - Carolann Samuels

Oak tree – Carolann Samuels

When we balance on one leg as in, for example, Tree Pose (Vrksasana), Dancer King Pose (Natarajasana), Eagle Pose (Garudasana), we expect our bodies to hold us there.  For some of us that can pose problems – maybe every time, or maybe just sometimes.  I would urge you not to let that discourage you from practising balances. 

If you find you wobble, then practise close to a wall or something else that you can easily, and lightly touch.  You may find that just the proximity of the support is enough for you to feel more stable, and generates enough confidence in you to relax a little more into the balance.

If this doesn’t happen, then still practise and take the support that is there. 

Photo by Carolann Samuels

Rest your hand or your back lightly on the support, maintaining the alignment of the body.  And ask yourself,

  • What is it in me that doesn’t want to balance today? 
  • What is it in me that needs more support today?

Then listen for the responses.  Don’t be alarmed if the responses that come from within you make you wobble more, just try again, and keep listening to what’s going on inside for you, in this moment. 

And if there’s no wobble, you can ask yourself,

What is it in me that loves to balance today?

And using support or not:

  • Feel the floor underneath your foot. 
  • Allow your body to take that support, and feel it moving upwards throughout your body.
  • Notice the alignment of your body – are you leaning to one side, slightly forwards or back?
  • What about the hip girdle – is it aligned just as if both feet were on the floor? 
  • Check that there is no twist in the knee joint.
  • How does the spine feel?
  • How can I feel most alive in this posture, really present in this moment?

You may have heard the advice to focus your gaze on something that is not moving – other students wobbling in the class can be a distraction.  And it’s good advice.  However, bring your awareness to your gaze and check that your gaze is not fixed and hard.  Aim to keep a lightness there, as well as in the posture. 

 

Neither the tree, the dancer, nor the eagle maintain their balances by any hardness. Flexibility, awareness to what’s going on all around and responding to it, all improve the balance that they keep.

And the wobbling, whether or not you use support, is beneficial. 

It helps to bring awareness to the feet and legs, the alignment of the whole body and the breath.

All the movements strengthen the muscles holding you there. 

Bearing weight on one leg helps to strengthen bones and guard against osteoporosis.

 

What do you find works for you in your balance postures?  Tell me here.

 

 

How do you feel when you are standing?

Blue Mountains – Carolann Samuels

Tadasana

Tadasana is the Sanskrit word for Mountain Pose. It is one of the most important poses we practise in Yoga, for it is one which we use most often in our everyday lives. And all we have to do is stand.

When you are ‘just standing’, how do you feel?

Do you tend to lean on one side? Maybe you slouch a little, or stand up tall and quite stiff? Does your back ache? How are your shoulders?
In which direction are your feet pointing?  is your face relaxed?  And how are your hands?

When we stand with awareness, we can notice all of this, and more.

We keep balanced with ease.
Movement is minimal – just enough to keep us standing here without effort, remembering that even mountains move a little.
Standing up tall in a conscious way may be new for us. It may feel awkward, as though we’re not straight. It might be helpful to ask someone if we lean to one side, or stick out our abdomens.
Then when we know how to be tall and straight, we can practise at any time: in a queue, when brushing teeth, speaking with a friend; looking at a picture. And someone looking at you wouldn’t say, she’s making an effort to stand tall, they would say, that person is standing comfortably, at ease with herself.

As we become aware, we begin to make more connections – between the authentic self and the physical self.

Where do I stand on important issues?

Do I stand up for myself, or for someone else?

We look ahead – facing what is ahead of us.

We are not running somewhere.

We look without and within.

We take stock; observe; feel; see.

Where am I?

Where do I want to be?

Where do I want to go?

What do I want to do about myself?

Are there obstacles?

What about the strength of a mountain?

Avalanches and rockslides sometimes happen on mountains.

If we spend all our time in our heads, not only do we have to deal with all the messy thoughts spinning around, but we also find ways of seeking solutions to all our problems and navigating our lives through only one vehicle: the mind.

The mind is not meant for all that work.

The mind can only work with what is in the mind, so creative solutions must come from outside the mind.

We experience shifts in perception through our skin, inside us – in our throat, our stomach, solar plexus, maybe. We feel a new awareness, and then we can store it in our minds for future reference. It doesn’t work the other way round – we can’t think before we feel it.

Standing in our own body helps open the throat for the opportunity to speak with our own voice. It also helps to move us out of our thinking centre and into a place of feeling and sensation. It’s the place of feeling that we are present. Thoughts keep us in the past or future.

Only when we are truly present can we know who we are.

And as we pay attention to our bodily experience, we find we can tap into the wisdom of the body, and the whole complexity of how we are, in this moment.

Yoga and Focusing each work very well to help us in gaining this awareness.  Put them together and the whole effect is so much more powerful.  If you would like to know more, contact me here.

(With acknowledgements and thanks to Swami Sivananda Radha and Laraine Herring for their writings on Tadasana)

yoga platform

How can I feel more calm and relaxed throughout the day?

yoga platform

  • Do you come back from your Yoga or Meditation class feeling calm and relaxed?
  • Do you wish you could feel more like that every day?

Well you can. For most of us it takes a little while to practise, but it’s so worthwhile, why wouldn’t you?

The stillness we find at the end of the class isn’t just for the Yoga class, when we’re sitting quietly, maybe with candles lighting the corners of the room, with the temperature just right.  I think we all want to take this stillness into the world when we leave the class. Soon after we’ve packed up our kit we might find ourselves negotiating weather and traffic, other people, even.

Can we take this energy of stillness with us?

Can we, in our daily lives, as we become involved with disagreements, arguments, joys and sorrows, can we come back to stillness then, without sitting on the floor with peaceful music playing in the background? Or do we need to go back to join the race of the rat?

Do we need to be right? Do we need to persuade ourselves to become better – better at our jobs, better at parenting, better at being a friend, a better person?

Toni Packer calls this the “smog of our daily lives” that we not only suffer from, but also become attached to – it’s our existence after all.

I suggest that the more often we come back to quietness, in the midst of whatever is our daily life, the more we can get a glimmer of how we are acting when we’re in the smog.

We can catch ourselves, observe ourselves, remind ourselves that there is another way. We can change how we think.

We might find that we begin to notice those times when we speak harshly to a colleague, or are angry with another road user, or find our child irritating. Maybe not soon enough to change anything just then, but the next time it happens a little voice might say to us:

Slow down, choose how to feel, choose how to respond.

As we sit quietly, we remind ourselves of what has happened, and think about our future responses.

Habits take time to acquire, and time to change.

We might think we can’t change the habits of a lifetime – whether our lifetime is twenty years or sixty years. I think we can. When you start a new job you have to get used to the way things happen in the new workplace. When you move to a new town, you get used to the layout of the town and that you might have to drive twenty miles to buy clothes, but food is now five minutes walk away. When you learn a new activity or hobby, you learn new ways of doing things.  

Kindness works best with all beings, especially with ourselves.

And the best person to start with is ourself. Being aware, that’s the answer; awareness is always available. As we watch ourselves how we act, how we respond; we can think of different ways of acting and responding.

When we go home from the class we quickly find ourselves caught up in our routines of yesterday. One way that works for me is to set myself a reminder.  You might too – something that will work for you. Think ahead to the next day and choose a time when you will have ten minutes to yourself, then set yourself a reminder in your diary, on your phone, maybe a sticky note on your desk or fridge.

For that ten minutes take yourself away from everything – you might find a park bench, or walk down the aisle of a shop, or sit in your car – somewhere you can bring yourself into the present moment. If it’s really difficult not to be interrupted, you might pretend to be reading a book, or on the phone to give yourself some privacy. Or you might choose your quiet time to be first thing in the morning before the rest of the family is awake.  

Then observe yourself and your thoughts. By the time you get to the place you’ve chosen you may have only five minutes, that’s enough. Be aware, if only for a moment. Then reset your reminder for the next day – maybe it will be the same time, or another.

And it you don’t have ten minutes, five will do.

Another little trick is to choose something that you do fairly often during the day. It could be waiting for the kettle to boil; or walking through a particular door; or waiting for traffic lights to change colour. It doesn’t matter, just choose something.  And if that doesn’t work choose something else. At first you might need tangible reminders, such as a note by the kettle. Then in those few moments while you are waiting, bring yourself to the present moment.

Ask yourself how you are feeling – here in your chest, or in your gut, or if your teeth are clenched. That’s all. Just notice and be aware.

And if you find that you haven’t done any of this for a whole day, or a week or more even, then don’t be cross with yourself, but be curious as to why you couldn’t find that space – and be kind.

Kindness is what matters.

There will be times when it doesn’t work – that’s the same for all of us.  But I have noticed that those people who practise more often, find more parts of each day where they feel calmer, and more able to cope with the turbulence of life.

And I have found that Focusing has enhanced my ability to observe how I respond to the difficulties of life.  It has brought me a new calmness and ability to cope when things get tough.

Carolann Samuels
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We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world

Carolann Samuels

Carolann Samuels

I’ve read a few quotations by Helen Keller which have inspired me, and especially this one which is new to me.  If you haven’t heard of her, there is an article about her on Wikipedia here.  I remember hearing a lot about her when I was young as she was the first deaf-blind person in the US to attain a BA degree, and went on to be a vocal and respected campaigner for human rights.  It is worth reading how she overcame huge difficulties with communication – not learning to speak until she was around six years old.

And it’s so true, isn’t it?  If we did not know difficulties, hardship and struggle, how can we ever learn bravery and patience.  All of us can reflect on aspects of our lives which have proved difficult, or even monumentally impossible.  Tackling these, and sometimes overcoming them, brings us new strength.  

So how does this relate to Yoga and Focusing?

When we first practise Yoga, some of the postures we see others tackling can seem difficult, or even impossible.  I remember a new student in my class, who said, I’m here to learn Yoga, but you’ll never catch me standing on one leg.  Well, of course one day she did.  With no fanfare, no cajoling, no special encouragement, she found it quite natural to lift one leg off the ground while she balanced with comparative ease on the other.  In just a few weeks more, she was embracing Ardha Chandrasana – the half-moon pose.  And it was a joy to see.  Bravery and patience are both within her.

For each of us, the posture may be different.  Going to a Yoga class (or anything new) requires bravery for some of us – stepping into the unknown with people who may already be familiar with what is to come.  For some of us it is turning up-side-down; for others it is stretching our arms and legs wide and holding them there; for some it is remaining silent, unmoving for five to ten minutes in Savasana (the corpse pose) at the end of the class.  I have known Yoga students with all of these difficulties, and facing them in Yoga, helps all of us to face problems in our everyday lives.

My body is naturally flexible, which makes some of the stronger postures a challenge to me.  Navasana (the boat pose) is always difficult.  And as I practise it, I reflect on where in life I need to be stronger, hold my own, not always be too flexible.  I find Yoga so helpful, in how my body and mind respond to the posture work. 

In Focusing, we can enjoy the ease, clarity and aliveness that come.  Usually we have to be patient, and sometimes brave, to step through what comes first – but not always!

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Truth is an unfolding process that deepens as your wisdom increases

Taken by Carolann Samuels

Taken by Carolann Samuels

This quotation (from Kathy Tyler and Joy Drake) continues: “Live in a way that fosters your enduring and direct encounter with life”.

We each need to find this way for ourselves.  For many people, Yoga leads us on this way.  By our direct encounter with our bodies, how our body responds to the postures we ask it to take up as we practise, and how our mind responds to these requests.

It doesn’t matter to me whether or not you can ‘perform’ a shoulder-stand, or a head-stand, or whether you can sit quietly, with a straight back for five minutes, or any of the other postures in the Yoga book.  I don’t want it to matter to you either.

As we practise, we become more familiar with how our bodies respond, and we can be alert to our own present moment experience.  I believe that this is part of what Tyler and Drake are referring to in their quotation above.  Each time we practise, our bodily response changes – sometimes subtly, sometimes even dramatically.  So what matters more is that we pay attention to these responses, stay with them and maybe we can learn from them.

Focusing is another way of accessing this unfolding, this being with ourselves, our experiences and our emotions.

I hope that you can find a way to find your own unfolding process, and wisdom.