Cycling and Hatha Yoga – a match made in Mediterranean Heaven!

Cycling is big business on the Costa Blanca, and for some very good reasons.  Altea enjoys 330 days of sunshine per year.  Our roads, though admittedly rather narrow to allow for both peloton and motor vehicle, wind through mountainous landscapes, the glare sliced only by the purplish shadows of Mediterranean pine trees.  The air is incredibly pure, delicious to breathe, and the deep blue of the sea stretches out below, enticing tired bodies as they make their descent, whizzing downhill after a day of pedalling.  A healthier break one could not find.  No surprise, then, that five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Induraín lived for some years in Finestrat, just below the Puig Campana, and no doubt honed his thighs on these same roads.

Cyclists

You can’t miss them.  In the winter months, the roads around here are full of packs of brightly coloured cyclists whizzing around the mountain curves.  They can be a menace, it’s true, but I would rather the roads be full of bikes than lorries!

I rode a bike for years.  It was my main form of transportation until I was 34 years old, and even then I only bought a car when I moved to Spain and had a child.  I consider myself a lover of the pushbike, and an advocate of its use.  I regularly cycled 100+km/week, through winter and summer, up hill and down dale.

However, I will admit that years of cycling left me with unbalanced musculature that I only corrected through the assiduous practice of hatha yoga.

As with most cyclists, my leg and hip muscles were well developed, but unbalanced.  You may know that muscles work in pairs (agonist/antagonist), so any time there is too much tension or strength in one area, there will be another area compensating.  In cyclists, because of the forward flex, the hip flexors and gluteal group seek, but might not always find, balance. Lest we forget, the shoulder girdle is also given particularly rough trade on a bike due to the over-stretching of the rhomboids/latissimus dorsii/lower trapezius and simultaneous compression of the pectoralis major/abdominal/upper trapezius areas.  Let me sum up:  hunched over, head up.  Got me?

Yoga for Cyclists

The judicious use of certain yoga postures alongside controlled and conscious breathing can help to address these muscular and postural imbalances.

Straightening

I recommend the use of danda postures, that is, postures that are mainly symmetrical and whose aim is to straighten the spine.  These are “millimetric” postures.  What I mean is that we work a small range of motion but with great precision.  How do we do this?  Breathing, movement and mental focus.

Symmetry

Cycling is an asymmetrical activity – one leg up, one leg down.  To restore balance, we need to work with the pelvis, legs and feet aligned.  This can involved standing, sitting, or lying postures, but most beneficial is a combination of the three.

Earth Element

Cycling is, furthermore, an activity that is performed with the feet off the ground, and with a lot of wind passing over the body.  This can create energetic imbalance in the Wind or Air element.  The way to counteract this is by using postures that favour the Earth element, which help the cyclist to ground after a ride.  Attention on the feet, the rooting of the heels, the use of mûdra, certain types of pranayâma…these are all yogic techniques that can be applied in a healing context by a qualified and experienced yoga teacher.

Viniyoga for Cyclists

Viniyoga is almost unique in yoga lineages because it equips the teachers to design their own practices.  Unlike, say, Bikram or Astanga or Sivananda, in which the same sequences are done time and time again, Viniyoga sequences are highly personalised, and can be modified over time using the Vinyasa Krama method, or even, equally, on the fly, depending on who turns up to class. Viniyoga is an excellent system of yoga for athletic people, like cyclists on a cycling holiday.

So, if you are thinking about hitting the Costa Blanca with your bike, you could do a lot worse than popping in for a yoga class with me. Check out my schedule current as of 17 March 2018, but check back or subscribe because magic is afoot and I am on the verge of opening my own centre.

Peace, and happy day,

Rachel

 

 

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Yoga makes me feel…old. What’s up with that?

The lady who asked the question I blogged about last week, “Yoga is meant to calm me, so why do I feel so nervous?” asked another great question yesterday.  Gosh, I love students who give honest reflections and ask questions!  Thanks, honey bunch.

After class I noticed that her face wasn’t 100% bliss.  Quite the opposite.  So, unlike a YouTube video would, I sat next to her and asked her what’s up.  She said:

“I couldn’t do some of the simplest poses.  It made me feel old.”

Ouch.  And yes, yoga does that.  You see, if you give someone a workout routine like Crossfit or marathon training, it is very normal that they will find, at first, themselves not able to do it.  But because it is hard, challenging, perhaps unattainable, they are quite happy to just thrust away at it for a long time until they reach the goal.  To not do something hard on the first go is quite normal and acceptable for the ego.

But when we are asked to do something simple like lie on our backs and stretch one side of the body and breathe deeply, and find that there is pain, discomfort, we say “hold on a second…what is happening here?”

What is happening here is that our bodies have aged, have adopted fixed patterns, have held onto thoughts and emotions and stored them in our abdominal muscles, our hips, our necks, and we have become unable to make those muscles do our bidding.  We try to move the ribs with the breath, and we can’t.  Upon finding that we can’t do something so seemingly simple, we reflect on how, once upon a time, we could.  As children, we were all free and loose and easy.  But time, and life, and blows, and ailments, and all that, steals our childhood from us and we become adults, then middle-aged and then, if we are lucky, old.  The body ages but so does the mind.  We swap physical agility for mental wisdom.  Or that is the idea, anyway.  There is concept that I love in yoga that goes like this:

Why do we do âsana?  We do âsana to  keep the body strong and supple and youthful so that we can live a long time.  And why do we want to live a long time?  So that we can gain wisdom.

Doing yoga is like holding a mirror up to our true selves and being forced to look.  Mostly, we won’t like all that we see.  The mirror as a symbol is powerful and appears all over in the popular culture.  In Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Movie Orphée, the mirror is the portal between two worlds, the living and the dead.  And in fact, a very eerie reflection uttered is :

“Les miroirs sont les portes par lesquelles la Mort va et vient. Du reste, regardez-vous toute votre vie dans une glace et vous verrez la Mort travailler commes les abeilles dans une ruche de verre.” (Mirrors are the doors by which Death comes and goes. You have only to look at yourself in the mirror every day and you will see Death at work there, like bees in a glass hive.)

Yes indeed.  When we look at the mirror every day, we look at the face of Death.  Our own death.  This is getting heavy, but the Yoga Sutras are very clear about all this, in the first 5-10 aphorisms of the very first Yoga Sutras book, Patanjali identifies the Kleshas, the mental patterns that cause the vrittis, the mental fluctuations that assail us all.  And right up there in spot number five is fear, abhinidvesa.  Principle fear? Death.

We are all aware of our mortality but none of us wants to admit it, to face it.  When we do, we cringe and shudder.  This is normal.  I love to ruminate on the human being’s awareness of the passage of time.  We are, I believe, the only animal that marks time with such precision.  We are time-obsessed species.  Why?  Because we are all unconsciously counting down the seconds of our lives.  And this is wildly uncomfortable.  Because what this forces us to do is to admit that our time is limited, that we must live fully in the present and create from our meagre and humble little lives the best and brightest creation that we can.  And any abstention from this duty, whether through fear, intransigence, obstinance or fakery, is a negation of our duty to grow and gain wisdom and be the best person we can be.

Uff. All that at 8 in the morning.  I think a lot.  That is why I do yoga.  So, I will leave you with a Joy Division song with footage from Orphée.  Enjoy it, and live this day fully.  And get on your  mats, and breathe deeply and feel the love.  It is there, all the time, and there is enough for everyone.

The qualities of a yoga practice – Santosha and Ahimsa

I had a great group come along for class yesterday afternoon.  We did a practice designed for the legs and the âpana.  We all had a good go at some standing balances, with a transition between two postures. And mostly everyone fell out of the poses at least once.

Teaching a class is a dynamic, fluid thing.  I usually have drop-in groups, and of varying levels of experience.  The skill of a teacher depends on being able to tailor the practice to the group and make it enjoyable and useful for everyone, while never straying from the essence of the teachings.  This is called “pedagogy” and is the art of teaching.

I used the falling out of the poses to teach some yoga philosophy.  I used the Sanskrit words “Ahimsa” and “Santosha” to help people understand how to deal with things like falling out of poses.

Ahimsa means non-violence.  I use this word in the context of not allowing violent self-critiquing thoughts to arise.  It is common to sigh in frustration when we can’t do something, say to ourselves “I always fall” or “I will never get it” or “I am useless”.  We use ahimsa, which is one of the five Yamas of yoga, to practice peaceful, non-harming inner (and outer) dialogue.

Santhosha is one of the five Niyamas and of my favourite Sanskrit words.  It means contentment, enjoyment more or less. Fall out of a pose? hahahah!  Use Santosha to not want what others have, ie:  don’t compare yourself to others, and be content with what you are.

I say:

Some people believe that the Universe is a big game, that it is all a joke.  The archetype of the Trickster God is very common. Hermès, (AKA Mercury, my ruling planet) of the Greeks, was a trickster.  Krishna was a trickster The Raven of the Northwest Coast Indigenous peoples is aso a trickster.  When you start to think of checks and balances in life as jokes, as something to laugh at, it all gets a bit lighter. 

You see, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.  Fail and take it lightly, step wrong, then do a little shuffle and get back on the beat.  Use non-violent inner dialogue to correct yourself, but not castigate.  Use good humour to just take it as a little joke.  Don’t put that strenuous face on in yoga,  have fun.

Taint What you Do, It’s the Way That You Do It, as the old song goes.  Here is a delightful live version of that old song, recorded by Sedajazz just up the road in beautiful Valencia.

 

 

Yoga is meant to calm me…so why do I feel so nervous?

This is a brilliant question that I received this week from a newcomer to class.  This particular lady was recommended yoga by her doctor, so comes as a special case.  Ideally, it must be said, such a person would have private tuition.  But, the mere fact that she has managed to make contact and come to class is practically a miracle.

Before the second class, she asked me this

During class last week, I felt very good.  But afterwards, I went home and felt more nervous than ever.  Isn’t yoga meant to calm me down?

Thus I replied:  Most anxiety arises from repression of emotions.  Anxiety and depression are often mixed, and sometimes confused.  But they are vastly different.  While depression has to do with a lowered level of mental activity, anxiety is a heightened state.  In yoga terms, anxiety is rajas and depression is tamas.  

Anxiety seems to arise when the brain is over-active.  This can be an excess of information, or an excess of emotion.  Most people with anxiety develop coping mechanisms.  The best way to plunge on through life when your brain is screaming red murder is to pretend it isn’t happening.  Here is the delightful Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s explaining it much more clearly than I ever could:

So, this lady suffers from chronic anxiety.  ie:  running to Tiffany’s every time she gets the mean reds.  And Tiffany’s can be a place in your mind, it can be a bottle, it can be distraction, an addiction, whatever.  You’re afraid and you don’t even know what you’re afraid of, the best response is to run, right?

Well, yes, until it isn’t the best response.  Because, just like Holly Golightly, if we could find a real live place that makes us feel like Tiffany’s, then we would buy some furniture and give the cat a name.

You see, dear readers, dear students, dear seekers, yoga brings you home to that real live place. When suddenly you have contact with the Still Point inside of you, simply through breathing, movement and the right teacher, you realise that all your running was in vain.  And you relax a little bit.  But… the minute you relax a little bit and then go back to breathing fast and shallow, fighting with the traffic, being surrounded by people who are NOT on the Path and almost seem to wish to shove YOU off the Path, you have to start running away again.  And you feel even more nervous than before.  

You can think of it as a study of contrasts.  If you are always in the mean reds, then a little deeper tone of red is hardly noticeable.  But if you are suddenly “in the pinks” and you go back to the reds…ouch.

Why does yoga make me feel good in class but nervous afterwards? Because yoga holds a mirror up to your inner state and makes you look at the things you don’t want to see and have probably spent a lifetime avoiding.  For that reason it is very, very, very important to have a trusting relationship with a qualified teacher.

Upon receiving that information from my student, a person I know hardly at all, I modified the pranayama at the end of the class and gave a technique specifically indicated for her, but that would cause no harm to any other members of the class.  And then, the next morning, I texted her, to make sure she was okay.  And she was.  And what’s more, she felt good.

So, people, there are Youtube videos a-plenty, gymnasium yoga fit classes galore, all sorts of bells and whistles.  But yoga is a practice that transcends all of this stuff and has tools to help everybody and the teacher is the one who will show you the path.  Get on your mats, comes to class, breathe deeply, be joyful.  The Spirit is within you, let it move you.

Love,

Rachel

Up in the early morning

Up in the early morning on Saturday, I chanced to spy the alignment of the heavenly bodies. Sun, moon and star traced a straight line in the dawn sky, casting their reflections on the calm surface of the sea.  As the heavens sang their coloured glory and the birds their joyful chorus, I was given a reminder of my own insignificance.  It felt great.

When I see the planets align, feel the Earth turn upon its axis, watch the days break and then later fade away, I realise that I matter little, if at all.  I am a speck upon a speck, hurtling through space and time infinite.  

In childhood, we believe the world revolves around us. Much of our long-lasting angst arises in childhood when we somehow think that we are responsible for everything that happens around us.  Parents divorce, must be because I didn’t put my socks on that morning.  Vacuum cleaner broken, must be because I left that dirty little candy paper on the floor.   Etc etc ad nauseum.

Growth, maturity, is reached, I believe, when we lose our sense of self-importance.  When we realise that we won’t save the world, that our scope is limited, we see that our only duty is to be as good as we possibly can be within the tiny scope of our lives.  This is actually much easier, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not that difficult to decide to walk in the door of your house with a smile on your face despite your soul-destroying day at work, now is it?

We are all specks upon a speck, hurtling through space.  We don’t know what we don’t know.  Life is a huge mystery and probably none of it matters.

Yoga taught me all this.  Yoga taught me to be still, quiet, and find that quiet place within myself.  I often close my classes with a discourse that goes along the lines of “that stillness that you feel inside, right now, was always there.  It’s just that you didn’t know how to reach it.  Yoga gives us the tools to reach that still point, that quiet place, and to do so repeatedly and reliably.  That is what yoga is, a series of ancient and well-tested tools that help us find our true selves, our quiet, calm, detached peaceful centre.”

We are specks upon and speck, hurtling through space.  We probably matter not at all.  And that’s ok.

Happy Monday, dear souls.  Be joyful.

-Rachel

Authenticity in teaching yoga: Why it took me so long to teach.

authentically ok
authentically ok

The first time I ever practised yoga was in January, 1999.  That is 19 years ago.  How time flies.  I knew from the very first class that I wanted to teach yoga, that it was my path.  So, why did it take me so long to start teaching?  One word:  Authenticity.

I had for the longest time the feeling of being an imposter.  Imposter syndrome is the persistent feeling that you are a fraud.  In the five types that are listed there, I would say I am a Natural Genius and a Rugged Individualist.  Oh, with a bit of Perfectionist thrown in, for good measure.  It’s a high bar I have set for myself.

In yoga, the stakes are high.  You are not playing with people.  You are doing serious work.  And lest we forget, you can only teach what you know, so the most serious work you are actually doing is on yourself.

It is not easy to start off with the Yamas and Niyamas, the codes of ethics that underpin all serious yoga practice.  Non-harming, purity, self-study, contention…it is a long list, and very hard to adhere to 100% of the time.  Add that to six-days-a-week practice, and an evolving practice at that, not stagnating, bringing new things to the mat.  Phew.

It is easy to fall into the idea that you are never good enough to teach yoga.  Or rather, for me it is.  Evidently, for others it is not so difficult.  There are plenty of people out there who, a year after discovering yogâsana are on a 200-hr course and then teaching a few months later.  This is not a criticism of such people, it is a reflection on my inner process, my evolution.

I could not allow myself to do such a thing.  Maybe it is simple enough to say that my baggage was too heavy, my inner world too murky, my compass skewed.  Who was I to teach anyone how to live happily?

And yet, slowly, progressively, I oriented myself, I shed my baggage, I shone my light.  The interesting thing was discovering that we don’t have to be 100% perfect and clean.  But, we need to love our own flaws, our own pain.  When you learn to love your pain, you become whole and when you are whole you can hold space for your students to learn to love themselves, in their entirety.  When I got that,  I started to teach in earnest.  Now, it is my passion, my absolute passion!

A lot of marketing in the holistic world centres on authenticity.  How can we tell the real from the false.  I dunno, I don’t have a simple answer.  I think it’s intuition, I think it’s a feeling.  All I can say is that I think I am authentically ok now, I think I am.  I hope I am cos goddarn I am not going back to that place where I was before!   So, if you feel like checking out my classes, meeting me to ask about how I teach, having a conversation, you’re already here on the blog.  Take the next step and get in touch.

Love, Rachel

Teaching yoga from the heart

Every day I wake up thinking about yoga.  It has been like this for as long as I can remember.  It is my deepest passion, my guiding light, the shining star in my sky.  1313146901-300px

Yoga teachers are bound to one fundamental rule:  you can only teach what you know.  And knowing yoga is about doing yoga.  You cannot teach postures that you cannot do yourself.  You cannot create the discipline necessary to establish a home practice, even if that home practice is as humble as getting on your mat once a week, unless you yourself have a home practice.  And you cannot impart the power of yoga to ease suffering and pain if you do not use yoga yourself to ease  your own suffering.

An example:  I got really sick over Christmas.  And I was alone.  After days of coughing, breathlessness, helplessness, I found myself in a state of terrible anxiety.  I am going to die, I thought.  We are all going to die, I thought.  Death, sadly, has a 100% success rate.  it is the most elemental, primordial fear that we humans have, and it is a rational fear.  Because it is scary to think that our days are numbered, that all that we know will pass, that all the people we love will walk off this mortal coil one day and the worst thing is, we know not when.

womanchildstar-300pxI have a particularly intense relationship with all this because of the cancer rehab work I did.  I watched people I loved, my patients, die year after year.  I avoided the funerals because I had to maintain some sort of professional distance.  In the last year I worked in breast cancer rehab, I had four women lie on my table weeping, and all of them were younger than me.  How can you process that?  How can you deal with the fact that illness is real, that all the yoga and chanting in the world will not heal a tumour, and that even the doctors are helpless in the face of this.  How?  how do you deal with that?

Well, first you freak out, if you’re me.  Yep, it lay on me like a shroud and I carried that mantle for years. I tried, I tried my very best.  But then it got too much and I ran.  I rejected the world of oncology, I didn’t want to know.  And then I got real.  I realised that I possessed the skills to ease this particular suffering, this terrible elemental pain that we all share.  I have yoga.  My mission in life is to teach the yoga I know to ease the suffering of our human condition.  There, mission statement. I don’t know if I ever had one before!

Yoga will not change the fact that we are mortal.  Yoga will not make you live forever.  But yoga can make you still in the face of all that fear, all that sadness, all that fragility.  Yoga can teach you to sit still and say “Yes, okay, it is like this.”  And dear, dear people, that stillness is so necessary to this world.  One day you will be called upon to be still in the face of a storm and if you know how to breathe, to chant a little prayer, to ask the Universe for guidance when you yourself don’t know what to say, when words fail you, when your heart wants to burst, you lie in the hands of your maker, this incomprehensible, beautiful, contradictory, frustrating world that we live in and you say “I don’t know, please help me”, then you have the power of yoga.

And if all this is getting heavy, but you’ve stuck with me until now, thanks for listening.  And let me tell you this – yoga is about joy.  Yoga is about the joy you find when you understand and accept the reality that is ours, and you say – HEY !  But I am ALIVE!  And I have love inside me!  I have so much love to give and there is always somewhere to put my love!  And then you smile, and you laugh and you are present and available and, and, and….you feel HAPPY!  So dear readers, this is what I did when I was sick.  I sat and I chanted and breathed until I remembered that this life is the one I have, and it is marvellous, beautiful, miraculous, just as your life is marvellous, beautiful and miraculous.  

Now get out there and have a great Friday!  Live, love, laugh.  I will be teaching in less than an hour, and I will probably hug all my students afterwards.  Cos I am like that.