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.


On balance – Part II

In yesterday’s post, I hardly had time to get started.  Talking about the balancing act between prâna and apâna, I likened it to the accumulation and ridding of material things.  I wanted to finish the post by discussing the IN and the OUT of yoga practice.

Most of us arrive at a yoga practice carrying a lot of impressions (samskaras).  When used therapeutically, yoga helps us to unpick the essential from the superfluous.  Let’s use fear as an illustrative example.  A healthy amount of fear, or caution, is necessary.  Otherwise, we might try to fly off mountainsides, or jump into strangers’ cars at 4 in the morning.  But too much fear can stop us talking to interesting strangers at parties, travelling to unknown lands or otherwise enriching our human experience.  So, the continuous practice of yoga, especially challenging postures that elicit a certain amount of fear (say, backbends, breath retentions) allows us to watch our fear response, get to know it intimately and then, ultimately, control it at important moments.

So, yoga can be used to unpick the essential from the superfluous. When there is a dominance of prâna>apâna, there may be a tendency to flightiness, an abundance of ideas without the capacity to distinguish the good ones from the mediocre, and an inability to realise/materialise one’s own ideas.  Somatic manifestations like headaches, twitching eyelids, tooth grinding, jaw tensing, ear ringing, panicky breathing, neck and shoulder tension, pounding heart, tingling fingers and nervous habits like skin picking, smoking and nail biting are all related to prâna>apâna.  (please bear in mind that prâna and Prâna are two different things.  The lowercase version refers to the vayu that dominates the upper body.  Uppercase refers to the universal energy that sustains all Life.)  When prâna is in balance, our thoughts are fast but not fleeting, we have good recall and can crosslink ideas as well as exercise intuition.  When prâna is overactive, we are nervous, irritable and irascible.  When it is underactive, we are forgetful, fretful and worried.

Of course, we need adequate prâna to sustain life.  Likewise, we need adequate apâna, also.  Apâna dominates the digestive organs and pelvic region.  When it is out of balance, all manner of digestive troubles may ensue, as would varicose veins, swollen ankles, heel spoor and other foot disorders, cellulite or peau d’orange as well as general sluggishness or tiredness.  When apâna is strong, we are able to rid ourselves of waste material (urine, faeces) but don’t excrete too much (frequent urination, irritable bowel).  When it is weak, we may have flatulence, constipation, diverticules and pelvic prolapse.

Of course, should anyone out there reading this believe that yoga alone can cure any of the above named disorders, I have to do the responsible thing and state this this post is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose any medical problem.  Go to your doctor, FFS.  But, if they can’t put a name on what ails you, as often happens, ie: you don’t have a diagnosed and named pathology, then maybe some self-care in the form of yoga can prove helpful.

How to balance prâna and apâna?  Coming soon…but Krishnamacharya would probably say apanâsana and dvipâdapitam

Namaste and may you be filled with joy.  JSK.

The Post: published articles

Dear readers,

Please find here the articles I have published in The Post, a fine, free tabloid found on the lovely Costa Blanca.    The first three articles, published in the summer of 2013, describe in detail some important fundamental poses in the Viniyoga system of hatha yoga.    Here, I have simply copied them inline, without the lovely photos (by my friend Pepe Zaragozí) accompanying the originals.

Apanasana:A powerfully simple pose

Hatha yoga is a very good ally in the struggle against lower back pain (LBP). LBP is one of the main reasons people visit the Doctor’s office. Although in some cases surgery might be the only option, for most people a good program of spinal care and yoga would keep them pain-free and mobile. Stretching, freeing, loosening and unbinding muscles, ligaments and tendons, yoga gently eases aches and pains, realigning our bodies and calming our minds.

Apanasana is a basic yoga pose that is very easy to learn and may help reduce LBP. It is a full spinal and gluteal stretch, a contraction of the abdomen and compression of the abdominal cavity.

Most of us know that weak abdominal muscles and protruding bellies contribute significantly to lower back pain. The internal organs push out the weak abs, rocking the pelvis forward. With the pelvis tipped forward this way, the hip flexors shorten and pull on the lower back, making it curve even more and causing pain.

In the subtle anatomy of yoga, there is a dominant downward running energy and a dominant upward rising energy. Apana is the downward facing energy. It runs from the navel down to the tips of the toes. It governs elimination, reproduction and the rooting, terrestrial facets of life. Apanasana derives its names from the energy apana. It is the posture (asana) that actuates directly on the downward energy current (apana). Combining this gentle movement with the precise breathing technique of lengthening and counting the breath changes the direction of the flow of apana, sending it upwards.

When it flows upwards, apana nourishes our nervous system, giving us vitality, vigour and zest for life.

Observe carefully any limitations you might have including herniated disks or difficulty rising from the floor. If this is the case, you may wish to try practising on your bed. Do not undertake any physical activity without consulting a professional first. But also, don’t worry. This is a very safe pose, reclining, head neutral, feet raised.

Use a yoga mat or folded boiled-wool blanket to cushion your back. Lying face-up on the floor, legs bent, feet flat on the floor, parallel and hip-width apart, heels near the buttocks. Extend the neck and lower the chin to make a double-chin. Keep the neck straight throughout.

Breathe in. Breathing out, lift the feet off the floor, bringing the knees to the chest. Place the palms of the hands on the knees. Breathe in. Breathing out, pull the knees gently in towards the chest. Breathing in, move the knees back and away from the chest. Breathe out and rock the knees back in. Breathe in and rock them away. Repeat. Take note: the movement is small. Don’t straighten the legs on the inhale. The elbows flex and extend, but the knees mostly don’t. Repeat this movement for 6-8 breaths, three times per day and you will almost certainly reduce lower back pain (LBP). Practice 6-8 breaths in apanasana three times per day, for one month. If you wish you keep a diary of your experiment, you may find it informative. I welcome any feedback on your practice. Keep it up!

Dvipada-pitam: The two-legged table.

Strength and alignment is the name of the game to avoid lower back pain (LBP). LBP is all too often cause for a doctor’s visit, but can be managed without drugs or surgery.

Abdominal muscle tone is important to spine health. The rectus abdomus “six pack” at the front contains the internal organs, preventing them from pulling us forward into a permanent sagging arch. The obliques and transverse abdominals complete the famous “core muscles” that stabilize the mid-section of the human body.

Dvipada-pitam, with apanâsana, which we examined last month, represents the culmination of the work of modern yoga master Krishnamacharya. Crucially when practising yoga, we mustn’t lose sight of the objective of yoga: to canalize and control the body’s subtle energy, prana. These two poses help concentrate prana in the body’s core, making it available for higher purposes. Whether one ascribes to this point of view is an entirely personal matter. Yoga grants its benefits to all who practice, regardless of their investment in its philosophical underpinnings.

Variants of dvipada-pitam are found most modern body toning systems, but especially in Pilates. They may use props like balls and rings to increase the intensity of the pose, but the outcome is the same.

With proper alignment, this pose engages the abdominal muscles, the muscles of the dorsal and lumbar spine, the hip flexors, the leg adductors and the feet and ankles. It is a very complete pose. There is compression of the throat and extension of the neck, as well as an inversion, as the heart raises above the brain. Thus, be careful if you suffer from glaucoma or dizziness. Please consult a professional before beginning any exercise program.

Lie on your back, arms at your sides, palms down. Bend the knees and place the feet parallel and hip-width apart on the floor. The heels are near the buttocks, but not touching. Don’t pull the feet nearer – allow your natural knee and hip flexion to determine the foot placement. Stretch the neck directing the chin towards the collarbone. Relax the jaw, placing the tongue on the soft palate. Inhale, lift the buttocks, hips and back up off the floor. Exhale, lower slowly, “one vertebrae at a time”, rocking the pelvis and trying to get whole spine on the floor. Repeat six times. Variants include raising the arms behind the head on the inhale, taking breaths in the static pose, lowering the body whilst leaving the arms behind, moving one arm at a time and varying the separation of the feet. Be very aware of the feet – keep the toes on the floor! Also, if you have a very curved neck, use a prop behind the head.

Twisting and turningwhat your car can tell you about your body.

The yoga of daily life is about observing ourselves in our daily actions and deciding if we are fulfilling our true capabilities.

The car, constant in modern life, can tell us many things about our body’s health. We must twist to get into and out of cars. To shoulder-check, we turn the head some 80º. This might be the only time we regularly move our bodies in the “transverse” plane. Our limited daily lives tend to “move” in the forward direction only, progressively limiting our range of motion.

lf you notice that twisting and turning in the car is limited or painful, you will have to make a decision – to live with or without pain. Awareness is the first step – what you choose to do with the information is the interesting part. Do you ignore the pain? Accept it as inevitable? Take a pill? Or, care for your body?

Simple and gentle yoga exercises can help restore range of motion. Note: Breath and movement are always co-ordinated in hatha yoga. If you have any injuries, consult a professional before attempting new exercises.

Dvipada-pitam means “the two-legged table” in Sanskrit. This pose is prominent in the system of yoga I use, Viniyoga. Lying on the back, with the arms by the sides, palms down, bend the knees and place the feet on the floor , hip-width apart. Breathe in and life the hips and lower back off the floor. Breathe out and slowly lower down, rolling the pelvis. Repeat six times.

Jathara parivritti is the sanskrit name for the lying twist. There are variations in the pose which include changing the position of one or both legs, or using props, or varying the breath. Exhale to lower the legs to the floor and inhale to bring them back to centre. Go down and up, alternating left and right, 6 times on either side , breathing each time you move. In the 6th movement, stay in the pose for 6 breaths, before inhaling to come back to centre.

Apanasana completes the set. Breathing out, lift the feet off the floor, knees to chest. Separate the legs to accommodate the belly. Place palms on the knees. Inhale. Exhaling, pull the knees gently in towards the chest. Inhale, push the knees away from the chest. Exhale, and rock the knees back in. The movement is small. The elbows flex and straighten, but the knees mostly don’t. Don’t straighten the legs on the inhale. Maintain the distance between the knees. Repeat 6 times. Perform this simple sequence twice a day for a week, then take to the open roads, twisting and turning!