Thursday, 5 March 2015

How to get to sleep? How to get back to sleep? Can yoga help?

There are so many tips; some I've heard are: 

'Going through the alphabet. One thing for each letter' - Susan Wilkie reminded us of this classic - you can use any categories - food, books, friends...

Lynne Knight's system for dealing with those pesky circling worries that can keep you awake at night: 'I say to myself: "I am breathing in. I am breathing out". If that doesn't do it, I use white light, which is positive energy, positive thoughts. The light floods into the negative thoughts and drowns them, until I have a vision of pure white. Like white paint concealing bad images on a canvas [Lynne is an artist] or the light zaps them, like a phaser in 'Star Trek' destroying evil!

A quick list of other ideas:

avoid caffeine and citrus fruit after 6pm; 
have a hot bath; 
make the bedroom cool and open a window; 
sex, either by yourself or in company;
turn off all screens at least an hour before you go to bed; 
have a milky drink; 
do a shoulderstand or two.

These days I'm quite often able to be happy, awake in the middle of the night. This is partly a function of my life stage - no children who are waking me up, plenty of time to organise my days as it suits, including an afternoon nap if I need it. 

Of the yoga ideas I've tried, I like the rotation of awareness best, and this is what I use now. When we talked this term about what's useful these two breath practices came out on top. They are basically meditation practices but can also be used to help sleep.

1 – The Square Breath
You imagine drawing a square on the air in front of you. Vary it to suit you. It can be symmetrical or skew-whiff,  more of a rectangle or a line, colourful, vague, solid.
My friend Sarah draws an ornate gold frame around a bright pink square. Fiona's involves skirting board (on all sides of the square, though skirting board is usually found at the base of a wall) and a mouse (an animal, not a computer device). Mine is more like a cursor, very dull. You draw the square with your breath. Breathe in and draw the left side from the base to the top. Pause and draw across the top. Breathe out and draw down the right side. Pause and join it up again. Try to keep each side even, but don't worry if it goes crooked. Keep going till you fall asleep. Can also be useful to stay awake in meetings when your attention is not needed.

2 - The Spiral Breath
One breath for every joint on the fingers. I begin by resting the pad of my thumb against the base joint (where the finger joins the palm) of the little finger. One full breath - in and out. Then move the thumb to the middle joint of the little finger. One full breath. Then the top joint of the little finger, top joint of the ring finger, top joint of the middle finger, top joint of the index finger, middle joint of the index finger, base joint of the index finger, base joint of the middle finger, base joint of the ring finger, middle joint of the ring finger, middle joint of the middle finger. 

I call this shape a square spiral, like the Greek spiral I used to doodle. Carol Barker taught me it's called a Greek Key, and I see it's also called a Meander. Fabulous. 

You meander round your hand, one natural relaxed breath for each joint. You can make other patterns if this one doesn't suit you. Originally I had to stare at my hand, but most people can do it straight away with their eyes closed. It's easy to find the joints, especially if your hand's relaxed. You can do one hand, both hands together, or alternate. I've done it so often now that to get to sleep I just picture the spiral. The advantage of moving the thumb is that when your attention drifts your hand will usually maintain the shape so that you can begin again immediately. 

Keep going till you fall asleep, or use in stressful situations during waking hours. I use it in the dentist's chair. 

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Hands, fingers, wrists - keep them moving, keep them healthy

My fingers have a tendency to stiffen (I am 54 after all, and it is deepest dankest February in beautiful drippy defrosting English Cambridge). So I stretch and curl them, I turn and pull them, I flick them. Perhaps there's not really much more to say than that? Just keep them moving - bend, lengthen, massage, MOVE them. If you have some arthritis in some joints for example, you might want to be more gentle around those joints, but for goodness' sake don't neglect them. 

My favourite finger thing is the turning and pulling. You get hold of a finger or thumb, probably with the thumb & index finger, at the root & as far down into the palm as possible. Then gently, firmly, strongly (whichever suits) turn and pull along it. Be aware of each joint and bone. If you hold the hands up at elbow height you also work through a delightful straight line at the wrist. You can hold one hand still or move both. 

This next exercise is one of my favourite ever. I first found it on, here is the description from there: 

Place the right palm at the wall, spreading your fingers equally. Extend your elbow and press the palm fully into the wall. Wait a few breaths and then turn your head to the left, bringing the tip of the right shoulder blade in towards the front of your body. Hold and breathe.

What I like about this is that it looks like absolutely nothing, but is actually very powerful - wonderful Sarah Tuley, one of my first students from way back, could cope with absolutely anything but this. Notice where you experience this - it may well be in your fingers or wrists, but you never know. Favourite ever was the student who felt it in her opposite hip. Monica Voss works on finding all the possible variations - hand at every height, fingers pointing in every direction. You can put your hand up high, fingers pointing forward, and duck under and back, as if country dancing with yourself. Do the same movement on one side and then on the other, compare. Usually big differences from side to side.

Another one of my favourite ever exercises (what can I say - these are all my favourites!) is where you crouch or kneel, plant your hand firmly on the floor with the fingers pointing towards you and walk or crawl right round. It's quite like the one above in what it does, but even more fun.  

Wrists elbows and shoulders are affected by the same exercises, so you get effortless multi-tasking. 

Here's another one from which I haven't done or taught for ages, but it's lovely.

Bring your palms together in front of your chest in a prayer position stretching all the fingers fully. Relax your shoulders. Slowly stretch the heel of your palms down until they are the level of your wrists. If you can do this stretch without discomfort you can increase the stretch by moving the hands over to the right and holding for a few breaths. Repeat to the left. Stretch slowly and carefully, observing the sensations of your forearm and wrist.

Even more than with foot and toe exercises, these can be done anytime, anywhere. Well, to be honest, not the crawling round your hand one. That does draw attention. The leaning on the wall one is just perfect for a nonchalant look. No-one will notice you're doing yoga, though you may have to invent a reason for changing hands and leaning in the opposite direction. I haven't included strength exercises here, as I am thinking more about mobilisation and circulation.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Life's so much better with Cat, Dog and Child

These three things and all their heavenly variations have been the saving of many a sitting-exhausted back, and were the first things I remembered and did outside my class 21 years ago when I started yoga.

Cat (in American it's Cat / Cow). You start on all fours with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders. You move your spine in and out of dips and arches. You breathe while you're moving. You try to move every vertebra relative to the next one. You're making space and ease. Once you've finished dipping and arching you can try any other movement that comes to mind (and body) - one idea is Bear - like Baloo in the Jungle Book rubbing every piece of his back against a tree or stone, try to get movement into every piece of your back. You are going for the crazy fluidity you see in cats moving.

Keep breathing while you're doing these. It may seem obvious, but just notice, you may well block your breath from time to time. Notice if that happens and try the same thing again, but breathing.
Flat Cat


Then Dog - ('Downward Facing Dog) though there is an Upward Facing one too, and dogs do them both. We do Upward from time to time in my class but Downward every time because (rather unyogically) I adore a multi-tasker. Don't be surprised if it's not your favourite thing - there are other ways of getting each of its benefits. Oh my goodness, the benefits. Don't google the benefits of Downward Facing Dog. There are crazy claims out there. Listen, this is yoga, not magic. Also, there are so many tiny detailed instructions. If you learn Down Dog with one type of yoga teacher and she thinks it's perfect when you go to another you may suddenly leap to the bottom of the class. Don't worry about it, you can be sure the dog isn't worrying. It's a releasing stretch. Legs can be bent or straight, or one bent and one straight. Elbows can be locked out or soft. Your head could be dropping towards the floor or staying in line between your arms. You can make waves along your spine. You can make circles with your hips. The basic idea is best learned from a dog. It's a wake-up, get-up, get-moving stretch along the whole of the back of the body.

A proper dog will often counterpose immediately with Upward Facing Dog, I suggest dropping down into Child instead. This blog post - Body Positive Yoga - ideas for modifying Dog pose - is perfect if you have any problems with Dog pose, and the same blog has modifications for Child.

And, surprise! There are lots of ways to do this too! Knees together or knees apart and big toes pointing to each other (if you have knees and feet both wide you are becoming a Frog, and that's another matter altogether, delightful for some, challenging for many). Hands, well, hands can be in so many different places, I learned recently that's it's called Child because lots of children sleep like this. Who knew?

I wrote this post for Rebecca, who changed my life when she was a baby (Other People's Babies) and now has a baby of her own - and the tired back that so often goes with motherhood.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Self Employment - how I organise my time

NB - Problems of Privilege Warning 
Jon's view of Sally's days - fair enoughski, to be honest

I've been telling myself off a lot so far this year, and telling everyone else to remember to be kind to themselves. I teach eight yoga classes a week and I post on this blog once a fortnight - there is a lot of un-spoken-for time, which can be a problem as well as a joy and a gift. Sometimes I actually forget what I could do with it and wander round the house going 'what shall I do?' even though I know I've got absolutely tons I want to do. Finish 3 books. Do yoga. Walk. Meditate. See friends. Of course often I end up pottering - a little bit of tidying, a lot of facebook...

I like lists and plans and reminders.

I love mornings and am at my best then, so I do the more difficult things and the washing then. Washing so it will be dry and put away able by night and so that it's hanging around the house brightening things up. I put 'Admin' on the list for the afternoon because the kind of filing and account-keeping I have to do is very simple and it's a waste of alertness to do it in the mornings, though I often do. I'm taking a brilliant online anatomy for yoga teachers course, and there are a lot of video lectures, so that's a good afternoon activity.

Sadly the rowing does not involve rivers, and fortunately not shouting. It's a cheap static machine I keep in Rose's room and move back to ours when she comes home.

If you have free time do you ever find yourself forgetting what you could do with it? And do you have any suggestions that could help the forgetful to remember what to do with their spare time? I've just started working on a rather more detailed timetable...

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Beginning Things - Yoga Poses to Start Your Day, or Change Your Life

The Beginning Things are the most important - you might not get round to the Middle Things. In fact a good little yoga practice would be to skip right from the Beginning Things to the End Things. The End Things are Sitting-and-Breathing and Lying Down.

My Beginning Things are these:

1a - Lying Down (Supine)
1 - Lie down.
1a - If your legs are straight you might be able to relax them more but your waist may be more arched, your abdomen less soft.

1b - Lying Down (Semi-Supine)
1b - If your knees are bent and the feet are flat on the floor, the back of your waist may be more comfortable. Monica Voss once told us that Europeans in a yoga class lie down with their knees bent and North Americans with their legs straight. Settle. Notice things - your breath, body, thoughts...

2 - Cuddle Knees
2 - After a while, breathe out and cuddle your knees in, noticing if the back of your waist rounds out towards the floor. Move, investigate, enjoy.

3 - Cuddle One Knee
3 - When you get bored with that, keep hold of one knee and relax the other leg away along the floor. This is my MOST IMPORTANT YOGA THING; you may find it doesn't do much for you. You’re closing and compressing one set of joints – hip and knee on one side – and opening another set. But better still, it’s great for the lower back, as you ease the pelvis up on the side where you’re holding the knee and tilt it away more on the side the leg is stretched out. If the floor leg can't be heavy, the foot can be on the floor with the knee bent instead of relaxing away.

4a - Leg Stretch
4a - The next thing is to bring both feet to the floor, knees bent. Put one foot into a belt or strap and relax the foot up towards the ceiling.

4b - Leg Stretch
4b - If this is easy for you, stretch the floor leg away. You will usually feel a pull along the back of the raised leg – this is most likely to be behind the knee, but could be in the thigh, calf, ankle, back or a bit of everything. You can move the feeling around by bending or straightening the leg, angling the foot or leg differently, curling your toes towards you… There are so many ways to vary every single thing, just enjoy them.

5 - Floor Twist
5 - Then a Floor Twist – arms out at shoulder height, bend your knees and let them both drop to one side. Most often it’s nice to turn the head in the opposite direction to the knees, but you can also try looking up or to the same side as the knees and notice what this does. The knees can be tucked up nearer or sent away further, and you can land the knees on a cushion or book if the pull is too much. Find something that feels useful, interesting and perhaps fun or even life-changing. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ wrote that floor twists can change your destiny

6 - Bridge
5 - The last of my little group of beginning things is Bridge. I usually call this Setu Banda, but was once in a class which ground to a total halt while the teacher hectored us about our stupidity in not calling it Dwi Pada Pitham, when none of us had opened our mouths to call it anything. Yoga teachers. Totally mad. You lie with both knees bent and both feet flat on the floor, a few inches apart, keep breathing and roll the spine up and down. Start with the hands down by your sides, but vary the arm movements after a while – you can lift them with the hips, have them out to the sides, tuck the hands next to your ears with the elbows lifted as if you were going to do a full Wheel. But I mean just lifting the hips, Wheel (or 'crab') really is not a Beginning Thing.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

A Different Light

It's a new year. It's a new day. My one year project Taking Photos into the Sun is over, and I am fishing around for another. Something to help me not get frowsted up and accidentally stuck in the house as I tend to in winter months. The facebook album of the photos is 'public', which I think means it will work even if we are not facebook friends and you'd like to look at lots of low resolution photos of sun and nearly sun.The project helped me with several things:

1 - most important, getting out of the house:
I spent more time than ever in my beloved Nightingale Rec

2 - I appreciated some of my favourite things even more 
 like the magnificent views from Cambridge car parks (somewhere in this photo is the window of the room where Jeremy and I met).

3 - I have got better at posting things
 and I have what I regard as definitive photographic proof. I actually had just posted something.

4 - In February I realised it isn't always about sun after all. 
This is the sun not shining while I was with my parents in Pembrokeshire. Of course it was a great day just the same.

5 - And a sunrise after 
a night in a desert. I just said that casually.

I've put the two paintings of a window in light and dark which Jon gave me for Christmas on the wall next to my computer to remind me to get up and get out of the house. There won't always be sunshine to get outside for, but there's nothing wrong with that.

Monday, 22 December 2014

My Class.

'I'm going to my class in London tomorrow.... Yes, all the way from Cambridge.... um, in the rush hour.....  not to teach; to be in the class.'

I went three times in December and the beautiful bodies floated down from the floor which had turned into a ceiling as I stood in my headstand.

Week after week and year after year I've watched them leap or unfold up and down, one long leg at a time or elegantly tucking then unfolding both knees. The room is huge and most of them do their headstands in the centre, not hugging the wall like me.

The floor is wood block, the walls are off-white and they are dressed in faded black and grey and darkish denim blues. Workmanlike. No crazy expensive yoga clothes. No crazy dangerous yoga moves. Just a lot of thought and connection and history.

We've known our teacher Catherine James for a long time, and each other too. I don't go every week and, as very often in a yoga class, I don't even know the surnames of these familiar, inspiring people.

Caroline, Celia, Chris (the rule in the yoga classes I go to - and teach - is there is always one man) Emma, Francesca, Lucy, Jan, Jeannie, Maria, Nadia, Sally, Zaza and all the others over the years, thank you.

I love and have learned so much from my books, my dvds, my students, my colleagues, all my teachers. I love my home practice. But there's nothing like My Class for feeling at home in my yoga.