Thursday, 27 November 2014

Low Back Pain? Try this simple routine...

A - Start with a few Cats (Cat-Cow in American yoga speak). From all fours, hands under shoulders and knees under hips, dip and then arch the whole spine, from the tailbone to the crown of the head. Breathe while you move and notice which way your breath tends to go - are you breathing in while you lift your head or while you curl it? Try it the other way round.

Next, you need to know how to measure 7 seconds. You might say 'One elephant, two elephant...' or 'ONE and-a TWO and-a THREE' or 'One Mississippi...' Most people I teach are at 7 seconds by the time they have four or five elephants. Try it out with an Online timer

B - Then lie down on your back, right leg bent and left leg straight. Tuck your right hand under the curve of your waist, palm down. Be aware of the shape of your spine as it is now. Put your other hand under your neck and skull. (The stick man's neck never bothers him when lifting his head, so he has put both hands under his back.) Keep breathing naturally through all the exercises - you don't have to match breath with movement. 

Raise your head so your face stays flat to the ceiling - your point of view doesn't change at all. You just lift a tiny bit - only your head and upper shoulders come up. There's a nice detailed description here. Keep breathing naturally.

You come up just for 7 seconds at a time; release completely each time you come down. Do 4 like this, then change the arms and legs round.

C - The next one is Side Elbow Plank.. You can mix and match difficulty range to find something that suits you. You could do 2 with the bottom knee down and the arm to the ceiling then two with the feet stacked and the upper arm swept forward for example. Make the same pattern on each side though, and do four on each side, coming up for 7 seconds each.

Easiest version for legs and arm- bottom knee down, arm swept overhead

Top foot in front of the other makes balance relatively easy

Feet stacked and top arm resting is the most challenging

D - You don't have to have a pilates ball balanced on your back, but it helps to feel the stability you're looking for. As before, keep breathing throughout the exercise, come up for 7 seconds, relax when you bring the knee and arm back down, do 4 of one diagonal before you change to the opposite diagonal. Some people naturally raise the same arm and leg. It's much more difficult to keep the ball balanced, and this isn't the exercise we're doing here.

Spine what you might call 'flat' or 'neutral' - not dipped or arched

Once the basic version of this is easy for you, you can work on moving the arm and leg at precisely the same movement and at extending further, but not lifting into an arch - keep the arm and hand on a level.

When you're happy doing 4 on one side and 4 on the other of exercises B, C and D you can add a few more till you do a maximum of 4 and 4, then 2 and 2, then 1 and 1. It's all the 7s - always doing 7 seconds and a maximum of 7 on each side.

Don't do them on tired muscles. Judge when you're pushing it and do them regularly till they're easy. This is not a feel-the-burn thing. This is a happy back thing. The whole thing will take between 10 and 15 minutes, depending how long you rest in between each one.

This little routine was inspired by the work of Stuart McGill and his team. Their work is infinitely more detailed than this little blog post and fascinating. Google around, there's tons out there - here's one place to start: Stuart McGill back exercise pdf.

I was taught this years ago by an excellent Cambridge osteopath, Mojo Rathbone. I'd gone in with a recurrent low back pain issue, at that stage in an acute phase. There used to be a link to the exercises from my yoga class website Nightingale Yoga on a page of Men's Health, but it's gone now, with the magazine concentrating solely on muscle building for appearance it seems. So I promised my students I'd replicate the instructions here - many of them have found this extremely useful - I hope you might too. Please let me know how you get on. 

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Meeting Jenny

Yoga teachers talking

I think I've mentioned Jon's book Yoga for Travellers. Jon illustrated it and it was written by Jennifer J. Ellinghaus. Her real name is Jenny, but her author name is Jennifer J. Jon and Jenny and I met in London on Wednesday. 

Jon had not met her before because while they were working on the book she was travelling and doing yoga.

We talked a lot about yoga and about balance. I write and teach and look for balance in my yoga practice and my everyday every day. But balance can be over a longer period of time - a lifetime even, as Jenny describes in her book. She travels, then she settles for a while and works. We have so many different ways to find and lose and re-find our equilibrium, and our balance, and it's important to let it go from time to time. Everything changes. Embrace the imbalances.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Am I Kayaking?

I might have a new hobby, but I'm not sure. Can it be a hobby if I have only done it three times? Too early? And has it really happened if there are no photos? No photos on Facebook, no photos on Twitter. No photos on Instagram (well, I'm not on Instagram). No-one can 'like' it, or retweet it. Not even my friends or family can gather round my phone to agree how peaceful the river looks or how weird I look in the life jacket thing.

But I know how to turn this situation around. I can write about it on my blog and then Jon will draw me in a kayak on the Cam. Once it's been illustrated on the internet it must be happening.

I've posted a bit less recently, but I'm still there almost every day, liking and commenting and clicking on links. And putting up photos-into-the-sun and photos-my-camera-takes-by-itself and photos of my family. But no photos of kayaking, because I am fond of my phone and I have got utterly soaked each time I've kayaked.

In fact, so far when I go kayaking I leave home with just the clothes I stand up in and come home in the same clothes, but extremely wet (don't worry, I haven't fallen in), I just get very wet when kayaking. No bag, no phone, no make-up. It's weird and wonderful for me. I usually take my phone even over the road to the park. I might 'need' to take a photo. Someone might 'need' to phone me. Perhaps it's an early feature of hobbies that they are light and then they gather momentum, responsibility and 'stuff'. When I started doing yoga I only had one pair of weird baggy trousers I could wear to class and did my practice at home in a skirt, without a mat or strap or block or blanket or book or video. When Jeremy began singing in a choir he just turned up. Now he's secretary and gets magazines and emails and piles of fleeces to distribute. If the kayaking sticks no doubt we'll soon have a shed-full of kayaking stuff.

Maybe that's why new hobbies are good - the starting over, the simplicity? 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Being Judgmental

Yoga people are supposed to be - well, nice. As well as being bendy, obviously. I think these are the top two qualifications for being a yoga person.

When I tell anyone about some of the scandals, feuds and machinations of the yoga world, the first response is 'that's not very yogic, is it?'. I believe Christians have the same problem, but at least no-one expects them to be bendy.

Yoga teachers bend over backwards to be non-judgemental, and are often to be found on social media accusing each other of being judgemental. The trouble is, once you find yourself accusing someone else of being judgemental, you have automatically entered the judging arena yourself.

It's a minefield. Well, not a minefield exactly, but it isn't easy.

And of course, being judgemental is fantastic fun, so it's really hard to give it up. I went to London today, and spent many minutes of my journey being nothing but judgemental about the shoes people choose to wear. Well, actually just the women. I'm not even always happy when they're wearing flat shoes (a particular hobby horse of mine); if they have crammed their toes into tiny pumps I'm cross with them about that too. (If you are also crazy about flat shoes you should follow the en brogue blog.)

I'm also very often cross with (judgemental about) some of my neighbours. They are constantly complaining about unimportant things. A friend today explained to me that they are probably trying to bond by finding mutual areas of complaint, and I'm messing things up by refusing to join in. Perhaps they can complain about me when I'm not there, and bond that way instead (paranoia alert).

And even worse, I'm judgemental about the way people run. I say to myself that I'm worried they'll get injured. I've just taken up kayaking (well, I've tried it twice on the River Cam). My style is appalling and may well lead to injury. Am I going to give up? I hope not. Am I going to take any advice on improving? Ask Jeremy - he is a judgemental kayaker but can go in a straight line.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Silent Retreat 2014

With Sarah and Ty Powers in the Moulin de Chaves, Cubjac, France - extracts from Jeremy's Journal


4 men among the 50 women this year- a 100% increase in the male contingent. We are concentrating on the Five Hindrances: Craving-Aversion-Restlessness-Lethargy-Doubt. Plenty to work with there. 

Told to leave distractions behind, no phones, no laptops, no reading... and no journals unless written in Zen note style. Need to check what that is exactly.

Sally swims in river with me rowing beside in small boat. Bliss. During evening meditation a dog appears. Stress about how we are going to cope with a DOG all week before it’s whisked away with apologies- 'it’s not our dog!'. Into The Silence and off to bed.

In the afternoon yoga session someone yells as something gives. Sarah attends. I think he’s OK. I break the distraction rule and go mad with a quick painting.

Say ‘hello darling’ when I wake up. Oops. In the morning session, we build a fortress with people who support us, standing around us- like final scene in 'Return of the Jedi' when the dead Jedi wave goodbye to Leia and Luke.
Mindful walking in a “normal" way. Apparently we can do this in everyday situations like restaurants- I look around and think walk like this in a restaurant and you’d get thrown out. 

In afternoon session meditate on something we can't do, then bring in an expert. Find myself with an old friend hovering over me playing the guitar. Disturbing. Fortunately lose consciousness. 

Ty tells a good shaggy dog poo story (cleaning up, aversion becomes craving). Asks us to take a risk, not with dog poo but something much more profound- what does he mean? Hand in my notice on Monday morning to become a yoga teacher? Will ask. Then we imagine we are golden globes that grow and become one big globe. Brilliant. Later, we see our first ever moon rise! Like a powerful orange searchlight on horizon. We watch for half an hour as it climbs. 

On way to bed we see someone with THREE distraction devices- iPhone laptop and kindle! Feel less guilty about journal which is becoming rapidly less Zen.

Sneezing in the Dharma Hall. The cold is spreading around the room… are viruses beings I wonder? Croissants- yay! In second meditation concoct different versions of Five Hindrances e.g. addict-ascetic-dilettante-philistine-sceptic or gourmand-anorexic-glutton-fastfoodeater-restaurant critic

Some have taken to mindful eating- painful to watch. Eat the freaking nut roast already! After-lunch entertainment: watching someone try to get into a hammock while holding mug of hot tea. How we laugh! With loving kindness of course.

Sarah in angry mode. We are arriving late, writing messages, whispering in dorms after lights out, not doing our prep etc. Wimp out of ‘Pigeon’ pose (with my external hip rotation?) but Sarah will have none of my limp ‘Eye of the Needle’. 'Is it useful?' she asks. Meaning ‘is it painful?’ ‘Not really’ I whisper dolefully and she jacks up my knee until my hips bleed. ‘Thanks..that's much better’ I whisper hoarsely. 

Attempt pastel of nearby fields.

Later sit by weir and learn important astronomy lesson. The moon rises about 30 minutes later each night. Who knew?!

Say ‘oh no it can't be’ when Sally brings tea. Pre-breakfast meditation- obsess about pastel drawing. Just what Sarah warned yet act of drawing does make me feel in the moment. Wonder what to talk to Ty about at consultation / ‘confession’. Still tinkering with pastel and nearly miss croissants! A Close-Run Thing. After-breakfast meditation- as suggested I count un-deux-trois, eins-zwei-drei like crazy. According to Sarah Zen Buddhists say ‘Practice like your hair is on fire!’

Cold in yurt but beautiful backdrop. 

24 minutes meditation difficult- hip hurting. All four guys now in a row in the yurt. How did this happen?  Later one tells me 'we are a pool of testosterone in an ocean of oestrogen'.   

Confession with Ty- discuss the weather then get down to Serious Things. Such a great guy. Went swimming- electron supply now overflowing. Walked into Cubjac- Sally blurted ‘Supermarket?’ What is she craving I wonder? Evening meditation pretty tough. Imagine a special person/place. I think of our engagement at Stourhead. But then Ty's golden globes butt in and vision vanishes.

Morning sit easier, hips not hurting as much, mind didn’t race. Might be getting hang of it after all. Last-but-one session in the yurt- another fantastic discourse from Sarah- more than pearls of wisdom these are diamonds brought up from deep underground, clear, sparkling and multifaceted. But how to remember it all? What did she say about pride, envy? A surplus of what? A deficiency of what? Should be taking notes. 

Later, looking at river makes me think of something Sarah said. Who am I that can be aware of different things simply by focusing attention? I look at the surface and see leaves floating, then the reflection of trees behind, then into water with fish swimming, then the mud at the bottom. Cool.

Lying down meditation- think about what we found challenging- tried to focus as knew this would be subject for final dyad. Nod off anyway. Exit The Silence - nice friendly face to dyad with luckily. I talk about humour/cynicism- trying to find the funny side and missing important stuff. 'So many gems of wisdom this week- except the stuff about electrons' I say as Sarah walks by. Stifle laugh. ‘There,’ partner exclaims, ‘you're doing it again’... We chat on oblivious to Sarah's instructions about silence in the yurt and get shushed, quite rightly, by Sally.

Dinner and lots of talking. One guy who fought police and took drugs in the 80s before discovering Yoga and a lady who has an extra vertebra- no wonder she can fold in Butterfly pose like a door hinge. Another lady lost an inch from her spine because of parasites in India. That's what white water rafting in the Ganges can do for you. Yin and Yang eh?

Off to Dharma Hall for last session with Sarah and Ty. Lots of thanking and namastaying and then they were off. 

Will we go next year? I’m craving it already.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Michelle and the Thought Baskets

Michelle and the Thought Baskets

Years ago I was rabbiting away about how chatty my mind gets when I sit to meditate, planning to pay attention to my breath. Noisy. Annoying. I had recently found out that this happens to most other people too.

"You start chasing your thoughts around. Your thoughts start chasing you around. If you can put the thoughts into categories you realise it's the same stuff all the time, and then sometimes they give up chasing you around. My thoughts are always about Family, Work or Friends. I was a bit disappointed that my range was so limited. But now I can say to myself 'Oh, look, you're worrying about Rose again' (or Jon or Chris or Jeremy or my mother or my father or my brother) 'it's family again'. And it makes me laugh how my thoughts kept repeating - I didn't know that before. It had seemed like it was new and urgent each time. It helps me a lot", I said.

And then Michelle told us that she used a basket system to put the thoughts into, so they kind of disappear into the basket. You can just chuck the thought into its basket and get back to paying attention to your breath. It's not a failure when you get distracted, it's human, it's finding out about yourself. It is a bit of a triumph when you notice though, and when you successfully get that thought into that basket and begin again. The breath. This breath. This moment.

Your baskets can be labelled any old how. They could be different on different days, and they may change over the years. You just keep finding a system that works for you.
One for past and one for future.
One for planning and one for day-dreaming and one for worrying.
You could just have one basket and call it 'thinking'.

These days mine are often one for writing and one for teaching. I wrote this whole blog in my head when I thought I was paying attention to my breath. Oh, and I often need a basket for complaining that my knee hurts.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Yoga for Travellers

Jeremy and I have been for another week at the wonderful Moulin de Chaves. It was a yoga, meditation, silence and cheese* retreat. I usually do some yoga when I travel, even when I'm not going to classes, but not with quite the dedication of the author of Yoga for Travellers, Jennifer Ellinghaus.

She has suggestions for everything, and this is Jon's illustration of the packing moment - Jennifer suggests that though you might choose to take a yoga mat, you can leave your other yoga props behind and improvise using socks, scarves, flipflops and a copy of Yoga for Travellers ...

This photo is the first evidence of my doing yoga on holiday - we were on a boat with the children and my parents so I used the quay. I'd been doing yoga for around 5 years and couldn't go without it for a fortnight, so used quite a lot of my luggage allowance on the heavy mat. I decided not to worry about any passing sailors wondering what I was up to. I can remember precisely how great this stretch felt, and how amazing it was to be doing yoga ON HOLIDAY. Even better than at home, somehow. Magic.

If there is enough space, it's also perfectly possible to do the yoga on the boat, as Lynne demonstrates here.

In the book Jennifer suggests sequences for different shaped spaces, different moods (including hungover - is that a mood?), different climates... It's packed with advice and ideas and Jon's gorgeous watercolours as well as the fantastic stick men that he designed to illustrate the practice ideas. A beautiful object, it's just the right size - small and sturdy.

So, today's post is by way of being an advertisement for my wonderful illustrator's latest achievement. Here he is in Seal Pose, just happened to be doing the pose when the photographer came along. I was proud then and I'm proud now.

Amazon link: Yoga for Travellers
and Yogamatters link: Yoga for Travellers. A perfect present for you or a friend.

*Other non-cheese food is also available.