Thursday, 3 April 2014

Sun Salutations


Oh my goodness I love a sun salutation. Jeremy and I are doing them for Lent - we're not sure whose idea it was, but it was Jeremy's idea to add one round each week. (A round is taking the right leg into a lunge and bringing it back and coming back up to standing and then doing the same on the left.) When we were on holiday in Oman we were doing two rounds a day; now we are up to 6 a day. These are 'my' sun salutations, and have been my companions for 20 years. There are many many variations, some of which I do regularly, but this is my home ground.
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If you possibly can, go to Oman and stay in these places. The first 3 nights were in Garden Roomz in the capital, Muscat, an Omani guest house run by the most hospitable woman you could hope to meet.

1 - And as for the sun salutations, settle your feet into the ground (ideally not wearing flip flops), settle the hands against each other, heavy from the hips down, long to the crown of the head. Breathe. Continue to breathe freely without blocking your breath throughout the sequence. This may not be as easy as the instruction seems. You can wait for out-breaths to move on each time, follow the breathing sequence as I've put it in here, or adapt; just make sure you're not moving without breathing. Stand and breathe till you feel ready to move.




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2 - On an in-breath sweep your arms down, out to the sides, and up. You can be vertical; you can be in any level of back bend that suits you at that moment. This can change from day to day and from moment to moment in the sun salutation.


This photo is at the Sahab Hotel on Jabal Al Akhdar in the western Hajar mountains. It is a beautiful thoughtful building, and the views are ridiculous.













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Now we are at The View on Jabal Shams. I have read a Tripadvisor review which complains about the 'light pollution' caused by street lights in the villages far below. Some people are never happy. 

3 - To get down into the forward bend you can crumple gently on an out-breath, or you can sweep dramatically. See how you feel.







4 - Next take the right leg back into the Lunge on the in-breath. You can wait to make all the moves on out-breaths, but I love an in-breath for this - it's how I learned it. Let the hips drop and the spine lengthen.

This is a balcony at The View 






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We wanted to tell everyone about the places we were visiting in Oman, so Jeremy started to take photos. We accidentally left out the centre of the sequence, so Chris filled it in by taking the photos while my parents rested on the bench.

5 - You go into Plank on a held breath. If it's too much any day put your knees down but be in a straight line from knees to crown of head.

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6 - Fold into Child on an out-breath. You can flatten the feet and rest here for a while or leave the toes turned under. You can also leave this move out altogether and drop straight into the number 7.






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7 - You're breathing out and sliding forward till your toes, knees, chest, hands and chin are touching the floor. (8 Points). In fact I think you'd be well advised to keep your chin off the ground. 







8 - You breathe in and lift into Cobra - often this morphs deliberately or because it's easier into Upward Facing Dog, which is similar, but with straight arms.








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9 - And we're back to Oman, with a Dog pose on the balcony walk of Oman's Grand Canyon, Wadi Nakhar. To be honest, I did not slide through into Cobra from Child and then lift into this on the out-breath as I normally would, and as a result my hands are much nearer my feet than you are likely to find yours. But you get the general idea. Let your head be heavy, for instance, to give your neck muscles a break and your back relax after the work of Cobra. 











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Sun salutations at dawn on the roof of the amazing Misfah Old House - an adobe house in the middle of a village in the middle of a date plantation. Best thing ever.

10 - You bring the right foot forward again, on an in-breath, so that you're doing the lunge on the opposite side. Some teachers advise keeping the knee above the heel, but as long as you're not twisting the knee, I think the extra fold at knee and ankle is absolutely fine; in fact, absolutely heavenly.




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The Wahiba Sands. We did 'wild camping' (it was incredibly luxurious) through the Safari Desert Camp.

11 - Breathe out into a forward bend again.

















12. And breathe in sweeping or unwinding to vertical, hands lifted. You can also go into a backbend.


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13 - Sweep the hands round and back into prayer position. Smile. Well, it's not compulsory of course. And then you go through the whole thing taking the left leg back and bringing it forward again, and when you're back up to standing you've done one round.

This photo is in the grounds of the Intercontinental Hotel, Muscat. It's a 1970's design dream, and I really do mean that in a good way.


In summary, do sun salutations, and if you possibly can, go to Oman. Ask me about it, I dare you. 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Camels and Tortoises



How much inspiration can we hope to gain from the animal world? Yoga often uses animal names for the poses. There is a Tortoise Pose, named for the round shape of the back and the disappearance of the head (it's brilliant, we'll definitely get to that another day).



Penny brought us this photo of a tortoise, and we wondered, 'Is he doing...


In my last classes before we went to visit my brother and sister-in-law in Oman, I promised a photo of me doing Camel Pose in front of a camel, and look! I over-delivered! Here I am with 2 camels, Salahoodah and her friend whose name we forgot. Mounir, the camels' leader, is almost out of shot.

We moved quickly when Mounir was looking in the other direction. I had planned to think about why this pose got its name when I met the camels. Would it be the hump, the knees folding and unfolding like the camel getting up and down, the way some Bedu ride, in a kneeling position?

As it turned out, no thinking happened. I was living in the moment. The beauty of the desert, heat of the sun, gentle rhythm of the movement, warmth of the camel, breath moving in its abdomen against my legs, keeping my head sarong in place, popping noise (and nostalgic 70s childhood zoo smell) when it pooed as we went along. The fear as we went downhill: 'Hold! HOLD!' from Mounir as he looked back anxiously at me. The quiet desperation as we went over the 3-hours-on-a-camel mark and I lost the ability to use my leg muscles. Staring at the camp we were supposed to be heading for as it receded with every tack along the dunes while Mounir looked for a safe way down.

Knocked out of the present moment by obsessively imagining the future moment of getting off followed by the moment of getting a cold drink. I tried to get back into the present moment by being interested in the discomfort instead of wishing it away and enjoying the magic of the desert instead of fixating on the magic of that drink. Salahoodah and Mounir seemed tired too. She was sighing, and Mounir was resting his arm on her neck - to support himself? To encourage her? So that did make me think, maybe that's why Camel Pose is Camel Pose. You try to stay in the moment of the pose - its openness, its lift, its toughness - without losing it to the longing for it to stop. You breathe, you find a way to be strong and kind. You endure, in the moment. Like a camel.

We inherit yoga poses from our teachers, either in classes or through books and the internet, but I believe what is most useful is often inspired by looking at babies on their journey to standing, how humans developed through evolution and how humans successfully use their bodies over geography and history. It's also important to have fun moving the body, so let's carry on using animals for inspiration and imagery.
New in - Mary Gorton doing Cow with a cow in India. I can explain why this is called Cow pose, if anyone wants to know? Mary was about 3,000 steps up a 10,000 step mountain to a temple, and the view was amazing when the clouds blew away!

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Advantages of Bikram - here's a post I never expected to write.

Inspiration from guest illustrator Jeremy Lander

I teach yoga with a lot of: 

'so, now relax back into Child's pose. You can have the knees together or apart. You can have the hands forward or back, or under your head or resting on your back. Or you could switch round altogether, lie on your back and cuddle your knees. Just find whatever suits you best at this moment.'

JUST FIND WHATEVER SUITS YOU BEST. Actually quite a lot to ask. It's like this constantly in my classes. I'm always asking my students to make judgements about what is best for them, in their opinion and in their body's feelings and at this particular moment.

You have to make a lot of decisions before you're allowed to relax. And it's the same with strengthening:

'Just go into a full elbow plank, with your hands resting palm to palm, or you could have them in soft fists. If you don't feel up to doing the full plank, you can have your knees down, and if your elbows or shoulders bother you it's worth trying a blanket under your elbows. If that doesn't help try going up to a full arm plank or switch round and do this Navasana variation - you can work on strength there without bothering the shoulders...'

I've been to three Bikram yoga classes. Bikram Choudury's classes are taught all over the world, by teachers certified by Bikram, who stand on a podium reciting a standardised script to take you through 26 postures in 90 minutes. The room is heated to 40.6°C with a humidity of 40%, the floor is covered with carpet, the mats are placed very close one to the next and the wall in front of you is covered with mirrors. In two of the classes, the teachers attacked individual students, for example: "You look Chinese. You are used to not having space, you have no space to live, there are so many of you, don't complain this class is too crowded."

I didn't mind the heat, but didn't like the unkindness of the two teachers, I didn't like the smell, and I felt there was a lack of alternatives and opportunities for students to learn about themselves. 

I recently met Richard Miller, a long-term Bikram user, who made me do a bit of re-thinking; consistency and clarity might be fabulously useful, especially if you're going to a class when away from home or after a long complicated decision-making working day. I asked him to email me his ideas, to avoid paraphrasing and re-interpreting them to fit in with mine.

Happy to offer some thoughts, but they are personal and apply to me - they may not apply to anyone else.

- I don't want to think when I'm doing yoga, I don't want to have to work out the meaning of what someone said - this may be a real personal thing. (I've always had problems with complicated sequences. When I ask for directions, I can hear the first two instructions but then blank out because I know I'll never recall.) I want to feel and be gently reminded; and ideally each instructor has a slightly different way of saying things, so you do learn and you build up your knowledge. (I have noticed recently that new Bikram instructors seem to use the IDENTICALLY SAME language. I don't like this. I suspect it's a result of Bikram's efforts to copyright his postures. It's easier for him to copyright the instructors' blurb than the centuries-old positions themselves.)

- Each time you do the posture, it's different. You can't expect linear improvement. Your body is in a different state every day. And accepting that is a learning itself.

- Over time, you get to know the postures better and better - and sometimes an instructor will stop and go into more detail on one. So you understand them more and you can push yourself more safely. 

- The way Bikram's postures work, there are levels to them. So when I go back to yoga, I'm only able to do the very first stages of most postures, then over weeks I go deeper and can go further. So, to use the cliché, you're always working on your edge. They actually aren't the same postures, because you're doing them at different levels. But they are familiar.

With regard to Bikram, I wouldn't describe him as charismatic. Two things stood out:
- he's pretty rude in the class (though pleasant enough outside) [Richard is the only person I know who has been to a class led by Bikram himself; he even met Bikram after the class] - not just to me when I didn't have my toes on the line, but to others also.
- he has no sense of time discipline. Other instructors keep carefully to the 90 minutes. I think Bikram went 20 minutes over when I took his class.

Studios differ. I've been to 8 or so, over time. Bikram Yoga Chiswick is the friendliest studio I know.

So, to paraphrase: you can't step into the same river twice. 

All Bikram yoga is hot, but not all hot yoga is Bikram. There are other types of hot yoga, designed either because the studios are genuinely passionate about their variations, or because they are understandably unprepared to pay for the Bikram name. 

Is my approach the best? Well, of course; I think that it respects the student and encourages them to take responsibility for themselves and that teachers should also take responsibility for their learning and understanding rather than take a system on trust. 

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Baby Backbends - Work Those Secondary Curves



Sphinx and Seal are the Yin Yoga backbends from prone. Is 'prone' a word in normal use? I learned this meaning, lying on your front, from Gilly, who is a midwife and uses it at work, in opposition to 'supine', lying on your back. Both have other meanings including lying any old way. I'm an eager adopter, and use it all the time now, along with the phrase 'baby backbends' to describe all the backbends from prone. They are baby backbends because babies do them to build the secondary curves, having been born with the inward foetal primary curves, and end up with beautiful flowing spines which go one way then the other. I often use the book Born Yogis to show my students examples of these, but thought it would be less copyright infringing and more relevant to our team here at Yoga With Your Slippers On to show you our illustrator Jon, doing a fabulous Seal. 


This was really quite a while ago now, you understand. Babies end up on their fronts on the floor, because someone has put them there for 'tummy time' (I hope never to use this distressing phrase again) or because they have successfully flipped over. Have you seen this fantastic video of a baby learning to flip (try it without the sinister music)? And once they are prone, they need to be able to look around, so they find ways to lift their heads. In this case Jon is looking at and listening to my father. I think that explains the quizzical expression on his face. 

If we look at the back of the body from the side we have kyphotic (outward) curves at the chest and sacrum and lordotic (inward) curves at the neck and waist. These words are often used as negatives, as diagnoses of something unwanted, but they are also just descriptive of the fabulous spinal curves which support us. If you wanted you could also use them to describe the flow of curves all the way up the body. The pads of the toes (outward, kyphotic), the arches of the toes (inward, lordotic), the pads of the feet, the arches of the feet, the curve of the heel, the ankle, the calf, the knee, then the spinal ones and the skull. Out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in, out...

I did google image searches for 'children reading', 'teenagers reading' and 'adults reading'. All showed some pictures of people reading in Sphinx, but there were far more of these in the teenage section - it's great to imitate our teenagers and get down on the floor with our papers and tablets and books. Lovely for the back. Stay just as long as you want, then move again. But not necessarily back onto a chair or sofa. If you get distracted from your reading, notice which muscles are 'working' and which are relaxed, and what happens if you deliberately engage or relax some. Of course slippers are perfectly appropriate for this workout.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Taking Photos Into the Sun



I'm taking photos into the sun for two reasons.

1 - I am instinctively rule-obeying. I have a tendency to try and work out what the rules are so that I can follow them, which as you can imagine is not always a good thing. Perhaps I should work on it? So when I heard someone say, very sternly,

'Never, EVER take a photo into the sun'

I thought,

'Now that is a rule even I could break without compunction', so I started.

2 - Last winter there were months (and months, as the winter stretched on) where I found it hard to get out of the house. I made excuses both to myself and others. And I festered a bit. It wasn't terrible, I did go out, to teach and other essential excursions, but it wasn't great. And often I missed the little sunshine there was, thinking 'I'll go out when I've finished this article, this lesson plan', and by the time the job was over, so was the sun. So I stayed in. Apparently the way to get out whether you want to or not, rain or shine, is to get a dog, but that seemed like a step too far.

So this year I am going to have a sun-saturated picture diary, constantly looking out for sunshine, even when I don't have any in my day I will find some from somewhere else. So far this year that has happened twice, first on New Year's Day, when this was my solution:
A sunset from the film 'Etre et Avoir' - full of love and warmth of all sorts. 
Yes, I took a photo into the sun into the television. I am not above all kinds of cheating, and all kinds of help, for example a sunrise from my son Chris on his way to work:
Sunrise on journey to Hayward's Heath 
A wild view from my friend Ellie on her way over the sea to Mull for the New Year:

and this from Jon's girlfriend Laura. They were on their way back to London, signalling the absolute end to our family Christmas and so it was wonderfully cheering to get.
I'm putting most of the photos on my twitter feed, and all of them in my facebook albums - I have two - one for my photos and one for photos people are sending me. Please do send me any you take, and do join me on facebook or twitter. It's rather old fashioned of me, but I love them. My photos are taken on my phone, mostly very local so far. Basic. One this week was taken while sitting at my computer, which is a worrying development and a level of cheating I intend to crack down on. I need to get out more.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The Last Days of Christmas

The Nativity Crib
Every year we wonder which is the day to take decorations down. Jeremy says Twelfth Night is definitely the 5th January. He's sure, but we're not. We keep wondering if it might be the 6th after all. Wondering about it is pretty much a tradition now. Taking down the decorations is fine, especially if someone else takes them down, because there's suddenly lots of extra uncluttered space where the tree was. But then comes the next day.

I miss the tinsel
I miss my seasonal companions, Rudolph
and the Christmas fairy
I miss the crib. I miss my family - for 2 weeks they are here in swirling changing combinations, then they are gone - back to work, back to where they live. I usually cry - nothing wrong with that. Thanks to Jon and this blog post now I can see the crib any time.

My affection for it comes from the long family association, much more than from its Christian meaning. I go to carol and Christmas services, I cry as we sing 'Away in a manger', but even for me, growing up (at least for a few years) in a church-going family and bringing our children up (at least for a few years) in a kind of church-going family, the Christian connection with Christmas is almost completely snapped. It's certainly very frayed.

Instead it's a time to connect with family and to think about them through choosing and learn about them through receiving presents. Also cooking and eating specific Christmas food with them - chocolate coins, turkish delight, mince pies. Watching specific television and dvds - Sherlock, It's a Wonderful Life, anything Pixar. Buying the Christmas Radio Times and seeing how long it takes for the cover to come off. I'm lucky to have this big interruption to my established working rhythm - it's invigorating though not always easy to begin again. And even if you only have a day off, if you cover your space with crazy stuff and then take it down again and put the stuff away for a year you get to see things differently.

The limbo days are coming to an end, the new year will begin in earnest soon, once we've put the crib away.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Days Between

Boxing Day. For those of us who don't work much from Christmas to New Year, the days between have arrived. I woke with a chocolate and Christmas cocktail headache, sat down to write, then deleted it all, leaving just this. 

A cold sunny walk, a cosy log fire, too many presents, too much food. 

Guilt, delight. Love and loss, planning, remembering and acceptance. 

Happy Between Days to all of you. 





I have put my novel Oil Town into a pdf so you can see it as it is so far, email it to a Kindle or read it on a phone or tablet. The big version is probably better for the Kindle. Please let me know by email or commenting if you have any problems. 

Oil Town
Oil Town BIG

It's a post Christmas present!