The curse of looking forward

I was talking recently in a workshop about how we all have tendencies. In Sanskrit these are called ‘vasanas’. It is how we tend to behave. We may be someone who tends to see the negative instead of the positive.

We may be the sort of person who dwells on the past (“I wish I’d said this instead of that” or “I really should have done x instead of y”)  – I do this. Likewise, we may tend to be always looking to the future.

We all like to have things to look forward to but if you know that this is your tendency, Lockdown will have been particularly difficult.

I was having a walk with my partner. We were walking through a beautiful meadow of wild flowers and he said how we’ll be able to do plenty of walks like this when we go on holiday in two months’ time. I pointed out that we were doing a beautiful walk right now and it was only a five minute drive from our home.

We all like things to look forward to and I think Lockdown has deprived us of this joy. But what if a second wave hits? How will we feel if all these holidays booked in haste are snatched away from us?* How do you deal with uncertainty?

I read a quote once – I can’t remember who said it – about how life isn’t those one-off experiences. It isn’t about the time we swam with dolphins. It’s about the everyday stuff – the brushing of our teeth and doing the washing up.

Lockdown is this and other simple things: watching plants grow in our gardens, enjoying local walks. So let’s keep up with that because you never know, that holiday might not happen.

‘Hameed Ali, author and contemporary spiritual teacher, reminds us that if we are not living with awareness of our body, we are not fully alive:

Sincerely explore for yourself, are you here or not? Are you in your body or oblivious, or only aware of parts of it? When I say, “Are you in your body?” I mean, “Are you completely filling your body?”

Are you really in your hands or do you move them from a distance? Are you present in your cells, inhabiting and filling your body? If you aren’t in your body, what significance is there in your experience this moment? Are you preparing, so that you can be here in the future? Are you setting up conditions by saying to yourself, “When such and such happens I’ll have time, I’ll be here.” If you are not here, what are you saving yourself for?’

Taken from Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, p98.

*I’m very sorry if you were booked to go to Spain…

Pearls of Wisdom

I came across this reading in Rachel Naomi Remen’s beautiful book My Grandfather’s Blessings and it felt so apt for this time. Can we treat coronavirus as a grain of sand? This experience will inevitably have a lasting effect on every one of us. Perhaps it will teach us about what we choose to value in life.

Some of the oldest and most delightful written words in the English language are the collective nouns dating from medieval times used to describe groups of birds and beasts.  Many of these go back five hundred years or more, and lists of them appeared as early as 1440 in some of the first books printed in English. 

These words frequently offer an insight into the nature of the animals or birds they describe.  Sometimes this is factual and sometimes poetic.  Occasionally it is profound:  a pride of lions, a party of jays, an ostentation of peacocks, an exaltation of larks, a gaggle of geese, a charm of finches, a bed of clams, a school of fish, a cloud of gnats, and a parliament of owls are some examples.  Over time, these sorts of words have been extended to other things as well.  One of my favorites is pearls of wisdom.

An oyster is soft, tender, and vulnerable.  Without the sanctuary of its shell it could not survive.  But oysters must open their shells in order to ‘breathe’ water.  Sometimes while an oyster is breathing, a grain of sand will enter its shell and become a part of its life from then on.

Such grains of sand cause pain, but an oyster does not alter its soft nature because of this.  It does not become hard and leathery in order not to feel.  It continues to entrust itself to the ocean, to open and breathe in order to live.  But it does respond.

Slowly and patiently, the oyster wraps the grain of sand in thin translucent layers until, over time, it has created something of great value in the place where it was most vulnerable to its pain.  A pearl might be thought of as an oyster’s response to its suffering.  Not every oyster can do this.  Oysters that do are far more valuable to people than oysters that do not.

Sand is a way of life for an oyster.  If you are soft and tender and must live on the sandy floor of the ocean, making pearls becomes a necessity if you are to live well.

Disappointment and loss are a part of every life. Many times we can put such things behind us and get on with the rest of our lives. But not everything is amenable to this approach. Some things are too big or too deep to do this, and we will have to leave important parts of ourselves behind if we treat them in this way. These are the places where wisdom begins to grow in us. It begins with suffering that we do not avoid or rationalize or put behind us. It starts with the realization that our loss, whatever it is, has become a part of us and has altered our lives so profoundly that we cannot go back to the way it was before.

Something in us can transform such suffering into wisdom. The process of turning pain into wisdom often looks like a sorting process. First we experience everything.  Then one by one we let things go, the anger, the blame, the sense of injustice, and finally even the pain itself, until all we have left is a deeper sense of the value of life and a greater capacity to live it.

Celebrating ten years of teaching with a mentoring programme

This year marks ten years since I qualified as a yoga teacher. It also marks a big birthday for me. On my thirtieth birthday in 2010 I took what my teachers called a “very auspicious” dip in Ma Ganga. It was very refreshing.

When I look back over the past ten years, so much has changed. Then, I was single and seeing a lot of the world. Now I have a wonderful partner and two amazing children. I’m more settled.

I remember being told at the end of my Sivananda teacher training that we were being selfish if we didn’t share the teachings. So I came back to London and taught anyone who asked.

It was scary standing up in front of a group of people. I used to feel physically sick with nerves. I doubted myself. I worried what people thought (a lot). But then my confidence grew – not just in teaching but in all areas of my life. 

Yoga taught me to look beyond the surface, to pay attention. As a result, I’d say I’m a lot happier and at home in this body and with this mind. I know myself better.

Teaching yoga in Hertfordshire

Having taught in London for three years, I completed further training and moved to Hertfordshire. I started covering classes locally and began running classes, workshops and retreats. I felt a strong sense of community or ‘sangha’.

In the past seven years, the local St Albans/Harpenden yoga scene has changed and developed considerably. When I started, I wasn’t aware of any other yin yoga classes around here. Awareness of the style was far, far lower than it is now. It was also easier to find space in venues to start new classes. There are now so many more yoga teachers in the area. 

The growing popularity of yoga is brilliant. And people need yin to counter the increasingly hectic pace of modern living. There’s a reason why it’s the fastest growing style of yoga today.

More broadly, yoga has changed and developed too: the toppling of yoga ‘gurus’ from their pedestals in the #metoo era and the rise of the instayogi. Mindfulness is a workplace buzzword. There’s a growing awareness of yoga teachers’ pay thanks to the work of Norman Blair and others. Perhaps the London yoga market has now reached saturation point. Yoga is taught in many more schools.

What will be the next style of yoga to take the world by storm?

There’s a lot to think about and navigate. 

Mentoring programme

With this in mind, I am offering a mentoring programme for teachers of yoga and mind/body/wellness practices. It can be tough teaching out there. It can be isolating too.

We’d cover topics such as:

  • The student/teacher relationship
  • Communication with studio owners and contacts at hire spaces
  • Running classes, workshops, retreats and holidays
  • Promoting yourself and attracting new students
  • The business and financial aspects of teaching
  • Work/life balance
  • Self care.

It would be a small group and we’d meet one Sunday evening a month for four months from March. I’d facilitate and provide advice based on my experience but we’d all share and support each other.

If you’d like to find out more and book, visit the mentoring page.

Pregnancy, practice and my pelvis

For those of you who don’t know, I’m now 23 weeks pregnant. Over the past few weeks I’ve started to get a lot of pain around my pelvis – a condition known as symphysis pubis dysfunction (spd) or pelvic girdle pain (pgp).

I had this when I was pregnant with my son, Jacob, but not to this degree and it began much later during my pregnancy.

I’ve seen an osteopath a couple of times and today while she was moving me around, she said, “ You are very mobile in your pelvis – maybe too mobile.”

Now, I know this. I have a naturally flexible pelvis. I’ve never really had to work to sit in padmasana (lotus pose) and other hip-related poses come relatively easily to me. But what good is that if, during pregnancy, you lose the strength to contain that flexibility? And what good is it when you’re in physical pain getting up the stairs?

Very often people are in awe of flexibility in yoga, fuelled by images on social media and other channels. Bendiness is something to strive for and if only I had a penny for every time I’ve heard someone say, “I can’t do yoga. I can’t touch my toes.”

The curse of flexibility in yoga has been well documented – London teacher Jess Glenny writes a lot about it and my teacher Norman Blair has written this piece from a yin perspective. 

I know that my pelvic pain will go away once I’ve given birth but I wonder if my practice has exacerbated the problem. I know of other yoga teachers who’ve had similar issues during pregnancy. Or perhaps it’s purely down to the pregnancy hormone relaxin opening my body and the pelvic ligaments being stretched from my previous labour and childbirth.

Who knows? But for now, it’s cat/cow, chest openers, pelvic tilts and hip circles for me.

For this reason, the 2 March yin yoga workshop at BAYoga Studio will be my final one before I meet my second child in June.

Kate Atkinson will provide cover until I return in October/November.

Find out more and book.

Six reasons why yin yoga and fitness go well together

Yin yoga is an excellent practice for many types of people – from those who struggle to find time to do anything, to those who run, cycle and do more active types of fitness. We all need to take time to be still, quiet and more contemplative. Yin yoga provides this.

Here are six reasons why yin yoga is great companion to sport and fitness:

 1. Stretching to create space

Most people know that having a stretch before and after exercise is good. A freer range of movement allows the body to find the most efficient path and use less energy.

When we sit or lie in a yin pose, we create space in our bodies, in our minds, and in our day-to-day lives. On a physical level, the connective tissue surrounding our joints starts to become more malleable, improving our flexibility.

Reggie Ray covers this aspect nicely:

When you ask someone to sit down and be with themselves they go, “I can’t. I don’t have time for that.” Now you and I may realize that there actually is a problem. Most people don’t think there is a problem. 

We run our kids in the same way—and it’s destroying them. The soccer practice and the music lesson and three hours of TV and homework—it goes on from the minute they get up until they go to sleep. They never have an opportunity to experience silence. Psychological development requires periods of solitude.

Anthropological psychology—studying other cultures, as well as our own—shows that when children do not have completely unstructured time, when there are no parental expectations looming over them, they actually can’t develop normally.

Read the Reggie Ray full article.

 2. Injury prevention

Most injuries are from overuse. Imbalances in your body can cause inflammation and excessive wear on tissue. A regular yoga practice brings your body back into symmetrical alignment and corrects flexibility and strength imbalances.

You’ll be able to do sport or exercise for longer. Ryan Giggs credits yoga for the longevity of his football career.

3. Yin vs yang

You may have heard of the terms ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ from Chinese Taoist thinking. Yang is about movement, creating energy and heat in the body. Yin is about finding stillness, being calm and cooling the body. HIIT sessions, running and cycling are all yang activity. Focusing just on the yang can lead to fatigue and burn out.

Having both allows the body to come into balance and stay in optimum condition.

 4. The power of the breath

People think that yoga is about contorting the body but it’s actually a breathing practice.

Your breath provides you with energy and power to carry on and reach the finish line. Yoga teacher Donna Farhi explains all:

Doctor and triathlete John Hellemans recommends that the best breathing for top athletic performance is deep diaphragmatic breathing… Dr Hellemans also notes the importance of getting into a rhythmic flow with your breathing and synchronizing your breathing with your movement.

You can do that by taking a breath when you plant your foot during a stride or when pedalling on a cycle. Find a rhythm and speed of movement that allows you to work within the confines of your breath capacity so that you are not building up an oxygen deficit.

Donna Farhi, The Breathing Book

 5. Staying power

In yin yoga we spend around five minutes in each pose (all are seated or lying down). This builds mental stamina. I’ve heard a yin practice being compared to a marathon.

This stillness allows us to become more in tune with our body, and naturally you’ll find that you start to watch your mind. We notice our thoughts – whether they’re positive or negative, linked to the past or the future, and whether they’re recurring. It allows us to connect within.

6. Accepting rather than competing

Yoga teaches that there’s more to life than going faster or further. It’s about accepting where you are today – not comparing yourself to before you had that hip/knee replacement, or thinking about how much fitter you were ten years ago. If we’re able to accept our bodies as they are today, we’ll be happier individuals.

And over the duration of a yin pose, your body will open and you’ll naturally go deeper. No pushing, no judgement, just accepting.

 

You can now practice a 25 minute yin class with me on YouTube as part of Fluxus Fitness’ Great in 8.

 

Receiving postural adjustments in yoga classes

You may be aware of the issue currently being discussed in the global yoga community. It’s around abuse allegations made against the ‘godfather’ of ashtanga yoga, K Pattabhi Jois.

In this #metoo era, there are many women speaking out about him sexually abusing them while he adjusted them in poses, and there’s also a lot of discussion around injuries sustained by him too.

I’m not going to comment on the allegations, but I strongly recommend you do some reading. Here are some excellent pieces:

[box] Articles on K Pattabhi Jois abuse allegations

Matthew Remski is a fantastic writer on yoga issues:

Yoga’s Culture of Sexual Abuse: Nine Women Tell Their Stories

Scott Johnson runs Stillpoint Yoga, a London hub for ashtanga:

Listen without Prejudice

Norman Blair is my yin yoga teacher and has practised ashtanga for many years:

Ashtanga yoga stories

 

[/box]

 

However, I do want to say a few words about being adjusted in class – primarily in an ashtanga class, but equally in any yoga class where you receive adjustments.

In ashtanga, in particular, there is a culture – or even an expectation – of strong physical adjustments. Teachers provide adjustments to help a student feel the correct alignment or to help a student go deeper into a pose.

I know there can be a ‘no pain no gain’ mentality in ashtanga but we must be kind to ourselves – there’s the yama ‘ahimsa’ meaning non-harming or non-violence.

A good adjustment doesn’t have to be forceful. A good adjustment will:

  • facilitate an opening in the body, allowing perhaps a little extra length to be found
  • create a more solid foundation in a pose.

Many adjustments can be intimate. There’s a lot of body contact. Here are some examples:

Clockwise from top left: Paschimatanasana, Marichyasana C, Upavishta Konasana (balancing), Adho Mukha Svanasana (down dog). Thanks to April Nunes Tucker for featuring in the photos with me and Carli Spokes for the photos.

So if you’re receiving an adjustment and it doesn’t feel good or you feel it’s overstepped a boundary, you must tell the teacher. I know it can be hard to speak up but it’s your body and you know it best.

If you don’t want to receive adjustments, that’s ok. You can tell the teacher or perhaps they have some sort of consent process – Norman suggests using playing cards.

This is a biggie: A teacher also needs to know if they’ve injured you.

There’s a lot of talk in yoga about the importance of paying attention: how your feet feel on the floor in samastitihi, how the weather impacts nature, how your actions and words affect others. It also means paying attention to the darker issues facing the yoga world.

We must be aware. We can’t bury our heads in the sand. And we must be empowered practitioners, in control of our own body and practice.

 

Do you have anything to add? Any observations/experiences to share?

If you teach, feel free to share this with your students.

 

On yoga, on life: a review

Have you got Netflix? If you have, I highly recommend a film on there called ‘On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace’. It’s about a bloke called Michael O’Neill who used to photograph Hollywood stars. In a nutshell: he got injured, was told he’d never use his arm again, found yoga and meditation, his arm recovered.

As a result, he decided to devote his time photographing yogis. The film features interviews with teachers talking about yoga philosophy. They are wonderful. The kundalini teacher Gurmukh talking about fear of death, Eddie Stern on community and peace. Swamis explaining how we are not our body and how yoga is every minute of the day. I particularly remember one teacher saying that we’ll only be happy when we let go of desire. It’s the wanting that makes us unhappy.

Not so great are the clips of him taking photos of young yogis doing extreme poses in front of beautiful scenery – silhouetted against a sunset, a grafitti’d wall, the New York skyline. Skimpy clothes. Why do it? Why conform to a yoga stereotype? If these teachers are saying yoga is so much more than the physical body, why bring it back to that?

Kumbh Mela, 2010

Anyway, it was good to watch. He visited the Kumbh Mela – the massive Hindu pilgrimage that takes place at different locations along sacred rivers. I had the honour of being part of the Kumbh on Ma Ganga in Haridwar, India, in 2010 – something I’ll never forget.

I finished the film and took a moment to consider my current life with a one-year old baby and how my life has changed since I took my dip in the Ganga eight years ago. I felt that I had drifted away from yoga somewhat. I’m struggling to get on my mat and there are a lot of pooey nappies.

But then I thought a little more: this is my yoga at the moment. It’s not the beautiful asanas but it’s the day-to-day grittiness of life. One Swami in the film explained Bhakti yoga – the yoga of devotion. I’d also say it’s Karma yoga – giving without any expectation of reward. I am devoting myself to my son and my family.

Can I care for him in a way that is kind and caring? We do our gratitude practice while he has his bedtime milk. We chant along to Swami Vishnudevananda in the car on the way to the local soft play centre.

And while I haven’t managed an unaided headstand for over a year now, it’ll come back at some point. I’m happy if I manage a few sun salutations and standing poses.

So if you have Netflix, watch it. But please pay more attention to the words of wisdom than the cliched contortions…

Have you seen it? What are you thoughts?

(Thank you to my Berkhamsted buddy Laura for suggesting I look it up.)

Jen Day on pilates and practice

With me starting to teaching monthly yin yoga workshops at Jen Day’s pilates studio near Wheathampstead, we thought it would be nice for you all to learn more about her.

So, here you’ll find a little interview with her, and on her website there’s an interview with me.

The first workshop of 2018 is on Saturday 20 January. View details.

Hello Jen. Why Pilates?
Because it works! I, like many people discovered Pilates due to a knee injury 17 years ago. I fell in love with the method immediately. I found it challenging and inspiring and I still do today! Pilates keeps me connected to my body. It keeps me focused, strong and without it I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have run injury free for 16 years or competed in triathlon up to half Ironman level. Joseph Pilates was absolutely right when he said: “Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness.”

The Studio is at Mid Herts Golf Club. Why there?
Besides it being next door to my home?! It’s a beautiful calm space, oak beams and white walls with a view that is spectacular all year round. I wanted to create a space that you walk into a feel completely at ease, it’s a sanctuary, I can see that in my students faces sometimes. I adore teaching in the space and my commute is just wonderful!

What does practice mean to you?
Practice to me is acknowledging Joe and his wife Clara’s work every day. There are movements that still challenge me, movements that delight me and some that elude me! Practice also frees up my mind which is an awesome thing for an over thinker! So practice is about creating space, in mind and body. Its about constant learning and reflection.

 

Thank you Jen. Jen can be found at The Studio on weekday mornings. For information about her classes and the yin workshop, visit www.i-pilates.co.uk.

You can read her interview with me on her website. We hope to see you at The Studio soon!

Jen on a pilates reformer

Lessons from Lucy

I was talking to a neighbour this week about how I’d cried on my mat that morning. “You’re so not selling yoga to me,” she replied.

I’ve just done a week of Ashtanga Mysore practice with Lucy Crawford at BAYoga in Berkhamsted. Since giving birth to Jacob almost seven months ago, I’ve managed to get to a handful of Mysore classes. My home practice has mostly involved soft bolsters and cosy blankets.

Lucy was wonderful as always. She talked a lot about coming into relationship and how to live and practice according to the yamas – the yogic principles for right living or ‘observances’.

This resonated deeply. I have a new body and I don’t recognise it. Looking after a baby takes its toll physically, let alone coming to terms with the physiological changes that happen during pregnancy and breastfeeding. My rib cage has expanded outwards in all directions, my shoulders and hips are broader. I’ve lost a lot of strength and a friend called my breastfeeding boobs “magnificent” the other day. I’m doing my pelvic floor exercises as I type this.

Lucy talked about ‘sukha’ or joy. Was I able to find joy in my practice? The first three days felt distinctly lacking. It was all an effort – sorting childcare drop-offs and pick-ups, getting to Berko for a 9am start… and then I had to do sun salutations?!

She spoke on ‘satya’, the yama relating to honesty. I feel really tired at the moment so why push it? As a result, my Monday practice was surya namaskars and standing poses followed by some yummy restorative poses. Lucy: “Right Clare, this is what we’re going to do with you. Let’s put this bolster here…”

And can we let go of the grasping – the yama ‘aparigraha’? The wanting: wanting to be ‘better’, wanting the pre-pregnancy practice. Lucy spoke about when Guruji would give her a new pose, she’d feel anything but excited (“Ugh, not another one!”). She said she’d much rather hang out in restorative poses although she knows her body needs to move. I can relate to this.

On Wednesday morning the tears came even before my first surya namaskar A. Steamy tears falling silently down my face during our breathing practice. More tears after attempting purvottanasana – feeling like I’d left my cervix on the mat as I lifted my hips up. “You’re very wobbly around that whole area,” said Lucy with loving eyes and a gentle smile. “That’s to be expected. Give it time.” The yama ‘ahimsa’ has various translations including non-violence and non-harming. Essentially it’s about being kind – to ourselves and others.

I was trying to explain the tears to my neighbour. I said about how we move and breathe in the poses. The emotions we’ve been holding in our bodies are released. It’s almost like a wringing out of all the stuff we’re carrying around. It’s cathartic. There’s no hiding on your mat. Everything comes out. It’s very positive.

My yin teacher Norman is fond of saying “shift happens”. And it certainly did for me. After Wednesday’s tears, I found my rhythm. There was a lightness, I had more energy both during and after practice and I was smiling more (sukha).

I had come into relationship with myself. I found ‘me’ again. My body is more open and I am less creaky. My thoracic no longer feels stuck. My jaw has softened. There’s a spring in my step. I feel stronger picking Jacob up and my happiness makes him happy. This body is slowly recovering.

I have so much gratitude for this practice. I bloody love yoga.

 

Two more yin workshops in 2017 before I go away on a little adventure:

Sat 2 Sept at BAYoga, Berkhamsted: info
Sat 9 Sept at The Studio, Mid Herts Golf Club, Wheathampstead: info

I’ll be back teaching regularly from January 2018.

Adventures in yoga with a six month-old

The other week I was asked if I’d be able to write an article for a yoga magazine. The subject was how yoga could help women who’ve recently given birth. The deadline was in three days.

Now if I didn’t have a six month-old baby, I’d have cracked it out in an afternoon, no problem. But instead I declined saying that if I did have the time to write it, my advice would be: childs pose and savasana are your best friends and that every new mum needs a bolster.

Here are some of observations about yoga from my experience of having a baby from zero to six months:

– Post-natal yoga classes with your baby are great but very different. When the lovely Laura at The Yoga Hall says, “…and back to your breath…” it can be anything but calming when surrounded by bawling babies. During savasana you may be the only mum in savasana because others are doing the baby bounce/sway or feeding. I loved the classes though.

Jacob 'enjoying' a class at The Yoga Hall
Jacob ‘enjoying’ a class at The Yoga Hall

– Practice with your baby on your mat: prepare to have your hair grabbed with such intensity that down-facing dog must be aborted.

– Doing any amount of practice at home needs to be congratulated.

– Mula Bandha – Using your pelvic floor to gain lift and lightness: Ha! Not a chance! I practice my pelvic floor exercises while cleaning my teeth (that tip is thanks to Josie Raison. Her baby yoga classes in St Albans are great).

– My time for yin is when I’ve put him in his hammock and he’s drifting off to sleep. No eye contact, on his bedroom floor. You’re still able to sing Twinkle Twinkle if required.

– Ujayyi breath can calm him (and me).

– I asked teacher Lucy Crawford when she thought it would be ok to return to an Ashtanga practice. She suggested at around three months but it’s a long journey. It’s like you’re a beginner again, with an entirely different body. You approach poses as if you’ve never done them before… because it’s a new experience in this new body. It keeps your mind present, exploring the possibilities of body.

– Acceptance is a huge thing. Accepting this is your practice for now with this body.

– Making comparisons: There’s enough comparing going on when you have a baby: who’s sleeping, teeth vs no teeth, who’s got a routine. I was given Yes Mum cards. They sit next to his changing mat and I turn a new card every day. One of my favourites reads: ‘I do not need to compare myself to other people’.

Yes Mum cards
Yes Mum cards

But I wouldn’t want it to be any different. I love being a mum to Jacob.

What are you experiences of yoga with a baby? Anything you’d like to share?