Yoga Class Closure. Home practice 4

Image result for cartoons of feet

Short and sweet today – as will be many  of your lovely feet; whilst mine are somewhat longish and not so sweet!!  Aware of this, I ty to improve, but why is it so hard for us to give feet the attention that they truly deserve?  Pedicures, yes, easy; but moving toes apart and by themselves as much as we can?  This is difficult, and it shouldn’t be.

There are 206 bones in the adult human body and 52 of these are in the feet.  Feet comprise a quarter of the entire skeleton, they hold us up and yet we seem to lose touch with them.  We certainly seem to lose flexibiliy in them.  Why can I move the little toe of my right foot fairly well but not of my left foot?  Ok I have injured my left foot in the past but still I walk a lot and it supports my gait, so what’s the problem?  In my case, it is because I practice moving the toes of my right foot more often than those of my left foot, because I can move them more easily and thus “avoidance” becomes the habit.  If something is difficult, most of us “drag our feet” – excuse the pun.

A student shared experience of avoidance strategy in relation to child’s pose – ” I found (it) uncomfortable – nobody is making me, so why would I?  Now, by going in and out of the pose during the practice, discomfort is lessening for that student.  As discomfort lessens, the brain relaxes a little and the emergency “alarm” – “get me out of this!” – is sounded less.

In and out of a pose; little and often; back off if tension creeps in but keep everything moving – all good tips.  Helpful and healthy repetition.

Apply this mantra to your feet.  The following videos are worth a look :

Be careful with the balance ones – support from a wall may help at first.  Any moderate -severe pain, then stop. My fears around on-line learning of yoga centers around this.  The absence of a teacher who can keep an eye on movements, who knows the students well and who can advise “on the spot” and “in the moment”.  However, we live in strange times in which safety is essential, not just a good idea; so be sensible with all practice led online.  I include this blog also.

Having said that, I liked the seated demonstration in the first link. I liked the use of toe separators in the second link. We know about Pete’s “toe yoga” and how helpful it is but also how challenging it is!!!

I wrote about the planning and organization required to establish a regular yoga home practice. Practising unfamiliar movements, such as “toe yoga” produces changes in the brain which alter the information that the brain sends out to muscles, thereby changing the movements themselves.  Namely, we get better at moving our toes and, hopefully, we practice them more often because we can now see improvement.

It seems that real improvements in these fine motor skills may be made in 240 – 600 hours (10 – 41 days)  I’m going to give myself lee-way by setting  a 41 day challenge for myself.  If you join me, consider the following:

  • begin practice immediately after viewing a demonstration.
  • be patient: you may need to practice one component of the skill at a time, rather than all the toe move.  If your motor memory is a bit rusty, you may beed to work on just lifting the big toes for a while.

Let’s see how it goes

This week is all about feet

Stay safe.







Yoga class closure. Home Practice 3.

How to make a start?


Many thanks for the helpful tips re planning regular home practice that I share below:


… ……….. I set my timer for an hour when I “move” then set my timer for 10 mins with an alert in the middle and sit and breathe changing the cross at the alert….and then I lie in shavasana for 5 mins . And I get up feeling better and having really enjoyed it. …

………….I favour little and often, so daily or every other day even 5 minutes will help. Your body will tell you if it wants to do more on a particular day. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day…………..

Also the joy of keeping things simple:

……The most simple is best as we all don’t have huge amounts of technology knowledge. I went through one of my yoga sessions in my head talking about it and I think some of it is very simple and it can do No harm, only good………

More Tips from readers: Helpful Apps:

  • Insight Timer ( . The free version allows you unlimited access to the timer.
  • Down Dog and Daily Yoga – these can reinvigorate your practice and give you new ideas…
  • I use the Headspace app to meditate each morning – they have just introduced a ‘weathering the storm’ section which has lots of great things in it

 All helpful.  So where does one start??

In class we often settle on the floor in semi-supine, relax the body and back then press into the feet etc.  This helps, I think, to move focus from the busy brain to the feet; to begin the process of grounding from the base; to remind us of balance.  It’s a lovely entree into awareness of breath and the movement of breath.  I wrote about this and mentioned home practice in Active rest if you are interested.

Starting here seems to suit quite a few people:

…….I like the breathing exercise with the mimicking of the breath lungs and belly. Then with the pressing of the feet and the holding of the breath halfway. ….. All this is lovely…….

There is much to process at present; you are being bombarded with information; it behoves me to be brief.  I started with shoulders and some mention of dog pose in Yoga class shutdown. Home practice 1 so have a look at Pete Blackaby’s teaching. of Downward Dog Variations.

This video illustrates so clearly how important it is to make adjustments to classic yoga poses.  The practitioners have an awareness of areas of their body which don’t move as freely as others and they make their own adjustments – based on Pete’s teaching.  There is a wonderful connection here with the feet and our sensing the footprints in semi-supine at the start of a session.

With thanks to Pete for his generosity in sharing his teaching and ideas. You will have links to other teachers whom you trust and from whom you learn.  Your teachers will learn from you.

We are all on the same path, I feel

Stay safe and take on the wise advice give by a reader above:

….Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day…..






Yoga class shutdown. Home practice 2.

Hoping that some comments re Tip 1 may reach me.  The “kitchen chair move” is actually recommended for shoulder impingement, a common cause of shoulder pain. This affects the rotator cuff tendon, the rubbery band of tissue that connects the muscles around the shoulder to the top of the arm.

Shoulder diagram, 103 kb

The space in the shoulder (subacromial space) where the rotator cuff tendon, muscles and bursa pass through is very narrow.  This space is made even smaller when you raise your arm – the tendon rubbing or catching on nearby tissue and bone causes discomfort.

The kitchen chair move may help to ease this discomfort, as may leaning onto  the seat of the chair and allowing the other arm to swing like a pendulum.  I link the Codman Pendulum exercises in the post Shoulders -bearing up in yoga practice which also features the above illustration and some explanation as to how some yoga practice can be unhelpful if you have shoulder problems.

When shoulders are tense/sore we naturally “guard” against the discomfort.   Dr Chris Jenner , a consultant in pain management describes the response to pain:

…. Muscles are tensed (and the breath held) in fear of pain. This brings more tension and pain -muscles can build up toxins while tensed then don’t get released. ……Neck and Back Pain: A self-help guide (How to Self-Help Guide)

Gentle exercises help to increase blood flow,  to warm and relax these muscles. Most students find the side lying movements that mobilize the thoracic spine and shoulder girdle very useful for shoulder issues.  In our sensory approach we develop an  awareness of motor connections from the hand through the elbow to the shoulder and the upper spine.  We notice how freely movement travels through these structures and in doing so, become sensitive to the whole movement:Image result for images for side lying shoulder exercisesWith thanks to   See ** TIPS below

With as much relaxation as we can – Lying on right side (above) head , neck, top shoulder (left) , ribs hips, thigh, leg and foot, trust the support of the floor and move the left shoulder forward and back leading with the fingers.   Fingers of the left hand initially just to the inside of the right elbow – back and forth a few times .  Try to keep the left arm long and relaxed so that the movement includes the left shoulder blade. and upper spine.  As you draw the left hand back across the body and increase the rotation, the movement involves the shoulder, ribs and hips.  The left elbow leads the movement towards the floor behind.  You may be able to rest your left arm on the floor – I can’t…too tight!!

**TIP: Practice with a “heavy head” (a good thing in this case) – this will reduce tension in the neck, face and shoulder.

** TIP – practice the above with both legs bent and knees drawn in towards the body to avoid any extension in the back.  You can reduce pulls in the shoulder or back by keeping the feet together and allowing the top knee to lift away from the bottom knee (still on the floor) as you rotate and draw the left hand across the body to the floor behind.

Shoulder Sweeps – when you move the joint through rotation , can produce a “pull” or “snag” or “catch”; all of which could indicate impingment to some degree – may be very small.  Have a look at this video:

shoulder sweep

**Disclaimer – I would encourage those with tightness to release that top knee (as decribed above) if the rotation is pulling the lumbar spine into extension but the video serves to illustrate the movement of the shoulder joint, so many thanks to Active Orthopedics.

**TIP – if you experience a pull or snag it may behelpful to consider:

  • Do I push through it?
  • Do I stop and pause, back off a little and then proceed?
  • Do I back off, start the movement again and repeat to the point of discomfort, then go back to the beginning and start again?

Sometimes in yoga we do a little too much and sometimes too little.  Sometimes we benefit from working a little harder and sometimes less.  We need to understand effort that is healthy (are balanced enough to do a bit more?) and tension that is unhelpful.

Sounds SO corny but that is why yoga, being a reflective engagement with ourselves and our body, can provide us with some insight into how we approach life – maybe – some of the time.

Please use the comments box to let me know what you think. Some may have queries about placing the head/discomfort in the shoulder on the floor etc.  If you don’t understand the moves, contact me.

Stay safe.



Yoga class shutdown. Home practice 1

Image is from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Apparently, a habit is an automatic urge to do something often triggered by a cue.  The stronger the cue, the more ingrained the habit becomes.  Why can’t many of us stop touching our face at present?  I don’t have the answers, by the way but many behavioural scientists do and are writing about this.

Routines require practice, deliberate practice like attending your weekly yoga class, gym class etc.  Routines require more planning.  However, with enough time and enough practice, routines can develop into habits and yoga practice is a good habit.

  • Stick to routine:
  • – plan your practice at the same time as your class
  • – prepare your space ; you walked/drove to class/you spoke to class members  – consider music/chat on a device as your roll out your mat and prepare
  • You may prefer a short walk or activity before yoga practice
  • key is to make it regular
  • Start small:
  • once a week is fine; your class may have been once a week
  • one movement/pose each practice is also fine
  • Set a timer is you feel fidgety/at a loss without a teacher – it will “sound” eventually
  • Consider your type/preferences:
  • It may be easier for you to move first and then lie down/sit to breathe
  • It may be that you can get into your short practice quickly by lying down, finding the support of the floor and exploring your breathing
  • Reward yourself
  • you may have been used to going to a cafe after class/chatting with class members or going home to shower/have lunch/snack – substitute some “reward”.

Remote contact with class members may also rewards.  In class we discuss and compare our practice, class members already give advice to others about their experience on the mat.  This is common in our classes.  The comments section in this blog can be a platform for some discussion.  You will probably have more ueful tips than those above and you can share these with others.

SO – to business – I aim to address some areas of difficulty/discussion that pop up in class.  I aim to post on Mondays, Wednesays and Fridays at the same time and to keep the posts short.  The latter is a big “ask” for me!!

DOG POSE – pushing/leaning through the bones of the arms.

So difficult to know whether you are pushing/leaning when you begin to practice in a sensory approach to yoga practice:

Teacher : make good handprints and lean through the bones of the arms.  Notice when you push and if you are pushing “back off”.

Student:  I think that I am pushing

Teacher :  Notice that your neck and shoulders brace when you push.  Push a bit more then don’t push.

Student: ??????

Teacher (too much teacher talk at this stage); dog pose is all about using the legs to free up the shoulders.  Use the feet and legs and try to leave the shoulders undisturbed.

Student:  (quietly/silently) “I think I’ll go into child’s pose”

Try this

Image result for shoulder impingement exercises

**with thanks to

  • Stand behind the back of a kitchen chair. Rest your hands on the top of the back so that you can lean into the chair.  Push down and notice – neck and shoulders tense?  Shoulders lifted and muscles at the side of the neck braced?
  • Try leaning rather than pushing – any difference?  There should be a difference, so maybe try again.
  • Whilst leaning, walk your feet back to to a place where you can sense that the shoulders and neck are not bracing and that the back is lengthening.  Consider bending the knees to sense the feet – inside edge, outside edge, heel and toes. Imagine that you are going into child’s pose and keep the hip flexors relaxed.
  • Walk the feet back to the starting position and notice any effect upon the spine and shoulders as you do that.
  • Repeat using one arm/both again.

Maybe stand and roll the shoulders or just walk around and allow the arms to swing and the shoulders to sway.  Dog pose may be an option, as is lying in semi supine to settle shoulders, back, neck and head.  Observe your breath.

With thanks to Pete Blackaby, as ever, for his teaching of dog pose which has revolutionized my practice.  He has helped me to realize that if I get into the habit of using my arms too much them my legs will forget to do as much work as they should in this movement and in other daily movements such as geting up and down from a chair, the floor etc. .  Use the comments box to let me know how you get on/to provide tips for others.

Enjoy the classes that you are attending.  I had better get planning.  My reward is now a cup of tea and then a walk.

See you soon.












A pain in the neck and poor posture. Fact or myth?

My neck pain is due to my poor posture? Maybe, but some researchers now place more importance upon factors such as:

poor sleep, reduced physical activity and increased stress

The Root Cause Of Bad Posture - Dilbert by Scott Adams

******With thanks to Scott Adams and The Dilbert Cartoons.

A 2016 study of 1100 Australian adolescents found no clear relationship between the classic “text neck/head” posture and neck pain/headaches A smaller study in Brazil in 2018 came to the same conclusion. This challenged widely held beliefs about the role of posture in adolescent neck pain. Whilst the findings may not relate directly to adults, the link between lifesyle factors, psychological factors and neck pain, can be related to adults. A link between slumped thorax/forward head posture had “higher odds of depressive symptoms” – consistent with a previous study in 2011 that linked slumped posture to higher levels of anxiety and depression in 14 year olds. Puberty is a tough time for many.

In our yoga practice, we know that the balance of the head is controlled by the nervous system to maintain the most economic postion for the individual. We try to feel this by slowly nodding the head, for example. Stanley Keleman wrote many years ago about the relationship between posture, personality and mood – see blog Your Body Speaks its Mind – Stanley Keleman. See also, more recent investigations in the blog Emotions and Pain

I have have recently come across Posturology – a multi disciplinary approach used in complementary medicine to study the relation between posture and many pathologies, above all chronic pain. A 19th century physician,Dr Charles Bell, asked how man was able to maintain an upright positon against the force of the wind:

Clearly he possesses an ability to adjust and correct any variation from the vertical.

The first school of posturology was established in Berlin in 1890. In 1955, Dr Baron, of the Posturography Laboratory of the St Anne Hospital (Paris), published a thesis on the importance of the eye muscles in postural attitude. The importance of the the internal ear, proprioception and the foot (podal input) plays an important role in the system. In line with this has been the proliferation of equipment and software – stability platforms, stability software etc. Thus an industry has built up around helping us to feel the difference or connection between how we perceive ourselves and how we think that we are perceived by others.

I am part of that industry, I suppose. However, in our yoga classes we put aside the time and space to explore these feelings as we simply attempt to find comfort in ourselves – mostly without props, equipment and being tweaked.

You can find many examples of people with apparently poor posture who do not complain of neck pain, indeed adults with severe scoliosis who only mention mild back irritation. We are all different. The key word may be vulnerability to pain/poor posture rather than poor posture itself and vulnerability seems to increase with age. Bodies seem to heal if we move them, with regularity and with care. Bodies that “forget to move” seem to take longer to heal.

I was recently struck by a poster produced by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists on the myths surrounding back pain. View the full poster – back pain myth busters



Playing with movement, as we do on all fours when we flex/extend the spine; repeating when we stand, helps us to identify postural habits. Moving regularly in yoga classes as well as in “real life” – not holding poses with tension in yoga classes and avoiding fixed position in daily life (which I do when typing this blog!!!). This triggers self-awareness and may help us to identify why sitting in a certain way at work result in headaches; why sitting with the legs crossed for long periods may adversely affect the back etc etc

Postural stress is not a myth but it is not alleviated simply by puting people into a “correct shape”, taping shoulders back etc Such things are reminders and as such are useful but ongoing pain cannot linked simply to poor posture. It is more complex. I mentioned the apparent myth connecting poor posture with neck pain to an osteopath recently – and said “I thought everyone knew that” !!!

Reader ….

I wasn’t sure!!!

Trick or Treat for hands and wrists

This image from reminded me of the children’s Feel Box/Bucket game sometimes played at Halloween parties. Passing by shelf loads of Halloween products I note how vast the range now is and how hard it must be for children (and parents) to agree upon one choice. I suspect that making that choice is sometimes a fraught affair.

I do “go on” a bit about making choices in our approach to yoga practice – largely because I find myself tempted to “go for the pose” despite the fact that I know (now) that this affects my breathing and allows all the old habits to resurface – at times.  I also know that once my breathing is strained that my mind cannot relax:  consquently, my body begins to store tension.  Problems arise when the body cannot release that tension if the next pose is goal-orientated.  Going back to basics is hard for all of us whch is why it helps to focus on our breathing first and the pose second.

How do we best breathe in down dog, for example?  Is it by Is it by pushing up through the arms and shoulders to get into a shape in which we then breathe?  This is one way, of course and suits many people.  In this way, the movement is often one of going forward and up – namely over the wrists and hands then moving the body back to lengthen the spine.  The pose is oft stated to target the upper body and to stretch the hamstrings but the most common contraindication is carpel tunnel – so how do we become more mindful of pressure on the wrists?

By drawing focus to the movement of the feet and legs as they have adapted to move over the millenia, we train movement not muscles.  We also take the effort away from the wrists:

  • From all fours with toes under, bring the pelvis back towards the heels and use the feet and legs to lift the pelvis. Lower the pelvis in the same way.  Legs do not have to be straight – the movement is the interesting part.  How far can you go into the movement keeping the upper body quiet – so that you can breathe.
  • Squat down and if you find it helpful to place a block under the heels, then do that or not. Place your hand 6 inches infront of the feet, then undo the legs so they lengthen.  Legs do not have to be straight.   The arms and shoulders should feel soft and relaxed. Come down into squat again. Move the hands further forward. Keep repeating the opening and closing of the legs using supportive, grounded feet. Each time move the hands further forward until you feel open enough to breathe and comfortable enough to minimize tension.  Place a block for your hands if that helps.


When the feet and legs work to lift the spine, the back does not have to work.  If the feet and legs are functioning well and you move into a supported place, then strain on the wrists will be reduced.  If it isn’t then try something different to help the legs and feet – semi supine lifting of the spine without the use of unecessary abdominal and back musles; crouching on haunches and rocking the knees; sprinters.   Class regulars know these.

We do focus our attention on hands and wrists when on all fours.  Movements of the hands until the shoulders feel ok, helps the mind to strengthen connections between the  integrated movements of shoulder blades, shoulders, armbones, wrists and hands.   Allowing weight to drop down the armbones allows muscles to balance and wrists can be supportive rather than strained. The focus here may differ from that in downward dog but in both poses a mindful approach is the key – noticing when we start to push with the hands rather than lean through the bones of the arm.  Noticing that bracing is counter-productive to a mindful practice.

You’re not looking to break through to to anything… are simply residing in stillness, within the full range of your experiences, including any intensity and discomfort (which should in any case be benign if you have not forced yourself to go beyond your limits).. …the body loves a steady diet of this and changes on it’s own.  There is frequently an “on the way” quality to this practice………….
“Wherever You Go, There You Are”


Jon Kabat-Zinn words underline the choice we make between discomfort and comfort in our yoga practice.  We do not always have this luxury in everday life, especially when things are tough.  That is why mindfulness can be such a difficult practice, such a rigorous discilpline.  Kabat-Zinn says that mindfulness is not just a good idea, it is essential to restore balance to our lives.  Our yoga practice should be a treat for the body.  Exercise is a good idea, movement is essential.  The body becomes better at what we do and what we don’t do.  We sit a lot and the front of the body gets better at shortening, we pull the body into a yoga shape and the body gets better at bracing through the difficult parts of the movement. we practice mindfully a lot and we become better at that.

Choices?  Trick or treat? A somewhat tenuous link but one sometimes has to please the punters…if anyone has made it this far.

What I noticed about the Halloween fare was that the treat buckets seem to have retained the traditional Jack o’ Lantern decoration as opposed to many of the official merchandise products.  The tradition of carving pumpkins, turnip or other root vegetables at Halloween was popular in Ireland and some parts of Scotland, marking the Gaelic festival of Samhain- the end of harvest and the beginning of winter; the darker part of the year. it seems that Irish immigrants took the tradition to the United States.

This fact took me on a meandering journey from one threshold to another of many websites and I landed at Rice Bucket Therapy.  I had no idea. 

Rice Bucket Therapy has been in use for a long time and is used regularly by American footballers and baseball players, apparently.   I notice that it is now advocated by climbers also.  Some promote its use to strengthen the forearms, wrists and hands whilst others say that it is best for rehab rather than for strengthening.  Have a look at these videos and you can decide.

Rice Bucket therapy for hand therapy  

Rice bucket exercises

Seems that sand will also suffice.  An earlier post on this blog may also interest:

Helping hands – and wrists in yoga practice

If you choose to try any of the above out, let me know how you get on.  Meanwhile, Happy Yoga Practice.  Happy Halloween.  Happy Samhain.

Next post is on Posturology – I had no idea.


Power of Observation

When one steps back from the front line of teaching for a while, it is easy to see how “teacher talk” can dominate a class room; how the space and time taken up by this can figuratively cramp student’s style/practice.

Whilst always recording  a lesson aim as “allow time for self practice and exploration”, the temptation to control , to move the practice on may interfere with the teacher’s all-important jobs – observation and guidance rather than control.

The structural/mechanical model of yoga teaching in which the shape of every asana is paramount and teachers correct/move students into the “correct shape” can be very controlling and, as such, is very comforting for students I think.  To some extent, the responsibility is taken out of the hands of the student because teacher “knows best”.  A sensory approach to yoga practice is more demanding of the individual in that each student is encouraged to notice how the body moves in and out of everyday movements such as turning, getting up and down from the floor, sitting etc – with least strain upon the balance of the body.  These movements must include structural elements but the focus is to observe how these structural elements coalesce both mechanically and emotionally.

For example, Sprinters ( we can’t get away from Sprinters for long) strengthens patterns that enable us to walk, run, get up from the ground and back down again.  Structurally, it helps to strengthen the crouch and spring muscles of the legs and feet.  A steady front foot means that we are using muscles of the foot, ankle and knee in a biomechanically sound way.  The the fact that we lift the pelvis means that the core muscles are working as well as the quads.  The movement means that muscles are working with bones but the key is to notice, to observe when in this movement pattern, the body stiffens. If the foot does not remain steady then structures around the ankle and knee may be working overtime to steady the movement – to ground the pose.  If the upper body becomes tense then we are bringing extra elements into the movement that are not necessary.  We may be compensating in order to get to “finish line” and I do believe that most people in pain are compensating in some way.

The challenge (and it is a big challenge) in Sprinters is to observe existing structures (we have placed our feet forward and risen from the ground since we learned to walk) and to NOT use the muscles we don’t have to.  This requires patience and the time and space, on the part of both student and teacher to cultivate attention:

“….Cultivate your attentiveness as if it’s for the first time,  Stay with yourself.  Stay with the connections that are already there.  As soon as you set a goal – to achieve a pose- the attention is not the same anymore and we don’t feel…

”  Awakening The Spine” by Vanda Scaravelli

In 2006/7, Pete Blackaby was for me, a teacher who slowed everything down in the yoga room and allowed students to practice at their own pace. Pete emphasized the importance of listening to our nervous system in order to reduce discomfort. He was interested in how our bodies had evolved to function, specifically, how our anatomy was shaped to conserve energy. His interest in somatics – how the brain senses and moves the body – sits on the shoulders of Alexander, Feldenkreis, Stanley Keller, Mabel Todd, Damassion et al.  His use of the term “functional” was new to me in yoga teaching – movements based upon real-world situational biomechanics (Wikipedia).  I was intrigued by this since, at that time I was teaching a functional approach to language learning which differed from the structural grammar-based teaching that I had previously taught.

In 1972, the British linguist, D A Wilkin, promoted a communicative language syllabus in which students were taught how to communciate effectively through functions such as “making requests”; “asking permission”; “clarifying information” etc.  Focus was upon using language; the movement of language from one person to another – as a process of which the speaker would, of course, make errors but would, hopefully, begin to recognize how to reduce those errors. Like all new approaches, there are pros and cons.  The bulding block system of grammar-based language teaching provides a controlled structure for practice whilst the functional approach emphasizes intention and purpose from the outset.  As as teacher, I felt that this new approach helped student to reduce their inhibitions at a early stage- essentially, putting theory into practice and providing a good basis for future learning. Which is, I think what Pete Blackaby has tried to do.

I am now noticing more mention of function, attention, integration in the words and writings of teachers whom I would previously have categorized under the Structural Model. David Keil, for example, who teaches Astanga Yoga now emphasizes “function” and in his book, Functonal Anatomy, the underlying theme is integration:

….. How do the supposed “parts and pieces” of the body synchronize to support integrated movement? …….how do the various yoga postures interrelate from the perspective of functional anatomy?…

Look at these wonderful clips of Pete teaching Side Bends, Face Up Dog and Down Dog ; illustrating how to help students to sense the possibilities of movement through an integrated approach to yoga practice.  His teaching of Face Up Dog is particularly useful for those of us who do all our backbending at the back of the waist and then wonder why we are a bit achey after yoga.  One tries to help students sense whether they are overdoing the extension at the back of the waist (in which case the ribs flare).  Here Pete specifies the integrated extension of the spine by helping the  student to free up movement in the thoracic so that the rest of the spine can move in an aligned way that also opens the hip flexors.  The student becomes aware of the connection between the upper and lower spine. Pete encourages us to consider the question  “Does my pelvis understand what my head is doing?’  In this way the whole spine is involved and observed.

In a mechanistic model of teaching the “parts and pieces” are highlighted and thus pain/injury is highlighted, rather than movement.  A whole body approach works to keep the basic patterns of movement alive within the brainand to strengthen these patterns so that the possibility of movement is still possible. See the blog Parts versus the whole in yoga practice.

It’s the possibilities that keep us practising yoga.

On which subject, have to link Dina Asher Smith in some fashion following her win in the 200m event in Doha the other night.  Here’s a video of Dina introducing a biomechanical analysis of the sprint start. The featured athlete, Amy,  realizes that she has to extend her back leg in the sprint start in order to push out more effectively.  Her speed out of the blocks is enhanced by a horizontal drive forward that the front leg picks up.  Prior to this, she had been lifting herself into a more vertical stance.

Its the vertical stance that we try to “perfect” in sprinters and that is one of the reasons that we try to notice ourselves lifting the chin in attempt to drive forward.  This,  as well as the counter-productive tension created in the strong extensors in the neck.

Ah – the power of observation!









At a stretch

It seems a tad ironic to be drafting a short post on stretch and yoga,  Many people, when first enquring about classes , will mention “having a good stretch” as a reason for their interest.

Images abound of stretching that involve grabbing a joint and pulling or pushing on it to “loosen it up.” Many people are reluctant to give up stretching, because it “feels so good.” However, pulling on tight muscles does not relax them, and the relief is only temporary.  Stretching further strains and loosens joints. This is why many hypermobile people make their conditions worse by doing yoga and this is why I encourage students to move within their range, rather than to stretch/ hold the stretch –  for the sake of stretching.  As students move more regularly in a way that is useful to their everyday activities, then range of movement that is required for their individual needs will improve.

Muscle (and its related tissue, fibre and cells) is elastic in nature. It can expand to a point, and then it returns to its resting, or shortened, state. Any activity requires muscles to stretch to a certain degree; how much depends on the activity.

When muscle is stretched regularly, it develops the ability to stretch farther, and the affiliated joints increase their range of motion. We call this flexibility. When muscles aren’t stretched often, they stay shortened and the related joints become less mobile, decreasing the range of motion. This is inflexibility.

Many people refer to themselves as inflexible but when they begin to practise functional movements such as side-bending which we do when we walk, they realize that the movement itself has not been given enough attention – often one side is less responsive than the other.  Thus the message from the motor cortex in the brain to the muscles and back again has not been “mapped” clearly enough.

Cat Pose Variation Waist Side Bending

The focus in this side bending may be taught as structural (strengthening obliques, quadratus lumborum, erector spinae et al) or as biological (how we respond to our environment – how we sense and experience the movement).  This is Pete Blackaby’s distinction, not mine and I do very often slip into the structural because it’s easier for me to explain and for many to “get” but I see more and more that when I teach in terms of parts of the body rather than helping students to sense the movement itself – ie. sidebending, turning, walking, standing up, sitting down etc.  – that injuries may reoccur.  Movement is a complex interconnection between many muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia so how can I reduce it to one part?

By emphasizing mobility ; as feeling more at ease with ourselves as we move, we understand that when bones move, muscles have to move as per the intention – namely, stretch and return to a stable and supportive state.  The process of moving and sensing the movement helps us to identify weak links in the complex chain. By practising small movements with real focus, we begin to sense how that movement feels and how we feel whilst practising the movement. We make space for a “felt sense” to grow and this is something that we can take off the yoga mat into everyday life.

Other of my posts cover some of the same ground in different words:

Parts versus the whole in yoga practice

Hamstrings – stretch or retrain?

Feel the whole

In the “Parts” blog I expand upon “mapping”.  In the Hamstrings blog, I covered inflexibility of the hip flexors and hamstrings with prolonged sitting.  I do encourage students to visit manual therapists who help them to free up tight and imbalanced areas of the body.  This is invaluable I feel and it sets the students on the path to exploring how to maintain that balance.  Clearly, we all stretch everyday and performance athletes may need to explore different types of stretching for their pursuits.  Here, I am questioning the main purpose of yoga being on stretching. When I type in “Yoga” on search engines, I get a lot of illustrations like this one.  Great if you can do it!!

Image result for yoga drawing


We spent some time on mapping sidebending movements yesterday in class.  When mention of the “type” of yoga that we practice was raised one “wag” replied …”Sensible Yoga..”  Now, some, when practising our slow-paced yoga may disagree and I can imagine remarks such as …. By no stretch of the imagination could this be called yoga….!!

I would say that practising yoga is the key and that it requires patience.  How you practice is unique to you, as is what you feel.  People find their own way to:

Move better.  Breathe better.  Feel quieter inside.

This last statement of purpose – Feel quieter inside – is one of the reasons that I call this blog “Inside Yoga”.

Enjoy your practice.


Postlude to Rhythmic Breathing

Another addition to a post; after thoughts based upon valuable feedback from students.  The choice of “postlude” connects this post to the last through the evocation of rhythm – postlude “the final part of a piece of music”.

One comment:

Did you watch the programme with Nadia (the masterchef girl) dealing with her anxiety etc. – she realized , in  conversation with a therapist that the deep breathing …… was very unhelpful to  her and in fact made her worse ….

This was interesting since Nadiya Hussain’s  reaction seemed counter to much advice but the therapist identified 2 elements to his client’s anxiety – panic disorder and post-traumatic stress.  The deep breathing was a reminder of a terrible event during her school days.  A complex situation which the programme makers attempted to depict.

A useful nudge to consider how complex issues, such as anxiety, cannot be quickly covered through You Tube clips or blogs such as this one.   We often look for shortcuts; “quick fixes” but the BBC programme clearly illustrated that this is unrealistic.  I had doubts about linking Alan Watkin’s TED talk for this reason.  TED talks are interesting but performance can outweigh content at times.

An article on the science of slow deep breathing that I read when preparing the Rhythmic breathing blog, may provide more substance for some readers.

In this article the normal variation that occurs during each breathing cycle – respiratory sinus arrhythmia – and which indicates a healthy heart, is explained very well by Dr Matthew McKinnon.  He draws a comparison between our 2 nervous systems (Sympathetic and Parasympathetic) with a Gas/Brake mechanism that speeds up and slows down various functions of the body.  Heart rate increases during inhalations and decreases with exhalations.  The cycle is complex but heart rate is largely adjusted by the “brake” through the vagus nerve.  Inhalations draw blood from the heart to the lungs.  Since the body strives for homeostasis (equilibrium), the heart compensates by increasing heart rate and pushing blood to the body – the “Brake” is eased off to allow for this. When you exhale, blood returns to your body from your lungs and the heart slows back down as the “Brake” is applied.

In slow deep breathing, there is an increase in “Brake” activity.  Dr Matthew Mckinnon describes this as a “..biological brake..” which is much needed in a “…state of petroleum- fueled anxiety…”:

…. In fact, high PSNS/”Brake” tone has been associated with trait happiness, resilience in the face of stress, and childhood cognitive performance…..

You can follow the links that he makes in the article.  As the BBC programme on Nadiya and Anxiety shows, the association mentioned above is not clear cut.  This cartoon for example, presents a comparison between two “types” and whilst it is immediate, it is literally and idiomatically, black and white:

Image result for cartoon of gas and brake

Childhood trauma (traumas in Nadiya’s case) clearly inhibit the PSNS/Brake function.  When I watched Nadiya’s panic rising with deep breathing I visualized the Brake and Gas being applied at the same time – the wheels spinning.

In out yoga practice our work is cut out in our attempt to reduce tension; to find greater comfort in our bodies and in ourselves. To feel comfortable with ourselves. We try to turn the focus away from a structural/ mechanistic model in which muscles and shape dominate,  towards creating a space in which we listen to the nervous system.  We emphasize the “letting go” quality of the outbreathe in our yoga practice. This is one important reason why we use the outbreathe in our extension patterns, whilst some approaches move towards extension with the inhale.  The exhalation relaxes the diaphragm and reduces  it’s pull  on the spine and ribs.  The the spine lengthens with greater ease as the “foot is taken off the gas” and the heart rate slows down.  The inhalation whilst in extension can then be passive – in a “happy and easy way”  (Awakening The Spine p. 174.  Vanda Scaravelli)

Vanda Scaravelli wrote that “…Breathing is the essence of yoga..”  and she gave images to help us reduce tension in our breathing.


…a tree spreading it’s branches outwards and upwards at the same time…

….the outflowing breath   ….. a large wave….


“…mist spreading in a tree-filled valley…..

….a door pushed gently by the wind…..

….a slow motion film….

…the way the peal of an organ gradually swells to fill the church with sound….”

Vanda’s words help to tie up the ends of this post.  The evocation of rhythm brings me to another comment following the last blog.  One reader found the Breath Control Project clip very wierd and balked at the “plastic bags” and “big red rubber gloves!”  My interest lay in the subtitle of the piece – Our Precious Breath  – and the fact that we take it for granted most of the time.

In a Q & A on Radio London, Caroline Wright, the artistic director said:

…..There is an unseen rhythm to all our lives, as breathing punctuates the air around us exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide. We live by this metronome, often being unaware of its existence until we are affected by situations such as illness, atypical circumstances or environmental contexts….

There are many ways by which we can appreciate our breathing, of course – yoga being one of them.

Finally, response to my concerns about the heart-centred focus advocated by Alan Watkins in his second TED Talk  (You can remind yourself of the link between messages to the brain from the heart and vagus nerve).  Readers with personal knowledge thought this would be fine as long as those with post-operative issues  relating to the diaphragm, started slowly and carefully.

See some of you next week.

Rhythmic breathing

In our yoga practice we try to improve the ability to listen to our nervous system.  The relationship between breath and the nervous system is something that we can all relate to.  Our breathing rate slows down in a relaxing situation – parasympathetic nervous system;  while, in a threatening situation, it speeds up – our sympathetic nervous system.  These two systems working together maintain homeostasis but it is very easy to lose our balance and get stuck in the sympathetic system.  We all seem to be busy and time is becoming the great luxury.

Yoga helps us to move towards homeostastis, to feel more balanced and in Balanced breathing  (November 2017), I mentioned Vicky Turner (Balance. Live Well) describing fast breathing as being a modern malaise.  She outlined Coherent Breathing:

……… 6 breaths per minute – breathing in for 5 and out for 5. The goal of coherent breathing is coordinating your breathing rate with your heart rate so that the pumping action of the heart and the pumping action of the breath work in sync and not against each other as can happen with uncoordinated stressful breathing……

Dr Alan Watkins uses the term Coherence when explaining Heart Rate Variability (HRV)  and how this affects us . Watkin’s company is in the business of leadership performance and this must be taken into account when watching the clip – by conserving energy executives can make better decisions is the maxim.  However,  monitoring of HRV does help to highlight imbalances in the nervous system. Have a look at the You Tube clip

Under pressure, we “stumble” – seems obvious.  Watkins presentation is the second of two entitled ” Being Brilliant Every Single Day” and he gets a little carried away by his own performance but it is effective “theatre”.  What is interesting for us yoga practitioners is that he presents the keys to cardiac coherence as:

  • Rhythm –fixed ratio of in:out breath
  • Smoothness –even flow rate in and out
  • Location of attention

We don’t do much on fixed ratio – some people dislike counting their breaths – but recently we have practised the 5 in: 5 out (Vicky Turner) and  Watkins’ suggested 4 in: 6 out.  Joe Griffen, psychologist and co-founder of Human Givens Institute writes that the 7:11 ratio ….. is the most powerful we know and has been used for thousands of years throughout the world…..

We work on the exhale being the releasing breath and thus lengthening the exhale is the key for relaxation – as is diaphragmatic breathing in contrast with shallow chest breathing.  A 2017 report on the effects of  diaphagmatic breathing upon attention, negative emotions and stress,  studied 40 healthy adult employees of an IT company in Beijing.  After 20 sessons over 8 weeks, all participants’ displayed improvements but researchers could not use the study to guarantee ongoing improvement.   The salient factor for ongoing well-being was frequency of the sessions and regular practice , preferably daily.    We know this ourselves, of course – see Blog Practice makes for more practice.

We focus upon movement in the belly and in the ribs most sessions; we spend time on smooth, even breathing.  I agree with Watkins that focus away from the “noise” in the head and dropping the attention onto the body is beneficial.  I am more unsure about Watkins’ guide to focus attention upon the heart:

…….When we focus on our heart or the middle of our chest we are more likely to experience a positive emotional state because the heart is where most human beings experience their positive emotion. We say ‘I love my wife with all my heart’, we don’t say ‘I love her with all my brain’. So when someone has a positive emotional experience it’s usually felt in the centre of the chest and consciously shifting our attention to that area can actually facilitate positive emotional experiences……

Watkins is providing strategies for energetic leadership and decison making but I was unsure about such intense focus for those with dealing with medical issues – heart, diaphragm, lungs; those coping with loss?  I asked the experts – my students.  Someone kindly gave me feedback and permission to post this:

…….Directing your breathing around the heart makes wonderful sense to me as there are many heart breathing meditations in many ancient traditions this is just western science catching up I think. 🤔 I found it interesting that he had a bit of a laugh about the chakras at one point the crown chakra if I remember but then talks about breathing through the heart which in essence is the same as using the heart chakra for meditation ie visualising the heart whilst breathing rhythmically and evenly through the heart isn’t this the same? 

He talks about the electrical energy output of the heart being so much greater than the brain etc this is what ancient traditions have always known. 

What I like about his take on it is the simplicity just breathe in rhythm and evenly although again he does take a pop at alternate nostril breathing but this is actually again saying the same. Alternate nostril breathing is rhythmic and even.  However for many people some yogic breathing practices will appear to be very complicated with too much instruction.  His way of remembering and how to do it is simple and effective I think……

I am very grateful for this perspective and it helps me to balance my tendency towards scepticism.  Let me know what you think.

Meanwhile, whilst marshalling my thoughts, I found this clip from a new production interesting.