Hamstrings – stretch or retrain?

Related image

The word derives Old English ham, hom which originally referred to the back of the knee.  By the late 15th century it signified the back of the thigh – the thigh or hock of an animal – ie. he squatted down on his hams.

The diagram shows the 3 hamstring muscles, that run up the back of the thigh, the Semimembranosus, Semitendinosus, and Biceps Femoris.  Their function is knee flexion (bending the knee) and hip extension (driving the upper leg backwards as in sprinting.  The hamstrings also act as a braking system so that when we walk downhill, it is the hamstrings that slow us down.

Tight hamstrings are common and can cause problems because they form such an integral part of the posterior chain.  Tight hamstrings can pull the hips and pelvis back into a posterior pelvic tilt which then flattens the lower back.  This usually points to weakness in the abdominals, gluts and hamstrings.  

Image result for tight hamstrings and anterior pelvis tilt

An excessive anterior or forward tilt of the pelvis is usually associated of tight hip flexors and results in a pull on the back muscles and strain upon the hamstrings which are lengthened and weakened.

However, the intricate workings of these muscles with antagonists and many synergists is a complex issue to address in yoga classes.  Whereas physiotherapists may concentrate upon the rehabiliation of a certain muscle group and use manual therapy with great expertise, yoga teachers often seem to focus upon stretching hamstrings.  Which may not always be the answer. Where we can make a difference  is by practising helpful functional movments which enable students to sense imbalances through a heightened sense of their bodies in the space in which they occupy.  Sounds high falutin but if you look at the image above and then imagine looking up and looking down with a sense of the pelvis moving forward and then back, with a sense of balanced movement over the legs – repeating this regularly and very intelligently, then gradually one might realise that the fluidity or range of movement is impaired by tight hamstrings or hip flexors (among other things, of course)

Where we can also help is by focusing upon the cause of the problem.  In this way we can highlight the function and encourage students to sense how certain unhelpful habitual movements may have led to imbalances.  I am probably stating the obvious but, for example:

Sitting for long periods and reducing movement, shortens the hamstrings.  Thus when we stand the hamstrings will feel tighter.  Good practice is to get up and move around every 40 – 50 minutes.  As yoga practitioners, we know how to easily practice cat and cow pose; downward dog or any elements of a Salute.  It is easier for us I think. NOTE – In the image above, the pose would be all about hamstrings at the detriment of the spine, which seems very unhelpful.  Tight hamstrings pull the sitting bones down at the back causing the lumbar spine to round out. I would encourage students to bend their knees in dog pose if  hamstrings are tight: Image result for yoga stickman images for half virasana in yoga

Tight quadriceps pull the pelvis forward, thus lengthening the hamstrings.So although your hamstrings may feel tight they may actually just be long and weak. In this case, it is more useful to lengthen the quads and strengthen (not stretch) the Hamstrings.  If the focus is on stretching and stretching the Hamstrings then the Quads could tighten more to compensate.  In our practice we usually kneel (with blocks behind the knees if required) during every session and end with sitting movements that include half virasana (pictured below) which lengthens the quads.

Image result for images of half virasana in yoga

This is a very advanced pose and students would begin in Janusirasana and try rolling towards the long leg, supporting themselves on their arm/elbow and by holding the foot of the bent leg, gradually pull the foot back towards the buttocks thus lengthening the quads.  If this is too demanding, the student can concentrate upon mobilising the leg in the hip socket first.  Through this and other movements in which we lengthen just one leg, we discover how to sit comfortably on the ground without the extreme stretching that is part of paschimottanasana – the sitting forward bend with both legs extended.Image result for clip art of yoga seated forward bend

Illustration by Stuart Taylor, London. http://www.behance.net

NOTE:  I wouldn’t teach this pose generally, but especially to students with tight hamstrings.  I feel that it exacerbates pelvic imbalances.  I use Janusirasana in which one leg is long and the other is bent in half lotus which then reduces imbalance that may be caused by tight hamstrings on the long leg. I would not expect students to move into extreme forward bends with both legs long.

Weak abdominals. The pelvis is the muscle attachment site for both the front thigh muscles (quadriceps) and back thigh muscles (hamstrings).  The abdominals also attach to the pelvis. We have spoken a great deal this term about how the pelvis should provide a stable platform for the legs to move smoothly and efficiently beneath the pelvis Pelvis – the spiraling bowl However, performing solely upon “core exercises” such as crunches may not be as helpful as actively retraining the pelvis during movement.  Thus when we stand and investigate pelvic movement as we look up (extension) and look down (flexion), we begin to sense where our pelvis needs to “sit” in order to balance the connection between the abdominals and hamstrings.  In our rolling we strengthen the abdominals whilst putting no strain on the quads or hamstrings.  We also practise quite a lot of functional movements linked to walking.

Walking is connected to our evolutionary development and that is why practice of standing postures with both feet facing forward is so useful.  We have a deep well of experience, images, sensations that we can call upon as we practice.  A recent study showed that walking for just a few minutes ” has a significant beneficial impact upon mood, regardless of where we do it, why we do it, or what effect we expect the walk to have”.  Look at walking lifts your mood even when you don’t expect it to.  The researchers state that  “movement not only causes increased positive affect [emotional feelings] … but movement partially embodies, or in a sense reflects, positive affect.” This is what we teachers are getting at when we say “keep moving” – to which I would  add – “within your range and until it gets easier..”  This study adds to the holistic and integrated function of the whole body in human movement that we explore together in our physical yoga practice.

So, to those who worry that they do not practice regularly at home – don’t worry too much. Our approach to yoga helps us to take our yoga off the mat.  When we walk , perhaps over the coming Yuletide period, we can notice how our feet and legs carry us and how our  bones “stack up” from the ground.  We train ourselves to recall patterns – the spiralling pelvis, the feel of the outside edge of the foot providing stability and the roll of the foot and an active arch.  The pattern of movement emanating from the ground and travelling through the body , from one foot to another.  I’m getting high falutin again – it has been an busy year.  Just enjoy the movement that you have.  When you get back you may feel like moving through cat and cow poses (- moving the pelvis with awareness of the hip flexors and hamstrings) ; downward dog (lengthening the hamstrings whilst folding softly at the hips) and …-even…….Sprinters in which the hamstring of the front bent leg is strengthened and the musculature of the back leg is lengthened.  But, you know that, of course!

Merry Christmas.  Happy New Year.  See some of you in 2019.





By Teaching We learn

Have been searching for an “old adage”  along the lines of – teachers often learn more from their students than they impart.   Came across:

Docendo discimus – By teaching we learn   (attrib to Seneca the Younger 4BC-65AD)

A teacher is someone who can learn from their students, who can learn with them, and learns for them.        Robert John Meehan (1950 – )

Both were proven true when a student helped me understand (… begin to understand) a reference in the last blog of the action of the pelvis as “…the helix of a screw-conveyor…” Mabel Todd’sThinking Body p 200 .  I provided a simplified visual of a spiralling bucket to illustrate the action but I could not get a ‘handle’ on the “helix of a screw-conveyor”. I sought help from a well-qualified student. I was given a number of examples  – with great patience.  Still, I floundered, until the mention of an Archimedes’ Screw which enables water to be pumped from low-lying areas by turning a screw-shaped surface inside a pipe, produced a “Eureka” moment (excuse this most obvious allusion).  I could finally visualize the movement, the momentum provided by a screw conveyor to move granules or liquid.:


I am indebted to my student for helping me to clear the mist but also for jolting  my awareness back towards what I know about teaching but don’t always remember ; namely, that clarity depends upon keeping things simple, upon varied repetition and  always checking that the message is clear enough.

So, returning to the screw conveyor and with my somewhat ill-fitting mechanic’s hat on:

Mabel Todd described the integrated movement of the pelvis, legs, spine, shoulders in walking as a “composite spring” which provides propulsion so that the spine and pelvis  can move on the leg bones – “..rock back and forth and sideways, allowing a rebound and recovery of balance between each step..” The Thinking Body p134.  Thus, when I suggest that we “spring into a one-legged balance; perhaps some form of tree pose – you now know what I am thinking.  Teachers inspired by Mabel’s thinking use imagery to help change muscle patterns.  Key to this is an understanding of what the movement is.  The nervous system (messenger of signals) , muscular (the motor)  and skeletal (support) all have a specific role but for movement to occur all three systems must be involved.  Alexander taught that any action involves the use of the whole self, The Use of The Self ,1932.

In the 1980’s Serge Gracovetsky, Phd, (Dept of Electrical and Computing Engineering, University of Montreal),  wrote about human locomotion in his Spinal Engine theory.  He studied the transfer of energy in the spine and wrote that deep spinal movement is at the centre of walking and running, underlying the movement of our arms and legs. It had  generally been perceived that the legs carried along a passive trunk –  The Pedestrian Theory of Locomotion. Gracovetsky said that the limbs amplify movement that originates in the musculature of the spine and trunk.  The arms in running, for example, amplify spinal movement to counterbalance leg movement and to assist in raising and lowering the body’s center of gravity to support the stride.

Image result for images for Gracvetsky's spinal engine theory

With thanks to http://perfectgolfswingreview.net/spinalmotion.htm for the visual aid. If we can understand and visualize this movement, perhaps we can be more aware of a part of the movement where we habitually hold tension, thereby compensating for that “wonky” bit with another part of our musculature – Sensing our bodies to reduce movement compensation.

I called this to mind when mention of some hamstring problems featured recently in class.   I began to wonder if we fixate upon tight hamstrings we dilute the sense of the spiralling pelvis which will, I think, impact upon the fluidity of movement.  Very tight hamstrings do restrict pelvic rotation and range of movement. Thus, since there is a mechanical and a neurological aspect to muscle tightness, it may be more difficult, for some, to sense the subtlety of the spiralling pelvis (more on this in the next blog).  This is also why simply stretching tight hamstrings is not always the best thing to do.  The brain needs to learn which muscles should fire for efficient movement.  Rather than static stretches, we explored movement through the pelvis, spine and leg as we used gravity to support us.  More useful I felt – as is the beloved Sprinters in strengthening the hamstring of the front bent leg whilst lengthening the musculature of the back leg.  We concentrate upon keeping a quiet foot, as we lift a relaxed spine.  It can be tougher to explore the whole movement, slowly however, since mindful awareness of all three branches of the neuromuscular system means noticing when excess tension creeps in – namely, when we don’t feel ok.  Let me know what you think.

*END NOTE: You may be interested to know that the aforesaid student was not convinced by my learning and supplemented the teaching with a concrete visual aid.  That is what I call effective teaching.

See some of you next week.

Pelvis – the spiraling bowl.

Image result for image of the pelvis as a bucket(with thanks to http://www.proko.com for the illustration)

Mabel Todd described the spiralling of the pelvis in  “The Thinking Body”. I have linked this book in a previous post –Standing and walking – free the pelvis and I have returned to it following a recent query from a student.  It is always interesting to teach a different group and to be asked to clarify elements of one’s teaching.

The query concerned the movement of the pelvis in walking.  I had an image of a moving bowl/bucket in my head as I taught and I remembered Mabel Todd’s vivid description.  She quotes a mechanical engineer who was asked to describe the act of walking in simple mechanical terms.  His response:

“.. a combination of undulatory motions in three dimensions, the result of which    described a spiral like that followed by a point on the helix of a screw-conveyor…”       Thinking Body p 200

Simple?  What??  Todd helped me out with this by drawing a picture of this spiralling movement:

.….the tipping of the pelvis from side to side and from back to front as it rotates alternately on each femoral head….”

I realized that previously using “side bending and rotating” to describe pelvic movement in walking, may not have been clear enough (see Iliopsoas – the powerhouse for another example of taking prior learning for granted!!)  If the pelvis doesn’t tip forward and backwards we would end up with crab walking which is, of course, a well-used technique to strengthen gluteals****. When  movement in the  hip-joint is restricted and the pelvis doesn’t tip back and forth, as it should, the result can be a heavy one-sided movement.

Our walking pattern relies upon stability and fluidity.  We work on good foot placement and the crouch and spring muscles that power our walking when we practice our beloved “sprinters”.  The two arches of the feet – length and width – provide sprung support as the body weight is placed upon it.  The loose-hinged ankle joint is helped by the huge calf muscle and hinged knee joints allows the legs to swing freely but not “beyond a straight line in the opposite direction” ( Thinking Body p 194).    The free moving thigh bone sitting in the hip-joint forms a crucial part of healthy and efficient movement.  The femur is the longest and strongest bone in the body and the head of the femur forms a ball and socket joint with the hip.  The acetabulum is a concave area in the pelvis into which the femoral head fits.  Mabel Todd provides a beautiful description:

“…The upper end of the thigh bones are almost globes, which are received into the deep cup-like cavities of the haunch bones. …”

The use of  haunch bones  helps us to visualize the movement of the pelvis and leg as we move up and down, forward and backwards.   Todd acknowledges the role of the ligaments that connect the pelvis to the femur but gets really excited about the articular cartilage that covers the femoral head and the acetabulum. This cartilage is kept slippery by fluid made in the synovial membrane (joint lining). As a result, the bones move against each other easily:

“…The smooth rounded head of the thigh bone, moist with glairy fluid, fits so perfectly into the smooth rounded cavity that received it, that it hold firmly by suction or atmospheric pressure…” The Thinking Body p194

“Glairy fluid”…. quite an archaic word meaning viscous and transparent, slimy and it probably dates Mabel Todd’s writing.  The Thinking Body was published in 1937 and her enthusiasm for the mechanics of the hip-joint denotes her passion for the study of movement. Read her description of the pelvis as a shock absorber balancing forces in two directions:

….the downward fall of weight from the trunk and the upward thrust from the ground as it receives the impact of the weight….

The Thinking Body Institute provides much information on Mabel’s work. She died in 1956 and is known as the founder of what is now termed ideokineses, which was developed as a mind-body modality to help injured dancers. Todd’s ideas involved using anatomically based, creative visual imagery and consciously relaxed movement to refine neuromuscular coordination.  She was not a dancer but her ideas were popular amongst dance communities in New York and Boston where she lived.

Todd’s work has influenced many and is often mentioned alongside the F.M. Alexander (a contemporary) and Moshe Feldenkreis; yet her name seems to be less well-known than both of these men whose names are synonymous with specific methods.

Mabel Todd was a pioneer in linking thought and movement.  Lulu Sweigard gave the name of ‘Ideokinesis’ to Todd’s approach.  Barbara Clark was another who furthered Mabel Todd’s ideas and Joan Skinner developed the Skinner Releasing Technique (SRT) as a result of Mabel’s work.  SRT works upon the idea that we are all born with natural ease of movement and that we lose touch with this natural ease. The technique encourages us to “let go”.  Sound familiar to those of us who enjoy a sensory approach to yoga practice.

We can celebrate Mabel’s pioneering work as we play around on the mat; on all fours and when practising walking patterns.  Her vivid prose and the detailed drawings in her book provide great clarity of thought and expression.

If interested in previous posts on pelvis, walking. somatics, intelligent movement etc – go to the home page of insideyoga.blog scroll down to the search box at the bottom of the page and type in the relevant words.  Hopefully, something will come up.  It may not be as in-depth as you require but it may be of some use.  Please ask for clarification if necessary.

No sessions next week due to half-term.  See some of you the following week.

*** re crab walking – It seems that “bear walking” is favoured by some as a more effective strengthening exercise for the gluteals!!!  Please investigate if interested.


Feel the whole


As I published the last blog Fear and fearlessness in yoga practice, Rick Hanson’s newsletter  Feel Whole. Just One thing landed in my inbox .  Hanson is an American psychologist who has written extensively on inner resilience.

In this latest newsletter he  includes a practice on cultivating a sense of “wholeness” and feeling at ease with oneself.  He refers to the importance of listening to “bottom up signals” as opposed to the “big boss”:

The mega part – the big boss – is of course the inner executive, the decision-maker and driver – some call it the ego – centered in neural circuits in the prefrontal cortex, behind your forehead. This part is determined to a fault, running things top down, ignoring bottom-up signals of growing fatigue, irritability, burnout, and issues with others

It always seems a little forced when I make links between our yoga practice and such erudite statements but – these posts and our practice is all about sharing.  So – deep breath – when we practised soft forward bends → uttanasana →- squats this week, we did so with a sense of the whole movement emanating from well-placed footprints. We were aware of the work in the hamstrings and gluts but the emphasis was upon the movement and to what extent we were able to map this movement and sense this movement travelling through the body.  All about the whole movement.  This experiential learning necessitates a willingness to  “listen to the body” and a little hint about being brave enough to pause, sometimes helps some of us.

I am still excited about the fact that by pressing into one footprint, for example, the sensory messages that allow us to lift, drop, flex, extend, side bend and rotate can be felt so clearly – if we relax.  If you come to class, you will have practised the one-legged psoas release movement.  Freeing our breathing helps immeasurably, of course, and we work on this at the beginning of every session.

I gave some footprint “homework” to one class and hope that even with such a tiny movement – just one thing – you will see results.  Any of the toe stuff featured in previous blogs will help:

Plantar Fasciitis

Arches – high and low

You may find something else in previous posts that resonates more clearly now or that you may wish to challenge.  I am in the process of reflecting upon previous posts in order to test whether they stand up to scrutiny.  By using the search box at the bottom of the homepage of insideyoga.blog you can submit a keyword and, hopefully, a post will pop up.

There is much to explore on Rick Hanson’s site .  You can subscribe to the free newsletter “Just One Thing” or download some of the guided meditations.

See some of you next week.

Fear and fearlessness in yoga practice

Fear is a potent emotion which generally manifests as a response to an immediate danger.   A sense of dread alerts us, through the amygdala that our physical selves may be harmed.

The amygdala is part of the limbic system.  It is responsible for the response and memory of emotions – especially fear.

We tend to lump anxiety and fear together and they are certainly linked.  However, anxiety is a general state of distress that is longer lasting than fear and is often a response to a non-specific “threat”.  When we hold onto fear a sense of foreboding keeps the body on alert and the resulting tension depletes our emotional and physical reserves.   Movement can help to reduce tension.  Rocking is neurologically soothing.

Our knowledge of ourselves is organized through neurological patterns.  Bodily movement signals to the brain that there are decisions to make; opportunities to take; dangers to avoid, and pleasures to pursue.  Movements in a yoga class which stiffen the body and which are held in order to create a shape, are mechanical and undermine the fluid nature of ourselves.  In our yoga sessions we concentrate upon simple movements which create a “level playing field” for all participants.  By that, I mean that students can make choices as to the range of movement that is helpful to them as individuals, precisely because the movements themselves are ones which maintain human function.  It also means that these are movements that can be “taken home” and fitted into a busy schedule.  Relaxing the diaphragm becomes a familiar pattern, pressing into the feet to free the pelvis is established as part of our walking pattern.   We begin to believe that we can rely upon our bodies as tension is released.

Some people find the invitation to explore movement on the yoga mat with an emphasis upon curiosity as too unstructured for their liking.  This is understandable. Teaching within a framework of sensory movement does have guidelines (especially safety guidelines) but it requires some degree of fearlessness on the part of students since you may be exploring a movement in a slightly different way to the person beside you. You may have to be brave enough to stop.

When I took part in a 5Rhythms dance session, I floundered  due to the freedom on offer – to move in accordance with our bodies’ response to the music.   initially, I was taken back to movement and music classes at school and the encouragement to be a tree ( although that does sound like a yoga class also???)  in truth, I felt a bit silly.  However, as I relaxed, became less self-conscious and more fearless, I tried to “let go” but I am not saying that it was easy.

The practice of the 5Rhythms is said by Gabrielle Roth to move the body in order to still the mind.  The five rhythms are Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness and when danced in sequence, are known as a “Wave.” A typical Wave takes about an hour to dance.  On paper this was familiar territory for me – the first piece “flowing” promotes movement that celebrates our fluid body; the final piece is “stillness”. The Wikipedia entry describes the work “…taught through a series of maps that explore the terrain of the inner and outer worlds of individuals, their relationships to others and the space around them…”  This notion of the space around us and our relationship to others was very interesting.  The final sharing of experience was so useful, something which is difficult to programme into a weekly yoga class, unless the class is a small one I think.

So, structure is useful, it supports our learning can help us to become less fearful.  In our practice we do not shy away from yoga asana that demand a degree of fearlessness, such as wheel, head balance and shoulder balance, but we approach them in a way that permits us to “back off” when tension creeps into a movement.  This requires a strong sense of self since we are not bound by the need to perform.  Our rolling back towards a form of shoulder stand is practiced gradually as we strengthen the mapping of flexion in the motor cortex.  We always have an “escape route” because we have a deep understanding of how the body works.  This applies to the scariest of inversions – head balance –  when Pete Blackaby’s wonderful notes on its purpose are so important:

  • To learn how to quiet yourself through finding useful support through your arms and head, even as the movement becomes more complex
  • To help you notice at what stage you bring unhelpful tension into the movement
  • To help you learn when to stop

Intelligent Yoga, Listening to the body’s innate wisdom (2nd Edition) p122

It is so striking that these notes encourage us to be contemplative rather than mechanical in our practice.  We spend much time cultivating curiosity and asking ourselves how we can organize the body in a way that is helpful.  We practice a standing backbend quite regularly – often following on from tree pose.  We investigate whether the spine can move as an integrated whole, on balanced feet and in a way that does not stress the neck (when strong neck extensors overpower the deep neck flexors and the chin lifts excessively) or lumbar spine (resulting in lordosis and flared rib cage). It always comes comes back to the breathing being smooth and easy – ie. when do you hold your breath?  It’s the whole versus the parts again:

Parts versus the whole in yoga practice.

We’ll be rocking and rolling next week.  See some of you then.

Starting up again


…is hard. 

When I posted the July blog, I signed off with reference to a “short break”.  This hailed a sense of freedom from the routine of thinking about, planning and executing the fortnightly posts.  After 6 weeks – refreshed, invigorated and making my way back to the keyboard, I found that starting up again was not so easy.  Lack of ideas, or fear of committing myself once again to practicing the very things from whence thoughts and ideas spring? A bit of both – as is often the case.

In our yoga practice we usually begin by exploring our breathing and how we feel in sensing our bodies. In this way we remain curious and open ourselves up to what is new. Crucially, we start afresh……

….Developing the ability to begin again is very important.  To start afresh with an open mind In this way we avoid taking old thoughts and habits into a practice….

These are the words of the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh in his book “The Miracle of Mindfulness” (Random House pub) and they acknowledge the difficulties in making a start.  My later- than -planned return to the blog was a result of having broken the habit but were other factors at play?

In a Radio 4 programme “Why should I exercise doctor?”.,  the presenter, Shari Vahl, acknowledges her poor fitness level and asks the  question “Why?” , despite knowing that regular movement/exercise is not just a good idea but is crucial to health, she doesn’t do it.  Why is it so difficult to establish such a useful habit?

 Barriers such as lack of time and lack of interest are highlighted but the aforesaid doctor (Michael Mosley) felt that the main obstacle is fear:

“.people are scared of physical activity.they don’t know what to do, how to

Common sense points to the importance of us being as active as our individual circumstances allow. However, the term “physical activity” can promote all manner of fears and discomfort in those who are unused to …well. what do I call it?  In an 2015 BMJ article, Dr Douglas Kamerow wrote:

……...There is much evidence showing that regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your health, better than any pill that we have.

Brief digression for a small rant: why do experts insist on the term “physical activity,” which sounds clinical and scientific, instead of “exercise,” which only sounds arduous and undesirable? (I guess I answered my own question.)…....

Dr Kamerow defines exercise as :

“.. anything that gets the skeletal muscles moving and that expends energy…” 

The NHS site “Move More“, has some very practical tips on how to become more knowledgeable and thus more comfortable in starting up a regular exercise habit.  The best tip is “start small”.  We follow this approach in our yoga practice.  We practice small, generally slow, functional movements that help to calm the nervous system and, with practice, helps to re-educate us in movements that are useful for the body.  We don’t, for example, practice wide astride standing poses because these can create tension in the externally rotated hip and thence in the lumbar spine.  We do repeat patterns of flexion, extension and rotation of the spine which, with practice, become very natural to us and lead us away from discomfort towards feeling comfortable in our bodies.  I am convinced that this works.

At a recent workshop with Pete Blackaby, we were asked to describe exactly how we “felt” as we practised yoga. Interestingly, at first we all used language that was judgemental –  “tight hamstrings; weak core..” etc.  Pete encouraged us to use a vocabulary of sensation rather than use value judgements.  I believed this to be a small but very powerful start in helping students to feel more confident and comfortable about their own practice.   Being less critical helped some of us to perform the movements with less discomfort.  By refocusing the mind on useful sensations, I practised with less effort.  So interesting that the human tendency to focus upon negative experiences and traits also seemed to influence the way in which we described our practice.

Negativity tends to make us vulnerable to fears about starting up/ again.  In thinking about this, I looked again at some Zen teachings and came upon a practices to  beat the fears that cause procrastination.   – namely,   “shining a light” on the fears.  The advice to run small tests to check whether the fears are rational or not, struck a chord:

…….Run a tiny test at first: do a little of the task, and see what happens. Was it horrible?

Most likely, a small test will give you decent results, but you still won’t trust that your fear is groundless. So run another small test, then another. By doing small tests, you aren’t risking anything really bad, and you can quickly get results.

So how do you run small tests? Some examples might include doing just 5-10 minutes of a scary task, practicing just the most absolute basic skill of a group of skills you don’t know……

So, the first blog back is a small start.  I also re-read an earlier blog to remind myself that Practice makes for more practice  Classes re-start next week and we will begin with small, probably slow, repetitive movements.   We will also foster positivity because bodies do heal if we keep moving and as we heal we can begin to increase the range of movement.

If you are interested in the NHS online resources mentioned above, here are links:

Fitness Quiz

 Movement Tips

The new Heart Health Quiz – a “heart age calculator” has received criticism from both users and some medical professionals.  Some GPs are concerned that it tells everyone over 30 to go to their GP if their cholesterol level or BP is unknown. Oxford University’s senior clinical research fellow, Dr Ben Goldacre, just appointed as the chair of the government’s new health technology advisory board, said ; “The heart age tool was a nice idea, a fun gimmick, but it was poorly executed..”  Other doctors are reported to say that the campaign which runs until 30th September, will have little effect upon patient footfall. 

There are fears on both sides.  This seems to be a “popular concept” at present. Fodder for another post.


The photo at the top of this blog is by:

  Go to rawpixel's profilerawpixel@rawpixel





Ayurveda and Yoga

cropped-cropped-whirl-spiral-movement-abstract-background.jpgComments following the regular posts are most welcome and the response to Anxiety and walking…..Can I link this to the World Cup??? drew attention to balanced treatment in all schools of medicine.  The reference to Ayurvedic medicine may interest some of you: 

“Ayur” is a Sanskrit term meaning “life”and “Veda” refers to “knowledge”.  Ayurvedic medicine is a system of Indian traditional medicine and is often practiced alongside yoga for its natural healing properties.  The guiding principles are:

  • the mind and the body are inextricably connected
  • nothing has more power to heal and transform the body than the mind

Ayurvedic therapy is tailored to the individual and Mukunda Stiles explored this in his book  “Structural Yoga Therapy – Adapting to the Individual”  Mukunda (Tom) Stiles – 1949- 2014 – started to practice yoga in 1969 whilst at West Point Military Academy.  His emphasis upon “structure” may sound very different to the functional approach that I write about, but his differentiated approach to teaching was very influential.  He taught us that different skeletal types could not be forced into rigid shapes.  Watch him teach this in reference to arms and knees . Great to hear him talk about women’s “carry angle” and how male teachers may not cater for this.  Another You Tube video shows him teaching alternative hand placements for poses such as cat, dog and plank.  He refers to “standard alignment” which he will change in order that the students do not damage their wrists and elbows.  These placements are ones that we explore in our practice..

Watch Mukunda Stiles as he taught  “Perfecting asana”.  He emphasizes 3 elements:

  • relaxation of effort
  • smooth and steady breath
  • live your yoga in everyday life**

**This is my interpretation of his reference to Sutra 47 – “…promote an identification of yourself as living within the infinite breath of life…”  Interesting to hear your views.

In Ayruvedic Yoga Therapy , Mukunda Stiles recommended specific asana practice for different constitutional types – the Ayurvedic doshas: vata, pitta and kapha.  It can be interesting to take  “The Dosha Test”.

The British Wheel of Yoga is now offering a training course in Ayruvedic principles for teachers and practitioners of yoga.  It is run by Clearmind Institute which also offers courses in Mindfulness.  On which subject, if you are doing the Yale University Happiness course I hope that it is going well.

I will be taking a short break.  There will be a few classes in August









Anxiety and walking…..Can I link this to the World Cup???

The Football World Cup propels me back to the ground, gravity, feet, balance – themes that I have explored in many blogs and which you can access via the Archive menu on insideyoga.blog.  Whilst engaging with Yale’s Happiness online course, the set exercises have encouraged my mind to pass the ball” back and forth whilst scrutinizing habits and behaviour.  From the “sidelines” came a reference (stored in drafts) to a research study published that found a link between anxiety and walking.  There I had it and after a spot of “dribbling” I found that I could take a “shot at goal”.  Here’s the “ball” –  I hope that it is not a “dummy”.

In 2016, Kent University Psychology School published the results of research that linked activity in the brain’s two hemispheres with a shift in people’s walking trajectories.  The headlines read as follows:

The researchers found evidence that blindfolded individuals who displayed inhibition or anxiety were prone to walk to the left, indicating greater activation in the right hemisphere of the brain.  I was slightly knocked off course by this since I was not familiar with the terms “inhibition” and “approach”.  The Kent University study  indicated that:

………the brain’s two hemispheres are associated with different motivational systems. These relate on the right side to inhibition and on the left to approach…….

The Behavioural Approach System (BAS) and the Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS) formed the basis of Gray’s Biopsychological theory of personality  In the 1970s  Jeffrey Gray hypothesized that these two systems controlled behavioural activity.  A behavioral approach system is believed to regulate appetitive motives, in which the goal is to move toward something desired. A behavioral avoidance (or inhibition) system is said to regulate aversive motives, in which the goal is to move away from something unpleasant.

The findings of the Kent study were based upon 80 right-handed participants. Some data was lost, leaving the final sample of 78 participants (60 females, 17 males and 1 other gender).  The data corroborated previous studies.   Charles Carver and Eddie Harmon-Jones ‘ research in 2009 found that anger relates to an appetitive or approach motivational system, whereas anxiety relates to an aversive or avoidance motivational system..  Importantly, however, the Kent University study found that inhibition (anxiety) contributed towards leftwards walking bias irrespective levels of BAS.  It seems that behavioural inhibition has a more central role in the orienting bias than previously assumed.  The findings helps us to understand a little more about human motivation – about how we respond to challenges, changes, how we adapt and grow.

How do I link such profound research with yoga teaching/practice?  …..Cautiously, one would suggest.  My last blog was entitled “..Why are we doing yoga?..”

Whilst examining my own motivation and that of teachers and students close to me , I recognize how a regular practice of yoga/meditation can have a very positive impact upon stress.  I have also been struck by some who prefer a more rigid approach than Scaravelli-inspired classes often offer – they want to be “told what to do” in a yoga class and find the process of exploration and choice to be too much to handle.  Some have, on occasions,  become quite angry.  I can also understand this.  At some junctures, structure is all-important.  Thus the shape of a yoga pose provides support, holding the pose demonstrates strength.  This in no way undermines such practices..  Regular yoga practice is the key to begin to make changes to our habits – to begin to discriminate between helpful and unhelpful patterns of movement and attitudes.

This brings us back to finding balance.  Last week we explored balance and breath with curiosity .  We identified our footprints and noticed our breathing –  the movement of the diaphragm, the balance between ribs and pelvis in quiet standing (tadasana).  We explored a one-legged balance ( some moved towards tree pose, some explored the movement of the unsupported leg in the hip socket and the stability of the pelvis) and we returned to quiet standing and the breath.  We repeated this with an exploration of Warrior 1 and Warrior 3 – we noted how we, as individuals find support.  Some students moved into other spaces of their own accord – ardha chandrasana, for example.  We compared controlled breathing with our natural breath and noticed whether our breathing adapted to movement – to change.

I wobbled more on my left leg than my right – so there you are.  But, there is hope. Lionel Messi has a very powerful kick from his left foot, but (apparently), he also shoots better with his right than most other left footers. Christiano Renaldo’s “weaker foot” , his left, seems to be as good as his right when scoring goals.  One writer notes, of Renaldo that “You can tell he doesn’t have quite the same power as his right foot but the precision and accuracy are still there…. 

With practice, I will find my way, it may be slow – too slow for some – but I’m beginning to believe that it will really work.  Perhaps it’s more than my feet that is finding balance.

See some of you next week for the “post-match analysis”.











“..Why are we doing yoga?..”

See the source imageReading Vanda Scaravelli’s Awakening The Spine, I was struck by one of her opening thoughts on page 15:

Why Are We Doing Yoga?

For health reasons? Perhaps a walk in the park would be better. To help someone else? There are so many ways of helping people. To make money?  This is surely not the best way? Out of a sense of duty and discipline?  Or for some obligation towards ourselves coming from our puritanical background?

No, nothing of the kind,  No motivation, no aims, only an agreeable appointment for the body to look forward to.  We do it for the fun of it.

To twist, stretch and move around, is pleasant and enjoyable, a body holiday.  There is an unexpected delight in meeting earth and sky at the same moment…..

Of course, people practice yoga for differing reasons.  I have written many posts on attentive practice of yoga; how small and, often, very subtle very changes to the way we sense ourselves can yield great benefits to mind and body.  The last sentence from the above quote evokes a sense of change in how we move – a useful goal for most of us.  To make good footprints with feet that can adapt to movement and changing circumstances.  To balance our musculature by finding balance through the bones. Vanda, also hints at curiosity I think. That’s why we re-visit the yoga mat; the yoga class – exploring, discovering a sense of well-being and, hopefully, enjoying “the ride”.


Change is not always easy.

The science of well-being is very much in the news these days.  Yale’s most popular class ever is commonly known as The Happiness Course.  The course, taught by Professor Laurie Santos, , tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life in twice-weekly lectures. The course focuses both on positive psychology — the characteristics that allow humans to flourish, according to Dr. Santos — and behavioural change, or how to live by those lessons in real life.  However, Dr. Santos refers to her course as the “hardest class at Yale”:

To see real change in their life habits, students have to hold themselves accountable each day, she said.

Sounds tough but remaining curious enough to allow real change to occur is tough. In Awakening the Spine, Vanda encourages us to practice yoga with an inquiring, questioning brain…”with a healthy curiosity there will be freedom to explore, freedom to understand…” (p74).  Later in the book she urges us to retain the mind of a beginner – free of habits.  I am lucky to practice with students who do question and this helps me as a teacher.

Dr Santos has developed a 10-week online course.  I have just enrolled on the free non-certificated course.  The bulk of content is in weeks 2-6 but the course is flexible and can be completed at each individual’s pace.  This course will take me through the summer break and is the “homework” that I referred to in class this week.  You thought that I was joking??

Enjoy the ride.



Sensing our bodies to reduce movement compensation

Feedback following last 2 blogs on the subject of how we increase our body sense in yoga practice.  Using sprinters as a model to sense when we lose support in practice – by repeating the whole movement or by focusing upon a part, backing off, pausing and then repeating.

Parts versus the whole in yoga practice

Functional Movement

Some students felt that completing the whole movement slowly and carefully,  helped them to notice whether the front, supporting, knee caves in; others spoke of the value of pausing.  Sprinter helps us to sense how well we get up from and return to the floor using minimal effort, thus the arrangement of the foot, ankle, knee and hip is all important.  All students agreed that repetition helps to map the movement and to reduce compensation.

Trying to reduce compensation in yoga practice is hard because we all want to complete a movement, to “do” a posture.  Many of us will work through pain.  Whilst it is important keep the body moving following injury, for example,  when we experience pain, our body will create a new movement pattern in order to compensate for the pain. If the new movement pattern is dysfunctional it can create an undesirable chain of events in the body.

A breakdown in the kinetic chain impairs performance.  A breakdown in the early part of a movement may result in a higher workload on the later parts –  leading to injury.  Think about tennis elbow which I mentioned recently. The stages of a tennis serve show that the shoulder is part of a larger movement pattern – a kinetic chain.  Effective performance of the whole kinetic chain will deliver a powerful and effective serve, however any breakdown in the chain will result in a loss of performance. Jamie Murray speaking about the tennis serve, stressed accuracy over speed:

……..Your whole body is engaged and everything has to be spot-on for the serve to work. You can get away with more if you’re just hitting a forehand or a backhand, but the serve is like the full kinetic chain………

Think about your own weak spots and how they affect your stability in yoga practice.  With Sprinters, those who struggle to make a good footprint, will struggle to take weight through the ankle and foot.   Compensation – the collapsing at the knee – will adversely affect the knee as well as the ankle and hip.  Students with pain in the hip or groin may compensate for reduced movement by side bending (lateral flexion of the spine)  as a compensatory movement which recruits muscles that are not essential to the main movement and this may also cause the front knee to collapse inwards.  When we practice a tree pose movement on our backs, many with hip “issues” will compensate for reduced abduction (outward rotation) of the hip by lifting the hip of the long supporting leg.  This extends and rotates the lumbar spine in a way that is not useful.  Compensation patterns will only work for so long before something breaks down. Your body tries to “speak” to you – through pain – and the weak spot often gets worse. You may be able to identify other compensatory movements in your own practice or from a recent class (please share).

The kinetic chain model helps us to understand, perhaps visualize the damage that can result from compensation but it focuses upon muscle and bone.  In our yoga we  try to listen to our nervous system in order to develop a sense of how the body works as a whole – muscles, bone, fascia, nerves etc and, most importantly how we begin to feel happy in our bodies.  Not as easy, in my opinion,  as teaching or learning about muscles and bones. Returning to tennis (it’s that time of year), Federer’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances on the court and to  serve well under pressure seems to be key to his success.  Atypically, I wrote about  Tom Brady’s ability to make rapid and accurate decisions under pressure.  I suggested that this was part of his whole body sense in an NFL environment.  We could look at other examples in different sports.

Susi Hately is a yoga therapist who writes extensively about compensation in yoga practice.  Her website Functional Synergy features short videos in which she talks about pain and she writes:

...the problem is rarely where the pain actually is….

If you watch the clip on wrist pain, she explains how rigidity in the shoulder blades and shoulder girdle affects movement through the back, ribs and arm.  In some videos, Susi demonstrates using the wide astride leg stance that we do not practice in our yoga classes but her explanation and presentation of functional movement is very helpful. She does stress the importance of moving slowly and carefully; sensing how the body responds.

Have a look at her site and share anything useful.  You may find other sites. We need all the help that we can get to make sense of our practice by cultivating our body sense.  Thus never too late to share feedback about sensing your movement in Sprinters – via the blog, by email or in class.

Have a good half-term.