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Inside Yoga – Explore the sensation, not the shape.

Familiarize yourself with a sensory and very safe approach to yoga practice. Begin to notice what it is like to be inside the lanscape of the body. We don’t have a body; we are a body.

I don’t expect students to perform perfect postures/shapes, I encourage them to notice what is happening in the body, to be interested in small changes ; to find out how to be comfortable in their own skin.

Above all, as a Scaravelli-inspired teacher, I follow Vanda Scaravelli’s watchwords:

.. …Do not kill the instinct of the body for the glory of the pose….

 

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.

Exhalation:

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

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

Inhalation:

“…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……   http://www.completecoherence.com

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Postscript on Perception in Yoga Practice

Whilst walking in mountains and mentally reviewing the last blog on perception, I wondered whether my words had drifted  “up into the clouds”  – that more practical content would be useful.

Definition of “perception”

…the ability to see, hear or become aware of something though the senses…

I do not think that we can suddenly become more “perceptive” if we join a yoga class that follows a sensory approach – that this, in itself,  allows us to hear the “whispers” rather than the “screams” of the sensory nervous system.  Yoga practice takes many forms and time spent with movement and breath is essential for good health.  When walking , I had the good fortune to meet a former Alpine Olympic Gold medal winner who , at almost 80, walks every day whatever the weather. He moves as best he can and he stressed the need and the therapeutic value of “..listening to his body…to  breathe in the air ..to make space for the mind..”  His words, not mine.

Yoga asana are representations of movement and are not in themselves structural models around which we should wrap our bodies.  If we do, then I believe, that we may not make space to listen;  notice;  become more perceptive.

To be more concrete , which I promised, and purely reflecting my own views.  Tree pose (vrksasana) is a standing balance  which represents an element of our walking pattern – namely changing direction.  It is, therefore, helpful for the supporting leg to be clearly planted and supportive in a way that enhances mobility rather than a braced posture in which stiffness is mapped.  Thus if the knee is locked to ensure that the pose looks “solid”, the sense of mobility, fluidity is lost and the practice is marked by a disconnect between body and mind.  Knees do not like to be locked in this way, so if we do not listen to the whispers, those knees will eventually scream.

The knee may be locked because the supporting footprint is not clearly planted – thus the knee is being asked to support because it is being told to, not because it wants to.  Anxiety about balance poses is quite natural and shoulders may be recruited to support the balancing structure.  If we don’t notice this in tree pose we may not notice it when we walk, it may become an unhelpful habitual feature of ambulation.  If we spend lots of time, planting the foot, perhaps through sprinters (of course) , we may be able to move into the balance with greater perception.  We may then feel that as we take the weight onto one leg, the abdominals can add support and the shoulders can relax.

Essentially, when our practice is body/mind centred, we do not strive to hold ourselves up, we use gravity to drop our weight down through the supporting leg bones.  In this way, we recall Vanda Saravelli’s teaching – that when the lower body , from the waist , is drawn down the upper body can be free.  Thus the shoulders may not jump towards a habitual “brace”- consequently, the upper body is free to breath – the essence of all our yoga practice.

In sprinters, if we are unable to notice that the chin lifts as we lift the spine, then we do not notice that we are asking the stong extensor muscles of the neck to help, to compensate for the our being unable to make a good footprint to support the movement.  The neck doesn’t want to work – we are telling it to do so.

Damasio writes that “…Emotions play out in the theater of the body.  Feelings play out in the theater of the mind….”  Looking for Spinoza p.28

Tightening muscles because you have been doing it for  long time becomes part of us.  We stiffen in reponse to anxiety and stress.  It is, therefore, useful to differentiate tension from effort.  Some movement requires effort but what do we bring to a movement that is not needed?  It is this introspective process of teaching and practicing yoga that Pete Blackaby (intelligent Yoga) has been teaching for years and it has taken me years to truly “catch on”, to become more perceptive in my practice.  More practice is required, of course…as is more patience.

Speaking of Patience.  The more perceptive of you may have noticed that at the end of the last blog I wrote that “Rhythmic Breathing” would be the subject of the next.

As it will be.

I look forward to seeing some of you in class.

 

 

 

 

How perceptive are we in Yoga Practice?

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Perception is a key element in yoga practice – in life generally – and it requires patience. It can take a long time for something to “click”, for an idea, a thought to “land”.  It can take a long time for us to notice something in our yoga practice – in particular, I believe that it can take a long time to understand relaxation and to recognize tension.
Why is this?
Perhaps it is due to our trying to make changes to the way we move, live life, manage work etc by focusing upon thinking in a different way.  You know the formula – perhaps if we think differently, we can change our behaviour?  This is true, to a certain extent but it is “top down” processing which does not always take into account the many complex processes that affect our thinking; the many layers of which we would be wise to be aware.
Dr Alan Watkins is a neuroscientist by background who elaborates upon this in a TED talk linked below.  He uses this illustration:
  https://thinkibility.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/emotions1.jpg
***with thanks to thinkability.com
Dr Watkins suggests that for real change to take place, we have to start with our physiology – our body data.  Awareness of this body data is called feelings. Watkins says that we can’t sort out Feelings before we sort out our emotions.  He notes that feelings and emotions are different – that we need to be aware (perceptive) in order to feel what is going on.  He illustrates the specific physiological data produced by anxiety – showing the effect upon a volunteer’s heart rate.
Watkins’ talk is interesting and it reminded me of something that Pete Blackaby taught some years ago along the lines of  “emotions come first, then feeling, then the mind kicks in..”  I wrote this down, have been using it as a guide in my teaching but, in truth,  its significance has taken a long time to “land”.  Like Alan Watkins,  Antonio Damasio, an American- Portuguese neuroscientist whose main field is neurobiology says that “…In order to understand “feeling” we need to understand what an emotion is. ..”  Watkins defines it as “energy in motion”. Damasio says that it  is a complex process of actions.  Some actions are movements – ie change in our face and body when we are afraid; or movements that are internal -that happen in the heart or gut.  Essentially, emotion is movement and action in the broadest sense.

 

Emotional response has been laid down through evolution to enable us to cope with threat (eg. predators) and to take opportunities (eg. food) without spending too much time on thinking around many options.   Emotion is largely non-conscious but when we feel it happening and we connect the feeling to what we are perceiving the whole process is made conscious and it “enters your mind flow” (Damasio). Now, some …years later…I think that I know what Pete meant when he said “emotions come first, then feeling, then the mind kicks in..”

How does this help us in our yoga practice?

Emotions occur when the “stakes” outside the organism are fairly high in a positive or negative direction.  If we can’t recognize the difference between tension and relaxation, if we stop breathing in order to achieve a specific shape then we will hold onto tension and creates stiffness, thereby interfering with the natural balance of the body.  By practising in a relaxed way, by seeking to find the most comfortable way to move, we listen to the physiological messages that are the bedrock of our feelings and thoughts.   Equally, if we can’t sense that the body is under-supported then our structure suffers also.  Perhaps in this mode of practice real change can happen

 

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A friend has shared this quote which sums up much of what I write about our yoga.  It is helpful to simply notice in our practice and to abandon the quest to be “right”.  It is uncommon that we can all be right but we can all have a chance at freedom of movement .  This does, I think, reduce anxiety.

Anxiety can be present in a yoga class if there is an expectation (can be self-induced) that there is a perfect pose/shape to be achieved.  The shape of a yoga asana is the visible “proof” of our practice but there can be a conflict between how we sense ourselves and we how think others see us.  The emotional connection or disconnect between these two perspectives can be anxiety-inducing, I think.

Recently, a student was struck by the fact that one movement was beneficial to her but produced discomfort in another student.  The movement was a combination of getting up/down from kneeling and it created an opportunity to discuss how each student might notice when discomfort (stiffening) occurs and whether anything extra is being added to the movement – compensation that may well make the tension habitual.  An example of this would be a limp that continues and becomes habitual after an injury has healed.  If we notice tension by staying in the moment and not anticipating a shape or a perfect yoga pose, we will eventually – be able to move in a way that is tension-free.

You may be interested to read these past blogs.  I will be re-tweaking them and any comments are most welcome.

The feel of Balance

Noticing

Emotions and Pain

In the next blog I will investigate Dr Alan Watkins talk on rhythmic breathing.

 

An experiment in Sound

None of us were quite sure how the workshop on 19th January would go.  As the yoga teacher involved, I aimed to prepare participants for lying down for 35 minutes  and to introduce the notion of listening, sounds and silence.

The sound therapist presented a sound bath which was well received and which seemed to help some participants to get to a state of deep relaxation quite quickly.  One participant experienced “losing her body” and felt that the sound bath produced the “purest sounds”.  Another saw imagery that was peaceful.  This is probably attributed to being in a relaxed state between wakefulness and sleep – the “dozing off” time.  The participant did report : “..I think I fell asleep..”  Perhaps this person was experiencing a dominance of theta brainwaves??

There are five main frequency brain waves: Gamma (highest) Beta, Alpha, Theta, Delta (slowest recorded). The brain produces consistent waves at all frequencies. Everything we or say is regulated by the frequency of brain waves. Thus, throughout the day in your waking state, your EEG will display all 5 types of brain waves at the same time. However, one particular brain wave will be dominant depending on the state of consciousness that you are in.  In normal activity, brain waves are of the beta type. However, during meditation, there is a shift in brain activity, with alpha waves the most commonly observed. This increase in alpha wave activity is associated with activation of the parasympathetic nervous system – the “rest and digest” system.
blogpictures

As I understand it, and I am still trying to understand, Sound Therapy works upon using vibrations and resonance to calm the listener’s brain – to slow down the brain frequency.  This is claimed to get the listening brain to alpha brainwave day dreaminess quite quickly and then the deeper relaxation associated with theta follows.  The BAST website states:

……At BAST we specialise in combining instruments in a specific way to influence brainwave frequencies, enabling a person to enter an altered state of consciousness (ASC) similar to very deep relaxation or meditation. In this state many different therapeutic process occur……

I become a trifle “wobbly” about the “altered state of consciousness” claim and wonder why since I benefit from and teach approaches to meditation and would happily say that meditation can make changes to our awareness.   Perhaps, it is the linking of ASC and therapy (a friend’s observation, not mine – but I think that I agree).  ASC is defined in Wikipedia as “.. any condition which is significantly different from a normal waking state..” The term was used in conjunction with hypnosis.  It seems to be defined as a temporary change in one’s mental state – an altered state of awareness”. You may find this short video enlightening – or amusing

Crucially, none of the workshop participants experienced a negative reaction to the soundbath.  A couple of us were distracted by exterior construction noise but some said that they did not notice this or that they thought it was part of the soundbath.

Another participant thought that some of the soundbath was a recording.  I found this interesting since the British Academy of Sound Therapy website refers to a study that compared the effects of a 35 minute live soundbath with a recording of the same.  The soundbath matched exactly the one presented in the workshop – Himalayan singing bowls, transitioning to Gongs, transitioning to crystal singing bowls, transitioning to therapeutic percussion.  In the study the soundbath was live, where subjects lay on the floor and received around 35 minutes of sound (as in the workshop)  and by a recording of the same which was available online. The study set out to answer the following questions.

  1.  Is live sound more or less effective than digitally recorded and delivered sound?
  2. What are the conscious altering effects of this method and to what degree are the domains effected?
  3. What are the therapeutic effects of sound induced ASC?

The data showed positive effects upon physical relaxation, imagery, positive mood, insightfulness, transcendence and ineffability (I struggle to understand these last 2) across both the live and recorded soundbath. The live performance seemed to produce a more energizing experience – perhaps due to the physical vibrations of the instruments – and the recording was felt to me more immersive – perhaps due to the blocking out of external noise.  One participant had suggested that a recorded version might be more useful for that very reason.

I’m also looking at medical research and see that in 1946 a specific sound therapy known as audio-psycho-phonology was developed by Dr Alfred Tomatis (1920 – 2001), a French Ear, Nose & Throat specialist. This therapy  bridges medicine, psychology, music therapy, speech therapy, and special education. Also that Sound Therapy is used by the British Tinnitus Society to help sufferers and that one of the recordings available from the Society is Widex Zen Therapy,  a programme addressing all three aspects of tinnitus distress –  the auditory aspects, attention and emotion:

….Zen fractal tones stimulate passive listening, reduce Tinnitus awareness, promote relaxation and interrupt the Tinnitus-stress cycle. Zen noise can provide additional relief from Tinnitus….

We are having another go in February.  This will be a different presentation than last time.  As always, comments are most welcome.

 

 

 

 

Sounds and Silence

20181206_140403There is a brief calm at the beginning of a new year when all the noise has subsided and we prepare for what is to come.  We may think back and forth – from what has passed and to what will be.

This blog first took shape in January 2017 and a “new voice” sounded for me on the 17th of that month.

43  years ago , on 17th January 1966, Simon and Garfunkel released their album, The Sound of Silence. The title song first featured on their first album Wednesday Morning, 3am, released in October 1964, but it’s commercial failure led to the duo splitting – Paul Simon returned England and Art Garfunkel to his studies at Columbia University.  By the spring of 1965 the song was receiving airtime and Tom Hudson,  producer at Columbia Studios, added electric instruments to the acoustic track and released it in September 1965. The Sound of Silence hit no. 1 in January 1966.  Simon and Garfunkel hastily reunited and recorded a second album –The Sound of Silence – an attempt to capitalize upon the success of the title song. The song was a top-ten hit in multiple countries worldwide. in 2012, the song along with the rest of the album  was added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important”.

There are many commentators on Paul Simon’s song but during I have been struck by  the words of Dr Don Saliers, who recorded his thoughts when, in 2013, Paul Simon spoke at Emory University as part of the Richard Ellman Lecture in Modern Literature:

“…At a time when there was a lot of noise….and coming chaos ..that notion of silence as a friend and the ambiguity of silence, made the lyrics resonate with us…

He refers to the song being taken up by an America mourning the death of John Kennedy and to the assassinations that were to come.  Dr Saliers adds _ “Silence can be a refuge and silence can be a phenomenally difficult reality….

silent raindrops
wells of silence

So silence is refuge, silence is a friend……
…….Reference to people talking a lot but not listening

…..Silence of the interior life….

Saliers is a Professor of Theology and Worship, Emeritus at Emory University, a private research establishment in Atlanta.  In 2013 Paul Simon’s series went under the title: The Insomniac’s Lullaby: Awake and Aware of the Time”.

Sound of Silence.  Interior life.  Listening. Awake and Aware.  These are words commonly found in mindfulness manuals.  Jon Kabat Zinn uses them in The Breathscape Practice for Cultivating Mindfulness.  In Mindfulness: a practical guide to Finding Pace in a Frantic World by Williams and Penman, a Sounds and Thoughts meditation encapsulates these key words and thoughts:

We are immersed in a soundscape of enormous depth and variety. Just take a moment to listen……. Even when you are in quiet room, you can still pick up muffled sounds. It might be your breath….Even silence contains sounds…
………..This constantly fluxing soundscape is just like
your thought stream….” pp 141-143

Williams and Penman explain that the The Sounds and Thoughts meditation gradually reveals how similar ares ound and thought. Both appear as if from nowhere. Both can seem random and we have no control over their arising. Both are enormously potent and carry immense momentum…

This connection has been highlighted in more detail to me recently by a student of the British Academy of Sound Therapy (BAST). I had my first taste of Sound Therapy a few weeks ago and was curious.  Sound therapists believe that we are all made up of different energy frequencies. They use sound frequencies to interact with these, thus attempting to rebalance the body’s energy.

Sound therapy was formally introduced to the UK in 2000 with the establishment of BAST. The BAST website expands upon the approach:

The BAST method of sound therapy combines carefully considered therapeutic sound techniques which have been shown to affect physiology, neurology and psychology with a form of reflective enquiry (a kind of questioning). This approach has been shown to be very effective at improving health and wellbeing.

Sound therapy is a complementary therapy used alongside orthodox medicine. As such, it wise to ask questions of the therapist if you have any queries or doubts.

Before each session, the practitioner will ask the client about their medical history and any current health problems. The practitioner will then adapt their treatment accordingly, using relaxing or stimulating sounds to try to rebalance the body – gongs, drums, bells, bowls, tuning forks and the human voice are all used.
Sound has been used as a healing or calming tool for thousands of years. Himalayan singing bowls (standing bells that “sing”) have been used throughout Asia for thousands of years in prayer and meditation, and are now used to promote relaxation and wellbeing.  Music therapy is a creative arts therapy in which a music therapist uses music and all of its facets—physical, emotional, mental, social, aesthetic, and spiritual—to help clients improve their physical and mental health.  Sound has been used for thousands of years in a healing sense – overtone chanting from Central Asia, for example – yet now it is featuring more prominently in neuroscience journals and webpages etc.

Joshua Leeds, the author of The Power of Sound is an expert in the field of psychoacoustics, the study of the effects of sound on the human nervous system. He writes about the power of sound:

…creating a frequency and vibration for someone that’s conducive for him or her to heal. Sound healing is trending up. It’s like where yoga was 15 years ago. People are realizing that sound is a viable medium to address distress, enhance learning….

I am still investigating and am in discussion with two practitioners on the subject of a workshop – Yoga and Sound Therapy.  Wendy is a Sound Therapist- in- training and Heather is a Reiki Master and a qualified Counsellor.  We aim to run the workshop for small group of 6 people who would evaluate the experience with the 3 practitioners.  A second blog will report on the findings.

If you are interested, we will send a more detailed account of Wendy’s approach, and of how the session will run . For dates, check the website.

Please follow the links.  Forward any comments or queries.

Have a very Happy 2019.  I look forward to seeing some of you next week.

 

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.:

https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQIuusES1D_3vdQ6kTtt3y8vShW4lg-B0gagvGPv53WElIoWyBu

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.