The Joy of Back Bends

I’ve always loved back bending. Ustrasana. Urdhva Dhanurasana. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana. Show me a sternum-cracking asana, and I will show you a very happy yogini.

But I know that there are also a lot of people who don’t like them. People who visibly cringe at the mere mention of them in class, and who decide that “back bending time” would make an excellent time for a toilet break.

And I get it, I really do. When we come to our yoga mat we are already at our most vulnerable – half-naked, sweating, seeking healing/god/refuge/revelation/clarity/relaxation/wholeness/you name it. And then we’re being asked to expose ourselves even more? It’s terrifying!

Because back bends are about heart opening. And opening your heart exposes you to the very real possibility of pain, hurt, fear and rejection. The good news is, it also helps to make us more receptive to love and joy, both giving and receiving. It helps us connect with others. And it helps us to find our true expression of ourselves.

Backbends predominantly target the middle chakras – Manipura/solar plexus; Anahata/heart; and Vishuddi/throat. These chakras relate to self-confidence and personal power; our ability to give and receive love, and connect with others; and our ability to speak our truth, to express ourselves openly and without fear. If these are areas in our life which challenge us, then naturally the back bending experience will be a confronting one.

But let’s think about this. These qualities relate to a balanced and happy chakra. These qualities, therefore, are our natural state. As Sharon Gannon, of Jivamukti Yoga says:

“You cannot do yoga. Yoga is your natural state. What you can do are yoga exercises, which may reveal to you where you are resisting your natural state. “

I’ve written before about the way that yoga forces you to face yourself, warts and all. Whatever is going on for you RIGHT NOW, will show up on your mat. The yoga journey is not easy, but it is a worthy one. Yoga is about finding our true self again. It’s about making us whole. And it’s about making ourselves into vessels of unconditional love.

So start small on your back bending journey. No one’s expecting you to bust out full Dhanurasana. Cat-cow, Bridge and Cobra are some simple and gentle backbends that will help to ease you into it. Fear may be present – it’s a normal response to trying something new. But remember that the opposite of fear is love. And it is love that will be waiting for you on the other side.

The gift of yoga

I love all of my yoga students, I truly do. Even on those days when I really, really don’t feel like teaching, they remind me again and again why I became a teacher in the first place, and continually inspire me to challenge myself both as a teacher at the front of the room, and as a student within my own practice.

But I have to admit, there is a group of students who are particularly dear to my heart, who inspire and teach me more about the true meaning of yoga, and what it means to be a kind and compassionate being, than anyone ever could.

They are the students to whom I offer a weekly, free yoga class as part of my day job as a social worker. They are the students who, despite acute and/or enduring mental illness, despite the debilitating side-effects of medication, and despite the potential anxiety of being within a social setting, turn up each week (okay, most weeks) seeking to challenge themselves physically and mentally, learn some new techniques for managing stress and perhaps even have some fun in the process.

It’s like no other yoga class I’ve ever taught. For a start, it’s predominantly chair-based, with most poses heavily modified to cater to all ability levels. Questions and dialogue throughout the hour-long session are welcomed and encouraged. Bare feet are optional, and everyone is free to sit out any poses they choose.

As my fellow social workers will know, to have had any students returning regularly is close to a miracle. To have had the majority of my students attend most classes FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR is beyond anything I could have imagined!

Only a very small handful had ever done yoga before. For others, it was basically the first time they had ever heard of ‘yoga’. And there was a large group who had thought about trying yoga in past, but either couldn’t afford it; were too unwell; felt uncomfortable going to a studio or gym; were anxious about being around groups of strangers; didn’t feel physically capable; or some combination of the above. Together, we’ve managed to create a safe space that anyone, no matter where they are on their road to recovery, may enter.

I am regularly thanked for teaching the class, but honestly? The feedback I get from my students, in terms of what yoga has done for them, is all the thanks I need. They tell me how much more relaxed they are. That they feel more able to manage the ongoing stressors in their lives. That they feel stronger or more flexible. That it gives them a meaningful focus for their day, somewhere to go, to be with others and feel less isolated.

We had our last class of the year yesterday, and so I am writing this post as a public acknowledgement and thank you to my clients/students, for allowing me to do what I love so much, for teaching me what courage and compassion truly look like, and, this Christmas, for both giving and receiving the gift of yoga.

Dear Yoga, I’ve been seeing other people

Dear Yoga,

There’s something I need to tell you.

You might want to sit down for this one, maybe make yourself some chai.

Okay. Here goes.

Yoga, I’ve been seeing other people.

I’m sure you must have guessed. I mean, the signs were all there. The aching, shaking muscles. The absences from my mat. The new exercise clothes from Lorna Jane.

I know it sounds cliched, but really – it’s not you, it’s me. Through no fault of your own, I felt my fitness had plateaued. The kilos were creeping on and no amount of vinyasa or salad would shift it.

So I joined a gym and started attending group classes. At first it was just Body Combat, a kind of mixed martial arts-aerobics hybrid. It made me feel like Lara Croft and Buffy combined. So I kept going. My shoulder ached for three days after my first class, but it felt good to know that I’d worked hard.

Next, I tried boxing. Feeling my gloves connect with the punching bag was even more satisfying than beating up imaginary foes. And I can honestly say I’ve never done more sit ups or push ups than I did in those classes.

A few years ago, I’d joined a gym. One of my favourite exercises had been squats using a barbell for extra resistance. So the next logical class to try was Body Pump. Using the barbell and plates, working up to around 800 repetitiions per class, I have to say I walked (shakily) out of that class feeling like a champion. I felt STRONG. POWERFUL. A WARRIOR.

Yoga, I can see you cringing at all this high-impact cardio and strength training. I know you want this to be over. But, I’m sorry to say, there’s more.

You see, I was going to leave it at these three classes. But then I missed a combat class one week, due to a Tigress Yoga workshop, and wanted to fit some cardio into my week. So I tried Body Attack. It was like areobics on steroids. There were daggy 80s and 90s moves (grapevine, anyone?). There was plyometrics. There was high kicking and there was running to various to corners of the room. And when we split the room for some agility exercises, it felt just like West Side Story. And you know how much I love a good musical.

But yoga, please don’t think I’ve forgotten you. I still unroll my mat as soon as I get home from work, it’s just sometimes I have to make my practice a little shorter. And those days when I do have to leave without you – well, it just makes me miss you all the more.

You may not believe me when I say this, but – I’m doing this for us. After just a few weeks, I already feel stronger, fitter. more flexible (which wa a pleasant surprise). I’m more confident and motivated in all areas of my life, not just my physical health.

All of this translates onto my mat. My headstands have never felt so strong and stable. I chataranga like a champion. And my arm balances – just, wow.

I’m actually doing more yoga since joining the gym. Initially, it was to counteract and balance the higher-impact, strength focused gym classes. Now, it’s purely because I want to move more. Bending, stretching, high kicking and squatting – it makes me feel so alive, so happy.

Yoga, I hope this has helped to put your mind to rest. Please believe me when I say that you are my first and greatest love. And I promise, that even though one day, I may hang up my boxing gloves, I will always, ALWAYS, come back to the mat.

What I’ve learned as a yoga teacher (so far…)

So, it’s been roughly six months since I started teaching yoga and what a fabulous six months it’s been! However, it’s not been without it’s lessons, and I thought I would take some time out to reflect on what I’ve learned so far. Some of these things are never discussed in teacher trainings, so hopefully this post will also be of use for new teachers and teacher trainees. I’d also love to hear your thoughts and things that you may have learnt as a new or experienced teacher, so please feel free to leave your comments below!

Do you want to make money or do you want to be a yoga teacher? I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive – there are plenty of very successful yoga teachers out there who earn more than enough to make a living. But when you’re starting out, depending on where you teach, you’re most likely going to be making a pittance, and sometimes nothing at all. For myself, I hire the space in which I run my classes, which means if I don’t get students, then I don’t get paid. And if I don’t get enough students, then I might be able to cover my overheads, but I don’t make a profit. It’s only been the past few months in which I’ve started to break even. But you know what? I don’t really care. Why? Because I’m teaching yoga! I’d love one day to make a living solely from teaching yoga, but the reality is for most of us, we’re going to need a second job in order to pay the rent and keep us fed.

In the early days of teaching, I used to get really frustrated when no one turned up, worried about profit and loss. But once I started to let go of my attachment to the money side of things, I found I was able to enjoy simply teaching all the more, no matter how many or how few people turned up. And your students will be able to tell a mile off whether your classes are motivated by a desire for money, or a genuine desire to be of service and share the gift of yoga.

Teaching opportunities are out there – but you’ve got to find them. Everywhere you look, it seems there’s a yoga class being offered – studios, gyms, community centres, in parks, at schools. So you’d be forgiven for thinking that all the good teaching gigs in your area have been taken. And finding a teaching job is not like finding a “normal” job – you don’t simply open The Age classifieds on a Saturday morning and scan the “Yoga Teachers Wanted” ads. You might be lucky enough to be offered a job upon graduation – but then again, you might not.

So you need to network. Join or start a Facebook group for yoga teachers in your area – teachers often use this to advertise for covers or new studios opening up. Make yourself known to gyms and studios and let them know you’re available for covers. Be prepared to travel and to work odd hours and sometimes at short notice.

Maybe you could teach friends or colleagues. I’m lucky enough to have a supportive workplace (my day job) that allows me to run a weekly yoga class to our clients. I don’t get paid any extra, but it’s invaluable teaching experience – and in the early days, that’s exactly what you need.

There will be days when you don’t want to teach. I love yoga to itty bitty pieces, but just as there are days when my yoga mat is as attractive to me as an animal carcass, so too there are days when I really don’t want to teach. I’m tired. My muscles ache. It’s dark/cold/raining. My regulars have cancelled. I’ve had a crazy-busy week and don’t want to speak to anyone. But I go. And I teach. And I love it. Teaching, like yoga itself, requires and inspires commitment, dedication, discipline and practice. And has there ever been a time when you’ve gotten on your mat and regretted it afterwards? Exactly. Teaching is the same.

Students will come and go but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher. You will have students who come for one or two classes, only to never be seen again. This does not mean you suck as a teacher. It just means that you’re perhaps not the right teacher for them. Be honest, when you first started doing yoga, didn’t you shop around, trying out different teachers, studios and styles until you found one that fit? So try not to take it personally. I did at first, until I bumped my ego out of the way and reminded myself that it’s about what’s best for my students, and sometimes “what’s best” is not necessarily me.

Some yoga teachers/studio directors/gym managers are flakes. Emphasis on “some”! Most yoga teachers and others within the wellness industry are amongst the nicest, most transparent and helpful people you can get. But there are, unfortunately, a tiny handful who advertise teaching positions and request expressions of interest, then never bother to return your email or phone call, not even to acknowledge its receipt or to advise that the position has been filled. I understand that time is a precious commodity these days, but how long does it take to write a one or two line email, BCC it and hit send? In my opinion, it’s not just unprofessional – it’s plain rude. And who wants to work for or with rude people? Be the bigger person, leave them to it and move on.

And lastly, teaching yoga is awesome. You probably knew this one already! Sure, it’s terrifying at first with all those eyes on you, while you try to remember your sequences and not get tongue tied, but once you get into the flow of it, it’s like the teaching itself becomes your yoga practice. Fluid, graceful, carefully and creatively crafted. And your students’ expressions of pure bliss after class? Priceless.


On attachment and change…AKA when Body Combat and yoga collide

It’s been years since I set foot in a gym. Nasty places, populated by impossibly energetic personal trainers who have clearly missed their calling as army drill sergeants, grunting men with no necks and matchstick thin women who look like they could benchpress me, no problem.

So why was I here, on a freezing Thursday evening, nervously sipping water as I waited for my Body Combat class to start?

Because, much as it pains me to admit it, my beloved yoga practice is no longer enough to keep the dreaded kilo-creep at bay. I’ve been vinyasa-ing my little heart out, eating salad, and still they keep on coming!

(As a side note, I’m fully aware that weight loss is not the primary reason for practicing yoga. But when it’s pretty much the only form of exercise I actually enjoy – or so I thought, turns out boxing is awesome! – it has to perform double-duty.)

Anyway. I kicked, punched and kata-ed my way through 55 minutes of class, got suitably red-faced and sweaty and went back home to bask in my own self-satisfied, post-exercise glow.

The next day, my upper arms and shoulders felt much the same as after my very first Ashtanga class – that is, I could barely move them (though post-Ashtanga was much, much worse). So when I got home from work, I unrolled my yoga mat and set about my practice, the plan being to give my shoulders and arms a good stretch. The reality? I stubbornly ignored the aching stiffness and muscled my way through chatarangas, arm balances and binds. I did have the foresight, however, to give headstand a miss.

The Marichi poses, in particular, are a bugger at the best of times. Add in stiff shoulders and you’ve got a recipe for frustration and disappointment. I huffed and puffed (and not in a good way) myself almost to the point of tears, as my ego popped out for a cheery hello:


Please shut up, ego, you’re going to get someone hurt.

What surprised me the most was the ferocity of my reaction to “not being able to practice the way I always do”. I was more than frustrated. I was ANGRY. Something had come between me and my practice!

It was only after the muscle soreness had disappeared, and my practice back to “normal”, that I was able to reflect on what such a minor challenge said about me and my approach to my practice.

Attachment, attachment, attachment.

And, as most of us have probably figured out by now, attachment can only ever lead to suffering.

When you rely on a person, or object, or idea as a source of happiness or measure of success, and then that person, or object, or idea is taken away, you experience a sense of loss, sadness, loneliness, despair, failure. You suffer.

So when you rely on yout ability to complete a certain vinyasa sequence or achieve a certain pose as a measure of your ability and worth as a yogi, and then one day, for whatever reason, you fail, you feel disappointed, frustrated, impatient, angry. You suffer.

One of the great things about yoga is that we take the lessons learned on the mat, out into the world. Through our practice we learn that every day is different, that we are different, from moment to moment. Sometimes we can balance in headstand like a champion, other days we struggle to get our toes off the floor. Nothing stays the same. EVERYTHING changes – our practice, our homes, our jobs, our loves, our friends, our interests. And this is how it should be. This is life, moving us forward on our path.

Let’s also consider that everything – us, that favourite photo, your car – is just energy. And according to Physics 101, energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed. So next time you feel that you have “lost” or “failed” something, remember this – you have also gained something new.

And while change is not something we always have control over, we can control how we respond to it – with fear, anger and resistance, or with grace, love and surrender.

Next time, I know which one I’m choosing.

Mindful in May: A summary

Last month I participated in Mindful in May to help raise much needed funds in order to bring clean water to people living in developing countries. Thanks to our united efforts – and of course, all of the lovely people who sponsored us – we were able to raise over $80, 000, enough to fund two water development projects in Rwanda!

As I wrote in my last blog, however, I also saw Mindful in May as a personal challenge, a way of introducing a consistent meditation practice into my daily life.

So, how’d I go?

I’ll admit, it wasn’t always easy. I feel as though I have the chattiest monkey mind in the world, and the first week in particular was very frustrating as I sought to quiet it. I did miss a couple of days, and others I was so exhausted that my meditation practice consisted of me lying supine in bed, focusing on my breath and trying not to fall asleep.

Knowing I was part of a community, acting for a common purpose, helped to keep me on track most of the time, and by the end of the month I looked forward to those ten minutes of silence, stillness, and space. My monkey mind was still, well, monkeying around, but I became more efficient at identifying and witnessing my thoughts, rather than identifying with my thoughts, and in doing so was able to create a little more space in which to just be.

I confess, as soon as May ended, I allowed life to get in the way again and my meditation practice has once again been left behind. But I remember that bewitching sensation of inner peace, and with two weeks of annual leave stretching out in front of me, I hope to once more settle upon my cushion and find that blissful inner knowing.

Mindful in May

Just a quick post to let my lovely readers know that I will be participating in Mindful In May this year! By meditating for ten  minutes every day for the month of May, we are aiming to raise $60, 000 in donations to help bring clean water to developing countries.

I’m treating this next month as a personal challenge, as I’ve struggled for many years to maintain a daily meditation practice. So I’m planning to keep track of my progress throughout the next 31 days, and will be posting on here at the end of it to share my  journey.

If you would like to join me, or would just like to know more about Mindful in May, you can find all the info you need here

Om shanti! xx

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