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:

THIS IS MY PRACTICE! I ALWAYS BIND IN MARICHI A THROUGH C AND I AM BINDING TODAY, MUSCLE SORENESS BE DAMNED!

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.

Home practice vs studio classes

I’ve been so busy lately that getting to the studio for a yoga class has been impossible. For ttwo weeks I’ve relied solely on my home practice, squeezing it in haphazardly around work, teaching, and myriad other responsibilities.

I’ll admit, after only a couple of weeks out of the habit, finding the motivation to gather up my mat and towel and drive the twenty minutes to the studio was hard. But I picked the day I’d go back, and committed to it.

And wow.

I’d forgotten just how much I LOVED being at the studio. The energy created afters years of classes, hundreds, maybe thousands of students, is palpable. It’s a mini-home-away-from-home, oasis of calm amidst the buzz of Prahran.

Driving home afterwards, aglow with an almighty yoga buzz, I started thinking more about home practice versus studio classes…and thus this post was born.

Home practice

I love, love, love my home practice! I practice more at home than I do a studio, always have. Not least because it’s free! Let’s face it, some of those yoga classes out there are getting pretty expensive. The studio I go to is very reasonably priced, but there are some out there that charge $25-30 per hour. I understand that teachers have to pay rent and eat like the rest of us, but really?! (Anyway, that’s a whole other blog post).

Then there’s the comfort factor. When I go to class I might wear my fancy Lulu tops, but when I’m at home, well, let’s just say I’ve been known to bust out a downdog in my pyjamas.

And, you know, we’re all so busy. It’s nice to be able to unroll my mat at a time that suits me, to practice for as long or as little as I want. I know a class might only be 90 minutes out of your day, but when you factor in travel time, finding parking, AND you want to be there a bit early to get your favourite spot (or is that just me?), not to mention getting home again, it can easily take up to a couple of hours.

But the main reason I love a home practice so much is the fact that I can do exactly the practice I need and want on the day. – sometimes a strong vinyasa, or a quiet, restorative practice if my energy is low. I can spend a bit more time on my “challenge” poses if I so choose, or focus on a particular theme for the whole session.

Of course, maintaining a regular home practice requires a fair degree of self-discipline and motivation. My secret is not giving myself time to think about it or talk myself out of it. The second I get home from work, I get changed and get on the mat. No hesitation. Just get on the mat and the practice will take care of itself.

Studio classes

Glorious as my home practice might be, there is nothing like the feeling of walking into my regular yoga studio. As I mentioned earlier, hundreds, thousands of students have walked through those doors, practiced together, created an energy that you feel the moment you step inside. It’s intoxicating.

Regular attendance at a studio also helps to make you feel like you belong to a community. I’m the lone yogini within my circle of friends, so talking with my teachers, catching up with old teacher trainee friends and just being surrounded by so many others who love yoga as much as I do, makes me feel like I’m part of something much bigger than myself.

One thing I noticed, on returning to studio classes after several years break, is how many bad habits I’d fallen into when only doing a home practice – hyperextension in my knees and elbows, over-arching into my lower back and sinking into my hips were the main ones. I had no one to pick me up on it, and so it took quite a while to train myself out of them – but with the help of my teachers, I got there!

Sometimes I find myself stuck in an asana rut, practicing the same poses day after day. Going to class gives me the opportunity to learn something new – a pose, a sequence, an entry or exit in/out of a pose, some words of wisdom – something that will inspire me to shake up my home practice.

Having kapha as my predominant dosha also means that sometimes I need my butt kicked.I know exactly which teachers will do that, who let me get away with taking the easy option, who’ll push me to go deeper – and while I may be silently cursing them, I also love the fact that they remind me that my body can do a lot more than what my mind tells me it can.

So, studio classes versus a home practice – which is better? All debate aside, I think it all comes down to whatever the best practice is for YOU. The main thing is just to get on the mat – do that, and everything else will fall into place.

A love letter to Hanumanasana

Dear Hanumanasana,

I still remember the day I first saw you, several of you, in fact, from across the dance studio. Back then, you had a different name. We all called you “the splits”. It was a comfortable, casual name, although the images it evoked for some people were anything but.

My dancer friends, most of whom had stepped into ballet slippers from the moment they could walk, knew you intimately. I, on the other hand, having come to jazz and funk in my early teens, still had many years to go before I dared even hope that, one day, you would grace me with your presence.

In my late teens, I left the dancing behind. Yoga beckoned. In the ensuing years, I delighted and amazed myself at some of things my body was capable of. My flexibility increased dramatically, while, I’m so sorry to say, my strength did not (although I have worked harder than ever before over the past 18 months to get it up to scratch).

And yet, you remained elusive. There were a few moments were I – almost – had it, but then my hips would shriek in protest, and I would curl up my legs, defeated.

Years passed. I decided we needed some time apart, that all my neediness was pushing you away. I sought out other asanas instead. Backbends soon become my pose of choice.

And then one day you came. Seemingly out of nowhere, Hanuman’s giant leap was finally in reach. My hip flexors were still tight, but not screechy, and supported by my hands I was able to stay with you for one, two, three, four, five breaths.

As we got to know each other better, I became more comfortable with you. I didn’t need to always support myself, knowing that you would be there for me. This in turn allowed me to go deeper, to start to know your little quirks and idiosyncrasies. With my hands in prayer position at my chest, I begin to slow, to settle deeply, to find stability and strength within the expansiveness. Once, in class, my teacher assisted me to take hold of my back foot and come into a backbend. You were exhilarating! The intense focus required, intoxicating.

But by far my favourite of your idiosyncrasies occurs when I raise both arms overhead, shoulder-width apart, and turn my face up to look at my hands. I feel limitless. Most times I feel a gentle sensation at my heart chakra as my chest lifts and expands. Energy is offered up through my fingertips. I feel nothing but love coursing through me, and I almost weep with joy.

So, Hanumanasana, this letter is to say thank you. For you have shown me the true meaning of devotion, trust and dedication. You have taught me to be patient. You have shown me that it is possible to go beyond the limits that my minds imposes – in fact, to know that there ARE NO LIMITS. I see now that if we, together, are brave enough to take that giant leap, we might just change the world.

For, in the end, only love can create real and lasting change.

So, with grace and humility, I honour your presence in my life.

Hanumanasana, you will always have my heart.

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