Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Hyper-flexibility, energy channels and the not-so-helpful 'micro-bend'…..


Probably gonna get lynched for this post but I think I'm giving informed advice and from the heart and from personal experience. Feel free to give your two-pence worth, I've asked the question for years to teachers but haven't had sufficient enough answers…here goes...

During many classes I have taken throughout the years, I have been told to keep a 'micro-bend' in my elbows and in my knees so as not to 'hyper-extend'. Thing is, yes I do hyper-extend, that's my body's make-up, it's its natural holding pattern, but, I've been practicing yoga now for what, 7+ years and I think have a good enough understanding of my own body, not to have to be told to keep a bend in my arms and legs, which let's face it, feels unhelpful and bloody awful.

Now, don't get me wrong, I understand the need to teach beginners who have hyper-flexible joints not to hyper-extend them, because it could cause further instability. But I have a problem with the instruction 'keep a micro-bend' itself. What is a 'micro-bend'? One millimetre? One centre metre? Enough of a bend so your teacher can see you're bending your flexible bits? I can understand teachers are trying to ensure the safety of their students and I have been one of those teachers. However, I just don't think it's helpful and I've changed my mind.

In my own personal experience, keeping a micro-bend, of whatever degree, in my hyper-flexible joints, actually creates, rather than reduces instability. For me, the instruction should be, 'do not hang in your joints' or something similar and to that effect. 'Hanging' meaning, allowing the joint to extend to its maximum potential without engaging the muscles around the joint to keep it stable. Basically, what you don't want is to be in downward dog say, 'hanging' in your elbows, and some guy to fall out of a handstand into you whilst you have no 'strength' in the joint and your arm snaps in half! Nice thought...

Paul Grilley appears to be the only yoga anatomy teacher to agree with me. I've asked the question to many others and they all say, 'must keep the micro-bend'. Not helpful. Are any of you hyper-flexible?

So I'm gonna take this even further. Having had the 10 series in Rolfing, having had my entire body re-aligned, I can finally feel energy flowing, where once it just did not. I can feel energy flowing from my toes to my groins, I can feel it flowing through my hyper-flexible knees. I can feel it flowing from my thumbs to my armpits and up through my hyper-flexible elbows. I can feel it. Do not try and tell me I can't. BUT when, I am told to keep a micro-bend, I cannot feel the energy flowing. When I press my knees back in downward dog I feel the energy, when I press the knees back in paschimottanasana I can feel the energy. When I bend them…nothing. Stagnant.

Now I'm not anatomical expert. I just know what I can feel. I believe that the postures we do day in, day out, we should try and do them so, just like in Rolfing, your body is working in its most efficient manner. We should be, in my opinion, trying to, at all times, align the body with gravity so it works most efficiently, continually encouraging the body to work towards its vertical axis, creating a sense of lightness, as if we are being lifted up through our joints rather than gravity pulling us down. Chronic holding patterns take a lot of energy to maintain, for me, the 'micro-bend' takes a lot of energy to maintain.

I spend most of my practice at the moment indulging in these new subtle body sensations, which I have been afforded, due to structural integration. Releasing restrictions I had in my body, my knees especially after suffering trauma, have directly stimulated energy channels, which I never believed existed. This increase in energy, has, changed my life, changed my outlook on yoga, the energy body and the way I look at consciousness and psycho-spirituality. We work on the body to change the mind, no? Of course be careful, work on strengthening the muscles around your hyper-flexible joints, but don't let the uninformed, non-hyper-flexible yoga teacher block your path to greater energetic awareness.
“True verticality, the goal of Structural Integration, is a functional phenomenon, 

a line around which the body’s energy fields balance. They manifest 
in real myofascial material structures…The vertical expresses an energy 
relation between Earth and sun.”
- Ida P. Rolf, PhD.




Sunday, 24 August 2014

It always come back to mula bandha...

As everyone who practices regularly knows, your practice is cyclical. Postures come, postures go, postures come back again and…. go again. The body always finds the path of least resistance. So too does the mind. Which is exactly why we practice day in, day out, to explore the whys and wherefores of these changes. Giving up on this exploration, for us, is not an option.

I've been suffering with pain in the right side of my sacrum and tightness in the left hand side of my erector spine muscles. The sacrum pain is dull and feels dense and congested. The tightness in the spinal muscles eases with each forward bend….I can feel and hear whatever it is there releasing on every inhalation and every exhalation, and it feels good. The pain in my sacrum is at its worse when I am back bending. I have a bendy back, well, lumbar spine. And this is exactly what is causing the problem. This week at the height of my pain I practiced second. My teacher thought I was nuts! But given the pain in the sacrum I wanted to see if practicing with more awareness would cause some shift to release the pain. I concentrated all my efforts into engaging uddiyana banda in my backbends and from this point of contraction in the lower abdomen, lifted my spine out from it and who knew…the pain was not there! The thing is I did know, I'd known all along, but for a while that awareness I'd let slip and the pain came. It came back. I've had this before and it had gone due to the exact same method I'd used before. Cyclical. Memories come and they go. Muscle memory comes and goes when you are in the early stages of your practice, which, of course, I still am (7 years now). Pain, it seems, is a great reminder of this. A reminder to embrace the dark as well as the light.

"When you practice, the other shore comes to you". (Can't remember who said that)

Thing is, I find it hard to engage the bandhas (doesn't everyone) but I find it very difficult to engage unddiyana. My teacher Ben, sticks his fingers deep into my transverse abdominus in the hope it will remind me. All I feel is his fingers sticking into layers of flesh, pain…

And then there's my hips. My right hip especially. It drops, I notice it in the standing sequence, the prasaritas, parsvottanasana, my left hip doesn't seem to want to rotate outwards enough, forwards enough, funny, especially when I thought my left hip was more open…? It's causing pain in my left knee. Not a good sign for ashtangis. But again I feel Ben's fingers in my hip socket, reminding it to rotate, fingers press into the left hand side of my abdomen willing me to engage uddiyana and a constant reminder to engage mula. It's funny, I sometimes feel as if I only engage mula on my right side, how can this be?! But the more I focus internally on the engagement of muscles, the more I notice. and the more I can work on these little nuances which affect every aspect of my practice. It's working at least :)

I'm awaiting arrival of a couple of dear friends. My girls from uni. K is down, having had a shit time of it the past two weeks. The FB post from earlier said, 'it's been an awful couple of weeks so it is with gratitude and love I get to spend the next 24 hours with my girls B and Michelle'. B replied, 'Always helps to spend time with soul mates'. When you need grounding, when you need re-centring, you always come back to your core friends, the ones always there for you, the ones who will always support you. Mula bandha, you are one of my bestest friends. :)


Saturday, 2 August 2014

Samskaras and neuroplasticity

So I've moved back into my house after just over a year away. Things are, 'same same, but different', to coin a phrase used a lot throughout my time in Mysore :) Settling into new patterns of work whilst settling into my old, whilst familiar house is hard. Things are the same, but very different.

Sutra 3:9 of Patanjali's yoga sutra states:

The transformation toward total stillness occurs as new latent expressions fostering cessation arise to prevent the activation of distractive stored ones, and moments of stillness begin to permeate consciousness. (Chip Hartranft, 2003).

Exploring the word samskara; Sam = To come together; kara comes from the root 'kud' which means 'to create'. So samskaras are creations, things that we create ourselves. If we think of samskaras as grooves, we can think of our repeated actions chiselling out these grooves, making them deeper, imprinting them deeper into our consciousness, which makes these grooves harder to get out of, harder to fill in. 

Samskaras are things that come into being, through a process, through the coming together of actions. If this is the case, then what comes into being can also come apart. What arises can also pass away. All formations created out of conditions are transient, they come and they go.  Beliefs too, are samskaras. Beliefs are born out of our conditioned (material) world. Therefore if beliefs are born out of conditions, which are arbitrary and transitory, then it follows that they have no solid foundation and as such can pass as quickly as they were born. Luckily for us, samskaras are transitory, the grooves can be deep, but we can create new grooves and the old grooves over time will infill themselves until they are just a faint scar in our conscious mind, having no hold over us. We all have the innate power to change through practice. 

http://www.divinityseeds.com.au/images/brain3.jpg
You are not just a brain in a vat!

Thus as Patanjali states, we can create new latent expressions (samskaras) which will stop the old distractive stored ones and total stillness and peace can arise. 'Neurons that fire together, wire together'. 
Neuro-plasticity is the core of understanding samskaras; no-one is 'hard-wired', they may have deep samskaras yes, but the brain is plastic and as such can change its structure and function by how we act, re-act, don't act, how we think and how we imagine things. It may just be harder and require more practice to carve out new and healthier neurological pathways. Plasticity exists at every level, the behaviour of the body, of bones, of cells, of thoughts and images. So in yoga we first of all work on the gross body, we change the way it moves, it functions and the more we do this the deeper those changes permeate into the bones, the muscles, the cells, our thoughts and our beliefs. It is even thought it can change on a genetic level, with the possibility of affecting the evolution of the human species. 

So we can use our regular practice to re-sculpt our brain, first finding more plasticity in order for it to change, then to create more structure so that new, healthier patterns remain. 

So for me at this moment in time, these new patterns which I find myself in are exciting but challenging at the same time. We are creatures of habit, but we must be careful not to let the grooves we sometimes find ourselves in become too deep, as they could become too deep to easily climb out of! 


Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The red sun, reflected on the square, of the TV...

I'm back to work as an urban planner, exactly one year after I took redundancy from my previous job. I'm grateful, of course, especially given the area I am now in charge of assessing planning applications is ridiculously beautiful, with some of the most stunning English landscape I have ever seen. I even have a favourite view from  my car on my commute into work, the morning light radiates gold off a vast wheat field viewed from the brow of a hill, off the A429 toward Stratford. However living in Coventry I sometimes forget that nature is everywhere.  Living in the city you have just to listen a little harder sometimes. I knew I'd find some haikus which reverberate with how I'm feeling right now...

Instead of foxes howling, or waterfalls, there's a car-roaring up the street, or the drone of  a refrigerator ... part of the life in which we are living.

             The red sun
              reflected in the square
                of the TV.

        Neons flash red & green.
April rains on still street.  Man
   Nods.  Red lights blink, blink.

                        After April rain
                        -in puddles of oil
                        city rainbows

        The whole block flooded.
        Men hauling pumps & hoses;
        children, plastic boats.

                        A great freight truck
                                        lit up like a town
                        through the dark stony desert.
(www.haikuworld.org)


So as sure as nature is found in the city, human nature leaves traces, samskaras if you like and cuts tracks in nature. Haiku can express not only nature, but human nature too. The name for  this kind of haiku is "senryu". Putting human nature in the foreground and nature in the background, everyone can see something of universal human nature in themselves or the world around.




Monday, 23 June 2014

Anthony Hall's Krishnamacharya's Ashtanga Vinyasa Krama Workshop Review, June 2014

I was really lucky this weekend to have been able to attend a workshop run by Anthony Hall, his only teaching gig in the UK before he leaves to live back in Japan. Anthony is known mainly for his awesome blog Krishnamacharya's Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga at Home. I've been following Anthony's musings on yoga since I began my ashtanga apprenticeship a few years back, found his blog extremely relevant being a mainly home practitioner and so helpful in breaking down the practice, the asanas and the philosophy, so I have a real soft spot for his teaching. 

Anthony doesn't see himself as a teacher, OK, he's done a couple of teacher trainings, Ramaswami's and Manju's, but he first and foremost considers himself 'just a blogger'. However, I would argue that it is his blogging and his dissection of his and 'our' practice of ashtanga that makes him such a great teacher, and his willingness to share every single detail of the ins and outs of his practice, the highs and the lows, the successes and failures. He's also shared so much information on Krishnamacharya and has spent hours upon hours dissection and analysing his writings, making sense of it all for the benefit of the western mind. So it was Anthony's work on Krishnamacharya and his teachings of Vinyasa Krama as taught to him by Ramaswami that he chose to share with us at the workshop and I felt blessed to have been there. 



Thursday, 12 June 2014

Even Art has a "Mysore Style"!!



During my stay in Mysore, 'after the yoga', I was fortunate enough to spend my afternoons learning how to paint 'Mysore' style. My teacher was a beautiful man called M.S.Anand whose studio was on the 3rd floor on a traditional Mysore apartment block. He lives there with his wife, his gorgeous son and his Great Dane, 'Rocky'! You might think it a bit cruel to keep such a big dog on the 3rd floor of an apartment block, but Rocky loved it, loved the visitors and used to keep us company…by lying across the entrance the studio! But unfortunately Rocky's residence on the 3rd floor was not without incident! Because Rocky loved birds, loved to chase them that is, but despite great efforts on Anand's part to teach Rocky the pitfalls of chasing birds on a 3rd floor balcony, Rocky fell off said balcony no less than 3 times! Breaking his little legs on a couple of occasions, but mercifully surviving! Apparently Rocky used to be a canine model…however I think his modelling days are unfortunately up.. :)

But enough about Rocky. I was lucky enough to be taught by Anand in the beautiful Mysore style of painting in the typical 'Mysore' tradition. Watch and repeat. Watch Anand draw something and then attempt to repeat it until I had perfected it. I had pages and pages of hands in mudras, hands holding lotuses, feet decorated in anklets, until I perfected every possible combination of hand/mudra/symbol combinations! 

Anand has his latest masterpiece displayed in the departure lounge at Bangalore Airport. Here's a link to a piece on Anand in the Hindu Times:
http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/traditional-and-modern-in-a-blend/article5087497.ece

So what makes Mysore painting so special? Apart from its vibrant colours, Mysore paintings are known for their elegance, muted colours, and attention to detail. The themes for most of these paintings are Hindu gods and goddesses and scenes from Hindhu mythology such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. 

What Wikipedia says about Mysore painting: (Kannada: ಮೈಸೂರು ಚಿತ್ರಕಲೆ) is an important form of classical South Indian painting that originated in and around the town of Mysore in Karnataka encouraged and nurtured by the Mysore rulers. Painting in Karnataka has a long and illustrious history, tracing its origins back to the Ajanta times (2nd century B.C. to 7th century A.D.) The distinct school of Mysore painting evolved from the paintings of Vijayanagar times during the reign of the Vijayanagar Kings (1336-1565 AD) The rulers of Vijayanagar and their feudatories encouraged literature, art, architecture, religious and philosophical discussions. With the fall of the Vijayanagar empire after the Battle of Talikota the artists who were till then under royal patronage migrated to various other places like Mysore, Tanjore, Surpur, etc. Absorbing the local artistic traditions and customs, the  Vijayanagar School of Painting gradually evolved into the many styles of painting in South India, including the Mysore and Tanjore schools of painting.

Techniques: The ancient painters in Mysore prepared their own materials. The colours were from natural sources and were of vegetable, mineral or even organic origin such as leaves, stones and flowers. Brushes were made with squirrel hairs for delicate work but for drawing superfine lines a brush made of pointed blades of a special variety of grass had to be used. Due to the long-lasting quality of the earth and vegetable colours used, the original Mysore paintings still retain their freshness and lustre even today. 

Devotion: Mysore Paintings are characterized by delicate lines, intricate brush strokes, graceful delineation of figures and the discreet use of bright vegetable colours and lustrous gold leaf. More than mere decorative pieces, the paintings are designed to inspire feelings of devotion and humility in the viewer. The painter’s individual skill in giving expression to various emotions is therefore of paramount importance to this style of painting. 

Embossing: Gesso work was the hallmark of all traditional paintings of Karnataka. Gesso refers to the paste mixture of white lead powder, gambose and glue which is used as an embossing material and covered with gold foil. The gesso work in Mysore paintings is low in relief and intricate as compared to the thick gold relief work of the Tanjore School. Gesso was used in Mysore painting for depicting intricate designs of clothes, jewellery and architectural details on pillars and arches that usually framed the deities. The work was taken up in the morning when the base of the gold work on the painting was still moist so as to hold the gold foil firmly. After allowing the painting to dry, glazing was carried out by covering the painting with thin paper and rubbing over it with a soft glazing stone known as kaslupada kallu. When the thin paper was removed the painting shone brightly and looked resplendent with the combination of gold and a variety of colours.

Finally following weeks of repetition and perfection, I chose a painting to begin my own Mysore style masterpiece. As a die-hard ashtangi I inevitably chose Patanjali, the beautiful depiction of half man, half snake depicted holding the conch and chakra. Here he is below

I gave the original to my teacher Vijay Kumar in Mysore, didn't know any other way to thank him... It's now proudly up in his shala next to Krishnamacharya :) 

Since I have been back in the UK I have continued to practice the teachings of Anand, experimenting with more modern techniques of embossing, utilisation of gold leaf, form and composition. I think I may possibly be the only artist in the UK offering Mysore style paintings, taught by the master himself M.S.Anand. So far I have been fortunate enough to paint pieces for a number of yoga studios in the UK and India. Should you have any ideas for paintings to adorn your home practice space, puja room or shala, I currently take commissions, you can choose the God, the background, the iconography you want depicted and I will design something one-off especially for you!

Peacock Greetings Card

Ganesha Greetings Card

Hanuman

Seated Buddha

Shiva Nataraja

Lord Krishna

Durga Maa (work in progress)





Thursday, 1 May 2014

The places that scare you...

I'm home…. Just in case you didn't know.. Keeping a low profile though... (mind you, pretty unsuccessfully) as it's damn hard to live in the UK, without a job, with your parent at the age of 35, without feeling somewhat uneasy…

Feel like this man in a box
Courtesy of www.experiencelife.com


Living in the same situation in India, however, is completely different, you're surrounded by like-minded people, you don't stand out as the 'odd' one, everyone's given up their jobs, the 'normal life' in search of something... you have no society telling you you're different, that you have to live in a certain way, earn a certain amount of money, 'settle down' (I hate that word 'settle' - I would be damn happy if the word 'settle' never had to be part of the vocabulary of my life.) The uncertainty of India is liberating,   you just know you're going to be OK there..but back here I feel the uncertainty…very...smothering. Anxiety, hovering around the edges, waiting for its chance to take hold...trying desperately not to let it.. My mother would kill me…

I went away to explore the places that scare me….I did this through my yoga practice and by living with uncertainty, so why now is it so hard to keep this perspective?

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to say 'Live your life as an experiment'. Life is ever changing, we have no control over what happens around us or to our bodies, but if we live our lives as a controlled experiment, keeping your mula bandha on, or with complete awareness of our true-immovable self, whilst the variables around you are changing, you can observe the external changes without affecting the internal, pure you. But I'm still finding it hard. Clearly I have a low tolerance for discomfort. 

The complete acceptance of ourselves as we are is called maitri….a simple, direct relationship with the way we are. There are four qualities of maitri; steadfastness, clear seeing, experiencing our emotional distress and attention to the present moment. These qualities can be cultivated when we meditate, when we are mindful and relate to difficult situations in our daily lives. I'm not meditating per se at the moment, but this doesn't stop me from trying to cultivate these four precepts during my daily ashtanga practice. The practice, well it pure and simply reflects you as you are that day. The practice is my mula bandha at the moment, that immovable place where I can check I'm still functioning properly, check that I'm not letting anxiety take hold, but at the same time keep pushing and testing my boundaries, moving towards the places that scare me, but where I know I have control….well, at least for the moment…

Mula bandha….who knew it worked on so many levels….

Where are those places in your practice that scare you? Jumping into Bhujapidasana? Into tittibhasana? Breathing in kapo? Jumping into bakasana? Out of it? Do you take each of these postures as the perfect opportunity to take yourself to the edge? To the places which scare you? Do you ask yourself why you don't jump into bhujapidasana? Have you ever even tried it? If the answer is 'no' then, well, you should…the postures are there to test you, to reflect your mindset…they're there for a reason, not just to make the practice look cool! (They do though, don't they?…which is exactly why you should be practicing this stuff!) They are there to take you beyond your self-imposed limits...

So I'm standing here at this present moment, completely groundless… but knowing that everything is constantly changing, that I have to hang on in there and go a little bit further with the irritation of uncertainty, of not being given any satisfaction and whilst I'm not liking it at present, like a zen koan, accept that life is neither form, nor emptiness, but a beautiful groundless answer.