Often I get to try out new yoga products, and I’ve been having fun with Manduka‘s new unBLOK this week.
I’m a big fan of prop use – you would know if you’ve been witness to some of my more indulgent classes requiring hours to clear the room of blocks, chairs, straps, bags and blankets. But seriously, prop use within reason is a good way to work in to poses that may not be easily available in your body, or to apply manual pressure and support into areas of the body like the upper back that could do we a prolonged and even poke (couldn’t we all, actually).
I’m glad we’re finally starting to realise that the human body is not made of legos or otherwise square – and rectangular blocks with flat edges aren’t always suitable.
The new unBLOK has rounded curves on top and side which are good for a more comfortable hand grip for standing pose support use. Unlike other curvy blocks, this one has a flat bottom to ensure stability. The curves are also great to place underneath the back and rest supine as a chest opener.
Here’s a look at me giving it a go.
Using for half moon support
Resting underneath the upper spine for a nice backbend
The resting state of our shoulders is a strong reflection of our emotional health. This sounds like a typical, grand yoga teacher pronouncement – but I believe there is a lot of truth in it. Acting as a bottle cap of sorts, the shoulders can roll inwards, holding stress and tension in the upper spine and prevent it from being released from the body. Paradoxically, the more low we feel, the more we allow the body to turn into itself – trapping that negative energy within. Conversely, we can spend our day with shoulders totally rolled backwards, chest fully presented with the heart melting away like some Al Gore powerpoint gone wild. Although this may in the short term be a feel good corrective, if habitual it leaves the body destabilised and emotionally leaky – all strength presented and offered externally – nothing held back for the self.
Knowing that the use of the shoulders (and the upper spine) is so tied to the workings of our spirit, it is a good physical focus for practice. To be more specific, in practice this week, I’ve been seeking to explore the dynamic between stabilising actions of the shoulder and arm, in relation to a release and stretch that does not signal collapse or retention of stress. In this exploration I seek to create a great amount of heat and strength within the centre, but with a mindfully placed pressure release valve in the gateway of the shoulders – to allow for a balanced postural and emotional experience.
For whatever reason, I keep hearing and seeing this song as I’ve practiced (maybe it’s thinking about the Fosse shoulders). ”I’ve got ::cling cling:: fsssss steam heat. /But I need your love to keep away the cold.” All that heat we build in practice needs a calm and loving heart to regulate it properly through the body – balancing, releasing, stabilising as much as a posture or our heart needs.
Us harried city folk are often seeking a quiet refuge when we come to the mat – be it in the studio improvised corners of our homes. As a former New Yorker, I’ve been lately softened by a London where people at least have the politeness to keep their inner rage and aggression to themselves. But after a trip back to see some friends in the Big Apple, I realised I sort of like the noise. Maybe it’s me, but a rather ordinary looking woman dressed for work screaming at total strangers at 8:30am to ‘get the fuck out of her way’ on a crowded train gave me a sense of nostalgia for my former life in Manhattan and Queens. This video o f a different and much more wild subway incident is legendary – granted I wouldn’t want to be there, but it’s classic New York.
I can’t help it. I know there’s a lot of rage and anger here, as well as Spaghetti, but I lived in New York too long – I love the insanity, I love the life, I love the pulse of a big city. I like the museums too. That’s me. You’ll have your own reasons.
However, a great deal of yoga philosophy, practice and sentiment is set up for a hermitic life of monastic solitude somewhere in a cave or penthouse apartment with good double glazing. And that’s a choice that I haven’t made. If you come to my classes in London, most likely you’ve made the choice to be in a big loud city with a demanding career. And it is a choice, so you shouldn’t resent it or rebel against it. The trick is learning to live with it without becoming a spaghetti fighter. So for us city yogis, there is a constant dynamic between noise and silence. We can go into a studio and pretend it’s quiet, but outside is that wonderfully deafening pulse of life. What to do? How to practice?
I was struck by this passage in Chogyam Trungpa’s classic Meditation in Action.
If we are meditating at home and we happen to live in the middle of the High Street, we cannot stop the traffic just because we want peace and quiet. But we can stop ourselves, we can accept the noise. The noise also contains silence. We must put ourselves into it and expect nothing from outside, just as Buddha did. And we must accept whatever situation arises. As long as we never retreat from the situation, it will always present itself as a vehicle and we will be able to make use of it.
This noisy world is our reality that we have chosen to accept, instead of a practice of solitude. So we must work with it. Go into it. Not avoid.
This week I’ve been working on creating an inner foundation of silence and breath to hold onto when everything else is loud and chaotic. This is what I suggest:
Begin your practice with some breath work. Slow it down. Try the technique of a counted breath (inhale 2-3-4, pause, exhale 2-3-4, etc.) to lay the foundation of an inner stillness before adding layers of complication on top.
Feel the foundation of your feet and hands in each posture. Try pausing before coming into the complete shape and just feeling where it begins. Make sure it is focused and sturdy.
As you work into deeper twists, feel how the breath is constricted. It’s just a natural part of the pose. Learn to stay calm and still breathe within that smaller space. Good practice for life.
Try more ‘advanced’ or ‘complicated’ poses. These are essentially ‘noisy’ poses with lots going on. Can you find the silent focus within the complicated noise of the posture? You don’t have to do it to Yoga Journal cover ability to practice this this skill. Just go to where your body takes you today.
Give it a try. And then go outside and enjoy your wonderful city life whilst staying in your breath and calm foundation. See where the practice and the noise takes you. See what it teaches you.
And if you don’t like it, move out! Everything is a choice.
Varieties of postural extremes lead to tension and weakness
When I used to have my desk job, I would have a continue struggle with sitting comfortably in front of the computer. I would often find myself totally leaning forward, reaching my head out, engaged in the most important email or phone call in the world (if not successfully completed, we’d all die). Or, I’d be bored and disengaged rounding back and sinking into myself. Physically, I’d often ache in my back, or develop a headache that would last into the evening. I’d try every manner of ergonomic instrument to make my seat more comfortable. Pads under my bum, my back, my wrist. Monitor up, monitor down. Standing, kneeling, or even having a brief love affair with a bouncy ball.
Beyond the physical, I was also resisting the present moment of where I was, because I knew it wasn’t the right job for me. I was uncomfortable in the seat of the present moment.Continue reading →
Even in the still body, there is a dynamic undercurrent of physical and emotional movement
Relax and trust the movement of life
Erich Schiffmann wrote these words, and they have been the guidance for my practice this week. I think this is better expressed through practice than words, so below is a short meditation, based on Schiffmann, that has been a major component of my yoga this week.
Begin either seated or on your back with knees bent and soles of the feet on the floor. Choose a position in which you can stay 5-10 minutes comfortably without exertion. Close the eyes Continue reading →
Most likely the problem with and the solution for any difficult yoga posture lies within its foundation. Usually that means the feet, hands, or both in varying combinations. But what is our foundation and how do we use it? It’s easy, especially if we’re seeking a strong experience or practice to think we need to push like hell into the feet or hands to engage the muscles. Through this strong downward push and corresponding muscular ‘propping up’ you’ll probably feel a lot, sweat a lot and get the sensation that you are really in the pose. But you’re probably working too hard in a way that is rigid, stressful to the nervous system, and potentially bad on joints like the wrist. Instead, can you try a relationship to gravity and yoru foundation that allows a moderate yield and push to the floor, and an energetic lift in response. Simply, movement is not unidirectionally down, but moves downward first and then upward in response.
I find the image of a tree particularly helpful. Imagine in any pose yourself as a tree – roots growing down deep into the earth. These roots will be strong – breaking through earth and rock. But they move downward to find energy to draw upward. And then what ever shape that posture, that tree expresses, it comes from a downward rooting and upward lift. This exploration carries on throughout the practice in many forms.
Sometimes you’re happy, sometimes you’re sad
But the world goes ’round
Sometimes you lose every nickel you had
But the world goes ’round
Sometimes your dreams get broken in pieces
But that doesn’t alter a thing
Take it from me, there’s still gonna be
A summer, a winter, a fall and a spring
And sometimes a friend starts treating you bad
But the world goes ’round
And sometimes your heart breaks with a deafening sound
Somebody loses and somebody wins
And one day it’s kicks, then it’s kicks in the shins
But the planet spins, and the world goes ’round-
But the world goes ’round
But the world goes ’round
Fred Ebb wrote these words for Liza Minnelli, and at first they can sound pessimistic and grim. But in the beat of the drums, the persistence of the music, and the triumphant delivery of the vocal, there seems to be something else going on. For me, its the realisation that there are of course ups and downs in anyone’s life…and we survive them. Sometimes, even, you get hit with emotional nuclear bombs. But, nevertheless, life goes on and you can reclaim your footing on a world that’s spinning madly around you. But to make peace with all that is changing, like Liza finding the tune of this song, you need to be deeply connected to something deeper and unchanging. This is where the variety of religious and spiritual experience can come into play (I can’t help it if I turn to Guru Liza, and you’ll have something else), but on an everyday practical level you can feel this physically within the body.
The posture practice, with all its challenges and twists and turns, can be a rehearsal for the twists and turns of life. If you can learn to feel centred and grounded within a complicated posture, you’ll be better prepared to face the stresses that life will throw at you. You can learn to find your breath while challenged. You can find length and space when everything makes you want to curl up and hide.
When everything spins and changes, can we feel into the deep central line of the spine to find our grounding?
The posture practice is an opportunity to explore our ranges of flexibility and mobility throughout the joints. Often, a person can get chronically tight in the hips or shoulders and needs the therapeutic opening that certain poses can provide. As we explore this mobility and opening, however, we must be sure that we always do so from a place of stability. This particularly applies to those who are already quite flexible. In addition, if you are very open in one area, it is highly likely that you are chronically constricted in an opposing area. So, if you mindlessly just go into the areas in which you are flexible you’ll make yourself susceptible to over-stretching and destabilising the joint as well as fail to address the tight areas of your body that may be holding stress, emotional baggage and the potential for pain.
If you are not particularly flexible or mobile, when you work towards a reasonable amount of opening in constricted joints, you must also do so from a place of stability as it will be very easy for you to unintentionally move the movement into an area where you are open that doesn’t need the stretch and can in time set you up for injury or pain. But do keep it real and realise you don’t need to be this flexible to live a happy life:
Our growth and movement process of one of spiralling and rotating in and out. As we grow in the womb, we grow from an alien frog like shape with limbs jutting out, to one that more resembles our cuddly baby friends. But, our muscular and skeletal systems developed around this spiral. As we learn to walk, we navigate in-toeing and out-toeing with the spiral in the legs and eventually come into balance (for most of us, some people end up with imbalances that haunt them for life). As we age we may start to curl back into ourselves, like the hunched pensioner who can barely move.
Week Seven in the Womb
Pensioner as body curls back inward
Emotional development mirrors this physical process. We begin sheltered in our home, eventually rebel like pissy little teenagers and separate ourselves, then realise its not so great and turn back towards home life, and on and on.
The yoga posture practice acknowledges and works with these spirals, changes, and rotations as they appear in the limbs in multiple variations within numerous poses. So often in practice we focus on the external – the external rotation of the thigh, the opening of the hip, the external rotation of the upper arms in Down-dog and so forth. But this week, I’d like to instead focus on the inward turn – specifically in the legs. Continue reading →
Many of the classes on my schedule are some variety of a flow class. On one level that simply means that the transitions between postures are valued, and we work to find a healthy and productive balance between movement and stillness. But, digging deeper, I think that finding flow may be the most important part of the practice, and that doesn’t mean we have to keep moving. It means that through the practice, both on and off the mat, we learn to accept and work with the ups and downs of life. We no longer resist and hope to change the things we cannot, we accept and flow with the good and bad.
The scientific fact that the universe, to oversimplify, is just an arrangement of energy is explored through many yogic texts. We’re implored to ride the waves of this energy, without resistance or attachment to good or bad waves (again this is all oversimplification). However, this does not mean we just flop about like drunk holidayers destined to have a face plant. This is not complacence or laziness.
As I’m told, when surfing waves, you learn quickly which ones to take and which ones to let go on without you. You learn how to support yourself and stay upright riding the wave and how to gracefully exit. For my own purposes, I like to think of riding the waves on a jet ski – meaning I have a bit of control, consciousness and clarity, but still have to ride the general currents. Sometimes they will be good, sometimes they will be bad.