My Balance is No Good!

Well, if you are able to walk without feeling dizzy or falling over with every step you take, then please accept the fact that your balance is not too bad!  Every time you walk, you are balancing and then controlling your forward movement on one leg, and on the end of that leg is a little flesh and bone rectangle (called a foot) that improbably allows your body to stay vertical for a few seconds before the balance then swaps to the other foot.  So, having got your shonky balance into a bit of perspective, maybe you wish to improve your balance.

Almost everything we do in your daily life requires physical balance control, and most of the time we don’t have to think about it; sitting in and getting out of a chair, dressing, walking, driving, climbing stairs.  The ability to balance varies from day to night and from day to day.

Balance comes around through a complex interplay of:

  • Strength of the muscles and flexibility in tendons
  • the alignment of the skeletal muscles and joints and spine: containing proprioceptors which tell you where you are in space,
  • the entire nervous system including the vestibular system in the inner ear

Balance is affected when any one of these components encounters a problem, most often through muscle weakness or tightness, or from decades spent standing out of optimal alignment, but also through illness, injury, introduced chemicals (incl alcohol), fatigue or a brain taken using heavy computing power for worry, plans or too much “thinking” trying to balance!

A common perception is that we lose balance with age.  In practical terms for the majority this is true as a large proportion of the population will allow muscle mass to decrease as they see it as an inevitable part of ageing. The effort in working on optimal posture may loose priority to some as they get older and stiffness may be more accepted.  If a body has had a fall or two, there is the tendency to avoid challenging balance on a daily basis.  It is true that maintaining balance as we age does take work, but loss of balance is not an inevitable consequence of ageing.

“To retain or regain your balance get active to maintain the neural connections necessary for good balance, improve your posture so you won’t be apt to fall, and maintain your strength for a good foundation.”  Harvard Health Letter

Yoga fits the bill:  balance can be learnt and improved with practice in everyone.

Balance can be Learned and Improved with Practice

Balance is vital to normal everyday life activities…getting out of a chair, walking, bending over to put your shoes on, doing your hair, driving, gardening, housework.  Just about everything you do in your daily life, requires balance control, and most of the time you don’t have to think about it.  Problems with balance can be obvious, e.g. falling or dizziness, but can also be quite subtle.  In addition to increased risk of falls, common secondary symptoms of balance problems are decreased attention span, disruption of normal sleep patterns, and excessive fatigue.

Physical balance comes around through a complex interplay of one’s entire sensory system, brain and muscles and joints; balance is affected when any of these components encounter a problem.

A common reason for poor balance is weak or inflexible muscles, particularly in the hips, legs and ankles. As we age, our reflexes slow and our vision may deteriorate.  These three factors contribute to much of balance problems.  Poor posture also contributes to poor balance, as it affects the neurological signalling through the spine and tendons, and the range of vision used as we age.

Diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, and viral infections cause balance problems.  Histories of injuries, ear infections or untreated high blood pressure affect balance.  Various drugs affect balance.  The cumulative history of all these things in your life affects balance, so you can well imagine why the risk of developing balance problems increases with age.

Interestingly a history of falls, even one, can lead to more falls.  It is thought that this may be due to an increased “fear of falling” leading to cutting back on large movements and activities requiring balance.  This then has a negative feedback effect; the balancing muscles get weaker and the neural pathways required for balance taper off.  The brain’s ability to transmit and receive the neural signals that lead to good balance is key. And as with many things involving the brain, neurologists are finding the “use it or lose it” mentality applies to balance. By challenging a person’s balance on a daily basis, the nerves that fire those messages to the brain stay active and alive.

Is a loss of balance control an inevitable consequence of ageing?  “No!” say the Harvard medical scientists who study balance.  To retain or regain your balance the Harvard Health Letter suggests that you get active to maintain the neural connections necessary for good balance, improve your posture so you won’t be apt to fall, and maintain your strength for a good foundation.

Yoga is almost designed to address improvement in balance.  It strengthens weak muscles, stretches tight tendons, improves posture, sharpens awareness and encourages repetition.

Balance can be learnt, balance can be improved with practice!

Introduction to yoga for the Travelling Body

Travelling long distances in a short time means you are sitting for periods longer than you possibly would in daily life;

For example, prolonged car, bus, train, and particularly airplane travel.  However, this practice can equally apply to long periods of sitting in front of your computer (tax time!) or recovering from illness and sitting in front of TV

Characteristically the posture is:

Arms forward – down if you are a passenger and held up if you are driving, fingers generally curled.

Legs tend to be down, bent at hips and behind knees and inactive if you are a passenger.  Feet will be relaxed and toes slightly pointing, meaning the Achilles tendon can shorten and stay that way.  Lack of movement in these positions can lead to swelling of fingers and ankles and is a big contributor to deep vein thrombosis.

Lower back is held in a rounded position in poorly designed seats.

Shoulder and neck strain is a probability from rapidly hoisting bags, sitting in a poorly designed seat with head forward of shoulders, and the general stress of getting away.

Hip flexors tighten into sitting position, pulling on the pelvis when you stand.  Achilles is tight and pulls on calf and plantar fascia as you suddenly stand and take weight.

Sitting for long periods causes a collapse of the ribs down into the hips and constricts the ribcage and diaphragm making breathing necessarily shallow.  Add to this the slightly lower oxygen levels in pressurised planes and you’ll arrive feeling fuzzy-headed and the jet-lag will be worse.

Prolonged sitting, becoming slightly dehydrated and changes in diet and meal times contributes to constipation…. not what you want on your trip and well worth preventing before it sets in!

Luckily yoga is portable. Even in the back of the plane, stopped after a long drive or in the most modest lodging, you’ll find space to do a few body-saving postures with a bit of inventiveness.  Use the wall and ledges as support.  Use the closed car door with the window down as a ledge, or the roof of the car to balance.  Use chairs, cushions, folded bedspreads, books as props.

Sometimes you don’t wish to lie on the floor.  Use a spare towel or blanket, or chose seated and standing postures e.g. Use Gill’s Walking Meditation.

Concentrate on

  • dynamic poses that
  • lengthen the body from the hips.
  • wake up core and pelvic floor muscles
  • counter pose the shortened backs of legs and front of groin
  • counter pose the shortened front of shoulders and curled arms and fingers and release the shoulders.
  • Lower abdominal squeezes, movement and twists, right side first then left side to wake up the digestive system
  • Rest poses that allow you to open the upper back and breathe deeply
  • Inversion and deep breathing for clearing away the mental cobwebs

By performing just a few simple moves, you give yourself a multitude of benefits: it will stretch you out, massage your internal organs, improve circulation and relieve anxiety.

 

 

Introduction to the Practice for Tight Shoulders and a Stiff Neck

(You will find the practice in the Members Section)

We all know the unpleasant feeling of tight shoulders and neck.  At its least it’s distracting and fatiguing, it limits free movement, disrupts sleep and at its worst it leads to chronic headaches.

We might suffer from tightness in the upper body due to injury, due to unfamiliar overhead or lifting work, or due to a long recovery from injury.

For most of us, chronic tightness in the shoulders and neck derives from repetitive unhelpful postures where the arms and neck are forward, which is necessary sometimes, but then we forget to mobilise and counter-pose afterwards.

Chronic unrelieved stress will also contribute to tight shoulders and neck.  The awareness cultivated in yoga and its stress relieving techniques will definitely help in this regard.

Some of the asana in this practice will gradually loosen and ease a tight neck and shoulders, and others strengthen weak muscles that can prevent future strain.  It is very important to work with great awareness, not to push limits and do little and often rather than all at once.  This practice is really a sampler…choose what works best for you.

 

 

Introduction to the Yoga Toolbox Term

We practise yoga to feel good, or to feel better in some way…it may be a physical reason or not physical (stress related, etc.).  The reasons are as many as there are people in this room.  Different practices suit different people, but there are intentions common to all which, when followed, gives a physical and mental tune-up much like you might your car, or computer.  The intentions of a good yoga practice are:

  • Awareness
  • Acceptance
  • A willingness to adapt
  • Kindness
  • Breathing
  • A quiet determination
  • Patience
  • Practice
  • Being in the Now

In a sense by sticking with these intentions whatever your yoga practice it will always suit the varying situations you find yourself in.

Within this framework Toolbox Yoga highlights practical directions of a practice to address specific issues that might come up such as a good practice for the long-haul traveller, building energy levels, and so on.  Remember to check in with how the practice is feeling for you as you are doing it…use the above intentions and don’t force anything just because it seems “prescribed” for your situation.

 

 

Working with the Breath (or, Breath where have you been all my life?)

There is a good reason that the title of this term’s theme has a subtitle. I am surprised how many times I have heard from students that they are a “bad/terrible/incorrect” breather. Being told you’re bad at something that keeps you alive is a gross exaggeration of usually very slight and adjustable imbalances. Thinking that you are a “bad breather” will not help you to relax enough to refine your breath. For the vast majority of the time we are not aware of our breath, yet we continue to get along OK. We have a pattern when we are asleep or unconscious that it perfectly fine most of the time. Even when we are up and moving around, for most people without severe respiratory conditions whatever breathing we are doing is pretty good.

Together with a beating heart, breathing is the #1 process that keeps us alive. Unlike our heartbeat, we can consciously modify our breathing but it’s so clever that if we try to modify it too much (e.g. holding for a long time) it will throw up its hands and take over. Apart from the basic function of delivering oxygen to the cells to keep us going, the breath is also a bridge between body and mind. Since we have the ability to carefully modify the breath this presents us with an opportunity to tweak some breathing habits to improve the way we move and feel.

When the body is in a certain way, or when we are in a certain frame of mind we will tend towards a certain type of breathing. It also works the other way: subtly and carefully modifying the breath will bring a change to body and mind.

Belly Breathing  While we are physically supported and at rest, “abdominal” or “belly” or “diaphragmatic” breathing is often present and goes along with all the other resting functions like increased digestion, muscle relaxation, a quiet contented mood and perhaps a bit of sleepiness.  The diaphragm lowers down towards the abdomen as the inhale happens and this pushes the muscle and viscera up and out, causing it to look like the breath is actually moving into the belly…hence the name.  Natural belly breathing is often very shallow, as we’re not using up a whole lot of oxygen in a supported restful state.

Rib breathing  As we sit, stand, start to move our spine require support so the abdominal muscles increasingly engage, the abdomen becomes firmer and this inhibits the movement of the diaphragm onto the abdominal cavity, so belly breathing becomes less easy. Blood is diverted away from digestion to muscles involved in movement and we might need larger breaths to support the demand for oxygen, so our ribs become more active and our belly breathing disappears and becomes rib or thoracic breathing. As we are moving about we become more mentally extroverted (evolutionary advantage in not bumping into unexpected things!). We are alert, but not alarmed. The mind is awake and can smoothly move focus from one thing to another depending on the situation.

Collarbone BreathingFor the vast majority of our bodies’ evolutionary history, an extremely stressful situation involved being chased/attacked/eaten. A modern equivalent might be if we cross a busy road and suddenly have to dodge a car. We need to pull out all stops to put on short bursts of speed and strength. Apart from all the other physiological changes, the breath that supports this is an extension of rib breathing, where total lung volume is used, even up under the collarbones. The breath is full and quick, stress hormones are coursing through our systems, and all our senses are turned up to the max. We may not be aware of ourselves or focus at all…all brainpower is being diverted to survival. After the emergency is over we might notice we are almost “panting”.

All of these breathing patterns support us beautifully in different situations. Various martial arts employ different types of breathing to support their purpose. Even the quieter ones like Tai Chi and Qigong use a more energising breath – a nod to the heritage of the practice for being prepared to defend. Holding the breath also has its uses, for example in the controlled lifts of classical ballet.

The interesting thing is that there is such a strong link between body, breath and mind that intentionally altering the breathing to one of these patterns, despite the situation, can bring on the linked physical and emotional aspects of the matching situation. As an extreme example, if you are lying relaxed and supported but apply vigorous rib breathing or even full fast collarbone breathing, you may start to feel your muscles engage, an urge to move. There might be a sense that you should look around and position yourself more upright. The altered breathing pattern is alerting your system to “threat”.

In a more common example, many of us habitually carry around residual muscle tension where muscles do not disengage when they are not in use. Common places to hold muscle tension are the shoulders and neck, the diaphragm, abdomen, lower back, hips and pelvic floor. Even when our bodies are totally supported in a lounge chair, or lying on the yoga mat, or in bed, we can be holding on unconsciously. This could be interpreted as a very low-level “threat” situation by the system. If you are very aware, you might notice the breathing more in the chest than the belly. Here you can use your knowledge that breath links body and mood and gently apply belly breathing. After some practice, it is possible to remind the body that belly breathing goes with muscles relaxing, goes with winding down of the mind, goes with getting sleepy, etc. And all these will start to follow.

Reduction of stress while you learn to refine breathing is very, very important. The only way it will work is if you take the pressure off yourself. Practise without pushing or berating yourself. Be very sensitive to how your body and mind is reacting. Remember, stress brings on a certain breathing pattern that might not be appropriate for every situation. Now you can see why being told you are not a “good” breather is both generally inaccurate and counterproductive to stress reduction!

The best outcome for a term on breath would be to have the most appropriate breathing to support each circumstance whether we are resting, vigorously exercising, holding a strong pose, facing an emotional challenge, concentrating, or needing to switch off.  So there you are; the breath has been with you all your life and has the capacity to support your every move and mood. If you can remember to work in this way, then the best breath for the moment will quickly become natural for you.

A Sanskrit Primer

 

Why bother with using the Sanskrit name of the pose?

Apart from “why do we have to fold blankets in a particular way?” this is often a question that bothers new students. There are some teachers who will only use the Sanskrit in class instruction, some who use only English, and some who will use both. It should also be pointed out that different lineages of Yoga might not have the same names for the same poses (in either English or Sanskrit). The Sanskrit I use is one from a very commonly used lineage. I always try to use both English and Sanskrit so there is no rising worry in the class. However, using English is less precise: a wide-legged forward bend can be many things, but Prasarita Padottanasana usually means one particular pose. There is also a school of thought that promotes use of the Sanskrit name of the pose to honour the ancient lineage that bears us the gift of yoga. It’s a respect thing, and that sits best with me.

The last part of the name of the pose is the easy bit.

The common suffix is asana pronounced “arse-ah-nah” and it literally translates to “seat” although to most it means “pose”. I like to think of it as seat though, as one should be settled and comfortable in the pose. It’s the seat from where you are doing your “being”.

The root part of the yoga poses will have various sources.

For instance they might be named after a character from literature:

Eg Virabhadra = was a famous warrior in Hindu literature, (Virabhadrasana I, II and III),

Bharadvaja=was an Indian sage (Bharadvajasana = sage twist), and Marici was another Indian sage (Mariciasnana)

or Vira= a hero in general (Virasana = sitting like a hero)

or an animal eg garuda= eagle (Garudasana), Cow = Go (gomukhasana), Bhujanga= Cobra (Bhujangasana), Viyhagra = tiger, (Viyhagrasana = tiger pose), Simha = Lion (Simhasana)

or an object, eg Nau or nav = boat, (Navasana), Danda = Stick, (Dandasana), Parigha = gate (Parighasana), Chandra = Moon (Chandrasnana), Vrksa = tree (Vrksasana), Kona = Angle, Trikon = triangle

And body bits

Mukha = face (Adho mukha or urdhva mukha svanasana = Downward facing, or upward facing dog seat)

Hasta = Hand (Urdhva hastasana = upwards hands)

Pada = Foot/Leg (Paddotanasana)

Angusta= Big toe (Padangustasana)

Sirsa = head (Sirsasana = headstand)

Janu= knee (Janusirsasana= Head to knee pose)

 

Then you have the qualifiers, so

Adho = downwards

Urdhva = upwards (Urdhva hastasana = upward hands)

Parsva = side or sideways

Uttan = extension

Supta = lying down

Paravritti= revolved

Ardha= partly or half

Baddha = Bound

Sukha = Happy (Sukhasnana= Happy seat)

Ananda = Blissful (Ananda balasana = happy baby pose)

Often if you Google the name of a pose you will find a site that breaks it down for you. www.yogajournal.com is pretty good with that.

You might like to have a look at some of the practices you have done in class through the Members section of this website. If you are interested in learning something new and putting your brain to work, that’s a great way to start. Maybe we can have a class with all Sanskrit one day!

 

 

 

Stability in Motion

Isn’t it a joy to see someone walking along with a spring in their step, an easy stride, arms swinging naturally and feely? You can be pretty certain if they are moving in this way that their spine looks long and free and maybe they are looking around, taking in the sights…poetry in motion. As we age it becomes increasingly important to maintain our agility and the ability to be able look around without compromising balance. Contrast the happy person walking along above with someone stumping one foot after the other, short flat-footed stride, locked back, rounded shoulders, forward head position, eyes resolutely forward. This hardened gait is at best tiring, jarring and at worst is a fall waiting to happen.

Keeping our agility relies on maintaining foot and hip mobility, leg and buttock strength, and engagement and strength in the core muscles so the spine is free to lengthen and the limbs are free to move as they were designed to do. It also relies on thoracic (upper back) extension and mobility and neck stability, which is important in maintaining our range of sight lines and balance.

Putting a little effort into mobilising and strengthening the areas mentioned will allow the spine to extend more easily and our natural easy movement patterns will start to re-emerge. We’ll look younger, feel less tired, and maybe put a smile in someone else’s day when they admire us swingin’ down the street.

Term 1 2017: Freedom from Base to Apex

This term we’re working on freeing up the spine, the pelvic and the shoulder girdles. By doing this with focussed awareness all those superimposed muscle imbalances which we live with will start to peel away, revealing the beautiful natural functional alignment of your body. We’ll use the idea of lengthening, softening and flowing into more space rather than pushing or pulling.

By coming back to awareness again and again hopefully we’ll start to break those old unhelpful patterns. Doing this needs concentration and a certain amount of objectivity so we don’t get cross or frustrated with ourselves (which then sends us into the old holding pattern again). So, stress reduction techniques will be emphasised this term, not just because they are delicious, but because they are very helpful for changing habits. Releasing all the imposed bonds around the ribcage and shoulders opens the door to a huge range of benefits including easier breathing, better digestion, better balance and a brighter outlook. Hip opening, shoulder releasing, chest release and inversions are big players in reduction of feelings of anger, fear and stress, so here we are again with evidence of the positive feedback loops in yoga.

Sweet Surrender (Ishvara Pranidhana)

Review of a term of Yamas and Niyamas

We have been referring back to the grass roots of yoga…to the distinctive features that make yoga what it is. The Yamas and Niyamas are the foundations that make the physical body and the spiritual garden a strong, vital, happy one.

We’ve looked at qualities that influence our behaviour with others:

Kindness, truthfulness, generosity, moderation, de-cluttering,

then investigated the good personal habits we develop;

Purity, Contentment, Determined effort and the balance of these two things.

Last week there was self-reflection, and this week we surrender to something bigger than us

All just basic common sense.   Living according to the yogic ethos is about a better life in the long run.

This week we looked at Ishvara Pranidhana; translated as yielding to the divine. Having put all the good guidelines of the previous weeks into practice we let go, turn off the worry and just be, trusting that we have laid down the best foundations and what happens, happens.