I’m just home from an incredible trip to India, where I spent a month practising with and learning from a new favourite teacher of mine, Matthew Sweeney. His teaching consolidated my belief that, although led classes are fun, inspiring and motivating, everyone needs an individual practice that really suits them, to focus on their real areas of need. Matthew highlighted the importance of a self-practice, in addition to led classes, as the time when you really get to work on what you personally need to improve on physically/ mentally.
Beginning a self-practice takes dedication and guidance from a teacher, you need to be given a sequence that is appropriate for you and regularly checked. But there are a few things that we can all do to kick-start our mornings and begin to develop a morning practice, which can then be built upon with the help of a good teacher.
5 tips to help a morning self-practice
1. Get up early, at the same time each day! Set your alarm early enough to give yourself enough time before your working day begins, and look forward to getting up! Get into the habit of rising at the same time each day, for enhanced energy.
2. Start with silence. Once you’re up and re-hydrated, just sit. Your mind will not have fully woken up yet so it is the easiest time to feel calm. Enjoy being awake but not rushing and set yourself up for a positive day… take 12 breathes, on each exhalation think of something you are grateful for.
3. Consider your breathing, learn 1 – 3 simple pranayama techniques from your teacher. The best thing you can do in the beginning is just to watch each breath come in and out. Notice how it feels, sounds and what moves, allowing it to deepen and lengthen comfortably.
4. Warm up and protect your core, using the most suitable techniques for you. My students regularly practise a variety of core strengthening exercises in class – many of which you can find on my social media feeds. Not only does this warm you up, it helps to protect against back pain and injury.
5. Learn and practice a sequence that is suitable for you and the time you have. It can be anything from 20 minutes to 90 minutes. This is where one to one sessions are so useful, as a good teacher will set you a sequence with the poses and modifications that will benefit you the most.
There are so many benefits to a morning routine – from increased energy, motivation, physical health and mental clarity, plus more time in your day. See if you can make a start on your self-practice morning routine. If you are joining me on retreat this year or if I see you privately, I will be giving you plenty of help!
There is more to be being strong than appearance. There is more to building strength than achieving a desired look. Strength goes much deeper and serves us so much more. It is about providing support for your body; when we are supported we are protected; when we are protected we are safe; when we are safe we are confident and empowered.
Our Yang yoga practice brings us strength. The dynamic, repetitive movements of a Vinyasa Yoga practice warms and works the muscles, building strength. The muscles are stretched within the poses of the sequences as well, giving us this empowering combination of strength and flexibility. As we say in the Yoga Medicine community: Strength plus flexibility equals power.
This highlights the importance of having both a Yin and a Yang practice (see previous blogpost for more on Yin!).
Many of us begin a yoga practice for the flexibility enhancing side of it, which is exactly what so many of us need as we get older and stiffer! However, we cannot neglect to strengthen the important areas of our abdomen, sides and lower back – collectively termed our core. In addition the hip muscles, particularly psoas, which offers so much in regard to supporting the spine from the front. Our core muscles are there to hold us up and support and protect our spine, which otherwise suffers 🙁
Join me for the Yoga for Core Strength Workshop this Sunday, 10am-1pm, in St Agnes, where we will look at how we can strengthen all areas of our ‘core’, front, back and sides, through yoga.
Why should I slow down?
Like many other active people I know, I was resistant to a slow, easy yoga practice. But when I first came to Yin yoga, I realised just how good it feels to stop and stay in a pose – and that it wasn’t easy at all! This year I have really embraced the practice of Yin and used it to complement my ashtanga vinyasa practice. Having a daily Ashtanga/ Vinyasa Flow practice is fantastic but to complement it with a few evening yin poses and a longer weekly session adds so much.
Slowing down and relaxing into poses allows us to access and learn how to be in the parasympathetic nervous system. We should spend most of our time here, yet too many folk are so used to being in their sympathetic ‘flight or flight’ mode, that they forget what it is to relax. Our regular Vinyasa practice does give us the chance to move in the sympathetic, in order to realise the relaxed state of the parasympathetic – probably the best way to begin a yoga practice. But then we can take things further and learn how to really slow things down… and that’s when the magic happens…
In a dynamic practice we only get to stretch and lengthen the superficial muscles. Great, but not enough to make real lasting and obvious change. By staying in a pose for longer, we can find the time to relax into a pose, allowing the superficial muscles to release and then are able to access the deeper musculature. Lengthening muscles and releasing tension from these deeper muscles, gives them the chance to re-set – improving our overall posture and emotional wellbeing.
This relaxing into a pose sounds lovely doesn’t it? But it’s not as easy as it sounds! Especially for those of us with lots of accumulated tension, it can feel darn uncomfortable – but this is where the mental aspect enters. Learn to overcome the discomfort and your mind learns to overcome any challenge.
Learn more about a Yin Practice with me on 4th December at the Yin Yoga New Moon Winter workshop in St Agnes
And the result?
A greater chance of finding real postural change and improvement as well as significant muscle lengthening and range of movement. Try this pose last thing at night and also get a amazing night’s sleep. With continued practice you’ll gain real advancement in all yoga asana and find ease in the more advanced postures.
I hope to see you at the workshop – find out more and book here: Yin Yoga New Moon Winter workshop, Sunday 4th December, St Agnes.
It’s proven – being mindful, which is being fully present, enables our brain to function optimally! Our executive functioning is enhanced, allowing us to think rationally, be aware of rising emotions and self-regulate our behaviour accordingly – in essence, we think more clearly, make better decisions, listen to people properly and are able to keep calm in potentially stressful situations… and what is one of THE BEST ways to learn and practise mindfulness? You guessed it – yoga!
We want those qualities for ourselves, and who wouldn’t want them for our kids? I’ve taught yoga to thousands of children in schools – with impressive results from weekly classes… But, what if all our school class teachers were trained in basic yoga and mindfulness skills…?? Just think how much influence this would have on the children!
After parents and carers, it is clearly school teachers who spend the most amount of time with our off-spring, playing an important role as role models in their young lives. I’m a great advocate of specific yoga and mindfulness classes being taught in schools with all the benefits and joy it brings, however I also know that children learn best through modelling. In fact, research shows that a teacher who practises mindfulness, and models mindful behaviour in class, has a much greater positive affect on the pupils around them than those teachers specifically teaching mindfulness techniques! (Jennings and Siegel, 2015)
What does this mean for our schools?
Luckily, we have some forward-thinking, enthusiastic, compassionate and dedicated-to-their-pupils’-wellbeing schools, such as Hillfort Academy in Liskeard, Cornwall. The Head, Assistant head, a Class Teacher and an HLTA joined me last week (in their summer holidays!) for a one day training in teaching basic yoga and mindfulness to children in school.
“This was an excellent and inspiring day! My colleagues and I learnt a lot and we now feel eager and confident to include elements of yoga and mindfulness into our day, in order to calm and re-focus our learners. We are now also thinking about including it into the PE curriculum to combine the physical with the mental and emotional side, we can really see our pupils benefitting from it.“ Tim Cook, Head Teacher.
In an ideal world…
Every school teacher would be practising yoga and a form of mediation – for their own benefit. The peace, calm and rational thinking that comes from their personal practise will automatically come through in their teaching.
“This calm, broadened awareness will help you to recognize and respond to teachable moments and develop creative ways to present your content to your students, enlivening your teaching and stimulating your students’ learning.” (Jennings, 2015)
The teachers’ mindful and calm behaviour is modelled by their pupils, who find that they can then concentrate and focus more intently and for longer periods of time because they are learning in a calm environment, where they feel safe and secure. The teachers receive training in how to share simple mindfulness, breathing and yoga techniques within the classroom. In addition, the pupils receive regular yoga classes from a yoga teacher that reinforces the attitude and behaviour that they are learning subconsciously from their class teachers, whilst adding to the physical mindful movement, which enhances bodily awareness, coordination and raises self-confidence. They can self-manage their behaviour, able to notice when negative emotions are arising, they are thriving: academically, socially and emotionally.
The staff from Hillfort came to visit me at my local studio for a 1 day training, to be followed up with a more in-depth 5 day course next year. Schools can find out more about the Teaching Yoga and Mindfulness for Schools Training here.
Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom. Patricia A. Jennings and Daniel J. Siegel. 2015. Norton.
Our shoulders are our arm’s connection to the body – so the health, strength and flexibility of our shoulders is obviously extremely important! Having an injured shoulder is incredibly frustrating – it’s sometimes only then that you realise how much you use your arms and the importance of the shoulder joint and muscles for those numerous actions.
Here’s a super short list of common shoulder complaints and how yoga can help:
- Tight neck and shoulders – tightness in the upper trapezius and levator scapula muscles that run down the side of the neck is common, as these poor guys often get over used! – Practise relaxing the neck and shoulders in Salabasana pose, strengthening the lower and mid traps; take 10-20 minutes each day gently stretching the sides of the neck – from a seated position relax your head to one side, lift and reach away thought the arm on the opposite side.
- Pain in the front of the shoulder – this can be from numerous causes but in someone who regularly practises vinyasa yoga it is often a result of the head of the humerus dipping too far forward in Chaturanga and irritating the biceps tendon. – Strengthen the serratus anterior muscles that wrap around the ribs, with regularly scapula push-ups (see here) and refine your alignment in Chaturanga with your teacher.
- Rotator cuff tears/ irritation – there are 4 muscles that make up the rotator cuff, so injuries here can manifest in different actions and locations. These muscles have the job of stabilising the head of the humerus in the main shoulder joint, but they need the support of the serratus and rhomboids as well. If there is weakness here, this is often when injuries occur! – Strengthen the serratus anterior with more scapula push-ups and in Plank by pushing the hands down.
- Pain or restriction in Gomukasana (pictured) – in the lower arm can indicate tightness or irritation in the muscle covering the back of the shoulder blade. – Try doing this pose very gently in the shower when you are warm and the muscles are looser. In the top arm restriction can come from the latissimus dorsi or the triceps – try puppy pose to release tension here. Any sharp pain could be an impingement, so get this checked out.
- Hunched shoulders – our day to day lifestyle encourages our shoulders to round forward: typing, driving, running etc… this can have negative implications on our posture and even our breathing and self-confidence long term. – Release tension in pectoralis minor in the chest by laying over a vertical mat roll and relaxing the shoulders either side of it. Strengthen the back of the shoulders in cactus arm pose variations.
All of these things are covered in my classes from time to time, and we will cover all of them in the Shoulder Workshop – see below.
This is a very brief over view of the frequent shoulder issues I encounter, there are many more shoulder complaints, some much more serious than others. If you have shoulder pain I recommend speaking to your yoga teacher, who may be able to offer a private evaluation to discover more about the problem and possible yoga as therapy. As always, if the pain is significant or suddenly worse always consult a doctor.
Yoga for Shoulders Workshop – Unlocking and Stabilising the Shoulders
In this workshop let’s explore a range of poses, exercises and techniques that help to effectively dissolve tension, increase mobility and build strength in the shoulders.
Cornwall Yoga Centre, Truro, Cornwall
Sunday 4th September, 10am – 1pm
£24 Book Now