DAYS 44 and 45 : Flowing with some added Spine Work

Day 44 saw my practice being once again dominated by my shoulder which had decided, very kindly, to start playing up again. This caused my whole back and neck to feel achey and painful, so I chose a Yoga With Adriene practice that focused on the spine. Something I remember from my first forays into yoga well over *cough* ten years is the saying that we are only as young as our spine is flexible. Adriene said something similar at the start of today’s practice, that we are only as young and happy as our spine (I like the inclusion of happiness in Adriene’s version!). The way I see it, increasing the general strength and flexibility of my spine has got to be good for these sorts of back/shoulder problems.

The practice was flow-based with some added twists, including a twist in a toe balance at the end which I fell out of a couple of times. I got about 50% of the way to laughing that off rather than feeling annoyed with myself. Challenging poses like that make you realise just how important a strong core and spine are to keeping us balanced. The practice also included another of my least favourite poses, Dandasana (Staff pose), which involves sitting with the spine straight, legs straight out in front and hands on the floor by the hips. It sounds simple, I know, but I really struggle with this one. There’s something about it that makes me tense my back muscles to the point that I feel it’s undoing any benefit those muscles might have obtained from previous poses. This may well be a sign that my back muscles need a fair bit more strengthening! That muscle tension pulls my mental focus to one of the areas of my body that is most often the target of slightly obsessively negative thoughts, but I am continuing to try to just acknowledge and sit with those thoughts rather than engage with or fight them.

Day 45’s practice was another from YWA, this time her Freedom Glow flow. The basis again was a standard vinyasa flow, but I particularly liked the focus on finding freedom within the form – so essentially finding movement within a pose, or a particular expression of a pose, that felt right at that particular time, rather than following strict instruction. This was an interesting approach to tie in with this week’s theme of moderation, as it can be tempting to immediately take a pose to the most extreme expression possible. Instead of that, I tried to focus on experimenting in poses like extended side angle to try to find the optimum expression for my body at that time.

This idea of moderation is one that I’m finding particularly useful. It removes some of the pressure for perfection (I say “some” – there’s no way that I’ll just stop being a perfectionist overnight!) and allows a calmer focus on getting the maximum benefit from each pose. That calmness is something that I’m finding I can take into life off the mat. A less obsessive focus on certain aspects of life, or on particular things, frees up time and energy to focus on and enjoy a much wider range of things. Having said that, part of me does enjoy my temporary and occasionally slightly random obsessions, so I’m not quite sure if I’ll want to give them up entirely!

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DAYS 41 and 42 : Flows, Twists and final thoughts on Satya

Having finally got some energy back, yesterday I did one of my favourite Yoga With Adriene practices – her side body flow. I’m not entirely sure why I like this practice so much, but there’s something about the combination of poses that raise the heart rate, stretch out the side body and twist out the spine that ticks most of my yoga boxes. I’ve always had a bit of an issue with not wanting to take up too much space (perhaps a combination of not liking being tall and not being comfortable in my own skin, and the associated lack of confidence), so I wonder if one of the reasons I like this practice is that poses that focus on the side body require you to open yourself up and take up as much physical space as possible. The yoga mat is a place where that can be done with impunity and without having to worry about what others think. Getting used to doing that on the mat perhaps helps cultivate a feeling, both physical and mental, that can be taken off the mat.

For Day 42, I chose an Ekhart Yoga practice called “Positive Twist”. (It may be becoming clear that I’m a sucker for any practice that involves a decent amount of twisting – I think it comes from having to a greater or lesser extent an almost permanently sore back.) This practice started with some warm-up sun salutations, then moved through a series of seated postures building up to Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, which is basically head to knee pose incorporating a twist. This idea of a practice which is essentially building up to and preparing for one particular pose was intriguing, and having done it I can see how stretching and warming up certain parts of the body and spending time in certain poses can increase flexibility in, and so the benefits of, the final pose.

I found some of the intermediate poses quite tricky, not so much from a physical perspective (although I was no-where near the full expression of those poses), but rather from a mental perspective. I really don’t enjoy poses which start from a wide legged seated position. There’s something about that position which magnifies almost every pocket of inflexibility. This leads to me feeling very hunched and closed off, which can trigger very specific negative thoughts and can cause quite intense discomfort in respect of certain parts of my body. To start with, I swapped in different poses in order to avoid this, but then I thought that this was entirely contrary to this week’s focus of satya/honesty. Avoiding a pose which a particular practice requires and then telling myself that I completed that practice is the exact opposite of honest. So, I went back to those difficult poses and tried to just accept where I was. I tried to really focus on my breath, which meant that the resulting thoughts and feelings weren’t nearly as bad as I’d feared (although when is anything, really).

These were the last practices in my week focusing on satya. I have been trying my best to approach each practice from a position of honesty, as well as incorporating last week’s focus of ahimsa/non-violence. I have found that approaching yoga and life in general with a view to being honest and truthful can strip away a lot of the little stresses that by themselves may be negligible, but which can build up to have a much greater and more detrimental effect. When you know that you’re being true to yourself and to the facts of a particular situation, there is a little less to worry about and decisions become easier. It does, however, require confidence in oneself and one’s actions, because having that baseline means giving less weight to how others might judge our words and actions. That’s something that it can be difficult to move away from particularly if, as I have, you’ve spent most of your life thinking about what other people need or want first, and yourself second. As with many things, though, I think it’s a case of practice and of retraining ourselves to act in a different way. The more persistent we are, the easier it will become (hopefully, at any rate!).

The focus for the coming week is the next yama, brahmacharya, which means “moderation”. As someone who has a vaguely obsessive personality, moderation is not always something that I’m particularly good at, so this should be an interesting week!

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DAYS 38 and 39 : Trial, Error and Energy

I’ve been feeling completely exhausted for the last couple of days. I guess maybe I hadn’t been sleeping well while my shoulder was hurting. (The pain has now reduced to a dull persistent ache, for which I’m very grateful.) Continuing on the basis of choosing my daily practice by really listening to what my body and mind need, I that I needed to inject some energy into both.

For Day 38’s practice, I started by browsing the videos on Ekhart Yoga and came across one called “Tiramisu”. I’ll admit that it was the name that initially drew me to it, as tiramisu is one of my absolute favourite desserts, but the description of a class that would “pick us up from sluggishness and laziness and make us bright and clear again” also appealed. Now there have been times throughout this project so far that I have wanted to give up during a practice, but I haven’t… until this one. It just didn’t click with me at all. The movements felt disjointed and I found myself getting more and more frustrated. I knew that I should be accepting that frustration and just working with it, but it got to a point where I felt that the adverse effects of the frustration and annoyance would outweigh any benefits. So, I stopped the video, refused to beat myself up about that, and moved on to another practice.

The replacement I chose was a Yoga With Adriene Shakti practice. In the Hindu tradition, “Shakti” is the word for divine, specifically female, energy. It is, apparently, the energy essential to living a healthy and vibrant life and is synonymous with empowerment, creativity and movement. I’m not sure about all that, although I will accept that there appear to be various different types of energy – that’s something that can be determined just by observing how the body feels in different situations – but which is not quite the same as seeing different energies as having distinct, maybe even divine, origins. That I can’t really get on board with, so I put all of that to one side and focused on just clearing out the sluggishness from my body and mind, which this practice did very nicely. The spinal flexes and side body stretches at the start felt amazing, as did opening up the hips with the hip circles and Lizard pose, while the flow aspects helped to shift some of the mental and physical cobwebs. I also loved that this practice incorporated Lion’s Breath, which is one of my favourite pranayama techniques. It feels childlike and a bit silly, but it really does provide a quick shot of energy.

On Day 39 I felt even more tired, to the point where I’d fallen asleep on the sofa for a couple of hours after lunch without even really realizing it. I needed a practice that involved minimal movement, but which would still perk me up a bit, so I chose an Ekhart Yoga Yin practice called “Connect to your Vital Energy”. I was intrigued as to how a Yin practice could really increase energy, but I certainly felt more energized afterwards. I liked Esther’s focus on just letting everything be, rather than resisting any thoughts or emotions that came up. That constant resistance to certain thoughts or feelings (or indeed to tiredness itself) can be exhausting, and just stopping that can free up that energy to be used elsewhere. One of the best aspects of Yin Yoga, or so I have found so far, is how it encourages slow, deep breathing and an intense focus on the breath. It’s easy to forget the connection between the breath and how we feel – it’s far more difficult to panic, for example, when the breath is slow and deep – and Yin encourages an awareness of that connection.

Without wanting to jinx things I’m feeling much more energetic today, and my body seems to be craving a more fast-moving, intense practice, so I’m going to try to fit one of those in before I head out for the day – the perfect way (hopefully!) to get my mind and body set up for a busy weekend.

DAYS 36 and 37 : Neck and Shoulder Therapy

My most recent two practices have been dictated purely by the fact that I woke up yesterday with a sharp pain under my shoulder blade, which this morning had spread down my side and up to my neck. This happens occasionally and although I’m not entirely sure why, I’m sure it isn’t helped by how ridiculously tense my neck and shoulders are. If I’m ever stressed or anxious that’s where it goes, often with the inevitable accompanying headache. I sometimes find myself getting frustrated that regular yoga practice hasn’t yet cured those tension and muscle issues, but realistically I know that it’s an ongoing process and not something that will just happen straight away.

Anyway, this all meant that I was focused very much on the physical benefits of yoga in choosing these practices. Day 36 was a therapeutic session on Ekhart Yoga with Jennilee Toner. This was a very interesting session as it wove some anatomy lessons in amongst the poses and stretches. While certain muscles tighten when we have poor posture, work long hours at a desk or sleep in a certain position, for example, others become weak. So in order to see improvement we need to both stretch the tight muscles and strengthen the weak ones. This was an hour long practice and my shoulder did feel significantly better afterwards. Having said that, I woke up this morning and it felt worse, but I guess it might have felt even worse if I hadn’t done that practice!

Today’s practice was a Yoga With Adriene stretch and soothe practice from her Empower series. This wasn’t so focused on the neck and shoulders, rather it stretched pretty much the whole body as well as incorporating some gentle vinyasas. I chose it mainly because the discomfort in that one part of my body had made me feel generally very scrunched (technical yoga term, there) and tight, so stretching everything out felt great.

I think it can sometimes be easy to focus on the mental and emotional benefits of yoga and forget about the purely physical benefits. Entirely separating the two isn’t particularly helpful, especially if (like me) you’re looking to build a closer connection between your mind and your body. However, that doesn’t mean that the focus can’t sometimes be shifted significantly more towards the physical, provided an awareness of the present moment is maintained in order to keep the mind engaged. Focusing on how a pose is strengthening or stretching particular muscles, or increasing the flexibility in certain joints, could in fact help to build the mind/body connection as it cultivates a greater familiarity with how the body works and how it is affected by different movements and poses.

So, how to tie all this in with this week’s theme of satya/truthfulness and honesty? I think the honesty in these practices lay in the fact that I gave my body what it needed. I did think this morning “oh I should do a more intense practice, because I did a gentle therapeutic one yesterday”, but I didn’t. Instead, I accepted where I was and worked with it. I was honest with myself about any limitations I might have or difficulties in certain poses that I might experience due to the issues I was having with my shoulder. Approaching the practices from that perspective, I found that I was slightly less inclined to immediately criticise myself or to let negative thoughts take hold as a result of any particular pose that I was holding. I know I said back at the beginning of this project that I wanted a bit more structure to my practice, rather than just picking a practice each day, but I think there is a lot to be said for making a conscious and informed decision each day as to what type of practice would most benefit me.

As for tomorrow, however, I’m just hoping that the pain in my shoulder will miraculously disappear overnight. You never know, it could happen.

DAY 34 : Detox Practice (and a certain amount of scepticism)

 

Today’s practice was a Yoga With Adriene detox practice.

“Yoga” and “detox” are two words that often go hand in hand. There’s a lot of stuff out there about how certain yoga poses can put just the right pressure on internal organs to help detox the body. So-called detox diets are basically nonsense (see, for example, Ben Goldacre over at Bad Science and the Angry Chef), and although I’m no expert, I’m going to say that the same is probably true of so-called detoxifying yoga poses (as is set out in this article from the Guardian, for example). It would seem logical that certain poses, twists for example, could have a beneficial effect on digestion but I can’t really see any logic in them assisting in the expulsion of toxins.

So, why this practice? Partly because I wanted to build up a bit of a sweat, and partly because I love any practice that involves a lot of twisting. As per yesterday’s decision, I did this practice first thing in the morning and my spine really thanked me for it. On the detox theme, something I’ve heard a lot is that twists “rinse” the spine. I’ve never really been sure what that means, so I Googled “what does rinsing the spine mean?” (seriously, what did we do before the age of search engines?). Apparently, we should think of our spine as a washcloth. Twisting poses rinse off the spine and create space for fresh oxygenated blood to flow up and down the spinal column, which rehydrates, detoxifies and renews the spine. You can’t see, but I’m pulling a sceptical face right now. I’m sure that twists can do all sorts of good things for the spine, many of which I’ve experienced myself, such as releasing and stretching tight muscles and increasing range of motion. It might also make sense that they can improve blood flow, as much as any physical exercise can. Rinsing and detoxifying, though? That, I’m not so sure about.

Mentally, this practice was exactly what I needed today. I woke up feeling a bit anxious and stressed, although I’m not sure why, and a strong, heat-building practice was just what I needed to ground and calm myself. Poses that require physical strength, such as the elbow-to-knee twists from high lunge, often also require mental strength, and so can serve as a reminder that that mental strength is there and available when I need it. Sometimes, that gets forgotten.

Today’s practice was, for me, a good example of the very personal nature of a yoga practice. Everyone will take something different from their practice, and what may work for some people may not work for others. I’m never going to be able to force myself to believe something that my logical mind is resisting, in this case the detoxifying properties of certain poses. That doesn’t mean, however, that I can’t benefit from practices that have detoxification as their primary aim. It seems to me that it’s a question of taking responsibility for my own practice and what I get out of it, rather than simply taking someone else’s word for what the benefits should be. So, while I didn’t feel any less free of toxins, and my spine didn’t feel any more rehydrated than it had before, I did feel that I had been able to combine both mental and physical strength to create a beneficial practice, and that for me made for a successful half hour on the mat.

 

DAY 33 : Feel Good Flow and thoughts on Morning Yoga

Today’s practice was a Yoga With Adriene flow which I chose pretty much purely because my house was so cold and Adriene had filmed this particular practice on a beach. Perhaps I thought I could suck some of the warmth through my laptop screen. However I may have chosen it, though, it was a great practice and exactly what I needed today – relatively short and incorporating both flow/strength elements and some awesome twists.

I usually practice mid to late afternoon, but due to today’s plans this ended up being an early morning practice. It got me thinking about how the time of day can affect what I take from a practice. Physically, my body tends to be pretty stiff in the mornings, so I generally won’t be able to go as deep into some poses as I would later in the day. On the other hand, certain twists and stretches are perfect for waking the body up. Mentally, my mind is generally much more of a blank slate first thing in the morning. As soon as I get started on my day, I’m thinking about multiple things at once and when I practice later in the day, I come to the mat in the context of that mental chatter. I found it really beneficial to take some time to focus and just be present before kickstarting the day. It basically felt like a way to pull myself together physically, mentally and emotionally so that I could start the day from a place of calm, focus and (in keeping with this week’s theme) respect. I think I was able to carry that through most of the rest of the day, even the moments I had to spend nodding and smiling (and gritting my teeth) through some eye-rolling at my dislike of looking at my own wedding photos. (Pro tip: if someone does say that, don’t assume it’s an overreaction – they might genuinely find looking at those photos difficult and so feel somewhat annoyed and belittled at said eye-rolling. Just saying.)

It seems that early morning yoga can work pretty well for me, so why don’t I do it more often? My initial thought was “oh, it’s probably because I’m lazy”, but when I actually thought about it (rather than just going for the easy answer which is nearly always a self-criticism), I realised that a more likely answer is that I don’t think I can take time for myself until I’ve done a sufficient amount of work or enough chores to justify it. Taking that time to do yoga first thing feels indulgent, whilst doing it later in the day turns it into some sort of reward for having had a productive day. It’s essentially an extension of the fact that I instinctively see taking time purely to do something I want to do as selfish. I know on an objective level that I need to take time to do those things, but when it comes to it I always feel a bit guilty in doing so.

I guess this again feeds into the notion of respect that is one of my focuses this week. Taking time purely for myself, without feeling selfish or guilty, is a form of self-respect. If I do take that time, then I’m more likely to be able to treat others and the world in general with respect. I won’t resent external demands on my time, because I will have accepted that time for myself is just as important. That all sounds perfectly simple, but that mindset of selfishness and guilt is a difficult one to get out of. Perhaps what I need to do is challenge myself by shifting some of my practices to first thing in the morning. Working on changing my thought patterns alone would probably help, but I think to really start to shift that ingrained mindset I need to change my actions as well as my thoughts.

As for today’s practice, as the name suggested, I really was feeling good by the end of it. The house was still cold, though.

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DAYS 31 AND 32 : Strength, Focus and Acceptance

As per my last post, what I’m really trying to focus on at the moment on the mat is respect for myself, my body and its limits. This was really challenged by yesterday’s practice, which was a Yoga With Adriene practice for strength and focus. I’ve come to accept that there will be some days when my mind and body just don’t click, and practising is something of a struggle. (While it’d be great to hit some sort of zen perfection every time I get on the mat, that’s not exactly real life.) Yesterday was one of those days. My mind was chattering like mad and my body seemed to be resisting every even vaguely strengthening pose. Still, I tried to accept that that’s how things were going to be and respect the fact that perhaps I wasn’t going to get as deep into a high lunge as usual, or it might be a bit trickier to bring my knee to my elbow in plank. It was difficult, of course, but constantly bringing myself back to a mindset where I don’t engage with negative thoughts, even if I can’t stop them altogether, helped to keep the level of frustration relatively low.

Bearing how I felt during yesterday’s practice in mind, today I did a much gentler practice from Ekhart Yoga with Esther Ekhart. The aim of the practice was to accept and work with tiredness, and it caught my eye because of the reference to focusing on respect in each pose. This practice started with a seated meditation, then moved through a sequence of gentle poses and stretches (including Pigeon, still one of my favourites!) before ending in an extended Savasana. My body and mind definitely appreciated slowing things down a bit.

Throughout the practice, Esther referred to shifting our awareness so that we are less engaged with the body, but simply see it as a part of ourselves. This is something that yoga in general is really helping me to do, but it was nice to have some specific reminders. If anything I tend to overengage with my body, to the extent that certain unpleasant or uncomfortable physical sensations (I say physical, sometimes I wonder whether they actually start off in my mind rather than my body) can take over. My mind then latches onto those sensations to such an extent that they can set off some sort of anxiety spiral unless I take active steps to stop it. Trying to focus on that attitude of respect really helps here, because it’s more difficult for negative thoughts to pop up when the position from which I’m approaching each pose is one of acceptance and respect.

Off the mat, I’ve been trying to make my inner monologue a bit nicer, as it has a tendency to be kind of mean and bitchy, mostly towards me. It’s amazing how much less exhausting life is when you’re not constantly criticising yourself in your own head. I think I’m generally quite nice to other people (I’m certainly nice to them than I am to myself, but then I think that might be true of a lot of people), but I have been trying to consciously think about how I’m interacting with people. As with so much in life, really focusing on the every day things that we take for granted, such as how we speak to people, can make us realise that there actually are changes we can make, however small, to improve our own quality of life and the effect that we have on others’.

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