Saturday, October 8, 2011

Practice tips for outdoor yoga

Imagine doing yoga while watching the sun set over the Arabian Gulf.  Now that the weather in Doha is becoming more temperate this is a possibility but a few tips before you take your practice outside.      

In yoga what we are actually trying to develop, in addition to a flexible, strong and pain free body is a focused stable mind.  For this reason we want to create a practice space for ourselves that is as free from distractions as possible and is safe and comfortable.  It is important to distinguish between the yoga of photographs where beautiful yoginis practice advanced poses on the edges of precipices and the reality of a relaxing secure space for your average struggling practicionaire.  So while it is very lovely to practice outside it is important to make sure of a couple of things.  1.  Have a solid stable floor.   (You can stretch on sand perhaps but not really practice.)  2.  Make sure that there is shade and protection from the wind.  3.  Make sure that you have privacy – especially if you are just starting out and are not comfortable in your practice.

While all of this may seems obvious the space in which we create our yoga practice in is extremely important.  If your practice is to actually become a practice rather than a few yoga stretches then you need to focus on withdrawing the senses from the outside world and keeping the mind still.  We call this developing eka grata or one pointed concentration.  It is this one pointed concentration that prepares the mind for meditation and it is through developing a meditative practice that we start to practice yoga.  Many of the tools of yoga including concentrating on the breath, directing the gaze in a specific way, and locking the abdominal core are designed to help with withdrawing the senses from the outside world and stilling the internal dialogue. Distractions, such as wind and sun and the fear of people watching can all detract from that.  Which is not to say that it can not be inspiring and motivating to go outside.  Yoga is also about beauty and joy and I take my own practice outside as often as possible but I take care of the basics first.  So if you are planning to create an outdoor yoga space remember to keep it solid and safe and secluded so that your practice can be too.


Yama Yoga offers classes outdoors at the Rtiz Carlton.  See our website for more information.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

My ladies only class

Historically yoga was a male only field.  In the course of its evolution from a priestly form of meditation to a counter culture medium to what we now call “modern postural yoga,” a form of exercise taught in gyms, studios and schools, men have played a dominate role. Woman only became involved in yoga in the mid 20th century as yoga began to make its way into the West.  The story goes that the first woman to take a yoga class was the wife of an ambassador stationed in Mysore, India.  When this woman wanted to take a yoga class it was only because of the status of her husband and the constant pressure of the King himself upon the teacher, a certain Krichnamichriya otherwise known as the grandfather of modern yoga, that she was allowed access to the class.  Luckily for us this woman proved to be a dedicated student.  She went on to become Indra Devi who opened the first yoga studio in Hollywood and taught such yoga enthusiasts as Marilyn Monroe and Gloria Swanson. Because of her success and dedication the doors of Indian yoga studios remained open to us all. 

Women now dominate yoga – not as famous teachers perhaps but certainly as students.  Around the world up to 80 per cent of most yoga classes will be women and at certain times of the day the classes will most certainly be women only.  Yet as yoga is being adapted to the cultural milieu of the Arab world these classes of “only women” become “ladies only” classes. 

There is something radically different about teaching and practicing in a class that only has women in it and a class for “ladies only” – a difference that I am only now beginning to appreciate.  When we teach a “ladies only” class the whole approach is different.   For our ladies our first focus is protection.  All the windows are covered – all the doors are screened.  A cocoon is created and those outside it work hard to make sure that the security is not breeched.   As we step onto our mats and take our first deep breaths this sense of protection is reassuring and affirming.  It also provides an arena for risk.  The “ladies only” classes are challenging.  The women who take them are strong and want to be stronger.  Many of my ladies only students have not had an extensive physical education and yet yoga plays to their strengths – to their suppleness and fluidity and grace, and this gives them the confidence to develop strength and stability and stamina.   For me as an expatriate living in the Arab world the ladies only classes are also a privilege, an opportunity for an intimate conversation that I rarely have in my daily life.   And the ladies only class is a conversation between women.  We adapt our practice to our cycles and stages of life and this is discussed freely in a ladies only class.   We focus on certain body parts and anatomical needs - no euphemisms are required.  We watch the movements of our mind and the effects this has on our body image and self-esteem and together we slowly train them away from destructive patterns.  Together, through a constant give and take of what works and what doesn’t, we balance our culture and religion with the health giving and life affirming aspects of yoga.      

Yoga is a living, evolving tradition and it is a remarkable honor to be a part of its introduction to the Arab world through the ladies only classes.  But as is usually the case when you teach you learn more from your students then they do from you.  The ladies only class is teaching me again and again what it is to be a woman practicing yoga.

Yama Yoga will be offering Ladies only classes at discounted rates starting September 18th.  See our website for details.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Hip Summer

It may not be what we normally assume but almost three quarters – maybe more – of all yoga poses work on openness in the hips.  Think about it. The hips are the connection between the lower limbs and the pelvis and spine so any pose that uses the legs or the torso is also going to use the hips.  But let’s not stop with yoga poses.  Name any position of the body that doesn’t.  The hips are our vital center for locomotion and for grounding yet they are also the base of each articulated movement of the spine as we reach away from the earth and towards the stars.  They are our center for creativity, fluidity and pleasure yet they also represent our stability and our readiness to fight or fly.  From the hips we bend forward, backwards, sideways.   We can twist and shake and dance all on the basis of the 6 possible movements of the rotators, abductors and flexors.   

You would think that with so much depended on fluid hips that we would work to maintain their openness but this is precisely what is threatened by our modern lives.  If we were sitting on the floor half the day we would be exploring the full range of motion of these vital joints on a constant basis.  But instead we sit on chairs which means not only that our rotators don’t get to open but that we spend far too much time with shortened hip flexors.  Chronically shortened hip flexors can pull the pelvis out of alignment which can result in lower back pain. Shortness in the hip flexors, which is emphasized by repetitive movement such as running or cycling also restricts our ability to back bend – which means the upper back as well as the lower back becomes contracted – An upper back that doesn’t open can produce tight shoulders and neck and so it goes on…

One of my yoga teachers said that we should think of our hips as diamonds.  To open them and make them shine we need heat, pressure and time.   The heat of the Doha summer makes now the perfect time to work on opening your hips.  As you begin to do so it is useful to divide the hip stretches into 3 basic categories.  There are those that work on stability, those that help to lengthen the hip flexors, and those that work towards releasing the groin and rotators.  None of these stand on their own and as I said just about every yoga pose works on the hips but this is a good way to try to understand the progression of the poses.  So to start I would recommend that you focus on stability and the standing poses such as standing forward bend, triangle and extension pose.  Balance poses are useful here as well.  While you are experiencing the poses notice how each one finds a different area of the hip to lengthen.  Once you are warm, and standing poses usually do this, I would suggest you move towards poses that focus on the hip flexors especially the psoas muscle.  Long deep lunges are good for this and have the advantage of maintaining the heat in the body.  After this you can move to the floor and take a more yin approach to opening the rotators.  The classic pose here is pigeon pose and you can really never spend too long in pigeon but there are many others – such as butterfly position or wide legged forward bend to name just two.   Please remember that these poses should never be forced.  The hips represent a feminine part of the body so they should be approached with sensitivity and an aspect of surrender.  Oh – and one final point about the hips.  They are emotional.  It is said by many traditional practices that we store our emotions in our hips, especially our fear, our insecurity and our grief so it may be that emotional releases will accompany the physical release.  If an emotion happens to arise while you are breathing in a hip pose just keep breathing and let it go.  A hip practice can be a cleansing as well as an opening.   

As the Doha summer sand storms rage and our cars bake, as our steering wheels burn, and our cold water turns bathtub hot it is good to remember one advantage of our desert home.   Heat- heat that will serve our hips, and free our movement.   Heat that will increase our mobility and range.  Go with it. Make the most of it.  Enjoy a hip summer. 

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Summer Focus

When I was practicing in my 20s and early 30s I always had a summer focus.  In those days I was a graduate student and a mother of young children and a beginning yoga teacher and most of the time it was all I could do to keep any type of practice going at all let alone delving into it and focusing.  My then-husband and I always had our "hot date" with our yoga teacher once a week but apart from that I would sneak in practices with my babies crawling all over me, or at lunch in an empty dance studio or at the crack of dawn with absolutely no energy just a knowledge that if I didn't do something my back, neck and shoulders would start to seize.

But then there were the summers.  I could travel, do workshops, and mostly - most delightfully - get hot.   I had backbend summers, inversion summers, summers of balances and twists and flip flops.  We had summers of practicing by the river and on New Hampshire docks.  We had the occasional Australian summer that backed onto the US summers so that I could squeeze in yet another focus.  And then once I'd move to Qatar I had my run away summers - summers in Mysore, in Ibiza, in New York.  Of course for so much of all of that the focus was not only the particular group of poses and the benefits of a particular location’s type of heat but the fun of it all.  Having time to do yoga and focus on whatever I wanted was, above everything else, fun.   It is only now that I am in my mid 40s and I have to temper that fun with a little more care that the focus of summer is also reflection.

In a great blog that I was reading last night (Shivers up the Spine - see my side bar) they referenced the necessity of Yogis being philosophers.  "The sign of a true yogi is not how flexible their bodies are, but rather how willing they are to be philosophical about personhood, and critical of their own prejudices...." So to help us all, most especially me, with an additional type of focus I have added a bunch of blogs to my blogs– blogs that do a great job of exploring the place of yoga in popular culture, of examining subtle aspects of the practice and philosophy and history of yoga and of keeping it all fun.  In my practice and teaching I plan to have a Hip Summer and to focus on the hips and the release of pent up emotions often associated with them – but beyond the fun and the tapas is the reflection.  I hope that you will join me and share resources that you have found as well.

Enjoy your summer focus.  Namaste

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Take a seat

The seated poses are without question one of the most fundamental sections of any yoga practice and building a solid seated practice is important to building a home practice.  Generally seated poses incorporate forward bends for lengthening the body, twists for detoxification, and abdominals for building a strong core.   You can also work on opening your hips in your seated practice.  In seated poses gravity works as a gentle friend to help you lengthen into the pose and most of these poses can be modified to suit any level.  Another aspect about seated poses is that most of them are inward facing and therefore promote a sense of calm.  Focus on this calming introversion to get the most out of your seated practice.  

Below are some links with lists of possible seated poses.  As you go through these you can think about the different emphasis you can take with each practice.   Some days you might want to focus on deep forward bends for lengthening while other days the focus will be on opening the hips.  Each practice should contain five to ten minutes of abdominals.  Follow your seated practice with your backbends and a closing section.  Remember the more time you spend on your seated and closing poses the calmer and more gentle your practice will be.  Enjoy the peace that they bring.


Practice all the time everywhere

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How to build a practice

A lot of students on the 40 day challenge have been asking about how to build a home practice.  Advice that I received about this a long time ago was just to start with your favorite pose and let it grow of its self from that.  It works as a technique – just remembering what felt good in your last class  – and it helps to keep our expectations low – a very important part of yoga, but some of us draw a mental block when we get to the top of your mat so here are some tips.

Each class and each practice should have a beginning, middle and end – it should be structured as an arc.
Always take some time at the beginning to focus – a few moments on the breath, a formal pranayama, a chant.  Take this time to settle the mind and come into the body and the moment.

Start with warming up.  This will be different depending on your level but usually involves some form of the sun salute.  Here are some links to some different forms of the sun salute.
                I yoga life

After sun salute the focus should shift to standing poses.  This is where the energy starts to lift and the body begins to heat.    Depending on the length of your practice you can do as few as two or three or as many as six or seven.  You can usually mix these up however you like.  Again here are some links.

After the body is warmed and heated you can come to the floor and work some seated poses, some twists and some abdominal poses.  If you have to shorten your practice this is where you can abbreviate.

You should always leave time for finishing poses and these generally follow the same sequence - some backbends and a forward bend as a counter pose to this then your inversions and final breath work before savasana or relaxation pose.

Over the next few days I will upload a series of different sequences so that you can experiment and find your own form and develop your own seated section but generally using this beginning, middle, and end as a template you can move into a home practice. 

One final tip - one of the best and most classic resources for building your home practice is Iyengar’s Light on Yoga (Available now in the Villagio Virgin.)  The appendix has a very structure week by week practice sequence. 

I hope this helps.  Again the main thing is just to start and keep on going once you have started.  Be intuitive and listen to your body and breath.  Let the yoga grow from there.