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  1. Get Your Breath Back with Yoga

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    New yoga students are often worried that they are not flexible enough to do yoga. There is an assumption here that yoga is defined by posturing alone : what we call asana in yoga.

    Anyone out there who still thinks that their lack of flexibility is an obstacle to yoga can stop worrying and start thinking that they want to do yoga to GET flexible and toned.

    There is however another consideration when starting your yoga journey and that is the importance of the breath. In many ways this is THE most important consideration and often lost in the translation of how practising yoga makes us look good especially when we are parading around in our fancy new yoga gear and trying to get into these weird and wonderful aesthetic positions.

    Correcting your breathing could be your first consideration when starting yoga. 

    It has been said that correct breathing is the thing that glues everything together in our yoga practice. Yet it is often not till students have been practising sometimes for years that they come to realise this.

    Our breathing experience in practice is probably closer to the true nature of yoga than asanas can ever be and that is why it is wise to cultivate a more nourishing relationship with that wonderful phenomena that we have known about since birth but hardly noticed or appreciated.

    If you are budding yoga student be sure to find out as much if not more about the breahting side of the practice when you go to classes.

    In the early days you practice should be navigated with good breathing in mind. 

    Some of this can be usefully done IN posture even using simple warm up movements with considered inhalations and exhalations. It can also be done in relaxation beginning to cultivate an awareness of the Passive Breath and later working with yogas more controlled breathing techniques. The passive breath is often deemed boring by beginner students who cannot understand the need for it. Early on students are easily distracted from this practice as it has little value to the mind. It has been shown however that observing the passive breath while in relaxation allows it to perform more naturally than when we are distracted by conversation, eating, reading TV etc etc. Over time the passive breath BECOMES more interesting. We begin to form a more intimate relationship with the various nuances of the breath cycle and thus are able to keep with it for longer. This process also bears the wonderful gift of a calmer and more relaxed body and mind.

    The increased tempo of our breathing in asana and the introduction of controlled breath techniques adds more strength and dimension and over time some of the tension that we have built into our lungs and  the deep tissues of our muscles of respiration begin to release allowing us to feel more calmer.

    Becasue we also learn to breath more correctly while in a wide range of body positions (asanas) some quite restricted this also helps us to breath better when in other tight situations in life such as difficult meetings, confrontations and unwanted social gatherings.

    So when beginning or returning to yoga or even if you have been practising for a while and "forgotten to breath" and have never quite got it, start to bring as much if not more importance to its value. Find that magic relationship that you can have and deserve to have with your breath. Don't let asana take your breath away.

     

    Barry Todd 

  2. Yoga for the Embarrassingly Basic!!

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    Yoga for the Embarrassingly Basic!!

     out of fitness doing yoga

     


    I have many people telling me they have attended yoga classes mainly at sports and leisure centres and have found that their billed beginners classes are definitely NOT for beginners. Many complain often with humour that they were run ragged a bit by the flow they were asked to participate in.
    This might happen for a number reasons.
    1. the teacher might be expecting some of the attendees to be gym or fitness aficionados so they put on a moderately challenging flow.
    2. Some teachers feel too embarrassed to effect a flow that is too basic or that might look like a gentle exercise workout.
    3. Some teachers might have been trained or evolved with a strong approach to yoga and find it hard or refuse to moderate - this last approach is not necessarily inconsiderate as yoga teachers are often rightly advised to stick to their personal philosophy about their approach to practice. This would also apply the other way in that a gym yoga class with some students demanding hard core yoga could be well confronted with a teacher that refuses to put everyone through a wringing machine.
    Having said this we are also taught to teach who ever is in front of us and to quickly assess if there is anyone who might have less than peak range of movement. Teachers can often sense this simply by seeing how a student walks across the floor to their mat. This enables teachers to make allowances for those students by offering variations or moderations in poses.
    4. It may be that a teacher has been trained in a specific yoga tradition that doesn’t lean too close to calm abiding or meditation
    5. It could be that the manager of the establishment asks that the yoga classes keep to the regime of fitness.
    6. It could mean that the teacher is not too bothered and has the attitude that this is how I do it so take it or leave it.

    Hopefully there are not too many of the last category although I am sorry to say I have known some.

    When first starting out if someone said why not and teach a senior or remedial group or an absolute beginners class some would baulk at the idea or some might think they are only experienced enough to teach beginners. Further investigation would reveal otherwise. These last few categories and even Chair Yoga can be surprisingly challenging and also interesting as teachers attempt to bring the magic of yoga to the novice.
    Annually I run a five week absolute beginners class of one hour per week to ease new students into the practice of yoga. There is a lot of early foundational light yoga work to waken the body to the idea of asana and then some light strengthening and stretching posturing . Don’t be pout off if you think you are not flexible enough to do yoga because that could be your prime reason for taking it up. We must not forget however the main objective of yoga and that is to calm or abate the distracting and unnecessary activities of the mind. The posturing with considered breathing begins this process by toning and calming our human physical structure.
    Don’t be put off but rather be inspired by the great sage Patanjali who laid down much of the thinking behind most modern yoga practice if you discover that he found out more about his inner self by spending long periods of time in stillness! How much of this do we get in modern asana classes!
    (If you come on my AB classes and find anything too challenging tell me right away.)

    Barry Todd

  3. Why We Teach Yoga

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    P1000452Every teachers inspiration to teach yoga is very individualistic and often comes from their lifestyle and personal circumstances for example working with children or bringing it to their favoured sports people. This is a good thing because it can put some purpose into applying yoga skills to professional practice. It is often a more powerful drive than simple claims to sharing the benefits of personal practice. Of course we have to do both when we get down to it but these days more than ever with all those budding yoga teachers emerging every year we would do well to have a personal calling or niche.

    Teaching yoga is often a great addition for those with a dancing background as they are already used to “performing”and many of these adhere well to vinyasa or flow yoga where if they are also creative can offer some interesting choreographed sequencing.

    We have to remember that while the West currently holds the stage for yoga and tends to demonstrate this mostly as asana practice there are other areas of yoga that can be exploited and can still have appeal to many students.

    It's easy to forget the great value of yoga breathing and also meditation which is probably the strongest part of Patanjalis message in his great Yoga Sutras on the shoulders of which most modern yoga practice is built.

    You may be strong in this introspective part of yoga and in creating a relaxing mood with candles and incense or knowing just what kind of music to play and lighting to create the right ambiance.

    You may have a more playful style of teaching that appeals to those looking for that off beat kind of teacher.

    There are also those often overlooked areas in this modern day of the dynamic and physical and that is Restorative Yoga with its supportive props and therapeutic and remedial approach. You may have to provide the props but if you can get the cooperation of a venue for storage then this has growing appeal for those who want to sink into the releasing experience of calmness and ease.

    I have only mentioned a few but you probably get the idea and if you are thinking of teaching yoga now's the time to start thinking of who you want to appeal to and with some idea of a theme. A teaching course should give you the methodology and safety and start of anatomy knowledge etc but start thinking now of your target audience and what difference can you make. Whatever flavour of yoga teaching you want to adopt you will still have to strongly bring yourself to the attention of the “yoga community” and tell them all about it.

    I have taught in may gyms as well as having my own studio and I know that many people find it convenient to add the yoga experience to their gym membership which is fine but there are also many who want the personal and close contact of the studio and more yoga that doesn't just resemble aerobic exercise.

    It's not easy to set up a private practice even in an already existing yoga studio. It takes time and patience. Once a budding yoga teacher I new who had a marketing background said the best way to build a yoga class was to get out into the community, find out what people want and then give it to them. A good marketing slogan but the fact is so many people want different things these days and that's probably because they are also different. So why can't you as a new yoga teacher be different and then sell them the difference. Remember in the end you are trying to bring your students a unique experience one where they can go away feeling more whole and human.

    You may also find my post on Yoga:To Teach or not to Teach, useful reading.

    Barry Todd, Senior Yoga Teacher at Mind and Body Yoga Studio and Course Tutor on Yoga Teacher Training

  4. Yoga in Times of Uncertainty

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    The recent referendum on the EU seems to have thrown our nation into turmoil.

    Whatever the outcome and whatever the path we go down as a nation in the coming weeks, months and even years there will be for the time being a measure of uncertainty.

    The types of things we might have to anticipate are: change, conflict, obstacles, worries and the threat of regional and community isolation.

    So how can yoga be of help with all this?

    Yoga can help support our comfort, health and happiness in this increasingly stressful world.

    In addition to what yoga can do for us individually the main concepts of yoga provide us with a mechanism for stemming the effects of social despair. We currently seem to be at a loss in our world discarding former values and hoping to construct new ones. In this scenario yoga can give us the means to discover our own true self or personal reality through self enquiry and self reflection. The strengths gained from this can enable us to come to terms with the wider realities of our world and environment.

    Dealing with Change

    One of the prominent techniques we use in yoga is asana or posture. Asana is the most prominent technique in yoga probably because it is the first thing many of us are introduced to when we take up the practice. Yoga is really more about the mind but we start indirectly with the body to get to the mind through the back door because it is more responsive to our commands than the mind.

    Having said that a lot of good work can be achieved through the body.

    If we use asana carefully over time and learn about gradual improvement rather than fast track excellence we learn that we have to be patient with change. We learn not to get too anxious about being right and perfect all the time and allow for development and evolution.

    Yoga breathing in asana helps us to cultivate this patience with change and over time this patience is translated into our day to day life. We begin to react differently to circumstances we find ourselves in. It does not mean that we have to end up being passive and oblivious to what is going on around us and we can still be proactive in the change process. However, our reaction is more considered and from a position of greater calmness and harmony.

    Dealing with Conflict

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    On the issue of conflict there is a great concept in yoga known as non-dualism. Dualism is where we tend to see everything as this or that, black or white, us and them, either or....

    Non-Dualism is often a difficult concept to grasp because it is so easy to see things in a dualistic way:

    soft/hard, cold/hot, pain/comfort, high/low, light/dark etc but if we look closer we often see that things are not always quite as they seem. Bit like yin and yang there are often bits of yin in yang and visa versa.

    In our yoga practice we attempt to apply non-dualism by embracing both ends of the spectrum.

    One of the prominent practices is to use our breath to lower tensions. Here's how we do it. Whenever we move or put our body parts into a yoga position there is a potential tension somewhere in our dimensional structure. We feel this as a sensation. The more momentary or prolonged tension we introduce the more energy we use and the resulting experience can be one of tiredness and even stress that could lead to anxiety or headaches. By applying the breath to the posture we help to alleviate or soften the feeling of tension. We attempt to incorporate a degree of relaxation or calmness into the process.

    There is a similar embracing of stillness with movement in yoga. Remember the well known phrase “moving into stillness”. This can have a number of interpretations and I have always thought of it as moving in such a way that the movement has its own element of stillness. The great Yoga Sage Patanjali said that all asana must be effortless. To do this we have to blend effort with calmness.

    There is a kind of merging of these opposites.

    We attempt to make “challenge” more comfortable - movement more still - tension more relaxed.

    Pain more painless or tolerable - Still being aware of the qualities of both.

    Dealing with Obstacles

    It follows from this thinking that in our practice we strive to allow ourselves more access to new experiences learning to embrace things that are open to more than one interpretation. This is in fact one of the things we learn after a while of studying yoga. Many concepts are open to our interpretation but we still have to make room for other meanings and explanations. In this process we can learn more about ourselves. We learn to be more calm and deal better with uncertainty. Be less reactionary. Eventually, we move to solve issues without stress, participating more fully in life by removing obstacles like anxiety, inertia, doubt and lack of focus.

    Dealing with Isolation

    Even though yoga practice can often be in the privacy of our own homes it is still community based in that our choice of postures can be what we have picked up from attending classes. Many students of yoga after attending classes for a while could just as easily practice alone but they attend classes often for the community it brings, for the commitment it gives them. They are more able to share experiences and ensure their continued practice.

    As human beings we cannot help having a deep connection with others. Isolation can all too often lead to physical and mental problems. We have all experienced this in our lifetime in our own communities when lonely reclusive people can end up mentally withdrawn and in physical decline.

    Yoga class association allows us to link our calmness and challenges with others and share our human condition. As with all other yoga methods this strength of fellowship can translate into the wider community where we can bring our skills of physical, mental and emotional flexibility, strength, composure, poise and balance, calmness, compassion, understanding, friendliness and contentment all of which helps us greatly in our relations with others.

    Barry Todd (Hatha Yoga Trainer)





  5. I'm not fit enough to do yoga!

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    I'm Not Fit enough to do Yoga!

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    I think it is safe to say that most people who start attending yoga classes are what they might describe as being a bit out of shape, a bit overweight, stiff and inflexible, off balance and/or experiencing stress or anxiety. They may be influenced by their doctors or other health professionals to try yoga or by a friend who is already feeling the benefits of regular yoga practice.

    Of those who attend probably half keep with it for a while and the other half fall at the first yoga mat.

    Of those who sack yoga sooner rather than later it is a particular category of triers who I feel most for.

    Take a not uncommon situation: two middle aged lady friends (or sometimes males friends) book a yoga class together. One has tried yoga before in the past and scanty exercise since and has become stiff and inflexible and a little overweight but could be just a few weeks away from getting back on track. The other person has never tried yoga or much of any physical exercise perhaps since school days, they are well over weight as well as being stiff and inflexible, they may also be experiencing poor balancing skills and poor range of movement at the best of times.

    After one class either the first person keeps attending - alone – or both stop attending.

    I am not over worried about the second person as they are not so far from getting back into practice and may soon try again or take up some other exercise dumping the yoga out of loyalty to their disheartened friend.

    It is the second person, the disheartened friend, my heart goes out to. They may simply retreat into giving up and never experience the great benefits of a regular yoga practice.

    I understand that for a person with poor flexibility, range of movement and balance, a typical scheduled yoga class can be daunting. They look around the room and see most people at least moving in the right direction with some success while they are struggling to get off the floor and come into the most simply of poses. It's hardly surprising they give up and they probably cant wait to get out of the room in some cases.

    At this point I thinks it's important to remember one of the well used yoga slogans:

    yoga meets you where ever you are in life”

    This is a very true saying. Yoga is in fact for anyone. There is always some technique you can use even if you are laid up in bed recovering from a road accident.

    I know this because just a few years ago a yoga student of mine was in a serious motorcycle accident. After a lot of surgery to save his leg and general health he ended up at home in bed for many weeks awaiting further surgery. He emailed me asking me if I could put together a collection of yoga postures that he could use while restricted to the confines of his bed. I sat down and worked out a regime for him and he used it daily to help the progress his recovery.

    This was an extreme case but there are many people who are chair bound in nursing homes benefiting from yoga every day. People in wheelchairs, people with cerebral palsy who can only walk with the aid of sticks, blind people and the list goes on. Yoga meets all these people where they are.

    All its takes is a little more courage and perseverance and commitment and the disheartened friend might never look back.

    I am often amused by some of the conversations amongst students after class It's surprising what students will reveal about themselves after just a few sips of herbal tea! Lemon grass, green tea, lemon and ginger can sometimes have that wonderful power of lowering peoples barriers.

    I have had students who attend for months if not years and then one evening out of the blue while intoxicated by the delights of nettle tea divulge their yoga secrets. One recently said to another fairly new attender “Yoga was the best thing I ever started...” and “I could not do without my yoga” and ”Even after a couple of weeks on holiday I miss it and start to feel it physically”.

    As a yoga teacher I know that even the disheartened friend if they persevered and tried to stick with yoga they would never look back. If they tried to resolve to do a daily practice even if only for 5 minutes to complement their weekly class they would start to see progress in weeks. After a few months they would notice they were calmer, more toned and flexible and that their range of movement was noticeably better. This should be true even if their initial worry was their overweight. Yoga helps people to handle weight better and can even put them get back on track to begin to lose some unwanted weight.

    You might say but how would they survive that scheduled class where everyone seemed to be coping but them. Well, the best thing to do is not just go to the first class that comes up and be a little wary of a class a more nimble friend attends. Look for a class that is for beginners or if this still seems challenging look for a restorative or remedial class where the spirit of yoga asana is still practised but on a much lower key to accommodate various needs and gradual progress. Don't be scared of ringing up or emailing a teacher you have in mind and asking them what might be suitable if you believe you would struggle. Ask if you can meet them at their studio just for a quick chat so you can find out what to expect and get the flavour of the environment. You could even ask about private sessions for a while until you feel more confident – this would incur more cost but you may have the means to do this.

    A good Respite Yoga Class still sticks to the spirit of yoga but does not push the classical postures. It rather modifies them so that attendees can learn to move in the right direction. In addition it's important to point out that if you are new to yoga there are a lot of yoga techniques that are more subtle than posturing but equally as important. These include correct breathing, relaxation and even some of the psychological buttresses of yoga such as tapas that seeks to bring thoughtful daily regularity into your practice, svadhyaya that helps us to learn the great value of self enquiry and ishvara pranidhana that teaches us to release our worries and concerns to a non-religious spirit higher than ourselves and one of our choosing.

    If you are thinking of trying yoga because everyone you know who has tried it says it is great remember another thing: you don't need to use your body as a tool for yoga but use yoga as a tool for your body. In other words yoga techniques are there to use in the service of our physical, mental and emotional well being and as you get to know yourself more through the practice of yoga so you get to know how to choose what technique to use, when to use it and exactly how much effort to apply.



    Barry Todd (HathYogaMan)





  6. The Miracle of Chair Yoga

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    The Miracle of Chair Yoga

     index

    I suspect many seasoned and accomplished yogis would not give chair yoga much consideration.

    When it first came into the yoga arena it was directed mainly at those who struggled to stand and do yoga and also as a useful exercise for desk bound office workers.

    These two uses are still valid but the amazing value of chair yoga became apparent to me a couple of years ago when introduced as a unit on the yoga teacher training course. Even then it was intended to give trainees another tool in their kit when trying to accommodate struggling students.

    What was amazing was that the trainees group feedback after practising chair yoga was surprisingly positive rather than dismissive. They thought it had left them feeling like they had done a regular yoga practice despite their not having been on their feet for an hour. What's more I had to agree with them.

    Admittedly, you are using a prop that many yogis would feel unnecessary but the secret around chair yoga is to use the chair creatively while still keeping as close as possible to yoga posturing.

    Like any yoga flow the practitioner can put as much or as little effort in as they like depending on their desired outcomes or their physical capabilities.

    A flow can be adopted that will work from the feet right through to the upper body.

     So to begin with sitting towards the edge of the chair you can flex the toes as if beginning the attempt to stand but simply applying the pressure of that effort on the toes into dorsi flexion. Then pointing the toes to the rear of the chair below the seat and pressing the upper toes down into the floor as in plantar flexion. These are humble beginnings but effective for toning the feet.

     From here we can do a rounded selection of work with the legs and hips from extending the legs alternately clasping behind each thigh to flexing and clasping each knee for flexing hips.

     A modified version of Warrior II is accessible keeping the sit bones on the seat of the chair and a kind of Tree Pose which sees the legs extended in front with the ankles crossed while clasping the hands above the head.

    One pose I like for core and hip strength is simply lifting the feet off the floor and bringing the soles together.

     Then there is the chair twist using the back of the chair to stabilize the rotation and yes even the Chair Pose itself but a more accessible version and without quite lifting the sit bones off the seat.

     There's many more in the flow I use culminating in some neck and shoulder work and even a meditation if we have time.

     I have used Chair Yoga a number of times with my “remedial” yoga group and it is always a winner with them. What's more they never think it is a soft option even those in the group with greater range of movement and strength. What's more once familiar with the chair yoga flow it is easy to practice at home. All you need is a kitchen or dining room chair and you're away.

     Barry Todd (HathaYogaMan)