Saturday, 30 August 2014

Ashtanga, pressure points and more energy channel stuff...

I don't really know how to start this post, I've had the concept of a post in my mind for a while on pressure points and utilising them in a yoga practice, especially since being 'Rolfed' and since my Mysore experience, but having very little experience and knowledge on pressure points and body work in general, I kinda felt I didn't really have enough knowledge to be able to explain my experience in a useful way. Nevertheless, its something I'm gonna just throw it out there and maybe I'll get some positive (or negative) feedback, and either way it'll be helpful :)

So, having been someone who came to yoga with very little (if any at all) body awareness, the journey towards becoming aware of what's going on in my body has been a long one. But also, a very interesting and enlightening one. I started my ashtanga practice off going to a David Swenson retreat at Purple Valley, having only practicing a very tenuously linked style of ashtanga yoga at a gym! What a shock! At this point I couldn't even do chaturanga, The concept of chaturanga evaded me, to the point when David was explaining it I put my hand up and said 'but what it you just can't hold your belly off the floor?!'. David was like, 'Don't worry it'll come!!'. On my return home I sent the best part of an afternoon practicing going from downward dog to chaturanga, possibly around 65 times, until my arm muscles learnt what they had to do to hold chaturanga! To this day I still can only hold it for a short length of time…anyway, I digress…

It's only been since I have had the '10 series' of Rolfing that I have actually felt energy in body and as I have said before it's changed my life and especially changed my outlook on yoga and the 'energy body'.  My Rolfing experience has enabled me to notice specific energy lines in my body and where they aren't working properly. It's really hard to explain in generic terms but I'm going to try and explain where certain concentration on certain pressure points in the body help in certain postures. OK, here goes…

Dropping back: Before dropping back, going up onto your tip toes seems to energise the correct muscles in the front of your legs. Slowly coming down whilst still engaging these muscles gives a firm foundation in the legs and abdomen to be able to drop back. After all, it's all about the foundation.

Kapotasana: There's a tiny point on the inside of your kneecap which is a bit fleshy, haven't a clue what it's called.. anyway, when setting up for kapo, pressing this part of the knee into the mat, which I feel creates an internal rotation of the femur and engages the front thighs, enables the thighs to remain engaged enough to be able to drop without collapsing in the lower back. It's useful to mess around with this in your practice, I know if I rush kapo without sorting the knee position out I tend to not be able to engage properly.

Paschimottanasana: The one holding your toes - always hold with two fingers and a thumb. Krishnamacharya obviously had a reason for this kind of bind. I haven't read anywhere why it was so important, but I have a suspicion it was because of energy lines. There's something going on in that little fleshy bit between the big toe and the second toe which when pressed creates energy though to the groin area (if you haven't got blockages in rest of your legs). Always hold on tight, point your toes to create an opposition and don't interlink your fingers like I tend to do without noticing!

Urdhva mukha svanasana - upward dog - pressing the base of your big toe into the mat will engage your leg muscles correctly, if you don't do this your heels will splay and your lower back will suffer. Many students tend to outwardly rotate their feet and 'sink' into their lower back. Hamish Hendry teaches this slightly different by flexing your ankles so the topes of your feet/toes engage, but I don't think you have to necessarily go this far to protect your back. (My opinion)

Actually, all postures where you grab your toes, make a point of pressing through the base of the big toe/second toe, so utthita hasta, urdvha padangustasana etc. Same in the Janu postures and baddhakonasanas.

In Baddha konasana pressing into the big toe/second toe area seems to automatically outwardly rotate the femur at the same time as pushing the thigh away from the midline, then you can work on outwardly rotating it down, by using mula bandha (squeezing the anus).

I must have more tips in this vein, but I'm tired, so I'll leave you with these for now and hope they'll help you in your practice :)

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Hyper-flexibility, energy channels and the not-so-helpful 'micro-bend'…..

Probably gonna get lynched for this post but I think I'm giving informed advice and from the heart and from personal experience. Feel free to give your two-pence worth, I've asked the question for years to teachers but haven't had sufficient enough answers…here goes...

During many classes I have taken throughout the years, I have been told to keep a 'micro-bend' in my elbows and in my knees so as not to 'hyper-extend'. Thing is, yes I do hyper-extend, that's my body's make-up, it's its natural holding pattern, but, I've been practicing yoga now for what, 7+ years and I think have a good enough understanding of my own body, not to have to be told to keep a bend in my arms and legs, which let's face it, feels unhelpful and bloody awful.

Now, don't get me wrong, I understand the need to teach beginners who have hyper-flexible joints not to hyper-extend them, because it could cause further instability. But I have a problem with the instruction 'keep a micro-bend' itself. What is a 'micro-bend'? One millimetre? One centre metre? Enough of a bend so your teacher can see you're bending your flexible bits? I can understand teachers are trying to ensure the safety of their students and I have been one of those teachers. However, I just don't think it's helpful and I've changed my mind.

In my own personal experience, keeping a micro-bend, of whatever degree, in my hyper-flexible joints, actually creates, rather than reduces instability. For me, the instruction should be, 'do not hang in your joints' or something similar and to that effect. 'Hanging' meaning, allowing the joint to extend to its maximum potential without engaging the muscles around the joint to keep it stable. Basically, what you don't want is to be in downward dog say, 'hanging' in your elbows, and some guy to fall out of a handstand into you whilst you have no 'strength' in the joint and your arm snaps in half! Nice thought...

Paul Grilley appears to be the only yoga anatomy teacher to agree with me. I've asked the question to many others and they all say, 'must keep the micro-bend'. Not helpful. Are any of you hyper-flexible?

So I'm gonna take this even further. Having had the 10 series in Rolfing, having had my entire body re-aligned, I can finally feel energy flowing, where once it just did not. I can feel energy flowing from my toes to my groins, I can feel it flowing through my hyper-flexible knees. I can feel it flowing from my thumbs to my armpits and up through my hyper-flexible elbows. I can feel it. Do not try and tell me I can't. BUT when, I am told to keep a micro-bend, I cannot feel the energy flowing. When I press my knees back in downward dog I feel the energy, when I press the knees back in paschimottanasana I can feel the energy. When I bend them…nothing. Stagnant.

Now I'm not anatomical expert. I just know what I can feel. I believe that the postures we do day in, day out, we should try and do them so, just like in Rolfing, your body is working in its most efficient manner. We should be, in my opinion, trying to, at all times, align the body with gravity so it works most efficiently, continually encouraging the body to work towards its vertical axis, creating a sense of lightness, as if we are being lifted up through our joints rather than gravity pulling us down. Chronic holding patterns take a lot of energy to maintain, for me, the 'micro-bend' takes a lot of energy to maintain.

I spend most of my practice at the moment indulging in these new subtle body sensations, which I have been afforded, due to structural integration. Releasing restrictions I had in my body, my knees especially after suffering trauma, have directly stimulated energy channels, which I never believed existed. This increase in energy, has, changed my life, changed my outlook on yoga, the energy body and the way I look at consciousness and psycho-spirituality. We work on the body to change the mind, no? Of course be careful, work on strengthening the muscles around your hyper-flexible joints, but don't let the uninformed, non-hyper-flexible yoga teacher block your path to greater energetic awareness.
“True verticality, the goal of Structural Integration, is a functional phenomenon, 

a line around which the body’s energy fields balance. They manifest 
in real myofascial material structures…The vertical expresses an energy 
relation between Earth and sun.”
- Ida P. Rolf, PhD.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

It always come back to mula bandha...

As everyone who practices regularly knows, your practice is cyclical. Postures come, postures go, postures come back again and…. go again. The body always finds the path of least resistance. So too does the mind. Which is exactly why we practice day in, day out, to explore the whys and wherefores of these changes. Giving up on this exploration, for us, is not an option.

I've been suffering with pain in the right side of my sacrum and tightness in the left hand side of my erector spine muscles. The sacrum pain is dull and feels dense and congested. The tightness in the spinal muscles eases with each forward bend….I can feel and hear whatever it is there releasing on every inhalation and every exhalation, and it feels good. The pain in my sacrum is at its worse when I am back bending. I have a bendy back, well, lumbar spine. And this is exactly what is causing the problem. This week at the height of my pain I practiced second. My teacher thought I was nuts! But given the pain in the sacrum I wanted to see if practicing with more awareness would cause some shift to release the pain. I concentrated all my efforts into engaging uddiyana banda in my backbends and from this point of contraction in the lower abdomen, lifted my spine out from it and who knew…the pain was not there! The thing is I did know, I'd known all along, but for a while that awareness I'd let slip and the pain came. It came back. I've had this before and it had gone due to the exact same method I'd used before. Cyclical. Memories come and they go. Muscle memory comes and goes when you are in the early stages of your practice, which, of course, I still am (7 years now). Pain, it seems, is a great reminder of this. A reminder to embrace the dark as well as the light.

"When you practice, the other shore comes to you". (Can't remember who said that)

Thing is, I find it hard to engage the bandhas (doesn't everyone) but I find it very difficult to engage unddiyana. My teacher Ben, sticks his fingers deep into my transverse abdominus in the hope it will remind me. All I feel is his fingers sticking into layers of flesh, pain…

And then there's my hips. My right hip especially. It drops, I notice it in the standing sequence, the prasaritas, parsvottanasana, my left hip doesn't seem to want to rotate outwards enough, forwards enough, funny, especially when I thought my left hip was more open…? It's causing pain in my left knee. Not a good sign for ashtangis. But again I feel Ben's fingers in my hip socket, reminding it to rotate, fingers press into the left hand side of my abdomen willing me to engage uddiyana and a constant reminder to engage mula. It's funny, I sometimes feel as if I only engage mula on my right side, how can this be?! But the more I focus internally on the engagement of muscles, the more I notice. and the more I can work on these little nuances which affect every aspect of my practice. It's working at least :)

I'm awaiting arrival of a couple of dear friends. My girls from uni. K is down, having had a shit time of it the past two weeks. The FB post from earlier said, 'it's been an awful couple of weeks so it is with gratitude and love I get to spend the next 24 hours with my girls B and Michelle'. B replied, 'Always helps to spend time with soul mates'. When you need grounding, when you need re-centring, you always come back to your core friends, the ones always there for you, the ones who will always support you. Mula bandha, you are one of my bestest friends. :)

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Samskaras and neuroplasticity

So I've moved back into my house after just over a year away. Things are, 'same same, but different', to coin a phrase used a lot throughout my time in Mysore :) Settling into new patterns of work whilst settling into my old, whilst familiar house is hard. Things are the same, but very different.

Sutra 3:9 of Patanjali's yoga sutra states:

The transformation toward total stillness occurs as new latent expressions fostering cessation arise to prevent the activation of distractive stored ones, and moments of stillness begin to permeate consciousness. (Chip Hartranft, 2003).

Exploring the word samskara; Sam = To come together; kara comes from the root 'kud' which means 'to create'. So samskaras are creations, things that we create ourselves. If we think of samskaras as grooves, we can think of our repeated actions chiselling out these grooves, making them deeper, imprinting them deeper into our consciousness, which makes these grooves harder to get out of, harder to fill in. 

Samskaras are things that come into being, through a process, through the coming together of actions. If this is the case, then what comes into being can also come apart. What arises can also pass away. All formations created out of conditions are transient, they come and they go.  Beliefs too, are samskaras. Beliefs are born out of our conditioned (material) world. Therefore if beliefs are born out of conditions, which are arbitrary and transitory, then it follows that they have no solid foundation and as such can pass as quickly as they were born. Luckily for us, samskaras are transitory, the grooves can be deep, but we can create new grooves and the old grooves over time will infill themselves until they are just a faint scar in our conscious mind, having no hold over us. We all have the innate power to change through practice.
You are not just a brain in a vat!

Thus as Patanjali states, we can create new latent expressions (samskaras) which will stop the old distractive stored ones and total stillness and peace can arise. 'Neurons that fire together, wire together'. 
Neuro-plasticity is the core of understanding samskaras; no-one is 'hard-wired', they may have deep samskaras yes, but the brain is plastic and as such can change its structure and function by how we act, re-act, don't act, how we think and how we imagine things. It may just be harder and require more practice to carve out new and healthier neurological pathways. Plasticity exists at every level, the behaviour of the body, of bones, of cells, of thoughts and images. So in yoga we first of all work on the gross body, we change the way it moves, it functions and the more we do this the deeper those changes permeate into the bones, the muscles, the cells, our thoughts and our beliefs. It is even thought it can change on a genetic level, with the possibility of affecting the evolution of the human species. 

So we can use our regular practice to re-sculpt our brain, first finding more plasticity in order for it to change, then to create more structure so that new, healthier patterns remain. 

So for me at this moment in time, these new patterns which I find myself in are exciting but challenging at the same time. We are creatures of habit, but we must be careful not to let the grooves we sometimes find ourselves in become too deep, as they could become too deep to easily climb out of!