Urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog); – the quintessential backbend featured in every ashtanga, vinyasa and Jivamukti class in the land. So often this pose is misinterpreted, misaligned and done incorrectly. So what should we be doing in this pose? Well let’s look at the essence of any backbend. Backbends are front body openers, yes. We want to open the chest, find freedom through the thoracic spine, find flexibility in the shoulders and allow pran vayu to move. But is it as simple as that? Backbends should encourage opening of the front body but not at the expense of the back body.
Throwing the head back in this pose shortens the back of the neck and puts undue pressure on the cervical spine, which over time is damaging. Generally, practitioners believe that throwing the head back deepens the backbend when in fact they are simply compressing the vertebrae in the neck, whilst the thoracic spine, which is where we are trying to find movement, remains fixed and immobile.
Look at the picture above; taking the head back may seem like a deep backbend but the fronts of the shoulders are pulling forwards so the chest isn’t even opening and the collarbones are not broad. In addition, the thoracic spine is rigid. And a double whammy – the toes tucking under means even more compression of the spine, this time through the lumbar. In fact, if you look at this picture, from the waist up this person could be standing at the bus stop and simply dropping their head back; there is little essence of a true backbend here.
So how do we access this backbend? Well for starters the fronts of the feet should be on the floor (not toes tucked under). Press down firmly through the feet and the legs so they are active and provide you with a steady foundation. Try not to sag into the hips or lower back, so gently engage mula bandha. Root down through the legs and the pelvis and from there gently expand the upper body. Press down through the hands (knuckles and fingerpads, as opposed to the wrists or the heel of the hands) and have a sense of drawing the chest through the arms, keeping elbows from becoming locked or hyperextended. Shoulders gently roll back without pinching between the shoulder blades. Keep the back of the neck long to protect the cervical spine, so avoid taking the head back. Think more of lifting the tops of the ears. And look down the tip of the nose rather than rolling the eyes back in the head. Allow your awareness to rest at the thoracic spine and let your breath create space in the front and back body.
Its worth noting that in the yoga tradition the front of the body is associated with the individual whilst the back of the body is linked to the Universal. So much of our culture favours the individual over the Universal its not surprising this pose is often done incorrectly. Anahata chakra, the heart chakra or heart centre is commonly referred to as residing at the centre of the chest but its true location is deeper and back towards the spine. And so to truly access the heart centre we must honour both the front and back of the thoracic spine. And in order to allow the energy to move freely along the central channel (sushumna nadi) which is the aim of any yoga practice, we need to lengthen the whole spine, not compress it.
Summer has long faded but instead of mourning it’s memory yoga can teach us to stay present with what is…to embrace the new season, with its unique colours, textures and sensations. A wonderful way to do this is to eat foods which are in season. Autumn is a time of reflection, slowing down and turning inwards; a preparation for the hibernation of the ensuing Winter. So after a long, meditative walk through the fallen leaves I love cooking and eating (both grounding activities!) this delicious…….
Butternut Squash Soup
50g unsalted organic butter
1 onion, chopped
1 large butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into cubes
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 bay leaves
75ml good dry white wine
850ml homemade vegetable stock
rind of Parmesan cheese
2tbsp double cream
How to cook
In a large saucepan heat the butter on low to medium. Add the onion and pumpkin and cook for 5 minutes stirring.then add the garlic and bay leaves and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring.
Add the wine, bubble for a few minutes. Add the stock and Parmesan rind. Bring to he boil and simmer for 10 minutes or until the butternut squash is very soft. Discard the bay leaves and rind.
Blend then return to pan to warm and season, add the cream.
I like to serve with Parmesan shavings and homemade bread or breadsticks.
Time and time again I’ve been told ‘you are a yoga teacher – you NEED to be on social media!’ I’ve read countless articles on marketing for yoga teachers espousing the absolute necessity of a social media presence to grow a yoga business. A yoga teacher friend of mine even offered to set up and manage a Facebook page for me, so outraged was she that I wasn’t on there.
But the fact is, I don’t want to be on Facebook or Twitter. And it turns out, I don’t need to be. My students are local to where I live and teach – most of them walk to class. I don’t need to reach out on social media; I’m proud to have a home grown local business within my community. Nor do I feel the need to take a photo of myself doing a yoga pose so I can share it with loads of people on Instagram. I don’t need to be ‘liked’ in front of others. My yoga practice is an internal one and I don’t need a witness or an audience for that practice. I teach eight classes a week and that combined with my own practice, training and studying means I have little time for telling the rest of the world what I’m doing. And the rest of the world does not need to know! I want my spare time to be downtime, quiet time, time to contemplate, to go deeper, to allow the ancient teachings to permeate my life so that when I step onto my mat with my students I’m a better teacher.
Yoga is a practice of returning to stillness. As our lives become busier and more demanding, is our yoga practice bringing us back into balance, or exacerbating this over stimulation? With the popularity of hot yoga studios endorsing contortions in saunas, the rise of competitive power yoga classes and the advent of yoga selfies promoting gymnastics in bikinis, popular ‘yoga’ seems to be pushing to us to do more, not less.
Now more than ever it is helpful to remind ourselves of what yoga is. And for this we return to the original teachings. Patanjali defines yoga as the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. The Bhagavad Gita advocates meditation so the mind beomes like an unwavering flame. These teachings encourage us to train the mind, via the breath, to find stillness and steadiness, ultimately allowing us to connect to our deepest Self.
A fundamental element of yoga is surrender, letting go, the learning to BE rather than DO. Mindful movement, relaxation, pranayama (breathing) and meditation help us to find stillness and to be with what is.
Most people’s lives are defined by long working hours and stressful commutes – a juggling act between work, family and all sorts of other pressures. Yoga, then, should be the counterbalance to this effort and stimulation. Stepping onto the mat should feel like a liberation – not one more hoop we make ourselves jump through, beating ourselves up because we don’t perform the perfect pose, then relaxing for a couple of minutes at the end of the session without slowing down or really connecting to ourselves.
My practice allows me to become still; surrender; be compassionate towards myself; to let of ego and to simply BE – without any goals, pressures or expectations. This is yoga, and I love to share it with my students.
More and more yoga teachers are offering lifestyle advice including tips on what to eat. But is this really a yoga teachers job? I believe this falls outside the remit of teaching yoga, unless the teacher has experience and training in Ayurveda, the sister discipline to yoga of Indian medicine.
In western culture we are encouraged to eat ‘superfoods’, to make smoothies and to eat as much fruit and veg as we can. But this is an overly simplistic approach to a more complex and subtle issue. Rather than encouraging everyone to eat tomatoes because they have anti oxidant properties, Ayurveda looks at a persons constitution and advocates a diet (and lifestyle) which brings that constitution into balance. This may mean that tomatoes, in large quantities, for example, are not beneficial for certain people.
So what is constitution? It is a persons make-up – a unique combination, in varying degrees, of the elements: kapha (earth), pitta (fire) and vata (air). A person who is predominantly pitta needs a lifestyle and diet which brings out the positive aspects of that fire (motivation, strong digestion, power within) rather than the negative aspects (competitiveness, inflammation in the body and anger).
Instead of promoting a one size fits all approach, both yoga and Ayurveda seek to redress imbalance based on an individual’s unique constitution, to bring into harmony the positive aspects of their physical, emotional and mental being. So rather than advising people to eat something the mainstream is currently pedalling as ‘healthy’ I encourage my students to develop an awareness of their own constitution; noticing which foods, activities and yoga practices feel like they bring them into balance in their lives.
When I first started practising yoga over 20 years ago, classes were a standard one and a half hour long. These days most yoga classes are only an hour, or at most, an hour and a quarter. I guess it’s a sign of the times. As a society, we work longer hours, have busier lives and expect to juggle more. Ironically that is maybe when we need more yoga, not less!
But yoga is becoming increasingly popular and more and more people are doing the practice, even if it is just for an hour a week. It seems just about everyone is waking up to the benefits of this ancient wisdom and making space in their busy week for self reflection and relaxation.
I know the purists will disagree, but I for one am happy people are taking time out, even if it is just an hour, to slow down, turn inwards and listen. That hour when the phone is switched off, and all responsibilities and worries are left at the door is invaluable to people. And in my experience, they start to feel so good they want to practice on a more regular basis. So, the one hour session once a week becomes twice a week. Time and time again my students remark on the benefits they have experienced from coming to class two or three times a week.
As a teacher it’s challenging to cover all aspects of the practice in an hour but it is possible. Stretch and strengthen the body, focus on the breath, warm up, do the peak pose, cool down, relax, do some more breathing and a meditation. It almost reads like a shopping list. But a good teacher can include all these components without it seeming rushed and the students will leave feeling calm and grounded, having developed a deeper awareness of themselves and having connected to their true essence. Plus there’s still time to create something tasty in the kitchen for dinner!