I am a terrible yogi. I am wonderfully capable of pretending to be a yogi, but if you peaked into the cacophony of my exploding thoughts, you’d run for cover. On the outside the appearance of serenity itself; on the inside all hell breaks loose. These past few weeks my unyogic-ness reached new heights. (more…)
Every yogi knows how delicious it is to truly relax in śavāsana – that wonderful sensation of calm and serenity as you gently emerge from your mat to engage with the rest of your day. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to capture that sensation at other times of the day? Don’t you just want to be able to tap into that feeling of clarity and calm to help you more often. Not just when you have yoga class but every… single… day… forever… and ever. Shall I let you into a secret? You can! Read on and I’ll tell you how.
The Magic of Savāsana
Savāsana, or corpse pose, is one of the most powerful yoga poses we can do. Often it is thought of as ‘just relaxation’ but it is so, so much more. It has incredibly powerful effects upon the body and the way its systems work. These effects are often described as ‘soothing the nervous system’ because of the direct effect upon the parasympathetic (or calming) part of the nervous system. Sometimes called the ‘rest and digest’ response, these effects come from direct stimulation of the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the longest of the 12 cranial nerves. It runs directly from the brain-stem (the most primitive part of the brain found in the base of the skull) to the heart and all the way on to the intestines. Stimulation of this nerve brings about some amazing changes in the body. It causes reduced heart rate and blood pressure; reduced skeletal muscular tension and increased muscular contractions of the gut which improve digestion; improved blood flow to the skin and reduction in secretion of stress hormones.
These changes are felt by us as calmness and clarity of mind; a feeling of well-being; improved digestion, sleep and often more emotional control. Even more important than making us feel good though, stimulation of the vagus nerve helps to reduce the damaging effects of prolonged stress on the body. It does this by reducing the risk of developing stress-related conditions like diabetes, strokes and heart attacks. It also helps to manage stress-related problems like insomnia, migraines, headaches, muscular aches and joint pains – with some sufferers reporting a really dramatic drop in their symptoms. Result!
The Savāsana Solution
Unfortunately knowing how śavāsana works doesn’t solve the problem of finding time to do it when we are all busy living our lives. But the good news is that you don’t need to relax for 10 or 15 minutes to gain all those benefits – a couple of minutes is enough when you know how. And you don’t even need to lie down: you can do śavāsana sitting down. I have even tried it standing up before, but I wouldn’t recommend it!
Now, may I introduce you to… (drum roll, drum roll…) – the mini-śavāsana. And what is a mini-śavāsana? I hear you cry! Well, a mini-śavāsana is your answer to all those stressed times at work and at home. Maybe the home-schooling is getting fraught or the boss is winding you up. Deadlines are looming and are you short on sleep? You need a mini-śavāsana. It is incredible – a real life-saver at times and SO easy to do.
So How Do I Mini-śavāsana?
Firstly – recognise when you need to mini-śavāsana. Are you feeling wound up? Or low on energy? Maybe you need a boost to get through a meeting. Or you need to clear your head. All of these will be solved by a mini-śavāsana. Have I convinced you yet? I DO hope so.
Next – where should I do it? Ideally somewhere private so you are not disturbed. A quiet room is ideal. You can lie down if you want to or sit if it is more convenient – on the floor or a chair, whichever you prefer. A park bench is great too if you are out and about. I have actually been known to sneak off to the toilet and sit there for a few minutes if there was no where else to go.
And then… close your eyes. Use a trick to help you relax. Maybe a quick body scan from the top of head to the tips of your toes where you consciously ‘let go’ of each part of the body as you move over it. Some folk can leg go of tension in the whole body at the same time and others work a system round arms, legs, trunk in turn. Maybe you’ll find another way to settle into a relaxed state. Have a go and see what works for you.
Once relaxed, focus on the breath or a colour or image that you like to help to still the mind and hold that for a short while. And enjoy …. 1 or 2 minutes really is enough to gain benefit, it is SO quick. You can set a timer if you want to or just see when your body is ready to come out of it naturally. And notice how you feel – I guarantee you’ll feel better. Calmer, cooler and things will be clearer.
Why I Love Mini-śavāsana
As a Tall Ship sailor many years ago, I learned a knack of closing my eyes for just a couple of minutes whenever the broken sleep and rigorous lifestyle got the better of me. I was not asleep – I knew exactly what was going on around me and could ‘snap out of it’ in a second and get back to work. Later in life I took up yoga and realised that all those years ago I had instinctively learned how to do śavāsana and loved the longer relaxation that I discovered in my yoga classes. But I never let go of my mini-śavāsana’s – they still sustain me through some of life difficult and more challenging times. They are my little ‘fix’ of yoga when I need it to ground me. I do SO love them. And I think you will too. Namaste.
Props are really, really great. They are SO useful to keep you safe in class and help you to move deeper into a pose than you could without them. They open up a world of possibilities for making poses more accessible AND more challenging. But let’s start from the beginning…
What ARE Props?
Props come in in a range shapes and sizes.
Blocks tend to be flatter with one long edge, one medium edge and a short edge – imagine a big book shape. Bricks tend to be smaller blocks with one long side and 2 pretty much equal length sides – yup, a bit like a brick… Blocks and bricks can be made of dense foam, wood or cork.
Yoga belts are usually woven cotton or webbing and can be a single length with a buckle at one end or can be sewn into a loop or figure of eight.
Meditation cushions, or zafus, come in a variety of shapes and sizes with all sorts of fillings from spelt to foam. Bolsters are similar but tend to be long, round and sausage-like.
Then there are yoga wheels, head up stools, eye masks, weights, blankets… All sorts of things that yogis use in their practice. I guess the modern yoga mat is a prop too, really.
Why use them?
Props can be used to improve alignment in a pose when a yogi has yet to develop sufficient range of movement to achieve the full expression of that pose.
An example would be using a brick under the hand in trikonāsana (triangle) when a student can’t reach the floor without folding the trunk forwards. Placing a brick under the hand at a height where the trunk remains rotated upwards gives great alignment for that student and teaches a good movement pattern that can be maintained as the pose deepens with practice. Using a block like this usually makes the pose safer for the yogi, too, as it prevents over stretch and uncontrolled movement.
Props can also be used to teach specific muscle activation in a pose. Think about placing a block between the knees in setu bandhasāna (bridge). By squeezing the block as you lift the pelvis, the inner thigh muscles activate to prevent the knees rolling outwards. Learning to activate these muscles with the block is the first step to being able to activate them in the pose automatically in future.
Another really useful prop is the belt. This is saviour in paścimottānāsana when your feet seem to be just too far away. Here, the belt is basically an arm extension – loop it round the feet and pull to fold. Another way to use a belt is to encourage one element of a pose that is often hard to achieve. Think about prasaritta padotanāsana (wide legged forward fold with hands on hips), with the belt looped round the elbows. This encourages the elbows to stay drawn together to open the chest. Delicious!
Sitting is another time where many yogis gain SO much from using a block or cushion under the seat. This lifts the hips above the knees and allows the pelvis to roll into anterior tilt. Without this movement of the pelvis the spine is often unable to lengthen and opening the hips and chest are a real struggle. Sukāsana (easy pose) is anything BUT easy for most of us without that prop!
Many yoga classes have props available for you to use as you want or need to, while some yoga teachers insist you bring your own. Purpose-made yoga props are available in stores and online, ranging in price from a few pounds to positively eye-watering amounts. It is well worth shopping around to find something to suit your budget if you are going to buy your own.
Having your own props is great if you have enough spare cash and the space to store them. But not everyone is in that position. Or maybe you are practising away from home – hotels and hostels are not noted for their plentiful supply of yoga props, I have found… But that does not mean props are not available to you. No matter where you are, there are things you can use as props: you can improvise, adapt and overcome! Here’s how.
Improvised Props for every occasion
With just a little imagination, most of the common props you find in a yoga studio can be very effectively improvised from normal household items.
1. MEDITATION CUSHIONS
So many options for this one… Try a normal sofa cushion. Or maybe 2 piled up. Or fold a pillow and place the folded end under the buttocks with the free ends supporting the thighs. Folded blankets or towels piled up can work well too. Or I have been known to sit on the edge of our garden decking with my lower legs rested on the grass in sukāsana – this is SO lovely for an impromptu early morning breath session or meditation in the open air.
2. BLOCKS AND BRICKS
If going under buttocks, then folded towels and blankets work well as a block. If needed for under hands to support weight, then positioning yourself near a step or low stool might work. In the trikonāsana example above, placing your hand on your own lower leg gives a point of fixation but it does make balancing more of a challenge, so it doesn’t suit everyone.
The easiest way to improvise a yoga belt is with the one out of your trousers! As long as it is not stretchy, any normal belt will do. Alternatively roll up a towel to tea towel length-ways and use that for looping round feet on paścimottānāsana.
4. HEAD REST IN BALĀSANA
If you usually need to rest your head on a block in balāsana (child pose) then try making fists and place one on top of the other with the thumb side uppermost. Resting the forehead on this platform can be just as good as a purpose made block and SO much easier to move out of the way as you transition into the next pose of a flow sequence. Result!
5. PARTNER BALANCES
Practising alone when the online teacher says ‘reach for a partner to balance’? Never fear – go to the nearest windowsill or kitchen units. These make perfect stable partners for any home practice. I love to use a windowsill to support my hands in a modified virabhadrāsana 3 (warrior) as it lets me REALLY focus on activating my legs in the balance.
See meditation cushions above and think BIGGER… Try 3 or 4 towels or blankets rolled up into a sausage to make a bolster. If you have a foam roller to hand, you could try that – though I do recommend wrapping it in some padding or putting a pillow over it if you are going to spend any amount of time resting on it. They can be SO hard and uncomfortable.
Purpose-made props are a relatively recent addition to the yoga world. Generations of yogi’s practised prop-free for centuries.
Did you know that the first yoga mats were born when someone tried pieces of carpet underlay to stop their hands slipping in down dog? Improvisation at its best! And I suspect that the first blocks used were just that – blocks of wood.
I love the idea of connecting to our yoga roots and practising more simply using what is to hand. It opens up the possibility of yoga any place, any time, anywhere. It brings freedom and simplicity for me. I hope it does for you too.
Whoever pressed the pause button on the world, could you please press play again?
My first question, as a self-employed yoga teacher when Covid 19 hit the headlines, was: how can earn a living if we are in lock-down?
Answer: do it online.
I am a genius. No one else will think of this.
Headstand is one of my favourite poses. A headstand demands much. It requires strength AND flexibility, but that is not all. Turning upside-down and balancing on your head takes courage. And self-belief. A headstand is a mental and physical challenge that, once mastered, continues to be a highlight of time spent on the mat.
Though many of us effortlessly stood on our heads as children, it seems that it is a skill lost to us as adults. So often life robs us of the physical attributes and self-belief that a headstand demands. For me, a headstand requires four things – four things that can be relearnt and woven together to become the joy that your first adult headstand will be. And it is truly a joy.
So What is a Headstand?
A yoga headstand is usually salamba sirsāsana or sirsāsana 1- ‘the king of all poses’ and one of the twelve original poses of hatha yoga. Here the weight of the body is supported on the forearms and head, with the legs in line with the body. Having said that, there are a whole host of variations to headstand – sirsāsana 2 (tripod headstand); mukta hasta sirsāsana (no hands) and any number of leg positions from padmāsana (lotus) to garudāsana (eagle) legs. The world is your oyster.
The journey to a headstand is a long one path paved with many smaller goals. It is a wonderful journey – full of achievement and self-awareness. For me, it took two years. Twenty-four months of patient, mindful practice, then one day it just came together and there I was upside-down. Have I persuaded you to step on to this path? I hope so. And this is how you can get there.
1. LONG HAMSTRINGS
To be able to get into a headstand you need a whole lot of length down the back of the body. Particularly in the hamstrings. Short hamstrings draw the pelvis forwards from their ideal position directly over the shoulders and head before you lift the legs. This forward pelvic position makes balancing incredibly hard when you lift the second leg.
The solution? Working on hamstring length within a practice before attempting the pose can work if your hamstrings are nearly long enough.
But for most of us, it will be a case of working on hamstring length over weeks or maybe months before you can achieve that ideal of hips over head. My favourite poses for this are parsvottanāsana (intense side stretch), janu sirsāsana (head to knee pose) and every version of uttanāsana (forward fold).
2. SUPER SHOULDERS
While balancing in headstand, the forearms are actively pushing down into the mat to allow the body to grow upwards from a firm base. All of the muscles around the shoulder blade are engaged to stabilise the actual shoulder joint. It takes time and effort to build enough strength in the right places to achieve this action. This is where arm balancing poses will help – adho mukha śvānāsana (down dog) and any plank variations are a great place to start. As your shoulders strengthen up move on to ardha pincha mayurāsana (dolphin) and maybe bakāsana (crow) as they will really reap further benefits for your upper body strength.
3. CORE CONTROL
Headstands need core strength in spades. Your core is what provides the stable foundations from which you can lift your legs. It is what gives the inversion stability and balance. Core strength can even compensate for lack of hamstring length or upper body strength.
My favourite core strengtheners are side planks and planks in any variations you like. They are great for static strength. But what about the dynamic strength needed in the core as the legs leave the ground and float overhead? For that, you need a dynamic workout. I use forearm plank into dolphin and back. Repeated 5, 10, 20, 30 times – starting with just a few reps and gradually building up by adding one or two reps each week. As a strength and conditioning workout this exercise is best done on alternate days – not every day. It is fabulous at getting a strong and toned core – what’s not to love?
For me, this is the keystone of any inversion. You can have all of the physical elements of a headstand in the bag, but if your head won’t let you turn upside-down it will never work. It takes nerve to balance on your head. It is natural to fear toppling over and hurting yourself. So how can we work to build the courage up to try our first headstand?
Spend time in dolphin – stay there for a few breaths at a time. Try lifting one leg at a time to get the body used to the action needed to get into headstand in the future. Try using the headstand arm and head position in a variation of dolphin and walk the feet towards the head to work on getting the hips over the shoulders. This also helps you to get used to being upside-down. One day you will feel a delicious lightness in the body as you reach the point of balance. Here is where leg lifting is possible. If you find this point – practice lifting one leg at a time in line with the body into one-legged headstand. And when you can do this you are almost ready for the full expression of the pose.
But most importantly – imagine yourself floating into the perfect headstand. Picture yourself poised on your head as you breathe deeply. Explore how it will feel and what you will see in your mind’s eye. Did you know that imagining an activity actually lights up the same parts of the brain that we need to physically do an activity? This sets up the neural pathways needed to succeed. It makes that activity familiar and altogether less scary when you try it for real. Isn’t that amazing?
Bringing it All Together
The path to a perfect headstand is not always smooth. You may find some of the elements come easily but others elude you for months. Be patient. Do not rush. Headstands are worth waiting for.
And of course, not every yogi will be able to achieve a full headstand. Injuries may make it impossible. Headstands are traditionally contraindicated for folk with high blood pressure or hiatus hernia amongst other things. I would also add that anyone with neck problems should think carefully before attempting the full expression of the pose. This is where a headstool still might be worth considering if you want to invert but not put pressure on your neck.
I really hope you enjoy your journey to headstand as much as I have enjoyed mine. It has been one of the most satisfying yoga poses I have, as yet, accomplished. I wish you happy headstand-ing!