I have 2 things I need to do. 1. Hand in some assignments for a course 2. Write this Cheeky Yogi. My first option is so brain numbingly boring that every time my finger hovers over the link to open the ‘tab of tedium’, my finger falls off. In fact, I currently only have 4 fingers. But being a yogi with special siddhis they will grow back by this evening, so I am not too bothered. The second option is just as difficult, I stare at my blank computer screen with my 4 fingers poised over the keyboard, but zilch, zip, nothing comes to mind.
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.