Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sallie's recent adventures

By guest blogger Sallie Davison (formerly Richards)

As many of you know I have just come back from a very inspiring training retreat in the beautiful, (warm!) Byron Bay. This training was a continuation of my pre/postnatal training journey that began 6 years ago with Bliss Baby Yoga. This training was a six-day intensive delving deeper into learning how to help support women on their journey from conception all the way through to mums and bubs yoga and beyond. It was a beautifully informative and integrative training looking at many aspects of women’s health and stressing the importance of nurturing women through all stages of life.

It was wonderful to go back to where it all started for me, two births and almost five years of prenatal teaching later, and immerse myself back into learning and thinking more about creating a space for women to feel safe, nurtured and help them tune into their body at such a transformative
time in their lives.

Whilst I was pregnant I found my experience of attending Prenatal classes was so beneficial on many levels but mostly it was lovely to be in an environment so supportive and focused on reconnecting me with my feminine nature. As well as the benefits of working with asana to help with a more active birth, breath awareness, calming meditations and being encouraged to believe in the abilities of my body. My experience was such a positive one that once my initial baby haze had settled slightly, I really wanted to share my experience with other women.

Prenatal yoga is a wonderful tool available to women. It brings together all the benefits of yoga we all know about through our general yoga (breath, asana and meditation) with a direct focus on childbirth, helping to nurture and empower women throughout their pregnancy, labour and into motherhood. The practice of yoga prepares women both physically and emotionally.

On a physical level prenatal yoga can help to improve women’s stamina and health by increasing strength and flexibility, preparing women for an active birth and best possible recovery. Emotionally women can use the practice to create a sense of emotional wellbeing through relaxation and stress management. Pregnancy is such a special time to honour oneself and baby and a yoga practice will
empower the mother, which can enhance her enjoyment through the pregnancy and can keep her calm and grounded which has a positive effect on her and your baby not only while pregnant, but through the birth and beyond.

Some of the benefits of a gentle practice whilst pregnant are:

  • reducing stress
  • improving sleep
  • assisting with pregnancy related symptoms e.g. nausea, back/hip ache and sciatica
  • providing a way of connecting with unborn baby
  • building confidence and trust in women’s own body
  • helping to open the pelvis and strengthen the legs, increase awareness of the pelvic floor
  • learning to breathe more mindfully and deeply.

I have enjoyed starting to explore and incorporate some of my new insights into class since returning from the training and will be thinking more about the benefits of a more feminine approach to yoga generally and I look forward to sharing more with you.

Yoga Spirit Studios offers prenatal classes with Sallie on Saturday mornings 9.15am and with Vanessa on Wednesday evenings 6pm.

Bliss Baby Yoga will be offering an Adelaide Prenatal Teacher Training Intensive 18 – 20 November 2016. Please contact the studio or Bliss Baby Yoga if you have any questions.

By Sallie Davison – Member of Yoga Australia and is recognised by Yoga Australia as a Level 2 Teacher and Post Graduate qualified pre/postnatal Yoga Teacher.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Nada Yoga - Self - realisation through sound

It is as ancient as the days, the meditation upon sound that leads to inner peace, resilience and a closer understanding of our inherent wholeness. It is no accident that spiritual systems around the world have always used sound and music as a way of accessing the divine. Sound waves resonate with frequencies we can feel in our bodies, and in many cultures it has been recognized as both healing and meditative.

You will have felt sound, the rumbling of thunder, or a plane overhead, the sounding of a conch being blown or a big gong or bell, the climax of the 1812 overture or a great rock and roll drum solo. Remember that feeling in your body, thrilling and primal. You are tuning into the power of Nada Yoga.

We have probably all instinctively used the healing power of sound in our lives.  Who hasn't soothed their troubled heart with favourite music, listening to birdsong or the ebb and flow of the ocean lapping the sea shore. Alternative therapists have also been employing sound for its healing properties for many years, often being criticized by traditional medicine for promulgating mumbo-jumbo.

Ultrasound however has become a standard tool in medical technology, especially in imaging. But other uses for sound in healing are now being embraced by mainstream medicine. In November 2014 Scientific American reported that sound waves can heal brain disorders. The story here is that soundwaves can help to target therapies directly to brain tumours or areas of the brain for the treatment of conditions such as Parkinson's Disease. Good news that science is catching up with yoga in another area just as it is in the efficacy of meditation.

One of the ways that sound heals is by creating those felt vibrations in the body.  It helps to wake up our attention to the essential vibratory nature of our bodies.  As we become more attuned to this our brain's Default Network, which is essential but does have a negative bias, calms down and another network, the Present Centred Network is able to come to the fore. Essentially we become more "mindful" and in this state anxiety is reduced. Anxiety is a big causative factor in disease, so when anxiety decreases the body's natural healing mechanisms are more able to step up and do their work.

Yoga has always understood this, thus there has been in yoga this pathway of Nada Yoga, or Sound Yoga. Chanting, music, sounding bells or gongs are techniques of nada yoga.

A beautiful way to enjoy the healing power of sound waves is "Soundbath".  In a Soundbath the practitioner skillfully plays a range of mainly percussive instruments, as well as using voice, to create an atmosphere of sound.  The participants usually lay down as in a classic Yoga Nidra and staying awake and alert, experience the sound in their bodies.

We are fortunate in Adelaide to now have Soundbath practitioners available to give us this treat.  If you haven't yet given yourself the gift of a Soundbath, do so soon.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Finding a unitive state in back bends

Back bends can sometimes be scary and might be your least favourite part of the yoga class. In back bends the front body is opened and exposed, most so in upward facing back bends such as camel pose, and upward bow. Yet back bends have many benefits and are worthy of practice.

Back bends open the chest and heart and counteract the tendency to round in the upper back and thrust the head forward, which our life in front of computers is encouraging. Breathing is improved and enhancement of wellbeing follows.

Contracting into the  muscles of the back strengthens the muscles, but also helps those muscles to know how to relax. When the brain experiences the sensation of the contraction and the subsequent release it learns how to distinguish between tension and relaxation, and so the muscle can relax better after the back bend, which often gives relief to back pain.

Back bends involve bending the spine, and some parts of the spine love to bend backwards while others do not. It is important to balance the bending across the whole spine, encouraging mobility in the less mobile parts and stabilising the more mobile parts, so force is evened out over the whole curve. The result is a sense of wholeness in which energy flows effortlessly along the length of the spine.

Spines have a lot of bones, and they also have natural curves. When we are born the curves are all in the one direction, and that is called the "primary curve". As we learn to lift our head and look around, get up on all fours and crawl and then stand up, the spine develops curves in the opposite direction, called the "secondary curves". The neck and the lower back are the areas of the spine that have a secondary curve.

The bones of the spine are divided into sections and are numbered from the top down. The neck (cervical spine) has seven bones, numbered 1 to 7 from the top down, C1 to C7. Below that is the thoracic spine, which is where the ribs attach. The thoracic has 12 bones, topmost is T1, counting down to T12. The lower back is called the lumbar spine and has five bones, L1 to L5 counting down. The sacrum is the triangular bone that is a bridge between the two halves of the pelvis. It is really five bones, but they fuse together, still we number them S1 to S5. Below that we have the four bones of the tailbone (coccygeal vertebrae), also fused. Between each vertebra is a gel cushion, the intevertebral disc. We can name them by their two adjacent vertebrae, such as C2/C3 which is the disc between C2 and C3.

When you look at the spine at the back you might think that you are looking at a stegosaurus due to all of the bony protuberances! Each vertebra has a protuberance straight out the back, the spinous process, and handle bar protuberances out each side called the transverse processes. These processes are angled in different ways throughout the spine such that they allow or inhibit extension, which is the technical name for back bending.

So the combination between the natural curve and the angle of the spinous processes creates areas of the spine that are more mobile and areas that are less mobile. The two areas of the spine that have secondary curves, the neck and the lower spine, are quite mobile in extension and flexion. The thoracic spine, which has a primary curve is great at flexion, bending forwards, but not so good at all at extension.

The danger therefore is that we make all the movement in the two mobile areas and this can place stress on these areas. There is particular weakness at the places of transition between a mobile part with a less mobile part, so C5/T1, T12/L1 and L5/S1 are places where injury more often occurs. If we keep bending sharply into the same area it is a bit like taking a metal coat hanger and bending it back and forwards on the same place repeatedly. Eventually it breaks.

Consider these two pictures of camel pose (utsrasana).

To my eye the picture on the left is taking more of the bend in the lumbar, and the neck is also taken back to its limit, whereas the woman in the picture on the right is making the curve more even, stabilising the lower back and neck and encouraging more mobility in the thoracic.

In the following silhouettes of cobra pose (bhujangasana) you may have a sense of an energetic blockage created by the sharp extension in the neck and lower back in the one on the left compared to a freer flow of energy in the one on the right which contains the extension in the neck and lower back and opens the chest to mobilise the thoracic.

Warm up for your back bends with work to lengthen the quadriceps and psoas, and to open the chest and shoulders. This will give you more room to complete the back bend without bending sharply into the lower back.

As you come into your back bend start by lengthening the spine which helps to mobilise the thoracic, lifting the sternum. Drawing the throat back will engage support for the spine from the entire digestive tract, helping to stabilise it.

And do choose versions of the back bend that are appropriate for your body. For example use props for the hands to reach to in camel pose or keep them in the lower back for additional support and stabilisation.

After your back bending practice, counter pose in child's pose, balasana.

Proprioception and interoception in yoga


Interoception, defined here as the sense of the physiological condition of the body, is a ubiquitous informatin channel used to represent one's body from within.

Proprioception is a process by which the body can vary muscle contraction in immediate response to incoming information regarding external forces, by utilizing stretch receptors in the muscles to keep track of the joint position in the body.

Yoga: A system of disciplines and exercises aimed at liberation of the self. A discipline involving controlled breathing, prescribed body positions and meditation with the aim of attaining a state of deep spiritual insight and tranquility.

I start this post with some definitions. I didn't make them up, I googled the terms and took what came up. To me, both proprioception and interoception are important in yoga.

The word interoception is a new one to me but the practice of it is not. In somatics we call it the soma, the felt sense of the body, from the inside. It is tuning into sensation and becoming sensitised to the messages of sensation. In iRest we practice Body Sensing, both during Yoga Nidra and in movement.

The word proprioception is more familiar to me. I have always understood it as the way we sense our body's place in space. Thus when we are standing we know where our head is in relation to our torso, our pelvis and our feet.

Children must develp proprioception in order to learn to walk, pick things up and place them where they want to place them. It is fascinating watching this unfold when you watch a baby grow.

Both are important to yoga.

Proprioception is important to the physical discipline of yoga, to alignment, and to the ability to maintain good posture in sitting.

It is not a given.

Most people starting out in yoga, unless they are coming into yoga from another finely tuned physical discipline such as dance or gymnastics, find it difficult to find good alignment and this is due to a deficiency in proprioception. Even though we have learnt to stand up, walk around, pick up a cup of coffee and get it to our mouth, at a finer level we still do not have a clear sense of the position of our body in space. Hatha Yoga is fantastic to help to develop it and this will have great benefits in our coordination, our posture and as a falls preventative as we age.

Have you ever received an adjustment in which the teacher has suggested a new way to do a pose, but the next time you come into it you still cannot find that position and the teacher adjusts you again? Somehow we must develop an internal way of feeling our way into that spatial relationship that is good alignment, we need to fine tune our proprioception.

Interoception is a pathway to proprioception. By sensitizing to the body as sensation we become more aware of the signals that can feed our proprioception.

Even more that that, interoception is like another sense that is a portal right into the present, directly to the goal of yoga, into awareness of who we really are.

But lets drop the complicated word. A simpler term is body-sensing.

We train our ability to body sense as the teacher invites us, in relaxation, to note what is present, to open the senses, to note the feel of the breath in the body, to bring different parts of the body into focus. As we do this thoughts become defocused. they may quieten completely or they may just cease to be as interesting as we sense the body, thoughts simply come and go without distracting us. We enter the present moment and we may well find that in that state we open to spacious awareness and begin to recognise our true nature.

As we open into body-sensing we also begin to experience the body as vibratory energy, a kind of radiance. The sense of being a physical entity begins to dissolve, the sense of the body's edges may become fuzzy. We know from physics that everything is really energy but in the normal everyday state we do not usually sense that. In body-sensing this becomes a reality to us.

The practices of body-sensing arise from the yoga practices of Kashmir Shaivism. A hallmark of Kashmir Shaivism is its focus on practices that the ordinary person can do to achieve awareness of their true nature in this lifetime. No need to be an aesetic and meditate in a cave. This is a path to enlightenment anyone can do. It's perfect for us in our modern world.

The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra is a text of 112 meditations designed for the householder, framed as a conversation between Shiva and his goddess consort Parvati, or Shakti. the lovely modern translation by Lorin Roche, The Radiance Sutras, makes these meditations very accessible and from time to time we try them out in the Sunday morning class. Here is a taste.
"The senses declare an outrageous world -
Sounds and scents, ravishing colors and surfaces
Decorating vibrant emptiness."
Body-sensing is also practised as we move. Again in the words of the Radiance Sutras, 'the soul reveals itself to itself through movement, energy infused undulations and gestures of hand, foot, spine, face and form". In hatha yoga form and movement become the meditation, ever inviting a heightened awareness of the body as sensation.

Follow sensation. It might be the path to wholeness.

I am grateful to the many teachers who have taught me to practice yoga as body-sensing, especially Dr Richard Miller, Jennifer Carbanero, Fuyuko Toyota, Anne Douglas and Kirsten Guest.

Anne Douglas is visiting Australia in June to teach a retreat "Embodied Awakening". Find out more here.