The Pursuit of Poses: A Shift in Perspective

A young Vicky in love with arm balances.

 

When I first began my yoga practice, I was both fascinated and captivated by the postures. Many of the yoga books attributed miraculous healing benefits and outcomes to each pose. However, as my journey into yoga evolved I started to realise that striving for ever advanced poses can be fraught with frustration.

 

The body waxes and wanes, your practice goes through peaks and troughs. Some days a pose is readily available, and some days a pose you used to be able to do mysteriously disappears from your repertoire. To base your sense of satisfaction and achievement on the relative ease (or not) with which you could attain these outward forms was like chasing a mirage.

 

As a teacher I witnessed how seductive the pursuit of poses could be and in many ways, as I reflect back on my earlier teaching years, I perhaps inadvertently encouraged it. I taught many classes that were all geared towards preparing you for some sort of ‘peak pose’ – usually an intermediate/advanced level arm balance or deep backbend. I tried to instill a message of finding joy in the journey but I do sometimes wonder if the message got lost along the way, that students felt an unconscious pressure to ‘get somewhere’ in their practice.

 

At this point, I want to say that I do believe in exploring, challenging and having fun with testing our physical and mental boundaries, whether that be through exploring a difficult yoga posture, training for a marathon or practicing cartwheels in your garden. My concern is that we don’t mistake the reward for the pose rather we recognise that the real pleasure and growth lies in the journey, the many pathways and detours we make towards it.

 

“Yoga is not about touching your toes, but about what you learn on the way down there.” ~ Judith Hanson Lasater

 

This quote speaks to the understanding that the poses are just tools, vehicles if you like for helping to light up and bring awareness to different experiences on all levels – physical, mental, energetic and even emotional.  What does the pose teach us about ourselves and our habits and tendencies? What does this pose have to offer us in terms of getting us to know ourselves better?

 

In truth, the process of learning to do something wonderful and crazy in your body (such as going upside-down, or balancing on one leg) is actually way more interesting and fun than the actual ‘doing’ of the pose. Even if we get a glimpse of satisfaction and achievement when we finally nail that handstand, human nature says that once we’ve learnt how to do something we quickly get bored and look to the next thing. This is not bad – constantly looking forwards is how we grow and evolve – it can just get a bit disheartening if you’re not aware of what’s happening.

 

A lot of my students tell me they want to learn the right way to do a pose – the correct technique. I always struggle with how to let them down gently. There is no right way. There is no neat list of cues that we can happily fit into a box called Downward-Facing Dog (DWD). This can be an inconvenient and uncomfortable realisation for those of us who like to have all the answers (basically me). In truth there are a million and one ways to do DWD depending on your skeletal structure and your intentions behind why you’re doing the pose in the first place. This lack of clarity around alignment can be confusing and frustrating for new students – they don’t want to get it wrong, they don’t want to get injured. And yet this is even further evidence to me that the way yoga is often taught may be missing the whole point entirely.

 

Downward-Facing Dog – annoyingly there is no one ‘right’ way to do this pose!

 

I humbly suggest that as teachers we need to empower our students to believe that they have the intuitive wisdom to align themselves in a way that feels integrated, strong and whole. This ability to feel into our bodies and discern and make sense of what we’re feeling and sensing can be a long and sometimes difficult process. In our analytical, logical, cerebrally-centered world many of us have learnt to ignore and shut down the messages of the body and yet what is yoga, if not the art and science of developing of getting to know ourselves better? This developing of self-awareness may in fact be the very best thing we can do for our health and well-being.

 

In my private sessions I am learning to be a little less prescriptive in my cueing (it is still work in progress).  Rather than saying  ‘Put your foot here, turn your shoulder this way – I invite students to try things, to see what gives them the greatest sense of space, strength and stability. “What would it feel like to widen your feet?”  “How can you place your arm to give you the greatest sense of opening in your shoulder?”

 

Rather than there being a wrong or a right way to do a pose – how about exploring many ways of doing something and finding the one that gives you the greatest sense of ease, whole body integration and strength?

Rather than the yoga teacher now being the “guru” or expert who supposedly knows all the answers, the teacher serves as a guide, asking questions along the way, helping the student to find their own answers.

 

Teaching in this way invites the student to see the practice as an internal experience, and a practice of self-enquiry, it creates an environment of playfulness and curiosity and ultimately reminds the student that they are the true authority on their body, not their yoga teacher, their physio or their massage therapist.

 

This type of learning comes from an inwardly directed force, rather than an externally directed dictate and it opens us to the realisation that there is no end goal, just this moment, this breath, this movement and the next time you step onto the mat it will all be different.

 

“We don’t use our body to get into a pose,

We use the pose to get into our body. ~Bernie Clark

 

 

A Yoga Sequence for Knee Health

Please remember that this post only provides general guidance around knee health. If you have had a knee injury or recent knee surgery there are many factors that need to be considered before engaging in any rehabilitative exercise regime and its best to consult your doctor, health-care team or physio before starting yoga. 

It may seem a rather obtuse or clinical title for a yoga sequence – certainly not as sexy as A Yoga Sequence for Better Sleep for example (although that is coming soon!) – but building greater knee strength is a subject matter close to my heart, and has been a massive part of my yoga regime for years.

In fact the whole reason I came to yoga was because I had dislocated my knee several times and I faced the hearbreaking realisation that a dance career was just not going to be for me. Yoga early on presented an alternative. I loved the movement, the mindful connection to breath. The grace. It’s not a coincidence that many yogis and yoga teachers are ex-dancers.

Whilst yoga is often touted for its ability to enhance flexibility and range-of-motion, what I often find gets missed is yoga’s fantastic strengthening and stabilising qualities. To be sure it doesn’t have the grunt appeal or forehead-mopping benefits of lifting heavy weights or working with a resistance band but I believe yoga has a LOT to offer those of us with sore, sensitive or unstable knees.  As always it’s all about what you practice.

 

5 Reasons Why Yoga is Great for Knees:

  1. Its low impact i.e. in most forms and styles of yoga we don’t jump or bounce therefore reducing the amount of load, force and therefore stress on the joint.
  2. We use a lot of Closed Kinetic Chain (CKC) style movements and postures which are generally safer for knees that feel weak or unstable and are easier to control and therefore maintain good form whilst doing. CKC movements involve having the foot fixed on a solid surface e.g. the floor, as you do the movement or posture.
  3. We move slowly and mindfully which gives us a chance to focus on good tracking alignment of the knee (misalignment of the knee is a big factor in weak, unstable or injured knees). By taking our time as we consciously move in and out of positions we can retrain our habits and postural tendencies.
  4. Yoga recognises the holistic nature of the body and that knee problems often have their source in musculo-skeletal imbalances further up or down the body. Remember that the site of the injury is often not the source of the problem. When I have clients come to me with knee injuries, I always look at what’s happening in the position and alignment of their feet, hips and spines.
  5. In yoga we build isometric and eccentric strength which are fantastic for building strength and stability in our joints.
    • In isometric work we are holding the muscles and joints in a loaded static position – think of what happens to the muscles of your legs as you hold a Warrior 2 position for example.
    • In eccentric strength work, we gradually lengthen the muscles as we load them, for example, when we hinge forwards from standing into a forward bend the hamstrings are eccentrically lengthening.

 

Designing a Well-Balanced Yoga Practice for Knee Health

With the above in mind, the following sequence is designed to not only work all of the muscles that surround and stabilise the knee but also some muscle groups that seem relatively distant and unconnected. We will also work on stretching out some muscles that when tight can often cause knee tracking issues. Here’s a nifty table that outlines some of the major muscles and connective tissues you need to address for optimal knee health.

Strenghten Stretch
Quadriceps (muscles on the front of the thigh) Iliotibial Band or ITB (a tract of connective tissue running down the side of the upper leg)
Hamstrings (muscles at the back of the thigh) Outer quadriceps (when tight can pull the knee-cap outwards)
Glutes (your bottom!) Tensor Fasciae Latae or TFL (a muscle on the outer side of the hip)
Adductors (the inner leg muscles) Adductors (the inner leg muscles)
Vastus Medialis Obliqus VMO (a small tear-shaped muscle in the inner knee)

 

A couple of tips for practice:

As always the devil is in the details. I often say to my students – you spend the first 6 months in yoga just learning the basics, where do your hands and feet go, the general shape of a pose, remembering to breathe. You spend the rest of your life learning all the little details that make this practice so rich and exciting!

With that in mind there are a few small alignment tips that I think make all the difference when you are working on knee health.

 

  • Root down through the heel bone. When you press your heel firmly into the floor you will feel the muscles and connective tissue around your sitbone engage helping to strengthen the glutes and stabilise the hips. Strengthening the glutes plays a HUGE role in knee health.
  • Check your foot to knee-cap positioning again and again. The knees are the prisoners of whatever is happening in the feet and the hips! If the feet are turned out but the knees are pointing forwards (or even inwards) then your knees end up taking the strain of this misalignment. Happy knees are ones which track in the same direction as the centre of the ankle/2nd or 3rd
  • Engage the VMO. Getting the VMO (that tiny little tear-shaped muscle at the inner knee) to switch on can be tricky. If you’ve injured your knee it is likely that this muscle won’t be firing properly. Rooting through the heel bone can help to switch this muscle on but I also like to bring my fingertips to the area to help give me tactile feedback so that I know when it’s engaging.
  • Do not lock the knee. There is a tendancy for many students to “lock” the knee cap backwards in standing poses, particularly balance poses. Unfortunately this can often lead to torsion, instability and potential wear and tear of the knee joint. Instead we want to keep what I refer to as a slight micro-bend of the knee joint (the leg will still look straight) whilst engaging ALL of the musculature evenly around the knee (front-to-back and side-to-side).

The following practice gives some ideas for the sorts of poses that I regularly use with clients when working improve knee health. All of the poses/movements are designed to be repeated several times through until you feel a comfortable level of fatigue in the muscles without losing good form and technique. The exception to this is the two standing balances – Standing Quad Stretch Pose and Tree Pose which should be held for 30 seconds on each side, and the supine stretches at the end of the sequence which you can hold for up 1 minute on each side. Enjoy and feel free to leave any questions or comments below! 🙂

 

A Yoga Perspective on Finding Meaningful Work

This post originally appeared on Relax and Renew Events, a company that I co-founded with business coach Helen Puddefoot, providing coaching and mindfulness events for women in business.

 

Definition – Dharma

Dharma is a Hindu, Buddhist and yogic concept which refers to the idea of a law or principle governing the universe.The implication of dharma is that there is a right way for each person to carry out their life. If an individual is following their dharma, they are pursuing their truest calling, serving all other beings in the universe by playing their true role. ~ Yogapedia

 

As a yoga teacher I have witnessed some fascinating transformations of students who started yoga and fell in love with the practice. I wrote a blog piece some time ago about how a consistent yoga practice can have a far-reaching impact on seemingly unrelated areas of your life.
 
I have watched as students became absorbed in their yoga practice, and at the same time, started to question and change other areas of their lives. Some started by changing their diets or integrating other health habits, such as getting more sleep, into their daily habits and routines.
 
All too often though, I saw changes that had seemingly no connection. Students on my teacher trainings would realise they no longer had anything in common with their partners or friendship groups, and would start the painful process of letting go of old relationships that no longer served them. Others would talk of their frustration, boredom or lack of connection with their work and fantasise about other career options that would be more in line with their values. I have seen this too many times to think it just a coincidence.
 
Why does this happen? 

There’s something about this practice of yoga that invites us to question and reflect deeply. I often joke to my students, that there’s nowhere to hide on a yoga mat. It’s just you, your body, your breath, your mind and the clear empty space of your yoga mat. The yoga practice will reflect back to you everything you bring to it. If you step onto the mat with anger or frustration – that is what will bubble back up to the surface. Not that there is anything wrong with this. The yoga practice is neutral and just honestly reflects back to us wherever we are at in the moment.
 
What this means is that if you are unhappy about an area of your life, such as your work-life or career, this is what will start to come up for you on your yoga mat to the point that the initial whisperings of discontent may become too loud for you to ignore.
 
Change may be on its way.
 

In yoga we have appropriated the concept of Dharma from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions – the idea that to live a good life means to live in a way that taps into and expresses our fullest potential. We may have several dharmas to carry out in one lifetime, for example, to be a mother, a writer, an investment banker or a carer for an ailing parent.

 
The essential idea is that life flows best, and we are at our happiest, when we recognise and connect to the specific roles that we have been invited on this earth to carry out.

 

This does not mean to say that our dharma is all plain-sailing and joyful. Any career path, no matter how well aligned to our values will have good days and also its challenges and uphill struggles. I absolutely love my work as a yoga therapist but I still moan about doing certain tasks – accounts, emails, maintaining my social media presence to name a few! However, generally speaking, we know we are in accordance with our dharma when we cannot think of anything else we would rather be doing with our life.
 
So how does one find their dharma? This soul-searching is part of the rich journey of life. Some may find it easier or earlier than others, but it really helps when we carve out enough quiet time in the busyness of our day-to-day schedules to tune in and really listen to the callings of our hearts.
 
Yoga and meditation practices are perfect for this deep inner work because they give us the time and space to sit with ourselves and to allow insight, self-revelations and mini-epiphanies to rise to the surface.
 
With this in mind I have recorded a brief 10-minute meditation designed to help you explore this idea of dharma and its personal relevance to you. This meditation aims to help develop greater personal insight into your current relationship to your work and to develop clarity around your future career dreams and aspirations.

 

I recommend doing this meditation on a regular basis as our dharmic roles will change and evolve with time – what may be right for us now, may and probably will change a few years down the line. The questions in this meditation are also perfect for a journaling practice. Click on the Soundcloud link below to access the meditation: