Griffins Hill Retreat yoga and food blog

A blog about Iyengar yoga, organic food, and cooking.
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Discovering our true nature 
through mindful yoga practice


We all have our favourite yoga poses, don't we? But how many of us make a favourite of a particularly challenging posture, one that makes us feel uncomfortable, uncertain and, well, not very good at yoga?
Making friends with the postures that are difficult for us to do is an integral part of yoga because it delivers us straight to the heart of the real purpose of yoga: awareness or mindfulness. When we favour a particular pose or type of asana, we create an imbalance in our bodies and minds.

When we are only interested in the external outcomes of yoga, making our bodies achieve the postures, we may miss developing awareness in some areas of our body altogether. We may overstretch or under stretch some parts and risk injury.

Yoga practitioners often refer to the light and dark elements of our practice. One meaning of this metaphor is that we use some postures to shine light into the dark areas of our practice. For example, there are some areas of the body where we lack awareness: the upper thoracic spine is a common one.
So, we might be doing a forward bend, to stretch our hamstrings, but instead, we are compressing our abdomen and chest, hunching our upper back and compressing the lower back, putting our spine into loaded flexion.
To do yoga with awareness is to feel and to observe our body, mind and breath, which involves developing better understanding through practice and observation. The "light" areas of our practice are the areas we can feel and connect with, where there we can observe movement and sensation. Traditionally a Guru helps us to understand our true nature by helping remove the veil of ignorance. The guru helps shine the light of knowledge and experience to dispel our ignorance (Avidya). When we become our own guru(teacher), it is about really learning to understand these dark areas, even though we may want to ignore them.

Changing our minds as well as our bodies 

Gomukhasana- One of my least favourite asanas in my early years of practice

Recently when I was rebuilding my website, I read a blog about the trend towards one-page website designs, where the viewer scrolls down through all the information on one page versus the traditional approach of many pages.

What I remember most from this blog, however, is a comment the writer made: he often starts a blog with a particular view, but by the time he has finished the blog, he has changed his mind.
Often as a yoga teacher prepared to teach a particular sequence, I have to modify the set of asanas to suit the level of understanding of the students or their energy levels on a particular day.
We don't really want to go into the shadows our yoga practice (or our lives). It is demoralising, or too hard, or we just don't want to deal with it. It is easier to work with the stuff we are good at – the areas already bathed in light where we feel comfortable and at ease.
The hips are one area where we often become stuck. In forward-bends with tight hamstrings instead of flexing the hips, we overly flex the spine compressing the discs and collapsing the chest.
In backbends, if we have not explored opening the pelvis, the shoulders and chest, our lower-back is forced to do all the (bending) work.
For people to learn to move the dorsal spine in and open the chest while practising backbends is difficult because there is not much sensation or movement there; instead, we tend to overwork the more flexible areas of the lower back and cervical spine (neck).

How to turn on the light

When someone or something is in the dark, we see just a silhouette. Without a torch, we see only an outline, a shape. With so little information about the object we are perceiving, we might not even recognise who or what it is. Without this information, misunderstanding is so much more likely. 

How do we shine a torch into the darker, shadowy areas of our practice and become aware?
One of the best ways I have found is to change our approach to the posture. We might use more or different props. Sometimes, it's a matter of backing off a little and shifting our awareness to how we are feeling.
Being competitive is an external focus – and while I think a little competition is great because it helps us go beyond our perceived limitations – however, to develop a deeper understanding (Vidya or knowledge) we need to withdraw to the internal for inspiration. This helps us to heighten our awareness of the incremental changes we need to make in some areas of our body, such as the dorsal spine, the hips, feet, etc. to engage in the asana fully.
Tadasana (mountain pose) is central to almost every standing posture. In the beginning, people think to themselves what the hell are we doing just standing here, they want more movement, to go into Trikonasana, so they can think, now I am doing something. But with time we learn that Tadasana is the base and understanding and exploring it more deeply helps us understand all the other standing asanas
Coming back to the simplest of poses, and delving deeply into them, also helps us build internal awareness, which is the light that dispels Avidya (ignorance or lack of understanding).

Simple sequence for easing into backbends with support of a chair 

1) Opening the chest and shoulders

This sequence is for experienced students already experienced with backbends with a chair. If you suffer from neck and shoulder issues, consult your teacher before experimenting with this sequence. Those with a stiff or weak neck can use a bolster and foam block for extra support.
Start by lying through chair approximately one arm's length from the wall. Adjust distance, so that when hands are pressed against the wall, the upper edges of the shoulder blades are supported by the front edge of the chair. To move hands closer to the floor, lift hips up by pressing firmly down through the inner edges of feet and walk hands down. Once securing hands closer to the floor slowly lower the hips down while maintaining the opening of the chest to work on opening the shoulders.

2) Opening the chest, shoulders and hips

This variation works on opening the hips and chest while lessening the opening of the shoulders. Pressing firmly down through the inner edges of the feet lift through the outer knees and hips and lengthen the tail bone towards the knees.
Keep lower back long by drawing the navel towards the kidneys (lower back ribs) and lifting kidneys towards the centre of the breast bone. The abdomen remains relatively level and not puffed upwards. Keep the shoulders on the front edge of the chair while opening the breast bone towards the wall. Draw the tail bone to the knees. The leg action should work to lift the hips without pressing them forward and thus compressing the lower back.

3) Lengthening through the spine

 For the next variation (image 4) Start by placing the blocks, as shown in image 3. Then lift and place the front feet of the chair onto the centre of blocks closer to the wall as in image 4

While sitting here, a twist can be added to relieve any feeling of tension in the lower back. A block is placed between the knees to stabilise the hips and knees.

4) Opening the chest and shoulders

This variation with the chair elevated on blocks intensifies the shoulder opening.

5) Opening the chest and shoulders and the hips

This variation works on opening the hips and chest while lessening the opening of the shoulders, as described early but more intensely. Notice I now have the hands flexed with fingers on the floor. For those with tight and weak wrists, stay with the hand on the wall or put a wedge under the hand to lessen the stretch.

6) Final pose unsupported with legs straightened 

In this variation, lift the shoulders off the chair, and straighten the legs to take the whole body into full extension, thus integrating all the previous steps.

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