The balancing act

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Finding balance in your life, in your mind, in your breath, in your personality, in your being – it seems to be something we all want. To me, it also sometimes seem like an utopia. When I find balance in part, I tend to lose it somewhere else. When I put in the work to balance one part of my being, I lose the time and effort in the other one.

However, I also believe it is possible!

Balance is not something you can find, it is something you create” – Jana Kingsford

In your life you will always go through highs and lows. It is inevitable. We cannot control the outside world, we cannot control the actions of others and therefore we will have periods of suffering throughout our lives. It is however the balance and connection inside the Self that will determine how off balance you get. And to understand when we are in balance we have to learn where that point is.

Don’t avoid extremes, and don’t choose any one extreme. Remain available to both the polarities – that is the art, the secret of balancing” – Rajneesh.

When we are kids we are constantly exploring our boundaries. We are figuring out our world by falling and standing up, by testing the boundaries of our parents and by making mistakes. The older we get the more consolidated and fixed our ideas, thoughts and ways of being seem to be. However, the search for balance inside continues. Over time we change and we constantly try to figure out who we really are. We dig into our past to figure out why certain highs and lows have impacted our lives, so that we can make sense of where we are now. So that we can figure out where our balance is.

In yoga we have a concept that talks about this search for balance, which is called Sthira Suhka Asanam (Yoga Sutra 2.46)

  • Sthira arises from the root stha, which means “to stand, to be firm, to take a stand.” It translates as steadiness, awareness, stable and firm.
  • Sukha arises from the root words su (good) and kha (space), so giving it the meaning “good space.” It translates as comfort, ease, pleasure, lightness.
  • Asana is translated as posture, attitude (mental, emotional, physical), physical exercise and seated posture.

So when we translate that ‘Sthira Suhka Asanam’ means the posture is firm/steady/stable AND comfortable/ light/ at ease.

So in our practice we look to be steady and stable, while light and at ease. We are looking to be rooted and strong, while being joyful, easy and gentle. The breath is our guidance in this process, by following how it changes with each pose we can get a better understanding of the impact a pose has on us. By working on keeping the breath and the posture stable, means you are in complete focus, you are in the moment and because of that the mind is still. The mind is present.

When we learn these qualities on the mat, by focusing on the stability of the mind and the steadiness of our breath, we can take the lessons learned with us off the mat and apply it in our daily life. Being aware of when you are in a high or low, will give you insight in what you need to develop more in your life. It is a first step towards a healthy balance, and we keep on practicing until we are able to keep the balance in all parts of our life, all the time.

Spring cleaning

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Spring has started on the northern part of our planet, which for a lot of people means time to clean! It is time to create space in your life: have a clean house, clean computer, clean body and clean habits.

And even though we all think about it, we often find it too hard to start. In the beginning of 2015 I was forced to do one of the biggest cleanings I have ever done: two moves (São Paulo to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to San Francisco) which meant getting rid of stuff in my house, my mind and life.

As I sat down in the middle of all the things that had created my life in São Paulo and all the things that defined my life in Amsterdam, I felt like I was being thrown back and forth between relief and despair. It was amazing to not have the responsibility over so much stuff anymore, but at the same time I emotionally had to let go of things I had been guarding.

While cleaning for days in a row, I realised there are a few basic rules when it comes to cleaning your life:

  • A clean environment equals a clean mind. So do a detox for your body to get rid of unnecessary toxins in your body, clean your house, your desk, your social life, your social networks, your computer, your phone, etc. Simplify your life, it creates space in your mind and life.
  • Focus on one thing at the time. Either a box, a pile of papers, an emotion, one folder on your computer: one thing each time. NO multi-tasking, because you never know what comes up when the next box opens.
  • Only keep things of value, either because you use it or it has emotional value to you. Stuff that is worth something but you don’t use: sell!
  • Everything should have it’s own place; you need to be able to find your belongings in a fixed place in your house or on your computer. When it comes to emotional things, when it did not find a place yet, you haven’t dealt with it properly.

But how to get yourself started when there is no deadline or real pressure?

  • Don’t set your goals too high and don’t spoil a sunny day inside.
  • Start with 1 pile of papers, one box of stuff, one folder on your computer.
  • What you pick up NEEDS to be dealt with: keep it, throw it away, sell it, keep maybe.
  • Start small: do it 15 mins each day. Don’t overdo it.
  • Make it a game, challenge, connect it to something you like, reward yourself properly.

Other fun ways to clean up:

  • Every day give something away. It cleans out your house slowly and it is rewarding to give something away you don’t use anymore.
  • Take part in a Buy Nothing New Month.
  • Do a meditation course to clear your mind
  • Built up a discipline with yoga (or something else you like): 15 mins of cleaning, is followed by 15 mins of yoga
  • Take up the 12-12-12 challenge (or other fun challenge): 12 items to throw away, 12 items to donate, 12 items to return to their own homes.

Once you get in the flow, the fun will start and space is created. Space you can use for new thoughts, fun activities you wanted to pick up for a while, new films and music, or simply just to let the space be… We don’t always need to fill up what we have cleared.

Happy Spring!

9 poses to help improve your arm balance

9 poses to improve arm balances

There is something about arm balances in yoga. When you start out you look in awe at the people going in any type of balance. You try too, but your feet seem to be glued to the mat, your arms don’t have the strength and you simply just don’t get it. But you want to know, you want to do it too!

Once you get it, you want more and crazier, it is addictive! Writing a blog about poses to improve arm balances doesn’t make me an expert in them. I am still training like crazy to be able to master all of them. However, there are a few things you can work on when you want to improve your arm balance skills:

  • Balance (pictures: 3 – 7 – 8)
  • Core strength (pictures: 2 – 3 – 4 – 5)
  • Open shoulders (pictures: 1 – 4 – 7 – 8)
  • Strong wrists (pictures: 5 – 6)
  • Engaged legs (pictures: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8)

There are many many poses that can help you prepare and get strong enough or to improve your arm balance. But below I have put down a few that have been very helpful to me.

Some basis rules when you perform the poses:

  • Make long, deep and controlled breaths through your nose. Focus on your breath going in and out while being in a posture. Try to make your exhale slightly longer than your inhale.
  • Let your breath initiate a movement. Inhale is a movement upwards, exhale is a movement downwards or a twist.
  • Work both sides of your body. Do every posture on the right side and then switch to the left.
  • There is NO pose in yoga where we have our shoulders close to our ears. So when you are settled in a pose, always pay attention to your shoulders. Roll them backwards and down.
  • When in the pose try to be aware of what comes up. What happens in your body.

Picture 1: Gomukhasana
Cow Face Pose. Legs: Bend your knees and put your feet on the floor. Slide your left foot under the right knee to the outside of the right hip. Then cross your right leg over the left, stacking the right knee on top of the left, and bring the right foot to the outside of the left hip. Try to bring the heels parallel next to the hips. Sit evenly on your sitting bones.

Arms: Right leg on top, means right arm up. Raise your arm and bend it, your hand is reaching for your neck or between your shoulder blades. Reach your left arm forward and swing it sideways and back and reach up for your hand. If you can reach it, grab your shirt or a strap. Bring your right elbow up and backwards and see if you can place the back of your head against your wrist. Do at least 3 cycles of breath.

Picture 2: Abs training
Lay on your back. Bring your legs straight up in a 90 degrees angle. Lower one leg until it almost reaches the ground, while you keep your other leg up straight in the 90-degree angle. Bring the leg up and switch. Do it slow, with long inhales and exhales. Repeat with each leg at least 10 times.

Variation: interlace your fingers behind your head and take your head and shoulders of the floor.

Extra round: place your hands under your hips, keep your feet together and bring both legs down as far as you can (they do not touch the floor) and slowly bring them back up. Repeat with a minimum of 5 times.

Picture 3: Paripurna Navasana
Boat pose. Place your feet in front of you, hip distance apart. Hold with your hands under your knees; use this force to straighten your back. Keep your back as straight as possible during the entire pose. Balance on your sit bones; take your feet off the floor. If possible stretch arms out at shoulder height and a next step is to straighten your legs.

Picture 4: Utthan Pristhasana
Lizard pose. Start in a plank or down-wards dog. Take a step forward with your right foot, place it on the outside of your right hand. Make sure your back leg is straight and your hips are in line with the rest of your body. If it is in your range, bring your elbows where your hands were so you intensify the stretch. Stay for a minimum 3 cycles of breath. Switch sides.

Variation: bring your right shoulder under your right knee. Open both arms to the side, as if you are flying. You will intensify the work for your core muscles and balance.

Picture 5: Chaturanga Dandasana
Four-Limbed Staff Pose. From the plank, move your body weight forward. You are now on the tips of your toes. Bring your body weight down, like an airplane coming to land. Create a 90 degrees angle from wrist to elbow and elbow to shoulder. Your shoulders don’t go below your elbows. If you want you can hold the pose for a few breaths to build up strength.

Picture 6: Adho Mukha Svanasana
Downward facing dog: Come onto the mat on your hands and knees. Knees are 90 degrees with your hips, hands straight under your shoulders. Tuck your toes under and on an exhale lift your knees away from the floor. Keep them slightly bent. Stretch one knee, bend the other. Switch several times. Bend both needs slightly and push your sitbones up in the air, while you push yourself away from your hands. On an exhale push your heels towards the mat. Stay for a minimum of three breaths.

Picture 7: Parivrtta Trikonasana
Revolved triangle pose. Straighten your front leg, have your legs similar to the extended triangle pose. Have your arms out wide, bring the back arm forward and place it on the outside of your front foot. Look up to your hand. If necessary use a block to stabilize. Stay for at least 3 cycles of breath.

Variation arm (as in picture): if you feel stable enough, instead of bringing your arms forward, bring them behind your back. To open your shoulders you have several options:

  1. Bind your arms by holding your elbows.
  2. Bring your arms behind you, press the backs of your wrists together and then flip your hands so the palms touch each other fingers pointing up (prayer hands).
  3. Start the same as 2, but now walk your hands up in between your shoulder blades. Press the palms together firmly.

Picture 8: Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana
Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose. Stand in mountain pose. Feet are hip distance apart. Bring all the weight to one foot. Take your other leg up by bending your knee. Grab your big toe with your middle finger, pointer finger and thumb via the inside of the leg. Straighten your back and start stretching out your leg. Keep your back straight, so if that means your leg will not be stretched out completely, then that is fine. Focus on a point in front of you. Stay for at least 5 cycles of breath. Switch side.

Picture 9: Bakasana
The crow pose. Bend your knees and come as far down with your hips as possible (butt not touching the floor). Place your hands on the mat, open your fingers as wide as you can. Bring your knee in your armpits or on the outside of your upper arm (not below the elbow). Push with your knees against your arm. Contract your abdominal muscles. Come to the tips of your toes and move your body weight forward. Try to lift one foot, then the other and then both. Balance on your arms as long as you want.

Yoga for runners

Yoga for runners
Yoga and running are two sports that combine very well. The running keeps you fit and gives you endurance, while yoga helps you to stretch those tightened muscles and helps you to prevent injures. Both sports will help you clear your mind and as a bonus, yoga will also help you deal with the physical stress you built up in your body while running.

Yoga will also help you create a better balance, it will elongate your muscles and improve your body & breath awareness. The combination of these three will help you to improve your running and become more aware of possible injuries during your training.

But maybe most important is the stretching of the muscles we tighten while running: our hips, hamstrings and gluteus (butt).

The following sequence will work on the different elements described above:

  • Stretching your legs (pictures: 8-9-10-11-12)
  • Opening your hips (pictures: 1-2-17)
  • Creating balance (pictures: 13-14)
  • Work on body awareness and breathing (pictures: 3-15-16)
  • Strengthen your core muscles (pictures: 4-5-6-7)

This sequence can vary from 15 minutes up to 30 minutes, it depends on how long you hold the poses and how many repetitions you do. The basic rule is: better to do it 15 minutes then to not do it at all.

It is advisable to start the practice with 5 minutes of meditation, to calm the mind and be focused during the practice. End the practice with a Savasana pose (corpse pose) for a minimum of 10 breaths.

Some basis rules when you perform the poses:

  • Make long, deep and controlled breathes through your nose. Focus on your breath going in and out while being in a posture. Try to make your exhale slightly longer then your inhale.
  • Let your breath initiate a movement. Inhale is a movement upwards, exhale is a movement downwards or a twist.
  • Work both sides of your body. Do every posture on the right side and then switch to the left.
  • While you’re in a standing pose always check your front knee. When it is bent, it makes a 90-degree angle with your ankle; however, it should never go over your ankle.
  • There is NO pose in yoga where we have our shoulders close to our ears. So when you are settled in a pose, always pay attention to your shoulders. Roll them backwards and down.

If you have doubts about the poses, below you can find the basic ideas and adjustments per picture:

  • Picture 1: Bound Angle Pose. Place the soles of your feet together. Interlace your fingers and hold around your feet. Try to keep your back as straight as possible when you come forward. Stay for 3 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 2: Cow Face Pose. Legs: Bend your knees and put your feet on the floor. Slide your left foot under the right knee to the outside of the right hip. Then cross your right leg over the left, stacking the right knee on top of the left, and bring the right foot to the outside of the left hip. Try to bring the heels parallel next to the hips. Sit evenly on your sitting bones.
    Arms: Bring your right arm forward; place your left one over it. Back of your hands are facing each other, thumbs are up. Make one more bind by bringing your hands in a position where your palms are facing each other. Bring your shoulders down and your elbows up. Do at least 3 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 3: Thread and needle pose. With an inhale take one arm up, look towards it and then bring it through the hole of your knee and hand. Shoulder and ear to the ground. Try to keep your hips aligned.
  • Picture 4: Locust pose. Start by having your whole body on the mat. Bring your arms back. On the inhale take both your arms and legs up. If this is too much to begin with, then start with only taking your chest of the mat. Second time only the legs. And third time both the chest (arms) and the legs.
  • Picture 5: Boat pose. Place your feet in front of you, hips distance apart. Hold with your hands under your knees; use this force to straighten your back. Keep your back as straight as possible during the entire pose. Balance on your sit bones; take your feet of the floor. If possible stretch arms out on shoulder height and a next step is to straighten your legs.
  • Picture 6: Plank pose with one knee forward. Make it look like you are a straight plank. Have your hips aligned with your body, so not high in the air or close to the ground. Shoulders are 90 degrees over your wrists. Contract your abdominal muscles. Bring your right knee to your right elbow. Try to stay here for 5 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 7: Downward facing dog: Come onto the mat on your hands and knees. Knees are 90 degrees with your hips, hands straight under your shoulders. Tuck your toes under and on an exhale lift your knees away from the floor. Keep them slightly bent. Stretch one knee, bend the other. Switch several times. Bend both needs slightly and push your sitbones up in the air, while you push yourself away from your hands. On an exhale push your heels towards the mat. Stay for a minimum of three breaths.
  • Picture 8: Standing forward bend pose. Hang forward, have your knees slightly bent or straight (your own preference) while holding your elbows. Feel how, due to your head hanging down, the vertebras in your neck are getting some space. Stay in this pose for at least 5 cycles of inhales and exhales.
  • Picture 9: Chair pose. Come up from your previous pose by bending your knees. On an inhale bring both arms up. Arms are in line with the shoulders, palms are facing each other. Your tailbone is turned inwards.
  • Picture 10: Warrior 2 pose. Turn your back foot to a 45-degree angle. Open your hips towards the side. Roll your shoulders down and back. Look over your front hand. Stay for at least 3 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 11: Extended triangle pose. Straighten your front leg. Have your torso similar to the Warrior 2 pose. Bring your body weight forward. Bring your arm down towards your leg. Either grab your thigh, lower part of the leg or ankle. Make sure your torso is parallel with your front leg. Stay for at least 3 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 12: Side angle pose. Both feet are pointing straight forward. Place your hands under your face. Inhale, lengthen your spine, exhale fold forward. Stay here with a minimum of 5 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 13: Tree pose. Put all the weight on one leg. Place the other one in your thigh or on your lower leg. Never on the knee!! Focus on a point in front of you and don’t let it go. Stand up tall. Hands in prayer in front of your chest. Minimum of 5 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 14: Warrior 3 pose. From the previous pose keep your arms where they are. Bring your knee forward, bring your leg to the back and stretch your leg completely. Make your leg, torso and arms parallel to the floor. Contract your abdominal muscles for balance and make both your legs as active as possible. Stay for 3 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 15: Camel pose. Sit on your heels, knees on the mat. Bring your knees hips distance apart. Push yourself up, so you have your hips 90 degrees over your knees. Freeze this – your knees and hips remain 90 degrees throughout the entire pose. Tuck your toes under and place your hands on your lower back. Inhale into your chest and bring your torso backwards. If this is enough for a backward bend stay here. To continue, bring your hands down and reach for your heels. Look straight up, be aware of the 90 degree angle of knee and hips. Stay here for a minimum of 3 cycles of breath. To come out: bring your hands back on your lower back. Move your hips towards your heels. Your head comes back last. Go to child’s pose.
  • Picture 16: Bridge pose. Lay down on your back, knees are up, feet are hips distance apart. Measure the positioning of your legs by bringing your arms next to your body; the tip of your middle finger needs to just barely touch your heel. Then interlace your fingers behind your back. Push your hips up as far as you can, roll your shoulders together. Breathe into your chest.
  • Picture 17: One-legged king pigeon pose. Come to a downward facing dog pose (picture 7). Bring your right leg up and bring it forward. Right knee goes to your right wrist. Your foot goes as close to your left wrist as possible. Your hips need to be open to do this, so you might want to walk your foot closer to your body. Place your hands next to your hips. Breathe into your chest and stay up straight. A possible next step is to bring your body forward on an exhale. Make a diamond of your hands (hands are on the mat) and place your forehead in the diamond space of your hands. Stay for 5 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 18: Rotation pose. Lay on your back. Arms are out in a cross. Bring your knees towards your chest. Make a 90-degree angle with your hips and your knees and knees and ankle. Move your legs to the right, look to the left; keep both shoulders on the mat. If you want you can place your right hand on your knees, to add extra pressure.