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.

Yoga for lower back pain

Yoga for lower back

Back pain, and in particular lower back pain, is something I come across a lot as a yoga teacher. Lower back pain starts below the ribcage, in the lumbar section of our spine. The great thing about lower back pain is that it often gets better on its own. But it is proven that yoga can help and speed up this process.

Lower back pain can have several causes:

  • Heavy lifting, pulling or doing something that twists your spine.
  • Doing a work-out that was too intense (especially at the gym or playing golf).
  • Sitting at a desk all day (especially when your chair is uncomfortable and doesn’t support your back).
  • A heavy tote bag, briefcase, backpack.
  • A slouching posture, when the shoulders slouch forward the lumbar spine starts rounding and loses its natural curve.

All these lower back issues can be around the muscles, but can also cause sciatica and herniated discs. Both are extremely painful and have to be worked with a lot of caution; careful movements and consciousness of what is going on in the body are key.

People who are at risk are generally over 30 and either have a job where they have to lift a lot, or sit behind a computer for extended periods, they have an inactive lifestyle or are overweight.

The 5 lumbar vertebrae’s are able to do 4 different movements:

  • Flexion (60%) – forward fold
  • Extension (35%) – backward bend
  • Lateral (20%) – sideward bend
  • Axial (5%) – twist

No other part of the spine is able to do a larger forward fold than this low part of the spine. That’s why we so easily can hurt the lower back when we are carrying heavy stuff. It is also the part where our secondary curve, named lordosis, is. When we sit all day, we decrease the curve by bringing our tailbone in and under the body. This causes tension and pain over time.

The 9 poses in the pictures will help you relief tension in the lower back. You can weave them into a sequence or use them as separate poses. If you are suffering from lower back pain, check to see which ones work best for you. Try it out, maybe you can even create variations of the pose, in order to get a bigger relief.

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.  Stay in a pose for at least 3 cycles of inhales and exhales.
  • 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.

For further instructions of the poses, see below:

Picture 1: Marjaryasana / Bitilasana
Cat/cow pose. Come to your hands and knees. Knees in a 90 degrees angle with your hips, shoulders with the wrists. Inhale, look up and arch your spine. Exhale, look down and round your spine. Do this with a minimum of 5 times.

Picture 2: Malasana
Squat pose. Step your feet wider apart, at maximum as wide apart as the mat. Turn your feet out slightly. Separate your thighs wider than the torso and bring the hips down. Hugs yourself in between the legs. Keep your heels on the floor, or if necessary, roll up the mat under your feet. Press your elbows against your inner knees and bring the palms together in front of your chest. Hold it for a minimum of 5 cycles of breath.

Picture 3: Purvottanasana
Straight bridge. Sit down on the floor. Legs are fully on the mat and feet are hips distance apart. Place your hands on the mat, fingers pointing towards your feet. Your hands are straight under your shoulders (so next to your body). The hands are placed just behind the hips and thus behind your body. Inhale, push your hips up keep the legs straight. Feet stay fully on the mat, while you push your hips up as high as possible. It helps to squeeze your gluteus together. Stay for 5 cycles of breath.

Picture 4: Salabhasana
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 off the mat. Second time only the legs. And third time both the chest (arms) and the legs.

Picture 5: 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 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: Utthita Trikonasana
Extended triangle pose. Straighten your front leg, so both legs are straight. 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 8: Eka Pada Rajakapotasana
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 9: Reclining twist
Reclining twist 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.

Yoga for sunny days

Yoga for a sunny day

The sun is out! And so are our legs, arms and abs. In winter time we cover up, which sometimes makes us forget to keep them in shape, keep them toned for when the sun is peeking around the corner. And even though yoga is not meant as a pure physical activity, it is still a perfect sport to work on toning your legs, arms and abs. And the absolute best part is that the benefits of calming your mind, getting a radiant skin, changing your perspective on life, improving your relationships and feeling your absolute best, are added for free. So let’s get you ready for summer!

All 9 poses will help you tone your muscles and all poses work on at least 2 areas, however, their main focus is divided as follows:

  • Row 1: Three poses that will mainly help you tone your arms
  • Row 2: Will help you tone your legs
  • Row 3: Will work on your abs.

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.

TONING ARMS:

Picture 1: Vasisthasana
Side plank pose. Bring your right hand under your face. Turn to the outside of your right foot. Bring your left foot on top of your right foot. If this is too heavy, place your left foot behind your right one (not before or after). Take your left hand up in the sky, look up to your left hand. If you can take up your left leg and grab your big toe with your left hand. Try to stay for a minimum of 3 cycles of breath.

Picture 2: 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 3: Urdhva Mukha Savanasana
Upward facing dog pose. Lay down on your belly. Place your hands next to your chest, fingers facing forward. On an inhale, push yourself half way. Then straighten the legs, the knees come of the mat. Next inhale, straighten your arms. Shoulders are straight over your wrists. Look forward or up.


TONING LEGS (and gluteus)

Picture 4: Utkatasana
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 5: Virabhadrasana III
Warrior 3 pose. From the previous pose keep your arms where they are. Bring the weight onto your front foot, take up your back leg and move your body forward. Your torso, arms and back leg are in one line and 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. Change side.

Picture 6: Purvottanasana
Straight bridge. Sit down on the floor. Legs are fully on the mat and feet are hips distance apart. Place your hands on the mat, fingers pointing towards your feet. Your hands are straight under your shoulders (so next to your body). The hands are placed just behind the hips and thus behind your body. Inhale, push your hips up keep the legs straight. Feet stay fully on the mat, while you push your hips up as high as possible. It helps to squeeze your gluteus together. Stay for 5 cycles of breath.


AMAZING ABS

Picture 7: Plank pose, knee to elbow
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 a minimum 3 cycles of breath. Change side.

Picture 8: Paripurna Navasana
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 off the floor. If possible stretch arms out on shoulder height and a next step is to straighten your legs. Try to stay for a minimum of 5 breaths.

Picture 9: Salamba Sirsasana 2, legs 90 degrees.
Supported headstand 2. Start in a table top and place your elbows straight under your shoulders. Then interlace the fingers. That spot is where you can place the head. Then place your hands where the elbows where, fingers pointed forward (towards the head). Take the knees off the mat, straighten the legs. Walk your feet closer to your face, until your feet come off the mat. Bring your legs up at the same time. Stop when your legs are in a 90 degree angle with the floor. Stay there for a couple of breaths. Lower them closer to the floor again, right before your feet touch the floor, bring them back up. Repeat this as many times as you can. Stay for at least 5 breaths with the legs at 90 degrees. If you are afraid to fall over, use the wall for support.

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.

9 poses to deal with fatigue

Yoga for fatigue

Fatigue is something we all are faced with from time to time. I know this because many of my students, friends and family complain about it. We’re so busy going to work, keeping up with our social life, taking care of the kids, taking care of the parents once they get older, battling a flu or serious illness, recovering from a strong work-out, and it tires us out. Fatigue has been an interest of mine for a while, since so many people (including myself) in so many different situations are dealing with it.

About two weeks ago, I was at this amazing training with Kate Holcombe on Yoga and Cancer. Maybe I should’ve known this, but to my biggest surprise, one major problem cancer patients are dealing with is fatigue; due to a lack of sleep, fear and stress, body aches and the recovery of the treatment.

From my own experience I know that yoga has often helped me in moments of fatigue. Even though often I started my practice feeling like I was too tired and shouldn’t be doing it, I have NEVER EVER regretted my decision to practice.

So to get to the point, I thought it would be nice to share the 9 poses that help me when I am tired, because they might help others too.

Chest opening poses and back bends are often associated with creating energy, while forward bends and inward going poses are associated with relieving anxiety and a calming of the mind. And then we have a variety of poses that can help you with insomnia, which are often forward bends or movements with the spine.

Below is a combination of these poses that help with fatigue. You could do the poses in a sequence, although you have to add a few extra poses to move smoothly from one pose into the other. If you are dealing with fatigue it is good to try the poses and see which ones are helpful for you. When you do all poses, you will also do all elements we practice in yoga, forward bend, backward bend, twist, standing poses, seated poses and inversions. The sequence will take you 5 to 10 minutes.

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 breaths 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.

3 poses to deal with insomnia

  • Picture 1: Marjaryasana
    Catpose. Come to your hands and knees. Knees in a 90 degrees angle with your hips, shoulders with the wrists. Inhale, look up and arch your spine. Exhale, look down and round your spine. Do this with a minimum of 5 times.
  • Picture 2: 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 3: Paschimottanasana
    Seated forward bend pose. Sit on the mat. Bring both legs forward. Pull your toes towards you. Inhale bring your arms up and straighten your spine, push your chest forward. Exhale come to a 45 degree angle. Grab where you can, knee, calf muscles, ankles, toes. Inhale straighten your spine again and exhale come forward as far as you can with your back straight. Look towards your knee.

3 poses to create energy

  • Picture 4: Setu Bandha Sarvangasana
    Bridge pose. Lay down on your back, knees are up, feet are hip 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 5: Salabhasana
    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 off the mat. Second time only the legs. And third time both the chest (arms) and the legs.
  • Picture 6: Urdhva Hastasana
    Upward Salute pose. With an inhale come up from Uttanasana. Keep your back straight while coming up. Align the movement and speed of your body with the breath. Bring your palms together over your head and on a next inhale make a small backward bend. If you want you can keep the pose for 2-3 cycles of breath.

3 poses to deal with anxiety

  • Picture 7: Salamba Sarvangasana
    Shoulder stand. Lay down on your back. Palms are facing down on the mat. Bring your knees into your chest. With the force of your hands push your hips off the floor. Place your hands in your back. Straighten your legs upright. Walk your hands closer to your shoulders blades. Stay here; wait until you can breath properly. If gravity is pulling you down, walk your hands closer to your shoulder blades and give yourself a lift. Stay for a minimum of 10 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 8: Uttanasana
    Standing forward bend pose. Hang forward, have your knees slightly bent or straight (your own preference) while holding your elbows or releasing your hand on the floor. 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: Reclining twist
    Reclining twist 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.

9 yoga poses for beginners

Yoga poses for beginners

Everybody that started yoga at some point remembers the constant looking up from your down-dog to see what the yoga teachers has in store for you now. One pose after the other follows and they tell you to focus on your breathing, while doing the poses is enough of a challenge. How do you combine the two, how do you keep on focusing on the one if your mind is completely occupied with the other? And that question is exactly what yoga is about: being able to focus the mind, being able to be present, by focusing on your breath, while your body is moving from one pose in the other.

Imagine that it is a reflection of your real-life, we are constantly distracted by our phone, our colleagues, what happens outside, the doorbell ringing, the mess you made in your house, etc. When we learn to focus, to be fully with the work we are doing, the presentation we make / give, the conversation we are having, you will see the quality of your work and life will change. Conversations get more interesting, the connection with that person intensifies, the presentation went better, the work is done quicker and the plus is that by the end of it all you have more energy left.

The longer you do yoga the more you will also realise that there are a few basic poses, which will convert into more difficult variations. When you begin the trick is to not want too much too soon, to hold back a little, focus on really understanding the basic poses AND know how to connect your breathing to these poses and sequences.

The following sequence is set up so you can practice the basic postures, to understand how they physically feel in your body and to be able to breath well with each pose. That way you will have more attention for your breath and posture when your teacher uses these basic poses in your next class. In this way your practice with the teacher will become even more beneficial for yourself.

The poses you can perform in the order of the pictures, but you can also do them separately. If you do all poses, you will also do all elements we practice in yoga, forward bend, backward bend, twist, standing poses, seated poses and balance. The sequence will take you 5 tot 10 minutes.

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: Balasana
Child’s pose. Sit on your heels. Take both your arms up. Bring your hands in front of you on the mat. Rest your forehead on the mat. Breathe deeply into your belly. Let your body come to a rest.

Picture 2: Urdhva Mukha Savanasana
Upward facing dog pose. Lay down on your belly. Place your hands next to your chest, fingers facing forward. On an inhale, push yourself half way. Then straighten the legs, the knees come of the mat. Next inhale, straighten your arms. Shoulders are straight over your wrists. Look forward or up.

Picture 3: Uttanasana
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 4: 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 sit-bones 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 5: Virabhadrasana I
Warrior 1 pose. Come to the front of your mat, standing. Step backwards with one leg.  Knee is 90 degree over your ankle, hips point forward, arms are up, shoulders are down.

Picture 6: Virabhadrasana II
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 7: Vrksasana
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. Inhale, next exhale bring your arms up, lower your shoulders, palms are facing each other. Minimum of 5 cycles of breath.

Picture 8: Paschimottanasana
Seated forward bend pose. Sit on the mat. Bring both legs forward. Pull your toes towards you. Inhale bring your arms up and straighten your spine, push your chest forward. Exhale come to a 45 degree angle. Grab where you can, knee, calf muscles, ankles, toes. Inhale straighten your spine again and exhale come forward as far as you can with your back straight. Look towards your knee.

Picture 9: Setu Bandha Sarvangasana
Bridge pose. Lay down on your back, knees are up, feet are hip 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.

9 yoga poses to deal with cold weather

Yoga in cold weather

I wrote in my blog last week, yoga in cold weather has a lot of benefits. Especially if you can find the right poses that help you heat up your body, that protect and mobilise the joints, and that help you open your chest and strengthen your air passageways.

The following poses you can do in the order of the picture, you can make it into a sequence or you can cherry pick the ones that help you best. When you decide to make it into a sequence, then start with a short meditation, followed by a breathing exercise (see my previous blog for examples) and end the practice with Savasana (corpse pose).

Some basic rules for all poses in the pictures:

  • 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.
  • 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: Gomukhasana (with arm variation)
    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 up and bring it behind your back. Swing your left arm backwards and try to grab your right hand. If this is not possible, reach as high as you can and grab your shirt with both your left and right hand. On an inhale bring your elbow up and backwards. Place the back of your head against your arm and push your arm (with your head) gently backwards. Do at least 3 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 2: Setu Bandha Sarvangasana
    Bridge pose. Lay down on your back, knees are up, feet are hip 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 3: Halasana
    Plow pose. From the previous pose, shoulderstand, bring your feet down over your head. Make sure it is a controlled movement. Keep your arms in your back. Or if you want, interlace your fingers and stretch your arms out on the mat. If your toes can’t touch the mat, you keep your hands in your back – or you place blocks under your feet. Stay here for a minimum of 5 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 4: Dhanurasana
    Bow pose. Lay down on your belly. Arms beside your body. Bend your knees and reach with your hands backwards to grab your ankles or feet. Forehead is still on the mat (if possible). Inhale into your chest and bring your chest up. Kick with your feet against your hands and give a pressure with your hands on your feet. Try to bring your thighs of the mat. Stay for 3 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 5: Urdhva Mukha Savanasana
    Upward facing dog pose. Lay down on your belly. Place your hands next to your chest, fingers facing forward. On an inhale, push yourself half way. Then straighten the legs, the knees come of the mat. Next inhale, straighten your arms. Shoulders are straight over your wrists. Look forward or up.
  • Picture 6: Ustrasna
    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 7: Eka Pada Rajakapotasana
  • One-legged king pigeon pose. Come to a downward facing dog pose. 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 8: Salamba Sarvangasana
    Shoulder stand. Lay down on your back. Palms are facing down on the mat. Bring your knees into your chest. With the force of your hands push your hips off the floor. Place your hands in your back. Straighten your legs upright. Walk your hands closer to your shoulders blades. Stay here; wait until you can breath properly. If gravity is pulling you down, walk your hands closer to your shoulder blades and give yourself a lift. Stay for a minimum of 10 cycles of breath.
  • Picture 9: Matsyasana
    Fish pose. Lay down on your back. Place your hands under your hips, palms facing down. Breathe into your chest and bring it up. Place the top of your head on the mat. Make sure the weight is on your hips and not on your head. Stay for a minimum of 5 breath cycles.

9 poses for yoga and horse polo: a perfect combination

Yoga for horse polo

As I am writing this blog, I am sitting in a comfortable chair overlooking a polo field, next to me in the stables Argentinian music is blasting out of the radio, while the groomers get the horses ready to play polo. I got the amazing opportunity to teach yoga for one week to a group of horse polo players, at Palo Alto polo club close to Buenos Aires. I did not know that much about the horse sport beforehand, so before I went on my trip I did quite a bit of research: where do the players tend to get sore? Where/ what do they need to stretch? What do they need to improve their riding and game? I found some useful information online, however, not much on the about the combination of yoga and polo, something which goes together perfectly, if you ask me!

So what do you need to work on, and why is doing yoga in combination with horse polo a perfect match?

Horse polo players and horse riders in general have very sore and tight inner thighs, they have sore shoulders and a tight neck and their wrist & lower arms tend to be tight or sore. Besides that they need to work on their core strength to be stable and balanced on the horse. They need to strengthen their quadriceps to be able to stand up while the horse is running and they need to twist the core region of their body and become flexible in this part, to be able to twist and turn to hit the ball and have a better reach.

Yoga can help with all these challenges for polo players. There is a wide variety of poses that help players to get ready for a game or stretch out right after it. Below nine basic poses, that I noticed are the best to do when riding a horse and in particular playing polo.

Twist
Photo 1: Reclining twist
Reclining twist 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.

Loosing up the lower and upper back
Photo 2: Marjaryasana
Catpose. Come to your hands and knees. Knees in a 90 degrees angle with your hips, shoulders with the wrists. Inhale, look up and arch your spine. Exhale, look down and round your spine. Do this with a minimum of 5 times.

Strething of the legs and inner thighs
Photo 3: 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.

Building core muscles
Photo 4: Plank pose
Plank pose. 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. Try to stay here for 5 cycles of breath.

Working the upper back & opening shoulders
Photo 5: Salabhasana
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 off the mat. Second time only the legs. And third time both the chest (arms) and the legs.

Creating balance & strengthening the leg
Photo 6: Vrksasana
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.

Stretching the legs and inner thighs
Photo 7: Utthita Trikonasana
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.

Stretching the back of the leg
Photo 8: Paschimottanasana
Seated forward bend pose. Sit on the mat. Bring both legs forward. Pull your toes towards you. Inhale bring your arms up and straighten your spine, push your chest forward. Exhale come to a 45 degree angle. Grab where you can, knee, calf muscles, ankles, toes. Inhale straighten your spine again and exhale come forward as far as you can with your back straight. Look towards your knee.

Twist
Photo 9: Marichyasana 3
Sage Pose. Sit on the mat, both legs forward and back straight. Bend your right knee and place your heel close to your hips. Have a fist distance between your leg and your heel. Inhale take both your arms up. Twist from your belly button towards the right. Left hand goes on your right knee, bring your right hand behind your back. Twist your head as last, to look over your shoulders. Stay for a minimum of three cycles of breath. Change side.

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.

My 5 favourite yoga books

5 favorite yoga books

 

Often I get asked the question what books I can recommend for yoga. There are so many, so which ones are the best? I am still struggling with this same problem, there are so many I still want to read, go through and see what insights they can give me. But so far, I have a small collection of books which I prefer over the other books I’ve read and studied.

The books are listed in random order, all of them bring something else to the table. So depending on what you’re looking for, these are my favourites.

The Key Poses of Yoga – By Ray Long

This book has a perfect illustration and description on how to perform the key poses in yoga. It shows which muscles you work and it explains how to use them correctly. I also gives insights about how the body functions: what happens when you stretch, how to awake the muscles, how to use the bandhas in the practice and it has an index of the poses discussed in the book.

To me it is a perfect book to look up a pose and figure out if I do it right and how I can improve. I also use it to prepare my classes: how to explain this pose clearly, what are the key pointers to look out for with my students.

Light on yoga – By B.K.S. Iyengar

This thick and elaborate book explains most poses you will perform during your practice. It has pictures of beginners’ poses up till advanced poses. Different from the Ray Long book, here the poses are explained from a yoga theory perspective. So not by showing the muscles and what happens under your skin, but it explains what yoga is. What are the key concepts, the stages in yoga, etcetera. After which it goes in-depth into the explanation and build up of the poses. The technique of each pose is explained in steps followed by the desired effects.

I use this book as a reference for my practice, my classes and as an inspiration to my sequences. It deepens my knowledge. Every time when I open this book, new information is there. Not only because it has so many poses, but also because my understanding of yoga and the poses deepens.

The heart of Yoga ­– By T.K.V. Desikachar

Desikachar is the son of the greatest yoga legend of modern time. So my expectations of this book were high. Rightfully so! If you are a beginner or advanced yoga practitioner, this book really helps you in many situations. When you begin it gives you a solid understanding on how to do yoga, how to connect your movement with the breath and how to do asana’s (postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises). If you are more advanced, it also give great insight in the philosophy of his father, Krishnamacharya. To me, this is a must read for any level yoga practitioner.

How yoga works – By Geshe Michael Roach

This book had been on my shelf for a very very long time. And I did not dare to start it, because it is thick and I felt that I had to be ready to go into a detailed book about how yoga works. But nothing of that fear turned out true. This is a great book which I love to read, over and over again. It is a story, in which yoga is being explained. The yoga sutras are being passed on in a playful way. It gave me the feeling it was ok to not remember everything at once, but to grasp the underlying concepts and ideas behind yoga. Every time I go back to the book, it shows me something new and it makes me realize how much more there is to yoga: how much more I can still learn. And I love it!

The power of now – By Eckhart Tolle

A classic book if you are looking for more understanding about your spiritual path. It doesn’t necessarily write about yoga poses or yoga philosophy, but it does give you an incredible insight in how to be in the now. Why is this important, why do we not live in the now? And what can we do about it.

This is the first book I ever read when I became interested in spirituality or simply just getting to know myself better. It was truly eye-opening at that time and inspiring now. Whenever I re-read this book, the insights are countless.

I hope you enjoy my list of books. I am always looking for inspiration and tips. So if you have any, please feel free to share them!