Supporting the yoga teacher

Death & Mentstruation

Womens Health

Being a woman now: If you are a woman and have a menstrual cycle then trying to force yourself to fit into the manufactured schedule of constant productivity which is set out for us in the modern world proposes a huge obstacle to health.
Trying to fit to the one-size-fits-all schedules that we’re offered will inevitably create tensions that build into physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological wounds.
From my experience as a woman and from listening to many other women’s stories, I hear that menstrual “complaints” are often accepted as the norm and that women should “learn to suffer silently”. I am adamant that these menstrual “complaints” are in fact signals from our bodies to shift to a healthier way of living and signals from nature for our species to change in the way we cohabit this earth.
The modern mind holds the “life-death-life cycle” in two separate and opposing parts.
1st: Life – the good, the prosperous, the natural and productive.
2nd: Death – the evil, the grotesque, the wasteful and the unproductive.
Religion’s separation of heaven and hell has a lot to account for in this warped view that we now collectively uphold. This death-negative assumption is often unspoken, yet its clarity resides everywhere in modern life and governs most of the choices we make in how we live. It affects the health and wellbeing of ourselves as well as that of the whole planet and all of its beings.

Here’s a few examples of unexamined death-negative stories we uphold:
Super-Yang: society values masculine pleasure and strengths over feminine pleasure and feminine strengths.
The terms masculine and feminine here do not mean man/women, rather, I describe the essential polarities of life, yin and yang. It is a common habit to think and name masculine ‘yang’ qualities as strong, and feminine ‘yin’ qualities as weak, even though yin and yang are equal and opposite in power, like two sides of the same coin. For some reason, one is seen as higher as or better than the other.
I imagine this: our super-yang species walking with only one leg, up a very large mountain, carrying a huge amount of baggage, we have blisters on our foot, we’re dehydrated and exhausted but we keep going because somebody, somewhere along the path told us we should.
Why do we comply with this? Because of our unexamined story that death is negative. That to stop, to give in, is perceived as failure or defeat. I am not suggesting that life should be effortless and that we should simply relax, receive and do nothing. Everything takes effort. But the quality of effort we apply and the cycle or system of creation we use to produce things needs serious review and updating!
Intuition:
Scientific rationale devalues the wisdom of instinct, intuition and the senses, regarding them as unreliable sources for knowing. This assumption wipes out some of the most crucial and powerful faculties of being human. A human detached from instinct, impulse, feeling, intuition and sense becomes an unsure, scared and confused human.
Emotion:
Mainstream mind identifies emotion (particularly unpleasant emotions) as a waste of time, an unnecessary human weakness that we are better ridden of in the name of efficiency and production. This banishing and shunning of emotions strips us of our ability to progress through the uncomfortable and to learn from it. It prohibits real productivity and growth. Emotions are also more frequently associated with women, so this submerges women even deeper into the “weaker role”.
Winter:
Capitalism and our consumption-based society aims to rid the world of winter, to eradicate any times where we stop. Stop growing food, stop working, stop doing, stop busy-ing and rest inside. As stopping is a waste of time! This pressure is inhuman. If the apple tree did not shed its leaves and then stop its external activity in winter, it would never again bear fruit. Yet, we expect constant sacrifice, above-and-beyond effort from ourselves and from each other, all year round.
Nature’s cycle:
How can we humans, after thousands of years of evolution in tune with the natural cycles of the world, split ourselves off from them in the view that we are separate and we know better? Yoga invites us to realise union – that all is one, that we are all, not above, not below, just together. Not in front, not behind, but side by side – in union.
I found these unexamined stories to be the major ones held by our culture and after addressing these in my own life, I have come into greater health. This journey into being a woman began for me some years ago now. I suffered severely from my menstrual pain. When I bled it would be so painful that I would drip sweat, vomit, have chronic diarrhoea and normally, in the first four to five hours of my bleed, I would black out from pain and wake up in a heap on my bathroom floor. I would have to cancel everything I was meant to be doing that day, as I would be unable to leave the bathroom. I tried to deal with it myself for some time. The pain persisted for about two years. Around the one year mark I went to the doctor’s and came out crying. When I told my story to a female doctor, who specialised in gynaecology, her advice was to either take painkillers or go on the pill. I made it clear I didn’t want to take any drugs, I wanted to get to the root of the issue. And she told me, almost angrily, to grin and bear it, and stop making such a fuss. She said “it’s normal for women to pass out from pain during menstruation, I know, I run a women’s group on Tuesday nights and many of my women have this complaint. It’s very normal”. I left the doctor’s surgery and burst into tears. I was desperate, somewhere inside me I couldn’t accept the doctor’s words to be true, and I was angry that I didn’t have the knowledge there and then to put her straight.
I lived in East London around a large population from the Islamic community and it got me thinking – why is it that that level of menstrual pain is considered ‘normal’ here? Many answers came up for me, to name a few:
• sexual suppression, sensual guilt, skin sin, sexism.
• repulsion and dirtiness associated with menstruation, the vagina, the labia and the clitoris by religion.
• sexual exploitation of the female form, pressure to be beautiful and perfect, pornography’s mark on what we think sexy is and what form sexual pleasure should take to be ‘good’ – hard, fast, deep, fucking.
• then there is the incessant pressure to be financially and materialistically powerful as a sign of success and status. We mark our value as human beings on this so-called success, and we work ourselves to death to achieve it, even if the journey brings us unhappiness and ill-health.
I took a wild shot that these unexamined stories and ways of living could be affecting me so deeply that I can’t stand up when I menstruate due to pain, and that many other women around me were suffering with a similar wound from our collective social insanity.
I set out on a quest to understand what the bleed was all about and what I might be doing that prohibits my body’s natural healthy tendency. And how I could make changes practically, physically, emotionally and psychologically to transform.
Below is a selection of what I learnt:
The bleed section in your cycle is your inner winter. Like the winter in nature, it is a time of external rest, when energy is drawn in to the core or deep underground for incubation. It’s the time after the harvest of the year’s labour, a time when traditionally we kicked back, put on the fire and rationed our way through the cold with our food stock. A time for conserving energy, dreaming, sharing, resting, and most importantly, a moment to STOP.
I began to put ‘stopping’ into action over the following months, and it made an enormous change to my life. I would take time in the day to just lie down and breathe for 20–40 minutes with no agenda. I transitioned. I started to sink into relaxation at any moment I had free. I learnt how to stop. To simply be. To come close to myself without analysis, criticism or judgement. Just to be with myself as if I was there. There. The place where I strive to be. A mantra I began to work with was “I Cease Doing”. I still use it when I get home after a long day of work.
Cycle tracking:
I never did this, my menstruation was always pretty regular. I didn’t care to know when it was going to be, in fact I wanted to think about it as little as possible until I had to deal with it. When I started tracking, it brought up two things:
First, it enabled me to schedule my life as best as I could around my own cycle. I would book big workshops, shows, talks, and social things around my ovulation where women are most active, external and confident. I would plan a day of rest the day before my bleed began – that’s the last day of my pre-menstrual. This was the most powerful shift for ridding the pain in the bleed. By these simple actions I told my womb “I respect you, I’m listening,” and she reciprocated wholly. During my day of rest I would only eat light, wholesome food, I would step back from my partner, turn off all phones, computers and the like. Roll out a yoga mat, prepare my bolster, essential oils, blocks and props and be really, really good to myself. If this isn’t reason enough to take that time for yourself, then a more peaceful and painless bleed should be.
Second, cycle tracking became the most insightful and knowledgeable process for ongoing self-development. Each month I learnt and continued to learn new things or I gained a clearer understanding of something already uncovered. Tracking enables me to make self-assured decisions for my life. It tells me very quickly what is and what is not beneficial to my life. It gives me clear views of my relations and helps me to identify and own what is mine and what isn’t mine or my responsibility. It edits how I live and helps me constantly reshape my form and direction to step in tune with my highest purpose. It shows me how to be vulnerable, and thus more creative and courageous to try new things. Also, it regularly reaffirms what my highest purpose is and steers my life to fulfilment!

References: Women Who Run With The Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture by Chris Knight.

 

Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015

Yoga and Vogue

Yoga Poetry

Yog was not made for the front page of Vogue
But the star spangled banner tore up Yog’s thrown
The press, pressed on to produce a fashionable rabble
To the super ego’s Joy our inner clarity got scrabbled

Each teacher paraded naked and bendy like a hoar
Yoga officially lost its core
As the outer form took more
Body beauty became the yoga norm

A value system so drenched in status and sex
To want enlightenment we had to rate it XXX
No longer a radical inclusion of all
Yoga became a one-size fits all stall

Purchasing peace in the temple of the not free
Yoga shows became just another shopping spree
Over stimulated till pleasantly sedated enough
To self-administer a ‘I need more’ hand cuff

Investors sat fat counting the score
As they’re claws raked in the prize
But money holds no size
When weighed up against the loss being self realised

Again tricked!

Each pose, got froze and it shows that we forgot
How the soul grows.

Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015

Supporting the yoga teacher

Supporting the yoga teacher

Teaching Yoga

Yoga seems to be very clear and safe from the outside. This is correct pranayama technique and this is incorrect technique. The teacher has the answers and the students seek them. Students often see the teacher as something big. There is trust and they entrust him or her as a guide. It’s a serious role and the teacher must make a clear choice as to how much responsibility to take on. It’s easy for teachers to underestimate the student’s needs for care, love, safety and affirmation from them. It’s also easy for teachers to either act blindly to, or overindulge in, the ways in which students view them – as a caregiver, priest, friend, body specialist, critic, life coach or therapist. Failing to accept or observe their student-teacher relationships stops teachers from furthering their understanding of the student. I feel many yoga teachers are naively seduced by the power and status offered by the role. They may become trapped in playing out a role that fulfils their own needs. Most yoga teachers aspire to create and hold a space where others can work on themselves to become all that they can be. When the yoga teacher is not aware of their own needs – for status, respect, love, validation, praise – they cannot mindfully hold the needs of others.

I can now note the many times in my teaching where I was under the immense power of my own self-criticism, judgement and fear. My own issues were driving the class. When the focus shifted from being about my needs, to being about holding space for students, everyone progressed and teaching was an awakening rather than an exhausting experience. When the teacher can take a supportive passenger seat position, the student relaxes and begins to look inside for the answers to a pose, to a life issue, or to their discomfort. This develops a stable core through feeling, inner listening, reflection, self-inquiry and personal responsibility. This ideal student-teacher constellation is rare. I feel it’s because yoga teachers lack a few key tools:

  1. A clear understanding of self and the ability to identify their own challenges and needs.
  2. Education in transference and countertransference from psychotherapeutic schools of thought to give them the tools to make sense of the powerful projections, feelings and thoughts that they feel when teaching.
  3.  Ongoing support from an external, non-biased supervisor.
  4.  A structured method of reflection, self-inquiry and self-examination.

For the yoga class to reach its target, teachers need to be offered external support to talk about their issues and share how feelings, problems, worries, self-sabotage, paranoia, attraction and doubt crop up in classes. Then, when teaching, they can separate their own story of, for example, “I’m not good enough” from the student’s potential story of “no one is totally trustworthy”. And so they continue to develop personally.

Often, people come to a yoga class with expectation, a very fixed idea of what yoga is and what they expect to receive. Along with a deeper soul calling for something that, at this moment, they can only sniff out on the odd breeze. You, as a teacher, feel their expectation, as well as many other parts of that person’s life, struggles and beliefs. This expectation-story-transference from the student is so forceful that at times in my teaching, I have felt entirely consumed by it. And ended up playing chase the goose all class, bending myself utterly out of shape to fit to what I perceive the other wants. Partly because I was not skilled in seeing the power of the transference at play and also because I wanted to get it right to fulfil my need for being accepted and liked. Interestingly enough, over time, I realised that the expectation that the student brings belongs to their superego and is a far cry from their soul’s authentic longing. The superego is clinging onto old habits and patterns; these are outdated and no longer beneficial for them to use. In fact, their true self (purusha) is hungry, starving even, for the opportunity to bypass these old patterns. A really good yoga teacher would be able to see all those things at play and hold a light to the new way of being that is available for them.

When I stepped back and took support to look at my experience (how I feel) in the yoga room when teaching, I got clarity about where I was and where my students were. This helped me to see what was them (the expectation and force of the student) and what was me (my issues and my core principles on yoga and teaching). This allowed me to keep my personal needs and default positions – to please, to be liked, to be gentle, to avoid conflict – separate from my professional work. This cleaned and sharpened both my ability to hold space and focused the lens through which I see my students. I would not have been able to attain this clarity alone. I took help. I set up confidential peer support meetings where possible. I spoke to a psychotherapist to offer supervision on particularly tough student-teacher relations and to assist me to work out my own issues (we all have them). I also listened in on my teacher’s classes and courses, whose years of experience were invaluable.

Recognising I needed support and finding that support would have been a darned site easier if the yoga teaching world had already had in place a system for teacher supervision. A standard debrief where one could go with teaching questions, worries and concerns. We could learn a lot from other professions where supervision and reflection is given an imperative place, so as to ensure continuing development and high standards. Often, without an external, non-biased person to talk things through with, it is really hard to get a clear grasp on a situation and to improve it.

For now, if you are a yoga teacher, set up a peer support group with other teachers, find a coach or therapist open to offering supervision and I promise that you and your work will develop exponentially when you take the support you need and deserve.

Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015.

Talking in the yoga class

Teaching Yoga

Some yoga styles like Mysore limit words to an absolute minimum. Other yoga teachers can be very expressive, metaphoric and descriptive, as in Scaravelli yoga. Hatha yoga can often include philosophy, echoing quotes from sacred texts like the Yoga Sutras. The way a teacher uses words is very personal to them.

Students are generally silent to support the inward direction of attention. Students only speak when they are totally lost between right hip and left hand, or really curious about the alignment of a pose.

On the whole I think this quietness is great and blissful! In fact, I imagine this peaceful quietness is one of the main reasons people come to yoga studios instead of busy gyms full of TV screens and loud music. For me, asana practice is an invitation to return to a pre-cognitive state, to feel and sense on a bodily level rather than to think and analyse from the mind.

At the same time, as a yoga teacher, I observe that after almost every class I teach, I have between one and five people waiting for me with questions. And often it’s not really the question they want answering, more so it seems they just want time to speak. I witness that many students need to share something of their inner world and inner struggles. There is a pronounced impulse to speak in a non-causal manner, on an emotional, psychological or spiritual level. This impulse comes from an innate wisdom, where we know that two minutes speaking openly and being heard without judgement is healing.

There is not time for an in-depth conversation in a yoga class and it is not the main focus of yoga. An overuse of words, I feel, would ruin the yoga class. Also, yoga teachers are not counsellors or psychotherapists and sliding into that field would only blur the clear, safe frame that yoga offers.
At the same time, yoga is steeped in the mind-body connection which suggests that the thoughts and unexamined assumptions that we hold about ourselves affect our biochemistry and impact our endocrine system, organs, immune system, nervous system, cells and molecules. In a very simple way, if one thinks negatively of their vagina, stomach or bowels, then those organs and cells will absorb the negative thoughts and regenerate with that negative structure in mind.

This mind-body connection is, and has been, proudly celebrated in yoga as an integral part of its science. But do we really engage with the mind-body connection as fully as we could? And would a little space for words help us develop? Talking is one of many paths that lead from the outer into the inner world. The words we use to describe ourselves, our bodies and our feelings are very telling of our own internal environment and dialogue. Talking also helps us to clearly lay out inner conflicts and dilemmas in order to gather new perspectives.

Look at it this way, if you compare what it requires to chop down a tree by yourself using only one tool, to chopping it down with three tools and a friend’s help, the latter method would be much quicker and easier and it would probably be more enjoyable too. This is why I believe creating a set time for speaking openly in the yoga class is worth considering. It adds another tool to the kit.

Space to talk and be heard is a vital component of human development. In our world of individualism and anti-dependence, people are becoming more and more isolated and lonely. This component of speaking from the heart and being heard without judgement is trailing off into the background with many of our other abandoned cultural inheritances.

Here’s a way to picture the effect talking may have in a yoga class.
Physically in asana, the student has tight hips, pelvis and lower back pain. They let the teacher know on starting yoga that they are having ongoing issues with menstruation and fertility, and that is why they have chosen to practise. Then, through structured speaking during the session, they realise that they hold the belief that sensual pleasure is sinful, and see that feeling satisfied is unbearable for them.

Now, this is a very clear map (mind, body and heart). It is far clearer than just body‚ the student has tight hips, pelvis and lower back. From this fuller map, the student and the teacher can cultivate an accurate practice on and off the mat, to assist transformation in the body, heart, mind and spirit so as to heal.

When speaking from the heart in a safe, non-judgmental, compassionate space, a lot of healing work happens mentally, emotionally, and of course, physically. That, married with the physical practice of asana, pranayama and meditation, is like a fast track to self-knowing and healing.

 

Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015

Effective and ineffective application of yoga

Yoga Practice

Yoga, like any other tool, can be used effectively or ineffectively. I observe that a large percentage of people drawn to practise yoga are control freaks, and I include myself in that. Yoga’s precision, accuracy and self-control waft a fake world of safety and sense of ‘I’m in total control’, and this lures control-seekers in. But we are only human; we are not in total control of what happens in our lives or in the world. We do have the power to choose and respond, but we do not control what may come or how our responses may be received. I don’t even believe we can control how we feel about something. I am constantly taken by surprise by my emotional responses to life. We are mysterious creatures, living in a mysterious world.

As a species, we really like to be able to understand that things ‘happened because of this’. When we cannot account for something in this way, we fall away at the seams, especially when it personally affects us. Like when something unfair happens; a young, innocent child dies tragically before its parents. Or when someone has a tragic accident and is left paralysed from the neck down and has their quality of life stripped from them. Or when a woman gets breast cancer despite a lifelong dedication to being healthy, conscious, active and loving. In these scenarios we touch the edges of despair and are shaken to the core because it’s unfair and unaccountable. No one can give a good enough answer as to why it happened. Even the knowledge that ‘life isn’t fair’ doesn’t satisfy us. Yoga can be used ineffectively when its veneer of safety and control attracts the weak part of us all that is unable to handle the mystery and insecurity of life. This veneer leads us to believe we can master our bodies, minds, hearts, health and spirits and thus live harmoniously in a constant state of peace, undisturbed by the daily wobbles of life. This is not true! It’s pseudo yoga appealing to the scared part of us that can’t bear change or vulnerability. For some people change may actually be structure and regularity.

We all have comfortable and uncomfortable stations. I see a lot of people using the tool of yoga as a way to steer away from the uncomfortable and prohibit change. And I think to myself, ‘you’re missing the gold’. The ability to calm, ground, direct, focus, create space and clarity is a tool to assist you in facing and dancing with the uncomfortable. It is not a rug to slide over the mess or a concealer to hide the spot. The pleasant effects of yoga practice can seduce us into stagnation and repetition. I wonder, as a teacher, when I see my students use the yoga axe as a saw, what can I do to assist them? How can I encourage them to effectively engage with this powerful practice to transform and live all that they are?

Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015

Back Bends

Yoga Practice

Many people are scared of back bends. In classes, I often see people with “no, not back bends” written all over their faces. This aversion is not because the human body doesn’t enjoy moving the chest and spine in a backwards bend. Rather it’s because most of us hold our bodies in the opposite position all week. Slumped, concaved and depressed. This forward-slumped computer/mobile phone stance is so strong in our current generations and is appearing in the bodies of younger and younger people. Yoga shows us that our bodies are not separate from the mind-heart-spirit. The body is basically a map of our internal and external worlds. Marking, logging and habituating itself to mirror how we are, bridging our inner and outer worlds. So, what could our slumped 21st century stance and aversion to bending back be trying to communicate to us? That we hold our heart back from the world, that we are not proud to stand tall, that we are scared to open ourselves and be seen for all that we are? That we are depressed? In grief, closed, introverted? That we have fallen into the myth of separation and believe we are alone and disconnected from those around us? As you read this now, you may have begun to mark how you are holding your body, the position of your spine, neck, chest, shoulders. Have a little play at slumping forwards, collapsing around your chest and letting your head slide forwards as you read this screen. Now ask yourself, how does this make me feel? Are there any emotions this provokes, any thoughts? Is this a common feeling for me? Now shift, bring awareness to the back of your spine, and let it lengthen. Now a more in-depth check for your alignment – take this slowly, step by step and play around with how these adjustments suit your body. Gently find the home of your chin where the front of the throat and back of the neck are equally long, let your head float up like a balloon and your tail bone root down to the earth to lengthen your lower back. Now slide the front bones of your shoulders a tiny amount back, let the shoulder blades rest flush onto the back, allow the collarbone to broaden and make space at the base of your neck. And then tilt your breastbone ever so slightly up to the sun as your lower floating ribs slide in towards your spine. Now ask, how does this make me feel? Are there any emotions this provokes, any thoughts? Is this a common feeling for me? Cultivating an open-hearted stance is so important for all levels of our being.

Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015

How stress can benefit your life

Yoga Practice

To attain yoga – a union with self and life – we must first at least learn to listen and respond to the needs of our body. Too often we ignore our bodies. I understand this ignorance as a result of being told from a young age that going without and denying our body its requests is a good and rightly thing to do, somehow believing that our bodies’ needs are sinful temptations that should not be succumbed to. Some old texts of yoga could even be interpreted in such a way as to promote this belief. So we push and work and strive onwards, regardless of the headaches, IBS, back pain, menstrual cramps, indigestion, impotence and breathlessness, because that’s the done thing. Most people exist in a high level of stress and believe that it’s a healthy norm.

We have somehow been led to believe that giving in to what our bodies need (essentially what ‘we’ need) and desire is bad, selfish and indulgent. Sayings like “don’t smile too much, you’ll break it”, “can’t it wait?”, “who do you think you are, the queen?” and “don’t be a wuss” are clear examples of this.
It’s as if culturally, we believe that when we are struggling, stressed, anxious and tirelessly striving and fighting to be perfect (perfect meaning without needs), then we are good and life is as it should be.
But, it is impossible to be without needs; in trying to be without needs what we actually do is starve ourselves, we malnourish ourselves. And this creates a circle of yet more stress. Daily, we deny our bodies’ needs to eat organically, to sleep enough, to receive touch, to rest, to move, to fulfil dreams, to orgasm, to dance, to sing, to express, to be angry, to cry and many more, because “there isn’t time”, or “I can’t”, or even “I shouldn’t”. In denying our bodies’ needs we actually confuse our body-mind relationship. Eventually, this cutting-off from our body, the seat of our intuition, instinct and emotional intelligence, will lead to ill-health.
I often observe in friends, students and myself that when we ignore our bodies’ signals, the body will only go on to give us bigger and bigger signals. What began as a small one-off panic attack when Jean rushed between work and the shops, after months of being ignored-repeated-ignored, became a three-week migraine and long-lasting depression. This one-off panic attack went on to become a chronic problem, as adequate attention and lifestyle changes were not made to better suit her real needs. We all have examples of this scenario in our own lives. And yet, we still often continue to ignore-repeat-ignore. This is mostly because we’ve been taught that we are too busy and that other stuff is far more important and immediate than these horrid feelings! So we’ll just push them aside with all the others that we or our parents have previously pushed aside and make an empty promise to deal with them later.
I can see in the older generations of my own family that the ‘later’ keeps being pushed further and further back until eventually dementia or cancer set in and an overspill of everything that was not given attention pours out from the back storage, flooding the present. Because of this backlog that you may already have when you first start listening to your body and gut, it may not be one hundred per cent clear what it is that your body is telling you. This is because there may be a lot of stuff in the ‘queue’ and because you have thus far been ignoring it or telling your body that it’s wrong or weak. But with time and ongoing attention, you will create a clear and trusting inner dialogue. The practice of yoga quickens this process of coming in touch with the self. Yoga works from many angles at once – mind, body, breath, voice, heart and spirit, which accelerates your process of self-knowing. It’s sort of like cleaning an extremely dirty surface, if you just go at it with a sponge and some water you will do it eventually. But if you take a scourer, a brush, cloth, liquid soap, lemon and a friend or two then you will get there a lot quicker.

To become aware of this inner guidance system we first need to begin to trust our feelings. Our gut is the home of our feelings, emotions, instincts and intuition. Stress and anxiety manifest here also. This area is the part of our body that developed first within the womb. This ‘brain’, also known as the second, abdominal brain or enteric nervous system, operates independently from the brain in our head and ninety-five per cent of the body’s serotonin is made here in the gastrointestinal tract. Modern science is now telling us how important this area is for our whole health and intelligence. When we feel stressed or anxious it’s a natural, healthy signal that is trying to help us realise what does and does not benefit us. So, instead of thinking of it as a weakness revealing your unhealthy inner mutiny, try taking time to feel and listen to the signals your gut sends you when arranging that next meeting, or trip, or date or visit. And let it guide you. It is surprisingly accurate. I see in your gut a barometer that lies dormant waiting for you to find it. A barometer is a scientific instrument used to measure atmospheric pressure; it can forecast short-term changes in the weather. Your gut can measure pressure too – emotional, environmental and relational pressure – and forecast what may or may not be a beneficial action for you to take or situation for you to be in. If you then choose to respond to that information with aligned action, your life will become fuller, easier, more peaceful and less stressful. Your body and emotions will guide you out of painful and unhelpful situations to ones that truly support and fulfil you.

A few tips to begin listening.

Mostly trust that the body is responding with an emotional and/or physical reaction because it has your best interests at heart. And then follow its lead. Listen and respond to the basic needs of the body:

  1. When you are tired, rest. If you feel tightness or tension, stretch and move. If you’re hungry, eat, if you are thirsty, drink, if you’re in panic, breathe deeper and if you need the toilet, go.
  2. If you have a symptom of illness, listen to it and give it your attention. If you are sick, take rest and support from a holistically-minded doctor, nutritionist or therapist.
  3. Express your mood. When you are feeling joyous and excited, allow yourself to express it. Do the same if you are angry or frustrated.
  4. Honesty in relationships. If you need to put somebody straight and speak your truth, then find a way to do it.
  5. Observing patterns and honouring them as guides – if you feel sick every time you go to work and always come home feeling exhausted, maybe that job’s not the right one for you.
  6. Take action – make and take positive baby steps to improve a situation that is not serving you. Adjust your working schedule. Set boundaries with your loved ones so you have more space for you. Explore other career options. Tell your partner you want to have children. Start a yoga class every Monday night. And so on.

 

 

Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015

Yoga Uterus

Womens Health

I rarely hear yoga teachers name the uterus or womb and its neighbours (the vagina, ovaries and cervix) in classes. Yet women with these organs account for 90% or more of those people in most yoga classes. It seems that culturally, we just don’t rate the importance of these parts unless they are carrying out a reproductive function. This is something which I find odd as most women are really keen to know more about menstruation when an opportunity is presented. Culturally, we also believe this area is innately problematic and expect it to need medical intervention. The natural body function of labour has become increasingly medicalised and passive, as if the female body is not designed to labour without scientific aid and assistance. Yoga was traditionally male-focused and neglected women in its documentation. But it is now filling the uterine hole in its science, firmly supported by Ayurveda and the millions of female practitioners around the world exploring yoga from a feminine perspective. Here are a few things you may not have known about the uterus:

  • The uterus has many more remarkable functions than just reproduction!
  • It carries out essential immune functions and plays a role in endocrine functions.
  • Moola bandha and uddiyana bandha are too strong for most women to safely practice during both menstruation and ovulation.
  • It produces prostacyclin that prevents blood clotting and heart disease.
  • Uterine orgasm is described as a mind-blowing bliss or profound emotional and spiritual connection.
  • The uterus is acknowledged as a main player in our evolution as a species, when the creation of the placenta enabled a longer gestation period so that we could develop larger brains.
  • The uterus has some of the strongest muscles in the body.
  • The outer serosa (a membrane that attaches to the ligaments and fascia to keep the uterus in its position) supports the entire structural integrity of the pelvis and spine.
  • The womb has been found to produce anandamide, another pleasure-invoking chemical, likened to cannabis and dark chocolate. This name originates from the Sanskrit word ‘ananda’, meaning ‘bliss’.

These scientific understandings of the uterus validate its importance and the holistic nature of the human body, showing once again how everything is interconnected and interdependent. To look after the health of the uterus, we firstly need to give it some attention. To help this shift, teachers can name and bring awareness to the uterus in yoga classes and workshops. We can send our internal focus to our womb in our home practice and discuss its role and power amongst female and male friends or partners.

Here’s ten simple steps you can take to balance out your biochemical communication and improve your uterine health:

  1. Connect with the sensation of your uterus on a daily basis (look at a biology diagram – it’s really helpful to be clear about your own uterine placement in the beginning).
  2. Create positive life-affirming beliefs about your uterus and sexual organs.
  3. Reduce stress through making practical changes, try creating your schedule in a way that is mindful of your menstrual cycle, for example, rest at menstruation, plan gatherings and important meetings around ovulations, take time for reflecting and encourage compassion in the self-critical times around pre-menstruation, take slow simple steps without rushing back to the fast pace in pre-ovulation……
  4. Commit to a regular hatha, yin, female or womb yoga, meditation or conscious breathing practice.
  5. Join a red tent – www.redtentdirectory.com
  6. Listen and respond to your body’s needs for food, sleep, touch, sex, rest, expression, silence, etc.
  7. Give and receive regular loving touch.
  8. Decrease your contact with toxins and synthetic hormones (buy organic, eco-friendly everything! It’s good for your body and the body of the earth).
  9. Fit a water filter or order reusable 15-litre spring water dispensers to your home
  10. Do less external stuff and learn to ‘let go’.

If you’re interested in researching uterine health beyond this article, my main resources are these five amazing books:

1) Women’s bodies Women’s wisdom by Christiane Northrup, 2)The Uterine Health Companion by Eve Agee, 3)Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World by Judy Grahn and Charlene Spretnak, 4)Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture by Chris Knight, 5)The Woman’s Quest by Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo.

I would like to thank these authors for their profound contributions to modern science, philosophy, spirituality and women’s health.

 

Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015

The Psoas and playfulness

Yoga Practice

During the last few years of my Yoga sharing’s, I came across an interesting observation. It seemed apparent that people who had very open hips and lower back tended to be naturally more playful, creatively free, and some what calmer/more trusting about life. So I wondered what muscle is mostly involved in the spine to hip connection. The main culprit would be our Psoas muscle. This is the deepest muscle of the human body. On beginning my research I already new that the psoas affects; mobility, structure, flexibility, strength, and even our organs. What I didn’t know was the emotional hold it can also have over us.

The Psoas initiates at both sides of the spine, and spans from the 12th thoracic vertebrae down to both of the 5th lumbar vertebrae. From there it travels through the abdominal core, to the pelvis, where it attaches to the top of the thighbone.

It is the only muscle to connect the spine to the legs.  Without it we would not walk or stand upright. A healthy psoas creates stable ground to hold our vital organs located in the abdominal core. When the Psoas is tight or constricted the freedom and ease of movement in our spine to hip connection is seriously prohibited. A tight unhealthy Psoas is the breeding ground for low back pain, sciatica, hip problems, knee pain, disc problems, menstruation pain, infertility, and even digestive problems like IBS to name a few.

A free mobile healthy Psoas seems to not only give the benefits of mobility and physical comfort but it also supports a free, more playful and calmer way of being. I got to wonder, well, why is that?

I discovered that the psoas also connects to the diaphragm through connective tissue or fascia which affects our breath and our capacity to feel fear. Both the psoas and the facia can hold tensions that effect not only the muscle and its movements, but also our emotional balance and calmness. Our psoas is the connector between the pelvis and the brain it guides that connection and supports it. You could see the spoas as ‘a bridge’ between your rational and instinctual capacities.

Most importantly I found out that the psoas is connected to what we call your abdominal brain. Your abdominal brain is also known as your Enteric Nervous System, named by John Newport Langley. It can be simply described as the emotional centre of your body. It is in control of Digestion and emotions arise from this place. It is made up of a huge network of nerves; It has the same density of nerves as the spinal cord and the same amount of neuro transmitters as the brain. And it works independently of the top brain. It can actually survive if the head brain dies. Where as if your abdominal brain dies then the brain in your head will also die as the essential functions of the body cannot be carried out.

It’s nice to imagine that you have your head brain at the top of the spinal column and your gut brain at the bottom. Which is exactly what yoga works with in the chakra system which top and tails the shusumna nadi/central spinal column.

What this also means is that emotions are connected in with the psoas through the fascia and nerves. When you feel fear or guilt in your abdominal brain that e-motion. Energy-in-motion travels through the nerves in the psoas to the spinal column and then to the brain. Your psoas in this exchange is acting like a courier from the abdominal brain to the central nerves system sending the emotional-information to your brain. Now if your spoas is healthy and free and the nadis are open and spacious and full of prana/vitality, then, the information transmitted to your brain will be accurate and have clarity. If however your psoas is unhealthy, tight and cramped then the information will be unclear and you will most likely feel emotional discomfort in the process of couriering this information from down to up.

So when you have very open hips and lower back (psoas) you are more easily playful, creatively free, and even somewhat calmer or more trusting about life. Because the emotions that appear in your abdominal brain due to everyday living are transmitted freely with clarity and ease through your oh so healthy psoas to your brain. Without incurring pain or discomfort and subsequently more fear. Fear is the emotion that stops us from playing with the unkown, from being creatively free. Fear is the feeling that prohibits a calm life. And stops us from learning new things. Most young children have very little fear, and you know if you have ever spent time watching a young child play that she/he has something to really teach you about joy and fascination with the world in and out.

I believe the common diagnosis of IBS could be better understood as; ‘trapped or pushed down emotional energy held within the psoas and abdominal brain.’ If we had the courage and patience to breath down into this tight area, then to let the emotions flow up as we exhale so as to experience them. We could release them into wisdom and part of our integrated being. Our psoas would be more relaxed and out emotional clarity would be increased. Luckily for us yoga works both ways. So dealing with the emotional stuff on a feeling level is too much to begin with we could also practice a range of, back-to-hip opening asana for gentle release of this physical tension.

I feel when stretching the psoas in asana more than ever Soma is needed. Soma is defined as “the body experienced from within.” When we practice asana in this internally attentive way it is a powerful and effective process that admits the natural intelligence of the body to facilitate healing and transformation. Liz Knoch puts it well “to work with the psoas is not to try to control the muscle, but to cultivate the awareness necessary for sensing its messages. This involves making a conscious choice to become somatically aware. L. Koch”

Often all our ailments want is – Our Attention, so they can heal. Attention is like the sunlight on a plant encouraging it to grow into its fullest form. For me yoga is 99.9% ATTENTION. Attention is where the medicine lives. So go practice now and attend to your psoas, tend to yourself.

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015

The right answer

Yoga Practice

People tend to feel very happy when there is a clear right and wrong. A clearly-marked boundary holds safe ground on which we humans can relax. We love knowing ‘I do my trikonasana like this and its right, I do my trikonasana like this and it’s wrong’.

As a yoga teacher, you want to offer the right/wrong safety advice to your students and most students are expecting to learn what is correct and incorrect from you. But how can you know what is right and wrong for a unique human being? You can’t know.

For sure, there are basic human similarities, and a good understanding of the asana, pranayama and meditation are wise tools for any yoga teacher. Every student who walks through your classroom door is utterly unique and it will take a lifetime for them, let alone you, to really understand who they are. Perhaps, as a teacher, your job is not to tell them what is correct, rather it is to encourage them to feel comfortable with not knowing, and through that, help them to explore, find and tune their own inner knowing, so that they can really see their bodies and selves.

A teacher can begin this style of exchange by saying “I don’t know” more often. In doing this, you hand the responsibility for finding the answer back to the student. This is not an easy thing to do since you, as the teacher, are supposed to be the one with the answers.

I know myself the fear of saying “I don’t know” in front of students when asked a straightforward question. It’s hard, it used to leave me feeling small, impotent and bad at my job.
But once I made a conscious choice to celebrate saying “I don’t know”, it encouraged students to feel comfortable not knowing how to do something themselves. When previously a student would be resistant or feel unable when they were not ‘good’ at something, they can instead feel joy in being on the precipice of expanding.

I originally trained as an actor and it was enlightening to watch others, and to experience myself, battling with the unknown every time I stepped up to share my work in front of the company or director. My petrified superego would clutch at straws hoping for a clear answer to whether what I did was good or bad. If my offering was received as good, my superego would then try to create a formula for future repetition and safety.
Who is really to say whether what an actor or artist offers is good or bad? There are many reviewers and critics who try to do exactly this but in the end, it is totally subjective and unquantifiable. This unordinary, irregular, unquantifiable quality is – Human Nature – and it’s precious. The bravery of someone who embraces total abandon to share themselves entirely, despite the deep fear of getting it wrong or not being accepted, is potent. The ‘I do it anyway’ leaves an audience in awe, a student inspired, a loved one’s heart melted. We humans are incredible. And generalised correct/incorrect rules for the personal process of sadhana (spiritual path/practice) is not conducive to growing out our unique self.

If the focus of a yoga class was on what was accurate for each individual, could the teacher let go of the correct/incorrect status stick? Not knowing if something is right leaves us in the unknown, a scary place in which we have the chance to develop. But often teachers are not willing, practised or able to go there, so progress halts. Why are we so resistant to not knowing?

Our culture holds not knowing as a weakness and a sign of low status. “Don’t you know?” or “I can’t believe you didn’t know that” are common phrases. Not trying to have an answer leaves us totally open to the present moment. Naivety and not knowing are strong gifts, they enable us to see, receive and experience the whole of something without a habituated response or defence getting in the way. Similarly, when we stop trying and forcing in our asana or pranayama practice and rather feel, slow down and enquire more, it is then that the big realisations happen. The penny dropping ‘Ah-ha!’ falls in on our heads because we stepped out of our linguistic cognitive intelligence and into our sensorial body wisdom.

Happy not knowing!

Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015

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