Standing Your Ground: Working with Muladhara Chakra

muladhara chakra grounding yoga with nicci

Our basic survival issues involving trust, health, nourishment, family, money and appropriate boundaries lie within the muladhara chakra – the root chakra. This energy center is close to the earth, helping us feel grounded and safe. It involves our right to be here and, when balanced, we feel comfortable in our bodies, we are able to trust and be still, we enjoy stability and we are able to face the world fearlessly.

The howling wind that was our constant companion during a recent trip I did to the Karoo left me feeling hugely unsettled and ungrounded. Hence, I did some things traditionally associated with balancing the root chakra:

1. Wore red
2. Got out into nature and close to the earth
3. Used some calming essential oil (lavender)
4. Breathed myself into stillness in four grounding asana.

I know I look like I’m having a boskak in malasana and the lavender does make me smell a bit like my granny, but I feel better now.

This post is especially for those of you that had questions on our recent retreat about how to work with the root chakra. Let me know if you have any questions. Always happy to chat.

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Easing into a Seated Forward Fold

forward fold yoga with nicci.jpg

With a name like ‘intense stretch of the west’, how could you not love this asana? If you have super-tight hamstrings, that’s how.

We had a question come up in our recent retreat (post to follow) about how to ease into this pose if it’s currently a distant dream. Here are some steps to slowly get you there (tip: use a strap, a cushion, a partner):

Paschimottana (pashima = west, uttana = intense stretch)

Step 1 – Sit on the floor with your buttocks supported on a folded blanket and your legs straight in front of you. Press actively through your heels. Rock slightly onto your left buttock, and pull your right sitting bone away from the heel with your right hand. Repeat on the other side. Turn the top thighs in slightly and press them down into the floor. Press through your palms or finger tips on the floor beside your hips and lift the top of the sternum toward the ceiling as the top thighs descend.

Step 2 – Draw the inner groins deep into the pelvis. Inhale, and keeping the front torso long, lean forward from the hip joints, not the waist. Lengthen the tailbone away from the back of your pelvis. If possible take the sides of the feet with your hands, thumbs on the soles, elbows fully extended; if this isn’t possible, loop a strap around the foot soles, and hold the strap firmly. Be sure your elbows are straight, not bent, if possible.

Step 3 – When you are ready to go further, don’t forcefully pull yourself into the forward bend, whether your hands are on the feet or holding the strap. Always lengthen the front torso into the pose, keeping your head raised. If you are holding the feet, bend the elbows out to the sides and lift them away from the floor; if holding the strap, lighten your grip and walk the hands forward, keeping the arms long. The lower belly should touch the thighs first, then the upper belly, then the ribs, and the head last. For some people, the belly will never reach the thighs and that’s okay. Just do what you can and keep breathing and softening the belly.

Step 4 – With each inhalation, lift and lengthen the front torso just slightly; with each exhalation release a little more fully into the forward bend. In this way the torso oscillates and lengthens almost imperceptibly with the breath. Eventually you may be able to stretch the arms out beyond the feet on the floor.

Step 5 – Stay in the pose anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes. To come up, first lift the torso away from the thighs and straighten the elbows again if they are bent. Then inhale and lift the torso up by pulling the tailbone down and into the pelvis.

To make this deep forward fold more accessible, many people find it helpful to sit up on a folded blanket in this pose, and most beginners need to hold a strap around the feet. Extremely stiff students can place a rolled up blanket under their knees.

If you are comfortable in this pose and want to deepen it even further, once you are fully in the forward bend you can re-extend the elbows. There are several ways to do this. You can clasp your hands around the soles of the feet, or turn the back of one hand to the soles and grip its wrist with the other hand. You can also place a block against the soles of your feet and grip its sides with your hands.

Never force yourself into a forward bend, especially when sitting on the floor. Coming forward, as soon as you feel the space between your pubis and navel shortening, stop, lift up slightly, and lengthen again. Often, because of tightness in the backs of the legs, a beginner’s forward bend doesn’t go very far forward and might look more like sitting up straight.

Benefits

Calms the brain and helps relieve stress and mild depression

Stretches the spine, shoulders, hamstrings

Stimulates the liver, kidneys, ovaries, and uterus

Improves digestion

Helps relieve the symptoms of menopause and menstrual discomfort

Soothes headache and anxiety and reduces fatigue

Therapeutic for high blood pressure, infertility, insomnia, and sinusitis

Traditional texts say that Paschimottanasana increases appetite, reduces obesity, and cures diseases.

Partnering

A partner can help you release your lower back in this pose. Have your partner stand behind you facing your back. Perform the pose, then have your partner press his/her hands against your lower back and pelvis. The hands should be turned so the fingers point towards your tailbone. Remember though that the pressure isn’t to push you deeper into the forward bend; rather, gentle pressure (parallel to the line of the back) encourages the back spine and tailbone to lengthen away from the torso. Extend the front torso against this downward action.

Variation

If you’ve tried all the above and it’s still not happening for you, you can flip yourself over and try Urdhva Mukha (urdhva = upward; mukha = face) Paschimottanasana

Lie on your back, exhale, and bend your knees into your torso. Then inhale and extend the heels toward the ceiling. Slowly, on an exhalation, swing your feet toward the floor above your head. You may or may not be able to reach all the way to the floor. Try not to let the back of the pelvis lift very far from the floor—this is an upside-down version of Paschimottanasana, not Salamba Sarvangasana or Halasana.

Let me know if these tips help!

Source: http://www.yogajournal.com

Bandha what?

bandhas

An important component of yoga, the bandhas are primarily meant to serve our yogic practice. They are often misunderstood and so have a certain sense of mystery floating around then, when actually it’s all pretty straightforward, once you know the basics. I’ll try to unpack these guys here a little bit in an attempt to make them more accessible and to take your practice to the next level.

If you have been coming to my and Victoria’s yoga classes, you have probably been using them perhaps without realizing it, as we often cue them in class to guide our students into better alignment and help prevent injuries. Indeed, the physical practice of the bandhas utilizes co-activation of muscles and physical movements that ensure better alignment in postures and protect us from strain and injury.

More importantly, the bandhas, also known as energy locks, serve as valves that control energy, irrigate the channels of energy, and activate, replenish and balance the flow of prana throughout the body. While practicing, we observe energetic patterns beyond our physical form in the energy body.

So how does it work?

When you activate a bandha, the energy flow in a specific part of the body is blocked. When the bandha is released, this allows the energy to flow powerfully through the body and increases pressure. Asana creates bandha and bandha serves the breath and the breath is the vehicle for prana.

There are three classic bandhas: mulabandha, uddiyana bandha, and jalandhara bandha. They can be practiced together or individually during kriya, asana, pranayama, mudra, visualization, and meditation. When practiced together they are called tri-bandha, maha bandha or the fabulously named “Great Lock” (Maha in Sanskrit means ‘great’ or ‘supreme’ and Bandha means a lock – this term is the one used in the yogic texts Hatha Yoga Pradeepika, Gheranda Samhita and the Siva Samhita). 

The question came up on our recent retreat as to why one would isolate the bandhas – a great question which I’m not sure I know the official answer to, but my understanding is that you would initially just use one or the other of the classic locks, and only at the point that you have mastered it/them would you move on to using all three at once. Does that help? Does anyone have a better answer or explanation?

So, the next time you hear the word bandha bandied about in a yoga class, you will know that it’s an instruction to focus on your internal energy and on harnessing this energy within the body. Start practicing slowly, please ask as many questions as you may have, and please let me know how you find it benefits your practice.

For a detailed breakdown of the three classic locks, you may wish to check out this lovely clear explanation of each.

Source: http://www.intuitiveflow.com

Image: Brenda Medina, http://www.brendayoga.tumblr.com

 

5 Reasons Why Your Teen Should Be Doing Yoga

teens..I sometimes wonder how I would have turned out if I had actively started practicing yoga when I was in my teens, and specifically after being raped at the already-mixed up age of 14.

Perhaps, instead of stealing wine from my folks’ booze cupboard and bunking high school to drink it on the banks of the Eersterivier, or on the stoep of one of my dad’s engineering students’ digs, I would have tapped into my hurting heart me, and found a healthier way of making sense of my confused and supercharged emotions.

Perhaps I would have learnt how futile it is to compare my body shape / size / dimensions to my peers or the girls in the magazines or (these days) social media, to stop viewing myself as lacking, and making friends with myself – inside and out.

Perhaps I would have found the connection with others that I craved instead of isolating myself and numbing my loneliness with alcohol.

Perhaps I would have learnt earlier on what it means to really love yourself before you can love anyone else. That you can’t expect someone else to fill in your gaps or fix your broken pieces if you don’t even know what they are or how to find them.

Perhaps I would have held out for the super cool dude at school who I really fancied instead of settling for one with dirty nails and skanky flakes on his shirt collar. Maybe I would have put a higher price on myself, not selling myself short or thinking I wasn’t worth being adored and cherished.

Perhaps I would have realized earlier on the extent to which I had disassociated from my body, and perhaps I would have found the tools to self-soothe and work with my broken self and heal instead of trying to pretend there was nothing wrong.

Perhaps I would have avoided walking down that terrifying dark road of addiction after repeatedly teaching myself that it was possible to bypass uncomfortable feelings, and learned to sit with the discomfort instead, and grow from it, in the same way that a lotus grows out of the mud.

As that old song goes, ‘perhaps, perhaps, perhaps’.

What’s the point in wondering? I didn’t ‘find’ yoga until I was at varsity, even though it was always there in my life through my mum or my granny, who were yoginis through and through. And because of the various things that slowed me down in my process of self-discovery and my journey towards wholeness, you could say that I’m a seriously late bloomer, but better late than never, right?!

Nevertheless, it’s got me thinking about how strongly I feel that teenagers may benefit from getting into yoga sooner rather than later. I have a real soft spot for teenage girls, maybe because I was one and I know how hard it can be. I also happen to know a bunch of really cool teenage girls right now, daughters of my friends and family, who I am holding in my mind and my heart as I think about why I would like to start offering these classes in the third term this year.

Let me elaborate.

Scientific and experiential evidence proves many of yoga’s well established benefits. From physical to mental to spiritual, devoted yogis everywhere race to their mats to reap the rewards.

And now, recent research from the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics shows that even high-school students can cash in on the same benefits that older yogis do.

At the end of their ten week study, researchers found that high school students who participated in the yoga offering during PE class scored better on psychological tests screening for anxiety, depression, and mood imbalances than the teens that did not. The teens who participated in yoga reported fewer negative emotions than those who didn’t participate in yoga during the ten week study. Here are some more of the benefits that became apparent:

1. Physical

The physical benefits of yoga for teens are quite similar to the benefits of yoga for adults. In the end, yoga means union in Sanskrit, so it makes sense that many of the benefits would be the same.

Yoga builds strength, increases flexibility, lengthens the muscles, increases coordination and balance, builds core stability, and can help students’ posture rebound from a day hunched over a desk (or a smartphone).

2. Educational

As a teenager, there are heaps of distractions around — from what you’re going to wear to the party on Friday night, to the who-likes-who dramas — there are much more interesting things to think about than what a rain shadow is or calculating the size of an angle.

Yoga can help teens mentally refocus on the task at hand. By practicing living in the moment on the mat, teenagers can more fully concentrate on the present moment off the mat.

3. Emotional

By practicing present moment living on the mat, high school students will have a better sense of their emotions. Yoga will enable them to connect with their deeper layers and understand more fully what they are feeling. By developing a better understanding of their emotions, teens can then more appropriately process them.

Emotional intelligence is a very powerful thing to learn at an early age.

In addition to connecting you with your emotions, yoga encourages self-love and self-acceptance. This benefit is especially powerful for teens struggling with body image. It’s a beautiful way to learn to love yourself and appreciate the body for what it is and what it can do, rather than what it looks like. It builds compassion for the self which then radiates to compassion for others.

4. Mental

Yoga’s mental benefits are fairly well documented, and as evidenced by the study mentioned above, teenagers who practice yoga show more positive moods, less anxiety and depression, and greatly enjoy asana practice (the physical practice of yoga).

With the stress and anxiety of exams, extra murals, tests, speeches and all of the other pressures that plague high school kids today, yoga can be a step in the right direction.

5. Social

Yoga breeds connection. As mentioned previously, it means union in Sanskrit. By understanding that each and every single person is one, perhaps teens will learn to accept one another more fully, no matter their clique, social interests or popularity ranking.

Yoga is non-judgemental, and the more we practice, the more acceptance and less judgement we’ll have in our daily lives. Yoga will help teenagers become more compassionate for one another.

The crazy thing is that even as I type this, I know one of the hardest parts of getting a class for teens off the ground is going to be finding a time in their busy schedules to fit it into their week. Which, in a way, is just another reason of why it’s so necessary for these very special young people to slow things down a bit, and connect with what’s most important – themselves.

Even though it took me about one and a half decades after finishing high school before I finally started internalising all these lessons, at least I got there in the end. Better late than never, for sure, and actually I wouldn’t change a thing, because every single step of the process has brought me to where I am today, and today is good. I’m grateful for the learning and the healing that continues every single time I get on my mat. And I’m realizing that I have a growing passion for sharing this transformational and gentle practice with young girls just like I was, who could benefit from a soft place to fall and learning early to cultivate a lifelong tool of self-awareness.

 

(Source: http://www.doyouyoga.com)

Self worth and relationships

Ever find yourself looking to someone else – maybe a love interest – to validate you? Find that your sense of self is deeply tied to how much attention they pay you? Feel buoyed when they notice you and crushed when they seem to lose interest? We’ve all been there. It sucks. It’s exhausting, it’s damaging, and it’s got a lot to do with our sense of self worth. 

When we get rejected, treated poorly, or someone blows hot and cold in a relationship with us, we often become stuck and fixated on that person. We become convinced that we’re in love and we try over and over again to prove ourselves, to show the objects of our affection that we are worthy of their love and attention.

We often don’t recognize that the reason someone isn’t interested in us may have absolutely nothing to do with us at all. We tend to internalize the rejection that it must be because we’ve been seen, evaluated and judged as not good enough and that they are no longer interested.

When this happens, our interest in this person can turn into a fevered obsession and we can go to great lengths to get them to notice us. We may engage in shape shifting behaviours where we stop being ourselves and try to turn into whatever we think they might like best. We will jump through hoop after hoop hoping to demonstrate just how special and unique we are, so that they will change their minds about us.

We don’t focus on whether or not this is a good situation for us. If it’s going to make us happy or that our needs and wants are even being met. All we’re focusing on is this feeling that they don’t want us when we should be focusing on whether we do (or don’t) actually want them, because first and foremost a healthy relationship must have two people that actually want to be in it (and have you ever stopped to wonder that the chances are if you actually had them, you probably wouldn’t want them anyway?)

When we look to others to show us our worth, they are always going to fall short, and so are we. Primarily, because it’s no one else’s job to give us our self-esteem – that’s up to us. Secondly, people are mostly self-interested: they don’t care about how you feel about you – the fact that you are jumping through hoops and treating them like they are the greatest thing since macadamia nut butter (I bant) is a huge ego boost for them, and you gaining self-respect changes the dynamics of the relationship. 

Here’s where it gets weird and can really mess with your brain: when they notice that you have stopped jumping, it doesn’t serve them and they don’t want that, so you may well find that they will deliberately or inadvertently behave in a manner that keeps you stuck and fixated on them.
When we have low self-esteem we have become so comfortable with our own negative thoughts and beliefs about ourselves that we will actually seek out people and situations that confirm those beliefs. It’s the devil we know and it feels familiar and like home. We have become so used to the idea that love equals pain and that what we are calling love is actually us seeking validation and begging to have someone show us our worth.

Could it be that if someone healthy did show up in our lives that was interested in us and was offering us the relationship that we claim we want, there’s a chance we would run like hell, because it goes against everything that we believe about ourselves and we would feel incredibly uncomfortable? And that instead we inadvertently seek out people that evoke those feelings of unworthiness in us? 

The problem is when someone can’t make up their mind about us, the price we pay, trying to convince them – or ourselves – that we’re good enough, is our self-esteem. The mere fact that we are going to all this effort proves to them that we actually aren’t worthy, because if we were, we would know our own worth and we would’ve told them to take a hike long ago.

When you engage with a fence sitter, or continue in a relationship with someone that treats you poorly, you will find that there is always another obstacle, another reason, why they can’t give you the relationship you want or the respect you deserve. You pay the price and the payoff for you is that you get to continue to confirm to yourself that you aren’t good enough. You will end up feeling used and like you are just someone’s option for a rainy day.

It becomes a never ending cycle and you may go from relationship to relationship and find yourself in the same situation, with the same guy, who just happens to have a different face.

It’s taken me years – literally decades – of hearing the theory and of trying to put into practice the belief that I alone determine my worth, that I deserve more than just crumbs of someone’s attention and that only when I treat myself in a loving, respectful way, others may start to follow my lead – although I hasten to add that that’s a nice by-product, not the reason. The reason is my quality of life, my sense of self, my mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing and my continued long term recovery from addiction and childhood trauma. 

It has been, and sometimes continues to be, SO DAMN HARD to change the way that I feel about me, but it’s only since the shift came that I slowly stopped seeking validation and relationships from unwilling sources. 

Social media is a minefield for anyone with fragile self esteem because it’s completely set up to feed a need for external validation (I am still a sucker for those little red dots that say I have x amount of “likes” and have to work lovingly with myself to recognize that pattern and see what’s going on, and spend some time reminding myself that they don’t define my value either within or outside of the online world). It’s a work in progress. I’m committed to it. 

Healthy people don’t sit around wondering why someone doesn’t want them. They are too busy living their lives, strutting their stuff in the radiant knowledge that they are MAGNIFICENT, regardless of what anyone else thinks of them. 

March towards self-worth

If you are one of the many people who come to yoga in a quest to learn to love themself a bit more, you’ll enjoy this month’s theme. It’s all about self love, self esteem, self respect, self value. It’s about teaching yourself that you are worthy and – if necessary – about faking that belief until you make it. 

It’s about realising, and learning to deeply believe, that you are ALREADY utterly fabulous, just as you are today – without needing to change a thing – and then reaffirming that belief every single day. 

This practice does not always come easy so I’ve found that a conscious effort must be consistently made on a day-to-day basis. In my experience, a lack of self-respect can, and most often does, result in depression and self-destructive behaviors. I’m in long term recovery for substance abuse, for heavens sake. I am the former queen of self-destructive behaviors! 

We need to reinforce our positive qualities and actively remind ourselves of them so that if and when it feels like everything else in the world fails us, we will always have our self-respect to fall back on. How we feel about ourself affects every single aspect of our life. If we don’t respect ourself then we won’t take care of ourself the way we should. By achieving this, we set boundaries for our life and our relationships. We learn to not allow people to treat us poorly and if they do, we are able to recognize our worth and walk away. 

Self-respect is one of most crucial aspect of our life. If we do not understand how to appreciate ourself and our worth, how can we expect others to? Others cannot negatively influence our opinion of ourself; this will only lead to degradation of our worth. We need to love and respect ourself before anyone else can.

I am no psychologist and this is not intended to be an alternative to psychotherapy. My intention is that this month, as I continue on my ongoing commitment to deepen my own sense of self worth, I open it up to anyone else who could do with some focus in that area and hope that it serves more than just me. 

Thanks for joining me. 

When A Stranger Blows Your Mind | A Book Review of ‘The Magic Mat’

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When on silent retreat, it is typical to find all sorts of things to do other than simply sit with oneself – walking, yoga, swimming, reading (although it’s advised to rather read the ‘journal of ones heart’) and, if there is a shop of sorts at the venue, to spend semi-infinite amounts of money on things one doesn’t really need. I am very good at this. I have any number of shawls, meditation cushions, incense, prayer flags, mustard baths, insect repellent, cook books and so on that I have purchased whilst on retreat. It’s usually my last ditch attempt to not look within, although of course sooner or later you are just left with yourself and that’s why we go on these retreats after all.

Sometimes, in my wonderings and wanderings, I stumble across a real gem of a book, and last month at Bodhi Khaya (where I was fortunate enough to be teaching yoga on one of Sue Cooper’s nurturing retreats) exactly this happened. This particular find is called ‘The Magic Mat’ by Carmen Clews and it is a book and DVD set aimed at introducing yoga to 5-12 year old children. Of the myriad books on children’s yoga that I have read over the years, this one is quite honestly in another class. I bought it almost instantly and read it cover to cover a number of times, getting more and more excited at just how beautifully and creatively it is written and illustrated.

Incidentally, please note that I was very aware of, and present in, my conscious action of distracting myself from myself through my absorption in this book, so surely that gives me some spiritual brownie points?

Having a six- and eight- year old of my own, I could immediately tell that the way that the lessons are presented would appeal hugely to their age group, and that for a yoga teacher such as myself, it is laid out in a way that is just so accessible and easy to present and interpret to the little ones.

I’ve long wanted to teach yoga for children at my little yoga studio in Stellenbosch but one of the main things that’s stopped me is that I’ve not felt that I’ve found exactly the right style that I wanted to present – I covered some teaching yoga to children in my advanced teachers training at Ananda Sangha a few years back, but it just hasn’t gelled for me – until this wonderful book ended up in my hands. I wouldn’t change a thing about how Carmen has presented it, and so I felt compelled to write her an email, expressing my delight in finding the book and to humbly request her permission to offer a pop-up children’s yoga workshop at my studio, using her book as the inspiration.

It’s possibly quite a cheeky request, and I was fully prepared for either a ‘yes but you’ll have to pay me’ or a straight ‘no’ response, but I do believe in just asking – just putting it out there, because increasingly my experience is that there is a whole lot of love in the world and a whole lot of willingness to help and to share knowledge and resources – it all comes back to us in the end. Even so, to receive Carmen’s completely delightful and overwhelmingly positive and generous response just a few hours later was an utter delight. I had what my children call ‘happy tears’ in my eyes as I read her lovely reply and blessing to use this valuable resource at my studio, with no strings attached. I am so grateful, and I am so excited, and I cannot WAIT to share her beautiful teachings with the kids that will be joining me on Monday.

Her approach is so playful but yet so profound – using animals to embody certain qualities such as a wise owl, a flexible cobra, a duck that shakes things off its back… taking children through some lovely simple asana whilst weaving a beautiful story throughout, and leaving them with a reminder that the magic on the mat is actually within them and is accessible at any time they need or want to tap into it.

The book and the DVD themselves are fabulous, and Carmen’s genuine and heartfelt wish that they go some way towards making yoga more accessible to as many children as possible was a huge and refreshing breath of fresh air. I strongly recommend that anyone with children, or with friends with children, or who is thinking about one day having children, or those who have grandchildren, or teachers (at schools or yoga teachers), basically anyone who has involvement with children and believes in the transformational power of yoga, gets at least one copy of the book. You can find all the details and order the book / DVD and optional mat at her website – I am sure you will be as delighted as I was and still am.

And if you are a parent living in or near Stellenbosch, there are still a few spots left in my pop-up children’s yoga workshop taking place on Monday morning between 10 and 12 – you can see the details on my Facebook page. Bookings essential and spaces limited.

Thanks again, Carmen. You rock.