The Hips Don’t Lie – or do they?

The jury is out whether hips really are the ‘junk drawer’ for negative emotions, as a lot of yogis are known to say, or whether it’s all a load of fluff and actually is just due to physiological tightness.

I imagine that it’s a bit of both.

I come from a family of scientists; we love facts, research, and proof. I’ve always been a bit sceptical of some of the more fluffy stuff that us yogis spout on about (myself definitely included), and the hip issue is one of them that I treat with care for that very reason. I used to have a little internal chuckle when my teachers would warn us that the hip opening class could make us emotional. There are even jokes along the lines of ‘sorry for what I said while I was in pigeon pose’. I found it frustrating that everyone would carry on about these magical, invisible dumping grounds that coexisted with me in my hips, and wanted hard evidence of where all this esoteric stuff was coming from.

Over time, and with softening, and with letting go of the need to have everything scientifically proven (although there is still healthy scepticism that will always be there), and through seeing many students reactions to asana specifically focused on the hips, that there is definitely something way deeper than just the physical going on with people’s reactions to hip work. I’ve long ago ceased to be surprised when people snuffle their way through hip opening classes, or when grown men / women come to me after class to apologise for crying (usually noone even notices except them and me), often looking really bewildered and confused as to what on earth actually happened in there.

Yes, of course, our sedentary lifestyle and the amount of sitting we do for long periods can cause our hip flexors to shorten up and become tight, leading to problems with posture and back pain. The flip side (too much movement, or movement of a certain kind) can also cause pain and tightness – runners frequently suffer from hip soreness and inflammation due to overuse of certain muscles, impaired gait or poor running posture (which is why core strengthening and flexibility can help control posture when running to further reduce the workload of the psoas – but that’s for another post). So it makes sense that there can be a certain level of discomfort when doing hip work. 

My conclusion (and I reserve the right to change my mind at any point as I continue on my journey of learning – see, there’s another of those yogi cliches right there!) is that it’s probably a bit of both. Going with the slightly fluffy suggestion that the hips are said to be where we store emotion – often the kind we keep hidden down like anger, anxiety, sadness and frustration, it stands to reason that working on the deep tissues in hip opening asanas can release both physical and emotional tension.

Here’s what makes sense to me, the explanation that I can work with: on a physiological level the muscles of the hips have a relationship with the fight or flight response –  we are born with the reflex action of activating the hip flexors to bring us into the fetal position when under threat. One of the hip flexors, the psoas, is connected to the diaphragm so tightness here can lead to restrictions in the breath. So often in hip openers, we feel a sense of discomfort and so we instinctively tighten up – hold our breath, and essentially protect ourselves from this nasty feeling that we don’t like. And this is where the magic of the breath kicks in, and in my humble opinion, this is where the emotional stuff can be triggered, or brought into the light.

As we allow ourselves to surrender – or even start surrendering – letting go little by little, becoming softer, becoming even slightly more open to seeing what it is that we are so fiercely protecting ourselves from, it can be bloody scary, because sometimes we feel unbelievably vulnerable. Often it’s only at this point that we realise how tightly we’ve been holding on, and keeping ourselves safe – from whom or what is largely irrelevant at this point, it’s the fact that once that self-love starts, and you can hold yourself with compassion, you can almost allow yourself to let go. To realise you’re safe. You’re okay. You’ll be caught, even if you fall. The breath keeps us safe.

And here we can take it back to the practice on a psychological level – how we approach hip openers (and other strong poses) can be a mirror for how we approach other challenges in our lives; hip openers require a softening and surrendering into the pose, staying present and staying with the breath. This can be tough but ultimately worth it as our awareness grows.

Many of my students have heard me quote one of my heroes before – Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” So the option is there to view hip work as a chance to observe the stimulus (possible aversion to the pose, possible pain or tenderness, possible resistance) and then expanding the space before you choose your reaction – possibly asking some questions as to why on earth you are holding on so tightly, why you are so scared to let go, and then honouring it with your chosen response – to get out the pose quick smart, or to maybe stay and soften. That’s where the growth and the magic and the healing can happen.

Source: http://www.fitness.mercola.com; http://www.livestrong.com; http://www.ekhartyoga.com; Hatha Yoga Illustrated – Kirk/Boon/DiTuro; Yoga Anatomy – Kaminoff/Matthews

The Glory of Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-The-Wall pose


We all need survival strategies to help us maneuver through life’s difficult days with some measure of sanity and grace. When the world threatens to overwhelm us, we need a way to hold ourselves together until the stormy weather passes—or perhaps simply a way to let everything fall apart without losing our faith completely.
Here’s my favorite survival strategy: I close the door, tune in to my favorite track on Savasana by Wah, hit the repeat button, and slide into Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose). I drape a lavender-scented eye bag across my brow, exhale as soulfully as possible, and then invite the posture’s quiet softness to sink into every cell of my body.

I breathe. I surrender. I melt. As my legs drain, my mind empties and my belly warms and softens. I linger here for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, sometimes a half an hour or more, until the pose has drawn every last drop of angst and agitation from my soul. And when I can bear to pull myself back to reality, I roll over and slowly sit up, refreshed and renewed. Invariably, I feel better able to manage life’s challenges with clarity and balance.

I’d wager that Viparita Karani can do the same for you. This soothing, restorative posture calms the nervous system, eases muscle fatigue, and helps restore healthy, restful breathing. Many yoga instructors offer it as an antidote to exhaustion, illness, and weakened immunity. In addition, it invites us todrop beneath the surface of life into quieter and more introspective realms.

Trying to conceive? Already pregnant? Give yourself and your unborn baby the gift of prenatal yoga.

If you are reading this, the chances are good that you are either pregnant (congratulations!), or hoping to be soon. Even if you’ve never done yoga before, starting it when you are pregnant can be one of the best things you could do for yourself and for your baby. When paired with a cardiovascular exercise such as walking, yoga can be an ideal way to stay in shape during your pregnancy. This age-old practice keeps you supple, tones your muscles and improves your balance and circulation, with little, if any, impact on your joints.

Another reason that yoga is beneficial is because it helps you learn to breathe deeply and relax, which will come in handy as you face the physical demands of labour, birth, and motherhood. In fact, one of the first things I will teach you in a pregnancy yoga class at my Stellenbosch yoga studio is how to breathe fully.

Different breathing techniques (pranayama) can help to prime you for labour and childbirth by training you to stay calm when you need it most. When you’re in pain or afraid, your body produces adrenalin and may produce less oxytocin, a hormone that makes labour progress. A regular yoga practice will help you fight the urge to tighten up when you feel pain, and show you how to relax instead.

Medical experts at the Mayo Clinic have even touted prenatal yoga as “a multifaceted approach to exercise that encourages stretching, mental centering and focused breathing.” Along these same lines, according to a report in the April 2009 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, rigorous studies have found scientific proof that yoga helps the body deal with stress by slowing heart and breathing rates and lowering blood pressure –  which can benefit new mums after the baby’s born, too.

The benefits of yoga aren’t limited to your physical well-being. Taking a prenatal yoga class is a great way to meet other pregnant women — to become part of a community of like-minded people who are going through a similar experience. Being in a positive, supportive environment with others like you can give you a regular emotional boost and keep you motivated to continue exercising.

Whether you have been practicing yoga for a while or are a beginner, it is extremely important to seek out a yoga instructor who is specifically trained in prenatal yoga, someone who knows what asana are safe and what to avoid, and how to advise you to modify your practice according to your own pregnancy.  As far as I know, I am the only yoga teacher in Stellenbosch who is qualified to teach pregnancy yoga, having completed my advanced PTT module at Ananda Sanga in 2011.

I kept going with my regular yoga practice with both of my pregnancies but only once I had done a one-on-one prenatal yoga class with Anne Combrinck at Ananda Sanga  where she taught me how to adapt my practice to pregnancy. For those who have never done yoga before, I strongly advise that you attend the prenatal classes that I offer at my yoga studio in Stellenbosch (once you are past 12 weeks), but for those of you that already have a strong practice, you are also welcome to join the regular classes, but be prepared to adapt and modify when we are doing twists, belly work etc. I also offer one-on-one classes  just to show you the basics of how to do this, if that’s what you’d prefer.

“Nicci completed her Yoga Teacher training with distinction, in 2011. She has subsequently gone on to complete a Pregnancy Yoga Teacher training also and is a confident, competent and wonderful Yoga Teacher. ” Anne Combrinck – Principal Educator at Ananda Sanga.

Please contact me for more information and / or class times.

For more information about why prenatal yoga can be so beneficial, read on…

Five excellent reasons to do pregnancy yoga at my yoga studio in Stellenbosch! (Source: Amy Lynch, MindBodyGreen.com).

Looking specifically at a pregnant woman’s body, yoga can specifically work the areas with the most need in a class geared toward pregnant women. Below are some of the most important pains, areas of interest and common pregnancy issues yoga can safely and gently alleviate and improve.

1. The Breath: Breathing is not something we often think about throughout the day. It is a mechanical function of the body. We never really have to remind ourselves to breathe, but we should, especially to prepare our body for the process of labour. Breathing is a very important part of delivering a baby, it helps to relax the body and take your mind from the pain and strain.

2. The Pelvic Floor: The pelvic floor is a hammock of muscles that form a bowl attached to the pelvis. This muscle supports the vital reproductive and digestion organs, as well as the baby during pregnancy and plays a vital role in sexual intercourse for both men and women.

During pregnancy it is especially important to exercise your pelvic floor muscle as it has to support a greatly increased load at this time. Although pregnancy is not the only factor for a weakened pelvic floor, aging and inactivity can play a role; it can weaken from pregnancy and childbirth. Although not the cause, a weak pelvic floor can be the start of some health problems. That is why it is very important to work with these muscles, especially after childbirth. Like any other muscle in the body, the pelvic floor can be re-strengthened. The symptoms of a weakened pelvic floor include urinary or stool incontinence, constipation or incomplete bowel or bladder emptying, diminished sexual satisfaction, painful intercourse, inability to reach orgasm, sagging or prolapse of the uterus, bladder, or rectum, and low back or lower abdominal pain.

A strong pelvic floor muscle can enable a woman to carry a baby more comfortably during pregnancy and will help both the mother and baby during labour and delivery. Stimulating blood flow in the pelvic area after childbirth quickens recovery from any stitches or episiotomy. Women who have had Caesareans also need to strengthen their pelvic floor muscles as it is the gravitational pressure of pregnancy that weakens the muscles, not the physical event of birth.

3. The Posture: As the babies and bellies grow and change, so does the centre of gravity. One of the things that allow humans to walk upright is the balance between the lower back muscles and our four abdominal muscles. However, when our abdominals are weak, this can cause our lower back muscles to over compensate and over work, causing pain and strain in the lumbar area. When the belly moves more forward with growth, this stretches the abdominals beyond their original shape, weakening them and this causing lower back pain during pregnancy when none may have ever been experienced before, especially in the third trimester. Although pregnancy is not the time to do major core work, it is recommended to gently work all four abdominals to keep them a little strong. After your baby is born, it is common for women to find some separation has occurred between the right and left side of the abdominals, exercises that bring the belly toward the spine can help bring the abs back to pre-pregnancy shape.

Yoga can also help alleviate the pressure the lower back is under during the shift in gravity. By stretching the upper leg muscles and the lower back, tension will start to release. Partnered with the smart abdominal work, your body will feel less pain as it goes through the journey of pregnancy.

4. The Feet: Surprising to most, the foot actually has 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. And although our feet get us around the entire day, we rarely take the time to take care of them, or check how we are using them, especially as that centre of gravity moves over the nine months.

With the shift of the centre of gravity in your body as your pregnancy progresses, this changes our stance and pressure in our feet and joints. The two most common problems become over pronation and oedema. These problems can lead to pain at the heel, arch, or the ball-of-foot. Correct alignment and awareness taught in a yoga class can help to alleviate these problems.

5. The Hips: Prenatal yoga can help bring back flexibility and comfort to the groups of muscles and bone structures in the front and back of the hips. Hormones released during pregnancy soften and relax joints and cartilage between bones in our pelvis to prepare it for child birth. However, getting the muscles ready is good to facilitate an easier birth for mom and baby.

In front, we have our hip flexors, which work to flex, or bend, the hips. This brings our knee and thigh up and in line with our hip joint and toward our chest. Lunges are a great example of the work of the hip flexors. It is imperative to keep these flexible so we can easily open our legs without too much strain for delivery, as well as bend the knees close to the chest to assist with birth. Yoga can also stretch the ligaments in the pelvis, hip and leg areas, all making the positions and pushing in labour easier.

Our muscles are, however, antagonistic, which basically means when one works, the other does the opposite to allow the action. So, in order for the hip flexors to contract, the back of the hips need to relax. This is why it is essential to work the front and back of the hips in stretching, relaxing and strengthening to find balance. Again, low lunges are the perfect way to stretch the hip flexors while contracting them on the other side and the same for the muscles in the back of the hips. However, your yoga teacher can give you many poses for this area of the body.

What else can yoga do?

Research suggests that prenatal yoga can have many benefits for pregnant women and their babies. Studies have suggested that practicing yoga while pregnancy can also improve sleep, reduce stress and anxiety, increase the strength, flexibility and endurance of muscles needed for childbirth.

It can also decrease nausea, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches and shortness of breath, and decrease the risk of preterm labour, pregnancy-induced hypertension and intrauterine growth restriction — a condition that slows a baby’s growth.

But don’t forget, yoga is also a perfect workout after you have your baby as well. When you feel ready to move, starting out with gentle yoga, simple breathing and stretching is a great way to start your body moving again. As you may have already guessed, or experienced, finding time to practice as a new mum is hard. A good time to start is take 15 minutes while your baby is napping to work with a gentle yoga sequence each day can work miracles for energy and body strength. Also, as your baby feeds, try practicing pranayama, the relaxation from deep belly breathing and action of the muscles helps to speed up the recovery time.

As always, check with your physician before you begin any new exercise practice.  Please feel free to contact me for class times or if you have any questions. I hope to meet you soon!

Right vs. Left

I’ve recently had a friend/student ask why I instruct my students to turn over to lie on their right side before coming up from the final relaxation pose.

Good question!

Here are some ways of explaining it:

You lie on your right side for one basic reason:  Your heart is on your left side. When you roll to your right, your heart is above the organs on your right side – it’s less weight on the heart. It’s not that big a deal, but if you rolled to your left, the heart would have a bit more pressure on it after savasana.

And then another (much more technical) answer:

The concept of polarity, or balancing the opposites, is vital to both Yoga and Indian traditional life. The right side of the body is related to the solar/positive/masculine flows of energy that are manifest by the surya nadi, which is correlated to the termination of the pingala nadi (a major prana nadi which flows along the right side of the spine). The left side is related to the lunar/negative/feminine flows of energy that are manifest by the chandra nadi, which is said to be the termination of the ida nadi (along the left side of the spine).

We must also remember that even the term Hatha Yoga, which means “sun and moon,” has the right side placed before the left in its esoteric association of ha with the sun and tha with the moon (Hatha).

There are also some physical reasons for this:

If the goal is ‘action’ and one has ‘things’ to do after a practice, one rolls to the right side. It is generally recommended that one get up from bed by rolling to their right side, as it is energetically linked to ‘action’. If one is trying to remain calm, or preparing for bed, one should roll to the left side.

Rolling to the right side of the body is rolling away from the heart (less pressure and weight on the rested and open heart).

Pausing on the right side allows the students natural blood pressure to reach its potential homeostasis.

Resting on the right side allows the energy to be redirected in the present moment as needed and circulated appropriately.

And then this, my favourite, to the point answer:

An appropriate Savasana provides the room for the student’s nervous system to shift to a parasympathetic state. That is a state of ease – lower heart rate and blood pressure, stimulation of the digestive processes, lower body temperature, release of endorphins. For this reason it is imperative that students come out of Savasana gradually, slowly, with no hurry or jarring action. Additionally, rolling to the side and pressing the floor inhibits tension in the neck and lower back.

Namaste xx