Month: February 2020

Back to basics!

According to National Health and Safety Executive figures,  musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 6.9 million days lost last year. Whilst these are shocking stats, they don’t really surprise me as a high number of people who attend my classes come with back issues. Some people have had a diagnosis but, the vast majority complain of niggles, tightness or discomfort in their back. That’s not to minimise their discomfort but simply that there’s no identifiable trauma or injury which has aggravated the problem.

According to physical therapist Bill Reif, author of the book The Back Pain Secret: The Real Cause of Women’s Back Pain and How to Treat It, those with back issues who’ve received permission from their doctors to practice yoga may find it to be a boon.

Reif says, “Yoga, like physical therapy, could help build core strength and improve control of the spinal curvatures, minimizing the effects of compression.” But he offers this caveat: “Yoga may be appropriate for those with mild, intermittent, or occasional symptoms. Those with moderate to severe problems with frequent pain may not be able to tolerate most active forms of yoga, and should probably seek out a more restorative practice that uses props to help maintain neutral spinal curvature.”

For most people, yoga is an affordable and enjoyable way to manage their back condition but, in order to ensure that the practice doesn’t exacerbate the problem, here are a few top tips to bear in mind.

Don’t lose your natural lumbar curve. Slumping, or rounding the spine, perhaps because of spending long hours in an office chair that encourages bad posture, can take a toll on the back. In most yoga poses and throughout your day, whether sitting or standing, it’s important to maintain the natural inward curve in your lower back, to keep the back of your head lined up with the back of your pelvis (not dropping the head forward or back), and to keep your shoulders broad and stacked right over your hips. Even though your yoga teacher may cue a “flat back” (often to prevent you from losing your natural spinal curves by rounding or overarching the back), a totally flat back is not what we’re looking for. The spine’s natural curves—a slight inward curve of the lumbar spine (lower back), a slight outward curve of the thoracic spine (upper/middle back), and a slight inward curve of the cervical spine (neck)—are important for shock absorption and for optimal spinal health, so we don’t want them to go away!

Do practice healthier sitting and standing postures to help strengthen the back. Practice sitting tall, either in a chair or on the floor using props such as a stack of folded blankets or a yoga bolster while being mindful of maintaining the natural curve of your lumbar spine. Use this new posture any time you sit. When sitting or standing, utilize core support, with a slight lift of the lower abdominals and pelvic floor, and “think tall” with axial extension (upward lift) of the spine.

Don’t let the feet turn out when standing or walking. For many people, external rotation of the feet is both a result and a cause of shortening the piriformis (a culprit in sciatica). When this deep hip rotator is tight, the psoas (which runs from the lumbar spine to the top of the thigh) can also become tight, possibly resulting in lower back pain.

To help stretch a tight piriformis, practice supine pigeon pose, lying on your back and hugging one knee toward the center of your chest, or a figure-4 stretch, lying on your back and crossing one ankle over the thigh of the bent opposite leg. For a tight psoas, a supported bridge pose with a yoga block under your pelvis and a high or low lunge(anjaneyasana) practiced with a slight anterior (forward) tilt of the pelvis can help.

Do keep the feet parallel. If your toes tend to turn out, move your heels out enough so that they’re behind your toes. You want the second toes of each foot to be relatively parallel to each other and your knees tracking in line with the center of the foot. Do this when standing (whether in mountain pose, while working at a standing desk, or any other time), walking, or sitting.

(Note that while parallel feet is a good guideline for most people, it won’t be appropriate for everyone. See Bernie Clark’s article Should Your Feet Be Parallel in Mountain Pose and Down Dog? to learn more.)

Don’t round up from a standing forward fold with straight legs. This action can compress the discs of the anterior spine and aggravate back pain.Instead, to come out of a standing forward fold, keep your knees bent, walk your hands up your thighs, and keep your spine long as you rise to standing.

Do rise up from a forward fold with knees slightly bent, and use core support (a slight engagement of the pelvic floor and lower belly) as you lift your torso.

Don’t forget core strength. Yoga sequences often focus more on stretch than on strength. Stretching can be great for alleviating tightness in back muscles, and poses we might associate with a nice back stretch such as marjaryasana (cat-cow), balasana (child pose), ananda balasana (happy baby), and supine twists may feel good, but they don’t contribute much to building core strength, which is important for back health. To strengthen the back of a structure we must balance the support in the front. That’s why poses that incorporate abdominal and back strength are important for back health.

You can build abdominal strength with postures like paripurna navasana (boat), utkatasana (chair), plank and forearm plank, and vasisthasana (side plank), and back strength with postures like salabhasana (locust) and virabhadrasana III (warrior III). Strengthening abdominal and back muscles supports better spinal alignment, and these are the types of poses you might look for in a back-health-focused yoga class.

Caring for your back means developing healthy postural and movement habits and practicing postures and exercises that can build the muscle strength that will give your spine the support it needs. Now medical professionals are even beginning to recommend these methods over medication for the treatment of temporary or chronic low back pain, so if you suffer from back pain try putting down the pills (with your doctor’s OK), sitting up straight, moving about with more awareness, and hitting the mat for a strength-building, tension-busting yoga session to subdue that troublesome ache and find the joys of unimpaired motion once again.

Don’t practice full inversions.

“Any inversion compresses the lumbar spine because of the additional body weight from above, potentially further narrowing the space through which the nerves must pass freely,” Reif says. “Additionally, inversions may make it more difficult to maintain a neutral spine for some individuals.”

Headstand, shoulderstand, forearm balance, and handstand should all be avoided unless a student is a longtime practitioner who can maintain a neutral spine in these inversions and can maintain control as they come into and out of the pose. Try milder inversions like downward facing dog and legs up the wall instead.

Do avoid deep backbends

“Lumbar extension, which can close off the spinal canal, is unlikely to feel good to those with lumbar issues,” Reif says.

He recommends avoiding backbends like upward dog, wheel, locust, and camel. Milder backbends, like sphinx and bridge, in which the arms can be used to channel the backbend only into the mid and upper back, may be suitable for some with LSS as long as they don’t lead to any increase in symptoms.

3. Don’t twist to an extreme and/or with a rounded back if it doesn’t feel good.

“Twisting can often lead to or exacerbate symptoms,” Reif says. Twists like deep versions of janu sirsasana (head to knee pose), revolved chair pose, and others that involve a rounding of the lower back could place uncomfortable pressure on the lower back, and should be avoided if they make any symptoms worse.

Reif does acknowledge that some measure of twisting may be accessible for those with mild stenosis.

“I would encourage only the twists that allow a neutral lumbar spine,” Reif says. He recommends “thread the needle twist” (sometimes called parivrtta balasana, revolved child’s pose) from hands and knees, and windshield wipering the legs.” Warriors I and II also involve minor twists that may be tolerable for many of those with spinal problems.

Those with more severe symptoms may be better off finding only the barest hint of a twist or may be able to twist only to one side: If the problem occurs along the right side of the spine, rotating to the left may decompress the compressed area, whereas twisting to the right, toward the compressed area, could increase symptoms. Skip twisting to one side if it causes pain.

 Do avoid or modify deep side bends if they worsen symptoms.

A modest amount of side bending can strengthen and even decompress the spine, but, “Again, an extreme of range will possibly exacerbate symptoms,” Reif says. As is the case with twisting, side bend only to the extent that feels good, and if side bending to one side feels compressive, skip it.

In poses like gate pose or a standing side bend, stay as high as you need to in order to be comfortable.

In Daily Life

In addition to following the do’s and don’ts that make sense to you, as often as possible, return to the self-awareness you’ve cultivated through your mindful yoga practice: Notice how the activities of your daily life affect how you feel. Which activities seem helpful? Which less so?

If some activities aggravate your symptoms, could you change the way you do them, repositioning your body to take stress off your lower back, or taking breaks to sit down and lean forward, elbows on thighs? Or perhaps you could approach those movements with more breath, or less hurry?

You may find that devoting some attention to your spinal well-being throughout your day—and night—gradually becomes easier, as do your movements themselves.

Love is in the air

I’ve been thinking about love.  February is always a struggle because of Valentine’s Day. I loathe it. I always have. It’s not about love. A hastily purchased card, a gift, a bunch of flowers, an expensive dinner is not about enduring love. It’s about an expectation that on a particular pre-named day each year we will receive something that validates us as worthy of love and the absence of it marks us out as not belonging to the tribe of real lovers. It’s nonsense and yet we are made to feel it so keenly. I think Valentine’s Day represents the ‘fast food’ of love – it’s so easy but real love is not. It’s hard.

So this year I decided I would write about love. Enduring love. The love that ebbs and flows over decades of being with a partner. It’s not about roses (I prefer a bright bunch of daffodils at this time of year), or gifts (they are beautiful and arrive, but rarely coincide with a traditional event such as Christmas or birthdays), or expensive dinners (I prefer hearty breakfasts). It’s about me and him. Us. It’s about good times and bad. It’s about knowing that even in really difficult times there is a silken thread that keeps us connected to one another. It’s about moments of intense loneliness, the kind that feel overwhelming, when you find the person you love is so very hard to reach – when you are just holding on in the storm, waiting for quieter waters, knowing they will eventually be found. These are the challenging times, the ones that test your mettle, that make you question the very foundation of your life together. This is the nature of life and love.

The good times are plentiful, wonderful and numerous. Jokes that evolve over a lifetime together, knowing how to make the perfect cuppa presented in the right cup (yes, it is a thing), tenderness and care, gentle touch, a passing caress, giving each other breathing space to develop individually – all these things reaffirm and support a loving relationship.

We have been together for 17 years. His work has remained more or less constant as a teacher, mine has changed and evolved over the years, each new skill adding to another to bring me to this wonderful point where I do what I love every day. He says on my gravestone he will have inscribed, ‘could this be her final career change?’ – I hope he does, I’ll be chuckling tucked up in my winceyette lined wicker coffin (yes I have thought about it, one needs brushed cotton for such a long subterranean trip).

Love is not the grand gestures, it is the everyday accommodation of the weirdness of one’s partner and their understanding of you – because we are all weird in our own way. It is the melding together of disparate personalities and somehow making a whole that works for the benefit of both. It takes a massive investment of time and energy for a relationship to survive and prosper in spite of the unexpected challenges that life hurls at it. That is enduring love.

Love is encouraging your partner in the direction they need to go even if it makes life a little harder, because you know they would do the same to see you happy. In long term relationships there is give and take, passion and fury, stillness and intensity but most of all there is acceptance. An understanding that on a cellular level the person you have loved for so many years has become a part of you, as familiar as your own heart-beat.

I look back over our life together and am content that it has been a life well lived. We are better together than we would have been apart. We are happy, we have had mad adventures, laughed ourselves stupid, struggled and thrived. We don’t need heart shaped cards to validate that.

e.e. cummings puts it all rather beautifully…

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond

any experience, your eyes have their silence:

in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,

or which i cannot touch because they are too near


your slightest look easily will unclose me

though i have closed myself as fingers,

you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens

(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose


or if your wish be to close me, i and

my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,

as when the heart of this flower imagines

the snow carefully everywhere descending;


nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals

the power of your intense fragility: whose texture

compels me with the colour of its countries,

rendering death and forever with each breathing


(i do not know what it is about you that closes

and opens; only something in me understands

the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)

nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

“I’d love to do yoga but…….”

At least once a week I will hear someone say – “I would love to do yoga but I am so in flexible, I can’t even touch my toes”….

Yoga seems to have (yet another) pre-conception, that it is only for flexible people to strut their stuff and show off on the mat. There’s an illusion that to do yoga you need to be a zenned out ballerina on a mountain with her leg behind her head omming away in bliss…. This is not yoga, well at least not for 99.99% of the yogi’s I know! So this post is for all you stiff people out there, to strip away the excuse of not being flexible enough to give yoga a go and give you a reason to try it!

Why You Don’t Need to be Embarrassed:

One of the first things we learnt in my Yoga teacher training, was “don’t worry about the stiff rugby player at the back of the room injuring themselves, worry about the flexible dancer at the front of the room”. Yoga is a controlled discipline, and requires strength and control. A lot of injuries occur from hyper-extension and relaxing to far into a posture, repeating this over time without using correct muscle tone and control. Flexible people are often more prone to injuryin Yoga, even those trained in other athletic disciplines, as they can be used to relaxing and letting their body go into full range in poses. This is a lot more risky than the stiff people who aren’t anywhere near their toes!

If you are stiff your teacher may try to adjust you to get you more comfortable and help get you into the right position to feel the stretch correctly. As teachers we see so many different bodies every day and no pose looks the same in two people are the same. Yoga is not a competition. The teacher is not judging you, they will however help you to use control and not force or push so you can find your version of the pose.

Not all Stiffness is Muscular:

Another common question from students who have been working for some time on flexibility, is why has progress stopped? Sometimes you just need more time and sometimes this can be due to bone structure which plays a big role in your body’s range of motion. Our bone structures are all unique, continuing to grow and adapt to give us a strong framework for movement. When you are working on a pose and you no longer feel the stretch but you cannot get further the most likely cause of this is compression of the bones. Compression and bone structure has particular impact on the ball and socket joints – hips, and shoulders and also on the vertebrae with the range of motion in your back bends. The moral of this information is, don’t get too fixed on an end result for your flexibility. All progress is progress and its all about exploring the body and finding your version of the poses, and creating space and comfort in your body.

Why You Should be Coming to Class:

Yoga builds strength, endurance, spacial awareness, stability, balance and flexibility. For every flexibility based pose in class there will be a balance or a strength pose. Yoga is more than just flexibility, it is a well rounded practice with benefits for every body and every level of fitness.

If you are stiff when you start practicing, you have the added advantage of being able to see real progress relatively quickly. With a regular practice you will  quickly notice some poses becoming easier, getting a little deeper with each class. Whenever starting anything new seeing progress is a great motivator so don’t let yourself be put off by the very reason that will keep you coming back for more.

Using the excuse I am too stiff for Yoga, is therefore a little bit of a contradiction… Plus if you have ever watched your grandparents putting on their socks you will know, that extra inch you can reach towards those toes may mean a lot more to you in 30 years time than it does right now, so it may be good to get that work in early!

What Are you Waiting for…

If you are feeling ready to get on your mat and give it a go, check out my timetable at for my classes.

If you have read all of the above and you still think this yoga thing is not for me, then no problem, but the next time someone asks you why, hopefully you’ll think of a better reason than because you can’t touch your toes!

Setting boundaries for Self Respect

As we enter the second month of 2020, how are you feeling? Are those resolutions holding strong? Are you glad dry January is over? Have you faced challenges already, or is 2020 a breeze so far? However your experience of the past month has been, it’s always worth re-committing to any selfcare resolutions or promises we’ve made to ourselves, so we can ensure the positive changes we might have made are long-lasting and authentic. Whilst February might see those ‘quick fix’ resolutions and unrealistic expectations of ourselves fall away, the second month of the year often sheds light on where we really need to focus our attention. Our February intentions are all about setting boundaries and working on showing yourself some love.

Monthly Mantra:

“I unconditionally, respect,

honour and love myself”

With Valentine’s day popping up on February 14th, there’s a lot of love-talk in the air, so how about we focus on our own self-talk, self-respect and set some boundaries to show ourselves some love? The more confident we become in setting boundaries with regard to work, technology, social life and stress-relief, the more we show ourselves that we really do respect ourselves, thus triggering the world to respect you and your boundaries too. Want to show someone you love them this February? Start with YOU first.

Seven Self-Respect Boundaries To Set

Opt For Airplane Mode:

Let’s start with a relatively easy boundary to set in place; switching your phone to airplane mode at night. If you’re not already doing this, you’ll notice the benefits as soon as you press that button. Staring at phone screens late at night not only plunges us into a social media hole of comparison and anxiety at a time when we should be relaxing and sleeping, but the light from the screen also prevents us from producing melatonin, an essential sleep hormone. Pretty much all screens emit a blue light-wave that prevents us from experiencing optimal sleep, so keeping phones out of the bedroom and away from your eyes can not only prevent a night-time scrolling session, it can physically help you re-set your sleep cycle too.

No More After-Work Emails:

If you’re passionate about your job, self-employed or in the midst of career anxiety, truly ‘switching off’ from work can be difficult. The thing is though, when we start feeling overwhelmed by our work, it becomes far less enjoyable, and we end up feeling as though ‘down-time’ is non-existent. Doing something that takes you away from your phone and laptop after work can be an effective way to create that boundary between work and leisure time, and means you’ll stop the habit of checking those emails constantly. Go for a walk, head to your local yoga class, read a book or cook dinner from scratch (all without your phone). Do something you find immersive so your mind is fully engaged.

Push Off Push-Notifications:

Do we really need to know every time someone comments on a photo or ‘likes’ an Instagram post? Constantly receiving push notifications from social media and emails is like having someone nagging at us 24/7. Those beeping, pinging sounds and flashing screens were made to get our attention, and indeed they do; each time we get a notification, we get a little hit of stress, demanding we stop whatever we’re doing and react. Not only do these notifications prevent us from being truly present with friends and family, they disempower us and virtually control where our attention and energy goes. Once we turn those notifications off, we regain the power to choose where our attention is placed.

Make Mornings Matter:

A non-digital boundary now, and one that can make a huge difference to the whole day. How we begin the day sets the tone for how we’re likely to feel the whole week. Hitting the snooze button, rushing around the house and turning up for that morning meeting late in a state of guilt-ridden panic puts us on the back-foot, so we’re likely to spend the rest of the week in a worse mood than necessary. At a time in which so many of us complain about ‘not having enough time’, we can break that perception and habitual thought pattern simply by getting up ten or twenty minutes earlier to start the day at a slower pace.

Say No:

FOMO is real, but more and more of us are now experiencing the pleasures of JOMO instead (the ‘Joy Of Missing Out’). A full calendar and ‘busy’ lifestyle might seem enviable on the outside, but feeling busier than necessary with no time to simply be can seriously take its toll on physical and mental health. If you find yourself always saying ‘yes’, perhaps reflect upon why this is, and whether all the ‘yes’s’ are really worth it. So much of the time, a fear of saying no indicates we’re acting from a place of ‘lack’ (i.e. feeling unworthy, anxious and with deeply rooted imposter syndrome). Saying no to the things you really don’t want and don’t need to do are a liberating way to show yourself you care, and show others you have your priorities right.

Make Mental Health Non-Negotiable:

If your mind can be a little wobbly at times, you’ll know how important it is to make sure you’re doing things that keep your wellbeing in balance. Whether it’s a chat with a friend, a morning run, time spent in silence or a daily meditation practice, doing the things that keep your mind healthy means you’ll be far more resilient in the face of challenges, and have far more energy to give in life.

Drop Other People’s Emotional Baggage:

If you’ve always been the ‘shoulder to cry on’ or the ‘listener’, its likely you’re also the one carrying everyone else’s emotional baggage, as well as your own. Emotional baggage can get very heavy and cumbersome over time, eventually engulfing us entirely so we’re no longer aware of who we are without it. Being a good friend or family member by listening to others is what community is for, but the way we do it can make or break us. Two words are vital when it comes to compassionately listening but not absorbing others’ issues: loving and Listen and love all you can, then drop the issue and get back to focussing on the things you can control in your own life. Some people find creating an imaginary cloak or circle around them before entering into a heavy situation helpful, cultivating an energetic barrier that prevents your energy from being zapped.