Two things I've learnt from drug addicts

Addiction. I’ve been mentored by people who’ve worked with addicts. I’ve worked with addicts directly. I find addiction to be the most fascinating topic. It’s taught me two important things. About rehab.

For rehab to be successful and sustainable, to be their forever story, two things need to happen.

The person needs to acquire strength. Then that strength needs to be tested, almost to the point of breaking. Almost but not quite.

1. Acquire strength.
12 step programs. Isolation. Withdrawal. Letting go of bad influences. Checking into a clinic. Staying in a clinic. Finding a shrink. Talking to a shrink. Every day. Every week.

2. Test strength.
Abstinence. Not abstinence in a rehab centre. Not abstinence because you can’t afford it but abstaining while staring at it. Being able to smell it, hear it, see it and still make a strong choice. Challenge your urge and still fall back on your strength.

Substitute drug rehab for injury rehab.

1. Acquire strength.
Isolate muscles. Build strength. Do repetitions. Create webs of strength throughout the body. Increase knowledge of injury. Understand it. Visualise it. Be clear on how it happened.

2. Test strength.
Also known as flexibility. Presents as an unfamiliar environment. Elongate the muscle and see if it can hold the same weight. See if you can breathe while elongating. Your strength will be tested when you go back to work and bend down to pick up the same box that caused the injury. Will work deadlines cause your strength to waiver, as you fling the box up, bypassing the newly acquired strength in your thighs? Testing your strength shows your limits. It validates step one.

People tend to do one step or the other. Very rarely both. However both are required for success to be your forever story. There is no injury, ailment or disease that won’t benefit from acquiring strength and then testing it with flexibility. Here’s a yoga example.

1. Plank pose, either practiced on elbows or hands. Hold plank. Do reps. Stay. Then stay longer. Then longer again. Notice how you progressively feel less strained and more comfortable.

2. Test plank by adding flexibility. Move between plank and downward dog. Create a little sequence between the two postures. Does your plank hold it’s form, shape and comfort? Can you breathe in the sequence?

Arthritis. Swollen, inflamed joints. Limited movement. No cushioning, no softness, bone against bone. Most sufferers only focus on step 2, flexibility, given the condition depletes so much range of movement. They miss the part where they build strength in the surrounding muscles. Create webs of integrity and stability so the damaged joints have a support system.

Low self-esteem. Requires you to strengthen yourself with good company, positive and motivating friends. An uplifting workplace and taking regular holidays to inspirational locations.

Does the positive self-talk continue on a lonely Saturday night, bored at home in your pjs? There’s the test.

Seek to understand the purpose of rehab. Purpose is power.


How to change your practice

How you can dramatically change your yoga practice

If your practice has started to feel familiar and heaven forbid comfortable and mindless, it’s time to advance.

We often associate more advanced classes with more challenging postures, faster, hotter and with more and more limb contortion. Another way to advance something is by changing how you define it. Yoga. Asana. Deep. Namaste. These words get thrown around as often as downward dogs and with familiarity, their definitions can become uninspired, irrelevant and impersonal.

The best definitions are collections of words that not only describe what something is but add depth and colour; the how, when and why. The following definitions of these four familiar words blend their historical Sanskrit roots with some depth and colour added in.

Yoga. It means yoke which translates as come together or unify. These days the elements often being yoked together, let’s be honest, aren’t exactly deep and inspiring.  On trend activewear, the perfect mat and the most exotic place to practice seem to equal yoga that has been successfully ‘yoked’.

Let’s add the word ‘harness’ to the definition of yoga. To be able to steer something, it must be harnessed. Now we have a way to yoke. Harness the mind to the body. Harness the body to the breath. Harness the breath to the mind.

Asana. It’s generally interpreted as posture, the physical contortion of the body. The importance of asana therefore is what the arms, legs, muscles and joints are doing. Insert Instagram and Pinterest and you can see how asana is put up on a pedestal.

We have to go back to the roots of yoga to find the real and quite surprising meaning of asana. It translates to sitting quietly in the pose. Without fighting or forcing, without shifting or squirming. Asana has nothing to do with the physicality of the body but everything to do with the landscape of the mind. This isn’t easy so instead we choose, and particularly in the western world, to analyse the sh*t out of our triangle pose so we don’t have to contend with the fact that we can’t sit quietly in it.

Deep. Go deeper, move deeper. This cue is often interpreted as force and push your body into a more confronting posture, with nil regard for what’s sacrificed. Get out of the way knees, move over stomach, stop talking low back.

When we work with a different definition of deep, it tells us how and what to deepen. Deepen the breath by smoothing it out and respecting the pauses. Deepen the mental practice by finding a focus point and holding your gaze to it. Deep in this sense has no reflection on how the body is arranged but how we approach and ‘sit’ in the postures.

Namaste. Uttering the word brings closure to every yoga class. There are so many translations for namaste and often the words divinity, spirit, bow, respect and gratitude feature. It’s used in the Hindi tradition as a mark of respect, to acknowledge an elder, as a sign you would like to initiate a conversation. The simultaneous bowing of the head and bringing together of the palms is just as significant as the word itself when searching for a translation.

When we translate from one language to another, we try to find an equivalent but does English have an equivalent word?

Working with a deeper definition, namaste embodies intention. That you’ve approached the practice, the teacher, the person, yourself, with gratitude and respect. That you acknowledge a common connection. A connection that is deeper than us both loving yoga, speaking the same language or even living in the same community. A much deeper connection. Oneness.


The story of the swearing class

Yoga and swearing don’t seem to go together. Certainly not like peas and carrots. But there’s a weirdly wonderful marriage between the two that not only works but is necessary.

This class is designed around comfort or rather a complete lack of.

Now don’t confuse discomfort with pain. I’ve never had anyone lose a limb, break a bone or vomit. And nobody has ever walked out. Never. Not in three years of teaching this class. Rest easy in this knowledge.

But something happens that only discomfort seems to invoke. Over the course of two hours you’re shown the answer to the question…

What do you do when you're uncomfortable?

As adults we don’t hang out with discomfort often. We choose pleasure, we gravitate toward exercise we prefer, we eat what we like, we go to sleep when we like. We choose what we want.

It’s rare we’re in a situation that’s entirely uncomfortable. Absurdly uncomfortable. So when discomfort does come knocking, we abort, we exit stage left, we run for the hills. Hardly resilient.

The class came to fruition because I met a swearing yoga teacher years ago. He dropped some seeds that I collected and played with and then eventually weaved together with my experience in the military.

Now if you’ve never gone to sea, let me describe it for you. Similar to being trapped in a floating esky with 40 people you can’t stand while eating shitty food. For months at a time. It’s not all terrible though, the days highlight is your allocated 30 minutes on a treadmill. A treadmill that requires you to hold onto the ceiling while riding in the event of rough sea.

Escape wasn’t an option, given I’m not a strong swimmer so there was no choice but to survive discomfort. But just surviving is setting the bar fairly low.

When I talk about this class I often refer to the sweet spot in the class.

It’s always between an hour and 20 minutes and an hour and 25 minutes. I’m still trying to work out the science behind the time (will keep you posted when I work it out) but something magical happens.

Insert the wise old guy Shakespeare, “Nothing is good or bad – the mind makes it so”. He describes the sweet spot perfectly. The discomfort doesn’t stop, in fact we keep building to a quite uncomfortable climax.

But our relationship with discomfort changes.

Plus…you’ll develop an entirely new relationship with your hips.


Marriage...what's up with you?

I’ve just come out of a year being surrounded by divorce.

Angry divorces. A complete surprise for one person divorces. Planned for over 12 months divorces. Perfectly amicable divorces. Rock solid on the outside but clearly not on the inside divorces. Friends, family and famous people. Like some sort of divorce superbug.

As usual I tend to see much of life through the lens of yoga, not just when I’m teaching. The different perspectives and philosophies drawn from yoga infuse all decisions, both life changing and miniscule. I aim to also do this when I’m teaching. So I spend time drawing parallels between postures, to give students a different vantage point.

From my lens I see downward dog as an upside down boat pose. I see plank in the same light as tadasana. I see cat/cow and bridge as the same movement. For some students, these different vantage points show them how to finesse the posture. They see it differently and feel it differently. Their understanding deepens, empathy grows and judgement turns to curiosity.

So with this curiosity I thought I might spend some time looking at marriage, or rather divorce through the eyes of yoga.


Marriage, divorce...all super unhelpful labels.

I know a couple who have spent years changing their status, being together then splitting up, the relationship working for a bit then falling apart in a loud Dr Phil type heap. They are now technically married but live apart. They also hold hands when they hang out. Weirdly wonderful but the removal of labels seems to have done the trick for them. Not really married, not really divorced but finally happy.

Forward bends, backbends, inversions, twists. They all mean different things and invoke different responses in people. “I hate backbends” or “I can’t do inversions”. When we only see the label, we tend to focus on what we need to accomplish, not what it feels like. To do a successful inversion blah, blah, blah needs to happen.

The label marriage looks like this while divorce looks like this. My friends now just hang out because they like each other. Simple.

Simplicity is a great adhesive.

A 15 minute walk around the block every evening or luxurious but infrequent weekends away…which one is more beneficial to marriage? The walk is regular, dependable and easy to make happen. It’s the perfect opportunity to clear up tiny problems and tweak arrangements that no longer work.

Some of the most satisfying yoga practices involve nothing more than laying on the floor, hands on belly and observing your breath. Exquisite.

Some days it’s just shitty.

You know that practice, the one where you keep falling over in your balances and downward dog feels like you’re being stabbed in the shoulders. When you start feeling really bloody angry and tap your fingers while you wait for stupid savasana to be over. We all have those classes. Sometimes it’s every class for a month and then you’ll sail into perfectly balanced, stab-free shoulders and peaceful savasanas for a while.

The good practices are so good but the bad practices, the uncomfortable ones are the best teachers. But only when you reflect on why. When you sit for a moment after the stupid savasana and reflect. Marriage and divorce, good bits and shitty bits. Both spectacular teachers. But only when you sit for a moment and reflect why.

You bring the parts, marriage brings the collective.

Work yourself out, in the same way we work out how to spell and how to count. What you like, what drives you, what you’re not prepared to accept. What pisses you off. The other person does the same. Hopefully. Then marriage becomes about the fine art of weaving these together.

You can read a book about how to do a yoga pose. It will give you the technical, step-by-step instructions. You can You-Tube how to do full yogic breathing. You can get better at the parts but the practice of yoga is merging the parts together into a smooth, intuitive, strong and flexible dance.


Marriage is beginning to have an air of elusiveness. Like a rare and endangered animal. This is further confirmed by the fancy ceremony put on by the city for those rare couples still enjoying (insert surviving) marriage 50 years on. It even made the evening news. Fancy that.


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A conversation with triangle pose

I hate this pose.  I'll be honest.

For me it’s right there with childs pose and for a very long time downward dog. I’ve since become one with downward dog but triangle and I could still go either way. Only time will tell. It’s fancy sanskrit name is Trikonasana and the pose is about a play of opposites. Stay grounded or be aspirational. Stay contracted but maintain freedom. When you fully experience what Trikonasana has to offer you’ll sit happily in the middle, right in the sweet spot.

Grounded or aspirational
Create some fire in the legs by contracting the thighs, calves and pushing into the feet. As you exhale ground down into the mat. As you exhale contract the core muscles.  Generate some fire in the belly. From the waist down is grounded. The purpose of inhaling in Trikonasana is to lengthen the spine, to expand the chest and to broaden the back muscles. The inhale creates freedom from the waist up. The challenge is to find the sweet spot which is in the middle of remaining grounded while reaching high.

Benefits:

  • Releases the hips and entire length of the legs
  • Opens the sides of the body, creating space around the intercostal muscles
  • Lengthens the spine
  • Activates core muscles

Step-by-step:

  1. Begin in a wide lunge with the left foot forward. The back right foot is turned on a slight angle. Both legs are straight, be mindful not to lock the knees in. Lift the arms up to shoulder height and really extend out through the fingertips. Take a couple of deep, slow breaths here.
  2. Begin to contract the thigh muscles strongly and anchor the legs and feet into the mat.  As you exhale start to tilt from the pelvis, only going as far down as your legs will comfortably allow, maintaining spinal length. Rest your left hand on a block/chair if necessary.
  3. Make a conscious choice about where to position your neck and head. The neck is naturally flexible so it craves stabilisation. If the neck allows, the gaze can be up to the top right hand. If not take a more neutral focus point.
  4. As you inhale, elongate the spine from the tailbone to the head. As you exhale, anchor the legs and feet firmly down into the mat.

Hello sweet spot…
The weight feels even in both legs. The breath is steady and deep. The body feels spacious, in the hips, across the back and particularly across the chest. You’ve really ‘got it’ when an instruction to remain in the pose for 5 minutes doesn’t faze you. The sweet spot is sustainable.

Caution:
Those with bulging discs or herniations need to be careful, either avoid altogether or remain higher with bottom hand on block or chair to assist the spine to maintain integrity.

This pose is about a play of opposites. Stay grounded or be aspirational. 


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When wellness becomes a long lost friend

Two is the magic number. There are two ways to do wellness. The easy or the hard way.

When the planets and stars align and you’re firmly positioned on a wellness warpath, it’s easy to stay on it. When one foot slips off though, it very quickly pulls the other and before you know it you’re cascading down a steep chocolate and alcohol drenched cliff.

How many planets have to line up in order for wellness to be sustainable? Time, money, kids, family, work, free mat at yoga.  The next question is how many of these planets do you have control over? Potentially all if you orchestrate your life down to the wire but at best probably only two.

There are two ways to do everything. There are two ways to do a backbend, force the shoulders backward or elevate the chest forward. There are two ends of a spectrum we dance with in yoga, the strong end and the flexible end. There are two ways to create length in a posture, reach up taller or push down lower.

What’s highly desirable for wellness but isn’t easily attainable…

  • Gain another four hours in the day that doesn’t belong to anyone but you
  • Find an on-call babysitter that works for free
  • Morph your yoga teacher into your home once the kids are in bed

Instagram, wellness conferences, gurus and 12 week challenges make wellness really hard. They give wellness a specific “look”, that it needs to be a certain way and you need to hit a certain benchmark in order to be doing it. Maybe the challenge lies in how we define it rather than how we do it.

Ayurveda, yoga’s sister science gives us a really empowering definition. “All dis-ease and illness starts in the mind.” The most important part of the definition is the tiny little hyphen. It creates a separation between a state of ease and a state of disease. Our natural state is one of wellness, we’ve just added layers of crap. So what’s the easiest way to work with the layers of crap? Rather than suffocate them by forcing wellness, simply peel them back.

You want your definition of wellness to empower you because being empowered will get you out of bed at 5am to run or meditate or do whatever you do. The 12 week challenge will get you out of bed exactly 84 times but then what?
Working with layers…

  • Peel back 30 minutes of TV each day and you’ll score an extra 3 and a half hours each week
  • Peel back the confusion about where and how yoga has to happen. Not every session has to be an hour and happen in a studio. Think of all that can happen in 20 minutes, a house can burn down or a ship can sink. But you could also blend a smoothie and drink it, read a few chapters of a book or do some yoga.
  • Peel back your definition of wellness. Strip the social media out of it, strip the aesthetics out of it and then see if what’s left is empowering. Empowering enough to get you out of bed at 5am.

"There are two ways to be rich. You can earn, inherit, borrow, beg or steal enough money to meet all your desires or you can cultivate a simple lifestyle of few desires” (Dan Millman)


What I won't miss about big studios

What I don't miss about big studios

In 11 years teaching yoga I've spent eight of them getting into trouble. Daily.

There are seven things I’ll never miss about teaching in a big studio.

  1. The sales pitch directly after savasana. Tell the students about upcoming workshops and the new mats on sale plus the retreat at the end of the year…and tell them directly after savasana. I refused to punch though the peace of savasana we worked so hard to get to with upselling. This was a weekly slap on the wrist. How much money must I have lost those studios.
  2. Not knowing every students name. When the class has 40 plus people, you only get to know the die-hard followers, the loud ones. There is no possible way to connect with the quietly intriguing students who set up in the back corner.
  3. People wandering in after the class has started. No, you cannot lock people out of yoga. If they arrive late, accommodate them. My argument of respect fell on very deaf, very business orientated ears. Respecting the students who arrive on time, respecting the teacher who has already starting teaching and respecting yourself to do the entire class took second priority to making an extra $20.
  4. The question “how many students in your class?” is always asked before “how did your class go?” How competitive we teachers can be. It would seem the ethical branches of yoga do not extend to the studio staffroom.
  5. Zero student feedback. With so many students moving into and out of classes, there’s only the occasional “great class” thrown about. While this isn’t a need for compliments, the conversations before and after a class can be so enlightening for teachers who really listen. This is when intuitive sequencing and perfectly balanced classes are planned. The student who mentions a headache receives an adjustment to their neck. The chaotic day everyone seems to be having results in a much needed, slow and juicy practice.
  6. Overthinking student adjustments. With so many students packed into each class, you can’t possibly adjust every downward dog (although lord knows you need to). So instead you must remember who you’ve adjusted, how many times and who you’ve missed. You’ve done a great thing when you’ve managed to touch 40 people at least once. I never could.
  7. The smell, oh the smell. No further explanation required.

There are no rules for how to practice yoga.


The dirty word in yoga

Unless you’re 80, pregnant or recovering from surgery nobody wants to do gentle yoga. Gentle is like lukewarm tea…why bother. People often start with a so called gentle class with the intention of progressing enough to then do proper yoga.

Here’s a few ideas about gentle I’ve picked up along with way.

  • You can’t heal an injury without gentle. In 12 years of teaching I’ve never worked with any injury that force has healed or made even the slightest bit better.
  • What we love in life we are gentle with, our children, our partners, the teapot that’s been handed down for five generations.
  • Ever seen a retired footballer or ballet dancer? That’s what being hard on your body all the time does. The harder you are on something the faster you wear it out. Neither a footballer nor a dancer is worth much to their sport beyond age 35.
  • Alignment doesn’t keep you safe in a pose. Being gentle does. Any posture, when held for a long time, will go from safe to unsafe unless you inject gentle.
  • Gentle speaks its own language. It’s called inhale and exhale.

I teach a super gentle class every Thursday night. I’ve taught this class for almost two years and it’s only just got off the chopping block. Week in and week out I would teach my favourite class of the week to a half-full class if I was lucky. So many times I questioned whether to change it to a hot and dynamic class, all of those classes were bursting at the seams. But then the masses ‘got it’…

You don’t have to sweat to work hard.  We have moved on from the no pain, no gain slogan of the 90’s. We don’t ‘do’ gentle in life so it’s become what we desperately need.

Gentle is incredibly challenging. It’s so easy to force and push and lever and manoeuver. It’s challenging to be patient. It’s challenging to understand the breath and how to use it to pry open deeply buried tension and stress.

When you learn the language of being gentle, the reward is immeasurable. You can now stay in a very challenging pose with ease. The difference is that you’re not in the most advanced variation of the pose, you’re at maybe 80% capacity but you’re able to speak the language of gentle, breathing in and out comfortably.

Ego and being hard go together. Ego will make you go to 100% capacity and hang on for dear life in the pose. Just survive it and then get to the next one. Gentle requires you to restrain yourself to 80% but allows you to remain alive in the pose.

Here’s an example of gentle in action. I’ve worked with many shoulder injury over the years, rotator cuffs, bursitis, tears and my conclusion is that shoulders are funny things. We don’t use them in the way they were intended which makes them difficult areas to rehabilitate. We use them incorrectly as prime movers, to bear weight, to twist and to change direction.

Students with shoulder injuries who learn gentle first make extraordinary progress. They learn to inject gentle around the shoulder girdle, protect and nurture it not unlike a nurse caring for their patient. They learn to strengthen the core and the upper back which will keep the hardness from creeping back into the shoulder.  I have no doubt if they went straight into a more dynamic practice the language of gentle would be much more difficult to grasp. Once gentle is learnt, the speed, the tempo, the heat, the postures, all become irrelevant.

For the past six months the gentle Thursday night Restore class could be filled twice over. It’s finally here to stay.


Theory of 3

I was recently interviewed by a magazine on my occupation as a yoga teacher.

I was asked to focus on the occupation of teaching yoga rather than what yoga is or is not. And so my theory of 3 emerged. I’ve had this theory for quite a while now. All jobs can be categorised into 3 types. The enablers, the enrichers and the evolvers.

The evolves are the drivers.

They are responsible for 2015 being a vastly different landscape to 1915. Think scientists, researchers and financial planners. Think engineers, computer techs and creative marketers. They are not concerned with today, they exist for the future.

The enablers are the lifelines.

Nurses, doctors, firefighters; they all provide assistance to people who may be having the worst day of their life. Teachers, disability workers, aged carers; they give people the skills they need to make their way in life. Speech therapists, childcare workers and mums and dads are all lifelines for their clients.

The evolvers need the enablers. When a financial planners house is burning down he needs his firefighter lifeline. A childcare worker is the lifeline for the engineers baby between 9 and 5.

The enablers look to the evolvers to make sure 2070 is going to be a more colourful, more sustainable, more accepting and more prosperous world than today.

The enrichers sit in the middle.

They enrich our lives so we're a little more comfortable and more at ease. These are the jobs that often didn’t exist in years gone by. They are the retail assistants, petrol station attendants and baristas. The telco workers, hairdressers, butchers and builders. Truth…we don’t actually need them. The fact is we can do without a haircut but how amazing do we feel when we get one. We can do without petrol stations but we’ve outgrown bikes and become much more globalised. We can do without shop clerks but I don’t know how to grow a leek. We could actually do without builders, we used to live happily in caves but how can you compare a tent to a house. We can do without writers but how delightful is it to curl up in bed with a good book.

It’s going to be really challenging for an American scientist to connect with his Finnish counterpart without a telco worker. Not impossible but really difficult. A doctor doing a 12 hour night shift will happily hug her skinny flat white. She’d still make it through her shift but will be much nicer and more attentive. Two desirable qualities in a doctor.

Our positions all have a higher purpose, not just to cut hair or process a payment. It’s not just about putting out a fire, soothing a wound or creating a website. It’s really not about teaching ABC or how to play guitar. The purpose generally isn't listed on the position description, only the requirements, skill sets and pay grade.

The magazine article finished with my thoughts on the occupational highs and lows of being a yoga teacher. The things I didn't anticipate, wasn't trained for and the things I wouldn't trade for anything.

  • I wasn't trained but have had to learn the art of restraint. People share a lot and it takes restraint to only listen, not try to fix the problems of the world. Dr Phil is for that.
  • Also being trained as a counsellor would be super helpful most days.
  • Teaching body awareness is a feat that constantly needs finessing.
  • Being ok when people cry in class, show me their scars, look at me with daggers, come every day or don't come for a year. It's not about me.
  • Reading situations so I can respond appropriately when people speak ill of yoga. The 5000 year old system needs to be protected but it's not mine to own and finally...
  • Having skin under toes contributes greatly to overall foot comfort. I regularly have no skin under my big toes from 35 hours a week turning left and right to demonstrate postures. Just goes with the territory I guess.