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Author Kelly McGonigal: behind those soft blue eyes lies a will of steel, and under that suit is a yoga teacher.

I used to think that willpower was a moral issue.

Good, strong people did difficult tasks first thing every morning and never lost their self-control when they were tired or hungry.

Bad, weak people failed because they didn’t have the moral fibre to do what was right in the moment.

My concept of willpower was much like the old tale of the industrious Ant and the playful, improvident Grasshopper – bad news if you, like me, find yourself identifying with the Grasshopper.

It’s also, it turns out, especially bad news if you’re hoping to use willpower to create a regular yoga practice.

Lately I’ve learned that as soon as doing your practice makes you “good” and not doing it makes you “bad,” you’re far less likely to practice than you are to roll over and go back to sleep in the morning, or find just one more interesting link to click in the evening.

My change of perspective comes thanks to psychologist and yoga teacher Kelly McGonigal’s new book,  The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It.

The short story is that willpower is a set of complex relationships between different parts of the brain, very much as though we had two or more separate people living inside us, the Ant in one location, and the Grasshopper in another. Surprise: we need both of them.

McGonigal, (who also has a book titled Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Heal Your Chronic Pain), based The Willpower Instinct  on a course she teaches at Stanford University. And she suggests you take it slowly, like a course, practicing willpower experiments and challenges over 10 weeks.

I borrowed the book from the library, and I think it’s so useful that I’ve ordered it from Banyen Books. One of its delights is the way that McGonigal’s roundup of  the latest research in the science of self-control reinforces what is essentially a yogic perspective.

Once I have it for longer than three weeks, I’m going to list my top willpower challenges, and start tackling them one at a time.

Wish me luck.

In the meantime, here are five truths that stood out for me.

1. Willpower is all about knowing what you want, in detail. Or in McGonigal’s words: “To say no when you need to say no, and yes when you need to say yes, you need a third power: the ability to remember what you really want.”

You want a yoga practice, yes. But that’s too vague and abstract, and it won’t spur you into action when it would be easier to stay in bed or on the couch.

Kelly McGonigal in Astavakrasana

Do you want to have a comfortable home in your body as you age? To stabilize your emotions and control your moods? To be stronger, more flexible and better at your sport? To stave off dementia? To do the cool poses in the back pages of  Light On Yoga?

Focus on exactly what you want and why you want it.  Then, when the temptation to put off practice arises, you won’t be saying no to a vague “yoga practice” but to things that really matter to you.

2. Willpower failure comes from not being conscious in the moments when we make choices – no easy task, since much of the time we make choices on autopilot.

For example, one study asked people how many food-related decisions they make in one day. On average, they guessed 14. But when they tracked their decisions, the average number was 244.

To get up early to practice, you have to choose not to stay up late. To practice for half an hour when you get home from work, you have to choose not to check email, start dinner, or make a phone call. You might also have to choose to have a late afternoon snack, so you don’t walk in the door hungry, fill up on a quick snack, and then feel too uncomfortably full to practice.

When you choose to lay out your clothes the night before, and to roll your mat out, so everything is ready to go in the morning, you’re creating a positive momentum that makes it much less likely that you’ll choose to stay in bed and sleep.

5. Meditation is like weight training for the brain.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. McGonigal suggests a simple mindfulness meditation of watching the breath.

And you don’t have to be “good” at meditating to get results. No matter how hard it may be to keep our minds focused on our breath moving in and out, each time we catch ourselves off on a train of thought, we wake up, just a little more.

Practicing awareness makes it easier to stay awake to our choices while we make them.

What’s startling is that even 10 minutes of meditation a day will change the structure of the brain and increase our self-control: “regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex as well as in regions of the brain that support self-awareness.”

And here’s a bonus: nothing improves asana practice more than a brief centering and meditation before you start.

4. Guilt is counter-productive.

Back to the Ant and the Grasshopper. It turns out that as soon as doing your practice makes you “good” and not doing it makes you “bad” you’ve dramatically upped the odds against practicing.

As McGonigal says in this interview for CBC Radio’s tech program Spark,  “When we moralize a behavior, and we say that doing one thing is good and the other thing is bad, we somehow confuse that with one thing is unpleasant and unfun and boring, and the other thing is pleasurable and indulgent.”

In a flash we forget what it is we really want – the rewards of practice – and expect pleasure from what we really don’t want, which is yet more procrastination.

McGonigal suggests that we think past our immediate resistance and see the more difficult behavior of coming to the mat not as proof that we’re “good,” but only as the means to what we really want.

5. Being tough on yourself when you fail makes it more likely that you’ll fail again.

It turns out that we don’t really need a harsh, self-critical inner voice to keep us on track.

“Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control,” McGonigal writes.

From university students procrastinating on exams, to dieters who were asked to choose and eat a donut, the less guilty the subjects felt about their lapses, the less likely they were to procrastinate or overeat in the future.

To succeed, it seems we have to learn to practice self-forgiveness – an oddly difficult behavior, and one that McGonigal’s students actively resist.
“You’d think I had just suggested that the secret to willpower was throwing kittens in front of speeding buses,” she writes.

So do the hard thing: forgive yourself when you fail, recognize that your setback makes you human, not uniquely flawed, and give yourself the support you’d give a friend who had experienced the same setback.

If this was your kind of post you might also like:

Four Ways the Brahma Viharas Can Keep You Clear

Discipline Not Working? Try Indulgence for a Change

Smack in the Middle of the Mandala: It’s a Good Place to Sit


























News Flash: I have a skeleton!

On the left, Arthur. On the right, my wonderful and generous physiotherapist, Judy Russell.

Well, of course I’ve always had bones.

But now I have a 30-inch tall anatomically correct skeleton, named Arthur.

He is nowhere as big as a full-sized skeleton, but he’s engagingly solid, and while the top of his head is missing, and he tends to drop his gaze, really, he’s close to perfect.

When I went to my Wednesday afternoon physio appointment with Judy Russell, he was standing in the corner of her office, nice as could be.

I admired him.

She said: “If you want him, you can have him.”

And that was it, 16 months of unmet need ended in a single moment.

But as dramatic as it was, this unexpected turn of events was not the most surprising thing about Arthur’s arrival.

I’ve known for some time that I’d like a skeleton for the Yoga on 7th Studio, even hinting at how it would make a good Christmas present. But the only skeleton in my price range was too small and insubstantial, more like a Halloween miniature than a structure I could imagine inside my body – or help students imagine inside theirs.

I knew I didn’t want a full-scale skeleton. Even if I could afford it, it would be too big for the closet. A full-size skeleton, even if you drape it in a cloth, necessarily colors the feeling of a room. Not everyone who uses our space would like it.

Besides, the loss to low humor – no skeleton-in-the-closet jokes – would have been tragic.

I didn’t know what else was available, and I was busy with other things, so I put off taking further steps from early December of 2010 until now. The whole idea of a getting a skeleton faded into the background.

Then, about a week ago, while pursuing a recent line of thought – what it is I truly want, and how I would go about getting it? – I felt again, in all its intensity, how much I wanted a skeleton for teaching.

You might think that knowing what I wanted would be easy.

But in practice, “I” turns out to be not singular, but a multitude. And what one “I” is adamant about wanting, another “I” might not care for at all. It all depends on who’s present in the moment.

This can be confusing.

As usual, writing things down helps. So I pulled out my mind-mapping book, drew a circle in the middle, and wrote “Does anyone out there have a skeleton they no longer want?” in the circle.

Mind mapping, if you don’t know it, is a close to magical technique for writing and thinking. (You can get a free download of a mind-mapping guide, along with a great weekly newsletter on writing from my friend Daphne Gray-Grant at  Publication Coach.)

Out of the circle with my skeletal question came lines of enquiry, thoughts about how I might make my request more public, including, as it turns out, asking Judy, on my next visit, where she would recommend buying one. Then I put my book away, went on a brief Easter-break holiday, and forgot about it all over again.

As you can imagine, the sudden arrival of Arthur when I met Judy this week set off a swarm of questions:

Was this an accident? Was it just atoms colliding? Or did I somehow help the atoms collide in a favorable way for me and my small wants by becoming more conscious of them?


And in the end, I think, a pointless avenue of speculation, although the idea that clarity about what you want makes it more likely you’ll get it is certainly more motivating than the theory that it’s all random.

I’m less interested, right now, in influencing my outer world than I am in learning how to wake myself up all day long and figure out what a particular “I” wants.

The “I” in question would be the grown-up, the “I” that does pranayama in the morning, eats well, pays taxes, cleans the fridge, saves for a rainy day, and keeps my deepest wants in mind.

I can’t say I would always choose what the more mature “I” chooses, especially if the “I” that likes to eat chocolate and read in the bathtub shows up, but I would like to know when there’s a choice to be made.

This week, I’d planned to write about Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct – as useful a book as any I’ve seen for people who would like to, oh, say, start a yoga practice and stick to it.

Then Arthur showed up and I had to tell you about him.

The next post will be about willpower, at least if nothing more compelling intervenes.

In the meantime, I’m going to practice the foundations of willpower: repeatedly waking up and asking myself what I really want.


If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

Humility as a practice in yoga

Discipline not working? Try indulgence for a change

Morning Yoga Practice: If it’s so important, why is it so hard to do?



What does yoga have to do with matryoshka dolls? A lot, as it turns out.

From the outside, yoga poses can look as though they don’t have much in common.

Take this handful: extended side angle, triangle pose, tree pose, reclining big toe pose and extended hand-to-big-toe pose.

On the simplest level, orientation to gravity, you balance on one leg in tree pose and extended hand-to-big-toe, lie down for reclining big toe pose, and stand, with straight legs in triangle, and a bent front knee in extended side angle.

Truth is, these poses are a lot like different layers of the same Russian matryoshka doll, with the identical small, solid nub at the centre of each one.

In the case of the nesting dolls, that’s a piece of painted wood. For these poses, it’s a set of actions.

• The thigh of the back leg, or in the standing balances, the standing leg, moves from front to back.

• The buttocks roll down.

• The top thighbone of the front leg, or in the standing balances, the raised leg, pulls deeper into the hip socket.

 If you master these actions, then the rest of the pose can expand outward from a solid place.

If you don’t, there’s no point in fussing with the outer layers.

The problem?

In the full pose there’s so much going on that it’s hard to do the actions, and especially to keep all three going at once.

Toss in the challenge of balancing on one leg, and your chances of getting it right diminish even more.

 The solution?

Strip away the outside layers of the matryoshka doll and practice the solid nub at the centre of the pose.

Gabriella Giubilaro in Vancouver, 2012

Gabriella Giubilaro

Two weeks ago, senior Iyengar yoga teacher  Gabriella Giubilaro was in Vancouver on her annual visit.  In the Monday teacher training session, she gave this preparation as a therapeutic pose for tight hips.

We worked with two helpers and a strap. But all by yourself, with no more company than a chair, you can use it to create your own small nub of clarity and understanding.

 Here’s how to do it:

Place the chair so its side touches the wall, and its seat faces you.

Have your back to the wall and bring your left foot up onto the chair.

Try to line up the heel of your left foot with the middle of the arch of your right foot. If your hips are very stiff, this might not be possible.

Have your left shin perpendicular to the floor.

Stand tall. Lift your side ribcage. Release your shoulder blades down your back.

looks simple, doesn't it? too simple. But right there with the circle at the pelvis is the pose

Now press your right front thigh back toward the wall.

You will notice that your buttocks rise up in response.

Roll your buttocks down, without letting the right thigh move forward.

If your hips are tight, your left knee will fall forward, away from the wall.

Take your left hand to your inner left knee. Press your knee back toward the wall.

At the same time, take the top of your left thighbone away from the wall, and deeper into your hip socket.

Again, stand tall. Then rotate your left ribcage toward the right, without disturbing your left thigh.

Repeat with the right leg on the chair.

Once you’ve tried both sides, move into extended side angle pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana).

Go mindfully into the pose, keeping all three actions from your work on the chair. You may be surprised by how clear the work in your hips and legs has become.

Matryoshka dolls photo courtesy of Art Poskanzer, via Flickr, chair photo courtesy of Mary Balomenos.

If you’d like to read more about Gabriella’s work, check out these posts:

Yoga magic: if you don’t know where you’re going, how do you get there?

Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: move your spine in two directions at once

Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: lose your counter-balance

Would you like to be talked through 11 five-minute yoga practices? Then check out the My Five Minute Yoga Practice app. Complete with longer practices, modifications, your own sequence builder, and a timer that can set two alarms a day. Build your home yoga practice for less than the cost of a cup of coffee.


Serenity now? Let’s hope so.

serenity on the beach

I imagine my mind will look like this while I'm posting bi-weekly for the next few months.

This is just to let you know that there is no post this week if you don’t count this one, which doesn’t count, because it’s a post about not posting.

I’ve decided to temporarily slow down the publishing schedule at Five-Minute Yoga to once every two weeks.

Right now there are a lot of other things I’d like to do both in this blog and outside it, and it turns out that writing a post every week makes it hard to get them done.

Some of them are little things, like replacing the Facebook box that mysteriously disappeared off the page during the last WordPress update.

None of them is big in itself, but when you get a dozen or more of them, they add up.

And in the realm of larger-scale projects, I’d like to make My Five-Minute Yoga Practice available to people who don’t have Apple devices, with luck by the end of April.

Getting the app translated into Android  is too complicated and time consuming.

What I can do is take the previous version, on which the app is based, add the new segments, and update some of the photos. Then it can be available again as a .pdf download. The words and pictures can be viewed on any computer, and the mp3 files can be played on any sound device.

So see you next week, when there will be a post.

In the meantime, I’ll still be playing around on Facebook, so if you’d like more than bi-weekly contact, please follow this link to like the page.

Photo courtesy of Robert Howie, via Flickr.

green leaves of dandelions in the spring

The enemy? I think not.

On Sunday morning, I taught my two classes, came home, had lunch, and, since it wasn’t raining, went out to the back yard to do some spring cleanup.

My main objective was to tackle the dandelions that grow just outside the flowerbed and between the paving stones of my parking space.

I opened Photo365 on my phone, an app that makes it easy to store images by date. I poked March 19 on the calendar, and took a picture of the thriving clump featured above.

As I set about weeding, I mulled the caption I’d add, something about the annual invasion of the dandelions. Then I decided to take another picture when I was done, to mark the successful end of the campaign.

I began to feel an invigorating sense of getting myself roused to do battle  – albeit with a small enemy incapable of hurting me.

And that’s when I woke up.

At the end of both classes on Sunday morning I read, as always, from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. That day it was chapter two, verses 29 to 34.

This part of the text explains the restrictions, the boundaries placed on our behavior towards others, and the observances, the personal disciplines we are to undertake.

It ends with a dense, complicated sentence on “cultivating the opposite.”

Cultivating the opposite is realizing that perverse ideas, such as the idea of violence, result in endless suffering and ignorance – whether the ideas are acted out, instigated, or sanctioned, whether motivated by greed, anger or delusion, whether mild, moderate, or extreme.

As perverse ideas go, my mini-war was mild, and as easy to catch as the flu.

Military metaphors permeate our lives. We have declared war on drugs, poverty, household dirt, empty calories and facial hair, not to mention Afghanistan.

I once heard a woman’s wardrobe described as her arsenal – presumably it included the ruffles of mass destruction.

When I took up arms against the dandelions, I wasn’t feeling angry or greedy, but my mini-war was clearly delusional.

Dandelions wish me no ill. They’re a life form, like me, looking for space to root, desirous of seed and progeny, albeit more successful at getting them than other plants.

Just because I don’t want them growing down the side of my parking space doesn’t mean I have to dislike them, or feel any spite as I dig them out.

In fact, I might as well be grateful. Dandelions offer me a simple and pleasant editing job, with no tough decisions. In the rest of my life I’m editing all the time, but the choice of what stays and what goes is never so easy and clear.

Does it matter how I approach the dandelions?

I think so.

For one thing, once I’d stopped rolling my eyes at my own hostile tendencies, I felt peaceful and more present, happier than when I was going to war.

Later, looking for another take on those verses, I picked up Edwin F. Bryant’s excellent translation and commentary of the Yoga Sutras.

He writes that persistently noticing perverse thoughts and countering them with more wholesome ones can eventually transform the mind.

It works this way: every thought and action imprints itself in our mind, laying down a trace in our brain. As we go through our days, these imprints from the past, samskaras, in Sanskrit, are triggered, and rise into consciousness.

Some of them are in line with the precepts of yoga, and not coincidentally, with the habits needed to live a happy life.

Many of them are not.

If we pay attention to the small chattering voice telling stories about what the present moment means, and how it relates to us, we can catch the hostile thoughts, and counter them with benevolent ones.

Instead of planting more perverse ideas, only to reap endless suffering and ignorance, we plant a seed of sattva, or luminosity, that will arise at some future time.

As sattva is cultivated in this way,” Bryant writes, “the personality of the yogi becomes altered.”

As in a garden, the more one makes an effort to uproot weeds, the more the bed will eventually become a receptacle for fragrant flowers, which will then grow and reseed of their own accord, until there is hardly any room for the weeds to surface.

I don’t expect to run out of dandelions any time soon.

But campanula has also seeded itself along the outer edge of the flowerbed, in the same spots as the dandelions. In June and July it will send up long spikes with blue bell-shaped flowers.

And there at least I can hope for no yellow dandelions, and no seed heads, ready to float with the wind, and root where they land.

the border of a garden and a parking space, dandelions cleared away

The patches of green are the new leaves of campanula, and another volunteer, California poppies..

 If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

How do you work with the Yamas and Niyamas?

Weaken the afflictions to bring harmony into your life

Rooting: a yoga lesson from the garden

Would you like to be talked through 11 five-minute yoga practices? Then check out the My Five Minute Yoga Practice app. Complete with longer practices, modifications, your own sequence builder, and a timer that can set two alarms a day. Build your home yoga practice for less than the cost of a cup of coffee.

Black and white cow

In general, cows like to be upright. Cow-faced pose, not so much.

Wouldn’t it be great if all of life’s problems could be solved by lying down and taking it easy?

The good news is that some of them can.

Take tight outer hips, for example.

This might be one of your problems if you cycle, run, do weight training, spend a lot of time sitting, or are simply getting older – which covers almost all of us.

Tight outer hips leads to numerous ills, including sore knees, sore backs and sciatica – a bolt of pain running from your buttock down your thigh, which can be caused by the sciatic nerve encountering a tight piriformis muscle.

(To see how the muscles of the outer hip work, and why a tight piriformis can cause sciatica, take a look at this very clear short video.)

Seated cow-face pose is a good way to stretch your hip rotators, including piriformis. That’s why you’ll find it recommended in books such as Mary Pullig Schatz’s excellent Back Care Basics: A Doctor’s Gentle Yoga Program for Back and Neck Pain Relief.

But if your hips are very tight, you’ll have to prop yourself up on a stack of blankets or chip foams to sit in this pretzel pose. Even then, you may not be able to find a comfortable stretch.
Stay in a painful position, and you’ll irritate instead of relaxing your muscles. If you already have sciatic pain, you’ll make it worse.

The solution? This week’s Five-Minute Yoga Challenge:

Lie down, cross your legs, and rest a spell.
With no props, except possibly a blanket or chip foam block behind your head, you can get a good stretch in your outer hips, just by changing your relationship to gravity.

It works because when you lie on your back, the weight of your upper body is no longer dropping into your pelvis, as it does when you’re sitting. Because the hips aren’t pinned to the ground, they have more freedom to move.

When you’re lying down, no matter how tight your hips may be, you can stay, breathe, explore, relax and smile. You can find your right, moderate stretch, stay with it long enough to make a difference, and return to it willingly every day.


Why not just do the better known “thread-the-needle”pose?

preparation for outer hip stretch, supine cow pose

Get a strong internal rotation on both upper thighs before you cross your legs.

By crossing your knees, you’ll bring the stretch to the centre of your top-leg buttock, which is a more effective piriformis stretch.
Naturally, you could always do both.

supine outer hip stretch

Hold behind your knees and draw your thighs toward you.

Here’s how to rest your cow:

Lie down on your back, with your knees bent.
Rotate your inner left thigh strongly inward, and lengthen your left leg.
Rotate your right thigh inward, and bring your right thigh over your left thigh.
Then draw both knees toward your chest.
Continue rotating your inner thighs towards each other.
You should feel an intense and yet pleasant stretch, deep inside your right buttock.
(If you feel pinching in your inner groins, undo your legs and rotate your thighs more strongly inward as you come into the pose.)

final stage of supine outer hip stretch

If you can go further, hold the outer edges of your feet and drawn your knees closer.

Draw your knees closer, hands behind the knees, until you find your ideal stretch.
At first your calves will line up beside each other. After a few breaths, bring them out to the sides, as they would be in the seated version of cow-faced pose.

If you can go deeper, reach out to hold your feet, and pull your knees closer to your chest.

Stay for at least 90 seconds, then change the cross of your legs.

 Photo via Flickr, with thanks to Meneer Zjeroen.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

Seven strategies to loosen tight hips

Step forward from downward dog, even if you have tight hips

One-legged hamstring stretch: find your working place


Would you like to be talked through 11 five-minute yoga practices? Then check out the My Five Minute Yoga Practice app. Complete with longer practices, modifications, your own sequence builder, and a timer that can set two alarms a day. Build your home yoga practice for less than the cost of a cup of coffee.


Picture of a small girl under an elephant's foot

It's a statue. No children were squished to achieve this stunning illustration of the dark side of discipline.

I heard from someone last week who bought the My Five-Minute Yoga app, didn’t use it, and wanted to be sure that the $2.99 cost wasn’t a recurring monthly fee. (No. It isn’t.)

During our email conversation, I asked why it wasn’t working for her.

“Unfortunately I don’t do the yoga,” she wrote. “In theory it was good but I am not that disciplined.”

Right away I sent back a tidy paragraph of advice: “don’t give up, make it smaller, just do the kitchen counter stretch for a minute once a day,” and received a well deserved “thanks, Mom,” in reply.

I’ve been dissatisfied with my advice ever since because I let a fat one – the idea that lack of discipline is the problem ­– go by unchallenged.

The problem with applying discipline to a yoga practice is that it divides the self in two, when the whole point of yoga is to find union. When we’re being “disciplined,” the mind holds the leash, and the body wears the collar.

Just to be clear, I struggle with practice all the time. That’s why I write about it.

By nature, I like cooking, eating and sitting on a couch, reading. I value idleness and can happily be employed doing nothing at all. When I stop to think about it, I’m still surprised that I teach a physical discipline. That’s the power of yoga: even the born indolent can be seduced into a steady practice.

But my practice regularly hits bumps, large and small. Here’s one of the large ones:

On Tuesdays I practice, then teach two classes, from 5:30 to 9 p.m. On Wednesday morning, the last thing I want is more yoga.

Some weeks I go to Louie’s class, and the problem is solved for me. Being told what to do is ever so much easier than telling yourself.

On other Wednesdays, discipline is no match for my inertia.

I already know it’s pointless to drag my tired body to the mat for a normal practice. Experience says it will be unsettled and unsatisfying.

The truth is, if you’re living with an animal, sometimes the animal gets to choose. And the rest of the time, it’s better to be friends and partners than servant and boss.

So lately I’ve been practicing the art of indulgence.

Back when swimming was my main form of exercise, I would get myself to the pool on low-energy days by promising that the only thing I had to do was make it to the hot tub. Of course by the time I was soaking, I’d invested too much energy to just go home. By the third length, the pleasure of swimming would kick in, and I’d be happy to swim my regular distance.

I’ve found several hot-tub equivalents for my practice. I tell myself I’ll just do a restorative pose, or I’ll roll on tennis balls, or do a shoulder stand, maybe from the chair.

These strategies all work to get me started, sometimes, sort of.

Lately I’ve learned a powerful new technique, called a dive.

It’s part of the Continuum work I’ve been learning from Penny Allport, who teaches at the Yoga on 7th studio.

I lie down on the floor, close my eyes, and notice all the places my body meets the floor. Then, imagining that my inner body is liquid, I feel it pour into or away from the points of contact.

In a dive, my body is leading, and my job is to not plan, direct, or think ahead.

That’s a big change. Yes, I listen to my body in my practice. But I listen to its reactions. In asana practice, I ask my body to perform highly specific actions, to move into and maintain set forms. It takes energy, and will power.

Now, on days when I have neither, I set a timer for 15 minutes and promise myself that I’ll just roll around on the floor, playing.  If I still don’t want to practice, I can get up and leave.

By the time I’m done, I’ve simultaneously indulged and shaken off my lethargy. There I am, on my mat, in my practice clothes. It’s easy to pick up a strap and do some leg stretches – and we all know where that can lead.

Doing a dive takes 15 minutes away from practice, but it repays the time.

When my body has been let out to play, the practice that follows feels quieter, and more like an inquiry than a rote performance.

This is new for me. We’ll see how it goes.

For the moment, I’d just like to say, if you think you don’t practice because you’re not “disciplined” enough, give indulgence a try.

Do you have ways of jollying yourself into a practice? Favorite indulgences? Do tell?

Photo Paul Sapiano, via Flickr.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

Meet your I-maker and feel less alone

10 tips for building a home yoga practice

5 good reasons to let a timer be your practice buddy



Prop up in half-moon and learn to fly

boy in flight over water

How is it we fly so well in our dreams?

The first time I lifted off in half-moon I was in a setup just like the one in the picture below, but without the belt.

At that moment, after months of mid-room struggle, I finally understood why yogis so often count this demanding balance pose among their favorites.

Between the wall at my foot and the brick under my hand, I had enough support to relax in the pose.

Then with arms and legs extending, spine lengthening, energy radiating in all directions, for a brief moment, I had a feeling of something familiar yet unexpected: the wingless soaring we do in our dreams.

No wonder half-moon (Ardha Chandrasana) reduces anxiety, along with menstrual pain, backache and indigestion.
When you come back to earth, you feel bigger, with a confidence born of having been at home in another element.

 Beginners’ note: If you’re just starting to learn the pose, put your mat lengthwise against the wall, and have a brick for your hand. With your back to the wall, come up into the pose and let the wall support you. When you are stable enough to balance without touching the wall, you’re ready to try this tip.

Prop up and learn to fly.

For this piece of flight training, you need a wall, two bricks and a strap.

The wall is there to support your raised foot, and give you something to push into.

The bricks are there to make getting into the pose easier, and to keep the hamstring stretch moderate.

And the strap?

In order to take off in half-moon pose, you need a solid foundation. The thigh you’re standing on has to have a healthy, compact relationship with its hip socket.

Our natural tendency is to let the thighbone drop out to the side, creating a counter-balance and putting unhealthy pressure into our knees and ankles.

Instead, the thighbone needs to pull into the hip socket, the hip crease needs to rotate outward, and the front thigh needs to press toward the back thigh.

That’s not so easy to do. But with an outward rotating strap at your upper thigh, you can use your opposite hand to move your standing leg into place.

preparation for half-moon pose, foot to wall, strap to standing leg thigh

Bring your foot up so it can press firmly into the wall with your standing leg straight.

Here’s how to do it:

As in last week’s post on triangle pose, make a loop in a strap and bring the loop to the inside of your right thigh.

Thread the end of the strap through the loop and pull the strap to the right. Wrap it once more around your right thigh, creating a strong external rotation.  Tuck the end of the strap into the left side of your waistband.

Place your sticky mat with the narrow end to the wall.
Have two yoga bricks.
Stand about the length of your leg away from the wall. Bend forward, bring your hands to the bricks and raise your right leg.

If you’re too close to the wall, you won’t be able to bring your leg up to the height of your pelvis.
If you’re too far from the wall, you won’t be able to press your whole foot into the wall.
Your right leg should be perpendicular to the floor, not angling back towards the wall.

supported half-moon pose

Once you can hold the alignment, try letting go of the strap.

Now lift your left hand from the brick, and rotate your right hip, thigh and pelvis to the right.
Check that your right foot is still straight. The standing leg foot often turns out to the right, which is the body’s artful way of reducing the work in the hamstrings.
If it has deviated, bring it back in line.

Then check that your left foot, now parallel to the floor, lines up with your right foot: left heel to the middle of the right arch.
Firm your right thigh, and press the front thigh deeper into the bone.
From your left buttock, extend toward your left heel, pushing the heel into the wall.

Reach your left hand back and take hold of the strap. Hold it as close to your right outer thigh as you can. Pull the strap back toward the wall behind you.

As you pull the strap, allow the pull to open your left shoulder toward the ceiling. Rotate your ribcage.
Move both shoulder blades away from your ears. Look straight ahead.
When you feel steady, and can hold the position of your right thigh, let go of the strap, and bring your left arm up, palm facing the wall in front of you.
Soften your face, quiet your brain, and bring your awareness to your heart centre.

Now go ahead and fly.

When you’re ready to land, come down and repeat on the second side.

Does half-moon feel like flying to you? Are there other poses that make you feel airborne? Do tell.

Flying boy courtesy of notsogoodphotography, via Flickr.

If this was your kind of post you might also like:

Gabriella Giubilaro’s tip for working with halfmoon pose while facing the wall.

Reverse Ardha Chandrasana: lie down and stretch your outer hips

Can you do flow yoga while sitting still?





a happy face in yoga straps

Straps can make you smile.

For the last few weeks I’ve been strap-happy – deeply in love with the simplest and most economical of yoga props.

In every practice I do at least one pose, and often more, with a strap wrapped around one upper thigh. On strap extravaganza days, I wrap both thighs.


Getting a good strong rotation into your hip creases and upper thighs is a key part of many poses.
With the strap, I get a strong rotation that helps me clarify and deepen the work in my hip joints.
And when I take the straps off – bonus – the memory of the strap stays in my body, and carries itself into related poses all through my practice.

loop to the inside of the thigh for external rotation

For external rotation, have the loop on the inside.

Today’s strap tip focuses on triangle pose, but you don’t need to stop there. Once you understand how to use the strap, you can play with it in many poses.

The rule is simple: if you want to rotate your thigh outward, start with the loop on the inside of your thigh.If you want to rotate your thigh inward, as, for example, the back thigh in warrior I, start with the loop on the outside of your thigh.

strap through the loop and pulling out for external rotation

Put the tail of the strap through the loop, and pull against the loop.

Here’s how to use a strap in triangle pose (Utthita Trikonasana):

Make a small loop in one end of your strap.

Put the loop on the inside of your thigh.

Pass the tail of the strap through the loop, and pull back against the loop.  Wrap the top three inches of your upper thigh, starting at the hip crease. Make the strap tight enough that you feel a strong outward rotation. Then, for easy access, tuck the end of the strap into the left side of your waistband.

In a wide stride at the wall, left hand holding the belt at the right hip.

Hold the belt as close to your right hip as you can.

Take a wide stride with your right heel on the floor, right toes up the wall.
Stand tall. Bring your ribcage to face forward, so your chest is on a side plane in the pose.
Reach your left hand behind, and hold the strap as close to your right hip as you can. Pull the strap out to the right, and back toward your buttocks.
Begin to hinge at your hip crease. Reach your right arm up the wall.
Move your buttocks away from your waist. From your left buttock, press down into your left heel.
Continue to pull the strap to the right and back. From the fixed point of the strap, rotate your right rib cage up towards the ceiling. Your left shoulder will roll back into line with your right shoulder.
Hold for several quiet, relaxed breaths.
Change sides.

full pose of triangle at the wall with strap to the right thigh

Pull the strap to the right and back as you reach up the wall.

Now come into triangle pose on the right without the strap.
Using the memory of the strap at your right thigh, rotate the hip crease to the right and back.
Without losing the rotation of your right thigh, use the memory of the strap to rotate your left hip crease to the left.

Next week we’ll look at how to use a strap in half-moon pose.

In the meantime, do you have a favorite strap trick? Do tell.

If this was your kind of post you might also like:

Tricky Triangle Pose: protect your S.I. joints

Mula Bandha on Ice: what skating taught me about yoga and vice versa

Seven strategies to loosen tight hips




Are some yoga poses lemons?

are some yoga poses lemons?

Lemons can be so beautiful.

On reflection, I’d say no.

There are poses that can cause harm if they are badly done. And there are poses so likely to be badly done that careful teachers rarely teach them – or more precisely, they rarely teach the final pose.

That doesn’t make these poses lemons, just poses to approach with care.

Sadly that doesn’t mean you can’t have your own personal lemonasana, or even a half-dozen of them.

I don’t mean poses you find hard to do, or poses that are, at the moment, too advanced.

For each of us there are simple poses that just don’t work.

If you have an injury or chronic illness, you may already know your lemon poses.

But what if you’re healthy and injury free?

How do you recognize your lemons, and what can you do about it?

How to recognize a personal lemon:

• When you’ve bitten into one of your lemon poses, discomfort shades into pain and anxiety.

Perhaps you can’t breathe well in the pose. Or perhaps, no matter how carefully you follow the alignment cues, your knee twinges or your lower back hurts. In a lemon pose, your body feels locked and stuck.

Rotated triangle pose is a prime candidate in this category, but it happens in many other poses too.

• In a lemon pose, you can’t find the sweet spot. Instead of increasing clarity, you’re stuck in uncomfortable confusion.

• Lemon poses don’t feel good when you’re finished.

If the pose itself feels unpleasant, then yes, you’ll be relieved when you stop doing it.
But the end of the pose should offer more than just relief.

After standing poses, you should feel a pleasant sense of increased energy flowing through your body.

When you sit up after releasing from a headstand, expect energy, clarity and a sense of calm order.

A shoulder stand should have an afterglow of peacefulness, and a feeling that you’ve somehow been internally cleansed.

If the pose as you’re doing it is a personal lemon, you might feel heavy when you come out, less alert and clear than when you started.

There might be increased tension in your neck or shoulders, or a twinge in your back that wasn’t there in the pose.
If that happens consistently, then that pose, no matter how well you appear to be doing it, is a personal lemon.

If you’re committed to your practice, then simply avoiding your lemon poses isn’t going work in the long run, especially if they’re fundamental poses. Instead, you’ll have to take the time-honored route when life hands you lemons.

How to Make Lemonade:

• To help you stay motivated, create an intense desire for lemonade. Remember, lemons can be juicy.
After all, this pose is your own personal lemon. What makes it sour is a restriction in your body that you need to work on.
If you can identify what that is, and resolve it in your lemon pose, you’ll get a ripple effect of improvement through all your other poses.

• When your lemonasana comes up in class, pay special attention to any preparations or beginning stages your teacher suggests. Then take notes after class, and practice them at home.

Headstand, for example, may be a lemon pose for you.
Half-headstand, with foam bricks at the wall, is close enough to the full pose to give you the head-clearing, spirit-lifting effect.
If you pay attention to the details of how you place your hands, press your forearms down, and lift your shoulder blades, you may be surprised by your improvements the next time you do the full pose.

• In class, consider doing less, but doing it well.
If there’s a brick involved, use it at its tallest height. Rather than aiming for the full pose right away, build it step by step.

When you reach your familiar restriction, stop. Take your awareness back to your feet in standing poses, and to whatever part of your body touches the ground in other poses, and work from there.

If, for example, you’re already locked in a grim struggle with reverse triangle, don’t bother taking your arm up to complete the pose.
Instead, retrace your path into the pose, and work at the spot where you still feel as though you could move further into it.

Presenting poses in stages, by the way, is typical of Iyengar classes.
If you’re not getting that kind of instruction, seek out an Iyengar teacher at least until you learn how to get your lemons into the citrus juicer.

Practice at least twice a week with the stage of your lemon pose that’s sweet, or at least workable. Spend time working on related poses.

Ask your teacher for suggestions, or do some research. Yoga Journal online is an excellent resource.

Do you have poses you think of as personal lemons? What are they? And what do you do to work with them?

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

It’s not all bliss: how to work with poses you don’t like, part one

It’s not all bliss: how to work with poses you don’t like, part two

Find your working place in hamstring stretches