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Transform your well-being, body and performance with Natalie Cristal Morrison. Natalie is a London based yoga teacher, mindfulness coach, Personal Trainer, NLP Practitioner and Health Coach. She offers corporate wellness and team performance training to optimise your and your team's well-being and success. 

Blog

Natalie shares her yoga life - attending yoga events, classes and workshops in London and around the world. The yoga world from the inside. Yoga philosophy - the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and much more.  

Practicing non-violence towards the body

Natalie Morrison

The principle of non-violence is at the heart of spirituality and the basis for any system that promotes wellness in ourselves and in society. As we have shifted towards our current fast-paced, technology-dependent lifestyle particularly over the past few decades, people are increasingly suffering from illnesses that are to a large extent inflicted by this way of life. Even those of us who are health-conscious experience a lot of inner conflict around what we eat and drink, how much we exercise, and so on. I'd like to offer a perspective of how yoga and meditation can help cultivate a deep connection with our bodies and an expanded sense of self for our physical and emotional health.

Disconnection with the physical body

Very few of us these days are living in the way our bodies were evolved to live. Hunting, farming, trekking, combat, horse-riding and so on are optional past-times for some but not exactly part of the average city-dweller's daily habits. Instead, we often find ourselves seated or just standing and walking for most of the day, maybe we take the stairs. 

Physical activity has become an add-on to our lives. For many of us it is a task or chore we perform, like brushing our teeth. We 'do some exercise' with varying degrees of enthusiasm to lose weight, prevent premature or unnecessary decline of the body or to feel good. Whatever we choose to do, whether we're at the gym on the treadmill and using a weight machine that isolates our biceps, or a whether we're a professional athlete training to excel at one particular mode of movement, in the end our regime is nevertheless contrived. Very few of us experience a way of being for which our bodies were evolved, with all the natural ranges of movement, skills of intuition, balance, proprioception, gut instinct, heart-wisdom and much more besides that we would have relied on instinctively in the past. Much gets lost in this translation.

This may be part of the reason why it seems that many people have lost a positive relationship with their bodies. If you include the shift away from standard working hours towards an 'always online' culture and the level of stress that can be associated with that, it's easy to see why our more popular national past-times tend to err towards activities which dull our senses (watching TV, drinking, shopping etc.) rather than more mindful activities which tend to amplify what's going on in our internal ecosystem.

Research into the psychology of trauma suggests that we all carry around with us many 'micro-traumas' from our past, which get sealed into the memory of our physical bodies. The level of stress we're often under even from subtle signals like text messages, billboards, and sensationalist messaging in the media takes it's toll on our adrenal system meaning our bodies have become more burdened by stress than ever before. Even if we're not engaged in any sense-numbing activities, our bodies sometimes do this for us as a way of coping with these micro-traumas via the sophisticated system of pathways in our bodies which act as a bridge network between our physicality and our consciousness (energy channels known as nadis in yoga or meridians in chinese medicine).  This can result in physical tightness or imbalance within the body or a switching off the ability to feel sensations in certain parts or to breathe into certain areas of the belly, back and chest. 

In yoga and meditation, as we slow down and become more attuned to the subtle states of the body, the breath, the mind, our emotions and how these are all inter-related we start to build new neural pathways that offer us a different way of being throughout the day. Suddenly we find we're in a meeting and we become aware of tension we're carrying in our shoulders and in our breath, and we are able to ease that strain. Or we notice how some hurtful remark someone made has triggered us to comfort eat and we're able to see that and instead select a more nourishing way to soothe ourselves, perhaps by calling a friend or running a bath. Rather than forcing ourselves into ever more mind-boggling positions for no apparent reason, this attitude towards our yoga practice is how we cultivate a real, loving connection with the body.

A sense of self out of balance

Sometimes I think back to the days of my corporate career and my attitude towards my body back then. As a Project Manager, I would often have spells where I would work very intensely, putting in solid 12+ hour days under pressure to deliver to a deadline. I remember at those times having this strange sense upon finally stepping out of the office that I didn't really physically exist any more, like I was all mind and no body. As I'd step out into the busy central London traffic there were several occasions where my frazzled brain failed to register the very real physical danger associated with this spaced-out state and was lucky not to be run over.

Many of us think of ourselves very much in terms of who we are in the external world: our level of success, what we have achieved, what we own, who we know, where we live and so on. To flourish under this assumption requires a lot of mental effort. We have to get good grades at school and get a good job and work hard and hopefully all this leads to status, a comfortable home, nice clothes, a pleasant lifestyle and perhaps even the opportunity to have a positive, meaningful impact on the world. That's the theory. But in reality what we are often seeing is that many of us living this kind of lifestyle start to suffer from typical modern health issues such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, heart-disease, obesity, hypertension and digestive issues. There is often a sense of alienation and loneliness which is thinly disguised by our consumption patterns, many of which are similarly harmful to our health. This is the road I was on when I was in my corporate role.

Conversely at other times I think about times in my life where I was hyper-conscious of my body. In my teens I felt a deep sense of shame about it. Even though I had a great, healthy physique, I simply couldn't see that. It was the 90's and everyone in the media looked like a waif in a Wonderbra. For about a year I couldn't even wear jeans without tying a sweater around my waist to hide my “fat” bottom. I exercised constantly to the point of exhaustion and restricted my diet to a punishing 700 calories a day.

When we overly identify with our bodies we think in statements like “I am fat”, “I am old” and so on. These types of statements indicate a belief that our identity is defined by our physicality, rather than the deeper levels of our being. If we base our self-worth on our own or other's opinions about our bodies we are setting ourselves up for suffering as we will one day age, die and decay. In many Eastern spiritual traditions there is a strong component of contemplating impermanence of the body by visiting cremation grounds and gaining exposure to the reality of death (some mystics even bury themselves alive!) to the point where attachment to the body weakens and an increased sense of the preciousness of life arises. It is no coincidence that in the West we do exactly the opposite, hiding sickness and death as much as possible so as not to shatter the fantasy that by eating organic vegetables and buying the right creams we will not meet with the same fate.

It has been clear for a long time that cultural norms around the representation of beauty and the body are damaging for anyone remotely psychologically vulnerable. But even much of the body-positive messaging that we now see on social media and in the marketing of some of the smarter brands, which recognises the beauty of people of all shapes, sizes, colours, and ages can to some extent be regarded as harmful. The more we reinforce the message that for some reason it's so terribly important that we see ourselves as beautiful, the more we're perpetuating the imbalance of our identification with the physical aspect of ourselves.

Both these two extremes, one of complete disregard for the body and the other of over-obsession with it, are rife in our culture. They are two sides of the same coin in the sense that both are symptoms of our tendency to objectify our own bodies, a result of this deep disconnection. They also both reveal deep-seated misalignments in our perception of who we really are. We are so much more than that.

A wider sense of Self

In terms of viewing ourselves more broadly, there are many different schools of thought on this but I'd like to summarise this (essentially Tantric) framework for thinking about ourselves more holistically, which I find very useful.

  • Outermost layer: This is whatever we create and share with the world, and the infinite repercussions of our actions as a chain reaction of everything we say and do. Examples include a simple smile, a piece of art, a business (and along with employment), something we've built, a positive feeling in someone we've helped or inspired, all the way through to changing the course of history. 
  • Personal outer layer: Our wealth, home, friends and family, possessions, clothing. Also, where we eat, brands we like, who we spend time with, political and social affiliations.
  • Physical body: Our health. How we look. How we feel physically (hungry, tired, thirsty etc.)
  • Thoughts and feelings. There's a lot to this so I'll explore this layer in more depth next week.
  • Vital energy (prana or chi): How much life-force or vitality we have and how energy flows through and in and out of our bodies. 
  • Some would argue there's a transcendent “void”-like layer that is accessible in meditation. A sense of deep stillness.
  • Consciousness layer: Finally, deep within the very essence of our being we might find an all-pervasive consciousness. You could take the view that much of spiritual practice and indeed spirit for life emanates from an attempt of this consciousness to understand itself.

According to this model, it's not that it's inherently “wrong” to identify with any of these layers. They are all equally valid and part of us. It's just that often we identify very strongly with one or two of them and forget or not even ever become aware of the rest. This causes a great deal of suffering and self-harm. We can learn to use this framework to keep us right, to ensure that we are balancing out these different elements so that our bodies do not suffer.

Balancing out the layers

In yoga and meditation practice, we work on all these layers of the body to find a state of unity amongst them; to find complete peace. In some ways these practices can become quite complicated, but in many ways establishing a practice that reharmonises these layers can also be very simple.

A physical yoga class will help as by synchronising physical alignment and movement, breath, attention and intention we are aligning at least several of this layers at any given moment. A simple, regular meditation practice goes a long way to start to gain familiarity with a sense of inner stillness. An easy mindfulness technique we can use to reset the balance is simply to consciously breathe and to smile more often. By making the decision to perform this simple act we're returning to the present moment. In that state of just being with whatever is happening in that moment, whatever we notice through the senses and feel physically, we can find that sense of returning home to our bodies. When we act from that central place it is only natural to honour and respect our bodies. That state of connection and balance is only ever a breath away.  

A week at Plum Village, Buddhist Monastery

Yoga Concierge

Pause for a moment. Take a breath. As you breathe in, know you are breathing in. As you breathe out, know you are breathing out. And in this process, return home to the space in your heart. 

The essence of mindfulness is so simple, so natural that at first glance it seems it hardly warrants an explanation. Being attentive to the moment. The sanskrit word is smrti which can also more accurately be translated as 'remembering'; it's a constant activity, a practice, not a noun. 

Remembering what? 

We're alive.

We have a body.

We can breathe.

Remembering to be with whatever is in the here and now, regardless of how mundane or at times painful it might be. Regardless even of how much joy there might be. Hold it in your awareness, breathe with it. 

I've just come back from Bordeaux, France after a week-long stay in the beautiful monestary Plum Village, created by the revered zen master and global spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hahn. There, we train in remembering constantly. So that this way of being eventually becomes a way of life. A way in to the fullness of our lives. 

Even after a day and a half back in London I'm still full of love, a sense of deep peace, inspiration and joyful appreciation for life. The monks and nuns of the Order of Inter-being embody that spirit through their lightness and groundedness which spills over into the experience of the guests. 

Over the week you are taught the 5 mindfulness trainings, or precepts of Buddhism, which include reverence for life, true happiness, true love, loving speech and deep listening, and nourishment and healing. If you choose, you can commit to them formally which is often an emotional experience and an important next step in your spiritual journey. I've been thinking about doing this for a while so did receive them while I was there. Once you accept them you are given a dharma name based on your nature and aspirations. I was given the name 'Smiling Bodhissattva of the Heart', which I'm deeply honoured by. 

The schedule is quite full, you wake up at 5am to start seated meditation at 6. There are walking meditations, dharma talks, excursions and usually some activities where you help out around the monastery (I washed the vans but you might have to clean the toilets!) It's all part of the practice ;). Nevertheless there are gaps here and there to rest or do your own thing.

You are very much with your thoughts throughout the experience and may gain a lot of insight into your mental habits. This is life-changing but also difficult. You are encouraged to breath and smile at whatever arises and this is the real practice. It's a life-long journey really. 

It is worth calling out that as a Buddhist monastery accommodation is basic and that men are women are in separate Hamlets, possibly 20mins drive apart. Noble silence is upheld which allows for periods of socialising in the middle of the day but also a deep sense of relaxation or at least turning inward. 

The food is vegan and mostly Vietnamese (but very pleasant and plentiful). Porridge for breakfast. It was winter so we had lots of hot soups with vegetables often grown in their own gardens. We ate in silence. 

I would whole-heartily recommend a stay at Plum Village to learn more about bring mindfulness into your life, it's a transformative and recharging experience.

Lower Hamlet

Lower Hamlet

Enjoying the moment by our guesthouse

Enjoying the moment by our guesthouse

By the stone Buddhas, Upper Hamlet

By the stone Buddhas, Upper Hamlet

Relaxing in the New Hamlet. There is an orchard of plum trees behind me.

Relaxing in the New Hamlet. There is an orchard of plum trees behind me.

Zen garden, New Hamlet

Zen garden, New Hamlet

Walking meditation

Walking meditation

Sticking to New Year's Resolutions...some thoughts and a guided meditation

Natalie Morrison

A new year is a fresh start. An opportunity to clearly state our higher ambitions for ourselves and for our lives. It is a chance to honour a greater vision of how we can be and to recognise that we feel we ought to be feeling differently somehow. Happier. Brighter. Lighter. More content.

This impulse is reflective of the rhythm of nature. The transition towards longer days after the winter solstice marks a gradual shift in our collective mood towards productivity and planting new seeds to come to fruition later in the year.

Strange then, that the statistics around new year's resolutions are so bad. Two thirds don't even make it through to the end of January. Only around fifteen percent of our NY goals are actually met. The implications of this are darker than it first appears.

Many of us are not just failing at keeping up the resolutions themselves, but we are cultivating negative neural pathways, or samskaras in yogic philosophy, which deepen the grooves of our behaviour towards failure. Sensing this with each instance, we lose greater and greater trust in ourselves, often triggering compensatory strategies to make us feel better in the short term, which then take us even further from our initial goal. Over time we erode our self-confidence and relegate our goals to distant, half-forgotten wishes. This happens at the individual and at the social level. These kinds of statistics signal to us that as a nation we are unable to uphold our own values or implement simple, meaningful change even directly in our own lives.

Of course we all vary when it comes to setting resolutions. Some of us may well fling ourselves head-first into another year with a wildly optimistic set of aspirations. Others have written off the exercise all together and shut themselves away from all the hype as much as possible. Yet there are many that carefully craft a list of meaningful intentions and do commendably manage to implement them successfully throughout the year.

Without a doubt, strategies for how to stick to our resolutions are evolving. Much research has been carried out into how to make resolutions more effective. Framing our intentions so that they are clear, realistic, and aligned with our values is essential. Building in extra levels of commitment to the goal to act as a safety net such as incurring extra financial cost for cheating, publicly stating your commitment or teaming up with a buddy are helpful tactics too. Considered planning is also critical, breaking down the overall wish into specific actions you can do regularly – such as listening to a language course on your commute or scheduling in gym time in your lunch breaks.

However for stubborn goals we may need to dig a little deeper. If we examine our own attitudes to setting intentions at this time of year there is a lot that can be gained. We set resolutions because we think we can somehow do better. We have a feeling perhaps that we are letting ourselves down or short-changing ourselves with our current set of behaviours. This often represents a complex blend of self-judgement, conditioning and idealistic notions of ourselves and our lives, and suggests there are several layers or parts of ourselves and our views about the world that have not yet been reconciled. Otherwise we would already be running on the treadmill three times a week or whatever it is without much of a second thought.

The yogic view would be that our drive comes from sensing the innate presence of universal consciousness within us, as us, which is infinitely vast and wise and looking to realise itself. In order to do so we need to align all the physical, energetic and heart/mind aspects of ourselves so that this expansive Self might radiate out from within us with less obstruction.

We have to be honest with ourselves about what our motivations are and what's holding us back, including honouring those parts of ourselves that will seek to resist change. I've created this ten minute guided meditation as a tool to be listened to on a daily basis throughout January or for as long as needed to ensure your resolutions this year are a success.

 

Yin Yoga Infant Series Adaptation

Natalie Morrison

I love to practice what's known as the "Infant Series" in Yin Yoga (more resources here), as I find it a lovely light way to nourish my body when I'm feeling slightly more fragile - the morning after a late night at the weekend (you can even do this from bed!) or as a wind-down at the end of a long day. It's a wonderful series to improve and maintain posture as we age.  

The series replicates the types of movements a baby goes through to during infancy to evolve to a walking child, building curves in the spine along the way. It's very healthy to replicate this kind of process regularly to reinforce a healthy spine and supportive musculature. It also offers some wonderful opportunities to stretch the hamstrings in ways you don't normally find in more traditional forward bends - hamstring flexibility being intimately connected to spinal health as it controls the tilt of the pelvis. 

1. Cradle the leg

First, gently work into the hip sockets, circling the knee around and then squeezing the head into the knee. Then give both knees a big hug.

2. Gentle spinal twist

Take a twist with both legs over to the side, knees bent, arm and upper body twisted the other way. Hold for at least a minute, breathe deeply, allow gravity to gently help you find a little openness. Hold for a couple of minutes to allow the body to begin to open up.


3. The Stirrup 

Take hold of the foot and gently pull the knee towards the head / foot towards the floor by your side. Keep the moment fluid - experiment with bending and straightening the knee, taking the foot wider and narrower, 

4. Twisted roots 

Moving into a slightly deeper twist, lie on your back and wrap your left leg around your right. Take the knees over to the right and twist the upper body over to the left. Experiment with taking the knees higher or lower, and the are placement. Taking the left arm up towards the head, for example, can find a wonderful way to open across the chest, neck and shoulder. Try holding this for 5 minutes and notice the effect of the pose on the body over that time. Repeat on the other side.

5. Baby feet

Lying on the back, pull both feet towards the head, bending the knees as much as needed and allowing the base of the spine to rise, finding a stretch for the lower back. 
 

 

6. Snail (plough)

(NOT FOR BEGINNERS) Lying on your back with arms by your sides, push into the arms and use the momentum to lift your legs overhead. Support your back at first by bending your elbows and holding the upper back, keeping the elbows as close together behind your back as you can. If you feel any strain in the neck come out of the pose, and also do not turn the head in this pose under any circumstances. You might want to rest the arms behind the back on the mat or wrap them around the legs if the feet reach the ground and you feel secure. Hold for a minute if you can. 

7. Cat tail

Two options for cat tail, which neutralises the spine after the previous forward bend - preparing us for back bends. 

Option 1: draw the left knee over to the right and rest your head on your right elbow. Draw the right hip back along the mat and catch hold of your right foot, possible finding a quad stretch. Hold for a few minutes and notice the effect on the body. 
 

Option 2: Kick the back foot away from the body, place the right arm flat along the mat and find a back bend. Again, holding this for a few minutes will serve as a lovely low-impact stretch for the back.

 

8. Infant Pose

This is a great back strengthener. Hold for 30 seconds if you can and concentrate on reaching out lengthwise as well as lifting the chest and legs upwards.

 

9. Seal (sphinx) 

This pose serves as a wonderful preparation for deeper backbends and helps to prevent lumbar curve from degenerating - a common problem as we age. You may not get very far off the mat at first, and bend the elbow as much as you need to but try to find openness in the chest, pressing the sternum forward and feeling the bend throughout the length of the spine rather than just in the lower back. 

10. Camel

An infant needs strong quads to be able to crawl, and we need to sustain strength in these muscles to maintain good posture. Camel pose finds a means of accessing these muscles while bending the back.  Hold for 30 seconds.

Option 1:  Keep the hands on the lower back and gently push the hips forward, lift the chest and arch back. You can tuck the chin towards the chest as an alternative if you feel strain on the neck as you reach your head back. 

Option 2: Take the hands towards the feet. Toes can be tucked under or feet can be flat on the mat.

11.  Bear rolls (Cat and Cow variation)

To counteract these backbends, take a minute from all fours to freely bend and contract the spine, circle the hips, work into the shoulders and generally loosen off. Taking the hands slightly wider than the mat will allow a greater range of movement. 

12. Forearm plank (crocodile)

Other than the narrow spinal column, the only things things that hold the upper and lower body in alignment are the core muscles. It's essential we keep these strong to maintain good posture. Hold forearm plank, but rather than worrying about finding a perfectly straight line, instead, play will lifting the hips higher and lower, noticing how the core muscles respond and getting a sense of upper and lower body as two parts, united by this network of muscles. Try this for a minute. 

13. Downward Dog

Push up into down dog and focus on the spine - avoid "collapsing", sinking the body too much towards the mat. Also avoid hunching the shoulders and rounding the back. Aim for straightness even if it's not quite happening yet. 
 

14. Forward fold

Walk the hands back towards the feet and take a gentle forward bend. Allow the body simply to hand, releasing any tension in the shoulders, neck or face. Drawing in the belly will help you gently pull the body closer to the legs. Experiment with the bend in the knees - first bend them a lot, then straighten them a little. Find a place where you feel you're getting a good stretch without straining. More advanced practitioners can wrap their arms around the legs to intensify the stretch.  Hold for 2 minutes.

Finally, slowly uncurl the spine and roll up to standing. Reach the hands overhead and take a big stretch up to the sky. Namaste.

Toronto Yoga Tour

Yoga Concierge

Last week was my first visit to Toronto. I was looking forward to it being a well-organised city, to be well catered for in terms of food and shopping, and for there, of course, to be lots of Yoga :). It didn't disappoint. 

Yoga is a big deal in Canada, as can be attested by the fact that one of the biggest yoga apparel chains - Lulu Lemon - is from there. The range of yoga styles in Toronto is similar to that in London, although there does seem to be more of a preference for, and predominance of, ashtanga-based hot yoga classes and Vinyasa Flow. In contrast, restorative hatha type classes are also very popular and I saw Yin popping up on studio schedules a lot as well.

The best tip I had was to get a Passport to Prana. Almost as valuable as my real passport, this allowed me to visit 1 class in each studio as a taster over the course of one year. For a yoga tourist like me, this was perfect! It's also available across other major cities in Canada, the US and Australia, including New York and San Francisco.

Moksha

My first stop was Moksha Yoga. Moksha is a group of independent hot yoga studios committed to ethical, compassionate and environmentally conscious living, and they believe that the benefits of yoga are limitless and accessible to all. They have 7 ethical pillars which make them a more socially-conscious alternative to Bikram. I stepped into a smart, dimly lit room packed mat to mat with intent yogis, and took their customary preparatory savasana, getting ready for a practice in 40 degree heat while facing the mirror. Our teacher Brenden Jensen, an eloquent speaker with a good eye for alignment, guided us through the sequence and I enjoyed a sweaty, satisfying intermediate-level session, despite not typically being a lover of hot yoga. 

YogaSpace

Next up, I headed to YogaSpace. This is a quiet, unintimidating studio and wellness center on Ossington, and has a suburban vibe. My class was a general level Flow class, and sadly was not really to my taste. I think the style of teaching here might be more suited to beginners or to those looking for a more restorative experience, with a strong preference for safety and alignment rather than a challenge or exploration.

889 Yoga

Fortunately, 889 Yoga on Yonge was a much more my style.

Jodi Fischtein's class was fun and challenging, full of interesting arm balances and variations to keep us on our toes. Her bright, bubbly demeanor helped the 90 minute class pass by very pleasantly and vaguely reminded me of one of my favourite classes in London - Celeste Perreira's Vinyasa Flow class at Triyoga. The studio was also a lovely space, with a great store and friendly staff.

Octopus Garden

Octopus Garden is one of the bigger studios in the city, with a fantastic vegan cafe and a wide range of classes (although restorative is reportedly one of their specialties). I was curious to try Christine Alevizakis's level 2 class. Christine has a very warm, down-to-earth personality which makes her level 2 class feel more accessible than the norm. The class began with more of a flow, but the more interesting elements came later on, where we shifted to more of a workshop-type structure and broke down a number of poses and carried out targeted exercises to help us improve. Most notably, we practiced back bends using chairs, really opening up the shoulders and thoracic spine, which felt amazing. Although she doesn't mention it in class, it's evident that Christine has a broad range of influences from beyond the standard yoga world (there were some tai chi-like elements for example), which made her class very engaging.  

Also, the great thing about Octopus Garden is that they offer a free trial week!

IAM Yoga

IAM is a funky downtown hot yoga studio which I think I'd find myself in a lot if I lived in Toronto (I'm now converted into a hot yoga fan). The staff are great and it's a beautiful space. Angela Morley rocked up to intermediate flow class and led us through an intelligently constructed practice, making very appropriate adjustments and suggestions. There was something about her style that echoed my next class, as well as Jodi's, and I think actually encapulates a certain 'flavour' that the Toronto Vinyasa Flow classes have compared to London, for example.  

Downward Dog

Located on the very hip Queen Street, Downward Dog is big on the Toronto scene. The reception staff are clearly aware of this, however, and would recommend you don't come to this studio looking for a warm, fuzzy feeling.  The range of yoga classes though is impressive.

My class was a level 2-3 with Sheldon Shannon, and our large Mysore-style room was packed with his disciples (including a disproportionately high ratio of scantily clad men) on a hot Saturday afternoon.

Sheldon is a charismatic teacher, who joked and danced along to a pretty kicking soundtrack while guiding us through a tough 90 minutes. While it was a hot day, this was not a hot yoga studio - still, the sweat dripped off me to the point where I was clinging onto the edges of my mat to stay in downward dog. 

The sequence was really well planned, and incorporated many advanced poses which offered a challenge even to the most ardent followers in the class. Despite there being a lot of people to keep track of, he picked up on my "cheating" in virasana - lying back fully on the mat when I'm not really ready to go down that far and graciously told me to ease back.  

This class was a great way to round off my Toronto "Yoga Tour". Studios I really wanted to visit but didn't get round to are Ahimsa , Kula and Esther Myers, all situated around the trendy Annex area of town. Next time. In the meantime, I'm really grateful to the wonder teachers and studios I practiced with last week. Namaste!

5 tips for a fresh yoga routine

Yoga Concierge

The degree to which people value routine versus spontaneity is very personal. To some, having to do the same thing every day couldn’t be any more tedious and will strive to seek out the next adventure. Others seem to create a life that runs smoothly and happily like clockwork and that’s absolutely fine by them.

Yogis are not much different. There’s definitely a breed of yogi that is always seeking to learn and experience more in the yoga world. And with good reason. Once you scratch below the surface and develop a reasonably confident practice, you soon discover world of yoga is rich and broad – so much history, so many different styles to practice, different teachers to learn from, studios to try out, and that’s not even exploring your whole inner and energetic world that the more meditative or tantric aspects of yoga can reveal.

Then there’s another breed, indeed at least two mainstream yoga styles – Ashtanga and Bikram – that seek to practice the same sequence every day (albeit with progression to successive sequences over time). There’s certainly a huge pragmatic benefit to getting up early and getting your practice done before the rest of the day begins and practicing a tried and tested sequences that ticks many of the boxes in terms of a balanced, appropriate practice for your level without having to think. Indeed, the lack of thinking allows for a more meditative, indeed yogic practice, without worrying about what’s coming next.

The flipside to each approach, however, is easy to spot. The free-spirited approach to yoga can quickly descend into little more than yoga tourism. Any good yoga style requires dedicated practice to understand and benefit from it in any meaningful way. Also, not having any fixed time to practice (in amongst the general complexity of live) can often mean that practice gets deferred to ‘tomorrow’ indefinitely.

Meanwhile those who restrict their practice to just one style will not only be cutting out asanas, inspiration and lessons from other practices, they may even be risking injury through over-repetition of the same things, especially if alignment is not quite correct.

With that in mind here are a few ideas to consider if you’re serious about your practice and feel it might be time to readdress the balance:

1.    Establish a regular time you can practice most days.

Even if it’s 10 minutes. Many people chose the morning, and that’s the traditional approach, but there’s a lot to be said for an after-work practice to wind down, a lunchtime practice, or even a gentle practice in the evening before bed. Whatever will get you on the mat regularly

2.    Continue to go to new classes every once in a while.

This may be trying a new style, a different teacher, a retreat, or even another aspect of yoga such as chanting, silent meditation or pranayama. Workshops are a fantastic way to learn more about a style and ask questions. Online class providers such aswww.yogaglo.com can also be a way to dip your toe in the water with a new kind of class although there are obvious safety drawbacks to not having an experienced with you when you’re trying something new. Ask your friends which classes they like, check YouTube (Kino MacGregor’s YouTube channel is excellent), follow other yogis on social media, read and learn about the history and philosophy of yoga. In summary, keep your mind open, and maybe even try something you’re not sure you’ll like a few times just to double check!

3.    Pick a class you feel works for you and stick with it.

By coming regularly to a class you will give the teacher an opportunity to get to know you better as well and provide you with much more personal guidance. Most teachers find this type of relationship rewarding and will be happy to advise ways you can practice at home or adapt your practice if you are new and still learning the ropes, or if you’ve been coming for a while and are looking for ways to progress and find new options.

4.    Don't make excuses!

Our silly old minds play tricks on us constantly and are very good at inventing reasons not to get on the mat. Except in extreme emergencies, you’re probably not too busy, sick, or hungover to do SOMETHING – even if it’s sitting in easy pose with the eyes closed and meditating for a few minutes, or taking a few cat and cow stretches. Even 5 sun salutes every day can be really beneficial.

5.    Explore other ways to add a new dimension to your existing practice.

Devoting your whole attention to one aspect of the practice like your breath, your gaze or the bandhas, for example, can be an interesting journey. Experiment with all the questions that might arise in your mind during a class. Here’s a few examples:

-        Breath: What’s it like if you DON’T use ujayi breath? What if you inhale when you usually exhale coming into a pose, and vice versa?

-        Gaze: How does gazing in one direction versus another alter the feeling of a pose? What’s a sun salute like with your eyes closed?

-        Alignment: What happens you flex your foot in a pose rather than point it, or if you bend your knees vs keep them straight, or if you keep your feet hip width vs together?

Hope this helps, let me know how you get on!

Review: Jivamukti with David Life

Yoga Concierge

Last week in New York I had the fortune of being able to attend the monthly workshop at the original Jivamukti center which is held each month in turn by one of the founders of the school - Shannon Gannon or David Life. 

In case you're not familiar with Jivamukti, it is a style of yoga created by the couple in 1984 and incorporates vigorous, flowing physical practice with a strong emphasis on the spiritual and ethical side of yoga. It has 5 tenets of shastra (scripture), bhakti (devotion), ahimsa (kindness), nada (music), and dhyana (meditation). I emphasize these elements and stress how they genuinely do care about aspects of life such as animal rights and the environment, while at the same time being popular among celebrities from Kate Moss to Sting.

The center is close to the insanely busy Union Square on the third floor of an office block, but once you're through the doors it really does feel like a spiritual haven. The staff are direct, efficient and friendly. There's a vegan cafe, an interesting shop with gorgeous mala beads and class DVDs you can buy for $10, enough space to change and a few studios. 

I get changed and enter a large room (two adjoining studios have been converted into a single space), and predictably, the it is tightly packed with mats in a haphazard fashion. A crowd has already gathered around David Life, as he wastes no time talking about our focus for the day: alignment of fingers, toes and chin as we flow through sun salutes and vinyasas (we're subsequently each given a line to draw on the mat and a quarter coin and encouraged to explore this alignment). While he jokes and speaks confidently, he seems like a quieter, humbler man than I expected. 

Now for practice. But first, we chant Om and recite the mantra as is customary in a Jivamukti class. This might put a lot of people off but I'm used to it. The class joins in enthusiastically and there's a strong sense of community in the room at that moment. Pretty soon it's over and we embark upon several rounds of sun salutes to get the body heated.

For the majority of the class, the flow is pretty standard. David provides minimal vocal guidance, for the most part simply uttering the Sanskrit name for the pose over his headset mic as he wanders around adjusting, aided by no less than three assistants. What is most notable is the music, or soundtrack, I should say. 

It's an odd mix to say the least, ranging from spiritual passages narrated in the quaintest of English accents for a wearing length of time, through to a burst of reggae or RnB, an absurd Monthy Python song to a rock ballad, followed by general screeching or electronic sounds, and then another narrated passage. It's hard to describe the effect of these sounds on the practice, but it occurs to me that this is similar to the treatment that the CIA may have administered to prisoners as part of brainwashing experiments in the 70s. As they jar with sounds of the traffic or a busker singing opera outside, as the room heats up further on a sunny day, as I strain to hear the next sanskrit command, each time waiting longer as he starts holding us in poses for less and less tolerable durations, I somehow start to lose myself in the midst of the cacophony. Meditation becomes not a choice but a necessity. The culmination is the longest headstand I've ever held in a class, although couldn't say how long we held this for. 

There is no doubt, this is a yogi's yoga workshop, like a 'hit' of yoga. Those not quite so into it but with a relatively strong practice and an open mind would also appreciate the workshop for the unique experiential art-like quality to it, and of course, the workout. But as I say, those not comfortable to 'Om', for example, would be better off staying with their regular class

I emerged back into the midst of the city feeling calm, strong and clear-headed, brain and body thoroughly yogafied.  My thanks to David. 

#yogaabc: H is for Hinduism

Natalie Morrison

Yoga as many of us in the West understand it is quite a long way from its roots. 
Yoga is one of the six major schools of thought, or darshanas in Hinduism. They are all derived from the ancient Vedic scriptures and are united by the belief that multiple paths exist to reach liberation, or moksha, or oneness with God. That the divine resides within all that exists, and we all can reach moksha – earning this by the fruit of our actions, words, and thoughts, or karma, and advancing spiritually by acting in accordance with dharma, or righteousness.
The yogic postures retain elements of their earlier spiritual meanings – while we typically call it the “Sun Salutation”, the Surya namaskar is actually a series of positions designed to greet Surya, the Hindu Sun God. 
Does this mean you need to be a Hindu to practice yoga? Not really. The whole point is that we all walk our own path, and if that means we just want to enjoy the physical and psychological benefits of yoga without the “Omming” and chanting, then that’s great! You may also be more attracted to the spiritual aspects after a period of practicing physical yoga. Many people with other spiritual beliefs have also found ways to integrate the benefits of yoga practice while maintaining these believes. It’s all there to benefit you, wherever you are at this moment.

#yogaabc: G is for Gunas

Natalie Morrison

The word gunas can be attributed as ‘string’ or ‘stand’ as well as ‘attribute’ or ‘property’, and much like our contemporary scientific notion of String Theory in quantum physics, ancient yogic (Samkhya) philosophy models the world according to these strands of energy which spill over into matter. 🌌☀🌙🌅🐒🐘🐚🐜 It is thought that something brought the Universe out of its equilibrium pure energetic state and the physical Universe evolved as a result of the interplay of the three gunas: sattva (goodness, intellect, harmony, creativity), rajas (passion, activity, heat, self-centeredness), and tamas (darkness, destruction, coolness, chaos, leathargy/inertia) – striving to get back to equilibrium but never reaching it. 🌋🌋🌋 All of these three gunas are said to be present in everyone and everything in varying proportions, and even within one person they vary from moment to moment. Yoga helps to balance the gunas and promote greater levels of healthy Sattva in our lives. This is achieved through eating a predominantly more vegan, locally-sourced, organic diet; through a moderate lifestyle motivated out of love and respect for others; and physical practice and meditation along with control over the breath. By limiting the turbulence of the gunas in our lives, the idea is it frees us to do what we were born to do, to be of greater value to others and find greater happiness. 🌟🌟🌟

#yogaabc: F is for Faith

Natalie Morrison

Yogic thought comes with the notion that we, and everything in our lives, are exactly as we should be in this moment. That there is a natural order to the Universe which ensures our experiences take place to enable us to learn and develop as spirits.

The first rung of the yogic ladder according to the Yoga Sutras – practicing the Niyamas or ethical considerations – includes Ishvara Phranidhana, or devotion to God. The concept of ‘God’ varies among yogis, with some taking a classical Hindi view of God as a spirit represented by the deities while others consider the divine as simply an underlying conscious energy that pervades all of nature. Regardless, trust in the Universe’s consciousness underpins yogic practice. ‘The Lord works in mysterious ways’ is a cliche but this is essentially also what yoga invites us to believe. Whatever perceived fortunes or failures we have in our careers, our love lives, with our health or even in our yoga practice, to judge whether something is a success or failure within any limited time frame would be unwise – just as winning the lottery would not be considered fortunate a minute later if the news brought on a fatal heart attack. 
This may seem passive and fatalistic, but actually it’s quite the opposite. In yoga, by acknowledging the true state of things – be it a strain in the hip in a forward bend or our grief after an accident – attention and great bring transformation in a way that is entirely natural and intuitive. 

#yogaabc: E is for Eternity

Natalie Morrison

This one's a little trippy! 🚀🌌 Yoga, as one of the six major schools of thought (darshanas) of Hinduism, is based on the belief that we have many lifetimes to complete our journey to liberation (Moksha). Hinduism is sometimes referred to as Sanatana Dharma, or the Eternal Truth, and for yogis, far beyond just being able to touch our toes, the end goal of yoga is ultimately to reunite our own consciousness with the true, eternal consciousness of the Universe – ‘God’ to many. As if we’re little discrete bubbles of divinity within the eternal sky of the divine and to pop our own bubble is to find true peace. 🌈 
While each person walks his or her own path, the Raja Yoga method first documented by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras provides a path for finding liberation and consists of the 8 limbs I discussed under the ‘A is for Asana’ post. Yogis believe the closer we stick this path, the more we minimise and positively charge our Karma (the fruits of our actions, words and thoughts) so that we shorten the journey towards liberation. 
The yogic view that we have all probably already lived many lifetimes and will encounter many more to come provides an opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities and possibly even find our Dharma (life’s purpose): what is it that THIS lifetime has to teach us? How can we make the most of what we have in order to help ourselves and others? Who are we best placed to help given our current skills and resources? Finding an understanding of this has been a way for many people to feel like everything just ‘falls into place’ afterwards

#yogaabc: D is for Drishti

Natalie Morrison

In yoga, as in life, it pays to keep a calm, steady focus. The word ‘drishti’ in Sanskrit means ‘focussed gaze’. Each pose in yoga has a corresponding drishti associated with it, and adding this element to your practice can have a powerful effect on the meditative quality of your practice – bringing the mind more into the present moment and helping to filter out possible distractions. There are other benefits to using the drishtis as well, including helping you find balance and depth in the pose, as well as strengthening the muscles around the eyes and having a beneficial impact on your visual health as well as the central nervous system. 
The main drishtis are: the thumb (Angusthamadhye), the third eye (Bhrumadhye), the tip of the nose (Nasagre), the fingertips (Hastagrahe), to the side (Parshva), upwards (Urdhva), the navel (Nābhicakre), and the toes (Padayoragre).
A good way to start introducing drishti to your practice is in your sun salutes. Ask your teacher to talk you through the drishtis in your next class and try to learn them by heart at least for those poses so that as you repeat your morning salutes you can develop a beautiful, focussed flow!

#yogaabc: C is for Chakra

Natalie Morrison

The word “Chakra” means wheel or disc, and in yoga chakras are thought to be whirlpools of swirling energy that gather at the main intersections of the supposedly 72,000 energy channels (nadis) within the body (this is much like the Chinese meridian system utilised in acupressure, for example). There are seven of these main intersections which all occur along the spine: muldhara (root), svadistana (sacral)), manipura (solar plexus), anahata (heart), vissudha (throat), ajna (third eye), saharara (crown). Each chakra governs a range of physical, emotional and energetic characteristics, and the overall health of the chakras is said to have a bearing not only on our physical health, but also our emotional wellbeing and our thought patterns. Someone with an overactive manipura chakra may suffer issues with self-esteem, anxiety, have overactive digestion and difficulty sleeping, for example. 
Yoga looks to restore balance to the chakras. Much like a canal system, if the chakras are whirling around happily energy can travel around the body optimally, especially from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. By clearing away debris especially from lower-level chakras which govern more basic aspects of life such as pure survival, yoga allows more energy to flow to the higher chakras, stimulating our insight, ability to create, share with others and maybe even find a deeper connection with the universe. 

#yogaabc: B is for Balance

Natalie Morrison

Everything is in a constant state of flux – the world, our minds and bodies, are never the same from one moment to the next. Mostly we just react to these changes; moving from happy to sad, from cold to hot, adjusting ourselves from moment to moment to keep within a comfortable range. Our bodies are the same, automatically regulating ourselves in homeostasis. But the range of these fluctuations can vary wildly depending on our lifestyle, health and general wellbeing. We can waste a lot of energy just ‘compensating’, distracting us from fulfilling our potential and making us more tired and irritable, stunting our happiness.
Yoga is all about moving beyond this, getting closer day by day to finding that perfectly balanced ‘sweet spot’ in which we can truly flourish. We do this by consciously taking control of our minds in meditation, our bodies in asana practice, through cleansing practices and through our diet, the breath through pranayama, and our lives through living within ethical and behavioural guidelines. Gradually, our lives, bodies and minds find an equanimity that allows us our true nature to shine out and benefit the world.

#yogaabc: A is for Asana

Natalie Morrison

Looking forward to this! In this new series of posts I'm going to take you through the alphabet in yoga. 🏫🌈 If you're relatively new to yoga, this is a great way to learn the basics - your abc's... 🎒🎓 Asana literally means "seated" but it is the term we give to all the physical postures we practice in yoga. The reason is that all the physical postures we practice in yoga are actually only supposed to preparations so that we can sit down and meditate, with the ultimate goal of finding enlightenment 🌌 Besides this, practicing asanas can have many other benefits including (to name just a few) improving strength, flexibility, posture, sleep, circulation, concentration, tolerance, mood, energy, reducing stress, weight loss, and aiding recovery from injury. 
There are many physical postures in yoga each with their own set of benefits. The 84 classical ones all have sanskrit names ending in -asana e.g. virasana = hero pose, trikonasana = triangle pose. In addition there are many contemporary poses that are commonly understood in yoga class just be their English name e.g. Wild Thing 🐯
Asana is only one of the 8 limbs of yoga as defined by the sage Patanjali in the#yogasutras nearly 2000 years ago. Other limbs of yoga include ethical and behavioural codes of conduct (yamas and niyamas), learning to control and improve the breath (pranayama) and the function of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana), and ultimately enlightenment (samadhi). Good to know as many people of think of "asana" and "yoga" as the same thing!