In this final part of our blog series on the water element we come to yoga, movement and meditation. Whether or not you have an existing practice or are just starting out and need some help, read on for more nourishing ways to support the body during winter.
The Fluid Body
In winter our bodies can feel stiff, lethargic and heavy so keeping things moving is key. Balancing any bodywork practices with the demands of our lifestyles, circumstances and the seasons is essential in being able to fully integrate whatever practice we choose into an expressive and embodied way of being rather than another thing on a long list of things to do.
Yoga is about being present with what is and uniting all aspects of ourselves and in a single moment, it is a source of nourishment and can have profound benefits in all aspects of life. In this blog we want to invite you to let go of a structured practice or the ‘known’ and explore what is unknown and maybe even confrontational.
In winter, invoking qualities of fluidity and working with awakening the wave like movement of the spine is a great foundation to work from, providing a creative framework from where you can explore and play.
Get outdoors if and where possible. Walk, go barefoot on the grass, spend time in nature and even practice outdoors if you can. Get close up to water – springs, rivers, streams, the sea – let it teach you and inspire your practice.
Go into the fluid world within, take a deep dive inside your own body and witness the changing landscape of your own inner ocean. Surf the breath with your attention and watch the waves, the ebb and flow. Soften areas frozen like ice with a compassionate breath, a smile and an open heart.
Going to classes is great and the energy created by a room of people exploring themselves together can be a valuable support and inspiration, but the real magic happens when we bring the mat into our daily life and form our own practice. No one knows our bodies and how we feel better than we do and the benefits that come from our own felt experience and in ultimately becoming our own teacher reach much deeper than a class can provide. Winter is a perfect time to start a home practice or go deeper in an already existing one.
Using tension as a teacher
When treated with respect tension acts as an excellent teacher in our practice. The tangible tension we feel in tissue, muscles and tendons when we reach the edge of our range in a posture is a valuable tool and can reveal much to us about how we are in daily life and how we navigate uncomfortable situations. For some there is the desire and will to push into and beyond this tension, to literally ‘stretch’ and take the body past its comfortable limits. This approach overtime weakens the body, can create hyper-extension and we lose the balance of healthy ‘flexibility’. For others the edge is too much of an uncomfortable place, the sensations overwhelm and create a reaction to pull away. For either the stiff or the flexible being on the edge can bring up feelings of panic and fear. It is so much easier to stay on either side and it takes real courage to sit on the edge, in a space totally unknown.
Working with tension within the postures is a perfect theme for winter practice. It helps us slow down and gives the space for the body to speak. We learn patience and our practice takes on a quality of deep inner listening, surrendering, waiting and observing, allowing the breath and gravity to do the work. This does not in any way imply we take a passive role, remaining attentive whilst still and restful can invoke much resistance and require a lot of energy!
Gradually the body will open up and layers of resistance will soften. This sensation is unlike ‘stretching’, this is more like slipping, sliding and gliding open. Space arrives between layers of muscle and connective tissue, between the bones and within the joints. The body is not stretched, it opens in a whole and complete way, the postures unfolding like a flower greeting the morning sun.
Continue to keep making the connections between where you are touching the ground and the centre of the body – creating a healthy degree of tension between going down and coming up, giving and receiving, moving towards and away from the spine, passive and dynamic. Always listening to the spine and making small adjustments to be sure it is uncompromised by the position and can find length and space. This will keep us safe in our practice and make sure we are not pushing the body beyond its boundaries for the glory of a pose or shape.
Balancing action and stillness is an important quality to cultivate when working with tension. Being guided by the body and allowing the involuntary inner movements that emerge to unfold the posture means that our practice is not something that we are ‘doing’, by instructing the body into specific positions, but it is a process of undoing and evolving. It means coming to the mat or practice space with no agenda other than to surrender and be guided. It requires curiosity and acceptance in abundance and it requires us to be brave, entering an unknown space, with no set choreography or sequence of events. Here anything is possible and this either intrigues us and liberates us or scares the hell out of us, or maybe bores us rigid! Whatever style of practice we choose, we can move from this place as a foundation that can only inform and compliment any approach we work with.
Think being flexible makes you good at yoga?
Bendy Wendy, think again! Being able to touch our toes, put our head on knees in forward bends or have our heels on the ground in down dog does not make us a ‘good yogi’. Flexibility means being able to adapt to ever-changing circumstances and to work within out limits – not being able to do the splits!
Hyper flexible bodies are missing the valuable information and sensory awareness that a degree of tension and stiffness provides. Being too elastic means we take the joints out of balance, over extend the muscles and lose our centre of gravity and connection to the earth.
The ‘work’ for someone who is very flexible and finds many of the yoga postures easy is to find the centre and to continue to come back to the midline of the body. This is highly frustrating for someone who is flexible as it means backing off and not going to the full range of movement that our bodies are capable of. Retraining the body in this way can be a profound experience on many levels. Finding alignment once again between heaven and earth through the central axis is overwhelming at times, but if we keep on coming back, bit by bit, we ‘come home’ and begin to move from an entirely different place within ourselves.
Practice Guide 1
Surrendering To The Exhalation
Apply this principle in any position, sequence or yoga asana. Create the conditions and foundation for involuntary and organic movements to emerge.
Organise yourself comfortably, in the position you wish to start from and begin to observe the breath whilst being aware of every part of the body in contact with the floor. Allow any physical sensations to arise, along with any feelings or emotions, not jumping on them, labelling and creating a story around them, just noticing. Follow the exhalation through to its natural conclusion, into the earth, into the spine and into the centre of the body. Wait and don’t grab the inbreath, it will come. Give space for any pause that may want to be there between the breaths. This is a magical space, however fleeting, where natural, undulatory, fluid movements originate and is when the response comes back up from the earth and into the body. Let these subtle inner movements guide you and see where it wants to go. Try having no agenda around your practice and move into a creative open space where anything is possible. This requires patience and is an act of letting go to the unknown, trusting the body and being guided by its innate wisdom.
Practice Guide 2
The ears are connected to the kidneys and the water element, so is our sense of balance. Approach balancing postures light heartedly and playfully, dropping any ideas or images we have in our minds around the position. Work on grounding the bubbling spring point of the foot (see below), making a connection up through the pelvic floor to the kidneys and centre of gravity for core support. Enjoy the wobbles and resist any urge to come out at the first sign of imbalance. The point where we learn the most and become stronger is at the edge between stability and falling over.
Practice Guide 3
Grounding K1, the ‘bubbling spring’ point
See our previous blog for a diagram on exactly where to locate K1 or the bubbling spring point. Work this area of the foot into the ground, extending the big toe all the way out from the base. This sounds easy but to really stretch the foot takes focus and effort. Work with the breath, particularly the exhalation, to reach outwards and down into the earth from the centre of the foot and mid arch. Feel the movement that comes back up through the foot and into the spine, giving left and length to the whole body.
Yin yoga and restorative yoga are also excellent practices to support this time of the year and are styles that you may have heard of. Both use prolonged periods of stillness in a posture, with the body supported by props such as bolsters, blocks and blankets. This gives time for the fascia and muscles to soften, for the meridian channels to open and for deeper layers of tension and emotional blockages to release. Both of these approaches to yoga are highly beneficial to people of all ages, body types and level of experience.
The centres of energy located along the spine are known as the chakras in yoga philosophy and the chakra connected to the water element is the sacral chakra, known as svadhisthana. If we are blocked here then the flow energy through the whole body is compromised. Our stamina, motivation, creativity, fertility, sexual and emotional health can be affected by a blockage in this region. When this chakra is in balance we feel connected, trusting, confident, have balanced energy levels, feel creative, inspired and ‘wanting’ to take care of ourselves. Our ability to receive self-care and prioritise our own needs is rooted here, if we deny ourselves pleasure and the things that make us really feel alive this chakra can become depleted.
A simple way to tune in, even 5 minutes will do, is to lie down with the soles of the feet together and a comfortable distance from the body (listen to the lower back area here, if the feet are too close to the body and the hips are tight the lumbar curve with shorten and the lower back area grips). Place the hands over the area between the public bone and belly button and let your attention and awareness move there. Observe the rise and fall of the breath and invite the abdomen, pelvis, tailbone and sacrum to soften.
This chakra is all about our right to ‘feel’ so allow all sensations to be fully felt and experienced. Go deep with the breath into anything uncomfortable or confrontational that may arise and exhale any resistance or judgement into the earth. Remind yourself you are worthy of pleasure, of feeling good, of living your dreams and your truth and that your contribution to the world and the lives of others is of value.
If the attention becomes distracted and the monkey mind takes over return to the space beneath your hands, the belly, the pelvis, sacrum and lower back.
There are many ways to work with chakra system in much more depth, but simple bringing awareness to these areas can breathe life into them and help release any stagnancy and blockages on an energetic level.
* All of our retreats feature daily yoga and qi gong classes plus evening guided meditation sessions. These practices play an important role in exploring the specific themes from a somatic and physical perspective, as well as playing a crucial part in self-reflection and in being in a position to fully experience the depth of the course. And don’t forget our courses are CPD accredited, so are a perfect way for yoga teachers, nutritionists and healthcare practitioners to top up their points and skill set.