Series: How we breathe – Introduction

Yoga can teach us many things, but perhaps the most important one is how to breathe.  Since I know a lot about breathing, I have decided to begin writing a little series entitled “How we breathe”.  I know that, with great frequency, bloggers start of with big plans to write a series, but things tail off after two or three entries.  Rest assured that here with Miss Rachel, this will not happen.  I am far, far too stubborn to do such a thing.  Ha!
Reflect, for a moment, if you will on this:  There is little else, other than the breath, that accompanies you, absolutely surely accompanies you, from the first moment you are born until the last moment you live.
You can lose a kidney, a spleen.  A heart can be transplantedA brain can be induced into a coma.  But the breath is there, coming and going, rising and falling.

Breathing and Anxiety

Anxiety is crippling us these days and the breath may hold one of the keys to overcoming it.  The defining quality of a panic attack is the feeling that one cannot breathe.  I have had two panic attacks in my life, now thankfully, many years ago.  But I recall the constricted feeling all too well.  I doubt that it could happen to me now.  Why?  Because I know “how to breathe”.  To touch ever so lightly on the matter, and more will follow, paradoxical breathing is the main problem here.

How does one breathe?

Breathing is one of those things that we thing we all just know.  But how many of you can name the accessory muscles of breathing?  Or say whether the internal or external intercostal muscles aid the inhale or the exhale?  Gotcha?  So, can you say you know how to breathe if you don’t know the mechanics of breathing?

Biochemistry of Breathing.

And how many of you know about the interchange of gases (CO2 and O2) across the alveolar wall?  Or the difference between breathing and respiration?  Or what the heck happens to all that oxygen, anyway?  There are so many facets to breathing and there is so much to learn.


Yoga has some amazing techniques to deepen and broaden the breath. I have tried many systems of yoga and practised for ages.  I will stand here and say that Viniyoga, the style I teach, is the one that taught me to breathe.  I can teach you what my teachers taught me.

Best of all, breathing properly is free!  Yes, people, you may have to invest in yoga lessons in order to learn, but once you’ve learnt, ain’t no one going to take it away from you…you are your master, baby!
So, this will be the first post in a series dedicated to the mechanics, biochemistry and yogic technique of breathing.  Like and subscribe, people.  And hey, if you have a coherent answer to any of the questions above, comment below.

Yoga practice – "Towards Inversion"

I am feeling generous tonight, and shall give away a lovely yoga practice that I designed last year and have taught a number of times to my dear students.
Notice that “B” or “R” means breath or respiración.
When it says “6x”, it means do the vinyasa six times.
When it says “6B”, it means hold the pose for six breaths.
Respect any contraindications and check with your primary care provider should you have any doubts about the suitably of this practice for you, at this given time.

viniyoga hatha yoga sequence
Viniyoga practice “towards inversion”

Yoga makes me feel…old. What's up with that?

The lady who asked the question I blogged about last week, “Yoga is meant to calm me, so why do I feel so nervous?” asked another great question yesterday.  Gosh, I love students who give honest reflections and ask questions!  Thanks, honey bunch.
After class I noticed that her face wasn’t 100% bliss.  Quite the opposite.  So, unlike a YouTube video would, I sat next to her and asked her what’s up.  She said:

“I couldn’t do some of the simplest poses.  It made me feel old.”

Ouch.  And yes, yoga does that.  You see, if you give someone a workout routine like Crossfit or marathon training, it is very normal that they will find, at first, themselves not able to do it.  But because it is hard, challenging, perhaps unattainable, they are quite happy to just thrust away at it for a long time until they reach the goal.  To not do something hard on the first go is quite normal and acceptable for the ego.
But when we are asked to do something simple like lie on our backs and stretch one side of the body and breathe deeply, and find that there is pain, discomfort, we say “hold on a second…what is happening here?”
What is happening here is that our bodies have aged, have adopted fixed patterns, have held onto thoughts and emotions and stored them in our abdominal muscles, our hips, our necks, and we have become unable to make those muscles do our bidding.  We try to move the ribs with the breath, and we can’t.  Upon finding that we can’t do something so seemingly simple, we reflect on how, once upon a time, we could.  As children, we were all free and loose and easy.  But time, and life, and blows, and ailments, and all that, steals our childhood from us and we become adults, then middle-aged and then, if we are lucky, old.  The body ages but so does the mind.  We swap physical agility for mental wisdom.  Or that is the idea, anyway.  There is concept that I love in yoga that goes like this:

Why do we do âsana?  We do âsana to  keep the body strong and supple and youthful so that we can live a long time.  And why do we want to live a long time?  So that we can gain wisdom.

Doing yoga is like holding a mirror up to our true selves and being forced to look.  Mostly, we won’t like all that we see.  The mirror as a symbol is powerful and appears all over in the popular culture.  In Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Movie Orphée, the mirror is the portal between two worlds, the living and the dead.  And in fact, a very eerie reflection uttered is :

“Les miroirs sont les portes par lesquelles la Mort va et vient. Du reste, regardez-vous toute votre vie dans une glace et vous verrez la Mort travailler commes les abeilles dans une ruche de verre.” (Mirrors are the doors by which Death comes and goes. You have only to look at yourself in the mirror every day and you will see Death at work there, like bees in a glass hive.)

Yes indeed.  When we look at the mirror every day, we look at the face of Death.  Our own death.  This is getting heavy, but the Yoga Sutras are very clear about all this, in the first 5-10 aphorisms of the very first Yoga Sutras book, Patanjali identifies the Kleshas, the mental patterns that cause the vrittis, the mental fluctuations that assail us all.  And right up there in spot number five is fear, abhinidvesa.  Principle fear? Death.
We are all aware of our mortality but none of us wants to admit it, to face it.  When we do, we cringe and shudder.  This is normal.  I love to ruminate on the human being’s awareness of the passage of time.  We are, I believe, the only animal that marks time with such precision.  We are time-obsessed species.  Why?  Because we are all unconsciously counting down the seconds of our lives.  And this is wildly uncomfortable.  Because what this forces us to do is to admit that our time is limited, that we must live fully in the present and create from our meagre and humble little lives the best and brightest creation that we can.  And any abstention from this duty, whether through fear, intransigence, obstinance or fakery, is a negation of our duty to grow and gain wisdom and be the best person we can be.
Uff. All that at 8 in the morning.  I think a lot.  That is why I do yoga.  So, I will leave you with a Joy Division song with footage from Orphée.  Enjoy it, and live this day fully.  And get on your  mats, and breathe deeply and feel the love.  It is there, all the time, and there is enough for everyone.

On the roots of yoga, and giving thanks

I read this article today in The Independent:  Americans who practice yoga ‘contribute to white supremacy’, claims Michigan State University professor
The professor says that the way that yoga is practised in America today amounts to culture appropriation and an offshoot of colonial culture.  Ouch.
I don’t live in North America, but I have read a lot on the yoga blogosphere about how yoga over there is much divorced from its spiritual or its philosophical roots.  I am not the best one to comment on this.  The professor says:

They can be aware of the history, roots, and magnitude of the practice and give credit where credit is due. Humility, respect, and reverence go a long way.

I agree 100%.  Anyone who comes to my class knows that I will bore you all to death by closing the class giving thanks to my teachers, who taught me how to teach.  For the record, my teachers are Carmen Sánchez Segura, Claude Maréchal and TKV Desikachar (although I never received direct instruction from Desikachar.).
Enjoy yourself a little yoga mix over on mixcloud.  Get on your mat and breathe deeply.  When you find a sliver of light, a slice of joy within, share it, connect the joy that resides deep within you to the joy that resides deep within others.  Hey, they need it just as much as you do.


Yoga is meant to calm me…so why do I feel so nervous?

This is a brilliant question that I received this week from a newcomer to class.  This particular lady was recommended yoga by her doctor, so comes as a special case.  Ideally, it must be said, such a person would have private tuition.  But, the mere fact that she has managed to make contact and come to class is practically a miracle.
Before the second class, she asked me this

During class last week, I felt very good.  But afterwards, I went home and felt more nervous than ever.  Isn’t yoga meant to calm me down?

Thus I replied:  Most anxiety arises from repression of emotions.  Anxiety and depression are often mixed, and sometimes confused.  But they are vastly different.  While depression has to do with a lowered level of mental activity, anxiety is a heightened state.  In yoga terms, anxiety is rajas and depression is tamas.  
Anxiety seems to arise when the brain is over-active.  This can be an excess of information, or an excess of emotion.  Most people with anxiety develop coping mechanisms.  The best way to plunge on through life when your brain is screaming red murder is to pretend it isn’t happening.  Here is the delightful Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s explaining it much more clearly than I ever could:

So, this lady suffers from chronic anxiety.  ie:  running to Tiffany’s every time she gets the mean reds.  And Tiffany’s can be a place in your mind, it can be a bottle, it can be distraction, an addiction, whatever.  You’re afraid and you don’t even know what you’re afraid of, the best response is to run, right?
Well, yes, until it isn’t the best response.  Because, just like Holly Golightly, if we could find a real live place that makes us feel like Tiffany’s, then we would buy some furniture and give the cat a name.
You see, dear readers, dear students, dear seekers, yoga brings you home to that real live place. When suddenly you have contact with the Still Point inside of you, simply through breathing, movement and the right teacher, you realise that all your running was in vain.  And you relax a little bit.  But… the minute you relax a little bit and then go back to breathing fast and shallow, fighting with the traffic, being surrounded by people who are NOT on the Path and almost seem to wish to shove YOU off the Path, you have to start running away again.  And you feel even more nervous than before.  
You can think of it as a study of contrasts.  If you are always in the mean reds, then a little deeper tone of red is hardly noticeable.  But if you are suddenly “in the pinks” and you go back to the reds…ouch.
Why does yoga make me feel good in class but nervous afterwards? Because yoga holds a mirror up to your inner state and makes you look at the things you don’t want to see and have probably spent a lifetime avoiding.  For that reason it is very, very, very important to have a trusting relationship with a qualified teacher.
Upon receiving that information from my student, a person I know hardly at all, I modified the pranayama at the end of the class and gave a technique specifically indicated for her, but that would cause no harm to any other members of the class.  And then, the next morning, I texted her, to make sure she was okay.  And she was.  And what’s more, she felt good.
So, people, there are Youtube videos a-plenty, gymnasium yoga fit classes galore, all sorts of bells and whistles.  But yoga is a practice that transcends all of this stuff and has tools to help everybody and the teacher is the one who will show you the path.  Get on your mats, comes to class, breathe deeply, be joyful.  The Spirit is within you, let it move you.

Up in the early morning

Up in the early morning on Saturday, I chanced to spy the alignment of the heavenly bodies. Sun, moon and star traced a straight line in the dawn sky, casting their reflections on the calm surface of the sea.  As the heavens sang their coloured glory and the birds their joyful chorus, I was given a reminder of my own insignificance.  It felt great.
When I see the planets align, feel the Earth turn upon its axis, watch the days break and then later fade away, I realise that I matter little, if at all.  I am a speck upon a speck, hurtling through space and time infinite.  
In childhood, we believe the world revolves around us. Much of our long-lasting angst arises in childhood when we somehow think that we are responsible for everything that happens around us.  Parents divorce, must be because I didn’t put my socks on that morning.  Vacuum cleaner broken, must be because I left that dirty little candy paper on the floor.   Etc etc ad nauseum.
Growth, maturity, is reached, I believe, when we lose our sense of self-importance.  When we realise that we won’t save the world, that our scope is limited, we see that our only duty is to be as good as we possibly can be within the tiny scope of our lives.  This is actually much easier, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not that difficult to decide to walk in the door of your house with a smile on your face despite your soul-destroying day at work, now is it?
We are all specks upon a speck, hurtling through space.  We don’t know what we don’t know.  Life is a huge mystery and probably none of it matters.
Yoga taught me all this.  Yoga taught me to be still, quiet, and find that quiet place within myself.  I often close my classes with a discourse that goes along the lines of “that stillness that you feel inside, right now, was always there.  It’s just that you didn’t know how to reach it.  Yoga gives us the tools to reach that still point, that quiet place, and to do so repeatedly and reliably.  That is what yoga is, a series of ancient and well-tested tools that help us find our true selves, our quiet, calm, detached peaceful centre.”
We are specks upon and speck, hurtling through space.  We probably matter not at all.  And that’s ok.
Happy Monday, dear souls.  Be joyful.

The sun will come out, tomorrow….Yoga before the sea and the big blue sky

Yesterday morning dawned rainy and grey.  Around these parts, precipitation is a present, a gift.  The chill in the air was invigorating, and the light reflecting on the wet cobblestones a portend of danger, for they are slippery when wet.
Sophie and Laurence and I warmed up with a white tea before class, then ventured upstairs to el Cielo, which means “Heaven” in Spanish, for yoga class.
There was a chill in the room, so we doubled up the yoga mats, and distributed nice, warm, hot pink wool blankets.   When we reached the floor phase of the practice, I noticed that the chill was starting to bite.  Feeling protective of my students, I hoped and prayed for some warming rays.
As we began to practice dvipada-pitâm (“the two-legged table pose”), the sun burst through!  Suddenly our little greenhouse of a room warmed up!  Joy!  We finished the sequence with Dolphins and headstand prep…energies were moved, smiles dawned upon faces and yet again, yoga worked its magic.
Thanks to everyone who came to class, it is a honour and privilege to be allowed to teach even a little bit of this ancient system.  Thanks to all the yogis and sages who kept this oral tradition alive for us to employ now, in 2018.  Thanks to my teachers, Claude and Carmen, for dedicating your lives to teaching teachers.  Namasté.

Yoga at GOA Altea, with Rachel – video clip

Hey ladies and gentlemen,
A few months ago, the team down at GOA made a fab little video about the yoga and wellness programs that we run.  I, of course, am the yoga teacher.  That’s me on your right, with the braid.  So, click the link, watch the video and dream of quiet mornings in front of the sea, doing hatha yoga, breathing in the salty air, luxuriating in the silence and the sound of the waves.

Alteayoga @ GOA Altea
Alteayoga @ GOA Altea

New Year, new you

Good morning dear yogis, or yogis-to-be!

prismatic lotus flower
lotus flower

Wouldn’t you like to make 2018 the year that you take up yoga?  Yoga is so ubiquitous now, it seems almost silly not to at least try?
But why should yoga be everywhere, and now?  Because it complements any other form of physical education or sport, but can also stand alone.  Yoga can be used by anyone engaged in demanding sport like football, running , CrossFit, to help rehabilitate muscle and connective tissue, improve breathing technique and oxygenation, and generally settle you down after a hard workout.
Yoga is completely adaptable for all ages and fitness levels.  Especially Viniyoga, the style of yoga that I teach.  The central tenet of this style is that the yoga adapts to the person, not the person to the yoga.  This means that viniyoga sequences are modifiable, which is not the case in many yoga styles.  As we know, the European population is ageing, and ageing brings with it certain changes such as connective tissue stiffness in post-menopausal women, overweight and obesity, problems with bone density, heart disease, sleep problems and a host of other concerns.  While yoga is not a magic pill, it certainly helps practitioners to feel better in their bodies, to sleep better, to accept more gracefully the changes associated with ageing, and to overcome loneliness.
Yes, what I say about loneliness is very important.  Yoga is fundamentally a solitary practice, a journey within.  But, in the West, the social aspect of yoga, the group work, is tremendously important.  If you join a yoga class, you will find like-minded people, and that sense of separation might be temporarily eased.  Loneliness is a big problem in Europe.  Yoga, quite apart from all the other physical benefits, can help overcome this pervasive sense of aloneness.
So, please come along to class and see what it’s all about.  You will be welcomed with open arms and a big smile.
Peace, namasté, Rachel