Expectation V Reality

So we’re here, on the island I’ve been dreaming of for years and years, Bali. Well actually, we moved to a little island next to Bali called Lembongan island. Having that image in your head, of how somewhere is going to look or feel, is a dangerous thing I’ve come to realise. A little bit like when you expect to effortlessly and gracefully contour your body into a specific posture, but the reality is very different!

I feel a little bit like I’m chasing that picture in my head, and Bali just isn’t it, yet. We are getting closer to it, especially on this little island. It’s much quieter with a calmer atmosphere. The beaches have that beautiful turquoise glow with lots of tropical fish. We still have nearly two more weeks to explore here, back on the island of Bali though, so I’m still holding out for my dream of paradise to become a reality.

Grasshopper pose or Parsva Bhuja Dandasana, was a posture that I remember expecting to be achievable, however reality knocked me straight back down, literally. It knocked me down many many times, on to my face, bottom and hips. In my opinion it’s a very difficult posture which requires strength, flexibility, balance and a steady breath. To help me achieve this asana I used to practice “baby grasshopper”. This allows your body to get ready for the full pose.

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For baby grasshopper, start by sitting down with straight legs. Bending the right leg, bring the foot to the outside of the left leg, the closer to your body the better. As you take an inhale, twist the upper half of your body out. You should now have a nice open chest. On your exhale, bring your right arm in front of your right leg, reaching for the big toe of your left foot. Hook your two first fingers around it to create a nice anchor. Try to keep the chest open and a lengthened spine. You can stay here and take a few breaths, or to take it further, plant your left hand down in front of the top of your left thigh. Inhale, squeeze your tummy muscles, push the ground away with your left hand, pull on your left toe and try to lift the body off the ground. The gaze can go directly down your floating left leg, or wherever is comfortable for you. Remember to repeat on both sides, and usually one side will be easier than the other. It’s the same for everyone I’m sure.

Once you feel ready for the full pose, here’s my guidance on how I find to be the easiest way to enter this pose. Start standing, bend your left leg deeply, sitting into the heel. Bending your right leg, place the outer side on top of your left leg, just above the knee. I also don’t like to have my foot hanging over my left leg too much. The sole of my right foot usually lines up with my outer left thigh. Bring your palms together at your chest, breathing steadily and deeply. Slowly draw your chest down whilst twisting your torso out to the left. Keep deepening this until the sole of your right foot comes in contact with the tricep (back) of your right arm – the higher up your arm the better. Next you need to place both palms down on the ground, fingers spread. Bring the weight over your hands until the right foot is almost standing on the back of your right arm. Push the energy through the heel of your left leg until it floats up off the ground. Again, like in baby grasshopper, the gaze can look down your left leg. This is a tough pose so don’t be too hard on yourself. I remember the back of my arms getting very sore from my foot slipping off. It’s entirely your choice of course, but I don’t include this in my daily practice. Try lots of hip openers before, then you might have a nice surprise when you come to trying this pose. Expectation and reality might just merge into one!

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Before you all start behaving like grasshoppers, how lovely is the door of our little homestay! These beautiful wooden carved doors are very traditional in Balinese culture. They’re not great at keeping the bugs out, but make up for it by being a cool yoga backdrop. Grace xxx

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Willy the cat

I was in my final year of junior school, so about 11, when we were asked to write our own autobiography. Ridiculous at such an age, however looking back, it was more a case of “tell us about your family and hobbies so we can mark just how bad your spelling is”. I remember so vividly the final part was to write about where you would like to go in the future. Without hesitation I drew a picture of the beach, with me chilling in a bikini, titled “Bali”. Looking back I don’t even remember how I’d come to know about the island. My parent’s had never been or really talked about it and neither had my brothers. Nevertheless here I am sat on the beach of my final page in my autobiography, 16 years ago! Which in a way I never thought would happen. So I guess what I’m saying is dream big, dream outrageous, dream the dreams that when you tell people, they give you that “they’re mental” look, because even though Bali is an island so easily accessible now, for me 16 years ago it was just a really big dream.

Sometimes though, when dreams become unmanageable such as “saving the world”, we can become deterred, even depressed. For example when you’ve spent your entire life recycling, then watch someone put their milk carton in the normal bin, or people just generally littering. Cycling and sweating before your yoga class, to arrive and see a car with its engine on, and no one inside! Sound familiar? Yoga is excellent to help get your dreams back on track.

Upward facing dog  (Urdhvamukhasvanasana) or a similar variation are always included in a sun salutation which takes part in most yoga classes – for good reason. The benefits of this asana are endless, here’s just a handful:

Stretches out the stomach, shoulders, chest and arms.

Helps to improve lower back pain.

Lifts the heart, therefore lifting your mood.

Opens the chest, so helps clear the respiratory system, and can even help asthma sufferers.

Firms lower half of the body.

Soothes sciatica.

I could go on, but I won’t.

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Upward facing dog is so great to flow into, however if you’re looking at deepening your practice, you can use it as a seperate pose and take more time in it. Starting on your belly, palms underneath your shoulders with the fingers spread wide. As you inhale push the floor away from you and press the tops of your feet into the floor, lifting your legs and hips. Open your chest, sink your hips low without touching the ground. Peel your earlobes away from your shoulders, then try to take the gaze behind you.

A slightly less intense variation, which also works great when flowing through postures, is cobra pose or  Bhujangasana. Very similar to upward facing dog, however for this pose, keep your legs on the ground. The hips can sink all the way down to your mat and have your gaze above you instead of behind. Also, don’t worry if your arms aren’t completely straight, this will come over time.

If you’re new to yoga, a great way to work towards these postures is sphinx pose or Salamba Bhujangasana. Laying on your tummy take an inhale and come up onto your forearms. Spread the fingers wide, keeping your gaze between them. Legs together with the tops of the feet on the ground, start to open your chest and shoulders by pulling the shoulder blades together. Sink the hips and the belly down. Start to feel your lower back open. Rest and repeat as you please.

I named the cat in the picture Willy. He only had one eye. I don’t know how it happened nor do I want to. He was awesome at yoga and super friendly. I hope his dreams come true too.

Grace xxx

The coolness of KL

We only have a few days in the seriously cool city that is Kuala Lumpur. Which is a shame, but in this heat cities aren’t great for the body or mind. Strolling through the striking skyscrapers that soared up to the clouds (on a cloudy day!) was mesmerising, so much so that occasionally we’d forget to look down and around us, at the smiling and eager to help locals. Coming from Vietnam it feels so different. Drivers stopping whenever and however to allow you to safely cross the road. It’s incredibly clean and pushing eco friendly everything. English seems to be spoken everywhere, which I have to admit, although we do love the challenge of learning different languages, has been a nice relief.

Finally the variety of race, culture and religious beliefs is incredible. Walking down the street and stumbling across embellished mosques, colourful temples, and beautiful churches, all lined up only a few metres from one and other. The smell of food coming from Chinatown assaults your senses. Noodles then curry, meat then fish. Roasted chestnuts to fresh fruit and finally the all American cheeseburger. Whatever you need, I’m telling you, Kuala Lumpur has it! We even found Asia’s best climbing wall – it had to be done. One thing I should let you know about this city however is… Western toilets are rare! You really need to master the squat toilet.

So on that note, here’s half moon pose or Ardha Chandrasana. Such a great pose for improving your squatting technique. On a more serious note, half moon pose is great for your digestive system. It also strengthens your ankles, thighs and bottom, as well as opening your shoulders and back.

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Not that I’m a real promotor of props, purely because I’ve never used them, but a block or pile of books can come in handy for this asana. If you’re more comfortable with this posture you can flow into it from triangle pose or warrior 2. Alternatively come to the front of your mat keeping the left foot facing forwards. Start with the leg bent (or straight if your hamstrings are more open). Begin to lower your left hand down to your block, books or floor just a little in front of your left foot. Next, physically, with your right hand, turn your right hip out. Imagine your hips stacking on top of one another. Pull your left thigh up and anchor your heel down to the ground to give you stability.

To start with try not to focus on how high your right leg is going. Focus on your chest being open, as you spread the fingers of your right hand and imagine it being pulled to the sky. Keep the right shoulder away from the ear. Lift the right leg whilst avoiding the chest collapsing in. Keep the strength and energy in your right leg, moving all the way from the top of your thigh through to your heel.

Depending on how your balance is doing and how your neck is, keep the gaze down on the floor. Next you can bring the gaze forward. Finally, and a little tricky in my opinion, bring your gaze up to your right hand. Hold for a few breaths. Always repeat on the opposite side.

A little personal “tip” which helped me to achieve this pose, which is a personal thing and wouldn’t advise if you have weak or sore knees. I struggled to find my balance for a while in half moon pose, however I found that bringing my weight further over on to the ball of my left foot (or whichever foot is grounded) helped a lot. I do however, think this can affect the knees if it’s a vulnerable area, so be careful and keep your grounded leg slightly bent if knees are an issue.

I wish there was an asana called total eclipse for me to follow with. There isn’t. Sorry. Enjoy this though! Grace xxx

Core off!

So we arrived on Jurassic park or should I say Cat Ba island in Vietnam. Seriously though, I felt like any second a T-Rex was going to gobble up one of the little mountain goats, or a pterodactyl was going to glide down over the ocean.

The town itself of Cat Ba felt a little odd. Every morning we would see the locals chugging back the local beer, becoming drunk at 9am. It was strange to see as we’d become so accustomed to the traditional Vietnamese iced coffee for breakfast. Traditional food also seemed hard to find. Cooked breakfasts, pizza or chips no problem but could we find a bowl of Pho!

Luckily if you drive a motorbike, or have a partner who does you can escape all of this, discovering the real beauty of the island. Weaving through the jungle infested limestone karsts, that protrude as far as the eye can see, we saw just how beautiful the Vietnamese landscape is. Stumbling upon cave after cave, the final one proved to be the most interesting. A cave used in the war as a secret hospital, I wasn’t sure if there were more people or ghosts. However I wasn’t staying long enough to find out! On leaving the cave, the most epic thunderstorm started. As the clouds blackened and got thicker, along with the thunder roaring, I realised there was only one thing for it – so I filmed you guys a short core strengthing yoga flow. I know I sound like a broken record, but once WiFi improves I will be able to upload this.

I wonder how many times somebody has told me to ” engage my core “, basically translating in my head to squeeze my stomach. Actually your core runs through the entire centre of your body and there are many ways to strengthen it; building the muscles in the stomach, however, is a great foundation. When you practice any “core strengthening” flow, remember you should only ever feel the fire in your belly. If your back, especially the lower, starts to take any of the heat you need to stop or take a rest. All asanas need a certain level of stability through the core, some more than others. For example when I’m practicing my hand stands, I always warm up my core before hand.

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I can’t give you a specific guide on how to achieve this pose, as it still requires so much of my concentration. However I can tell you some tips I found helpful to move me away from the wall.

– If you’re just starting out use a wall! A sturdy one with no pictures hanging up!
– Warm up your spine, it helps with the fear of going over (slightly!).
– Have your hands slightly further apart than usual.
– Point your toes like a ballerina.
– Keep the gaze between your palms and visualize your chest going there too.

Finally, breathe! Take control of your inhales and exhales. Even if you’re popping up into the pose for a split second, try not to hold your breath. Every time with hand stands I seem to forget it’s an inversion. Don’t make my mistake by becoming light headed. Rest in child’s pose in between attempts. More importantly, have fun! Its hard not to as it reminds me so much of being a kid! Grace x

Beneficial bunnies

The guest house we are staying in, in Hoi An, is superb. Modern rooms, incredibly helpful owner and rabbits as pets! Even though I find yoga very calming and peaceful, there’s something about animals that can do the same – sometimes even a better job. Maybe it’s the fact that they can’t communicate verbally that gives them a vulnerability. For me it’s the way they look at you; sure it could be the lettuce you’re holding, or the treats, but I like to think its more than that. I’ve found it difficult in Vietnam as a lot of the animals are treated very poorly. Chickens and ducks stuffed into bags, alive! We even saw a woman beating her chickens the other day. I understand the cultural differences but still find it painful to see. Even chickens have feelings. Anyway, I’ll save my animal rights preach for another day.

Rabbits pose or sasangasasana.

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Great for a counter pose to any back opening asanas. Rabbits pose acts as a little inversion too as you should eventually come onto the crown of your head. Start from child’s pose and take hold of your heels, as you inhale round your back. On your exhale come onto the crown of your head, pulling the forehead as close to the knees as possible. Unless you have rabbits on your back and don’t want them to slide off!

As well as teaching yoga full time on my return to the UK, I’m thinking of doing a little dog walking too. It’s a dream for me combing these two together. So if you’ve had a long hard day at work, you can come along to a gemyoga class to sort you out mentally and physically, then go home and eat something delicious while I walk your dog! Hop on board the gemyoga animal loving hippie train! Xxx

Why bind?

I’m going to keep this short for two reasons, firstly I’m tired (we’ve spent the entire day travelling up the coast of Vietnam on a motorbike, stunning). Secondly it’s not complicated or highly spiritual, so don’t worry I’m not going to tell you how binding in yoga connects you to mother earth. Well not for everyone anyway…

In case you’re unsure creating a “bind” in yoga is usually when you bring your hands together to deepen the posture. Sometimes a bind can be created by holding onto both feet, basically your feet and hands should flow through one another, staying in contact.

When you create a bind the technical reason is to deepen the pose and therefore, with certain postures, massage your internal organs. Adding a bind is a perfect way to progress further into your practice. Usually ending in you looking like a tasty little pretzel. A lot of yogis use straps to help them create binds if they’re not quite there. I’ve never used them personally as I feel I become reliant on them. For a lot of people though, they’re key to helping achieve certain postures. It’s just whatever works for you.

So that’s the technical side, now for my hippie view on why I love a good bind. The obvious first reason – falling out of an asana is hilarious, falling out of an asana when you have a bind is even better. Personally for some reason, even when I know the pose isn’t going to happen, my bind stays perfectly connected as my body rolls or collapses to the ground. Binding is a great way to have a laugh at yourself, and laughter is good for the soul!

Secondly, it gives me a visible goal. I never do my practice in front of a mirror, just like I never ask my students to face one. If I can feel or see where my hands or feet need to connect without straining to look in the mirror, it makes the situation much calmer. The situation occasionally turns to excitement when you’re attempting a bind and feel something, then realise its your foot or other hand.  I’m sure a lot of people say that you should watch yourself when you’re practising, to see if your alignment is correct, but for me it doesn’t work. Knowing in my head what the pose looks like, then seeing where my hands or feet need to join provides me with a strong focus. If you are unsure about your alignment, and are practising at home, try recording yourself then play it back. It saves your neck!

Lastly, there’s something very comforting about having your entire body connected physically. No loose ends, no hands or legs waving about. You’ve just created this nice secure cocoon where everything is flowing around continuously. When I deepen my practice by creating a bind I often find that I stay longer in the pose beacause I don’t want to let go. I suppose it’s similar to holding hands with your parents when you were younger, or with your partner. Binds offer a sense of security and stability. If you’re not falling out of them…

Stay connected xxx

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Rejuvenated.

We have now been in Vietnam for a little over ten days. The majority of that time, unfortunately, I’ve been ill. Something nicknamed “Saigon squirts”, which I’m sure you didn’t need to know, and needs no explaining!

So I got to know our hotel rooms really well. I also started to miss home – a lot. I suppose laying in bed for a while gives you too much time to think. Anything James brought back for me to try to eat or drink I refused. Bottled water was about all I could handle. I started to resent what was outside my hotel door. The smell of “foreign food” made my stomach turn, literally. I wanted to hear a British accent whilst sipping Yorkshire tea and munching on crumpets. I was too exhausted to think about trying to explain to someone that I don’t eat meat. Basically I was fed up, ill and missing home comforts with a body that felt like I’d never practiced yoga in my life.

Up in the mountains and the cool temperatures of Da Lat, I’d had enough. James too. We made a trip to the local hospital. I sat on a plastic stool in the middle of a Vietnamese hospital explaining to a doctor that my tummy hurt and I hadn’t eaten for a few days. I was surrounded by sick people, seriously sick people. Blood samples thrown everywhere, babies crying, people laying anywhere. Suddenly I felt rather sheepish. Never the less I was seen, given antibiotics and back to my room I went. With a new mind set.

I’m not sure if it was the cool temperatures of Da Lat, seeing the locals in the hospital or simply having medication but I felt like a heavy weight had been lifted. After feeling like I’d turned my back on new experiences and cultures, I needed to open my mind and heart (in the hippie sense of course).

The few times I’ve practiced since being ill I have focused entirely on opening my heart and stimulating my mind.
Back bends are a fantastic way to achieve this. You may think I’m bonkers, but just stand and puff your chest out, open your arms, and you’ll feel a little more love. No? Here’s some guidance through crescent moon pose or Anjaneyasana.

Make sure you’re comfortable in a lunge first. If your knee on the floor is sore, use a blanket underneath for some padding. Sink down into the hips. Place both palms on the lower back to start with, either side of the spine. Draw the elbows together as you keep the chest (heart) open. Don’t see yourself bending your spine, visualise the hips moving forward, drop the head back when you feel ready. ONLY when you feel comfortable and feel the spine is flexible enough would I recommend taking the hands away. Creating a nice crescent moon shape.

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Wheel pose or Chakrasana (below).
This asana opens up your heart good and proper, all the love is coming your way with this one. All I’ve done with wheel pose below is open my chest even more. Come into normal Chakrasana and bring your feet together. Start to straighten the legs and you’ll feel your heart lifting. This is quite strong on the spine, so listen to what your body is telling you. When you’re ready to come out of either of these poses, always finish with a counter pose. Something as simple as laying on your back and drawing the knees in to the chest. It’s my favourite anyway!

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Have fun letting all the love in. By the way, that’s the post office in Saigon! How amazing is it, royal mail eat your heart out. Lots of love Grace xxx