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Most of us want to be healthy, yet it doesn't necessarily quite work out.  Our modern lives can be full of deadlines, pressures of work or study, duties of care for others, financial worries, junk food, hours sitting at computers, alcohol/caffeine, late nights, and so on.

My articles help you find ways to be healthier with just a few minutes each day.  In particular I highly recommend the benefits of self-massage.  Release your bodyweight into balls and rollers to melt away tension and relieve muscle aches.  It's my job to help you find one or two key techniques that your body needs based on your body condition.

If you like the self-massage videos then please like/share them, or follow my YouTube Channel.

Recent articles

Self-massage your feet

Use a golf ball, stick and your own hands to massage your feet and release tension you didn't realise was there.

In Thailand they love to massage their feet. Half the bones in the body are in your hands and feet. If you wear shoes a lot then your feet are in a little box and can't move so much and they miss out on free massage that comes walking on the ground.

I've kept this one pretty simple, but it's enough to be effective — just try it, even a minute a day standing on a golf ball and you should feel the benefits after a couple of weeks.  It can be sore at first, but fairly quickly it becomes easier.  Partly your mind is getting used to the sensations and accepting them more easily.  More importantly, dozens of tiny muscles in your foot are learning to let go of unnecessary tension, which can in turn help your leg and posture to softer and more relaxed.

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Holistic, preventative health

Yoga, Thai massage, and the articles on my site are about health.  Two key aspects of my approach are to be preventative and holistic - and it's the cornerstone of the Thai massage way.

Holistic means to regard the whole body, and make all parts of it as healthy as we can.  During a massage, I won't just focus on a tiny area where the pain is, but work more broadly, as the pain may be caused from tightness elsewhere.  Not only that, but if I release tension throughout the body, then that takes away a burden, and your body has more resources left to help the problem area.

Preventative means to act before the problem becomes severe - in fact ideally it's an ongoing process so that as few problems as possible emerge.  We can also be aware of early-warning signs such as stiffness or soreness, and take action at the first signs rather than waiting for pain or even ignoring it.  Gradually we can learn where are the weak areas of your body, and what we need to do to look after them.

Our bodies have amazing powers of healing.  You probably know some people you meet who never seem to get ill.  I feel that such people have excellent whole-body health, so their body is ready to fight any problems.  All of us have the potential to become more like that.

Western medicine, and our NHS tend to be more in reaction to things that are already problems, responding with interventions such as surgery and drugs.  The results can be amazing, but there can be complications such as tissue-damage from surgery and side-effects from drugs.

So you may think I am about to argue about which is best - but there's no need because we can have both!  My advice is to do your best to prevent problems and stay healthy, but be very glad there's a backup when things go wrong.

I know some of my readers are already committed to health, for example with a strong daily Yoga practice.  Others would like to be healthy, but struggle to find time.  My articles are written for all of you - simple, quick ideas to be healthy.

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Inversions

In essence, an inversion is a Yoga pose that turns you upside-down to some degree.  Common examples are headstand and shoulderstand, both of which I'll talk about more in a moment.  However there are plenty of simpler gentler, and safer ways to invert, and they give many of the same benefits.

Benefits and Cautions

Our bodies are mostly water, which is constantly affected by the pull of gravity.  When we invert, gravity is now pulling the other way.  The stale blood in the legs returns more easily to the heart whilst the brain gets an enhanced supply of oxygen.  The lymph system removes waste products more efficiently.  You might find relief from blocked up lungs, and indeed all the organs can be affected.

However this reversal is not guaranteed to be beneficial for everyone - consult your doctor if any of these apply to you or if you are in doubt.

  • If you have high-blood pressure or other heart problem - the added blood pressure in the heart and brain can be too much.
  • During pregnancy (check with a specialist teacher) or menstruation (reversed gravity can aversely affect the flow - but opinions vary and it's a personal thing).
  • Various injuries, especially eyes such as Glaucoma where fluid flow in the eye is impaired.

Easy inversions

"Legs up the wall pose", known in Sanskrit as Viparita Karani, is a simple inversion that is safe for most people.  It brings the benefits of inversions in a safe, relaxed way.  There are plenty of websites with details.

If your back is healthy, strong and reasonably flexible, then you might like the variation shown in the picture.  Before you start, position a chair just behind where your head will be in case you need some help getting out!  As with the basic pose, the easiest way in is to roll in from slightly sideways; then gently open your chest and lean back.  Keep the back of the neck long.  The head is just resting gently, taking its own weight and no more - hence we have also reversed the effect of gravity on the spine - instead of compressing, it is lengthening.  Don't stay too long at first.

Don't forget, many regular poses are partial inversions, e.g. standing forward bend or downward-facing dog.

Shoulderstand and Headstand

Often dubbed the queen and king of poses, these strong inversions are a key part of many people's Yoga practice.  Certainly they can be highly beneficial, but also both poses can lead to neck problems if done wrongly.  I would advise that you learn them thoroughly in your class before trying them at home - you cannot possibly learn them well from this article or any website.   Don't try them if you have neck or back problems.

Good alignment is crucial in both poses - and lack in either strength or flexibility can create problems.  Unfortunately, when we are first learning to turn upside down, we tend to lose all awareness of our alignment.  A good teacher will lead you through a sequence of poses to help you gain what you are lacking.  It's crucial that you set yourself the aim to help your body gain health and eventually do the pose well, rather than being determined to achieve a particular body shape now at all costs.

Shoulderstand

  • The weight must be on the shoulders and arm, not the neck.
  • Neck needs to strongly flex (bend forwards) - if tight stay lower.
  • Arms need flexibility to move behind body and strength to press firmly into the ground whilst behind.
  • Core must be strong to keep the pose alive and not sagging.

Headstand

  • Neck must be aligned with each vertebra stacked above the next, so the bodyweight transfers through without strain.
  • Shoulders must be flexible to allow the arms to reach comfortably into the ground be the head, and strong enough to actively support the body from there.
  • Core must be strong to keep the pose alive and not sagging.
  • Hamstrings must be long enough to walk the feet in close when entering the pose (don't jump in!)

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Shoulder sequence

Many of us react to stress by holding tension in our shoulders.  What's more, our modern lives can involve a lot sitting without much movement.  This short Yoga sequence can help to release shoulder tension and build strength.

You can benefit even more if in addition you take 30-second breaks throughout your day to move your shoulders, breath, and let go of tension.

Mobilising

Sit cross-legged with the unaccustomed leg inside (so you also get to open your hips a little), spine tall and straight.  Repeat each move around 10 times, moving with the breath.  Alternate arms where needed.

  • Shoulder alignment.  Inhale, broaden across the front chest.  Exhale, release shoulders away from ears.
  • "Angel wings".  Inhale, straight arms raise to either side (not forward or back) then towards each other, just as far as you can without losing shoulder alignment.  Exhale, return.
  • Arm across.  On the inhalation, raise both arms in front.  Keep shoulders back throughout, as if they were touching a wall behind you (try it against a wall even!).  Exhale, take R arm across body to L, aiding with L hand just above R elbow.  Inhale, return.
  • Palms to sky.  Inhale, link fingers, with the unaccustomed finger on top, and no gaps between fingers.  Exhale, press palms away in front, arms straight.  Inhale, lift palms  towards sky, but only as far as you can with straight arms and fully linked fingers.  Exhale, down like angel wings.
  • Arm raise behind.  Link fingers behind your back (unaccustomed way), and if possible press palms together to make a double fist then extend the first fingers.  Inhale, lift arms away from back, only so far as you can keep chest open and head/neck position unchanged.  Exhale, return.
  • Arm drop behind.  Link fingers in front to double-fist with first finger pointing.  Inhale, raise overhead to point at sky.  Exhale, keeping elbows, head, neck, chest all still, bend arms to point behind and down.

Strengthening

5-10 times each, 3 sets (so exercise 1, exercise 2, 1, 2, 1, 2).  Feel you are working, but not struggling.

  1. Dolphin.  Roll forward to hands-and-knees.  Come down on to parallel forearms, and walk elbows forward about 1 hand length.  Spine stays straight, core strong.  Inhale, rock trunk forward, keep shoulders working in good alignment, head just touches the ground lightly.  Exhale, push trunk back, open arm pits, pressing as if to slide the fingers away in front.  If that's easy, lift your knees up and do it with straight legs.  Walk the feet in closer to increase the challenge.
  2. "Hands behind" stretch.  Roll back to sit, legs in front, bent, feet flat.  Place palms flat behind you, straight arms, fingers reaching back away, whole palm on contact.  Inhale, press palms into ground, pelvis becoming lighter, maybe even lifting up.  Exhale, stretch hands a little further back and release.

Stretching

Come back to sit cross-legged.  Hold each for 20 breaths or more.

  • Hands link behind.  Reach straight arms wide to side.  R arm down, L arm up.  Bend both elbows and try to link fingers behind back.  If you can't reach, take a belt or towel in your top hand, and once you are in position, catch it in your bottom hand, and 'walk' in.  Keep neck and head in alignment, shoulders open.  Repeat other side.
  • Reverse namaste ("prayer position").  Reach straight arms wide to side.  Bend both arms down and back.  Press knuckles together, then side palms, then working towards whole palms together and sliding palms up back.  Come just far enough to get a nice stretch keeping good alignment.  Release , breath.

Then mobilise your arms and shoulders for a dozen breaths.  End up in final relaxation, lie back into corpse pose, stay and breath.

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Yoga poses: what, why, how

Most Western Yoga classes are primarily a physical practice.

The original Sanskrit word asana means manner of sitting, but is now used to cover any Yoga position.  The common English translations are pose or posture.  To my mind, neither translation is ideal because the words share a second possible meaning: behave in a way that is intended to impress or mislead - which could hardly be further from the right approach.

In essence, I would say a pose is a way of working the body physically that is beneficial to health.  Many of the common poses have been practised for hundreds or even thousands of years.  Wise sages dedicated their lives to studying their minds and bodies.  The exercises that are handed down to us are those that stood the test of time.

A pose is a challenge to the body.  Some muscles have to lengthen, some activate, some even do both.  The mind has to orchestrate this potentially complicated combination, keeping maximum awareness of what degree to push the challenge to - always keeping calm and breathing smoothly.  Our bodies are amazing things, and if we regularly challenge them in a particular way, then they get better at doing it.

So it's simple then?  Well not entirely.  Here are my tips to get the most our of your poses:

  • Practise regularly.  Obvious, but crucial.  Even 10 minutes 5 times a week makes a big difference.
  • Maintain awareness.  Are parts of your body wondering off in wrong directions?  More subtly, are you engaging and releasing the correct places?  Are you challenged but not strained?  Are you mind and breath calm?  The classic ancient text Patanjali's Yoga Sutras says "the pose is firm and soft" (II.46).
  • Remember that the prime purpose is to benefit your health.  Set aside how your thoughts on how impressive the body shape might be, or whether you can reach some part of your body to touch another part.
  • Each pose is a journey.  "Can you do such-and-such-a-pose?" is a nonsense question.  Keep practising Yoga, and you will come back to each pose again and again to get some new benefit from it.
  • Poses are not fixed.  Different teachers might give different instructions.  I might give two students different instructions each, or even different ones to the same student on different days.  You can use props/not; work deeply or gently; hold longer or shorter; emphasise one body part or another.  Try to feel the essence of a pose and build from that.
  • When doing self-practice, try to pick the poses that will help you most - probably not the one you find easy, nor necessarily the one you desperately want to be able to do.  Much of my own practice is simple poses to work weak and tight areas.  From time-to-time I come back to my challenge poses, and sometimes they've got easier. 

Above all, practise with the right mental approach and you will reliably end up feeling great - even on days when your body is more tired or tight - provided you don't spoil it with a fixed mind that says something different ought to be happening.

Happy practice!

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