Sarah Fretwell

Yoga, Movement, Mobility, Wellness

Yoga

This Week's Yoga: Hamstrings, Hips, Splits...

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I'm starting to track my yoga practice so hopefully I can check back in a year/two years/several years later and look back on the progress I've made! Here goes week 1...

Monday: 

30 minutes practise in my gym after work, focusing on hamstrings and hips with long holds in downward dog, pigeon pose and splits. The splits are coming way more easily to me now, my hamstrings have opened up a lot over the past few months and my hip flexors even more. I've still got several inches between me and the floor, but I now believe that full splits will soon be possible - which was definitely not the story 1 year ago! 

Tuesday:

Teaching double 1:to:1 lessons tonight so today was rest day with a few little stretch breaks in between work.  

Wednesday:

An awesome lunchtime Vinyasa class that was actually a fast-paced Rocket yoga class. Full of handstand practise where I was spotted twice, pincha mayurasana where I managed to hold it for a few seconds, core work and many many chaturangas. Left on such a high, buzzing with energy and feeling generally on top of the world! 

Thursday: 

Friday: A busy day at work meant I only practised for 15 minutes today - but hey, little and often right?! 

Saturday:

Another busy day of chores and teaching private classes means I got a 45 minute practise in which was slow and steady. 

Sunday: 

A little warmup pre-teaching for 15 minutes and then a fiery 60 minutes practise filled with pincha mayurasana and a few hanstand kick-ups! 

Why Pigeon Pose Should Always Be Taught With a Block

Yogasarah1 Comment
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I personally love pigeon pose, but it wasn't always this way. When I was just starting out practising yoga, I had the tightest hips, and sitting in pigeon pose (see below image) was almost impossible without toppling over to the side. I love teaching pigeon pose, especially in my Yin classes, but will never teach it without the use of some sort of prop. Here's why.

The traditional version of pigeon pose is lying down in a passive, unsupported forward fold over the front leg. We're often told by our teachers to "surrender", to "release into the hips", and to stay here for several breaths. Many teachers simply offer the use of a prop if you think you need it, but don't insist on it. This presents a few issues, in my opinion. A new student who is a complete beginner will not have a clue whether he/she needs a block or not, and will usually see this as a failure in terms of flexibility. The same goes for the semi-flexible, who will often skip the use of a block even though they could really do with being propped up more.

It's for this reason that I always ask students to grab their block and prop themselves up under their hip with it, or to fold up a blanket under the hips if they have a little more openness in the hip joint and don't need to propped up so high.

One of the main reasons for practising pigeon pose with props is that the very nature of the pose puts the knee joint in a pretty precarious position,with the added weight of the torso and upper body lying on top of the knee, which isn't beneficial for the knee or hip joint.

Many teachers guide students into pigeon with the front leg hip drawing as far over to the side of the mat, and the front heel dragging over towards the opposite side of the mat, in an attempt to get a right angle with the front hip. With this alignment, the student tries desperately to keep upright while keeping the front leg in line with the front of the mat, and try to bring their torsos into an upright position.

By propping students up with a block or blanket, students can find much more of a release in this pose, while keeping the integrity of the knee and hip joints safe.

How yoga can help you let go of your attachments

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I'm on holiday in Portugal, currently sunning myself on a sun bed under the 35 degree heat, free from cares and my usual responsibilities. Whenever I go on holiday, I am always reminded by just how attached I am to my home comforts and my daily routine. The little things, like how I choose to spend my own time, what time I like to have dinner, what I like to buy (all the yoga leggings).

How many clothes do we have in our wardrobes that we know we won't ever wear again, but they're just sitting there just in case? I for one know that I have way too many possessions, and the fact that I'm not actually missing any of them (apart from my beloved yoga mat) shows just how meaningless they are to me. Having them doesn't equate to my happiness, it just temporarily fulfils my desire to have "things".

On holiday, I have barely anything with me. Apart from a few clothes, (ok a few too many bikinis than I actually need), one book, sun cream, flip flops and the like, I've left everything else at home. And I don't feel like I'm lacking, in fact I feel the opposite: full of abundance and very lucky.

One of the last of the five yamas of Patanajalis  Eight Limbs of Yoga (yogic philosophy in English) is Aparigraha, which translates as ‘non-greed’, ‘non-possessiveness’, and ‘non-attachment’. This Yama teaches us to take only what we need, keep only what serves us in the moment, and to let go when the time is right.

Ahh, letting go when the time is right. Easier said than done right? I for one find it hard to let go of things...what if I need this eleventh pair of jeans for some important reason that I can't think of yet? Yes, letting go of things that we accumulate can be harder than we think.

What does this yama teach us and how do we translate this on and off our mats?

Being ok with less

Do we really need that eighth pair of yoga leggings? What are they going to add to our practise and lives that isn't there already? The only time I'd really need a new pair is if all my current ones have holes in them or got eaten by the dogs I look after. And realistically, this won't happen unless I forget to feed the dogs for a week. So practising being ok with what I've got is a constant challenge, a practise of Aparigraha in itself.

Savour the practise, not the destination 

Ever heard the phrase, "it's the journey not the destination?" We so often focus on the outcome, the final result, the end product, that we forget completely about savouring the present moment, the little steps, the reality. Have you ever stepped on to your yoga mat, set your intention to be totally present, and then a few poses down the line you find yourself completely tuned out of the present moment and so set on getting to that peak pose, be it handstand or pincha mayurasana, that our practice has become less about being present in our bodies and breath and more about being more flexible or strong than the person next to you?

I put my hands up to this.

Practising Aparigraha can translate in watching ourselves when we fall into this ego trap, and snapping ourselves out of it, bringing our attention back to our breath and the feelings of each pose.

Practise for the love of practising 

Don't forget how far you've come in this practise, or whatever you do, be it your job, a sport, something you're learning. Your practise is everything. The feelings you get in the moment, the struggles you have to face, the frustrations you have, the ups and downs, the achievements, the moments that take you by surprise. These are the things that matter and that we so often forget to savour. Not the peak pose. Not the final product. Not that promotion. Not the final ability to master the splits.

Yoga gives me the opportunity to practise non attachment in real time. Again and again. To start over when I'm swept into my ego and lose sight of my practise.

And that is what makes me and you a better yogi. Not the handstand or the splits, but the way we become more present, more comfortable with having less, and more aware of when our egos take over.

What to do if you're stuck in a yoga rut (and how to get out of it)

Yogasarah1 Comment
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Whether you're a fully fledged yogi, or an every-now-and-again sort of yoga person, it's only inevitable that you'll come across a brick wall in your practice at least once in your life.

I personally went through this, shall we say "yoga rut", back in 2015, a year after I had started teaching. My practise went down from being everyday to once a week if I was lucky. I'd lost my yoga mojo, and felt really guilty about it but I just didn't feel like practising.

I think for me, I wasn't going to enough classes or workshops in order to keep me inspired, and this combined with my diminishing self-practice meant that I totally lacked inspiration in this area of my life. I was still teaching, but not really practising nearly enough as I should have been. Luckily, I regained my yoga mojo and it's back with a vengeance.

It happens to all of us. Life gets too busy, we get bored of our regular routines and classes, maybe even our teachers, and there's a thousand things we'd rather do instead.

No matter how long you've been in your rut for, there's definitely a way out. Here are my 3 tips on how to inject some life back into your practice...

1) Classes Classes Classes! Yup, the best way to gain inspiration if you've lost your own sense of practice is to book yourself on to some yoga classes. I personally love to to go yoga classes that have been recommended to me because the teacher is that fantastic, that my yoga friends go to or that are in studios that I really rate. Ask around, follow other yogis on Instagram and see which classes they are going to, and go along. Try different teachers until you find about 3-5 teachers that you absolutely adore. Yoga is a very personal practice, and the yoga teacher makes or breaks the class, so keep searching for those gems of teachers, the ones that you instantly warm to, that challenge you, that empower you, that you feel you can talk to after class, and that teach from the heart.

2) Grab a friend. A great way to get back into yoga and on to your mat more regularly is to go to classes with a friend. Finding someone in your life who's interested in yoga but might be stronger or more flexible than you is a really great way to get that competitive streak going again! When you lose your yoga mojo, it sometimes just takes a little bit of a competitive spark to re-ignite your love for your practice. Going to yoga classes with a friend or following inspiring yogis on Instagram and attempting the poses that they practise is a sure fire way to give yourself the boost you need. Once you know you've got a lot more to give, a lot more strength in you, and start to see progress, you'll be even more eager to step on to your mat the next day.

3) Stop for a while. It's ok to stop practising yoga for a while. Sometimes, we just need time out. This goes for anything in life - sometimes things that we once absolutely adored can become a task that we "have to do." Maybe you've been putting too much pressure on yourself and have lost the sense of fun and playfulness of yoga. In this case, it's absolutely fine to call it quits for a few weeks, even months, and to see what happens. I guarantee that if you love yoga deep down, you'll be drawn back to your mat one day. Trust the process, let nature do its thing, and don't try to force something that doesn't want to be forced. If its meant to be, if you're meant to come back to yoga, then you will. So let go, trust the timing of your life, and don't beat yourself up about it. Sarah xx

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5 key beginner yoga poses for men who want to start yoga

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Whenever I go to a yoga class, there are still predominantly more women than men. Yes, there are about four guys out of a class of 30 which is more than there was s few years ago, but yoga is still largely seen as a woman's practice. I do teach more and more men now through classes and private yoga, and they all make such huge improvements after only a few weeks of practise.

If you're a guy, it's easy to find a class full of women in brightly coloured leggings and sports bras really intimidating, especially as they're busting out some crazy yoga moves. In this article, I'm going to explain why yoga can benefit men in more ways than your regular heavy lifting session, and what the key beginner yoga poses are, so you can step on to your mat and start where you're at.

These 5 yoga poses will hit the key muscle groups in your body that are usually the tightest in men. Simple is highly effective, so don't be put off if these poses look easy at first glance. They'll work wonders for your strength building as well as for your flexibility, helping to create more space in your body and ease any tightness.

1) Child's Pose / Bālāsana

Getting in touch with his inner child
Getting in touch with his inner child

A deceptively "simple" looking pose that strenches the hips, spine and shoulders as well as easing lower back and knee pain.

Kneel with your knees open wider than shoulder-distance, alost as wide as your mat, with your toes touching. Place your forehead on the floor. Walk your hands forward with your fingers spread wide apart and stay in this pose for 20 deep breaths through the nose.

2) High Lunge / Utthita Ashwa Sanchalanasana

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This is a great pose for runners, cyclists, weight lifters and the like. It stretches out the hip flexors (the muscle that starts from the crease of your hip and extends to your thigh), the quadriceps, the feet and toes.

Come into a plank position. Step one leg forward and place the foot in between your hands, toes pointing forwards. Alignment is key here - keep your front knee tracking directly on top of the ankle, and in line with your second toe. Come on to your fingertips. Keep the back leg as straight as you can and come high on to the ball of the back foot. Draw the belly button in to stabilise the core to support your spine. Reach the chest forward keeping your neck long. Stay here for 10 deep breaths through the nose, reaching your chest forwards to lengthen your spine, sinking into the front hip flexor.

3) Crescent Lunge / Anjaneyasana

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Crescent Lunge is similar to high lunge, however it challenges your strength, balance and core stability even more because your arms are in the air. This pose is fantastic for runners, cyclists, gym-goers and anyone who sits at a desk most of the day.

Come into High Lunge as above, but reach your arms to the sky. Draw your tailbone down towards the floor (i.e. don't lean your chest forwards), come on to the ball of the back foot, and keep your arms shoulder width apart. Hug your belly button tightly to your spine to engage your abdominal muscles. Take 20 deep breaths in through the nose.

4) Downward Facing Dog / Urdvha Mukka Svanasana

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Ahhh, downdog! Surely the most well known yoga pose there is? It's not as simple as it looks, and when done correctly will build incredible arm strength, shoulder flexibility and will lengthen your spine. There are a few pitfalls here, so I'll briefly tell you what NOT to do in this pose as well.

Come into a child's pose as above, with arms shoulder width apart. Tuck your toes and slowly start to lift your hips off the ground, bringing the head in between the arms. Look at your fingers and check they're all pointing forwards and are in line with the sides of your mat. Look at your arms and start to turn the inner elbows up towards the ceiling, so that the shoulder blades draw downwards. Now look down towards the floor or to your feet, keeping your neck relaxed. Keep a bend in your knees and press the chest towards the floor. Draw the belly button into the spine to engage the core and empty the belly of breath with each exhalation. Slowly start to draw the hips up to the ceiling and gently draw the heels down. Stay here for up to a minute for a great strength building pose.

5) Yogic Squat / Malasana

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You're probably looking at this pose thinking "nope, not going to happen." Don't worry - if you don't think your hips will allow you to get this low, I have some solutions!

Most men have really tight hips, especially due to cycling, running and sitting down on chairs, which shortens the hip flexors and hamstrings.    This pose works wonders for relieving tight hips and restoring flexibility in the legs and the knees. Oh, it also gets rid of wind, so if you've got the bloat after that burger / pizza, then this pose is for you!

Standing, your feet should be shoulders width apart. Start to bend the knees and lower into a squat position, getting your butt as low as it can get without hitting the floor. Try and get your heels down to the floor. If this isn't possible due to tight hips, either place a soft flat yoga block or rolled up a blanket under each heel, or widen your feet slightly. If this still isn't possible, it's ok to stay on the balls of the feet and work with this! Bring your palms together into prayer in between your knees and push the elbows into your knees to ease them open. Think of lifting the chest higher to get out of that slump, and gaze forwards. Stay here for up to a minute and breathe deeply.

I hope these yoga poses help, let me know if they do by emailing me at hello@sarahfretwellyoga.co.uk!

How to build towards arm balances

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Arm balances are those elusive poses that beginner yogis feel they're never going to be able to do. Believe me, I've been there. I remember the first time I tried kicking up into pincha mayurasana or (forearm balance - pictured above) back in 2014.

I had zero shoulder or arm strength, no idea what parts of my body I needed to activate in order to get up into the pose, stabilise and balance in it, and no experience of falling out of it. And sure enough, I came down with a thud a split second after kicking up against a wall, and I sunk in my shoulders because I wasn't strong enough. How was I ever going to nail arm balances?!

Over the next two years, I kept practising pincha mayurasana here and there, but never really progressed because I still hadn't developed that arm, shoulder and core strength to be able to hold my own bodyweight.

But over the past year, I have been able to kick up into pincha mayurasana and hold it, hold poses such as 8-point-prone pose, fallen angel pose, crow pose and flying pigeon without dumping into my lower back, without sinking in my shoulders, without face planting the floor.

All of this comes after 3 years of regular practise, and building up my strength through the yoga basics (see what I'm getting at...!) If you have a perfect and consistent chaturanga (see the below picture) you will be able to hold various arm balances, because strong chaturanga arms are the foundation of arm balances such as handstand, pincha, crow pose and all of the rest.

Here are my tips on how to progress in your arm balance by perfecting your chaturanga...

1. Elbows hugging into the sides: When I'm teaching, I see so many students lowering down through chaturanga when they haven't built up the strength to maintain the correct form. Most students who are new to yoga wing their elbows out to the sides and do a wide-arm press-up to lower down. This definitely won't help build your tricep muscles! So try some drills, slowly lowering down and keeping your elbows tightly connected to your sides as you do so, then push back up, lower, push back up. Repeat this drill again and again until you start to build strength in the triceps and shoulders. If you aren't strong enough to lower down without your knees on the floor, then drop the knees down, lean your bodyweight forwards, hug the elbows in to the sides and then lower, and repeat.

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2. Shoulders in line with elbows: the key to arm balances is shoulder strength, as with all arm balances you are essentially holding yourself up with your arms and shoulders. You need to be able to hold a plank position with your shoulders in line with your elbows, and maintain this as you bend your elbows and lower all the way down through chaturanga. Again, repeating the drills above with this tip in mind will help you get there, and this is how I've personally built up strength in my shoulders. Keep hugging your shoulders into the midline (meaning: squeeze your shoulder blades together) to keep the shoulders active as you lower through chaturanga. Shoulder strength takes a little while to develop, so the key really is to practise chaturanga consistently.

3. Core strength and stability: Core strength is something that came a little easier to me than the shoulder and arm strength, probably from years of doing more sit-ups than press ups. However in arm balances I still struggle to locate and control my core when I'm upside down! What is core strength and stability anyway? It's not just being able to do as many sit ups as you can. Core strength is a deep activation of the innermost abdominal muscles. Yes, you need strong abdominals, but you also need core stability to be able to hold strength poses and arm balances, and transition between poses. You can have a crazy strong core, but if you don't know how to keep it stable you will never move from arm balance to arm balance with ease. Practising lowering down through chaturanga while maintaining 100% stability of your core will help, as will many other core stability exercises that you can find online. Think about how you move, such as when you're walking, rock climbing or running. You want to be able to maintain core stability, that feeling of activating the core and knowing how to keep the abdominals tightly engaged, while you move from rock to rock, from step to step. This is core stability, and understanding and building your core stability will really take your arm balances to a whole new level. So get practising those chaturanga drills while keeping your core absolutely stable!

4. Breathing: Ultimately the most important part of arm balances, because without breathing properly in poses, you create more tension. Exhaling deeply as you lower down through chaturanga will help you to engage the abdominals, as when you exhale your abdominals naturally contract. Not only will this make the lower down much easier (have you ever tried lowering down on an inhale? Not fun!), but you will be forced into breathing properly in the upward facing dog in vinyasa flow if you practise exhaling as you lower down. So think exhale to lower down through plank chaturanga, inhale to press back up into plank.

Let me know if this helps your arm balances at all!

Sarah

xx

Why practising yoga little and often is best

YogasarahComment
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My yoga practise has changed a lot over the years. A lot. From 90 minutes once a week when I started practising several years ago, to an hour twice a week a few years later, to 30 minutes to an hour almost everyday currently.

I used to think that I needed to practise one hour to 90 minutes once a week in order to progress, and would dedicate my weekends to fitting in a long and sweaty practise and then leave it for a week until next weekends practise.  And now, I still like to fit in an hour to 90 minutes of yoga in a class each weekend, and appreciate that this kind of practise is great for building strength and flexibility.

But there is a real truth in the saying of little and often. Once I said to myself that I needed to commit to practise yoga everyday, things started to change. It became less of a chore and way more enjoyable, an outlet for my creativity, both mentally and physically. Once I started to practise 15 minutes of yoga after work in the evenings, 15-20 minutes in the mornings or at lunch, and longer practises or classes over the weekend, I noticed myself progressing in poses that had been totally unachievable before. My flexibility increased, which in turn increased my determination to practise even more.

I started becoming more aware of how my body felt day to day and the changes that occurred in my body and mind, and started stepping on to my mat and going with what felt good on that day. Working with what I have right in that moment, and moving accordingly.

So here are my 4 pieces of advice to start practising more frequently, no matter how busy you are:

  1. SET YOUR ALARM 20-30 MINUTES EARLIER.

This one takes a little getting used to if like me you're not much of a morning person. But setting your alarm 20-30 minutes before you need to get up for work in the mornings, and moving slowly to unravel any tension or stiffness that's built up during the night is a great way to tick off your yoga practise before your day has begun. Move with some simple cat-cows and downward facing dogs, some gentle forward folds, anything to wake up the spine, hips and hamstrings.

2.  SCHEDULE IN YOUR CLASSES

The easiest way to commit to practising yoga is by scheduling in your yoga classes before the start of the week. Book that Friday evening Vinyasa class or Sunday morning Yin, and get it in the diary. This way, you know that you're definitely going to have a longer practise in during your week, so you've already committed yourself to showing up.

3. LAY OUT YOUR MAT

This one is key for me. Find a space in your house that feels cosy, personal and spacious. Personalise this space with whatever makes you happy, for me that's a vase of flowers, my yoga props, maybe a candle for the evenings. Roll out your mat and keep it there. Then every time you go to practise, your space is already there waiting for you. Minimal effort, maximum results.

4. FIND WAYS TO FIT YOGA IN

Another goodie. Start to constantly look for times to fit yoga into your life. Maybe you work long hours at a desk? Try slipping off to a quiet part of your office, finding a free room, or heading to the park during lunch, and just practise a few forward folds, downward dogs and sun salutations for 15 minutes. You can even practise hip openers just by sitting at your desk. Try sitting cross-legged on your chair rather than your feet on the floor, which shortens your hamstrings and tightens your hips. This will immediately stretch your hips and make that next yoga class a little less of a shock to the system (and hips!). Even before bed, can you step on to your mat and practise yoga for 15 minutes instead of an extra 15 minutes watching TV? Start looking for ways to fit yoga in, and you'll soon find that you were making excuses before, and that there are plenty of solutions!

Finally, definitely don't beat yourself up if you only manage to fit in 5 minutes everyday instead of 30 minutes. Start with baby steps. A little yoga here, a little yoga there. Maybe you'll find that things open up and 5 minutes turns into 15. And 15 minutes of yoga everyday equals to 7.6 hours a month. That's already better than practising 1 hour a week, which equals 4.3 hours per month.

I hope this helps,

Sarah

xxx