Most of my friends and colleagues know I’m into yoga; for many years I was the in-house yoga teacher at the newspaper group where I worked. The practice has saved my sanity on many occasions and been my support through birth, burnout and bereavement (and I'll be writing about it here at Get The Gloss every month).
Yet over the years, people have often come up to me quietly confessing their reservations about yoga - they ‘can’t do’ yoga because they are ‘not flexible’. Or they feel intimidated by the perception that yoga centres are full of Lululemon-clad size six sylphs. They worry that the practice is somehow religious and would conflict with their own faith - or that they might get asked to chant. I’ve also heard people imply that doing yoga might somehow be a bit wussy or make them lose their edge (one word: ashtanga!). Magazine imagery and Instagram don’t help. If you can’t smile beatifically (smugly?) while balancing on your little finger against a Caribbean sunset, does that mean you should give up and go home?
And yet… pretty much without exception people concede that they should try yoga because they know it’s good for them. When I taught my colleagues at lunch time, we’d go back to our desks afterwards and people would remark that we looked different - our faces were relaxed and had a glow, our eyes would be brighter and our shoulders would have dropped a few inches.
If you fall into the refusnik camp or have been put off by a class you didn’t like, a new take on yoga launched in the UK this week at London's Triyoga centres by one of the world’s most respected teachers, is your portal to the practice and its many benefits. Inner Axis , devised by American Max Strom (below), contains no Sanskrit, no reference to Indian culture or deities, no pretzel poses, no omming and no silent meditation. The poses are a mixture of simple yoga forms (warrior 2, plank, down dog, lunges and a modified sun salutation) and combine with elements of qigong, mindfulness and breath techniques. They are accessible to every level of fitness, age group and body shape - no Lycra required. In fact, Max - a modern-day wise man if ever I met one (he used to be in a rock band and as well as teaching yoga globally is a TEDx speaker and author) teaches in companies to people still in their work wear - and ties become yoga straps.
More than simply being accessible, Inner Axis is actually essential, in my opinion (and I have tried pretty much every yoga style going). It is specifically aimed at a combatting the stresses of modern life - anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, burnout - helping us to function at a higher level at work and in our relationships. And it makes the bold claim of improving how we feel within ten minutes. “The level of stress for people living in cities is not a healthy normal at all. Inner axis radically enhances our wellbeing, not ‘someday’ but with immediate and noticeable effect," says Max.
Right now, we are in desperate need of tools to support our mental health. "One in four people in the UK suffers from a common mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety - it's huge," says Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School. "Mental health is our biggest form of morbidity, bigger even than cancer." Flexibility isn’t everything, in fact it isn’t anything if you are anxious, can’t sleep, suffer from panic attacks or are weighed down by suppressed emotions. Being able to getting your leg behind your head isn’t going to help with any of those 21st-century malaises. As Max pointed out when he came to Triyoga at the weekend to launch the method, "Humans are not created to cram themselves into postures - postures are there to help heal us." And accordingly, modifications for levels 1, 2 and 3 are given, so everyone can benefit, wherever they are at.
How does Inner Axis work?
The key is breathing.
But we can all do that, can’t we?
Not very well, apparently.
Try this: adopt the ‘sitting at computer pose’, look down at your hands on the keyboard and try to take a deep breath. Feel how hunching restricts your ability to fill your lungs? Now compare that to the breath you take when you sit up straight.
Most of us deskniks are working at way below our lung capacity – and we need oxygen not just to concentrate, but to exist. Clearly it’s our breathing muscles that need a bit of personal training. Inner Axis teaches ‘Ocean Breathing’ (what yogis call ujjayi - but this is a jargon-free zone). Ocean Breathing is a long deep inhale and exhale that sounds - unsuprisingly - like the sea. It’s made by creating a valve in your throat, like when you fog up a mirror. "The sound allows you to focus the mind and let go of all the fearful and anxious thoughts,” says teacher Karin Lilleberg , who leads Inner Axis classes at Triyoga (and is demonstrating poses in our pictures, above). “It also calms the nervous system.”
Simple exercises help us to locate our under-used side ribs (which allow us to breathe bigger) and stretch the muscles to create space for our lungs to expand.
Try this: put your hands on your side ribs at bra strap level and breathe in to your palms. Notice how much fuller the breath is. “Your ribs go out and your diaphragm moves down," says Max. "Breathing like this uses two and a half times as much air."
Breathing practices and yoga segue into qigong-inspired moves where the arms are slowly raised overhead and then down, following the movement of the breath. “We do breath initiated movement, so we breathe just before we start to move,” explains Karin. This is also a mindfulness practice keeping us in the moment.
“Have you ever noticed in a yoga class where the phrase 'oh and don’t forget to breathe’ is sort of tagged on?’" asks Max. “I’d rather you completely forgot all the postures and did the breath work, because that’s what your family will notice when you get home. For me, if it doesn’t have that effect on your family there’s no point. Your kids will say, 'Mum, you need to go to that Inner Axis Class,' – and they do!’
Max explains that for him, the most important part of yoga is the emotional aspect. "One participant in a workshop said to me that they had had a breakthrough afterwards - an insight. When I was practising hatha yoga, I noticed that it would happen to me especially in classes where the teacher would focus on breathing. Breath is connected to our emotions – we breathe differently when we feel different emotions. When we’re angry we hold our breath and then it becomes a kind of rapid panting. When grief comes, it’s in long shuddering exhales, the diaphragm spasms. It’s not learned, it’s innate. When you do breath work, you gain insight accompanied by emotions. You might feel angry, blissful, dizzy. But when an emotion comes up it will be followed by insight – maybe not immediately, there may be a couple of hours’ delay.”
He tells the story of one lady who beckoned him over at the end of a class. “I thought she was going to tell me how great she felt. But she whispered ‘Max, I didn’t feel anything!’ When I got home that night there was a voicemail from her sitting in her car after class sobbing."
This doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily come out of Inner Axis an emotional wreck. But if emotions do come up (for me, that happened in the short guided visualisation in which you are asked to picture the person, living or not, to whom you’d like to express the most gratitude) you will probably feel lighter for it. "We are taught not to express our emotions," explains Max. "Anger is the only socially acceptable emotion. We are told that to be vulnerable when we grieve is weakness, to avoid it at all costs and not to cry. We suppress and push down emotion - but when we do breath work it releases feelings, bringing them up to the surface. When that happens, we start to understand our feelings, we stop fearing them and then the healing can start. What is suppressed is revealed. It doesn’t replace therapy but it hastens it – you’ll spend less time in therapy."
After class, I felt a little vulnerable, but in a good way, I felt like I'd looked inwards, rather than powered through moves I knew well at my usual vinyasa class. For those drawn to the fast-paced, dynamic yoga styles, it demands a bit of a mind shift to accept that Inner Axis, with its slow, mindful breaths, is enough of a 'workout'. But perhaps we are the ones who need to power down the most, to drop our resistance and not let our yoga practice merely perpetuate our natural 'do more' tendencies. Having said that, I found the Level 3 options (eg long-held planks) plenty challenging.
Later that evening, I did the humming exercise below with my children (aged 12 and 9) and they agreed it was utterly relaxing. Whatever our age, yoga experience, or degree of flexibility, Inner Axis has a lot to teach us and reaches each of us where we need it. It could be a true game changer in making healing accessible to all in the age of overload.
Inspiration literally means breathing in. "We want to inspire ourselves," says Max. "Breath work gets rid of old grief [and loss], it reconciles us with the past."
Try these tasters:
1. To prevent computer hunching
- In your chair, place your palm on the crown of your head and press against it, resisting with your hand, drawing your lower ribs in.
- At the same time, ground down through your sitbones and will feel the spine grow tall with more space for your breath.
2. To calm the mind
Slowing down the breath, especially the out breath, activates the rest and relaxation response. The easiest way to do this is exhaling using the voice, says Max. Try this exercise any time you need to calm down or just before bed. It only takes four minutes (smoking a cigarette takes six, Max points out).
- Sit up with a long straight spine. Breathe in and then breathe out with a long low hum. Do this repeatedly for one minute.
- Make the same sound but with an open mouth (‘ahhhhhh’) for two minutes.
- Hum for another minute.
If you want to do more, increase the time you spend in the middle section – the ‘aah’.
Inner Axis is currently taught in the UK exclusively at Triyoga. For classes see here. Max is back at Triyoga early next year (2017) for workshops . I highly recommend Max’s DVD Learn to Breathe which contains several Inner Axis breathing exercises. His powerful book A Life Worth Breathing has been translated into several languages.
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Follow Victoria @vwyoga. Find Max at maxstrom.com and Karin at www.wellbeing-by-karin.com
Everyone Try Yoga book and DVD by Victoria Woodhall, Jonathan Sattin and Triyoga with three sequences by Brigdet Woods Kramer is available on Amazon and at Triyoga centres.