So what do YOU do every night before climbing into bed? And bear in mind this is a family show. Me, I stand on one leg at the end of the bed, the other knee bent up at right angles, shin and foot dangling, hands crossed shoulder to shoulder, and I close my eyes and count. Sometimes, I make it to all of eight seconds before hopping and teetering across the bedroom floor like a thing deranged. Then I do it all again on the other side. Over and over again, telling myself it will come. All it takes is practice. For when first I started doing this, my time pre-teeter was a mere two seconds.
‘Pah!’ you’re probably thinking. ‘I can stand on one leg for AGES! What’s the matter with her, yoga teacher-in-training?’ You might especially be thinking that if you were born, say, thirty or forty-odd years after me. And that’s okay because I would have done the same.
First of all, in my defence, ‘It’s me age, you know’ – as I believe ‘very old people’ have often been wont to say. Since forever. But I’ll come back to that.
And, second of all, the key thing here is not the standing on one leg, it’s the closing of the eyes that counts, as breathwork teacher, clinical hypnotherapist and neuroscience geek Ben Wolff pointed out to me this week, politely but extremely firmly. It’s a pose he named The Flamingo* and, though he refers to it often within his growing band of breathing school devotees, he’s not widely published anything about it. He was, however, generous enough to allow me to share his thoughts and research here.
Essentially, if you’re one of those yoga or Pilates people who heads unthinking to the safety of the wall as soon as the teacher suggests so much as lifting a foot off the floor, let alone making like a tree, it may be time to think again.
Yoga teacher-in-training disclaimer: There may be very good reasons why you need that support – physical injury and instability or inner ear issues, for example – but it can also be about fear. Fear of vulnerability, and fear of looking foolish and ancient in front of an entire class who, you imagine, could balance on a fingernail on a barbed wire fence for several minutes at a time with very little effort. I know this because that fearful person has been me.
Regular readers will know how positive I am about not falling into other people’s expectations of how I should be for my age and generation, what my body and brain might be capable of not just continuing to achieve but create and learn anew – ‘other people’ such as Roy J Shephard, whose Ageing and Exercise paper, published in 1998, makes a sobering read.
Left to their own devices, he suggests, our bodies begin their inexorable journey towards that great good night sooner that you might think. Muscle strength? That peaks at 25. Calcium? 30. ‘Maximal oxygen intake’ also begins to decline at 25. It’s been a while since I celebrated either of those landmark birthdays but the statistic I found most depressing in this entire report was that I have now, apparently, entered ‘Early Old Age’ – ‘Middle Old Age’, ‘Late Old Age’ and ‘Death’ being the only three stops now left on the tram.
If yoga teacher training has done anything it’s brought me face to face with my own mortality and incipient frailty because, given the probable need to demonstrate a range of balancing postures with some level of conviction – at least until I grasp that 200-hour certificate in my hot sweaty palm – it’s likely to be a tough job if I can’t.
It’s brought home to me just how much we take our youth and vitality for granted. One minute we’re off to the gym in our high cut leotard and feel-the-burn leg warmers (ah, those were the days), balancing on one leg for hours on end, wondering what all these old people are dithering on about. The next – in the blink of an eye, it seems – we’re the ones doing the dithering, reaching for the wall, tripping over our own feet, wondering where it all went.
Which brings me back to Ben and his wealth of breathing and brain practices designed to help us not just slow the ageing process but turn the hands of the clock back, to re-vision our health and rewrite the way our brains see stuff. And he reckons the ability to stand on one leg with our eyes closed is the most important thing any of us can strive for – more important even than hour after hour of pavement pounding, bicep curling and hamstring stretching. It’s also a handy guide to our functional age.
Manage it for four seconds and your ‘balance-based real age’ is estimated to be 70 years. Seventy! I hardly dared ask what my mere two seconds signified. But the good news is: you can improve it. Gradually, the brain begins to learn where it is in space and how to keep you upright, By nine seconds, you’ve turned the clock back to 50. Keep it going for 28 seconds and you’re back in your late-twenties. Add that to Alan Watkins’ assertion that twenty minutes of coherent breathing a day for six months will turn the clock back ten years and this really is the ‘elixir of youth’.
‘The health benefits are staggering,’ says Ben. Everything from dementia prevention to the relief of hypertension – via the way of positive impact on diabetes and neck and spinal diseases – have been associated with the ability to do it. ‘You feel your whole system recalibrating, which is kind of the point’.
Thinking it at first an ‘esoteric secret’, he came across the pose in 2009, in an article about Zhong Li Ba Ren’s book, Self Help is Better than Seeking Doctors’ Help, which considered the pose Jin Du Ji Lu to be ‘all you need for complete body and brain health’.
‘From a Qi Gong or Tai Chi perspective, it targets the six important meridians in the leg. In neuroscience, this makes complete sense because the longest signalling pathways run from foot to brain and back again. Not only that, but for any animal to have a sense of where it is in space is crucial, and this works both our internal interoceptive systems and our external proprioceptive systems of spatial awareness’.
Working with him has already helped my eyes-open balance. Not too long ago, doing – let alone teaching – Virabhadrasana lll (Warrior lll), was a real challenge to me. The pose involves standing on one leg whilst bringing the arms, torso and raised leg parallel to the floor, and my fear of looking a prat in front of younger, more able classmates was visceral. Thanks to Zoom, that hasn’t been as much of an issue lately but I knew the day would come.
Since everything went online with the earlier lockdown, I’ve been taking the opportunity to practice yoga with a whole bunch of teachers I wouldn’t normally have had such ready access to, including Donna Fahri (from her home in New Zealand) and, slightly nearer to home, in Manchester, the inspirational Christine Howitt whose teaching is very influenced by Donna.
About three years ago, Donna suffered a serious accident, breaking her pelvis in two places and rupturing her pubic symphysis so there was little holding the two sides of her pelvis together. In order to help herself recover, she developed a range of slow motion ‘walking asanas’ and balances which challenge the body and mind whilst rebuilding strength and stability, and Christine often integrates these into her classes.
For several weeks over summer, she had us first standing on a brick, swinging the other leg slowly back and forth, finding a point of balance, then coming off the brick to practice the same, shifting the weight back and forth between front and back feet, before finally taking flight into a warrior-like balance: Virabhadrasana lll. Could I do much of it? No. Even in the comfort of my own home, with the option (not taken) to turn the camera off, my heart was pumping, muscles stiffened with fear, hands clasped into fists, a little part of me wanting to weep.
Then I had a session with Ben – in hypnotherapy meets breathing mode – very deliberately moving my eyes whilst breathing to a coherent rhythm, six seconds in, six seconds out. The intention was to improve the hearing in my left ear through stimulation of the eardrums because, as he explained, they move when the eyes move. The added bonus is that the inner ears get a bit of a work out as well and it’s the inner ears which are responsible for helping us find our centre in gravity and keep us balanced.
The very next morning, I’m halfway through Christine’s class, balancing on a brick, swinging my leg back and forth without a care in the world before the ‘Wow!’ struck me: ‘I couldn’t do this last week! Wow! I mean WOW!’ And so it’s been with that Warrior lll too, the strategy for which I am now integrating into my teaching practice.
But, back with that Flamingo, Ben tells me he too could only manage two seconds at the start but now he’s not only lifting a leg, crossing his arms shoulder to shoulder and closing his eyes, he’s cleaning his teeth at the same time – and holding the pose for a full two minutes each side.
A work in progress and something to aim for then, for both me and the Gremlin. My advice, if you do try this at home, is to not stand on a slippery surface, and practice well away from sharp corners and hard surfaces. For this latter reason alone, neither of us plan (yet) to practice in the bathroom, while brushing our teeth and, personally speaking, if I can teeter towards my bed or sofa, all the better. I’d also recommend breathing slow and low in the belly, in for six and out for six, to really ground yourself.
Happy leg lifting!!
If you feel inspired to find out more about Ben, he teaches online and via The Shala in London. You can also find him via The Yoga Nidra Network.
* Further research suggests that another Flamingo Pose exists, a variation on the mat-based Marichyasana 1 (Sage Pose), said to calm your mind, extend your spine and give your internal organs a squeeze. Here, one leg (lets start with the right) extends along the floor, toes pointing upwards, whilst the left leg bends up, heel close to the left sitting bone then, folding forward, the arms reach round the bent leg and back to meet in a ‘bind’ behind the back. For the standing version, simply (ha ha!) rotate that mental image 90 degrees to emulate a flamingo nonchalantly dipping its beak in the water whilst standing on one leg. Not the sort of thing any of us want to be practising before bedtime – or, I should add, without supervision. Or, perhaps, with our eyes closed, in the bathroom!