So, you’ve stumbled upon a fantastic YouTube channel or been persuaded to attend a local class and you’re curious about this wonderful, mysterious thing called yoga. Or, maybe you’re totally hooked already and can’t wait to get going on your own. In this three-part blog I will help you to begin, maintain and place in context, a sustainable, exploratory and life-changing practice.
Part 1 – Yoga Basics, Part 2 – Building a Sustainable Practice, Part 3 – Going Deeper.
Part 1 – Yoga Basics
What You Will Need –
A mat. There is an overwhelming amount of choice when it comes to buying a mat; extra-long, extra thick, Eco, cork, patterned, Pro, travel. A standard mat is approx. 5mm deep and has a non-slip ‘sticky’ surface and will retail at under £20. A standard mat will be absolutely fine. Don’t go spending unnecessary amounts on fancy kit.
A block is a useful addition to your practice. I prefer a yoga brick for its added height and stability. Blocks are used to raise the floor to you, enabling you to experience the full benefits of a pose if your current flexibility won’t allow you to reach the ground.
A blanket is pretty essential and can be used in so many ways to enhance your practice. A blanket can be used under the sitting bones in seated postures to encourage better posture and a straighter spine. A folded blanket is also essential for protecting the knees, especially when on a hard floor. When you move on to inversions such as shoulder stand, a folded blanket under the shoulders will help protect the neck. And, of course, your blanket will be perfect for creating that cosy, safe space in which to fully relax during savasana. Even on a warm day there is something comforting and delicious about lying under your favourite blanket.
What to wear –
Anything soft and non-restrictive. Again, the market is saturated with hideously expensive yoga brands and this is where you will need to develop a very real sense of discernment. Does wearing a £100 pair of yoga trousers enhance the experience of your practice in any way? Seriously, a pair of old leggings and a vest are perfect. You will need bare feet in order not to slip on your mat and probably don’t want a t-shirt so baggy that it keeps falling over your head in every downdog! Likewise, hoods can be pretty annoying. Remember, you want to be free to move unencumbered. Having thick socks and something warm or cosy to slip on before relaxation though is a good idea.
Most classes begin with a short time of meditation. As this is often not strictly meditation, this time is often referred to as ‘centring’ or ‘gathering’ and involves moving your mental space from the demands of your outer life to a more focused and spacious awareness of the present moment. Beginning your practice with a few minutes of mindful awareness can help you ascertain where you are at the start of your practice, whether you feel stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, whether you have racing thoughts, a hefty to-do list playing in your mind. With conscious awareness you can watch your body, breath and mind move into a place of settled stillness, preparing you to get the most enjoyment and benefit from your moving practice.
Breath Awareness –
This is what makes yoga, yoga and not exercise. Mindful, conscious breathing, simultaneously relaxing your nervous system, slowing your heart rate, settling your busy mind and energising, focusing and fine-tuning your energies! Wow. That is why yoga is so magical.
Unless you are fortunate enough to have mastered levitation, during your practice there will always be some part of your body in contact with the floor. Building a literal (and metaphorical) awareness of where you are grounded is an essential skill. I always teach from the ground up, encouraging students to cultivate the sense of being grounded fully first and then allowing extension, strength and movement to flow from that connection with the earth. Not only will this sensation of being grounded give a firm foundation in a very practical sense, offering stability and balance and the active engagement of key muscles but, as you develop a more subtle awareness of the energies at play, you will come to see how you can cultivate and utilise this awesome energy that arises from being fully grounded.
Work within your limits –
Yoga is for everybody and every body. A well taught class should enable everyone to participate in all postures, with students at varying points along the posture journey. Personally, I demonstrate the full pose and then teach it from the ground up enabling students to stop at the point at which they have reached their comfortable range of movement. We all have different skeletons, muscle build and greater or lesser degrees of natural flexibility. You don’t have to be able to touch your toes, let alone wrap your legs around your head. Try to resist the urge to compare yourself to the person on the next mat. Just focus on your own wonderful, unique, amazing body and what it can do for you right now. Remember, the postures are really all a way of moving you to a place of greater mental ease, with a clearer mind and a better ability to deal with life’s ebbing and flowing. The fact that, over time, your body will strengthen, soften and become more flexible is a bonus really.
This is the yoga name for the delicious relaxation which you will experience at the end of a class. It is also known as corpse pose. Even if you are developing a home practice try to factor in a few minutes for savasana at the end, even if you’ve only been on your mat for ten minutes. This is the time when your body assimilates all the juicy, yoga goodness which you have cultivated during the physical practice. It is also an opportunity to invite your body to surrender to a properly deep relaxation, not a slump-in-front-of-a-movie relaxation. Visualisation, body scanning and music can all enhance this part of your practice.
The practice of yoga is an energising, awakening and challenging one which can help you grow in strength and confidence as you discover more about your own body and uncover layer upon layer of your inner self. It is called a practice because the journey is lifelong; there is no destination, no end-point, just a constantly evolving, fluid learning. With practice, yoga will help you build strength, flexibility and awareness. It might just change your life! Here are some tips to ensure you enjoy a long, safe and joyful yoga practice.
• Listen to your own body. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Try not to compare yourself to anyone else. They are on a different journey to you in a different body!
• Be patient – there is no rush. Don’t be discouraged. Whatever your starting point, progress is made in small steps
• Let your teacher know if you have any injuries or conditions. They will be able to ensure that you can practice safely
• Try not to eat a large meal right before class. Yoga is best practiced on an almost empty stomach
• Take a blanket to class. Cosiness is an important part of self-love. And, you’ll be surprised at its many uses
• Take some water. Staying hydrated, especially in dynamic classes or warm rooms, is really important
• Yoga means ‘union’. In yoga we aim to reconnect our bodies and our mind, our physical self with our spiritual self, and our movement with our breath. The balance which you strive for in your practice can spill over into your day to day life with profound results
• Smile and breath. Enjoy each moment on your mat, the best gift you can give yourself