They don't teach this stuff

Periods. They’re kind of embarrassing to talk about, right? Especially when you’re 12 or 13 in school. What were you taught at school about periods, blood, menstruation? The main messages I took home at that age were: you bleed once a month (and are now in constant danger of getting pregnant), periods are painful, you get PMS (which makes you hard to be around), probably acne too (the pill can help with that, as well as the pregnancy thing) and it’s messy (best to block up your flow with a tampon). 

But, what about what you didn’t get taught, that you picked up just by living in society? Well, for me, there’s the bit about periods being a ‘curse’ alongside the mysterious references to hormones, to ‘that time of the month’, which seemed to explain away women’s very normal need for time out alone and plenty of rest as something a little bit crazy, out of the ordinary, socially unacceptable. I’ve no doubt you’ve your own stories too – Were periods celebrated? Something to be ashamed of? No big deal? A positive sign of your transition into womanhood?

I think that’s it, isn’t it. You kind of just picked up stuff at school and from what was being talked about around you and perhaps, like me and many other young women, were never given the whole picture. I patched together a whole lot of other things about menstruation along the way, too. Primarily through lived experience. The pill gave me headaches, shooting pains, acne and severe mood swings. So, I came off it quite quickly and never touched again after the age of 19. In my early career as a journalist in my 20s, I noticed that it was painful to put myself up for features and jobs just before my period. But, give me a couple of days of bleeding, and my energy shifted and changed and I could be out there and ready for anything. When I lived with other women, our periods usually arrived at the same time, at least for those who weren’t on the pill.

It wasn’t until my 30s, when I came across the work of Alexandra Pope and the Red School, that I realised that menstruation was actually a powerful – and fun – part of the woman’s life cycle. That each month, the physical and emotional changes that a woman experiences can be harnessed to improve not only your quality of life, but also your creativity, work and relationships. This is the stuff they don’t teach in school. And, this is the stuff, the magic, that I find really exciting – that listening and observing the menstrual cycle can give you all kinds of insights and opportunities to create more flow in your life. That disruption to your menstrual cycle and common symptoms of imbalance, are asking you to pause and listen to your body, to slow down, re-evaluate and reconnect to that flow. 

Menstrual Health is the next in the Women’s Wisdom Series of 3hr workshops at Trika Yoga, Bristol. In this workshop, we’ll explore ways in which you can become more aware of the natural fluctuations in energy and emotions during the menstrual cycle, how to find what self-care practices support you, and how to adapt your yoga practice through the month so that you stay in sync that flow. There’ll be yoga asana, movement, relaxation, and an opportunity to explore your experiences of menstruation with other women in an open, friendly and safe space. I very much look forward to welcoming you.

Change is the constant

Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, you’re doing great just as you are. This is really important to know – you are not broken, there is nothing that needs to be healed, in this moment you are whole. 

Even if this does not feel like a true representation of your life or state of mind right now, it may help simply to consider it as a possibility, even for a second. There are good reasons to reassure you that you are doing the best that you can, with the resources you have available to you. In a culture that demands us to engage in constant productivity we can go through each day thinking and feeling that we are never enough. This can result in an incessant dialogue around the need for change and self-improvement – and nowhere more so than in the business of yoga. 

You do change, life changes constantly, change really is the only constant. So, actually, there is nothing you need to do except to allow that change to flow and to trust that there is a right time, a right moment for everything. 

Pushing, pulling and dragging yourself through change, especially when your system is not ready for it, can create unnecessary anxiety and instability. I am an absolute believer in gently and continuously taking yourself outside your comfort zone – trying new things, pursuing new interests, creating new opportunities, embracing new challenges – but it doesn’t have to be a big, gruelling daily ordeal. 

Orientate your life, and yoga practice, around pleasure, not pain, and you will find exactly what you need to support you. In this way, the change may happen without you even noticing. But, if you need even more reassurance, know that your physiology is working with you quietly – and sometimes more loudly – to coax you through the changes that are inherent in the woman’s life cycle. 

As you go through menarche, for instance, when you get your first periods, your hormones help you to take a stand, assert yourself and your sense of identity and boundaries, as you prepare to come out into the public sphere. I love the self-assuredness of teenage girls and their passion for big issues, for saving the planet and humanity, for making this world a better place. 

During the menstruation years, your hormones take you through a monthly cycle of introspection and reflection flowing into outward energy and action, and back through introspection and reflection. Every month is an opportunity to deepen your understanding of yourself, and to refine your vision and embolden your action. 

The hormones of pregnancy and birth turn your attention inwards, clearing the internal emotional space for becoming a mother so that you can meet and receive your children more freely. Often you start to address aspects of relationships that drain you, and prioritise your values. This process continues into the postnatal period.

During the mothering years, your hormones keep you focused on the needs of others – that is, tiny human beings whose lives depend on it. Your hormones are asking for you to be subservient, and during the mothering years that can be conflict between the desire to nurture and tend to young children and the cultural pressure to continue to be out there 'doing it'. The hormones of pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and mothering are designed to make this a blissful period of your life. Cultural tensions and a lack of practical support in the home can disrupt this continuum.

The peri-menopausal years of midlife, leading up to menopause, are like a second adolescence but with the wisdom and experience of nearly 40 or more years on this earth. This is when you have the opportunity to address patterns of behaviour and relationship that have perhaps been pushed to one side during early motherhood. This is an important part of the process, since your hormones are encouraging you to step back out into the arena wearing your most glorious outfit. The energy of the peri-menopause can feel explosive and powerful – and if you ignore it, the body will give you very clear messages that this is not OK. Should you choose to pay attention, take action and exercise courage, this can be an opportunity to thrive and experience true joy. 

The post-menopausal years, the rest of your one, precious, shining life, are the wisdom years. You become the elder and you have the power and vision and clarity to make the best of you and your individual, particular gifts, to make a significant and successful (whatever that word means to you) contribution to the world. 

So, you can’t force it! But you can go with it. Change will happen whether you like it or not.  How could you choose to flow with and embrace change? How could you step aside from the cultural message that continuously reinforces ‘not-enoughness’ and lack? How could you, instead, welcome pleasure, nourishment and a mindset of wholeness and abundance? You know yourself best. Trust that you have the answers, trust that you are doing great just as you are, right now, in this moment – wherever you and whatever you are doing in your life.

Rites of passage

I remember my yoga teacher trainer, Bill Wood, explaining how yoga had survived so well and been adapted by diverse populations because of its ability to change and shape-shift according to the needs of a specific group of people, at a specific point in time. 

‘Yoga might more be seen as a collections of practices and ideas that have evolved, and continue to evolve, out of people’s experience of practice within their own cultural setting. Central to the science of Yoga is personal experience so, for practice to have any true meaning for each generation, the individual has to rediscover it within themselves in the context of their own time.’

Spanning two immersive years from 2005 to 2007, the focus of our teacher training was exactly as Wood describes above: our personal experience of the practices shared with us by our teacher and visiting teachers. At the time, I was in my early 30s, a young mum and had pivoted my career from a health and fitness journalist to a pregnancy yoga teacher and childbirth educator – I was feeling (and still am) incredibly inspired and excited by my own experiences and those of the women I worked with.

Aged 29, I gave birth to my first son and was compelled by everything pregnancy and birth. I had also recently discovered the Scaravelli yoga approach, which was inspired by Vanda Scaravelli, an Italian woman who studied the natural world and applied what she observed to her practice and teaching. This way of practicing felt very intuitive to me, and was just right for a time in my life when I was discovering what it was like to really go with and have faith in my intuition.

Through research, study, teaching and observation of my own experience and that of others, I understood that there was a power in birth that I could never have accessed without meeting it fully, leaning into its intensity – and that yoga had given me the skills and internal resources I needed to be open to its learning. 

By embracing the challenges of birth, and choosing courage over fear, I realised the potential for this aspect of the woman’s life cycle to be a positive, transformative process, a hugely significant rite of passage. Having worked with the menstrual cycle with a similar desire to understand its rhythm more consciously and, now entering the peri-menopausal years, I believe this to be true, not just for birth, but for all stages of the woman’s life cycles from menarche to menopause.

Just as yoga has evolved through the ages and across various cultural settings, so to can our practice of yoga. As women, whether or not we choose to identify with our biology, we are moved by the life of our bodies. Our hormones shift and change and enable us to constantly evolve and adapt to each new phase. 

By listening to – or becoming more attuned to – our bodies, and trusting their wisdom, we have the potential to undergo great and small shifts and changes in our minds. Women have yoga as a process of transformation built into their physiology. Meanwhile, the tools, techniques and practices yoga, which we learn from teachers and experiment with ourselves, can be a profound way in which to deepen our relationship with this process.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring these ideas on this blog as well as through my new Women’s Wisdom Series – three, 3hr workshops at Trika Yoga exploring how yoga can be an anchor through the life cycles, starting with peri-menopause.

For now, I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes from pioneer of pregnancy yoga, Jeannine Parvatti Baker (Prenatal Yoga and Natural Childbirth, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 1974):

‘Meeting what comes fully is one of the goals of yoga (santosha, contentment) – and it is the best advice in childbirth as well. With breath as ally we can receive a vision that will spiritually feed us our entire lives, right at the moment of birth (and conception). Go into the intensity, up to the very edge of eternity. Open to the stretch of body/mind, knowing each moment for what it is. Be thankful for life however it presents itself. Receive the blessings of birth gently and in love.’

Magic happens in circles

Yoga is a practice that has the potential to transform body and mind. But, what do we mean by that? Well, according to Ida Rolf, who pioneered an approach to bodywork called Structural Integration, the structure of our body is moulded by our habits and beliefs. 

If every time you curl your shoulders over when you speak, or puff up your chest, for instance, this gesture becomes a habit. You just adjusted your posture, right? Great, bringing awareness to these habits is the first part in the process of working with them – that is noticing if they’re helpful, or not.

Most gestures come about because of a certain belief we have about ourselves. Over time, the gestures that we use, become habit. Each time we repeat this habit we reinforce an internal belief. Over months and years, these habits begin to shape the posture and structure of our bodies. Just like doing a bicep curls with weights develops your biceps, or swimming front crawl strengthens your shoulders. Are you still with me? I’ll just wait while you check Instagram. Nice habit.

Great, you’re back. All those habits that we’ve created throughout our life, the ones that shape our body and reinforce our world view are laid down in our body like a map. Every gesture, habit and belief has been helpful to us at some point. Because of them we have been able to cope with a particular life situation. We are humans, we have experiences, we adapt and change to our emotional and physical environment. We’re pretty clever.

As we grow as people, however, many of those beliefs may no longer serve us that well. It might be time to chuck out some of the moth-eaten clothes in our wardrobe that don’t fit us anymore, and replace them with a new dress or cosy jumper that’s just the right size. There are two ways to develop new beliefs about ourselves and, subsequently, to undo old patterns and discover new gestures and modes of self-expression. Don’t you feel great in those new clothes?  

Talking therapies, such as counselling or psychotherapy, are so effective because they can reframe a person’s perspective of themselves and change their world view. This, in turn, can remould their experience of themselves and how they inhabit their bodies. When we feel seen, heard and our experience is validated, then we feel lighter and freer, like a weight has lifted from our lives. Talking to someone we trust and who meets us where we are, without judgment, has a powerful, positive impact on body and mind.

Yoga asana (posture and movement) primarily works with the body. And working with the body is another powerful way to shed old habits – ways of moving and being – and create new ones. That’s why it’s not uncommon for people, and very normal, for people to feel big emotions during a yoga class.

Tears can often well up – and flow if we allow them. Yoga creates the conditions for release, for shedding layers, letting go of what no longer serves us. So, after a just a few months of doing the physical practice of yoga, people often start to make changes to their lives. Some of these might be small changes, like making healthier food choices; some of these might be more profound, like ending a significant relationship, changing career or moving house. 

A yoga class can complement, but is never a substitute for, talking therapies. Yet, when we combine talking with moving in a safe, held space in which we feel comfortable to explore ideas, feelings and needs then magic can happen. We begin to think and feel differently about ourselves, noticing where to let go, where to bring in more support, what we want to welcome into our lives.

I have taught pregnancy and postnatal yoga for over a decade, and have attended women’s circles for the past two or three years. Each class that I’ve taught for women who are preparing to give birth be mothers, or are in the throws of early mothering, has opened with a space in which women can bring the whole of themselves to class. 

There’s never any obligation to share, and women are always invited to share only what they feel most comfortable with. Over the weeks and months, however, women begin to open up. They discover that there is a connection with other women – we’re all going through the same thing, we’re not alone, we have the same kinds of questions. They also strengthen their voices, and cultivate the confidence to make choices that most clearly align with their sense of self.

During the posture and movement, it is a delight, then, for me as a teacher to tailor the practice to the needs of the group. Knowledge – knowing a little more about the mood, feeling and experience of the women in the room – combined with intuition, leads to cues, visualisation and gentle guidance on how to work with their experience. 

Whatever stage we are in the women's life cycle – planning for a baby or entering the peri-menopausal years – a circle of women can give us strength, bring clarity and help us to feel and move into the next stage of our lives with gestures, habits and beliefs that will help us to be the best version of ourselves we can be.

Now, that’s magic.

Trusting your emotions, a quote from Reginald Ray

When we breathe into our body and are fully present… we find that emotions come. When they do come, we go through some kind of process, and then they go, and there is no problem in any of it. How can this be? It can be because we are identifying with a deeper part of ourself. We have unplugged our thinking mind for the moment, and then we are there, just in our body, with what is occurring there. We experience the emotions and feelings with no sense of pressure to do anything about them. Of course, when we do this, our conceptual mind is always hovering in the background, our fear tempting us to do something. Frequently, we exit into thinking. So then the practice is to keep coming back to the body, and feeling what we are feeling.

From Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body by Reginald Ray, Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado (2008).

The time of your life?

This year I turned 40. I knew there was something special about this age, and I wanted to prepare for it in the best way I knew how, just as I had prepared for the birth of my children, the first a water birth at a midwife-led birth centre, the second at home in my front room. So, I began to look for role models, women over 40 who were bold, creative and living joyfully. 

This is when I came across the book A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives by artist-author Lisa Congdon, herself an example of a woman embracing her talents, facing fears and finding the courage to be the most authentic version of herself in midlife. Each story in the book was inspiring, from women trying new activities such as surfing to starting new careers in the outdoors. But one quote from singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge struck me in particular: 

‘We are getting older, and we are getting wiser, and we are getting freer. And when you get the wisdom and the truth, then you get the freedom and you get the power. And then – look out. look out.’

At the same time as I began seeking inspiration from older women, I also began to experience what I now understand to be symptoms, or signs, of peri-menopause. Peri-menopause is the period in a woman’s life leading up to menopause, which can start in your late thirties or early forties and last anywhere from a couple to 10 or more years. Menopause is defined as the point at which a woman’s periods have ceased for 12 months.

For me, peri-menopause showed up as irregular and scant periods, where my menstrual cycle had always flowed easily, regular, reliable and consistent in its effects of my body and mind, I never knew when they were going, or if they were going, to show up, or for how long. I also experienced levels of anxiety that were unfamiliar, as well as a deep, unsettling sense of uncertainty. During one-to-one sessions with private yoga clients of a similar age, often a little older, I noticed that they were reflecting similar experiences back to me. 

I also realised that, like the positive aspects of menarche, menstruation, pregnancy, birth and mothering that inspired me, peri-menopause was not openly talked about. In fact, it felt like there was a silence that women themselves were afraid to break. Peri-menopause was lurking in the shadows between comments about challenges and difficulties in personal or professional lives, explained away as ‘this time of life’.

The more I observed my own ‘signs’ while seeking support from trusted friends, yoga teachers and women’s health practitioners, and to gently question and listen to the experiences of other women, the more I started to understand what Etheridge meant by her quote. When you allow the ‘pause’ to happen, create space to stop and reflect, feed your creativity in new ways, orientate your life around pleasure and what brings you most meaning and joy in your life, then you get the truth, and then you get the freedom, and then you get the power. It comes slowly and silently, like a smile spreading or a forest growing, and with it comes a renewed sense of energy, focus and purpose. 

Throughout these early years of peri-menopause, yoga has continued to be an anchor, as well as a practice that keeps my mind and body healthy, free and (mostly) calm and centred. In those moments when I feel the fear, when I don’t know where the path ahead is leading me, yoga brings me back home to myself, and back into the present moment. And, in the present moment, everything is always OK, exactly as it should be, perfect in all its imperfections. Those uncomfortable emotions have something to tell me – whether its simply the need to take more rest or to be more honest, open and boundaried in a relationship – and the easier emotions tell me that I’m doing just fine, that I’m heading in the right direction, that I’m following my heart, taking care of my soul. 

This Autumn I will be offering a series of three-hour workshops at Trika Yoga in Bristol, UK, focused on women’s health. The first in the Women’s Wisdom Series celebrates and creates space for women experiencing or with a desire to prepare for Perimenopause. (You can book direct with Trika Yoga here.) I look forward to welcoming you, whatever your experience at this stage in your life. Through sharing knowledge and wisdom, creating space for pause and enjoying being and moving in our bodies, we can embrace and access the power that is inherent in each of these rites of passage in the women’s life cycle.

Flowing into self-practice

There is something very special about attending a yoga class. The teacher creates and holds a regular space, an anchor in our week, in which we can explore and discover our relationship with our body, undoing tension, relaxing our muscles and cultivating an awareness that helps us to be more attentive to the needs of our body in our daily life. A clear structure is provided: the essential elements of a sequence of postures followed by a relaxation and often also incorporating a breathing practice and closing with a few minutes of sitting. Teacher, space and structure combine to help students enjoy and develop a practice of yoga.

If you have been attending classes and have begun to feel the benefits of yoga, you may feel inspired to begin to play with yoga away from a formal setting. Yet, students often find they don’t know where to start when it comes to developing a self-practice. However, with a few simple tips, and with the emphasis on keeping it simple, you can let your yoga flow out of the studio and onto your mat at home. Just dive in.

The point is to begin

One of my favourite quotes is from a ‘Yoga for you’ by Tara Fraser, whose classes I used to attend at her North London studio Yoga Junction. It goes something like this: ‘The point is to begin and see where the journey takes you.’ Whenever I go to my mat and I don’t know where to start, I always return to the simple sequences she offers in the back of her accessible guide for every body who wants to practice at home. The point is, that stepping into the unknown, is something that yoga teaches us to do more gracefully, and you don’t know where the yoga is going to take you. However, there are some tried and tested methods of practicing yoga, and it’s extremely helpful to have some of them at hand from people who have been there before. Then you can start to find your own path.

So, if you have 20 minutes to practice, and you want to know what to do in that time, then have a ‘go to’ book that you can open anytime of day and find a way in. As well as Fraser’s book, the following also sit next to my meditation cushion and yoga mat: Yoga Sequencing by Mark Stephens, Yoga Practice Book by Chloe Fremantle and Yoni Shakti: A Woman’s Guide to Power and Freedom Through Yoga and Tantra by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli.

Ask your teacher

The best teachers will always guide you towards cultivating your own practice, encouraging independence and helping you find the courage to do yoga your way. If you particularly enjoyed a sequence, then ask your teacher to sketch and/or name the sequence of postures that you played with in class. Give them time to do this and ask if they would be happy to share them them at the next class. If you attend an ashtanga yoga class, your teacher should have a copy of the series you are practicing at hand, with options of shorter versions for when you have a smaller window of time in which to practice.

Go online

Personally, I find having a device on distracting (see next tip), but many people find an excellent way in which to practice regularly at home. This approach gives you access to a wealth of teachers from all over the world whenever you need them. Gaiam and Yogaglo are great places to start. You will also find sequences on You Tube, though it may take a bit of sifting to get to the good stuff.

Switch off

Ring mark time in your day to practice. This might be ten minutes, it might be 90 minutes. The quantity of time is not as important as the quality of time. Afterall, yoga is a practice in being present so give yourself the best chance you can of staying focused and present and enjoying a mini-break with your body. Go offline, switch off all devices, or put them into airplane mode, and set the kitchen timer. As soon as the timer starts, dive into your practice. One or two postures approached with strong intention and focused awareness will reap greater rewards than 10 with distraction and disconnection.

Dare to create

Once you've been practicing at home for a while with sequences from a book, your teacher or online, then experiment with creating your own sequences. These don't have to be perfectly honed and executed, give yourself permission to ask what your body needs right now and go with whatever postures spring to mind. Begin and end with a rest, and let the body guide you through a sequence that feels good in that moment. Working sensitively in this way, and with attention to the breath, will ensure that your practice is always precisely crafted and perfectly safe for you.

Plan your own classes

If a free-form approach still feels too scary, then spend a few minutes at the beginning of each session planning your own class using the format of a flowing vinyasa sequence, which is centred around a key pose, building up to and then warming down from that posture. As a general guide it goes something like this, though you may find your own way: standing (am) or lying (pm) or dancing between the two, inversions (e.g. downward dog), backbends (e.g. bridge), twists, sitting, lying, and always finishing in corpse pose to allow your body to integrate the work you have just done. Once you have a plan, don't be afraid to change course along the way. You may feel that a different posture works better than the one you had originally intended, or that there are some in-between movements that are needed to help the body feel freer as it works towards the more challenging parts of the class.

Yoga journal

Keep a journal of your yoga practice. This could be as comprehensive as noting down the sequences you explored and enjoyed, that you found challenging and/or that you'd like to revisit, alongside notes about how your body responded and how you felt in yourself before and after the practice, physically and emotionally. Or it could be as simple as noting down in your diary every yoga practice and the number of minutes you dedicated to yoga that day. This can be a nice way to build a positive picture of how you are building yoga into your life. Focus on what you have done, not on what you think you should have done. Open the door to what is, acknowledge what you have achieved; close the door on the dark stranger who likes to breed discontent, aka the guilty self-critic.

Keep on weeding

If it feels like your yoga practice is swimming against the tide of all the other demands in your life, keep the faith, keep weeding. Ten minutes here and there, whenever the moment arises, is always worthwhile and is always an occasion to be celebrated. Those precious moments of weeding the tension out of your muscles and creating space for yoga to blossom, are key to building a sustainable practice. As Vanda Scaravelli so cannily put it, 'In the beginning you have to make room for yoga in your daily life, and give it the place it deserves. But after some time yoga itself will pull you up by the hair and make you do it.' Yoga will flourish wherever it is given the conditions to grow. Gradually, you will begin to find your flow, that space where time dissolves and you are so focused that you become lost in the creative practice of yoga as only you can know it.

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La Loba, Or Breathing New Life into Old Bones

There is a story from Mexico of an old woman who collects bones, which goes something like this. La Loba, the Bone Woman, gathers the dry and scattered bones of creatures and brings them home. Her speciality is wolves. When La Loba has a complete skeleton, she lights a fire in her hearth and sets down to sing to the bones. She sings until the bones come to life, the wolf rises, full, strong and fierce, and runs howling into the night. If you have ever had the luck to meet La Loba – you may know here by her fatness, hairy face and rough meanness – be blessed, for she may show you something of the soul.

When I heard this story, I was struck by its many resonances. Of course, bones have long been a metaphor of birth – life springing forth from something that appears dead, like a seed – and rebirth – the potential within each of us to make ourselves new in any given moment, to bring to life those parts of us which we previously thought, consciously or unconsciously, were dead. Like Persephone from the Underworld, the bulb from dank earth, blossom from a barren bough, life pervades even through its darkest cycles.

Most of us have an image of bones as lifeless. When we look at images of a skeleton or see one first-hand, the bones are dry, brittle and dead. Bones alive inside the body are quite different. Bones are fluid and dynamic. They are strong yet soft, and are constantly renewing themselves. They respond to how we use our body. When we develop muscles in a particular pattern, the muscles sculpt the bone into a shape that more deeply engrains that pattern. Our lives shape our bones. And, our bones are intimately involved in life. Bones support the body, protect organs, play a vital part in respiration, act as stores for nutrients and energy reserves, and create red blood cells.

Bones are at our deepest core. And they are our friends in yoga, both functionally and as a metaphor for regeneration. Yoga is an opportunity to gather together all those aspects of ourselves that we have strewn across our life even over the cycle of a single day, scattered here and there like dead and lost bones. Our practice is a rich compost for inner life, breathing spirit into our physiological, psychological and emotional body. Like Ezekiel on the plain of old bones waiting for instruction from his God, our job is to listen to the yoga that comes from within – what Vanda Scaravelli calls the ‘song of the body’ – and let it sing soul, life and breath back into our lives.

This raising of the bones furthermore connects us to our intuition, or inner knowing, which gives us the power to make more truthful choices. In folklore, the image of a skull held high on a staff, with a fiery light radiating from the holes of the eyes, ears and mouth, represents the courage of allowing ourselves to be guided by our intuition, stepping bravely into the dark forest with the gifts of discernment as our torch.

Try this: Lie supine for a few minutes in corpse pose, svasana, covered in a heavy blanket. (Corpse pose is a practice for the ultimate letting go, yet at the same time it strengthens and renews inner reserves breathing new life into the body and so represents the Life/Death/Life cycle.) Now, imagine burrowing your awareness right down into your bones. Take your time to encourage each layer of muscles to slowly soften, from the armory of your external muscles to the deeper muscles that attach to the bones. In this way you can begin to let go of masks and personas and come into closer relationship with what lies beneath. You may notice that some parts of your body feel more alive, more embodied, while some parts feel harder to reach, deader, disembodied. Yet, as the body relaxes and you gradually rest more into your body, loosening the tension and resistances that keep your bones rigid and held, there is more space for the breath and more space to connect with your heart and intuition. Let your bones speak, your body breath, your heart sing and feel what it is to be alive from the inside out.

Kettle boilers

My teacher Bill Wood is always quick to remind students of the power of the micro-practice – those 10-minutes of practice each day that equate to so much more than the weekly 90-minute class that you don’t make – as well as what he calls ‘kettle boilers’ – the one or two poses you play with while waiting for the kettle to boil when you go to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. I like the association of yoga with such everyday environments as the kitchen since it is the yoga we integrate into our daily lives that has the most long-term impact and benefit.

Recently, I have been more keenly aware of the relationship between yoga and creativity. Not only does the regular practice of yoga cultivate creativity, yoga is an inherently creative practice when we surrender to a state of ‘not knowing’ and let intuition guide the form and sequence of poses. I have been reading with great interest about the habits of creative people, especially with regard to disciplines that provide structure for the creative process.

Sister Corita Kent in her classic text Learning by Heart: Teaching to Free the Creative Spiritdedicates a chapter to structure in which she says: “If you have a class at a certain time and place, you must be there and not somewhere else. You must be there because otherwise your contribution (in thinking, dreaming, knowing, not knowing) would be missing from that class and it would be the poorer without you. You aren’t needed to be there to get grades or pass the course – you are needed to help make the class. So the structure is there for you and you are also the structure – your particular gifts help shape it.”

This describes perfectly how, simply by showing up, either to your daily practice and/or to a class, you create possibilities and shape the world around you. We learn most from ourselves as teachers, and our teachers learn most from their students. The discipline of a daily practice that is both achievable and realistic is a practice in participation in life.

The poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) made the simple commitment to spend ten minutes each day over many years to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy into English, so becoming the first American to complete this epic literary challenge. And, at what time of day did he do this? In the morning, of course, while waiting for his coffee-kettle to boil. He opened his ledger when the kettle went on, and closed it when the kettle hissed.

We should never play down the transformative effect of small acts of great concentration practiced daily. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle and Generally Have More Fun, has similarly been inspired by the habits of creative people with purpose. She says: “We tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period, and underestimate what we can do over a long period, provided we work slowly and consistently.” Rubin points to the 19th-Century novelist and British postal system reformer, Antony Trollope, who observed: “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

Perhaps, then its time to let go of the ‘spasmodic Hercules’ who beats himself up for another missed class or unrealistic target for daily practice, and refashion yourself as a ‘kettle-boiler’. Less glamorous, but more functional, productive and creative. We all approach yoga from a different perspective, and for different reasons. But, whether you want to feel calmer as you walk through life or want to be able to hold an unsupported handstand for five minutes while still smiling, spending a manageable yet dedicated chunk of time to practicing those poses, breathing or meditation techniques that you feel most drawn to will reap profound rewards. Rather than let your practice go off the boil, embrace the micro-practice. It’s time to put on another brew.

The fitness confusion

Sitting in a cafe with two other mums I had only recently met the conversation came around to yoga friends, and by turn, yoga in common. I soon realised that the common ground of our practice of yoga was thin and scrubby though not unfamiliar. Neither of the other mums knew I was a yoga teacher until later in the conversation. I began simply by listening. I am always interested to learn what motivates people to try yoga, their experience as beginners, and what motivates hem to stick with it, or rather, to stick with a particular teacher.

There were three main motivating factors: to get fit, to feel great, and the observation that those who practice yoga radiate positivity. And, three main insecurities: not being good at it, not being flexible enough, and not being a naturally relaxed person. There was also an obvious tension between thinking that if you don’t go at yoga hard and strong then you’re not getting a good workout and the realisation, conscious or unconscious, that the teachers who pushed you the most were often the ones who “forced your body into positions that you weren’t ready for.” With those teachers who took their students slowly, bringing more sensitivity to the postures, there was the feeling that it was a cop out even though slow didn’t automatically equate with easy.

What is yoga? Is it a work out, a form of exercise to improve your physical fitness? Is it going to make you stronger and more flexible? Do you have to be good at yoga to do it? What if you’re a person who can’t relax?

Yoga is not a high-impact cardiovascular fitness workout, but it will make you stronger and more flexible in your body and – major added bonus – in your mind. You don’t have to be good at yoga to do it, either. That’s not the point. A sensitive teacher, and a sensitive personal practice, will encourage you to be where you are now, today, in this moment, with this body. When you accept your body and yourself in this way, you let go of comparison judgement and progress by scales. A practice that works is one that cultivates the qualities of lightness, aliveness and feelings of possibility and spaciousness. If leaving a yoga class, you feel lighter and more alive in your body, and more spacious in your mind, then you have probably found the right teacher. If you feel heavy and dense in your body, your muscles twisted, pulled and stretched, then you may need to try elsewhere. Find another way. This is taking responsibility for your practice, rather than handing yourself over to the perceived ‘expert’ without questioning the effect or valuing your own experience and intuition.

Yoga is a tool for living. I could run, dance, surf, garden all day. But, I couldn’t do yoga all day. I don’t need to. As one of my teachers, Gary Carter, says: “Yoga is a practice that enables you to live well into your life.” Yoga brings sensitivity and awareness to every aspect of your life so that, by listening, you can engage in ‘fitness’ (or any other activity that you love) in a way that does not harm, but instead works with your body in a healthy and whole way freeing you up to feel stronger and enjoy life for longer. You don’t need to be good at yoga to attend a yoga class, but you feel good from doing it.

What about this relaxation thing? I think confusion here arises from a general confusion about what relaxation is. We have the idea of relaxation as a kind of unproductive vegging out. This is a throw back to the cultural consciousness of the Industrial Revolution which viewed productivity as good, idleness as bad. Yet, it’s quite possible to be relaxed and busy. Rest is crucial, and our body needs it regularly. Relaxation is a choice. We can be relaxed even though we have a full schedule, and we can choose to relax even when faced with a challenging or stressful situation. Relaxation is a letting go, an allowing. It’s more a state of mind, which affects the state of our body, than the position we adopt – lying down on the sofa in front of the TV – or the conditions of our environment – a minimalistic spa with attentive handmaidens. We create the conditions within ourselves so that we can relax whenever, wherever. And, yes, this is a practice.

Vanda Scaravelli, in her inspired book Awakening the Spine, puts it eloquently: “To relax is not to collapse, but simply to undo tension… It is not a state of passivity but, on the contrary, of alert watchfulness. It is perhaps the most ‘active’ of our attitudes, going ‘with’ and not ‘against’ our body and feelings. There is beauty in acceptance of what is.”

My first premise is always to listen. In the future, however, my suggestion to those two beautiful new mums in the cafe would be – before you conclude whether or not a yoga class is a good workout, get clear about your intentions. What am I hoping to gain from this class? What is my intention for coming today? If you want to do something that is going to raise your heartbeat and make your muscles strong and hard, go for a trail run, join a buggy fit class in the park, swim, do a fast-moving activity that you love for the love of it. If you want something that’s going to enable you to workout faster, harder, for longer, and help you feel more relaxed, alive and loving while you’re doing it, then choose yoga.

Please, take your seat

In the West, yoga is most strongly associated with the sequencing of physical postures. The Sanskrit word for ‘posture’ is asana, literally ‘to take one’s seat’. Practicing asana is just one aspect of yoga which, simply put, is a way of yoking the mind and body together, of integrating our experience and making us whole. There are many different practices in yoga from study to meditation to observing social codes of conduct to the practice of the physical postures. And asanas are, indeed, a very good place to start.

When we first approach the asanas, though, we can often over complicate things and make unnecessary demands on yoga, and on ourselves. I notice that I often feel the pressure to launch into a well-thought out and intelligently crafted sequence for a set length of time, 45 minutes or an hour, say. Yet approaching practice in this way I feel not only a sense of bracing, but I also find that the yoga gets swept up in fast pace of my day. I bring all the busy-ness of life into the business of doing yoga.

Rather than diving and crashing onto our mats what if we were to take a gentler approach? An experienced surfer pauses on the shore before entering the ocean. Sitting or standing, they will watch the water from a distance, discern where the waves are breaking, and in what direction, tune into the rhythm of the sea, and look for subtle signs of currents of which they will be mindful when navigating their way through the surf. Taking time in this way, by giving the ocean their attention, a surfer is able to relax into challenges of the day’s surf with a greater understanding and awareness of their environment.

Instead of running full pelt onto our mats and straight out into the unsung waters of our practice then, we would do well to pause and take time to familiarise ourselves with the conditions. To begin by taking our seat.

Sitting, noticing how we feel in our bodies, in ourselves, we can observe thoughts, physical sensations, feeling tones. We sit and wait, we watch the waves of our experience roll in, and roll out. Gradually – and for me, this is after about 10 to 15 minutes – we may sense a gradual loosening or letting go. Our bodies then start to instigate movement, there is no need for coercion, discipline or planning. Freer and less bound by our previous state of purposeful activity, and with less effort and less striving, we can let our bodies guide us into a sequence of asanas that arise spontaneously from within the space we have created. A space in which the yoga can unfold. We then ‘take our seat’ in a new position, inviting steadiness and comfort with each pose, whether standing on our heads or lying on our backs.

So please, take your seat. It’s an easy way into yoga that’s all too easy to overlook. When it comes to practicing the asanas, fast and complex is no match for slow and simple. The former may look flash but the latter is pure gold.

Body language

Ahimsa, the first principle of yoga. Non-violence to yourself and others. Think about the language you use, and listen to the language of the teachers you choose. If we are inviting opening, release, strength, and softness in our relationship to our bodies, then do words such as ‘push’ ‘pull’ ‘drive’ ‘grip’ ‘squeeze’ ‘pull’ ‘press’ or ‘wedge’ have a place in our vocabulary? Notice the way in which we speak to the body, to ourselves? Some alternatives: feel, connect, move through, explore, play, undo. These kinds of words are not the kinds of words that make it easy to write a manual for ‘how to do yoga’ and they don’t fit neatly into a list of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ as you move through a sequence of postures. But, what they do do is ask you to engage, to question, to discover yoga for yourself and to take responsibility for your practice.

So, what words inspire a sense of freedom, of joy in movement, of possibility, of aliveness for you? How could you be kinder in the way you talk to yourself on your mat, in the way that you approach your practice? What is your body language?

Manifesto for yoga

Every body loves yoga. The first principle of yoga is cause no harm to yourself, or others. Listen to your body, be kind to yourself. With pain there is no gain. Take responsibility for your own practice. You will be most free in your body when movement is aligned with your own experience, rather than governed by angles or by comparison to others. Allow the poses to happen by themselves, there’s no need to impose. Play with postures, feelings and ideas, break all the rules. Expect a lot from your teacher, and even more from yourself. Learn from your teacher, learn more from yourself. Going slow is more challenging than moving fast. Have the courage to stay with challenges, and stay open to what they can show you about yourself. Have fun with your body and be creative, it’s all the sequencing you need. When your body relaxes, your breath relaxes too. When your body is happy, you are happy. All you need to do is have a go. Let the yoga speak for itself.

Love yoga, love yourself

In the US an estimated 15 million people practice yoga, 72% of which are women. In the UK, around 75% of the 2.5 million people who practice yoga are women. Why do women love yoga so much? It’s easy to see why when you consider the benefits:

yoga makes you feel good

yoga is a form of self-care and, for many, spiritual development that optimises physical and mental health

yoga increases flexibility, strength, co-ordination and balance

yoga supports your immune system

yoga is good for your heart

yoga reduces stress and lowers blood pressure

yoga helps people lose weight

yoga promotes a positive outlook on life

yoga helps you have a healthy sex life

yoga balances hormones

yoga eases menstrual difficulties

yoga boosts fertility

yoga sustains pregnancy, birth and postnatal recovery

yoga provides comfort during the menopause

“Very many of the health problems that women experience have their roots in stressful living patterns that deeply disconnect women from our natural life cycles, leaving us exhausted, irritated and often ill. The practice of yoga, which can be translated as ‘union’, literally reconnects women to the source of health and vitality, offering the possibility to enjoy positive physical and emotional health.” Uma Dinsmore-tuli, author of Yoni Shakti (2014)