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 breathe 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)