- Sometimes we hold back on trying a more advanced pose or variation as we fear we won't get it right and either the teacher will notice, or others will. Don't worry - give it a try!
- Turn your world upside down (handstand, headstand, downward dog) - it can give you a different perspective on life
- Smile... often
Can you remember back to when you were a child? Carefree, with all the time in the world to play; feeling light and uninhibited by what people thought? As adults our lives are often quite serious, efficient and stressful. Research is beginning to show that spontaneity, playfulness and laughter is a great defence against stress and no doubt makes us easier to be around! Yoga gives us a great opportunity to re-create that feeling in a safe space. Perhaps it's trying a new pose, working with a partner or turning yourself upside down.
Trying a new, potentially challenging pose can strike fear into people. We fear we won't get it right and others will laugh at us. But if we're all in the same position, then perhaps laughing at each other's mild anxieties can help create a supportive atmosphere. My favourite pose is handstand, as it reminds me of playing in the school grounds aged 8. Try one up against a wall when no-one is looking, and I bet you can't to keep a straight face!
Partner work is another area which can make people feel a little uncomfortable. It's best to start with shared poses back to back, so to lessen the need for eye contact, however once you get more acquainted it can be lovely to watch each other and laugh if you don't quite get the pose right and collapse in a heap! The key to playfulness is to let go of the need for an activity to be useful. When we approach yoga for relief, stretching or to progress then it has an aim and we feel pressured to achieve. If we can let go of that we enter the realm of playfulness.
Yoga is essentially a practice of silent introspection. In most classes the atmosphere is calmed with the hum of breathing but can also be a little cold. As a teacher I'm sometimes struck by how serious everyone looks and I like to drop in a joke to warm the atmosphere or make a difficult pose a little more do-able. A smile or a giggle can work wonders against stress. I always ask my students to smile inwards to give themselves thanks for taking the time to practice yoga at the end of a class.
Tips for your next class
Swimming is a repetitive movement which responds well to yoga as both a complement and a counter-balance. Regular practice will improve mobility, strength and encourage body awareness. Importantly it also provides weight-bearing exercise that's essential for those who spend many hours a week suspended in water. Challenging the body in static poses helps to stabilise the joints and strengthens the bones, preventing early withdrawal form the sport due to injury, and later on in life protects against osteoporosis.
Our aim is to practice moving with ease on the mat so we can flow in the water. Yoga designed for swimmers uses dynamic sequences to warm and open the body, encourage stability from the core and to move in a way that's different from the pool. That means stretching the chest open to balance the constant contraction of the chest and forward roll of shoulders in most swimming strokes. We work to strengthen the back and shoulder muscles that are under-used or abused in the pool avoiding injuries to the rotator cuff ('swimmer's shoulder').
Every class ends with some time in stillness, holding static poses for a few minutes to deepen the stretch and stress on connective tissue and joints. This helps to restore energy flow in the body and so aids recovery from training. A focus on the hips is of benefit to breast-stroke in mobilising the hip joints to free the knees. And not forgetting the feet; which need to be flexible in all strokes but when stiff can be like 'trying to lift a plane off the ground with the flaps down'!
Overall, regular yoga practice will improve body alignment and the feel of your body in the water, so you'll know when your stroke is wrong or you're dragging in the water. I love to finish each class with a twist, squeezing tension from the spine and upper back so that when we lie still at the end of each session we can fully appreciate the relaxation that sweeps through the body.
Many of us have lives that are primarily Yang in nature – rushed, busy and energetic with a premium on getting things done and moving on. There’s nothing wrong with this if it’s in balance with rest periods, in fact a certain amount of eustress* keeps us as at our mental and physical peak. That’s why we enjoy sports and hard physical training.
It’s the ‘in balance’ part of the deal which many of us find hard to achieve however, often because the Yang doesn’t stop when we’re inundated daily with ideas, opportunities and asks. Even if you are good at saying ‘no’, if you’re one of the many perfectionists in sport you may get caught in the trap of over-committing to training which can lead to burnout.
Personally this is where I felt my life tip out of balance when the commitment and drive I applied to my sport outweighed the time I put aside to genuinely stop and rest. I’m not one for sitting on the sofa and putting my feet up. What worked for me is a form of yoga known as Yin, which is broadly similar to restorative yoga. Each pose is held for 3 to 5 minutes to allow you to get still, spending time just breathing and deeply affecting the connective tissues and joints of the body, going much further than a standard stretch.
Although the poses are reasonably simple, spending such long periods in each position can be both physically and mentally challenging. To aid with comfort we use bolsters, cushions, blankets, aromas and music to make the experience relaxing albeit in a gently challenging way. At the end of a session the levels of relaxation that can be reached in Savasana, resting under a warm blanket and lavender eye pillow are way deeper than I've normally experienced. I now put aside an hour of Yin Yoga once a week (usually on a Sunday) to help me reset and prepare for the week ahead.
From January 31 I will be leading a one hour Restorative Yoga class at Sweaty Betty in Bristol, 3:30 - 4:45pm. See more here...
*means beneficial stress - either psychological or physical (e.g. exercise), consisting of the Greek prefix eu- meaning 'good' and stress, literally meaning 'good stress'.
The yoga term asana means 'steady pose' or 'to sit'. It's easy to forget this when you're flowing through a dynamic sun salutation, and all too real in trying to balance on one leg.
Through my practice I've learnt that even in a static pose there is movement with each breath in an out, so no pose is completely still even though that's what we aim for in our mental state at least.
A yoga pose is always in flux, like yin and yang.
So what happens when you take a steady pose and add a moving floor?! That’s essentially what we do in practising yoga on a stand-up paddleboard - which is hugely popular in the US and slowing making an impact in the UK.
Trying to hold steady with the ripple of the water beneath you adds a whole new level to your yoga practice. The trick is to relax into the movement rather than try to counteract it. The latter is tiring, creates tension and will ultimately end in a dipping!
This is a useful lesson for us all in our yoga, in our sport and in day to day life. The more effort we put into fighting reality, the more we will suffer. In other words - soften and accept the wobble.
I find that gazing at the water’s surface is both deeply relaxing and a steadying factor, as is keeping an even and conscious breathing rhythm. You have to be present in SUP Yoga or you’re in Aqua Yoga - there’s no chance for distraction here. The practice can deepen your sense of connection with yourself and with nature if you’re outdoors.
On a physical level the constant wobble really fires up the small postural muscles and core to keep you steady and on the board. I could certainly feel the additional workout with over an hour on the SUP. Therefore totally deserving of the sublime final relaxation gently rocking with the water flow, especially with your fingers trailing into the water.
I’d say I’m hooked! Looking forward to being able to practice SUP yoga some more and eventually bring it to Bristol for the yoga and surf community.
All photos courtesy of Lucy McCormick, SUPfit - more information at www.supfit.co.uk
Many of us track how far we run, swim or cycle, and how long it takes in order to record our progress. I have to admit that although these interest me, they are not my focus of training. My goals are my heart rate and how I breathe. Perhaps that's the yogic approach to sport!
Since I started wearing a heart rate monitor, I've learnt that I can keep my heart rate below 150 beats per minute (bpm) by breathing with my nose. Above this rate I normally begin to use my mouth for the inhale, exhale or both. I've been inspired by John Douillard, who wrote about this twenty years ago in his book 'Body, Mind, Sport', which applies yoga principles to sports training.
I spend an hour each week trying to run within a narrow band of heart rate to keep at the top end of my aerobic range. At first I found it hard to stay within this 5 beat range, but two techniques have helped steady my heart - to lengthen my breath out and switch to nose breathing.
Both techniques stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system - the 'rest and digest' process which opposes the 'fight or flight' heart rate boost. A long exhale and deep, steady diaphragmatic breath helps to slow down the heart and so is just as beneficial for runners as it is to people suffering from anxiety or performance nerves.
Mouth breathing is actually for 'emergency' situations; we weren't designed to breathe like that all the time, but many people now do. Breathing through the nose cleans and moistens the air we bring into the body, and stops us from hyperventilating. You don't get short of breath and dizzy running for the bus by breathing with the nose. And if you've ever caught yourself feeling panic, its a good bet that you're feeling that breath in the upper section of the chest, not down towards the belly.
What we can learn from yoga is to free our breath - free it from the confines of the chest by stretching the muscles that keep it caged in; free us from the cultural habit of sucking our belly in (which pushes the breath chestwards) by relaxing and using our whole lungs to breath; free us from involuntary breathing to a breath we can consciously control for benefit to our physical and mental health.
Our breath is as important to the body as the food we take in - we draw in vital energy, or life force (prana) with each breath in, and remove waste energy and fatigue with each breath out. Think of breathing practice like a diet, probably one that's easier to stick to!
If you'd like to find out more about how to breathe better for sport or work performance, come along to my workshop on Saturday 25th January at YogaSpace in Bristol.
As well as creating the system of yoga, India also developed the medical science of Ayurveda. The principle of Ayurveda is to keep a balance between three aspects (known as dosha) to maintain perfect health. Ayurveda prescribes foods, lifestyle and cleansing methods to help support this tri-dosha balance. These are vata, pitta and kapha. There is plenty of information on the internet describing each of these, so I won’t go into detail here. All you need to know for now is that you’re dominant in one or two of these doshas (see link to quiz at the end). For example my dosha is vata-pitta.
Vata is described by air and space, pitta by fire and kapha by earth and water. Just like horoscopes we can make detailed descriptions of our physical and personality characteristics from our dosha type. So for example I’m driven by the fire of determination, but can often day-dream or become flaky and
feeling grounded is something I have to work on regularly!
Autumn is the season on vata (following on from the summer pitta heat). The air is drier and cooler than before and so it’s best to change how we eat, act and practice yoga to complement the change in seasons. Many of us do this naturally, for example we tend not to eat so many cold salads at this time of
year, and may step up the intensity of exercise now that the climate is cooler. [Bear in mind that Ayurveda comes from a climate of extreme heat and humidity, the variations in the UK are not so marked!]
So for those of us with vata in our dosha constituency it’s helpful to work on grounding yoga practices and foods. So in yoga choose poses that stimulate the lower energy centres e.g. Warrior poses, mountain pose (Tadasana), forward bends and bridge pose (pictured). Grounding food includes warm oatmeal for breakfast, sweet potatoes and squashes, kale and cauliflower.
I tend to use more body oil in the colder months to counteract my vata dominance, and choose sweet, heavy scents such as lavender, black pepper, orange and patchouli in the bath and in massage. Wearing dark, bright colours can help lift your mood as we head towards winter, matching the reds, oranges and browns of nature in the die-back of trees.
To learn more about your dosha type click here