I’ve practised yoga on and off for 25 years. If I’m honest, I initially did it for the shallowest of reasons: I thought it would be cool to do it. The first class I went to was in a light, airy centre, perfectly painted in perfect tones of cream, yellow and orange. The class was full of people, in fact, there was barely room to squeeze my mat in. Everyone wanted to do yoga. The real benefits of yoga – i.e. physical, mental or spiritual – weren’t even things I had considered then. Only now do I realise just how much good it does me.
Back then, we were all young, and healthy looking in the classes. There were no overweight or middle aged people in my first yoga school. The instructor was impossibly flexible and unbelievably young. He knew his stuff though, he wasn’t faking it like many of us were.
Different styles of yoga
Over time, I tried several different types of yoga: ashtanga, hatha, iyengar, flow. It seems that just like boutique beer breweries, there are as many different, diverse kinds of yoga. I began with ashtanga (because it was the coolest at the time, clearly). Over the next few years I found myself living in places where I couldn’t necessarily find ashtanga classes, and since back then I hadn’t learned the skills and commitment for self-practice at home, my yoga often went through periods of non-practice.
So I tried some other styles. I found that I came to appreciate slower styles that make you hold a position for longer, and also took away some of the monotony of the routine in ashtanga. I also found that I needed to focus on certain movements more, or certain parts of my body more, and that’s something I couldn’t do in ashtanga.
Yoga to cope with stress
Over time, I also came to understand that this wasn’t just something to keep me fitter and more flexible. It helped me de-stress and unconsciously work through things. Focussing on something other than your ‘shit’ takes training. The mind needs to be cajoled into not listening to its own nonsense. I don’t do chanting, I could never take that seriously. Nor do I repeat positive affirmations either – that’s never convinced me.
Whenever things get too much and I find myself feeling overwhelmed, the simple process of coming back to the breath, in and out, how it feels, its sound, making it longer, or shorter: this simple exercise is incredibly powerful in bringing you back down.
Physical exercise has always helped me work through tensions and emotional problems. In moments of great stress I usually look for a more ‘power’ style of yoga to beat the crap out of my problems.
I DO really love the quiet meditation at the end of each yoga session though, the dead man’s pose or Shavasana. Being a hyperactive person by nature, this particular pose has required years of impatient practice. Now I find myself looking forward to it. Sometimes, my challenge has even been to not fall asleep during it.
Physical benefits of yoga
And like any hyperactive person, I am always doing something. I even ‘read’ books on audible so I can multi task and do something else at the same time: cook, shower, or drive for instance.
Often I will be doing something which my back won’t thank me for later: preparing a veggy bed in the allotment, moving a piece of furniture which really needs 2 people but I”m too impatient to wait, lifting up my elderly 37kg dog into the back of the van to go for a walk…
Whatever it is I’ve been doing, I know from experience that if I haven’t been doing yoga, I will suffer for it. Yoga provides me with an unbelievable background support of body strength and flexibility.
And not only does it allow me to do things that I would otherwise physically suffer for, yoga also gives me a tool to resolve momentary aches and pains. If my neck hurts after a long drive, I just do a quick 10 minute session focussing on that area and it eases the discomfort.
Practise yoga at home
I’ve found that with so many great yoga videos on you tube, it’s easy to find accessible yoga sessions to follow in the comfort of my own home. This was a godsend during the years I was living on a remote farm, over an hour from the nearest decent yoga school.
Even though I now live in a town, I continue to use these videos in my practice. I do a yoga session 3 to 4 times a week. I’ve tried various people’s styles. While I was living in Argentina, I used to get together with a friend in the same village and we’d follow Spanish language yoga sessions together. We particularly liked Xuan Lan’s way of working.
Yoga videos – who to try?
If you don’t speak Spanish though. I recommend you try Sarah Beth. She has lots of videos available for different times of days, different moods, particular body areas, and different levels of practice and she brings out new material each week. Unlike the rather fashionable Adriene, who I find too fluffy and matey, Sarah Beth’s talking during the videos adds to my yoga experience, rather than distracts from it.
I tried Adriene a couple of times and whilst she obviously rocks for her thousands of viewers, she’s really not for me. I felt like I was trying to peacefully practice yoga with a cockatiel in the room. Her constant, unnecessary chatter draws me away from my practice, rather than help with it. If I am ever looking for a challenge to help me manage external distractions, Adriene will be perfect. In fact, if I’m honest, the only thing I liked about Practice With Adriene was her dog sneaking into the yoga space, something which mine does all too often. (If you’re a dog parent, you’ll find my mutt-musing here).
Almost all yoga instructors speak during the practice, and I have no problem with this so long as the talking assists the practice. Does it inform the improvement of a posture, for instance? Does it enable your mind to settle in to the space? If you’re thinking that I’ve gone from doing yoga because I was pretentious and it seemed cool, to doing it for my own health benefits, you are right!
Go to classes or practise on your own?
Sometimes I’m too busy to manage more than just a 10 minute session. I am by no means a super flexible, Madonna-like practitioner, able to stuff one foot in my mouth whilst balancing on one pinky finger. I no longer look to it to make me appear cool, or show off – and how could I, since I mainly practice in the private sanctuary of my own home?
However, when I am in a class, I am still aware of that dreadful ‘yoga envy’. You know what I mean, right? When you feel compelled to look around the room and see how much further everyone else can get into a particular pose? Of course, the instructor always tells us not to be concerned with anyone else, to be focussed on, and aware of, our own bodies, but we secretly do it anyway, don’t we?
And sadly, though I’ll only admit this to you, when I found myself folding deeper into a pose than everyone else, it did feel good. So there are fabulous benefits to stripping away those distractions too, and really being able to focus on my body, my micro improvements, my postures. Whilst home practice gives me this, what I’m missing out on is the assistance you get in a class, principally the posture corrections. So my ideal yoga world involves a weekly class supported by 2 or 3 home sessions.
After all these years, I finally see how important this practice has become to me. It’s kept me company through difficult times of my life, allowed me not to suffer too much from physical strain when I’ve overdone it, given me the opportunity to look inward and find balance… I now can’t imagine not practising yoga.