Updated: Jan 13
So you finally pluck up the courage to start yoga, and you get to your first class feeling slightly anxious, as you don’t know what to expect. Firstly, well done for making it onto you your mat, this is the majority of the challenge and you are already here. All you need to do now is listen to your body, easy peezy right? Maybe not…
As you sit on your mat, you think about all of the Instagram photos that you’ve seen lately of people that you follow and you think to yourself, “I really hope I don’t fall on my face and make a fool of myself.”
The teacher walks into the room and asks if anyone is new and you fearfully raise your hand, you get a warm smile and a welcome…now everyone knows that you are new!! Eek!!
"You open one eye as you're instructed to breathe and everyone looks so calm and graceful… “How are they doing this?” you think, “My hips feel like they’re about to snap!”."
The teacher starts with an introduction to the class… “Good evening everyone, welcome to this 60 minute Vinyasa Flow class. Please remember that you are your own best teacher and I am only here to guide you through this practice. If anything doesn’t feel right for you, please choose a variation of the pose that feels good. I’ll give you options throughout the class, so please work within your bodies edge, no need to push yourself into any of the poses. If you are new to yoga, try to focus on your breath today and notice how your breath feels in each pose, it will tell you everything you need to know. We will start today seated.”
You think to yourself, “How are they sitting like that?”, “My legs don’t do that… gosh this hurts my hips!” But you persevere and force yourself to “be still” even though you are so uncomfortable. You open one eye as you're instructed to breathe and everyone looks so calm and graceful… “How are they doing this?” you think, “My hips feel like they’re about to snap!”.
You’ve never done this before and did not expect to be sitting for this long; it feels slightly uncomfortable but you power through and listen closely.
You move slowly in and out of poses and before you know it, you are doing yoga and you realize that it’s not as intimating as it looked in the photos you saw. You leave the class feeling strangely calm, happy, and proud of yourself for taking this time for you, but you still have this nagging question in the back of your mind…
Why is there such a disconnection between what you are seeing on mainstream media and what you just did in this yoga class?
This is the question that has been nagging at me and I’m sure, many other people…“Where did this disconnection come from?”
We are a visual, goal orientated, tactile society, and so if we want to buy into or sell the idea of the benefits of something, we feel the need to do this in the expression of something that has shock value and awe, and it’s almost always guaranteed to work.
The problem with this, when it comes to yoga, is that we have gone so far beyond the essence of this lifestyle that now the main focus is only on Asana (the postures), and I will put my hand up and say that I have been one of those teachers on Instagram too, and I am doing my best to be more mindful of what I share now.
Did you know that the word Asana actually translates to “seat”?
The earliest Yoga texts only offered one pose to practice and that was a comfortable seated posture. The rest of the poses introduced in later years, were all integrated from gymnastics, wrestling and other movement-based activities were all used to make your body strong so that you could sit in meditation for a longer period of time.
Regardless of the reasons why the image of Yoga has become so distorted, it’s significant to note that there are many benefits to the postures (Asanas), when practiced in a steady and mindful way, which I will come to in a moment.
If you study Patanjalis 8 Limb Path you will note that the first 2 limbs are Yamas (Universal values/responsibilities towards society) and Niyamas (self-observances), these 2 limbs set the foundation for the rest of your yoga practice, and if you would like to read more about them, read my blogs from November and December HERE.
The first 2 limbs prepare you body and mind for Asana in a way that you can make the most of the powerful energy that is released when you cultivate yoga. When you are grounded in these principles you possess the foundation and strength to reduce negative thoughts or emotions that may arise during your practice.
The majority of us have been raised with a hustling mentality that if we do more, we achieve more, and whilst in some situations this is true, this way of thinking might be counterintuitive in your yoga practice.
The system of Hatha yoga increases your vital energy by aligning your physical and subtle bodies…stick with me here…through physical poses (Asana), shifting your energy, or life force through breathing practices (Pranayama) and encouraging your senses inward through deep relaxation (Pratyahara). It’s right in the center of these 3 elements that yoga lives.
“The natural comfort and joy of our being is expressed when the body becomes steady” (Asana) – The Secret Power of Yoga.
So once you cultivate an awareness of your inner senses and build your ability to shift your energy through Pranayama, you now have the ability to practice stable yoga postures and get the best out of your practice. Now, instead of forcing your body into the same shape as your yoga teacher or the person next to you, you can cultivate yoga in a way that feels good for you.
What are the benefits of yoga?
I’d like to encourage you to look at this question in 2 ways:
1. What are the benefits of Yoga Asana?
Yoga Asanas tone your muscles, develop flexibility, and improve your posture and spinal alignment. Through movement you lubricate your joints, muscles, ligaments and other parts of your body and you increase flexibility and circulation.
"...80% of students in the study reported that yoga had contributed to healing from pain or injury in their body."
These are all great benefits and I think that we can all agree that physical health is a very important part of living a healthy, balanced lifestyle. However, what good is the physical benefit if you injure yourself due to pushing your body beyond its limits? You then need to spend all this time recovering from an injury caused by a practice that ironically, for some, is used as a tool to recover from injury.
According to an injury survey (Yoga Contributed to Healing from Pain and Injury) conducted by YogaAnatomy.com in 2018, 80% of students in the study reported that yoga had contributed to healing from pain or injury in their body.
Whilst yoga is useful for healing from injury, it’s important to note that mindful movement is needed in order to aid this healing. Yoga without this is just exercise or gymnastics.
Here is a graph that shows the most common injuries that yoga aided healing for this particular study.
Let me know in the comments if you started yoga to heal an injury.
2. What are the benefits of Yoga that are not physical?
When you take a look at the benefits of yoga as a holistic practice, it’s been shown that yoga builds valuable life skills that you are able to take off your mat.
Life skills such as resilience, not only because you are holding shapes with your body but also how your heart, mind, and spirit reacts to holding these shapes. How you speak to yourself when you are faced with a challenge, which translates into the ability to live with an open heart and be kind to yourself.
Yoga teaches you compassion, not only for yourself but also for those around you, as you practice in a safe, and hopefully, non-judgmental space. I love it when I’m teaching and students are all practicing the pose in a different way, this tells me that they feel safe to listen to their bodies and in my mind I’m am cheering for them.
This is my absolute favorite benefit; yoga teaches you to self-regulate. This has been the most powerful tool for me. Yoga teaches you how to pause and reflect before you choose to react to whatever you are being faced with. Take a moment to consider a past situation where this would have been valuable for you.
I could continue this list, but I think these benefits are clear enough to show that when practiced in a holistic way, you get to move your body in a way that feels physically good, learn to trust yourself and what you know is good for you, and develop some habits that will serve you in your every day life.
What are the 3 biggest yoga Asana challenges?
In all my years of teaching so far, I have found that there are generally 3 main areas that yoga students find challenging. Sitting cross-legged, balancing, and forward folds…can you relate?
Why are these challenges so common?
One of the possible reasons could be that initially the human body was built to move, if you think back the Paleolithic Era, the era of the Cavemen and women, there were no chairs, so they would probably sit in a squat, and these beings were out hunting and foraging all day, so there thighs were probably strong and hamstrings supple.
Today our lifestyles dictate a lot of sitting, whether that be for work or Netflix! Haha! The sedentary lifestyles that we live translate into shorter hamstrings and tighter hip flexors.
What about balancing, why do we struggle to balance? Another aspect of our lifestyle is that our attention span is so short. We are constantly over-stimulated by information and one of the main requirements of balancing is focus. Another reason is that we are not flamingos, and don’t tend to spend a lot of time on one foot. So balancing requires focus, patience, and strength. Not to say that if you can’t balance that you don’t possess any of these qualities.
How can you overcome Yoga Asana challenges?
First of all, it is not a requirement for you to sit cross-legged to do yoga. You could sit on your heels, with your legs extended, against a wall, in a chair, with the soles of your feet on your mat. The possibilities are endless; remember to keep coming back to what feels good for you.
If sitting cross-legged is uncomfortable or challenging for you, try some of these options:
Sit on a yoga block (books works well too), or a rolled up blanket. Elevating your seat could help you to find some relief in your hips as you lift your hips above your knees. This also helps you sit with length in your spine, helping you to breath easier and hopefully feel more comfortable.
If you are seated on something and still notice discomfort in your hips, perhaps try place some pillows under your knees so that your thighs don’t have to work so hard to hold your legs up.
Sit on your prop with your back against the wall to get the essence of what it feels like to sit up tall, with regular practice you might be able to come away from the wall eventually.
The tendency in forward folds (whether standing or seated) is to want to pull your body into the pose. I always like to encourage students to use their to breath to ease themselves into the pose instead, this can be very powerful with just a little bit of patience.
If you find forward folds challenging, perhaps try some of these tips:
Standing forward folds: bend your knees, bending your knees softens the pull on your back body. Remember that everything in your body is connected, so nothing really moves in isolation without affecting another part of your body. So when you bend your knees, you soften the pull on your hamstrings and allow for a bit of ease in your lower back.
Standing forward folds: press your big toes into your mat, you might find that you are naturally drawn to bend your knees when you do this and that’s ok. You might notice that you sink into your heels, and whilst there is nothing wrong with this, when you do this, you tend to deactivate the stretch in your back body. So you might find if you lean into your heels that you are able to fold forward deeper but with a less effective back body stretch.
Seated forward fold: sit on a prop (block, blanket, book), whatever you have around. This helps you to find a slight forward tilt of your pelvis, which will aid you in folding forward with less discomfort in your lower back.
Seated forward fold: if you don’t have props, bend your knees, for the same reasons as a standing forward fold, or trying forward fold on a chair.
Balancing is one of the aspects of the class that I find a lot of students struggle with and this could be for a number of reasons, injuries, lack of focus, fear of falling, medical conditions, and the list goes on. So here are a few tips for balancing that I hope will help you:
Use the power of your Drishti. Drishti or focused gaze can be used for developing concentrated intention. It relates to the fifth element of the 8 Limb Path, Pratyahara, which I will write about in March, stay tuned for that one. By fixing your gaze on a still spot, you send the signal to nervous system to focus and this in turn helps you to stay balanced…sometimes.
Use a wall or chair. It’s always an option for you to use a wall/chair to balance, this doesn’t make your pose any less valuable and you are still getting all of the benefits of the pose. Whether fully supported by the wall, or using a light touch with your fingertips, you are still balancing.
Check in with your foundation, your feet. Before you move into any standing balance check in that you feel stable and grounded in your feet, your feet are the foundation of the pose, so if you start off not feel stable, it will make the pose more challenging for you. Press the outer edges of your feet and the mound (cushiony part) of your big toe down to feel more grounded.
The final point that I would like to make is that you are uniquely you! Obvious, I know, but when this is put in context of your yoga practice it’s essential to note that your poses will look different to the other students in the room and your teacher and this is a good thing.
I’ll be sharing some more information throughout January, around the topic of Yoga Asana, including pose variations, and some entertaining reminders of how to listen to your body more. Feel free to follow me on Instagram for some giggles, tips and tricks.
I look forward to connecting with you.
“You don’t do yoga, you are yoga.” Unknown
Love and Light