You might have gathered by now that yoga has -and continues to make- a big impact on my life; from helping me with my recovery from surgeries and creating a stronger body, to restoring my mind-body awareness and making me a healthier and happier person. The physical aspect of yoga is quite easy to see as people who have a steady yoga practice are generally more flexible and stronger, but the effect yoga has on mental wellbeing is perhaps more hidden from view. Yoga -to yoke- is a union between body, breath, mind and spirit. It is a philosophy which helps you connect to yourself, to your surroundings and to other people. Most disciplined yogis have a regular asana, pranayama and meditation practice. For me, pranayama and meditation have made the biggest impact on my life; I get up early (4:00 AM) to practice 20-30 minutes and will try to do another short session in the evening (or listen to a mindfulness exercise or yoga nidra). This is what is creating a shift as it is opening my mind and I am like a sponge soaking up new things to learn every day. I almost find it difficult to focus as there is just so much I feel I want to learn, many fantastic books are waiting to be read. I wish I was a faster reader, but patience is key. Patience and the strong desire to never go back to my old disconnected self...
I've had a few questions from people new to yoga about how and where they can best start with yoga; they ask if know of any nice studios around where they live, or how they can join online classes. Fortunately yoga seems to be everywhere, so plenty of choice... but perhaps so much choice makes it difficult to choose? My advise would be to just try a few places (ideally not in a gym setting, but a real yoga studio) and see what resonates. Teachers have different styles of teaching, and there are many different forms of yoga. There are also many online classes some free on you-tube and the more professional paid subscription websites; I've listed some of the ones I like below.
It did give me the idea to make a few videos showing you some of the postures you might encounter in class so you have an understanding of what to expect. Below the first 2 clips.. I hope it gives you an idea of what you can expect from a yoga class - perhaps a bit amateurish as I didn't have too much time to prepare and record, please just remember it comes from a good place! In the future I hope to record some proper classes you can follow at home.
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The yoga we see in the West has many forms and roughly fit within the Yang (dynamic) or Yin (more static) categories. The yin and yang complement each other as you need both the energising and calming in life. In the Yang category are forms like: Ashtanga, Vinyasa flow, Bikram and Power Yoga. In the Yin category: Iyengar, Hatha, Yin and Restorative Yoga. You also have Yin Yang yoga combining the two.
I came to yoga through the Power Yoga Company. I found it very challenging at first, the many vinyasas (flowing through postures, via plank position) were tough, all these Warriors and Sanskrit names, it all had very little meaning and some of the postures just seemed impossible (how did all these people stay effortlessly in ‘Downward Facing Dog’). But I stuck with it and over time the postures became easier (though remained challenging, as we were being introduced to more difficult variations of the existing postures) and I started to grow stronger. I also enjoyed the sense of calm it created at the end of a 60 minute class.
It wasn't until I started attending classes regularly -3 times a week- that there was a shift. The physical movement became more natural and rhythmic, flowing with the breath as if it was a wave of energy; it transformed the practice into a moving meditation. That's when it started to have a bigger impact on my mind; if I could just bottle that feeling in Savasana (the final resting pose) where the body was light, the breath was deep and even, and the 'monkey mind' was (temporarily) tamed... I was stronger, felt calmer and more grounded.
My yoga progress was interrupted by more surgery, of which the recovery was quick (as opposed to previous times where it had taken over a year). That's why I think yoga has made such a big impact on me; I saw how it aided my recovery; physically and emotionally. During the teacher training which followed, I learned about the 8-limbed path which taught me about the breath (pranayama) and that all the limbs work towards a deeper state of meditation towards our deepest essence (soul/spirit/bliss). So the physical aspect of yoga is there to prepare our bodies to be able to stay comfortable in a cross legged seated position for longer (without getting distracted by a painful hip or sore back) and for the breath to be even in order for the mind to be calm, and the single pointed focus allows us to go inward. It all centres around meditation, and meditation (mindfulness) research has now shown, can decrease in the size of the amygdala; the key stress-responding region of the brain.
Now that I have broadened my understanding of the different types of yoga and what they can do for me, I am much better at practicing on my own; listening to my body, where are restrictions, where do I need to let go. I can use breathing techniques if my monkey mind just won't be quiet or is very judgemental. And I meditate. Every day. It creates calm, kindness and compassion. And a healthy mind, will cultivate a healthier body.
Patanjali's 8-limbed path
1. YAMAS - 5 Restraints or moral disciplines
1 Ahimsa (non-violence),
2 Satya (truthfulness),
3 Asteya (non stealing),
4 Brahmacharya (right use of energy),
5 Aparigraha (non greed or non hoarding).
2. NIYAMAS - 5 Positive duties or observances
1 Saucha (cleanliness),
2 Santosha (contentment),
3 Tapas (discipline),
4 Svadhyaya (self-study),
5 Isvarapranidaha (surrender to a higher power).
3. ASANA - Posture
4. PRANAYAMA - Breathing techniques
5. PRATYAHARA - Sense withdrawal
6. DHARANA - Focused concentration
7. DHYANA - Meditative absorption
8. SAMADHI - Bliss or enlightenment
Some of the popular types of yoga
Six established and strenuous pose sequences - the primary series, second series, third series, and so on - practiced sequentially as progress is made. Ashtangis move rapidly, flowing from one pose to the next with each inhale and exhale. Each series of poses linked by the breath this way is called a vinyasa.
By definition, hatha is a physical yoga practice, which is pretty much all yoga you’ll find in this hemisphere. One of the six original branches of yoga, hatha encompasses nearly all types of modern yoga. Today, classes described as hatha on studio schedules are typically a basic and classical approach to yogic breathing exercises and postures.
This is a purist yoga named after founder B.K.S. Iyengar. Props like blocks, straps, bolsters, and incline boards are used to get you more perfectly into positions. Appropriate for all ages and abilities, Iyengar yoga is all about precise alignment and deliberate sequencing.
Less work, more relaxation. You’ll spend as many as 20 minutes each in just four or five simple poses (often they’re modifications of standard asanas) using strategically placed props like blankets, bolsters, and soothing lavender eye pillows to help you sink into deep relaxation. There’s also psychic cleansing: the mind goes to mush and you feel brand new.
Vinyasa / Power
An active and athletic style of yoga adapted from the traditional ashtanga system in the late 1980s to appeal to aerobic-crazed Westerners. Power yoga doesn’t stick to the same sequence of poses each time like ashtanga does, so the style varies depending on the teacher. Classes called vinyasa or flow in your gym or studio can be vastly different but in general stem from this movement and from ashtanga as well.
A quiet, meditative yoga practice, also called Taoist yoga. Yin focuses on lengthening connective tissues and is meant to complement yang yoga - your muscle-forming dynamic yoga. Yin poses are passive, meaning you’re supposed to relax muscles and let gravity do the work. And they’re long - you’ll practice mindfulness and meditation.
Yoga Nidra is a most profound and natural state of meditation. Also called "psychic sleep," yoga nidra is a state between sleeping and waking. The body is completely relaxed and the practitioner turns the awareness inward by listening to a set of instructions; much like a guided meditation. Performing yoga nidra involves practicing pratyahara ("withdrawal of the senses"), which is the fifth limb of Ashtanga yoga. Yoga nidra practice results in deep relaxation and expands the individual's self-awareness.
Online yoga websites
Some of the many online yoga websites, most have free trials:
https://www.yogatoday.com/ - this features Mona Godfrey who is an amazing teacher!
Lots of information on the internet on what to expect when going to a studio. You can find an example: click here.
My kind of yoga?
So many different types, which one to choose; why not have something of everything? The better you can start listening to what your body and mind need, the better your practice will be.
Illness, an office job and also getting (a little) older has left me feeling less flexible and more stiff (especially in the mornings). So I need mindful stretching, restorative yoga and I need to focus on my joints and practice some yin. And I love, especially when I feel lethargic, to go to the PYC and do an hour of intense power yoga dynamic flow, leaving me feeling like I had a work-out; I’ll feel stronger, wrung out and stretched. If I managed to really focus on the breath during my practice, I will have had a -moving-meditation practice; leaving my mind lovely and quiet and I will feel blissfully happy. When I feel too sore to practice or to sit and meditate there is always yoga nidra, the guided meditation which will help me if I’m ‘stuck in my head’. So pick’n mix as you need it, one is not better than the other. What is best is what you need.
Pranayama or control of the breath, is the fourth limb of the 8 limbs of yoga as described by Patanjali in de Yoga Sutras. Prana is a force in constant motion that drives the energy of all living things. It can be influenced within the body through breathing exercises, slowing down our heartbeat. The breath can also influence our mental and emotional states, as the Buddhists say, “So the breath, so the mind, so the heart.”
Deep conscious breathing for a length of time creates space in the mind. Calm. Without the breath there is no yoga. Yoga is movement with breath. The breath also can empower movement, in particular Ujjayi Pranayama, the victorious breath, which has a calming, meditative effect on the mind. Ujjayi breath really does feel empowering and gives strength during practice.
Restorative yoga postures
The reclined butterfly pose provides a stretch for the inner thighs and opens the hips, enhancing circulation to the digestive system in the lower belly. It also creates a wonderful chest opening, especially broadening through the collarbones and the front of the shoulders when the upper back is supported.
It is a wonderful antidote for 'desk posture' of hunched shoulders, compressed throat, chest and abdomen and tight hips. Do this posture for at least 5 minutes every day and you will find it making a difference to your general posture and perhaps also the quality of your breath. My all-time favourite posture!
Most modern vinyasa/flow yoga is dynamic yoga designed to target the muscular Yang part of our bodies, making muscles stronger by rhythmical and repetitive exercise. Yin yoga targets the connective tissues; ligaments, tendons, fascia and even bones.
Yin yoga combines various wisdoms; Chinese medicine, Yoga, Buddhism, mindfulness, but it also focusses on the fact that all our bodies are very different - especially our bone structures. It has allowed us to understand that there is no one way to do a pose and that people do not benefit the same way in each pose.
Yin yoga complements our dynamic (Yang) practice, both are needed for a healthy balance. It is great for healthy joints, creating flexibility and to practice mindfulness and meditation.
Yoga Nidra is a guided meditation that uses the Body Scan as one of the key elements of the practice. Yoga nidra, meaning ‘yogic sleep’ is a guided meditation, and is generally performed in the posture of Savasana, lying down, feet hip-width apart and with the eyes closed.
Make yourself comfortable, perhaps cover yourself with a blanket and be open to the practice. You will be asked for a resolution or sankalpa (click here for an article), so take a few moments beforehand to think about what this could be. I found that I had developed a very negative image of my body; it was ill and was letting me down. Instead of focussing on what it couldn't do, I wanted to be appreciative of the amazing things it could do, so I used "I am whole, healed and healthy". But it is very personal and can also change over time.
Yoga Nidra is great for anyone, but can be especially beneficial for people who have Crohn's or other stress-triggered illnesses and who need to reconnect with their bodies. There are many articles on the internet, click here for an example. Below is my first attempts at 20 minute Yoga Nidra Sessions, just lie down, be comfortable and I hope it will leave you feeling relaxed and calm and might even trigger a healing process. The more you practice the more beneficial it becomes.
During the summer of 2018 I spent a month in Kripalu (Massachusetts, USA) for Integrated Yoga Therapy (IYT) training. It was amazing, inspiring, energising and nourishing and I learnt so much that my head was overflowing. It has planted many seeds where I want to learn, practice and help people at every opportunity. Below things I have learnt about the subtle body (the energy), the physical body, the koshas, affirmations and mudras, visualisation and yoga nidra. I hope I can do the KIYT justice as it was the most wonderful experience!
Yoga therapy through the lens of the koshas
We are most familiar with the outer sheath, the physical body as it is the most tangible. In today's western world though a lot of us are disconnected from our physical bodies (driven from the mind) and I discovered first-hand how illness made me resent my body for failing me and pushing it even harder to 'behave'. During the course I learnt so much about the human body, the interconnectedness and how utterly brilliant it is.
The energy body is perhaps a little more difficult to sense as it is subtle. It consists of the breath and energy in the form of prana, chakras, nadhis and vayus. Prana is energy that flows through your body, as I said, it's hard to measure, but we can notice when we feel energetic or lethargic and if we tune in we can identify places of energy in the body. Yoga philosophy says that the energy flows through the many nadhis (energy channels) in our body and that there are 7 chakras which correspond to massive nerve centres in the body. Each of the seven main chakras contains bundles of nerves and major organs as well as our psychological, emotional, and spiritual states of being. Energy can flow in various directions (vayus) through the body.
The emotional body is where the habitual unconscious patterns of thought and emotion are. It's where the Ego resides, the collection of thoughts, habits, character traits wired in the brain. However, it is important to remember that you are not your thoughts! Our thoughts are influenced by the 3 gunas or qualities: Rajas ( darkness, destructive, death ), Tamas( energy, passion, birth ) and Sattva (goodness, purity, light ).
The next kosha is the wisdom body, which is the place of the higher mind, witness and discernment and liberating intuition. It is the ability to become the witness of yourself, to be able to observe your emotions and thoughts and to realise when the egoic mind is getting in the way.
Finally the bliss body. The deepest layer and the connection to our natural self, which is complete, whole and blissful.
I've been reading the most insightful book focussing emotional balance, and there are many simple exercises which can help us create awareness of our breath, body and mind. With this awareness we can practice to calm our nervous system and balance our emotions. They are very simple exercises, so be aware for your (egoic)mind to tell you that surely these exercises won't be beneficial as they are too simple. They DO work, however these small, yet effective exercises need to be practised regularly and it will take discipline (tapas) and self-study (svadhyaya). Stick with it please, as I cannot begin to tell you how much benefit it will bring you if you can cultivate breath and body awareness - your mind will become spacious and calm.
Thai Yoga Massage
They sometimes refer to Thai yoga massage as ‘lazy man’s yoga’ and even though that might not sound great, it is somewhat apt as it feels like ‘doing yoga on a person’.
I first heard about Thai Yoga Massage (TYM) during my Yin teacher training from a fellow student who (during break times) would kindly massage sore limbs and joints. It looked like such an act of kindness but it was also closely related to yoga postures and anatomy and I wanted to learn more. With a bit of googling I read about Kira Balaskas who set up the School of Thai Yoga Massage in London some 25 years ago. She had an introductory day at her home in February which I enjoyed so much that I enrolled in the 'Diploma course - practitioner level'; I followed all the classes and completed the 30 case studies ahead of the exam which I passed in April and I have now started the advanced. It also helps me to understand the differences in peoples body's better and in turn helps me to advise and adjust better in yoga classes.
I am amazed by how much I enjoy TYM, what originally started as something that would help my yoga teaching, has now become something I really want to do more of (perhaps even more than teaching). It has a big mindfulness component (you have to be in the moment, conscious of your breathing and posture) and also a meta-meditation (kindness and compassion) aspect. It is great for the receiver, but it is also very calming and energising for me as the practitioner.
TYM perfectly fits into my plans as I want to use what I know of yoga, meditation, mindfulness (and lifestyle) to help people who need it most; people who are ill, the elderly, kids.. people who could benefit but are reluctant to go to a yoga studio which might look too alternative/hip/daunting.