This morning as I stood in line for a coffee, carrying my mat in a haze of post yoga bliss a woman behind me smiles knowingly and nods to the mat in my arms “I wish I could do yoga too but I am so inflexible, I can’t even touch my toes!”
Let me preface this post by saying when I started yoga I could not touch my toes.
I’ve actually lost track of how many people have made similar comments about yoga over the years, it seems that yoga is seen as this impossible feat full of gymnastic style poses and contorting your body like a pretzel. Given the way that social media portrays the sport is it no wonder, just type yoga in to Pinterest and you’ll see a girl balancing on a finger tip on the edge of a mountain , smiling as though that is the most natural thing in the world, and maybe, for her, it is, who am I to judge. In general however, that is not what most people look like during practice and certinanly not me.
I started yoga when I was about nineteen and have never looked back. It is more like a lifestyle than a hobby or a means of keeping fit. I started yoga for my mental health and while the other benefits are endless, this still remains my primary reason for practicing. As I am sure you know by now, anxiety is something that has affected my life with varying degrees of severity. Yoga for me works a little like medicine and my mat is a safe space in moments of unease.
While yoga does definitely improve flexibility, it is important to remember that there are some poses that you may never be able to get in, that is just the makeup of your body. This doesn’t make you any less skilled in your practice, it is just the way you are put together but I do think this is often frustrating and off putting for people thinking of starting yoga. I have incredibly tight hamstrings, this means that a lot of forward fold poses are particularly difficult for me. I have practiced yoga almost daily for the past seven years and little has changed for me in terms of my hamstrings. This was something I found annoying for a couple of years and I could not understand why I still couldn’t fold myself in half like some of the other students in my class but over time I came to realise that ‘folding myself in half’ was the last reason I was there.
If you are avoiding a yoga class for those reasons then let me tell you some of the major benefits. Among other things yoga helps: Flexibility, balance, strength, fitness, tone and muscle definition, stress and anxiety, it improves concentration, reduces your risk for injury and develops good awareness of your body. If those reasons are not enough, is actually also really, really fun. These benefits are not just on the mat either, they flow (sorry) in to all areas of your life.
If you are still not convinced then let me remind you that there are always beginners classes. If you can’t touch your knees let alone your toes, do not be perturbed. There is a class, a practice and a teacher that will suit your level and style. There are students who are also beginners and even if they are not…who really cares what you look like on the mat?!
The practice is for you and you alone.
In my practice over the past couple of years I have started incorporating meditation and working on many different breathing exercises. This is not for everyone but can be VERY useful for refreshing the mind and calming the parasympathetic nervous system . If this is something that interests you, keep reading.
Ujjayi Pranayama is a yogic breathing exercise that helps to balance and bring calm. It is also known as the oceans breath. This technique can encourage the mind to become more focused, aid concentration and improve general positivity. It can also help to reduce anxiety, generate internal heat and reduce lots of different respiratory problems.
Here is how you can have a go at home:
- Sit in a comfortable, seated position, tall and upright. Keep your spine straight, relax your shoulders and face. Your eyes can be open with a soft gaze or completely closed.
- Sit for a moment, breathing at your regular pace. Allow your body and mind to relax.
- Now, take a deep breath in through your nose. As you exhale, round your mouth and flow the breath up along the throat and mouth – just as you would if you were fogging up a mirror making a ‘HA’ sound.
- Practice this breath flow for a couple of minuets and concentrate on how the air travels through the through and out of the mouth.
- Once you are comfortable with this breath you are ready to try Ujjayi breathing. Close your mouth and repeat the flow escribed above, but this time when you come to exhale do so through your nose. On the exhalation you will observe a gentle ocean sound.
- Repeat this flow for a few minuets until it begins to calm you.
Ujjayi breathing is available to you whenever you find yourself in an anxious or stressful situation, instead of letting it overwhelm you remember you can come back to your breathing.
Let the Ocean breath calm you.