February is our 'Heart Over Head' month. Joining a Yoga class can be intimidating and might require a dose of courage. So, here is an article aimed at those of us new to the medicinal practice that is Yoga.
Recently we have been inundated with questions from those new to the practices of Yoga. We know from our own practice; just how beneficial it is to rewind and check in with noticing elements that have been long forgotten.
Stepping back and remembering the building blocks beneath the foundations is necessary in ensuring that we gain the true power harnessed from Yoga.
Here are some pointers that we remind people when teaching our ‘Back To Basics’ courses; things we will try to remind you throughout sessions:
The physical postures are best practiced barefoot. Our feet are our foundation; they connect us to the earth and our perfect alignment begins in the bones of the feet. So many of us are misaligned due to life’s experiences and the patterns of everyday living. How we distribute our weight in our joints and bones is all reflected in the alignment of the feet. We only need look at a well-loved pair of shoes or sneakers to see where we fall into our feet. I (Maia) used to have very collapsed inner arches so all my shoes tended to cave towards centre, whereas my sister Keira distributed her weight to the outer edges of her feet. Ideally, we want to balance our weight evenly and make sure our bones are stacked one atop of eachother. Healthy feet are part of our practice. We can’t see our feet if they are bound in socks; we can’t spread them super wide and let them fall heavy to earth if they are hidden away. So, we encourage everyone to remove their socks; no matter about bunions, chilblains, whatever! Remember, undressing the feet is part of our letting go. If you are unwilling to get your feet naked, then understand that your alignment will likely suffer for it. There are 26 bones in the feet; we want to reveal them, get juicily connected to the earth and constantly check in; are our feet spread wide? Are our arches lifting? Are we fully conscious of the energy in all parts? Also, big toes and baby toes are a good indicator of whether we are lunging generously enough, whether our legs and hips are correctly aligned, and they are useful for feeling into the hamstrings. So, yes, please let your feet be free of any clothing or constrictions.
Mats; we can recommend a few good brands, but usually teachers will have mats you can use. If a mat is slippery and you find yourself losing grip, try to readjust the balance of weight through the palms and feet. Ask your teacher and they should be able to help. In some hot yoga classes, practitioners use chalk balls which can be squeezed between palms to distribute chalk and create a non-slip grip. But be mindful; chalk dust will likely make you and those around you cough and/or lose your connection to breath. We personally aren’t really in love with the idea of yoga gloves and yoga shoes/grip socks. Over the years, we have come to see that most grip issues are really to do with the hands and feet. A little slip can be avoided when we consciously change the way we connect to the earth. Besides, falling is a good lesson, so long as you don’t hurt yourself!
Clothing; wear whatever you feel comfortable in; comfortable enough to move in all angles, directions and rise to sky, fall to earth. It matters not what colour, brand, design or type of clothing you choose. It doesn’t have to be ‘yoga wear’ or a certain cut or colour. We just want you to feel really comfy. Yoga is not about how you look; if we judge others, or ourselves, then we are not in Yoga.
Shoes should be left outside of studio space to allow space around us and between our neighbouring yogis. We have created a kind of ritual; a bit like a dance before we self-practice; the removal of shoes, socks, tying the hair back (if it’s long), rolling out the mat and walking onto the mat, all feels deeply delicious and is really where the practice begins. When I step onto my mat, the world melts away, I fall into breath and tune into that which lies beneath the surface of my skin. So, make the simple things, such as placing your shoes to a certain area, heartfelt and mindful. See if you can make the ‘mundane’ and ordinary, seem sweet and delightful. Just with your awareness. With your sense of being here, now.
Breath; we practice yogic breathing in and out through the nose. Mouth closed. Tongue can gently rest behind the top two front teeth. If you have an experienced yogic breath, then you can practice that; some of us are louder than others; my breath is usually audible to anyone near; others have a quieter breath. Again, this is your practice; you take it to your limits; to your comforts; to your boundaries. The breath is the single most important factor in any physical yoga practice. Why? Because it acts as a barometer for your body. If the breath becomes shallow, rapid, struggling; it’s a sign we need to back off, reverse out of the posture, return to a modification or simply settle into child’s pose. If the breath is deep, rhythmic, strong and feels sweet (as if falling inwards), then you’re in the right spot. If our breath is not deep enough, or we feel nothing; no shifts within energetically, then it’s a sign that we can go further. Ideally, we want to imagine the breath flooding in, filling us up on each inhalation. The breath moves down into the belly. As we exhale, the breath travels from belly to head and we can feel warmer air leaving our bodies through the nostrils; we can imagine letting go deeper on the exhale. We want to intentionally breathe fully and meaningfully throughout the entire practice. If we can focus on our breath, we shift into a meditation with very little effort. So, breathe and breathe and breathe. Without any judgements or care for the noise we’re making.
Heat; the breath will generate heat which will open the body up. If you are practicing a really deep breath, more heat will be generated. Heat in the body is deeply detoxifying. It’s like an internal sauna and steam. Encouraging heat within cleans the organs, burning away toxins and allowing the body to open and soften. Sweat is good and is a healthy part of the practice. I recall I have mentioned before, but we used to attend sessions in London where literally everyone was covered in sweat after class; it looked like we had all showered. It feels good. Don’t be worrying about sweating; know that it’s good. The yogic texts say that sweat should be rubbed back into the body, followed by a mud bath. If you don’t fancy that though (!), just know that sweat is good; don’t be in too much of a rush to bathe or shower. And definitely don’t feel embarrassed if sweat is falling to mat; as a teacher, I’m pretty proud if we can move super slow and deep, but create a little heat and sweat in the process! As I then know we are moving more consciously and mindfully, using the muscles and breathing to our fullest. Mindful practice is slow, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Cues and pointers; our practice is flowing and consists of a lot of cues and pointers. Try not to get caught up in everything we tell you at first. With practice, it will become easier and our bodies intuitively recall where the postures flow and lead to. Even though it’s a physical practice, it’s been sequenced with the intention of opening us up and allowing the body to drop the pressure; literal and mental. The beginning of class can seem very complex; we then move into more long held postures which require fewer cues. So, come with an open mind and don’t ‘think’ so much; rather, feel into the poses.
If you are new to a particular class, then try to be nearer to the teacher. Yes; at the front of the room! We know it can seem scary. But truly; no one is looking at you. In fact, take it from us; teachers tend to look to the back students to ensure they interpreted the alignment correctly, as it’s more difficult if you’re unable to see the teacher fully. Oftentimes our particular classes mean that the sequencing takes you to the back of the mat anyway; so, the back becomes the front and vice versa! Remember; you’ll soon forget all the worries, when you fall into flow and the breath, so choose the best space for you and be braver than you think you can be.
Assists; sometimes a teacher will assist you in a pose; notice it’s not ‘adjust’! If you don’t want to be touched (some people don’t), then just let your teacher know before class. Assists can vary; they may be a light touch to the shoulder, or they can be deeper; they should never be painful or uncomfortable. The most important thing to realise is that you need do nothing; don’t back off or reverse out of posture, unless your teacher specifically tells you to. Sometimes years of positioning the body a certain way creates patterns and habitual posture that may feel correctly aligned, but is poor. Or sometimes the lines are just slightly out; a shoulder may be hunched, or you may need to relax or back off a little. Your teacher will be able to see the lines of the body and tweak it here and there so that the energy flows better. Over time and with practice, you will learn how to judge if your hips are level, if the joints are properly aligned etc. But don’t be concerned if a teacher assists you; it is not that you are doing it ‘incorrectly’. This brings us to the next point…
There is no such thing as a perfect pose. No two people will ever look the same. Like fingertip ripples, your body is 100% unique. How you project the shapes we are shifting into, is unique to you. Do not strive too deep or force yourself into a contortion. Yoga should feel good. It should be fun. Falling, wobbling, shaking, crying, laughing; all of it should feel good. Yoga posture should feel deep, rhythmic, like a dance with the breath. Sometimes we offer eyes to be closed to let go of the egoic state. Hopefully you know your body well enough, or will with time, to be able to see where it needs to go and what position or options are best suited to you. There is no competition. There is no judgement. Trust us; when you drop the judgments, and let go of your thoughts, then the magic of Yoga thrives and expands.
Listen to your body. Know your limits. But, find your edge. If it does not challenge us, it will not change us. The edge is that sweet spot that feels good but FEELS! Anyone can hang out in posture, not using any strength or inner alignment. The trick to getting the most out of any session, is that you need to remember, you need to fully participate. Be there in the poses. When you are encouraged to press into heel or sweep leg to sky, it does not matter how high you lift; it really doesn’t. What matters more, is how are you feeling in the pose? Are you connected? Are your muscles active? Is your core engaged? If you want to really release, you must apply a little pressure. Don’t compete with anyone, but maybe compete with yourself; can you dive a little deeper?! Can you spread the toes a little wider? Can you take one more breath while the leg is quivering? Just be constantly present with what is.
Chanting; it is not about the sound we make. It is about the vibration we create. The sound ‘aum’ creates a cleansing vibration; it’s like we wipe the slate clean and can start afresh. It’s a beautiful sound to open or close a practice with. You don’t have to participate, but chanting is a beautiful, important practice in the Yogic practice. Our shorter classes normally include one aum as a minimum. But longer workshops include longer chants and trust us; to chant as a group is joyful. The energy that is released from the throat chakra and the upper regions of the body, close to the heart centre, can be immense, and have life changing positive effects. So, don’t be shy; participate and make joyful sound a part of your practice!
It’s all in you. You can do this. The space you create within when you open and release what no longer serves you, will increase your capacity for joy, love and goodness to flow. I think we have said this before in previous posts, but if not; be the best, biggest version of you possible. Be fearless and try to get out of your head and into your head.
There are so many classes and types of physical yoga to choose from. If you go to class, and decide it just didn’t feel right to you, then go and try another. If you ever need advice on which style or teacher would serve you best, please feel free to contact either of us and we will do our best to help. Yoga is magic. Yoga is medicine. Embrace it in parts into your life and your life will fee grander, happier and you will live better.