Starting…and Continuing a Yoga (Asana) Practice

Photo Credit: Ulelli Verbeke

I have written various posts about yoga over the years. Yoga helped me, as did Pilates, both physically and mentally.

I have been writing about ways to keep busy during this time for those of us who are not working, and maybe have some free time. I realize those with kids have a lot of work to do with homeschooling, but yoga can be a great thing to do with your child. I know some of you are working just as hard as ever from home, but maybe you have extra time because you are not commuting. Maybe you are working full time to keep the country running and you are stressed out, but yoga can help to ease that stress.

Maybe now is the moment to start or to develop your yoga practice.

Yoga has many benefits, but among those that might be especially useful now, it may:

  • reduce stress
  • aid in restful sleep
  • improved blood pressure
  • balance metabolism
  • reduce anxiety
  • improve lung health
  • boost your immunity

Oh, and, the only thing you need to practice yoga is your body and a surface, like say, the floor.

While yoga will possibly build strength and flexibility depending on what style you practice, the actual goal of yoga is to learn to marry the breath and movement and to quiet the mind. The postures allow the body to be able to be still, free from pain and discomfort.

Ultimately, the yogi practices yoga in order to be able to meditate.

What we do in the West, is one type of yoga known broadly as “Hatha” yoga. As best I can understand and explain it, all other styles really fall under the umbrella of Hatha. However, Ashtanga and Vinyasa are also philosophies, which teach the postures, breath and meditation as well as including other more philosophical aspects. All strive to create a healthy mind, body and soul.

We usually refer to Hatha as a practice that is more gentle and involves a series of postures that are not linked. Within the spectrum of (hatha) yoga, you have practices such as restorative and Yin and Iyengar. They are slow and focused on relaxation in restorative and stretching in Yin and strength building in classic hatha with a particular focus on alignment in Iyengar. There is no set order of the postures and practices are designed to suit the specific needs of the practitioner based on age, ability, goals, physicality, etc. Specialty practices such as chair, pre-natal and children’s yoga would all by types of Hatha.

Ashtanga style practices are based in the same postures found in Hatha, but are more powerful, such as power and Bikram (hot) yoga. Both classic Ashtanga and Bikram practices are characterized by a specific, prescribed series of postures, while classes called “power” or “hot” are based in these practices, but do not necessarily stick to the script. They are vigorous practices meant to build strength and flexibility.

“Flow” is a common translation for Vinyasa. It is another philosophy of yoga, but practically, it will incorporate linked postures, often sun salutations, and can be slow and gentle, more like Hatha….or fast and hard, more like Ashtanga. Vinyasa does not require certain postures in a certain order, and is again more designed for the practitioner. A pure Vinyasa class is fast and moves from one posture to the next with the breath and little pausing in between.

The vast majority of “yoga” classes you will find at a gym or studio in the West would be best categorized as HathaVinyasa (unless they are expressly called something else), which simply put is somewhere in the middle.

Anyway, in all of these styles, a complete practice should include the asanas (postures), pranayama (breath), savasana (literally ‘corpse pose’ or relaxation) and dyana (meditation),which are three aspects of yogaThe other yoga limbs have more to do with philosophy of lifestyle, which includes ethically living, which is why many yogis choose not to eat meat or engage in practices that cause harm or pain to others. This a hugely simplistic way to look at “yoga,” but it is complicated, multi-faceted and far too broad to go deep into here, especially because even those styles I talked about above have slightly different “limbs”. For our purposes, I will be focusing mostly on the elements commonly associated with a yoga practice: the postures, breath and meditation.

Generally, classes will be rated on a scale of 1-4 with one being easier and four being the most challenging. It is very important, in order to avoid in injury, that you work at the appropriate level and the right style for you. If you are just starting out, you should only be going to beginner classes, levels 1 or 1.5 until you have learned some of the basics.

As a teacher, I have often said to new students, “If you didn’t like this class, don’t give up! Try another teacher, another style, another class.” I don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t like my classes. Every practitioner needs to find a teacher that they connect with and a style that they connect with. A level 2 vinyasa class taught by one teacher could b wildly different than one taught by another. I personally, do not like yin nor do I like Ashtanga (although that is what my 300-hour was in). I teach a vinyasa style with a focus on alignment.

Unlike karate and other martial arts, there are no benchmarks or achievements in yoga. You do not need to prove yourself before moving on to the next level, but if you attend a class that is too challenging for you, and you do not modify for your level, you risk hurting yourself. As a teacher, the only thing I ever get upset with a student for is when someone who new attempts more challenging poses beyond their ability. I do not want to see someone get hurt because their ego would not let them work at a level appropriate to their skill, experience, body, age, etc. Often people in really good shape are the most likely to do this. They assume because they are fit, they can do anything, but learning yoga is like learning anything else: it takes time. One must let go of the ego and accept that this is something new and it is okay if it is hard. It is okay to not be able to do something that someone else can. It is okay to feel uncomfortable. Just breathe and let go of that judgment, that voice criticizing you. What did I say? “Remember: you are enough to start or to continue from where you are right now.”

Right now, many studios are offering free or subscription classes on line, and You Tube is full of practices.  Normally, I encourage new practitioners to attend classes in-person for a while before doing classes on-line because the feedback from a good instructor is very valuable, however, right now you may find yourself with the time and motivation and there are no live classes available, and that’s okay. Just find beginner-level classes.

I am currently teaching two weekly classes for free on-line and this will last as long as I am not able to go to work. Follow my page, and join me Mondays for an intermediate practice and Wednesdays for a beginner practice at 5:00pm (EDT).

On my You Tube channel, I only have classes up to level 2 because while I will take a level 3 class to challenge myself, I do not consider myself equipped to teach those more advanced postures. I have labeled all of my classes posted according to their level of difficulty.

I have developed a 15-minute practice that involves eight sun salutations (also found below) with some additional postures integrated into the flow. It moves your spine forward, backward, laterally and twisting; it opens your hips and hip flexors; it opens your shoulders and your chest; it stretches your hamstrings; and while relatively slow, it has enough movement to get your heart pumping and wake you up. It is super important to breath deeply through your nose, working to match your breath to your movement. The breathing is always important, but I would argue that now more than ever, keeping your lungs strong and healthy is especially important. Notice your breathing as you bend and twist. Breathing deeply while your lungs are being compressed in certain postures, such as a twist, builds the health, capacity and strength of your lungs.

If you have never done a sun salutation, I broke it down in an earlier post, and I have also created tips on how to work on the challenging vinyasa safely. Surya Namaskar literally means “to greet the sun,” so it is very appropriate to wake the body up, but sun salutations are often integrated into yoga practices.

The practice I have provided here is short, so it is great for first thing in the morning when time is tight, when you are on a short break from work, for kids with shorter attention spans, before a meditation session, or before a run or other workout. It is also a nice introduction to yoga. (There is no relaxation or savasana included.)

I have talked about my own physical pain and that pain has often been a barrier to meditating, even now. I mentioned that I am working on developing a meditation practice. I have meditated every morning and evening for the past two weeks. What I find is, especially in the morning, it is very hard for me to sit without discomfort and even pain. I realized that I really needed to be doing a hatha practice and some pranayama in order to prepare my body to meditate. This is a perfect practice to precede breath work and a meditation.

Many classes that you will take will include sun salutations, and there are many variations of them. My hope is that if you are new to yoga, this short series will provide you an introduction that is not intimidating. If you are working on a meditation practice, this can serve as a good way to prepare your body for that. If you are a practitioner who doesn’t have time for a full practice, but wants to do something, this ticks a lot of the boxes in a short time. If you want to introduce your kids to yoga, this is short, so good for shorter attention spans!

I have often said that the hardest part of a yoga practice is stepping foot on the mat for the first time (and every time there after). Every time you have the strength, courage and energy to do a practice on your own, guided on-line, in a studio or any other setting, you should count that as a win.

Yoga may not be about ego, but that does not mean you can’t be proud of yourself and be grateful to yourself!

One of the best things about yoga is that it should be completely free of judgement. If you ever feel that a teacher, studio or student is being critical of your practice, I highly encourage you to not continue with that class or to discuss it with someone in charge. While a good teacher may push a student who wants to be pushed, every day and every practice is different. Just because yesterday you were able and chose to do something does not mean that today you will be willing and able to. Guess what? That is okay!

Yoga is a journey. Maybe you have never done a single yoga posture. You are just starting that engine and pulling out on to the road. Try to avoid the temptation of accelerating too fast. Be kind to yourself and go slowly on your journey. Notice what you feel. Practice becoming aware. Maybe you practiced for years, but you pulled into a rest stop and haven’t left for awhile, and are now ready to go again. Welcome back! Try not to expect that you will be exactly where you were when you paused. Go gently, be kind to yourself. Maybe you have been practicing for awhile, and are progressing in your practice. You are more aware of your breath and your body. Maybe you have learned some challenging postures that you weren’t able to do before. Maybe you have gotten to a point where practice is a regular part of you life. That’s wonderful too, but that doesn’t mean you stop being kind and listening to your body. It is important not to push too hard to avoid injury. Remember, there is no finish line to this journey.

Wherever you are on your journey, it is exactly where you need to be.

Remember: you are enough to start or to continue from where you are right now. The single most important aspect is not your strength nor your flexibility, but your own will to start or continue that journey. You can buy a mat, expensive clothes, pay for  a membership and more, but all that really matters is that you step foot on the mat (or just the floor or Earth) and breath.

Yoga is called a ‘practice.’ If you do it once, that’s awesome! Can you challenge yourself to do it the next day too? This may be the perfect moment to commit to a daily yoga practice, so that it starts to become a habit, and perhaps you will be inspired by how great you feel to continue even once this time of social distancing, working from home, home school and/or unemployment has ended.

Namaste…I bow to you.

If you like what you read, like, share, follow!

  1. Coping During COVID-19: An extroverted empath’s thoughts
  2. Coping During COVID-19: This time is a gift
  3. Developing a Meditation Practice…trying to anyway 
  4. Coping During COVID-19:How can I help? 
  5. Learning to Breathe Mindfully (Pranayama)
  6. Walk Like A Yogini: Being Kind and Keeping it Real
  7. Exercise and other Drugs

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