Seeing the detail

How long have you been practising yoga? Whatever length of time it is, whether months or a decade or more, one experience common to everyone is how many times you repeat common poses. In the vinyasa style sequencing is more creative than the set Ashtanga sequence for example, but even so many poses crop up in almost every class. Think about how many times you’ve done Downward Facing Dog or Warrior 2 or Child’s Pose. Not to mention ending in Savasana every time.

Does this mean the common poses get boring? I’d never thought of it like that, until a student asked me recently how I practise Warrior 2. Yes, the question was about how — she was curious about what I could still find of interest here. The implication behind the question was that I must surely have exhausted my enquiry into this pose and want to move onto other things that might be newer and more exciting. Actually I am still fascinated by Warrior 2, even after spending literally hours in this pose over the years of my practice. There’s always something new. Yoga poses evolve with us, our experience of them is ever-changing.

I still have vivid memories of the first time I tried Warrior 2 when I went to yoga class with a friend at university. The teacher and her assistant both helped me. They adjusted my stance, moving my feet with their hands, they supported my pelvis and encouraged me to reach out to the sides with my arms. Hey, I was doing the pose! Then they let go and stepped back and I simply fell over. They might have helped me form what looked like the Warrior 2 shape, but I had no foundations. I couldn’t yet stand on my own two feet — quite literally.

As the years passed I have accumulated much more experience of Warrior 2 and I have studied this pose deeply with my teacher, refining the physical actions and honing my attention so that I perceive the pose more fully. These days I’m much less distracted by learning to lift the arches of my feet or how to stabilise the front knee in good alignment. My experience of Warrior 2 has ceased to be a series of instructions aimed at engaging major muscles groups and turned into a more subtle, less physical experience. My current focus (to answer the student’s question) is on the drishti, the gazing point. How to orient my eyes towards the fingers of my outstretched hand (the middle fingernail, to be precise) not so much with my seeing eyes, but how to soften my eyeballs, so that I am looking inward as much as outward, merging myself with a sense of past, present and future… The outer form of my pose might not look so different but the inner experience shifts.

My Warrior 2 arises from all my accumulated experiences (on and off the yoga mat), from the willingness to pause repeatedly on my journey, to get down into the details and examine them closely and lovingly. There’s no rush to arrive; there’s just always more to discover. The yoga practice keeps in step with us and reveals more as our capacity for seeing develops. We are always exactly where we need to be. That’s why yoga works as a mixed-ability class. The same pose is different every time, and different for every body.

Warrior 2 photo credit: Ania Ready

Zoom room or studio?

I saw this bit of graffiti as I walked back from class this week. YOG. I laughed out loud. Something about the synchronicity, how this bit of vandalism paralleled my day, amused me. I was still laughing when I got home and my husband commented how different I was after my yoga class. He said I looked happy. More precisely he said I had a goofy grin on my face! I prefer to think of it as my ‘post yoga glow’.

I’ve only just started going to ‘real life’ classes again after more than a year of zoom and self-practice. I wasn’t sure how it would feel. The faff of getting ready, travel time, carrying a mat, as well as the covid protocols of spaced-out mats, hand sanitiser and masks… Should I bother? After all, I could just stay home and do yoga in my PJs.

But actually it was wonderful! There’s nothing like the feeling of being in class with other people. The sound of a gentle OM to begin, people gradually starting to move and warm up, then more synchronised surya namaskar as we found a rhythm, individual yet collective. Some challenging poses elicited a common groan and the room definitely got warm with us all sweating and focused on our practice. As we moved into the closing poses there were some low sighs around the room and finally we settled into our savasana and a beautiful stillness. The only time it feels right, as an adult, to lie down amidst a group of strangers and not worry about a thing!

Do you remember?

If you’ve missed in person classes and/or zoom doesn’t work for you, I’m teaching in person again with a weekly vinyasa class. I’d love to see you and share the energy of the room.

But don’t worry, zoom is also here to stay. In person can be great, but it’s also true that you can’t beat the convenience of a class at home before the working day. So let’s keep our Tuesday morning thing going — after coming together like this for more than a year, why change?

You decide what yoga you need: I’ll be there for both!

Yoga away from home

The continuation of online yoga classes means that it’s possible to keep up your practice and class attendance even when you’re away from home. If you’ve never tried yoga while you’re on holiday, you might be missing a treat! Provided that family or travelling companions can give you space for an hour (unless they want to join in with you!), the leisure of holiday time can make yoga feel more relaxed, rather than being something to cram in between working hours and mealtimes. And if you have time for a longer savasana to end, so much the better.

If tuning in for class doesn’t work, why not find some time for yourself and do your own practice? It’s easy to imagine that home yoga practice needs to look a certain way or be a certain level of intensity, but you might find that being on holiday and out of your usual routine (and mindset) some of these concerns melt away.

Find a clean, quiet spot, you don’t even need a yoga mat. A towel might work, or a patch of grass or sand…

Take some quiet breaths, without any particular intention or expectation. For the first practice in a new environment you might need a bit more time to settle, to ground, to absorb your surroundings and to feel safe.

Then you might begin some movements.

Start with something that feel familiar to you, from your own experiences. Some breaths in downdog might feel good especially if you’ve been sitting while travelling and feel the need to stretch out the back and the legs. Or you might take some stretches lying down. This can be particularly nice if you’re somewhere warm which might help the body feel softer or more flexible, or if you arrive tired and in need of some time to restore and relax after the inevitable busy days before the holiday starts.

Five or ten minutes like this might be all you need to feel refreshed and more connected with yourself. Or perhaps the holiday spirit has given you more energy and your movements become stronger or more dynamic and you increasing lose yourself in the joy of movement.

Holidays can be a great time to try something new, so don’t be afraid to experiment, to let go of old habits, trust your instincts about what’s best for you. You might come home with some new understanding of what your yoga is — that’s better than any suntan, I’d say!

Yoga challenges

What do you do when the teacher offers a pose that you can’t do? Do you compare yourself negatively to others in class or perhaps on social media?

How do you react to yoga challenges?

When I was a beginner, I remember getting quite angry with the teacher for suggesting a pose that was so obviously impossible. Then when I looked around the room and saw other students doing it, I used to get angry with them for being better at yoga than me! I don’t remember how long that attitude lasted. Hopefully not too long!

I then had a phase where I would jump right in and try anything even if I had no idea what the foundations of the pose were. I guess it was a pendulum swing away from my feelings of frustration. My first headstand, for example, was a complete disaster. I hadn’t built up any of the necessary strength in upper body or core and when I kicked up a bit wildly I toppled straight over and crashed down on top of my teacher’s altar. Not my finest moment, though of course my teacher was very gracious about it…

Sometime after that I moved onto the avoidance technique. I was at this time attending a much larger class and I thought that when something challenging came round I could sneak out for a quick loo break. Of course the teacher always noticed… I also tried the ‘hide in Child’s Pose’ technique for a while, not actually needed to rest, but wanting simply to disappear away from the difficulty of class and the embarrassment I felt at not being ‘good at yoga’. Of course that approach was never going to improve my practice! Quite soon I started to deliberately pause my practice and watch the students around me, particularly the more adept students in the front row, and this helped me begin to understand the poses I was confused by. Because I wasn’t hidden in Child’s Pose (or Ostrich Pose, as it really was for me:) ), my teacher could more easily help me and offer suggestions for how I might get started or find the foundation of the pose.

And I’d like to say “the rest is history”. Except that yoga doesn’t work like that. There is no end to the challenges it presents — sometimes in the form of obviously physically demanding postures, always in the invitation to stay present with whatever experience arises.

Certainly now I have a better understanding of the structure of poses, how to modify or use props to make a pose more accessible, and I am pretty realistic about what my body is capable of. But despite much greater technical knowledge, that doesn’t mean I don’t still get occasional flare-ups of anger, frustration, confusion, fear and so on on. And they aren’t necessarily in physically demanding classes, they can pop up suddenly in a restorative practice too. There’s nothing like stillness and quiet to unleash some of your old emotional gremlins when you least expect it. These days I’m unlikely to react by suddenly popping out to the bathroom! I now know that these emotional reactions arise and then disperse; they only hang around if I listen to them and get caught up in the old narratives. If instead I focus on breathing deeply and slowly into the belly and allowing my body to feel grounded, I can reset my mental patterns and approach my practice with more ease, with a sense of curiosity and good humour even towards the emotional roller-coaster.

Perhaps next time you’re in class, you can notice when the negative voices in your head put in an appearance. You might pause to notice what is going on without giving yourself a hard time. Eventually you might even be able to welcome them with a smile (“that old story again!”). It’s all part of yoga practice. It’s all part of being human.

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Rollercoaster image from asklatisha.com

“Listen to your body”

“Listen to your body” is something yoga teachers often say. I know I say it myself! I say it because I want you to feel you have permission to adapt the poses and the practice to your own needs on that day. And because I believe that yoga is about cultivating self-awareness more than about perfecting a pose.

But how do you listen to your body? I think this is quite an advanced yoga skill — I’m certainly still learning how to do this myself, hopefully with increasingly degrees of subtlety.

On a most basic level, you can listen for obvious messages or warning signs from the body. If you experience pain in a pose, particularly a sharp shooting pain in a joint, you should move out of the position slowly. This level of intense sensation is best avoided. It can be a sign from the body that this is not a good place for you right now.

Other physical feelings in the body can range from the intense to the more subtle and encompass a multitude of sensations like throbbing, aching, stretch, tingling, tightening, opening…. You will doubtless add your own words to this list from your personal experience. You will also come to understand over time something about what these sensations are telling you and to what degree and how you might respond to them. You might choose to shift position quite obviously, visibly changing the alignment. Or the movement might be a subtle shift in muscular engagement that is almost invisible, but is felt within your body. You might release the depth of the pose a little, pause, then move closer in again, noticing changes in the physical sensation along the way. Or you might feel you need to stay a while longer and simply observe the sensation, noticing perhaps that it changes over the course of several breaths.

Careful listening to your breathing and your breath pattern is another way of tuning in. You can listen in a very literal sense if you are employing ujjayi breath (also known as ocean breath). Or you might be ‘listening’ metaphorically. The quality of the breath (smooth, ragged, constricted, even, catching etc) or the pattern of inhale/exhale (even length and quality, more emphasis on breathing in or in breathing out etc) contains much information about your emotional state and can also help you determine if you are working too hard in your physical practice.

Ultimately the skill of listening to the body and the breath leads us to a greater understanding of, and intimacy with, ourselves. We develop patience and compassion as we observe our longings, our fears and our vulnerabilities, as well as our innate joy and sense of wholeness and wellness.

Restorative yoga for sceptics

Now that we’re all at home without the fancy props of a well equipped studio, we have to make the best of what we have for Restorative Yoga practice. A bolster and some yoga blocks are always helpful, if you have them, but what will really help you get comfortable in your poses is as many pillows, cushions and blankets or even bath towels as you can lay your hands on. These props are used to support the body; they provide a sense of safety and comfort, promoting the relaxation of physical tensions and allowing the mind to settle.

In class I layer up the instructions for each pose, to help you make best use of what you have available. I show the pose without props so you understand the basic shape and then add on suggestions for how to make it more comfortable. I know it can all seem like a bit of a faff at the beginning — I remember this from my first classes too! But after a while you might just find you fall in love with the ritual of taking the time and care to arrange your props and enjoy the experimentation of what works best for you. It’s a really profound act of self-care. You deserve this.

My husband isn’t usually a fan of restorative yoga, but this evening he asked me to set him up in a supported savasana. He just said he felt like it. I chose side-lying savasana as this is, I think, the most nurturing form of savasana there is. Savasana Royale! I asked him to begin by making the basic shape, lying on his left side with the knees drawn up. He told me quite abruptly: “This is the most uncomfortable position I’ve ever been in!”. So we got busy with the props and the cushions. A few minutes later once I’d fussed around a bit, supporting his neck, padding out the lower legs, and a comfortable way to support his arms, he looked pretty peaceful.

A final touch was to dim the lights, cover him with a blanket and tell him to rest there until I came back. I told him I’d just leave him five minutes (restorative yoga teacher’s joke!!).

His verdict afterwards was that he felt really relaxed — and he looked it! He even said he’d like to learn some other poses with me, which is the highest accolade I could imagine from this restorative yoga sceptic! 🙂

I guide Restorative Yoga class alternate Monday evenings via zoom, 6-7pm UK time. My husband probably won’t be there, but you could be! Class sign ups are here: https://app.ubindi.com/Victoria.Jackson Please be in touch with any questions if you’d like to join but you feel unsure. I’d be happy to help.

Work-Yoga-Work

A lot of my students are work colleagues — yes, I have an office job too! So I know firsthand what it’s like to try to fit yoga in around a busy working day. And I also know how beneficial it is when I can! All those hours in zoom meetings with a less than ergonomically-perfect working from home set-up takes its toll. Neck and shoulder tension, tight hamstrings and hips, as well as general fatigue. Sitting down all day is surprisingly tiring! Not to mention the stress of working from home…. still!

What can you do? Or — what do I do myself?

Well, of course I practise yoga regularly! A proper ‘formal’ practice on my mat for at least an hour as often during the week as I can is great. A more dynamic practice helps keep all my joints mobile and my muscles strong. I also enjoy a more gentle practice once a week or so, which promotes relaxation and deep rest in mind and body. Restorative yoga also works more subtly on releasing stickiness in the fascia which can aid in overall flexibility. Win-win!

As a teacher, I offer both style of class too. I preach what I practise! 🙂

But when time is tight, there’s also a place for some ‘quick and dirty’ yoga poses. I know that little packets of movement every day help keep my body and mind feeling better. You don’t need a yoga mat or a special outfit, you can do some really beneficial stretching seated at your desk, while you’re cleaning your teeth or waiting for the coffee/tea to brew. It doesn’t have to be fancy or even look like ‘yoga’. Just think about moving your joints as much as you can (shoulders and hips) and how to move your spine in all directions (side stretching, flexion and extension, as well as rotations), not forgetting to let the neck move too.

If you’re breathing consciously, noticing how your body feels and how it responds when you pay attention to it… that sounds like good yoga to me! You can even smile while you’re doing it for extra benefit!

Image credits: verywellfit (chair yoga), whatsuplife.in (kitchen), yogapedia (lunge)

Getting the most from online class

You might think after months of lockdown we’d all be Zoom geniuses and totally au fait with online yoga classes. But actually I don’t think this is true! So don’t give yourself a hard-time if you’re not completely comfortable in online class, or you’re still figuring out the best home set-up, or perhaps you’ve not dared yet and you are starting to feel left behind.

Here are my top tips for getting the best from your online class experience (remember I’m a student too as well as a teacher, so I have experience on both sides of the camera!).

1 Book your class well in advance

Get a date in your diary and make a commitment to show up for yoga. It’s all too easy when we’re at home to lose track of the hours and the days. If you can make a regular commitment with a teacher it might structure your week and guarantee you some time for yourself between balancing all the different roles you play at home (professional, parent, spouse, home-schooler, car mechanic or cook….)

2 Check your tech

Be sure you know how to access the class. I know that tech difficulties are stressful and frustrating but I can’t help you if you email me one minute before or after the class start time. For my classes you’ll get a zoom link 15 minutes before the class starts. You will need to log into your zoom account to access the class (a zoom account is free).

If you have two devices you can play your favourite playlist at home if you enjoy music with your yoga. I mute everyone during class, so you won’t bother anyone else. Just ensure you won’t be disturbed by emails or text messages.

3 Make space

Not all of us have the luxury of a fancy yoga space at home, but you might be able to set aside a corner where you can roll out your mat. Have your props available, yoga blocks or a bolster for example (or a couple of big books and a pillow). If you can create a calm and quiet environment, you’ll be able to focus better. Ask anyone you share the space with if they can allow you an hour or so to yourself. This is especially important for restorative class. Equally, there’s no need to get flustered if pets, children or spouses make a surprise appearance on camera!

4 Turn up early

I usually open our zoom studio 10 minutes before class. This is my favourite time as I love to see everyone arrive. You’re welcome to have camera on or off while you set yourself up and begin to get settled. You might enjoy turning on ‘gallery view’ so you can see other students and feel a sense of connection. We are a small friendly group with many regulars coming every week so you might begin to make some new corona-yoga friends. I also love chatting with you and hearing how you are so do give me a wave and don’t be shy to turn your mic on before we start the class.

5 Position your camera

If you are new to class you’ll likely want to position your device so you can see the screen without craning your neck. I demonstrate some parts of class, but not all. ‘Speaker view’ will allow you to see me most clearly. When you’re more familiar with my teaching try to look at the camera as little as possible, so you can focus more on your own movement and the feeling of your body. Learning to trust yourself is an important aspect of a maturing yoga practice. Gallery view during class can also work well for flow class.

If you place your device so that I have the best view of you on your mat, I can offer verbal instructions or encouragement specific to you. If you set up the camera so I can see your Warrior 2 from the side, that’s a good rule of thumb.

Of course you’re welcome to turn the camera off if you prefer. I always appreciate it if you let me know you’re choosing to do this, so I know you’re doing OK.

6 Remember: it’s your yoga practice!

One of the benefits of online class is that we feel less drawn to comparison with the person on the mat next to us who seems to have an effortlessly graceful practice (we’ve all been there!). Use this opportunity to focus on yourself and practise being in the present moment, without judgment or fear or comparison. Yoga is a journey inward, not a performance.

If you’re not sure about a pose, please ask me after class or book a private session with me when we can take time to address your questions and ensure your safety and enjoyment. Understanding any modifications or variations you might want to make will keep you safe for many years of yoga and allow you to make the practice work best for you.

7 Better together

And here’s the final secret: whatever worries and doubts you have about online yoga class, I’ve probably had them at some point too! As a teacher I have to figure out the best camera angle to show you some pose or movement without forgetting my left and right, I can get stressed about sound quality and internet stability, and I’ve long ago stopped worrying about pointing my rear end at the camera or about you seeing my morning face and hair! Sometimes we need a sense of humour and perspective. Whatever happens, it’s just good to be together and share the experience — my home to your home.