“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.