Appreciate what you have
Take time to appreciate what you already have and not get too caught up in high expectations for the holidays. Enjoy what comes your way, and find abundance in each moment. Notice the simple things that you take for granted and marvel at how amazing they all are!
Try some home yoga practice
A great time to commit to a short daily yoga practice, even if it is only one pose, or sitting and taking 12 steady, slow breaths.
Sanctuary in a book
Find sanctuary in a contemplative book, even if only for 5 minutes a day.
Be in nature
Spend some time with nature. If that isn't possible, spend a few minutes each day gazing at a tree or plant.
Treat yourself - mindfully
Treat yourself, but try and do it mindfully so that you really enjoy it and will remember it later on and so enjoy it again when you think of it!
Do a kind action every day for no particular reason. Share some joy with others in your local community, or do something kind for yourself. Random acts of kindness, even if only a smile to someone you don't know.
Here's to wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a joyful and healthy new year. x
Hot yoga is really popular as an alternative to regular temperature yoga classes. Hot yoga is a studio-based yoga practice in a super-heated room (42 degrees celcius - imagine Egypt in the summer then pour in extra humidity) where the aim is to work through a physical yoga practice and sweat a ton, then lie down and bask in the heat as you recover from the effort. It's intense and many people love it.
Why super heat a yoga class?
The claims about benefits of hot yoga practice are many:
- Detoxes the body
- Sweating is good for you
- Improved flexibility
... and so on.
The science may not back this up, but those who love it feel the results and swear by it. Those who don't love it, probably never go back.
I fall into the latter camp and find the claims to be subjective but if it benefits you and you enjoy it, then keep doing it.
As with all physical yoga practices, be cautious not to over stretch and be particularly careful with your joints, that they stay within a safe and comfortable range of motion. I have had many injured hot yoga practitioners come with knee, elbow and shoulder injuries from hot yoga classes so go carefully. Sometimes when the heat is on and the practice is intense, it is hard to listen to the inner voice advising you to ease off. Hot yoga can get competitive and that makes it harder to draw back from a pose when necessary. So applying your own sensible body-awareness skills to your practice is paramount when the heat intensity is turned up.
Is it more beneficial than not-hot yoga?
I'm biased, as I've been practicing yoga for 20 years and find an ambient room or even a cool space a wonderful way to practice. I can engage fully in my yoga practice when I'm able to turn the attention inwards rather than feeling overly hot or sweaty. I tend to heat up during my practice anyway, even if just taking a breathing (pranayama) practice.
I recently came across an interesting thesis which undertook a study comparing hot yoga practitioners alongside regular temperature Hatha yoga practitioners. The aim was to measure the effects of yoga practice on physiological and psychological fitness in young men and women over an 8-week period. Health metrics that were monitored include BMI, blood pressure, flexibility, peak oxygen consumption, back depression, anxiety and depression metrics.
Hot yoga participants worked at a significantly higher cardiovascular intensity and spent more time at a higher heart rate throughout the classes. But even with this, over the 8-week period, both hot yoga and Hatha yoga groups saw the same improvements in body composition and flexibility and also in anxiety and depression scores. So the outcome observations suggest that there are real, significant health benefits to engaging in both forms of yoga practice but there was no final measure on any additional psychological or physiological benefits gained by hot yoga training.
So by all means, do hot yoga practice if you love it and feel no ill effects from it, but from what we can tell, the health benefits are not greater doing it in a hot and sweaty room.
Another article to read more on this can be found here >
Home yoga practice?
I'm a big advocate of home yoga practice. Little and often can often bring about the most benefit - it is free to everyone and has an intimacy to it that you rarely get in the classroom. Ask any of my students who get a free home yoga practice handout at the end of each term to go and try at home. So learning your yoga practice skills in a group class or with personal yoga tuition and then starting to apply those skills in your home practice is a wonderful way to practice yoga. I've written about home yoga practice before here.
One of the limiting factors to hot yoga practice is that you have to go to the studio regularly to do this, and the costs add up. (Don't get me started on Mr Bikram, the hot yoga business mogul and his exuberant love of money and Rolls Royces - as a business model he turned hot yoga into a money spinner). Of course the communities that develop around group classes are wonderful and valuable, but the tie in to the studio and the costs involved can become problematic.
What about subtlety in yoga practice?
Beyond the intense physicality of the hot yoga class, also remember there is an inner essence to yoga practice. The internal connection through body, breath and mental focusing that go beyond the measurable health metrics outlined in the comparative study. I'm not sure the subtlety of my pranayama or meditation practice would be possible in an intensely heated environment yet the crown of my yoga practice can often be found here (thus my bias to comfortable temperature practice). My inner meditative focus might be externally drawn to feeling overly hot or to the physical sensations of sweating. But I get that some folks need the intensity of a very physical practice to keep them focused out of their busy minds.
I guess my final thought is that usually any yoga practice is better than no practice - so ultimately do whatever is likely to motivate you and do what you you will enjoy.
Thanks to Kalin Shephert Gawinski for sharing the abstract to their study from 2012.
Breathing well in yoga can seem tricky
As a beginner to yoga, it can seem difficult to keep the focus on the breath. It is common to find that you’ve been holding your breath and straining in some postures. Arms and legs are just about doing what the teacher has invited you to do - but your breath, well who knows?
This is particularly noticeable in a fast-paced or deeply strenuous class where the body is most dominant and anything else gets left behind as you work your way through the class.
So what if my breath isn't great?
Day to day we typically breath 12-15 breaths per minute. The rate, depth and quality of it can help adjust our levels of anxiety and stress, our immune system effectiveness and many more physical and mental health markers. Yoga offers profound teachings in the breath if we choose to listen that can support our health, wellbeing and awareness in our day to day lives.
Familiarity helps to develop our breath focus
Gradually, with familiarity of a regular yoga practice, we can start to remember to breathe with a flowing and calmer breath. And eventually the breath and movements start to link together more. From here we can start to take that further still and refine into a more advanced yoga practice.
Once you feel you are able to link the breath and movements together, then the power of the breath can really start to be harnessed and the refinement and quality of our yoga practice can bloom. Our nervous system will feel immense benefit from working skilfully with breath centring and we can move beyond the endorphin highs of vigorous and strenuous yoga practice and move towards maturing our yoga practice.
The breath powers our yoga practice
Sounds obvious, of course we need to breath to power everything that we do or we’ll collapse in a heap. But it is easy to forget about the quality of our breath when distracted or physically strained. What if you eased back from the strain and found a spaciousness in the breath to develop the power of your yoga practice instead? What would that feel like? What could it do to your yoga practice?
What if we found our physical alignment from our breath?
We often listen to the technical instruction from the yoga teacher: move your foot here, rotate your hip there, etc... Breath-centred practice can support us to more naturally open and expand your body into a posture, rather than teaching instruction being the main driver. Explore how your breath can position you into a natural alignment from within that is unique to your body structure and your deepening breath.
Starting out with breath-centred yoga practice
The classes at Bristol YogaSpace work with a deeply breath-centred approach to yoga. Rather than simply coordinating with our breath, which is common in many Vinyasa, Flow or Ashtanga yoga practices, we centre ourselves in the breath more deeply and use it to power the practice and direct the postures and focus.
When I started out some 20 years ago I practiced Ashtanga yoga, a vigourous and strong yoga practice, then Iyengar yoga which is technical and detailed in its formal postures. But I eventually discovered a truly breath-centred approach in Viniyoga and practice was transformed for me.
Perhaps ask your teacher more about the breath when you feel ready or curious or come along to a Viniyoga class which specialises in breath-centred yoga practice, or a yoga workshop to support you to develop more breath centring in your yoga practice.
Enjoy your yoga practice.
“Without breath, it isn’t yoga – it is like a river without water”
Church halls can suck
Church halls are not ideal teaching or practice spaces. I still teach on Thursday evenings in Westbury Park with limited heating, lentils leftover on the floor from the preschool earlier in the day, and don’t even get me started about the red glitter stuck to the yoga mats that will remind my students when they get home that they did cobra posture as the shiny specks remain on their foreheads. But I value these classes in many ways and value the students who come so enjoy teaching them anyway
How I came to own a yoga studio
I didn’t have big ambitions for what I was trying to do, just a space, a resource, to teach what my teacher Paul Harvey had taught me and what I had discovered along the way and find great value in, and pass on this helpful stuff that I was privileged to be able to have time to study and practice.
Before starting the studio in 2009 I had a good job that I enjoyed and was teaching yoga part-time in the evenings in the church hall. I didn’t really have plans to start a yoga studio. But one morning I was early to an appointment with my hairdresser on Park Row, so was hanging around near her salon and noticed to sign advertising a space that was for rent. A great place for a yoga studio, right in the centre of Bristol. I recounted this to my hairdresser as I was in her chair and she mentioned that their basement was unused and I should take a look. I did and the seed of YogaSpace was planted. The yoga centre at 10 Park Row opened a couple of months later.
At first it was just me teaching classes. Then once the yoga centre started, many teachers approached me to be able to teach there. Naomi started up her Tuesday evening classes which she still runs now. I navigated the changing yoga landscape as best I could as the eclectic practice styles became more popular. I found some wonderful people along the way, and hopefully have offered teachings and classes that the students of YogaSpace have found helpful and valuable and created a studio space that the teachers have enjoyed teaching in.
Push yourself, or restore yourself? Or neither...
Eventually though my heart was less and less in it as I found myself managing a centre and lots of other teachers and having less time for my own teaching and study. And also finding that the style of modern yoga practice was changing in a direction that I didn’t feel aligned to. It felt more and more fueled by the need to exert, sweat and push ourselve, or on the flip side of that, to relax and restore. To ‘get’ somewhere with our practice rather than discover what we already have.
How to 'open your heart'?
Yoga seemed to be becoming more physical in what was being taught, more entertaining for people who come to class, physically challenging as the primary focus, creatively expressive and freeform, maybe with a sprinkling of yoga philosophy and perhaps esoteric symbolism. I kept coming across romantic sounding notions such as ‘opening your heart’ (metaphorically and symbolically interesting when presented thoughtfully and with context but otherwise a phrase that in my opinion needs further examination). I needed a rethink of what I was spending my time doing. My compass felt a little off kilter. I had somehow found myself hosting and promoting classes that while enjoyable and of use to those who attend, I didn’t personally love.
Paul Harvey's yoga centre, Yoganjali
Then my teacher, Paul Harvey, decided to pass on his yoga studio as he was going to be primarily teaching smaller groups and 121 yoga ongoing and didn’t have need of a larger studio space. His beautiful studio, Yoganjali, established in 1998 and where I had taken my teacher training was in need of a new owner. It’s an ideal space, down a quiet cul-de-sac in the heart of Bishopston. If you could design a yoga studio from scratch, this would be it - beautiful, quiet, simple, functional, warm, light, tranquil, and just off a bustling high street. My personal history with yoga was embedded here, steeped in the tradition of Krishnamacharya and Desikachar.
No brand names or styles
So here I am, now based at Bristol YogaSpace in Bishopston, with like-minded teachers, without a brand name or ‘styled’ yoga approach, just simple, breath-centred yoga orientated towards personalised yoga practice, taught in small groups or 121. And I love it.
Good luck to Bristol Yoga Centre!
Naomi I’m sure will do a wonderful job with Bristol Yoga Centre. It is a lovely studio space and I loved the 7-years I spent there building a vibrant yoga community. I miss the teachers and students and I’m sure our paths will continue to cross, but I love where I find myself. I’ve gone back to my roots of teaching what I have a firm conviction about, and returning to study with Paul Harvey for the rest of the year. This time around, I’m hoping to keep my compass more aligned and closer to my heart. I wish Naomi and all those adventurers out there happy travels and very best wishes with all the other wonderful stuff!
All forms of practice have their place at different times in life, and finding what suits you at is a very personal decision. The adaptable nature of viniyoga means it changes with you as your life changes, rather than requiring that you strive to sustain the same standardised forms of practice. Viniyoga is sustainable and supportive as you deepen your yoga practice over the years.
The British Wheel of Yoga is an organisation that offers yoga teacher training and accreditation, and a good standard of teacher training. It is the national governing body for yoga and the largest yoga membership organisation in the country. It ensures a minimum standard of teacher training so that the teacher is experienced enough and knowledgeable enough to safely run a group yoga class for the wide range of participants that each class attracts. Many teacher training courses these days are available to take as 1-6 month intensives however the British Wheel still maintains that 2-years is the minimum time period to fully explore, train and prepare to become a yoga teacher. Part of the yoga teachers job is to guide participants to move beyond their familiar physical and mental comfort zone and to do this safely is key to good teaching. They also require annual continual professional development have a good quarterly magazine.
Anyway, I'm looking forward to teaching at the annual yoga teacher conference and hope to see you there!
See Clara's group yoga class schedule >
Do you know anyone who isn't busy? Really busy? Chances are you have a long list of things to do (once you've done all the things you need to do). And once you've done that, you'll find something else to keep you busy.
Radio 4 recently had a short article on how we are 'addicted' to being busy and I have to say it rang very true. As a society, it is almost a badge of achievement to say your really busy. We value you, the idea of doing, achieving, getting more things done. Really it is easier to be busy than to not be busy. But are 'busy' things distracting us from bigger objectives?
We're so used to our time being filled that I'm not sure we'd be entirely comfortable with having nothing to do. When we might actually get a chance to turn our attention beyond the daily distractions. Unfortunately stress, health dilemmas, being 'burnt out' are all modern day results. And what have we really achieved?
The idea that we are too busy to take care of ourselves, to maintain a balance in our lives between doing, achieving, and being and experiencing is a conversation we should probably all have with ourselves along our journey - regularly. Yoga practice, and other meditative practices try to encourage moving away from 'doing' and entering a state of 'being' as a regular habit. To become familiar with other aspects of our lives and see what arises as we do this. At least weekly, preferably daily, try simply 'being' for 5 or 10 minutes. Try sitting, gazing, breathing, meditating, a moving meditation such as yoga, whatever you like. Try it and see what happens...
Yoga offers us a chance to take practices that will help make our body and mind stronger, more stable and less rigid and allow them to come back to a more harmonious and well-balanced state of being.
If you're a beginner to yoga, you may have an advantage to those experienced in yoga practice in some ways. You come to class being open and curious to what is about to happen. The uncertainty of not knowing what you are going to be doing in your class, the unfamiliar postures and ways of breathing all demand an attention and a focus to pull it off. There is an openness and natural effort, and less expectation. These are qualities that are essential ingredients in cultivating a healthy body and mind and enabling all that yoga has to offer to unfold for us.
Without the right attitude of attention and alertness in our yoga practice, our mind and body will stay in its usual patterns. Most of us are creatures of habit -- we're slouching, breathing poorly, thinking about the same old stuff (e.g. what is for dinner or mentally shopping for whatever has captured our attention...) -- all habits that we aim to improve upon through yoga practice.
Once we become experienced at yoga breathing, posture, technique and focus we can lose that fresh edge and that natural effort. We can become comfortable, perhaps complacent, or develop additional unhelpful habits rather than less.
The freshness of the beginner practitioner is a gift and something experienced practitioners may need to remind themselves of when they take yoga practice. Those with experience can become mechanical and repetitive as they practice during class, missing the potential of each posture and each breath. Being fully present in your practice, is part of the practice. The full physical and mental harmony available by taking simple practices, can be missing for the experienced practitioner.
As beginners to yoga we often feel like we don't know what we are doing. We should see this as a gift. Familiarity in yoga postures, breathing and the mechanics of meditation techniques can be a double edged sword. Trying to maintain a 'beginners perspective' will help to benefit more fully from each practice.
Is the picture above simply another beautiful sunset, simliar to ones you have seen before? The initial impression may suggest this because of the familiarity of such images - but remind yourself to see it with fresh eyes, as if for the first time. A wonderous, unexplored moment in time with untold beauty on this amazing planet, and an unexplored day to follow. Beginners eyes can discover so much more.
Beginners and those with experience, a reminder to bring along your beginners mind to your yoga practice.
Have a clear out
Have a physical clear out. Sort out a room, a cupboard, perhaps even just a drawer. Empty it out and only put back the things that you use and need. Creating physical space is a wonderful way of feeling more spacious internally too.
Let go of something old
We need to let go of something old first. Perhaps move on from a commitment, a habit, a club, a stagnant relationship, anything that feels like it isn't positive any longer and not worth reinvesting in. Re-assess your commitments and see what would be worth replacing with something more positive and vibrant.
Take a moment to count your blessings. Feeling grateful each day is a wonderful practice to cultivate. It enables you to appreciate what you have, to re-envigorate your enthusiasm for them, and importantly, to break the cycle of always wanting something that you don't have. Gratitude can help you feel more spacious and avoiding taking on more things that you may not actually need. Hey, I have opposable thumbs, thank you!
Move and breath
Yoga and other embodied meditative practices are wonderful at creating a feeling of physical and mental space. They support you to physically become stronger and de-compress yourself, enabling your body to be more more stable and move more easily and naturally - ie. feeling more spacious. Easing out tensions, stresses and blocks enables us to feel more comfortable with ourselves. And using the mental discplines of breath focus, moving and still meditations to allow us to let go of unhelpful thought patterns and feel mentally spacious and open are all essential to our wellbeing.
Notice the present moment
Practice being in the present moment more often. We often spend our days carrying around old memories and worries, or bring along anticipations and fears of the future, and perhaps feel burdened and weighed down. Try letting go of these and practice appreciating and fully experiencing each day and moment as it unfolds.
I always love reflecting on the Dalai Lamas 18 rules for living this time of year too.
Happy new year!
Sunday is World Yoga Day as designated by the United Nations. The UN "recognises the holistic benefits of this timeless practice and its inherent compatibility with the principles and values of the United Nations."
The system of yoga was developed thousands of years ago and has been one of India's greatest gifts to the world.
The human body and mind work far better with with regular use, and yoga offers a system of exercises, practices and teachings to enable the body and mind to achieve the greatest health possible.
Some of the practices are rather esoteric and may not suit our western culture as well, but many of the teachings and practices are applicable to everyone and a great way of improving our health, strength, energy, awareness and becoming able to live a full life. Tune the instrument of your body and mind and see what becomes possible.
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1) Listen to your body and be comfortable
Make sure you feel comfortable in all the poses and during breathing or meditation. Adjust to use more blocks in postures or perhaps a chair is a useful support, and talk to the teacher about how to make it comfortable if it isn't. Encourage yourself to take easier alternatives if you are feeling tired or overwhelmed, especially during your third trimester.
2) Take extra care in your practice
If you are a beginner, then this will be easier for you as you'll be approaching the practice with less expectations. But if you are an experienced yoga practitioner, you may need to focus on practicing in a new way, changing old habits of yoga practice, and perhaps even letting go of your favourite pose while your pregnant. Your body is changing, daily, and your postures will need to adapt to this, both in the choice of posture, and in how you do them. Of course you still want to stay strong and supple during your pregnancy to avoid common aches and pains, but be careful to avoid over stretching (see below) or straining.
3) Make space for your baby
Stand with the feet wider than your hips and be careful not to squash your baby-bump or feel any pulling in the abdominal area. Forward bends are still wonderful to practice as long as you keep the legs wider, bend the knees and go as far as feels right for you and feel comfortable doing them. Avoid deep twists in the abdomen, keep any twisting lighter and 'above the bra strap' so your shoulders are twisting comfortably, but not your belly. Consider twisting in ways that leave more space in the belly area. Don't push yourself into anything.
4) Start any time after 13 weeks
The sooner you start, the more benefit you will gain and any time from 14 weeks is a safe time to join in unless advised otherwise. And you can continue all the way through as long as you feel good and keep enjoying the practice.
5) Keep your spine strong and healthy
Keeping your back in great shape will help support you all the way through your pregnancy. Focus on keeping your spine lengthened in asana (postures) and use your 'chin lock' (jalandara bandha) to help keep your spine and back of the neck long. Ask your teacher if your not sure of course!
6) Be careful of over stretching
Your body is producing a hormone called Relaxin during your pregnancy which makes you feel more flexible. You might find you can stretch further than usual, but don't be tempted to take advantage of this extra stretch. Your tendons and ligaments won't thank you later if you stretch too far. Don't stretch 100% in anything, hold back a little and be less ambitiious.
7) Engage your pelvic floor
Great to tone this area to facilitate post natal recovery. On the exhale, think about lifting and engaging your pelvic floor.
8) Avoid straining the abdomen
Approach leg lifting carefully, especially if you feel any pelvis discomfort. Listen to the advice of your mid-wife if you any discomfort in your abdomen or pelvis, it might mean you need special consideration in your yoga practice so talk to your teacher.
9) Choose your class carefully
Your yoga teacher should have specialist pregnancy training, but you don't need a specialist pregnancy class unless you want one. (The British Wheel of Yoga offer a good standard of accreditation for pregnancy yoga training).
A good class should be small enough so that the teacher can adjust the poses to ensure they are suitable as your body will change through each week of your pregnancy.
The class can either be a general class that will adjust the poses for you, or a specialist pregnancy class, whichever you prefer.
If your tired, consider a daytime yoga practice when you have more energy.
If you have special needs, consider a private lesson or two first to give you some guidelines on safe practice.
10) Enjoy the class
Yoga practice should feel enjoyable and leave you feeling energised, revitalised, relaxed and calm. You can keep it up as long as it feels good and doesn't leave you feeling over tired. Enjoy...
See more on yoga classes during pregnancy here.
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