Yoga is a set of practices but also, it is an area of study. The practices that we embody - the movements and postures, the breath and the meditative supports - can be wonderful to simply experience and do. No prior knowledge needed. But as your experience and understanding develops the richer it becomes, As an adjunct to the practices is the understanding, the context and the wider practices of yoga, which are rooted in a rich, broad, deep and ancient tradition. Not something you get to grips with in a group class generally (try one of my Bristol-based yoga workshops or Foundation Courses to find out more about this).
The Association of Yoga Studies (AYS) of which I'm a teaching member, is a viniyoga community that meets every year and comes together for a weekend of wonderful yoga workshops. This weekend just past was our annual convention with an inspiring theme on Yoga and Music led by Ravi Shankar and Sheela Shankar from India. They are both long-time yoga scholars trained directly by Desikachar and Sheela is an accomplished classical Indian singer. They shared the most beautiful and subtle approach to yoga practice through sound, song, chant and ancient Vedic poetry. Sheela delightfully performed songs for us and then led us skillfully in ancient chanting practices. While Ravi gave us eloquent context and history around the chants that we practiced.
As always with the teaching conventions, I've come away inspired to explore these subtle practices in my personal practice and feel re-rooted in the tradition of yoga. It is such a privilege to be welcomed into this warm and generous community all brought together by the legacy of the humble, honest and rigorous teachings of TKV Desikachar.
What I love about the teachings in this weekend's community, is that your never more than a breath away from a reference to the Yoga Sutras or the Vedas. The ancient traditions are maintained with a thread of understanding that is brilliantly woven through the workshops and brought to life through the teacher. The interpretation of yoga hasn't been recycled so many times without reference to the original teachings, that it is barely recognisable as yoga at all (as is common in many modern yoga teaching approaches). Refreshing, inspiring, grounding and beautiful.
Chanting sublimely embodies a timelessness that is hard to find in other yoga practices. The chanting of a song that was written millennia ago, chanted to the same clear, strict rules which means it sounded the same then as it does now (if your teacher is as skilled as Sheela Shankar) bringing you to the exact same point as the people who chanted it before you, The sounds, the breath and focus required to maintain the ability to chant in Sanskrit, the acute listening and heightened senses, the connection to that which is timeless, And the awareness that of course life hasn't changed that much. The outward appearance and experience is unrecognisable, but our internal experience is still on the same path and these teachings which were so valuable then, are still available to help make life and living better. Love it!!
Recently, on BBC Radio Bristol's 'Clueless' program, we were invited to be their special 'mystery' destination for their clue-led treasure hunt. Through a series of cryptic clues, callers had to ring in to the program and help find the location of the mystery place - US! All clues led to Bristol YogaSpace and once we were found I chatted with the show presenters where we laugh about the difficulties of starting out with yoga. Take a listen. We talk about breath-centred yoga practice which we specialise in at Bristol YogaSpace.
It is always interesting to hear about someone's first experience of yoga like the presenter in the radio chat who felt like she might never go back. She found her first class too challenging -- so for a long-term and sustainable practice, it probably isn't a good starting point. You want to have a good experience, feel engaged in what you are doing, revitalised by a positive experience, but not so challenged that you might not continue.
There is always a good starting place, and in yoga, there is always something you can do, now matter what your age or physical ability. This starting point will be different for each of us depending on our lifestyle and constitution A group class typically starts with body movements and breathwork but if your body isn't well or strong, then other starting points might be a better route for your yoga practice. But hopefully the presenter will find a class that she finds enjoyable and engaging, and something she can't wait to do again.
Maybe you first tried it through a YouTube video or DVD (my first experience was through a video cassette!). Or perhaps you tried a yoga class, or had a more meditative yoga experience, perhaps a podcast or guided audio practice. There are so many ways to first experience yoga.
Don't be disheartened if you try it and it doesn't feel right. Each teacher will teach what they found helpful and important so finding a teacher you feel comfortable with and aligned too, who can support you through the initial stages of your developing yoga skills will help you get the most benefit from yoga.
Please do get in touch if we can help you get started, whether in a group class or with private lessons to discover and develop your journey with yoga.
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”
Mindfulness - to be mindful. To be aware of each moment and to act with intention.
Christmas - beyond the religious festival it is to fill stockings, make plans, see friends and family, plan menus, arrange travel, eat wonderful rich foods etc. It's busy, fun, tiring, stressful, overindulgent, exciting, a whirlwind ... a mix of many things.
For many people, trying to maintain a sense of mindfulness when life gets hectic is a challenge most of us struggle with. Those who go to a yoga class will already have a headstart in maintaining a mindful attitude. To practice yoga is to develop a mindful body and movement with mindful breath.
Maintaining a mindful approach helps you to enjoy the whirlwind. To experience joy and gratitude for the festivities all around us. It is all too easy miss if your too busy to notice.
To help you remain mindful try setting aside as little as 5 minutes each day to re-set your intentions. Sit quietly, perhaps alone, or over a quiet cup of tea. Do nothing else except gaze softly at a blank wall, table, or natural object and settle your gaze there gently, or close your eyes. Notice your breathing, and connect with yourself for a short while. Note your intentions for the day and resolve to pursue them. Try this for 5 minutes each day through the Christmas period.
Try not to get carried away in the potential whirlwind but to stay connected to what is important to you and to enjoy the moments. If you find yourself feeling too rushed or stressed, take a few deep breaths and ask yourself 'what would my 'mindful self' do?', and then act.
Remember to take time to enjoy your Christmas festivities. Keep up some yoga or other grounding practice if you can. And see you in class in the new year.
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Each week in my yoga classes in Bristol, I see people come in to class feeling tired, perhaps agitated by their day, and usually more than a little lack lustre.
When they leave, there is a noticeable difference in how they seem. They are usually settled, calmer, and more comfortable in themselves. A better version of themselves. They have changed.
During the class we move the body, opening, expanding, stretching, challenging, engaging and working the entire body in some way. We breathe fully, slowing and extending the breath where possible. And we try to focus internally and our breath.
I came across a fascinating talk by Amy Cuddy recently called 'Your body language shapes who you are'.
Amy is a social psychologist. She researches body language at Harvard Business School and she was interested in researching how body language not only effects other people's perceptions of us, but how it actually effects our own body chemistry.
In her research she concluded that by standing up tall with the feet apart and with the arms raised and open for only 2 minutes daily, we can raise our testosterone levels (dominance hormone giving a confident outlook), and reduce cortisol levels (stress hormones). Simply by changing our body position in this way, we are altering our hormones and brain chemistry. We are changing ourselves to not only feel but become more powerful, confident and laid back.
In yoga classes it is very likely that you'll do a lot of arm raising like she describes, standing with the feet apart, reaching up, opening up. Also combining this with bending forwards, twisting and so on. So her research suggests that we are actually changing ourselves and our hormones in a very real way by doing this.
I took two things from Amy Cuddy's inspiring talk
- firstly, that yoga postures seem very aligned to the body changes she talks about, and that by doing them you'll actually become more confident and laid back.
- and secondly, that only a little practice, taken regularly, can make a big difference!
Pass it on...
PS. I love TED Talks!
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I've recently been inspired by reading about minimalism as an approach to living. I've been enjoying how it reflects many values that I hold close, and that I've been cultivating through my study and practice of yoga. It has also inspired me to have a really good clear out of my home!
The idea of living simply with less to enjoy life more is one that has taken more prominence for me since becoming a yoga teacher. I teach viniyoga - yoga that is applied carefully and adapted to suit those who are participating. Viniyoga embodies a minimalist approach to yoga practice. It doesn't require a super heated yoga studio, or any special kit (no blocks, belts, bolsters or even mats required). Nor does it require a certain level of fitness or skill to participate. All you need is you, your body, your breath, and your attention. In fact this is why it initially appealed to me. I wanted to start practicing yoga at home but found the foam blocks, folding chair, bolster, strap and bricks used in class rather unwieldy and off-putting to home practice, and questioned how essential they really were. Upon discovering the simplicity of viniyoga I was hooked, home practice became encouraged, and there has been no looking back.
I often do use a sticky yoga mat, but at home I'm equally happy practicing on a carpet (or even floorboards if necessary as I did last week when I was away but it's a little less comfortable). I use my body's own weight to create resistance to help strengthen and energise as I practice the various postures (asana) of yoga.
Viniyoga has a minimalist approach to the repertoire of asana usually practiced. At it's core there are a carefully selected set of primary asana, each serving an important purpose. These asana are gradually explored in further and further depth, with a deepening emphasis on breath and focus and techniques around these as the practice advances. This makes it a very accessible form of yoga practice as you can deepen your yoga practice and continue to develop without the need for a gymnast's or dancer's body. Let's face it, if you started practicing yoga as an adult, that isn't a realistic ambition for most people.
And beyond the daily bodywork and breathwork to maintain and develop our health, yoga cultivates mindful compassionate living, minimising the dependence on material attributes in our lives so that we have space to spend each day in an enjoyable, meaningful way. A wonderful way to live with amazing potential.
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Yep, Halls menthol sweets are being marketed as a way to stay cool and calm all through the summer, not just when you have a cold.
Breathing deeply, especially exhaling deeply are great at settling and calming yourself (just take a deep breath and see) and integral to yoga practice. So interesting to see sweet manufacturers are catching on.
Although not supporting taking sugar throughout the day to stay calm using breathing in this way is great!
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Running the Bristol Half Marathon this Sunday?
What you learn on the yoga mat either at your group class or in your own home yoga practice can be invaluable to help keep you injury free, focused, motivated, energised and able to stay the distance. Here are some top-tips:
1) Tall posture
Yoga practice often starts by standing on the mat, focusing on standing with awareness, with attention and length in the spine, having an open chest, and then relaxing your shoulders and breathing deeply. Bring this feeling of readiness yet relaxation into your pre-run preparation and take some deep breathes to stay focused and relaxed. Stand with both feet evenly supporting you and be aware of the shift of balance from side to side of the feet and body. This awareness of balance can carry on through into your running to help keep you centred and grounded for the duration of the run.
2) Stay aware to prevent injury
It is easy to become part of the crowd and lose your internal awareness, meaning your perhaps not listening to your body and maybe accumulating tension into your running. This is when injuries are far more likely. Stay focused and aware of your running and how your body is responding. Keep aware of how your breathing is, and try to relax and let go of any tension as you notice it coming into the body. During the run, every 10 minutes or so, spend 10 breaths checking that you are breathing well, with a good exhalation, that your shoulders and body are relaxed, and that your posture isn't starting to collapse as you become tired. Reenergise yourself and keep your focus going.
3) Open your chest to breathe
Breathing properly is very important to ensure your body is working at its optimum, and many people only use a portion of their full breath, meaning their bodies have to work harder. As you tire, everything wants to collapse downwards, including your chest and shoulders. Or perhaps you become tense and your full capacity for breathing 'seizes up' as you will yourself on. Keep your chest open, shoulders back and relaxed, shoulder blades down, arms and hands relaxed. Maintaining this openess will enable optimal breathing.
4) Take time to exhale
Your yoga practice will have taught you to exhale completely, and this takes time and practice. If you become out of breathe during running, it usually is because your not breathing out deeply enough. Focus on your exhale, breathe out from the belly drawing your belly button in towards the spine, take a few deeper exhales and than relax into a breathing rhythm that allows full exhalation.
5) Some Downward Facing Dog
After the run, fully stretching will help your recovery and leave you in less discomfort the next day. Include some time spent in downward facing dog as this can be great for stretching your calves, hamstrings and your back. Stay in the pose for at least 8 full breathes (breathing slowly), longer if comfortable for you. Each inhalation spend time lengthening the spine and extending the hips away from the shoulders, each exhalation allowing the legs to take a little more of the stretch. Taking some time to relax and stretch here to help your recovery from the run. (Not advis
Most of all, enjoy your run and good luck!
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I'm regularly asked to help people choose a Yoga class that will suit them. There are lots of styles, and flavours on offer in Bristol, so here are a few pointers and guidelines to help get you started: Please feel free to get in touch for more information.
Different styles of yoga offer different degrees of either physical or mental challenge and discipline or more entertainment (music etc.). What are you interested in initially? Do you want to get fit, find some calm and mental space, learn how to meditate, reduce stress, lose weight, reduce stiffness, become more grounded and centred, ease tension, aches and pains, relax more, have a physical or emotional injury that you want to improve, explore something beyond everyday life? Yoga can do all of this and more. Your personal interests will help direct which class would be most suitable. See the styles of yoga below to see where you might want to start.
Try some yoga classes
There isn't really any substitute for trying the class to see if you enjoy it and get along with the teacher as it is such a personal experience. Even if your friend loves the class, it just might not suit you. Try classes out until you find one you really want to go back to. Most yoga teachers are happy for you to come along and try their class and see if it is right for you. You are much more likely to stick with it if you find a class and a teacher you are happy with. Classes vary hugely, so don't be put off from yoga if you go to a class and it wasn't what you expected or didn't enjoy it. But don't shop around forever, at some point, you should commit to a class to gain not only breadth of practice but depth to your practice.
Talk to the yoga teacher
Every teacher is different and will focus their class on what they understand is important. Talk to them to see if it fits with what you are after and if they have the skills to work with any special needs you may have. All yoga teachers are passionate about what they do but not all of the have the skills or experience to guide or teach others well.
Enjoy the class
Sounds obvious, but some people enjoy endurance and believe in the old adage 'no pain no gain'.
The class should leave you feeling refreshed, revitalised, relaxed, energised, calm, settled and more positive. An overall good feeling that should speak for itself and make you want to continue. If you didn't enjoy it, or feel unwell or are in pain, feel frustrated, unsettled, uncomfortable, competitive, agitated, then perhaps the class doesn't suit you or try talking to the teacher. The effects can be accumulative so be sure it is serving you well.
Feel comfortable with the teacher
You should feel comfortable in the class, and confident in the teacher so you can immerse yourself in the yoga practice. You should feel able to ask your teacher questions (before or after class usually or get his/her attention during the class) to help support you. As a beginner, or as you begin to deepen your practice and potentially encounter obstacles, a supportive and experienced teacher will help you work through these.
Find a regular class and commit to it
Regular practice with a teacher who you get to know, is really important to gradually develop and deepen the benefits and practice safely. Finding a yoga class that is convenient for you to get to, and is at a time that you can usually make, will give you the best chance of sticking with it. when getting started.
Once you have found a class that you enjoy and are becoming regular in your practice, avoid continuing to 'shop around' for a yoga class and commit to staying at least a few months with your class (if not years!). Continuing to scoot around to lots of different classes will keep you working with great breadth and variety, but it will be at the detriment to the depth and refinement of your practice.
Relaxing class or challenging class?
Should you take a more challenging, intense or difficult class (either physically or mentally) or a more gentle yoga class? Or find one that is somewhere in the middle. This is where classes vary the most and finding something that suits you and suits your lifestyle is really important..
If you are relatively healthy and fit, then a more physically challenging class may suit you. If you are interested in meditation and breath focus then some classes offer physical and breath/mental challenge too, beyond just the physical aspects, and are well worth seeking out. If you already have a really busy lifestyle and are a fast-paced person, then perhaps consider exploring a more calming, supportive Yoga class that will help balance your life. You might find yourself typically attracted to a strong, intense yoga class (e.g. Bikram yoga, Vinyasa Flow yoga or Ashtanga yoga), but this might be counterproductive. After a few months/years you could find it leaves you feeling 'burnt out'. Consider trying a different approach as a counterbalance to your usual pace and lifestyle and see what happens. Stick with it, avoid being drawn by entertainment and see what hidden depths yoga can offer you.
If you have an injury or medical condition, then a smaller class where the focus is on safe alignment and modifying the practice to suit each person in the class is recommended, with a well trained teacher who understands your condition.
If your lifestyle is quite sedentary, perhaps your not too motivated or feel lethargic or suffer from depression, then perhaps a more uplifting and energising class to switch your pace could be helpful. Start gradually and work within your physical abilities, especially at first, and see what the results bring over the months / years.
Well trained teacher
Yoga is a vast and ancient body of knowledge. There is much to study and as yoga teachers we are always learning more. Along with the many Yoga postures, there are many breathing techniques that are learned over time, Yoga philosophy, anatomy and physiology, and lots more besides. We recommend at least two years teacher training to even begin to get to grips with the basics and be able to teach and adapt the class safely to suit the participants. Then the teachers experience, depth of knowledge (not just breadth) and their refinement of that knowledge and skill are all important. Organisations such as the British Wheel of Yoga provide accreditation to meet this standard. (They are the only Yoga body to be approved by Sport England).
Styles of yoga class
Here are a few 'types' or flavours of class to help orientate you. They are all Yoga and all dealing with the same things but might feel different and focus on slightly different aspects when you try them. So this is just a rough guide, feel free to add more descriptions below in a comment to help others choose a class...
~Hatha Yoga Classes~
Classic yoga postures which also incorporate a focus on the breathing and include relaxation. Variations on postures include staying in postures, or moving into them dynamically but more slowly. Classes can range from challenging to more gentle and relaxing so try the class or check with the teacher to see what they are teaching. They usually suit all levels from beginners so good for everyone. Most YogaSpace classes are a form of Hatha Yoga.
~Viniyoga Classes~ (what I teach)
Classic Yoga postures which include slow flowing movements and a close integration of breath. Generally small classes where the teacher will help adapt the postures to suit the students and will offer optional challenges as you progress. Focus on breathing and gradually deepening and developing the breath to intensify the practice when the student is ready. Good classes for all levels including beginners and working on specific goals and they are well trained teachers :-)
~Iyengar Yoga Classes~
Iyengar Yoga offers physically challenging classes where you hold classic yoga postures for a period of time to develop good strength. Strong focus on alignment, making use of equipment such as belts, blocks, bricks, chairs etc. to assist you in getting in to the posture. Less focus on breathing until a couple of years into your practice. Usually well trained teachers.
~Ashtanga Yoga Classes~
Ashtanga Yoga is a set sequence of dynamic movements which you learn over time and will work through each class. A physically demanding practice with focus on moving steadily with the breath. Physically demanding and some quite extreme yoga poses. Good level of commitment required as you need to keep this up regularly to be able to do it. Good for physical and mental stamina and an intense experience. Go carefully, especially at first.
~Bikram Yoga Classes~
Hot Yoga classes, offering a set sequence of 26 postures practiced in a hot (super-hot!) humidified room where students sweat and work hard in each pose. Often beginners will sit out some poses and just enjoy (?!) the intense heat and humidity. Teachers have learned a set class formula which Bikram Choudhury developed and has taught to all his teachers during their 9-week intensive teacher training programme. An intense experience.
~Vinyasa Flow Yoga Classes~
Dynamic movements linking poses together and flowing the movements with the breath. Often a physically challenging and focusing practice which requires some coordination to join in and keep up. Some classes are quite fast, some involve music, some are very creative and expressive, good coordination needed to practice this safely. Variable teacher training, some good but some can be trained in only a month or few months so recommend finding out.
Try a class or a few classes and see how they suit you.
Please add more class descriptions or suggestions below to help others in finding the right class for them.
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