2020 was a year like no other. It was completely unexpected and included things I never thought I would do in my life.
An incredible year
Given all the limits and constraints of the year, I found it incredible in many ways. Some things of course I'm hoping we move on from. But I've learned so much, and continue to learn from all that has been thrown at us.
My meditation practice allows me a welcome space to sit with the tragedy of the year, and the heightened visibility of inequality and privilege demonstrated through the virus's progression through different communities and countries and the BLM movements. A clear re-evaluation of life and what to do with the privilege that I have is an ongoing project.
Perhaps we've all come to value our health and way of life more than ever before. We can more easily recognise the gifts of our health and our privilege and ensure we use these gifts well in our daily lives.
Start small, for achievable and sustainable progress. From how we make ourselves more resilient in our own health, through our lifestyle and dietary choices, to how we interact with others and treat our neighbours and engage with our local communities.
My top tips for every day:
There are lessons for each of us from 2020. If any positives are to come of last year, let's find them and take them to heart.
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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