THE ABC’S OF STARTING YOUR YOGA PRACTICE
Many people dive into their yoga practice by buying funky leggings or a bamboo yoga mat. While these can be fun investments to make, it’s important to focus on your practice before its props and accessories.
The beauty of a yoga practice is that it’s personal to you and only really requires your body and attention.
Upon reflection of my personal practice, I’ve gathered some ideas and insights into how to begin and stay grounded in your yoga practice.
What is yoga all about?
Whether you’re brand new to yoga or consider yourself a seasoned yogi, your practice centers on three pillars: awareness, breathing, and communication.
Through yoga, you create a safe, open space to check in with yourself. Whether you practice at a studio, recreation centre, home, or elsewhere, practicing yoga means dedicating time and both physical and mental space to yourself.
Yogic poses (called asanas) and meditation techniques encourage you to acknowledge thoughts and feelings that arise without having to immediately act on them. This concentration cultivates inner perceptual awareness and creates a self-dialogue, as you learn to simply accept what you think and how you feel.
Accepting and practicing this inner dialogue improves your self-understanding and relationship, thus enhancing your emotional wellbeing.
This ultimately provides the foundation for personal acceptance, growth, and change.
Yoga’s emphasis on breath is what greatly separates it other forms of physical exercise.
Breathing links your mind and body, internal and external. Being attentive to your breath – something you might not usually notice – is paying closer attention to yourself.
Deep breathing techniques connect us to ourselves and offer many holistic benefits. Not only is it extremely calming; deep breathing can also prevent illness and injury and reduce mental issues like stress and anxiety.
During yoga, deep and controlled breathing acts to calm the nervous system (which controls our “fight-or-flight” response mechanism). This means that regulating your breath on the mat can help you to gain awareness and control of your emotional responses – wherever you are.
Through awareness and breath, your yoga practice ignites a self-dialogue and deepens your connection to yourself.
With an emphasis on feeling and connection, yoga empowers you to constantly check in with yourself. How does my body feel? How do I feel? What can I do to feel better – both on and off the mat?
We often perceive yoga as a kind of silent meditation – a way to quiet the mind – but the key is to welcome and pay attention to thoughts rather than shoo them away.
One of my first yoga teachers described yoga a “practice of inquiry.” I’ve found that that’s exactly what it is for me.
Our lives move quickly and we often neglect how we feel or where we are “in the midst of it all.” Yoga is a way for you to reconnect to that inner dialogue in order to find and care for yourself.
Now you know your ABC’s. Just remember:
You don’t have to be super flexible
When I became a yoga teacher, many of my friends admitted to me that they had never tried yoga because they “couldn’t touch their toes.” Statements like this disappointed me and willed me to teach beginners about the process of and journey through poses rather than the end or “final expression.”
Doing yoga is not about contorting yourself into a pretzel. A regular practice can gradually improve your flexibility, sure, but this shouldn’t be the prime focus.
A healthy body also requires strength and stability. I’ve seen far too many people push their bodies too far in order to twist further or get lower to the ground. It’s a great way to invite injury and frustration and to miss out on the holistic benefits of your practice.
Flexibility will come. For now, embrace where you are. Focus on how it feels rather than what it looks like. Like I said before, yoga is a practice of inquiry and exploration. It might feel a bit awkward initially because you’re moving outside of your comfort zone. Go with the flow – in your own way.
Listen to what your body tells you
Remember that whole “self-dialogue” thing we talked about? That definitely goes for listening to your body during your practice.
If you’re trying to move into a pose while your knee or shoulder feels like it’s screaming at you, your body is telling you “no” (though it might feel like “NO!!!!”).
When this happens, it could be because of a misalignment (i.e. a foot pointed in the wrong direction, a slouched back, a weight-bearing issue, etc.) or physical limitation. Don’t be afraid to use a prop or modification, ask for your teacher’s attention, or step out of a pose. Knowing and respecting your limits is key to safety, enjoyment, and health.
This same respect for your physical limits is important to other aspects of your life. If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to modify things, ask for help, or step away to do something else. Communicate with yourself to connect with and act upon what you need.
Yoga doesn’t only happen on the mat
When I started practicing yoga I knew I would learn a lot in the studio, but I never realized how much yoga would apply to life off the mat. I can’t count the number of times I’ve benefited from listening to my inner dialogue, adapting to change, or focusing on my breath in situations far from my yoga mat.
Los Angeles Yoga Teacher, Micheline Berry, believes that yoga’s power comes from its ability to change lives – both others and your own – off the mat. In her words, “Yoga is the unifying art of transforming dharma [principle] into action, be it through inspired thought, properly nurturing our children, a painting, a kindness or an act of peace that forever moves humanity forward.”
To this day, my yoga practice continues to open my eyes to new things – both on and off the mat – and allows me to explore them with awareness and confidence.
Ready to begin your practice?
Practice breathing (because you already do it!)
When holding or transitioning through poses, the most important thing to do in yoga is to breathe.
Where to begin:
You can start practicing yogic breathing by placing your hands on your stomach to focus on breathing deeply through your diaphragm. You should feel your belly rise as you take in breath (inhale) and retract or fall when you release (exhale). Breathe in and out through your nose for relaxed, yet control breathing.
Congratulations! You’ve just learned one of the three pillars of a yoga practice.
Set an intention
One of my first yoga teachers always said, “The why determines the how.” Center on your “why,” and the rest will come in time. This will also keep you grounded in and constantly coming back to your practice – especially when you feel frustrated or stagnant.
Where to begin:
Sit cross-legged (known as “easy pose”) or in a comfortable seated position and take a few minutes to think about why you want to practice yoga. Set aside any goals related to diving into a certain pose (at least for now) and focus your attention to your deeper intention. What do I want to learn? How do I want to grow? What benefits am I looking to gain?
Practice your intention
When I first started practicing yoga, my nerves and uncertainty made me stiff and uncomfortable in my body. Eventually, I shifted my intention to expressing myself rather than reaching the “final expression” of a pose. In doing so, I started seeking out creative classes and expressive teachers that would help me to stay centered on that mindset.
Where to begin:
Once you’ve set your intention, look for local (or online) teachers and classes with a style that feels right for you. Try them out and ask yourself how you feel afterward. Ask, Did that class help me practice my intention? If so, how? If not, keep looking.
[In my search, I found Adriene Mishler’s Yoga with Adriene series on YouTube. Her lighthearted “Find What Feels Good” teaching style encourages you to explore what’s accessible to help you gain confidence in your body and practice.]
End with Savasana
Savasana is known as “relaxation pose” or “corpse pose,” as it signifies the end of your practice. Savasana is often thought to be the most challenging part of the practice, as it generally incorporates 5-15 minutes of stillness. While challenging, this is a tool for tranquility and self-awareness, and is used to integrate your yoga practice into your life.
Where to begin:
At the end of your practice, lie on your back and consciously relax your body for 5-15 minutes. It’s not uncommon to struggle with silence and stillness, and there are a number of techniques and guided meditations that can walk you through physical and mental relaxation.
Check in with yourself during and after your practice.
How do you feel?
This question could consider physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual feelings.
What did you learn?
Did you learn a new pose, sequence, breathing technique (called pranayama), or perspective?
Did you deepen existing yogic or self-knowledge?
How did you grow?
Did you find yourself breathing more comfortably?
Did you accomplish a goal?
Did you practice your intention?
This is a great question to ask because it causes you to reconnect with your personal reasons for your practice.
Beginning a yoga practice can feel overwhelming. Keep it simply by focusing on gaining self-awareness, practicing deep breathing, and paying attention to your inner dialogue.
Do these things on and off the mat, and you’ll be well on your way.
Namaste, my friend.