Practicing safely and effectively

Recently, a friend of mine who also happened to be in the YTT course texted me over a startling revelation that went,

“So different from what we always been told in class. It was a lot better alignment wise. Basically now I wouldn’t get injuries as easily as in the past and can hold longer”

My quick reply to her was, “all this while you were killing yourself without knowing”. Exaggerated, yet not entirely untrue, and I began to think about alignment in our asanas, as well as our entry into and exit out of the pose.

How many times as beginners did we follow the person beside us in class, only to find out many classes later that the alignment, placement of hands/feet were entirely off? Or those times as intermediate practitioners where we held the pose for just a few seconds, and exited the pose in an abrupt manner?

In Sanskirt, the meaning of asanas is “to take seat here”, suggesting the steady, stable and motionless nature of the pose. One of the problems I face during class is that I cannot follow instructions as I find difficulty in following the cues step by step. Instructors give instructions A, B, C, D and E. And the challenge, not just to follow instructions in the order it was said, but also to maintain all instructions together. For example, in Virabhadrasana I, after squaring my hips and lengthening my spine, is my thigh still parallel to the floor?

Yet, these cues all aid us to enter and exit the pose safely, and to efficiently hold our asanas poses with the right muscles engaged effectively. The benefit is then apparent that there is much to engage and follow for a safe and fulfilling practice.

Conscious breathing

When I first started practicing yoga, my go-to class was vinyasa.

Vinyasa consists of the Sunskrit words (1) Vi – “in a special way”; and (2) Nyasa – “to place”. I remember an instructor explained it prior to starting the class, that on top of the specific positions of your hands, feet and body, even your inhale and exhale as well as drishti (gaze) mattered. The entirety sounded simple, since it was a mere following of instructions.

Quite the contrary. When asanas were harder to hold, my mind wandered off thinking of happy thoughts, and so did my breath. At times, I fumbled over poses, and forgot – “was it an inhale or an exhale when I twist my body?” As a beginner practising yoga by holding asana poses, I felt the breath was secondary to my movement and drishti. Gradually as my practise deepened, so did my appreciation for proper breathing in yoga.

Just as a quick guide:

  • Inhale when you lengthen or open your body to encourage expansion.
  • Exhale to deepen your pose or twist your body to encourage retraction.
  • Also: in vinyasa, one breath one movement.

The introduction of conscious breathing should help ease into asana poses, as well as to deepen your focus and awareness.

Yoga for everyone

Do you have this moment during a yoga class:

You’ve been attempting a pose for quite a few months already. You’re always taking the modified version – either cause you have tight or weaker muscles. One day you have this moment where you could finally hold the asana pose.

:O

I mentioned this because one of the many reasons people are resistant to practicing yoga is because they lack flexibility. Yet it is because we are not flexible, that we could use yoga to encourage flexibility in the body. After all, we could all use improvement in mobility in our muscles even as we age.

Another misconception that causes people to be resistant is because they googled a picture of an intermediate asana pose and had a tiny shock. The thought must be that yoga is for those flexible and strong. Since our bodies are all different, yoga is a multi-level activity. Props (straps and blocks) as well as easier options are always available till you reach that moment in yoga class I mentioned earlier – where one day you can finally hold the full asana pose.

More exciting is that yoga is a multi-level activity, there are always ways to continuously challenge yourself. You can opt for advance variations for each pose or try a different pose that stretches or strengthens your muscles more, or even do the same pose everyday but with greater flexibility and strength demonstrated.

My WIP: Meditation

One of my work-in-progress is to sit still.

Top two instances I have issues with this: (1) Yin class; and more importantly, (2) for meditation. The latter being the more problematic one for me. Within minutes, my thoughts would drift, and soon my perfectly alright body would suddenly have an itch somewhere or a sudden muscle ache that calls out to me to shift my limbs.

Surely, I can’t be the only one thinking of lunch during meditation?

A definition provided by Cambridge of the word meditation is:

If you meditate, you give your attention to one thing, and do not think about anything else, usually as a religious activity or as way of calming or relaxing your mind.

In yoga, we focus on the latter. Start the practice with a point of focus. On top of feeling relaxed, focus your thoughts around themes, such as peace or joy. Breath in and out for approximately six counts. And as with asanas, a starting ground would be to meditate for 5 minutes first, preferably (but not strictly) in the morning. You could start by complimenting your yoga practice with meditation, either before or after your activity. If your thoughts drift, slowly bring your thoughts back to your set theme.

When you’re able to meditate independently without yoga, lengthen the meditation practice.