Tips for Beginning or Maintaining Your Yoga Practice
Hello everyone! I hope you’re all doing well. I am feeling very calm after a lovely Saturday working at home and having just done a calming yin practice in my home space. My breath is stable, consistent and deep. My mind is at peace, slow, and there is SPACE. This is what Yoga does for me. Or at least, one of the things Yoga does for me.
Many people have asked me this question of late: I would love to begin practicing yoga, but I have no clue how to go about establishing and starting up a yoga practice, please could you share your top tips for how to do this?
So, instead of doing a Instagram story of some sorts, I thought it would be much more helpful to do a more detailed blog post about this very topic. Firstly, let me begin with what Yoga means to me (in brief) and why it’s important.
Yoga transformed my entire life, fully & totally. At first, I thought it was just about the physical practice, about the asanas (or physical postures). But, now I know better. Now I know that the depth of Yoga is infinite, it is infinite because it’s very design is to connect us to the Eternal energy, the Eternal essence of life itself. This is why it yokes, binds and unifies (which is the direct translation of Yoga). It enables total Union – unifying the spaces within us; allowing for an integrated wholeness of being. But also unifying us to the greater; allowing for us to move away from ideas of separation, disconnection and mental identification with things that are not us or that no longer serve us in pursuing our Truth.
Yoga creates space – physically through asanas, but also energetically, mentally and emotionally. This space is the space of total presence. This space allows us to move beyond the psychological content and fluffy narrative of the mind that can so often cause us so much distraction, suffering and essentially obscure our true natures’ from ourselves. This is tragic. To go through your whole life unaware of the space of infinite connection with the world and energies comprising and surrounding you is just heartbreaking. There is so much more love, depth, beauty, joy, bliss, and connection around us if we are willing to do the ‘work’ that allows us to clear the windscreen of our perception of reality. This is what Yoga enables us to do. Other things can bring us into a state of Union, such as that feeling when you’re in nature and feel the sense of space and connection with the world around and within you. Other things, too, such as that feeling after a lovely run that has cleared the mind. However, these things are fleeting. They offer momentary perceived space and Union. BUT, as quick as they bring forth that feeling, it dissipates because it hasn’t been mindfully and consciously cultivated through a deliberate practice whose sole purpose is to increase conscious awareness and focused attention to the present moment of aliveness by stilling the mind, connecting to the breath and releasing that which is not necessary to hold onto.
Yoga as we have come to understand it in the Western world is a class of asanas (physical postures) which often results in people thinking that Yoga is just exercise. Asanas are very important, as they help connect the mind & body to our Spirit. However, they are only one of the 8 limbs of Yoga. Only ONE. Yoga in its’ fullness is comprised of pranayama (breathing techniques), meditation, and a whole heap more than just the physical element of the practice. When I started to truly and deeply understand this small yet VERY SIGNIFICANT fact, my entire practice shifted. From one that was physical to one that was suddenly very much more deeply rooted in the awareness of the subtle energetic components that make this practice one of the most profound, healing and connective practices or channels. Yoga is all. Yoga is everything, for it is UNION with all that is in existence. Is that not just a beautiful understanding?
Many say that Western Yoga has moved too far away from the sacred tradition of Yoga in its’ fullness and authenticity. But, others - and I agree with these folk - believe that even if people get onto their mat for physical reasons initially and see it as only a physical practice: AT LEAST THEY ARE SHOWING UP. They are doing at least one of the limbs of the practice of Yoga and that is better than nothing in the journey of moving from ignorance and illusion to light and illumination and connection. They will come to understand the depth of Yoga when it is ready and ripe for them to move into that awareness. This enables a deeper sense of compassion and understanding for wherever people are in their individual journey towards Union. Only through showing and teaching the way from darkness to light, ignorance to awareness, will those in the dark move to the light: not through reprimand or judgement, criticism or feelings of inadequacy. So instead, acknowledge yourself and those around you for exactly where you/they are, because everyone starts somewhere.
Having said all of this, I would like to start a more in-depth yoga series on the blog. I have been doing a self-directed month of dedicated daily practice and self-study of the yoga texts, and I have absolutely been loving it. It’s really changed my practice and allowed for me to go a lot deeper. The thing with Yoga is that it really is very experiential – the theory helps and aids and deepens our understanding, but at the end of the day it is about practice practice practice and actually showing up on your mat and doing the ‘work’. What often used to happen with me was that I had fantastic intentions to do my daily practice, but I was still so identified with my mind (the mind that told me a run would satisfy the craving for connection to my body and mind) that I would often choose the “quick fix” of going for a run, telling myself that afterwards I would do some Yoga. Naturally, the Yoga didn’t always happen and thus my practice took a back seat. This month of dedicated self practice and self-study meant that I started to 100% prioritize my Yoga practice. So every time I felt that upsurge of the instant-gratification voice saying, “just go for a quick run rather, I have so much to do so just get in a quick run” I would instead get onto my mat and ‘do the work’. And by work, I mean doing that which needs to be done in order to further me on my journey of mindfulness and increased understanding of presence and stillness, because it isn’t actually work, ;). So this was a big learning curve for me: releasing the often compulsive desire to run, to pacify that dependent voice in my head, and to learn to sit in stillness and presence. I will be writing up a longer post about my total experience of the 1 month challenge, but for now, it’s suffices to say that it was illuminating and really showed me what I use as crutches in my day to day life.
ANYWAY, moving on to my top tips in starting a Yoga Practice ...
TOP TIPS TO BEGIN OR MAINTAIN YOUR PRACTICE:
1. TIME: One of my absolute top tips and shifts that really ended up being a huge game changer in me also becoming more dedicated to my practice was not always thinking that my practice had to be “minimum an hour long” or nothing. I have, in the past, (and am working on it in the present) had this tendency to lean towards extremes. Either I will go for an hour long run or nothing, I will do a 2-hour practice or nothing, either I would try to meditate for an hour or nothing. But often this would mean that if I couldn’t carve that time out for myself my practice would fall away completely. So, I became aware of this tendency and shifted my attitude and perception of things. I started to say to myself: even if I just do my practice for 15 minutes, it’s better than no practice. Even if I flow for 10 minutes and just do 3 minutes of breath work. Even if I sit for 5 mindful minutes and meditate, it’s better than nothing. What this did was revolutionary in me establishing greater depth in my practice because not only did I come to realize that it’s not always about the quantity but about the quality: ten minutes of stable, consistent meditation is better than an hour of sitting there stressing about time or thinking about a million other things. It also enabled me to infuse more of my practice throughout my day: ten minutes in the morning, 15 minutes in the evening, a bit here and there over lunch all of which naturally started having profound effects in my life. What ALSO tended to happen was that once I would get onto my mat (with the thought of “even just ten minutes”) I would end up finding so much bliss and steadiness in those ten minutes that I would then continue practicing for a longer period. Usually, it’s just about getting yourself to show up. Once you show up, you’re there, you’re doing the work and then it becomes easier to stay there and lengthen the practice. JUST START. The rest will follow.
2. TEACHERS: When you’re first starting off your practice, it is VERY important to have a teacher who is knowledgable, who is dedicated to the authentic practice of Yoga, who is inspiring and who you resonate with. Having someone who can act as a facilitator for growth and expansion changed my practice completely. When first starting out, try out different studios and teachers and reach out to different teachers, sussing out the preverbial ‘ocean’ of teachers and finding one that clicks and connects with you. Take time to establish a relationship and connection to the teacher that you resonate with, ask them questions, show interest and the rest will follow.
3. GOING TO CLASSES: this is particularly important when beginging with Yoga. Once you know some of the form and can hold space for yourself to continue and deepen your personal practice (by yourself) then it becomes less important to attend actual classes. But especially when becoming familiar with the form and techniques of Yoga, it is helpful to be in a collective space where energy is shared and you are being held in the process of connecting to those space within yourself. Often times in the beginning it can seem quite overwhelming because there is so much depth and subtlety to the practice, so being in a space where there are others around you and there is a teacher holding the space can be a great support for those times when you are just discovering the depth of your being and perhaps need some encouragement and guidance. It may also help going with a friend who also wants to start a Yoga practice so that you can hold each other accountable and consistent. AND/OR go with an experienced friend who can help you and knows the ins and outs of the studios, practices and teachers.
4. LET GO OF COMPARISON: it can be so easy to make your Yoga practice a comparison game, especially when you are just starting out and you are in a class or space with other experienced yogis. Either this will deter you because you may feel you aren’t good enough or further along in your journey enough – but this is missing the point. You are there. You are starting, you are showing up. That is what counts. Consistency and dedication is what will get you further in your practice, not looking over to Margorie and feeling bad or driven by the desire to get deeper into your Warrior 1 than she is. Yoga is a personal, inward and individual journey, one that uses the physical and the individual to connect to all, but it is not limited to the individual or the physical. It goes far deeper and beyond, and playing the comparison game is in service of the ego not of the practice. Comparing yourself to others is further entrenching the mental identification with the world of the physical, with the world of form and so by releasing value judgements on yourself and of others will be one of the first steps into moving beyond the mental identification into liberation from mind. Your Yoga practice is exactly that, your Yoga practice. It doesn’t matter where you are in relation to others, it matters that you are there at all.
5. GOALS? It is helpful to have goals in mind as they can be stabilizing structures which help you progress in your practice. BUT, it is equally, if not more important to not mentally identify with your goals, to not let yourself get attached to your goals because at the end of the day Yoga is about connection, and moving away from mental identification, mental rigidity and attachment and moving towards/into presence. If you are too rigid with your goals, you may find that you loose the essence of the practice, because you are too determined to reach a particular asana or place in your practice. It’s like that famous quote that goes something like, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”
6. SELF-PRACTICE: when you first start on your self-practice journey you will see the big difference between attending a class and practicing with no one else around, just you and your breath. This is what ended up being a huge game changer for me and my journey of going deeper. By establishing a strong personal practice, there is no outward distraction or stimulation (even that of your teachers voice), therefore there is even more space and room to connect deeper with your practice and your Self. At first, it might be helpful to follow some online videos (but be careful of who you watch/listen to – try to find websites and teachers who again, you resonate with and who are embedded in the authenticity of the practice). A great website for this is www.yogainternational.com OR www.breatheyogandwellness.com OR www.yogajournal.com . Once you are comfortable with the form and sequences you can move away from videos or books and dive straight into your own practice, trusting yourself and using creative freedom and expression to move to how your body desires within that moment and that practice. This step is where I personally experienced the most growth in my practice and self: the times of showing up and holding space for myself. At first it may feel funny and weird doing a Yoga practice by yourself, especially when you’ve never done a self-directed practice, but you will soon find that it’s probably where you will connect and grow the most. I have come to think of Yoga classes as great places to learn more, and to deepen my understanding of the Yoga form, techniques and methods from teachers who are knowledgable and experienced so that I can incorporate that into my personal practice. My personal practice is now the basis of my practice, and I occasionally supplement with other classes. I no longer rely on classes to maintain my Yoga practice, but rather go to them when I feel like I need some more knowledge or inspiration or even just to share in that collective energy and space, but having said that, that shift comes with time and consistency. It took me about 4-5 years of a regular practice to move into this phase.
7. RESEARCH: delve riiiight in, learn about the different styles, types, techniques, teachers, methods, reasons, etc. Delving deeper into the theory and depth of the practice of Yoga not only helps to keep you inspired, but also increases your dedication and discipline. Maybe sign up to online courses, challenges and maybe even get a study-buddy who you can reflect with, learn from and share with!
8. LIKE MINDED PEOPLE: As much as this is an individual journey towards Union, it also helps so much to have people in your life that just get it. People who are either on their own Yoga journey, people who you can practice with, chat with, connect with or people who can at least understand and support you in your journey.
9. FOOD & WATER: Avoid any heavy foods or meals before your yoga practice; during your practice it is important to have a relatively open and free abdominal space so that you are able to move more easily and able to open up the spaces within your body with greater ease and comfort without possible nausea arising. If you need to eat something beforehand either have some tea, warm plant based milk, or a piece of fruit. These are light but energizing. I tend to also feel that if I haven’t let enough time pass between eating and doing yoga that I sometimes find it harder to connect to that space of stillness within. Find what works best for you though, I know that for one of my friends doing a yoga practice on an empty tummy isn’t conducive for her going deep into the form so she always has a banana before her practice and it works best for her. Take water into your practice with you. However, I tend not to drink water in/during my practice as it cools down the internal fire which we are stoking/cultivating during the practice.
10. PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE: This may seem obvious, but it really does take heaps of people by surprise (including me when I figured it out through experience!). If you want to get better at something, the single most important key to getting better at that something is DOING THAT SOMETHING. Practice practice practice is what is going to take you to the next levels in your Yoga journey. BUT, a key component within this is to marry diligent practice (where there is a deep focus on breath, alignment and focused attention on the body and its’ needs at any given moment) and awareness of the practice and how the practice resides in your body. What I mean by this is that practicing the same mistakes or incorrect alignment isn’t going to improve your practice no matter how much you practice. So, repetition and practice is important, but also in so far as you are constantly going deeper and further into the truest and fullest expression of the particular asana or technique.
11. ASK QUESTIONS: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Learn from those around you, read, research, explore and there is no shame in admitting you don’t know something. Leave pride and ego at the door and ASK. After all, yoga is the process of moving from ignorance (darkness) to wisdom (lightness), how can we do this if we don’t first recognize that there is that within us that is ignorant or unaware? Be open to vulnerability, be open to learning more and be open to questioning that which you are given.
12. STAY FOCUSED, COMMITTED, PATIENT & POSITIVE: focus, commitment and dedication. Commit yourself to your practice. Fully and deliberately. Stay focused on the mission: to go deeper within and to connect deeper to all that is. When you shift the focus from being one of “I want to get into handstand” or, “I want to achieve this or that” towards a state of appreciating the true nature of the science that is Yoga, a science and method to still the mind, to finding inner peace and harmony then when you commit to the practice you are committing to living the best life you possibly can. You are committing to something that is for you but also greater than you. Yoga makes you a better person; particularly when you realize its’ full potential and meaning.
13. A PRACTICE JOURNAL: keeping a practice journal was a total game changer for me, it allowed me time for reflection and processing that which comes up for me in a practice and for becoming aware of growth points, challenge points and internal observations.
14. A GOOD MAT: investing in a GOOD mat was an absolute life saver. It completely revolutionized my Yoga practice. The amount of depth and strength that I felt in return for investing in a good Yoga mat cannot be understated. It is like the difference between a mechanic using faulty tools or a mechanic investing in, usually more expensive, but good quality, highly functional tools that will enable him/her to do the work that needs to be done with greater comfort, ease, focus and attention. If you’re on a budget, ditch the desire to buy the snazzy yoga clothes and invest in a good mat. The mats I use are called Prana Revolution, the ones I have are from Cape Town, made from recycled material and they are not only amazing for grip but they are big and sturdy (wider and longer than usual mats, too). For the travelers out there I can also vouch for the Manduka Travel Lite mat which has wonderful grip and can fit into any shape and size (just about).
I hope that these tips resonate and help to inspire or encourage you in establishing your Yoga practice in some way. They are some of the tips that have helped me the most in finding consistency and depth in my practice. This journey was and continues to be the most illuminating and transformative medium of unfolding and sifting through untruthful layers of fluff, revealing to me my most authentic, fullest and most truthful Self. And in my continued and consistent practice, I am learning more and more how to integrate this authenticity within all of my relationships and surroundings. Yoga not only transformed me, but it transformed all of the relationships in my life. Happy venturing, and if you have any more questions – don’t hesititate to comment or email me directly!
Much love, always