Starting Your Yoga Practice
Happy International Yoga Day, this Wednesday, June 21!
Last week, we looked at what yoga can do for you, what it is and what it is not. If you have not read it, you will find it useful as you discover yoga and find the right teacher for you.
This week, I would like to answer questions that I often hear from people who are interested in yoga but feel unsure where or how to start.
HOW CAN I FIND THE RIGHT YOGA CLASS FOR ME?
There are many different types of Hatha yoga practices, because there are many types of people. It is not appropriate, for example, for someone who tends to run hot to do a heating yoga practice. Nor is it appropriate for one who tends to be heavy in body and mind to do a practice that is particularly slow.
Hatha Yoga is part of the greater whole of Yoga, which includes the herbal medicine Ayurveda. Under Ayurveda, everyone is considered to have one or a combination of three predominant tendencies: vata, pitta and kapha. Vata people tend to be slim, sweat little, with a highly alert nervous system. They may be restless, sensitive to sound, and have an irregular appetitive and delicate digestion. Pitta people tend to be athletic, competitive, with voracious appetites, and reddish or yellowish tints to their skin. They are usually of medium build, and have natural capacity to lead, teach or perform. Kapha people tend to be heavy, graceful, with thick hair and a propensity to sleep long and deeply. They may be even-tempered, balanced, methodical, and nurturing.
When you are looking for the right yoga class, it is useful to know your type. Ask yourself:
- Are you thin and nervy, find it hard to gain weight, have energy in sparks and flashes?
- Are you fiery, muscular, determined, competitive, potentially aggressive with a burning appetite for life?
- Are you slow, calm, stable, steady, sturdy, reluctant to change, with the potential to be stubborn or lazy?
People that tend to be wiry and nervy do best with slow, nurturing, grounding and comforting practices, such as Kripalu, Sivananda, Scaravelli, restorative, Integral or Yin Yoga.
People who run hot and are competitive by nature are likely to be attracted to more physically intense yoga practices, which is okay as long as the primary directive of the practice is not to generate heat. Iyengar, Sivananda, Scaravelli or Viniyoga are good practices for this fiery constitution.
If you have a heavier build, tend to be slow and would benefit from a little more inner fire and mobility, then Ashtanga, Jivamukti, Power Yoga, Kundalini and Moksha Yoga can be good options.
For all types, when specific injuries need to be addressed, it is best to do Restorative Yoga. Pre- and post-natal classes are excellent support for the birthing process.
If you are generally fit and in good health, there is no harm in trying any style of yoga to see how it feels, as long as it is done in moderation. Eventually, stick with a practice. The effects of yoga are deep and lasting, so they happen over time. A consistent practice with the correct method, a skilled teacher and a willing student will yield maximum results.
Based on my years of teaching and my personal experience, I ask you to please be mindful not to push or strive in your practice. You may approach your yoga with the desire to improve yourself. Evolving into your fullest potential is wonderful and what you are here to do on this planet. Problems arise, however, when “self-improvement” does not come from the joy of being, but from feeling inherently flawed or not good enough. Rather than your yoga being an intimate time to open more deeply to yourself and the universe, it enables a disconnection from who you truly are. The desire to evolve becomes a subtle form of self-judgment, even self-violence. Driven by wanting to “get it right” in order to gain love and approval from some imagined source outside of yourself, a disconnected practice fuels a deeper psychic tension that eventually needs to be addressed. I look at this issue in depth (and much more) in my upcoming book “Confessions of a Former Yoga Junkie”.
Remember that the goal of yoga is the release of your ego. Flat stomachs, hyper-flexible joints, floating vinyasas, “picture perfect” asanas or other physical qualities are not the point. They are a distraction from your ultimate objective to let go of your attachments and merge with the divine.
WHAT IF I CAN’T DO THE YOGA POSES?
Whether or not you are physically fit, it is good to start out in a beginner yoga class. I still go to them, even though I have owned two yoga studios, done three teacher training programs and taught for over twenty years. The gentler poses provide me with an opportunity to settle into each pose, rediscover my breath and embody the relationship between the breath, life-force energy, the body and the whole. May we always be beginners and learn to meet the moment with openness, innocence and fullness!
Even if poses are simple, it does not necessarily mean that they are rudimentary or unsophisticated. You can gain profound teachings from a yoga class that focuses on just a couple of very simple asanas (poses). Avoid the ego’s tendency to categorize into hierarchies, push and want more. “Advanced” classes do not make you a “better” yogi than “beginner” classes do. Approach each pose with a sense of freshness, that is, a beginner’s mind. Then you will discover the now, where life takes place.
Whatever class you find yourself in, let your body and breath be your guide. Never do more than 80% your maximum in any stretch, even if it seems to you that others do a pose “further” than you do. Pushing yourself to make a pose “look” good only creates constriction and suffering. If you find yourself in a class where you feel pressured to go past your 80% limit, consider going to a different class.
Every body is different. We come to yoga with tall bodies, short bodies, fat bodies, thin bodies, gymnastic flexibility, deskbound stiffness, physical ailments, mental ailments… all of it is fertilizer for the flower that is our own individual practice. Be exactly where you are. There is no nirvana waiting for you at the end of that stretch.
WHAT SHOULD I WEAR TO DO YOGA?
The traditional yogic garb was a loincloth for men and saris for women. Sivananda yoga teacher training still has a uniform of t-shirt and baggy cotton pants. In yoga studios today, you will see a range of clothing options. Most important is that you wear clean clothes that do not constrict your energy or physical movement. There is no need to buy super stretchy synthetic workout wear in order to do yoga. In fact, I recommend that you don’t.
Be wary of synthetic fibers in all of your clothes, especially when you do yoga. The use of natural fabrics will enhance your yoga practice and the experience of energy movement. When you pull off a shirt that is polyester, you can experience static cling, a buildup of unnecessary electrical energy. I find that the vibration of these fabrics can be constrictive or agitating, not leading to the sense of rooted, vital expansion that is yoga’s goal. That additional energy can add to an already agitated world, an overactive mind, and a restless spirit. All natural fibers help to keep you harmonized with nature, therefore more in balance. Also, remember that most synthetics are petroleum-based, coming from an industry which in itself harms the earth.
We also must consider that today’s laundry machines do not yet stop the release of micro-fibers from clothing into our waterways. Synthetic fabrics shed tiny fibers into the wash water, which goes down the drain and then into waterways where the fibers are eaten by fish and become part of the food chain for years to come, since synthetics do not biodegrade. Natural fabrics shed fibers in the wash too, but the fibers quickly biodegrade. Since part of the practice of yoga is to consider how we connect with the whole, it is good to try to be mindful of how our choices affect the world around us.
If you are doing a particularly hot and sweaty practice, you may find wicking fabrics to be appropriate. Yet, hot sweaty synthetics can quickly develop an odor that persists even through laundering. There are companies that produce organic cotton yoga gear, often blended with fibers like tencel or bamboo, that is appropriate even for hot yoga.
Your body is a temple. You need to treat it with the respect and reverence it deserves. Put on it what you would place on something you consider divine. Personally, I do my practice wearing silk. Silk is gently insulating and helps to contain your energy, rather than engage unnecessarily with that of others. It adjusts to your body temperature, so it will keep you warm or cool as needed. It is also a very strong fiber and wears well. As long as a silk garment is well-made, without delicate features, you can machine wash it in a gentle cycle with a mild detergent. I am currently developing a line of silk yoga clothes for you to enjoy! I will be featuring them on my upcoming YEM: Yoga as Energy Medicine book and DVD sets.
CAN I EAT BEFORE I DO YOGA?
The rule of thumb is that you not eat for two hours before your yoga class. There are a few very practical reasons for this. One is that yoga class can involve bending and twisting of the abdomen that can feel unpleasant – or even harm the digestive process – if you have food sitting in your belly. Another is that digestion draws your body’s energy to your stomach, leaving you less energy to be present with your yoga pose.
While weight loss is not a goal of yoga, practicing on an empty stomach helps to train the body to burn its existing reserves of fat rather than seek more fuel in the form of a bellyful of food.
Having water to drink during a class is an option that some people enjoy and would be more necessary on hot yoga classes where there is a lot of perspiration.
IS IT OK TO PRACTICE AT HOME TO A DVD IF I CAN’T GET TO YOGA CLASSES?
We are fortunate today to live in a time where yoga teachings are available at the press of a button. There are many reasons someone may not wish to attend yoga classes, from not having a class they can get to in their area, to prohibitive cost, to just not finding the right teacher locally. It is far better to practice yoga in your own home with a DVD or CD, than not to do yoga at all.
A good yoga DVD choice for you is one whose asanas (poses) are within your healthy range of motion, so that you are not overly exerted or stretched. The goal of your yoga practice is not to be able to bend into a pretzel, but to become more aware of your interconnected nature.
Whether you are practicing at home or in a class, do 80% of your minimum, as I mentioned above, and not to push. This recommendation applies all the more when you are practicing on your own and do not have a teacher who can correct your form. It is very important that you do not compare yourself to the person on the DVD. Watch for alignment instructions, but go at your own pace and do what you can.
Whether your teacher is in person in a studio or on a TV screen, the same considerations apply, which I will address next week when we discuss finding the right yoga teacher for you.
Here is a practical exercise for you to do this week. Create a clean, clear practice space for yourself. It does not have to be elaborate, or even in a separate room in your home. It should simply be a space where you can extend a yoga mat or towel and not feel impinged in your movement, or distracted by noise, chatter or people coming and going. Most important is that you want to go to this space and feel it is sacred in some way.
Keep it simple. There is no need to go out and buy candles or incense, for example, or figurines. Such can come if it feels like a natural expression for you as you continue your practice. For now, simply give yourself the gift of a space to do yoga.
Last week I left you with some questions about your relationship with yoga. How did you do? I enjoyed the questions, so I answered them too and share my responses here:
Question: Is my life in flow at this time?
My answer: When I wrote last week’s blog post, I had just come to the other side of a very intense period of little sleep and long work days. My body was letting me know, in no uncertain terms, that I needed to adjust my schedule. I have since been making the necessary changes in my life. I feel that continual adjustment, listening and dialing-in are part of the grace that yoga offers me. Like Nature, I am an evolving, growing being.
Question: Do I sense the presence of something greater than myself? How much of the time do I sense it?
My answer: I have learned through the trials and tribulations in my life to fully surrender to a higher power, understanding that to follow my ego only leads to suffering. This reality has settled into the root of my being and acts as the foundation for my life. Because of this, the short answer to the second question is “yes, most of the time”.
Question: What are my aspirations for my yoga practice?
My answer: Yoga, to me, means union with the Divine. It is my sincere aspiration to realize this.
Question: What does it feel like in my body when I take a few deep breaths? Are there parts of my body I feel more energy? Are there parts of my body I don’t feel at all? Where do I hold tension? Where do I feel more relaxed?
My answer: Breathing feels to me like self-love, so I make a point to practice it mindfully through the day. I do habitually hold tension in specific areas of my body. The more I become aware of these and allow them to be part of the moment, without judgement, the more I find they soften.
Question: What might my life look like if my body, mind and spirit were in flow, in harmony with the infinite?
My answer: I would relax more and experience more joy, because I know that joy is the heartbeat of the universe. As such, I would be making sure that I don’t allow “shoulds”, or tasks that are not mine to do, to eclipse my deep love for music, composing and performing.
Question: Am I willing to serve that unfolding in my life?
My answer: I believe it is my destiny to do so, and yes – I am all in!
Until next week,
Love our world.
We are one Earth family.