As we enter the dawn of 2021 there has never been a better time to start a self-care practice. Uncertainty, isolation, loneliness, boredom, stress and anxiety are at an all-time high. We can’t change the situation but we can make choices to help ourselves through it – eating well, getting exercise and fresh air, drinking plenty of water and a good night’s sleep go a long way to improving mental well-being.
The ancient practice of yoga had its beginnings thousands of years ago but only arrived in the West in the late 1800’s, having since exploded in popularity. It is a practice of movement and breath with the goal of uniting body, mind and spirit.
According to Johns Hopkins Medical, the benefits of yoga include:
- Improved strength, balance and flexibility
- Back pain relief
- Ease arthritis symptoms
- Improve heart health
- Increased relaxation, leading to better sleep
- More energy and brighter moods
- Helps to manage stress
Let’s look at some of the obstacles that come up when considering a yoga practice. Rest assured that one of the best things about yoga is that you don’t have to be flexible, or young, or thin or fit, despite what all the photos of ideal yoga poses may indicate. You also don’t have to go to a class or have the perfect environment.
What if I can’t afford or don’t want to go to a class?
While going to a class can provide a great sense of community, it can be expensive and inconvenient for some people. We are also in the middle of a global pandemic so indoor gatherings of sweaty, breathy people is certainly not recommended. Thankfully, it’s a virtual age where you can do classes by Zoom or choose one of the many free videos available online.
For beginners, and most of us actually, there’s nothing better than an at-home yoga practice. You can roll out your mat anywhere, any time, when you can squeeze in 15 or more minutes to practice. You can wear your old sweatpants (or nothing, if that’s your thing) and be as unbalanced, uncoordinated and goofy as you like.
I’ve practiced yoga for a decade now, albeit inconsistently. I have finally begun a daily home practice since arriving in Costa Rica and it has become something I look forward to each and every day. It has helped me feel grounded and content even through this period of isolation, while helping my body feel great as I build greater strength and flexibility. I really enjoy Yoga With Adriene – she has premium paid programs but there are tons of free videos on her YouTube channel with different focuses and of varying lengths. You can find short beginner videos that focus on individual asanas (poses) as well as several 30 day programs which are great when you need motivation to get to the mat.
A new 30 day program called “Breath” was just launched on January 2nd, 2021 so join me and give it a go!
I’m too (old, inflexible, overweight…) to do yoga
I know, the images of people in a perfect dancer’s pose or folded in half with their head on the ground can be a little intimidating. But the truth is, yoga is about a journey not a destination. It is an opportunity to recognize and accept how and where you are right now – something that most of us struggle with, but will lead to a new way of appreciating the body you’re in.
There are beginner variations for every pose. It might mean not even lifting your foot off the ground, or only making a small movement, but with consistency your body will begin to change in the most amazing ways.
I was diagnosed with mild scoliosis and kyphosis right before high school, so have always struggled with muscle imbalance and discomfort. Over the years I’ve had everything from acupuncture and cupping to massage, and clocked hundreds of hours of physiotherapy to help alleviate hip and back pain. I’ve also suffered from anxiety my entire life which finally culminated in frequent panic attacks by my late 30’s. My mind and body were a bit of a mess.
Like veganism, yoga is something I wish I started a long time ago. My journey began about a decade ago when I finally dragged my butt into a Bikram (hot) yoga class. I honestly thought I would die, and I almost fainted half way through the 90 minute class. The crazy thing was, the next day I felt so good I wanted to do it again! I remember entering the class and lying down with my mind just spinning, and by the end of the class, resting in the final shavasana (corpse pose), realizing that it was completely empty. It has become my go-to therapy for mental and physical well-being.
What style of yoga is best for me?
It helps to know that there are different styles of yoga. I didn’t know a thing when I went to my first class and I stumbled into a strict Bikram studio, which is a 90 minute practice of 26 poses performed in a studio of 105 degrees F (41 C) and a humidity of 40%. Perhaps not the best choice for a newbie. Like tofu, just because you tried it once and didn’t like it, give a different one a chance because you might just find a new love! 😉
Hatha yoga is a generic term that refers to any type of yoga that teaches physical postures, but a class identified as Hatha generally means that you will get a gentle introduction to the most basic yoga postures and is often geared to beginners. It will have a series of poses (asanas) as well as breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation. Hatha yoga is performed more slowly than a Vinyasa class, with a greater focus on stretching. Postures will usually be held for several breaths.
Ashtanga is a sweaty, physically demanding style that has an individual approach as the practitioner progresses through six increasingly difficult series that are always performed in the same order. It is typically not a guided class but rather Mysore-style where the instructor will provide hands-on adjustments to help individuals as they progress through their personal practice of memorized poses. Guided classes will usually follow the primary (foundational) series only. Classes are typically 90 minutes in length.
Vinyasa is a flowy, dynamic practice derived from Ashtanga Yoga that incorporates synchronization of the breath with movement (vinyasa), posture, and “drishti” or gazing. It is also known as “Power Yoga” and is a more physically demanding style. Vinyasa practices are suitable for anyone who wants a more active practice with variety and plenty of movement.
Llengar is a mindful style of yoga founded on Ashtanga that emphasizes breath control and detailed posture alignment as you move through a series of postures. Props such as blocks, blankets, straps, chairs and bolsters are often used to assist in obtaining proper alignment. Postures are held for a relatively long period of time compared to other schools of yoga which allows the muscles to relax and lengthen, and encourages awareness in the pose. The movement is slow and methodical, making it a great style of yoga for people with limited mobility or injuries.
This is the original “hot” yoga which is conducted in an environment of 105 degrees F (41 C) and a humidity of 40%. It follows a strict sequence of 26 repeated poses. Its founder Bikram Choudhury was known for his harsh, abrasive manner and after charges of sexual assault he returned to India. Other practices have simply taken on the term of “hot yoga” and are performed in a similar environment but allow for deviation from the original Bikram protocol. Hot yoga certainly isn’t for everyone, but it does leave you feeling like a drenched rag that’s been wrung out and dropped on the floor. Completely spent, and in blissful relaxation.
Also called Yin Yoga, Restorative Yoga is a slow practice with emphasis on deep relaxation and healing as opposed to stretching and strengthening. Props such as blankets, bolsters and blocks are often used to help the body fully relax, and poses may be held for 5 minutes or more. This style can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system and strengthen the ability to move between states of stress and rest with more ease. It can reduce the production of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, improve immune system function, reduce muscle tension, help with insomnia, and so many other important benefits. Restorative Yoga fosters mindfulness, self love and acceptance and is excellent for anyone who is feeling stressed or under the weather.
The Sanskrit word Kundalini means ‘life force energy”, also known as prana or chi, which is thought to be tightly coiled at the base of the spine. This practice is designed to stimulate or unlock this energy and to reduce stress and negative thinking through chanting, singing, meditation, breathing and movement. As described by Lisa Fierer in this Gaia article, “A well-taught Kundalini yoga class leaves you feeling like you’ve gone to therapy, had an awesome workout in the gym, made it to your yoga mat and enjoyed a fun singing session with friends.” It is great for anyone looking for a strong spiritual aspect to their practice.
This modern Hatha-based style was founded by American John Friend in 1997. It is based on the Tantric approach to life that seeks to expand awareness of the interconnectedness between all that exists, through direct experiences of love, joy, and beauty. It focuses on the principle that all beings are inherently good. The practice links breath and movement in a vinyasa flow, and highlights alignment, “heart-opening” postures, and the spiritual and meditative aspects of yoga. Classes often include music to heighten the experience of joy and movement. It is suitable for people at all levels.
There truly is a style for everyone so don’t be afraid to give it a go!
Namaste (the light in me bows to the light in you)