How your yoga practice can help you when life feels hard

When life gets hard, choose an even harder yoga practice.

That is my piece of advice. When everything feels like it's against you, most people would recommend a calming yoga or meditation practice. I have tried this in the past. But I have recently tried doing the opposite. And the results have been amazing...

I used to think that when I was stressed I needed to sit quietly and reflect. I still do this and I'm not saying you shouldn't. You should do whatever works for you. But when I did this I would fall asleep which meant I wasn't dealing with anything properly. I had to find a way to quiet my mind while also doing something active.

The other month I decided I needed to find more energy to do all the things I want to be able to do without feeling drained all the time. I wanted something that made me more alert and gave me something to look forward to in the midst of a stressful period. So I turned to harder yoga classes. You can lift your prana (energy levels) with your yoga practice and mine needed lifting massively. If I was to do a slow practice, I would be sleepy throughout and not energised at the end. I'd be ready for bed, leading me to feel more stressed that I had left things incomplete.

I needed to find a better way to balance my resting (my sleepy practices/relaxations), gaining more energy (my yoga practice) and life things (day to day demands). I was falling behind on normal life things and not having as much time for the people in my life that I care about. When I started practising more Vinyasa flow type classes, I found my energy lifted. My mind was sharper and clearer. My stress levels reduced. And my relaxation at the end of the class was more intense. I'd burn off all my thoughts during the class because it took up all of my concentration. Most importantly, I'd dedicated proper time to my practice which brings me so many benefits in my personal and professional life.

I thought about what I wanted my yoga practice to do for me. I wanted to feel stronger on a physical level but also in dealing with emotions and stressors. I wanted to feel like I could handle life's stuff. I found my thing - it would be arm balances.

eight angle

For a few weeks, I practiced prep for Astavakrasana - eight angle pose. An arm balance I had never been able to achieve. I set my hopes high.

I did some online classes and after the first few, I was able to get into the starting position and lift up slightly. I kept practising in the coming days and ta da! I was able to get up into something I had never been able to do before.

As soon as that happened, I felt all my efforts had been worth it. I was already feeling stronger but actually achieving something that felt impossible not so long ago was incredible. It let me know that I have fight in me. Even when I don't feel like it in my day to day life, it is there. I can do anything I put my mind to. My energy store is always there to help me out, I just have to tap into it. 

I'm not saying that your yoga practice should always be strong and active. We need restorative practices to keep us balanced. We don't want too much activity (Rajas) or too much lethargy (Tamas), we want balance (Sattva). It's all about listening to how you feel. Sometimes stress and emotions take over and the thought of practising a challenging class is horrible. These are the days when your slow practice will benefit you most.

The ultimate aim of yoga is to come to the state of meditation. This state involves us sitting still. Therefore, we have to train the mind to find that stillness. This can be through an Ashtanga class where the relaxation leaves our mind clear or a Yin Yoga class where the whole class is designed to bring a state of relaxation to the body and mind. I'm definitely not saying to always make your yoga practice fast paced. Some of the faster forms of yoga may not work for you. They may make your mind more active. 

A word of warning: If you're trying a harder practice, be patient and respect your body. Never push further than you are able to do comfortable and safely. The best thing about attempting something harder (and in a time of stress) is that when you don't get into the final posture, you can laugh at yourself. If you end up in some contortion that looks quite different to the final posture, this is OK. Sometimes we cope with stress through humour. It reminds us to loosen up and not take everything so seriously.

So the next time you feel stressed or overwhelmed, don't sit still. Get up, move around, try something new and notice the difference this makes to your mood. 


Yoga and Weights

What's all this exercising malarkey?

I am not an exercising type of person. It's not my 'thing' at all. I'd love to be fit like an athlete but the truth is, I like food too much. Before I found yoga, I didn't work out at all. I may have gone for long walks but that was about it. I stumbled upon yoga out of curiosity and feeling slightly unfit while travelling. 

I have been practising yoga three or four times a week, sometimes more, for five years now. It's helped me build strength and balance I never knew I had. I'm now at a point in my practice where I'm wanting to try the harder postures and have had to turn to other things to help.

Using other exercises to enhance your yoga practice

A year or so ago I heard Mark Robberds, a well renowned Ashtanga teacher, say he had been going to the gym to gain the strength required for the more advanced series of Ashtanga. I remember at the time I was shocked. I had thought he'd gotten so advanced in his practice due to yoga alone. I mean, the yogis in ancient times accomplished these postures without the gym. Why can't we?

The difference between then and now...

A year on and I'm thinking completely differently about it. Our lifestyles are much less physical than they would have been a long time ago. We (and I'm included in this) sit at a desk most of the day, our joints getting stiff and our bodies making very little movement throughout the day. We are sedentary beings now. Back when yoga was being taught in India 6000 years ago, life would have involved more movement with people living off the land. 

A life living off the land would naturally produce stronger humans. We'd be lifting things and moving around all day making the yoga postures more achievable. Today, we're learning these postures with lots of the damage already having been done from our sedentary lifestyles. We're learning these postures with our bodies being so tight and tense that all the postures are hard to start with.

Weight training to help your strength in your yoga practice

Having been doing some weight training on and off for two months, I can already feel the benefits to my yoga practice. This is a hard thing for me to swallow. I was adamant I could do it without any extra help but actually, I'm not a naturally strong person. I needed some props, so to speak. 

To be clear, I am not willing to start weight training to the point where it makes my shoulders and back so tight that I go backwards in my practice, not forwards. Yoga is my priority. I am only lifting small weights to help gain some more shoulder and chest strength to complement my practice.

You don't even have to do weights to gain some extra strength. I find practising a few press ups (with your knees down to begin with) is a massive help. I couldn't do one with my knees down when I started, now I can do ten (on my better days). You can incorporate some of these exercises into your yoga practice - it doesn't have to be another thing you have to find time for. Ekhart Yoga wrote a brilliant article on using weights in your yoga practice.

I see now that having other forms of exercise can improve your practice. If we can get into a posture because we feel stronger on a physical basis, it will have an uplifting effect on the mind. We will feel brave and full of joy. Of course, getting into the final posture isn't necessary in yoga - we only go as far as we reasonably can comfortably. But by me gaining more strength, my edge is increasing allowing me to experience things in my practice that I haven't before. 

Using another form of exercise to get our bodies fit is a positive thing. It means we can learn to clear our minds in another way, a way that's off the mat which is where we should also be practising yoga. It allows us more chances to cleanse the body through exercise. We will feel fitter. It might not have exactly the same benefits as yoga (stress reduction, relaxation, breath work etc) but working hand in hand with your yoga routine, it can surely only improve your practice in more ways than one.