Why do I love teaching yoga?

The growth of this rose symbolises it perfectly for me. It's transformation. In the early days of your practice you start as a bud, needing water and light to grow. You face your struggles on your yoga mat, week in and week out, all the while nourishing your body, mind and soul through your practice, whether it's good or bad. You learn and grow with your practice. Then one day, you finally understand how a posture feels or you get 10 seconds of bliss in meditation where your mind is focused only on one thing, and you turn into that beautiful rose. As a teacher, I get to experience that every day when I teach my students. I get to see them blossom and that makes it all worth it. 

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If you want to experience a class with me, head to the ‘Classes’ tab for my timetable and to book. Private classes with individuals and groups also available.

10 steps for better headstands

Why headstand?

Headstand is my favourite posture in the Sivananda sequence. It allows us to see progress in the areas of the body that need to build strength and stamina to achieve it. For example, you notice your core and shoulders becoming stronger. You notice the opening in the shoulders as you begin to be able to bring the hips to stack over them. You notice when you finally get up and can take a breath in it!

When we start out learning headstand it feels so strange. To be on our head feels very unnatural and it can take time just to get used to that feeling. Rabbit pose is a great posture to practice to familiarise yourself with that upside down, head on the floor feeling.

Views on headstand

I have had two varying conversations this week about the practice of headstand. Some of my students have said it’s the reason they come to class, to be challenged and see their progress. They said that other teachers won’t teach it so they have never had the chance to try it.

On the other hand, I have received feedback to say that it’s dangerous, people fall out so it must be dangerous. Or that they have seen people in my class come up incorrectly. This is a misunderstanding of the practice and of my relationship with my students. I receive constructive feedback and take it on board. This blog has stemmed from the constructive feedback to show anyone who is scared of practising headstand, or not sure about it as part of a yoga practice, how to do it safely.

How I teach headstand

As a teacher, I am aware of those students who come to me every week who are likely to fall out as they begin to come up. I don’t teach headstand to students who don’t come to me regularly unless they already have a headstand practice. If someone is new to yoga and to my class, I don’t teach headstand to them straight away as it’s a long process built on trust and the relationship between teacher and student. This takes time. I always offer variations to those students who don’t want to practice it. It’s never forced upon anyone.

The students who fall know how to fall safely so each time they do, I don’t rush over to check on them. I choose not to make a scene of them falling as this can embarrass them and knock their confidence. But I do give them eye contact to see if they are hurt in any way. I acknowledge the fall as I am watching every student come up but it doesn’t need to be a massive affair if someone falls out of headstand. As I have been teaching these students for years, we can have this interaction without words. Sometimes, they give me a nod as if to say, ‘I’m fine’ and they try again. New students to the class may not notice this interaction between us and that’s the point. No fuss, no bother and no confidence knocked. If they have fallen due to incorrect alignment, I will go and speak to them quietly to help them to reduce their likelihood of falling again.

As a teacher, I can guide, adjust, repeat instructions but ultimately it is down to the student to take those instructions on board. Sometimes you can repeat yourself, demonstrate, adjust a thousand times and a student will still do it the way they want to. There are incorrect and dangerous ways to approach a headstand (and we all will be guilty of them in the early stages of trying to come up!) but generally, the most common mistake is people trying to kick up rather than coming in using core control.

As a teacher, I remind students to bring their knees into their chest first then lift the legs straight. If a student repeatedly chooses to kick up, ignoring my instructions, I can either advise them to stop or repeat the instructions again. This is teacher preference depending on the student/teacher relationship and the student’s overall level of ability. If someone is going to hurt themselves, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to lessen that risk. If you are a new student to the class, trust that the teacher and student have a relationship around their headstand practice. The teacher will always choose what’s best for their student.

Is headstand dangerous?

Headstand is not dangerous if you go with what your body will allow. If you push too hard too fast and you fall, you can injure yourself. If you go steady, slowly and you fall, you’ll be OK. You’ll do a rolly polly out.

Here’s a secret - when learning to come up into headstand every single person has fallen at least once. All those yoga stars on social media? They’ve fallen. Your teacher? They’ve fallen. How many of those have broken their necks or fingers? I don’t know stats…but I can tell you I never have, none of my students have and none of my teacher’s students have. If you listen carefully to your teacher’s guidance and your inner voice of intuition, you will be fine.

Once you are used to being upside down (after practising rabbit pose), you can begin learning to come in safely and very importantly, slowly. It’s a slow process to learn this posture but the benefits are worth it.

If you have high or low blood pressure, then please speak to your doctor before practising headstand.

You always start coming into your headstand practice from child’s pose which helps to regulate the blood pressure before coming to be on the head.

Step 1
Fold your mat to give you a guiding line to keep the elbows in line with each other. The mat should be folded to fit your hands and forearms in the top section. This isn’t an essential step but I found it immensely helpful when learning to come up. It means when you walk in, your elbows have a line to stay down on. You don’t want them to move at all while coming up. For example, when you begin to walk the legs in, you might find that one elbow moves forward. If that’s the case, come back to sitting on the heels and realign the elbows on the line of the folded mat and try again (more on this below).

Step 2

Step 2
Using the gap between the thumb and index finger, place this on the inside crease of the opposite elbow. Do this with both hands. You arms will now be crossed (see picture in the next step to help). This helps to align the elbows and shoulders - if you look down you will see that your elbows are the same distance apart as your shoulders.

 

Step 3
Place your elbows down on to the mat. If you have folded the mat, your elbows will be on the part that creates the line between the bottom of your mat and the top (see the pictures).

 
Step 4

Step 4
Bring the hands out and clasp the fingers. Do not bring the palms together. The palms are going to hold the back of your head so the hands need to be slightly apart. Try and keep your wrists from turning out. Roll the part of the wrist that is facing the ceiling in towards the centre of your mat. You can also tuck your little finger into the palm to reduce the chances of it getting squished!

 
Step 5

Step 5

Place the top of the head down between the hands, leaving a little space between the head and the palms so when you begin to walk the legs in (which is the next step), you are able to roll further back on to the head (almost to the point where the top of your head begins to become the back of your head). Roll your shoulder blades on to the back, so you’re moving your shoulders away from your ears.

 
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Step 6

Walk the legs in, keeping the legs straight the whole time. You want to stack your hips over your shoulders before taking your feet off the floor. This takes time as the shoulders need to be open. You shouldn’t go beyond this stage unless you can comfortably stack the hips over the shoulders. If your shoulders are tight and your hips only come a little way back towards the shoulders, keep practising this. Keep walking the legs in, walking them back out and repeat until your hips stack (this can take months or years depending on the regularity of your practice). Remember to keep the shoulder blades on the back all the time.

 
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Step 7

Bend one knee into the chest. Take the foot back to the floor and bend the other knee in. Keep repeating this until your core is strong enough to lift both knees in to the chest. Shoulders are away from the ears.

 
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Step 8

Bend both knees into the chest and hold. Once you can get to this position with core control and hold it, you’re ready for the final stages to complete your headstand. Remember to lift the shoulders on to the back which will help you find stability.

 
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Step 9

Once you can hold both knees into the chest, lift the knees to the ceiling and allow the feet to drop back towards the buttocks. Remember your shoulders, lift them away from the ears.

 
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Step 10

Straighten the legs, take the toes up towards the ceiling and ta-da! You’re in headstand! When holding your headstand (and this can take years to achieve so keep with it!) remind yourself to check in with your shoulders. Always checking they are lifting away from the ears.

 

To come down

You repeat the steps in. Bring the heels to the buttocks, knees into the chest and then feet to the floor. You end in child’s pose to allow the blood pressure to return to normal.

So there you have it. Those are the stages I teach to come into a headstand. If you want to learn more, come back in a couple of weeks to read about the benefits of the headstand and why it’s taught.

What is Prana?

Prana is a hard thing to get your head around when you’re new to yoga. In fact, yoga is a hard thing to get your head around when you’re new to yoga! The more you practice, the deeper you go into understanding the intricate network that is yoga science.

In yoga we use our breath. It is our key to safe practice. In every posture you should be able to breathe in deeply and exhale completely. If you can’t do this, you need to release slightly from the posture to the point where you are able to breathe deeply and comfortably.

But how does breath relate to Prana?

Prana is our energy, our vital life force that flows through the body. It takes various paths to move into every area of the body (more on this here). You can move your Prana by directing your breath. So when a yoga teacher says ‘Send the breath to your feet’, they are actually saying feel as if you are breathing down into your feet and this visualisation, and possibly sensation, is your Prana moving to that area. You can guide your Prana with your breath. Your Prana sits on your breath but is not your breath. Your breath is the vehicle, your Prana the passenger.

Retention of breath is also a way to control the Prana in the body. Pranayama (the general term for the breathing exercises yogis practice) means to control the energy (Prana = energy, yama = to control). Pranayama always contains retention of the breath. This holding of the breath builds the energy within the body. There is no breath escaping through the nostrils or mouth and thus the Prana is retained, just as the breath is. Yogis see speech as a form of losing Prana. This is why they practice speaking the truth and only speaking when essential. Many gurus practice ‘Mouna’, periods of silence, for this reason.

Prana and the breath - the difference

The distinction between Prana and the breath becomes apparent at the time of death. This year has been quite traumatic for me as I’ve watched two close family members pass away. But these experiences have made my understanding of Prana so clear.

When someone takes their last breath, it isn’t just the breath that leaves the body. As they become still and free from pain, you can see their Prana leave too. When someone holds their breath, they don’t look lifeless. But when someone passes, their whole facial expressions change, their body almost becomes a foreign object to look at. You don’t recognise them anymore. You are staring not at the person you love but at a body. It’s the first time I’ve looked at a body and thought, ‘It’s just skin and bones. Where are they? Who is this I’m looking at?’ The things you miss are their smile, their jokes, their laughter. The lifeless body without the gleam in their eyes doesn’t offer you those things. Their life force had gone. They had left their body.

My personal definition of Prana

Prana for me is personality, vibrancy, enthusiasm and it’s even the times when we’re low, sad or lethargic. It’s the bit of us that makes us, us. We all have breath but that doesn’t mean we have vibrancy. Breath is one of the most fundamental things the body needs in order to be alive but to be fully, spiritually alive, we have to look after our Prana. We have to vibrate at a higher frequency. We have to love, laugh and share. Yoga helps us to check in with our Prana. It lets us move in ways to free any blockages we may have (these blockages usually come out in physical problems; lower back pain, neck pain, sore shoulder – you get the idea). It gives us a chance to stop and reflect in order to make better life choices. And these life choices are normally made because we know deep down that something is wrong with our flow of Prana. You’ll feel it in your body first – those headaches, back aches – they are all signs that your flow of energy is blocked in some way.

Next time you’re on your mat, try and move with your Prana in mind. Yoga is about freeing the body from discomfort and bringing it into balance. What does your Prana need in order to feel balanced?

A practise of patience

Kat reflects on how four months of trust building with her newly adopted cat has influenced her yoga practise.

Yoga off the mat

Most people think yoga is about what we practise on the mat but there’s a whole side to it that we can practise off it too. Taking responsibility for another being’s welfare is a big thing and can teach us so much about ourselves and our behaviours. I have learned to use this responsibility as a tool for self-reflection.

Collection day

At the start of October, we set off to collect our beautiful, silver grey tabby cat, Aurora, from a rescue charity. She was petrified of anything that made a sound or moved. It was going to be a challenge to make her feel at home.

The routine

Within a day or two of arriving at her new home, Aurora slowly ventured out from under the bed. She then started to pad and purr manically. She was happy. She was starting to trust us.

For the first month, we had to move quietly and slowly to avoid breaking her trust. If we didn’t, she’d lash out as a warning or hide herself away. Aurora made me more mindful of my body and its movements. To me it highlighted when I was showing someone my irritating side. She taught me to slow down and reflect on how my behaviour affects others.

Practising patience

In the past, I have always had confident cats who act like they’re the boss. Aurora wasn’t like that. She needed comforting, security and encouragement. I realised she preferred being spoken to rather than touched. So we made a conscious effort every day to spend time talking to her, telling her she’s beautiful and brave. Eventually, she started to look at us differently and I could tell she was feeling safe. She knew we weren’t ever going to hurt her.

As the months went by, gaining Aurora’s trust filled my free time. I wanted her to have a proper home, a place where she knows she’s loved. Having a shy cat helped me to connect to a part of my yoga practise that can be easy to forget about. We can go through life day to day without giving ourselves time to reflect, observing what’s really going on around us. Seeing Aurora’s vulnerability made me feel compassionate. It was something I was exposed to every day and couldn’t avoid. Living with her meant that I could connect deeply to that feeling of connectedness and empathy that are a key part of the teachings of yoga. I was actively aware of her emotions and stress levels and absorbed them.

I had to consistently approach Aurora quietly, sitting a little away from her and waiting for her to accept my presence. It took time. There was nothing I could do apart from wait.

Having to act this way with Aurora saw me bring this into my own yoga practise. I had gotten into the habit of only doing a short practise in the morning and rushing around afterwards to get to work. Knowing that this rushing around unsettled Aurora, I noticed it unravelled all the good of my yoga practise too. My stress levels would increase almost instantly so I started to change my routine. After my practise, I would settle down with a cup of tea and a book instead of dashing around. I started to give myself an extra 10 minutes of ‘me’ time before the start of my day. Aurora had taught me that it was OK to take my time with things. It was OK to make self-love a priority.

By nature, I am a little impatient. I found waiting for Aurora to accept and trust me a huge test. I tend to have a defeatist attitude so my perseverance with her helped me find an inner strength when it came to hard life situations and harder yoga postures. I found that if I could wait for Aurora to love me, I could try and try again with the more difficult situations in my life and those tricky to achieve postures I sometimes avoid. Both would eventually happen. Sometimes the best things in life take time to happen.

Four months on

Aurora is like a different cat now. She is still hesitant but she asks for lap cuddles nearly every day. Every morning, she jumps on to the bed next to me for a cuddle before I get up.

At the time, not grabbing her and squeezing her made me struggle with showing her affection but the rewards for having that patience at the start are immense. We have given an abused cat a wonderful, secure and loving home. Her meows tell me she is thankful every day.

 

 

Remembering our responsibilities in our yoga practice

Something to remember...

Many people find it hard to find the time to get to a yoga class and that's where a home practice can make all the difference. But sometimes, it's even hard to motivate yourself or find the time to practice at home (especially with all the distractions around you). 

I recently read in the Bhagavad Gita (the A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada translation) that as much as our yoga practice is important, so are our other duties in life. Page 342 text 32 says, "He is the best yogi because he does not desire perfection in yoga for his personal benefit, but tries for others also...The yogi who has withdrawn to a secluded place in order to meditate perfectly may not be as perfect as a devotee who is trying his best to turn every man toward Krishna consciousness."

The Bhagavad Gita is one of the highest regarded spiritual texts from India. And here it is reminding us that it isn't necessarily our duty to run off into the mountains and live in a cave away from 'life'. Perhaps some of us are meant to live a crazy, busy life and find what time we can for our yoga practice.

Be open to disruption

I find that a lot of teachers put pressure on you to have a dedicated morning or evening practice every single day. As much as yoga is a huge part of my life, so are my family, friends and other hobbies. We all have to make a living. We all have to show those we care about that we love them and, lets face it, we all need time to bum around and switch off. The art of yoga is just that - balancing.

Life is one big balancing act. Therefore, it might not be practical for us to spend every single morning practising yoga. It might be that we have an intense week at work and we need a lie in on a few days to avoid becoming run down. Or we have a sick relative so we don't get chance to practice for weeks. Whatever the scenario, it's important to remember that you can only do your best with what you have. 

Remembering the deeper reason as to why we practice yoga 

Yoga is the practice of, quite simply, becoming a better person through increased self-awareness. However, yoga is not meant to be a selfish practice.  The more we can connect to our own breath and to how our body feels, the more we can notice around us and the more empathy we can show towards others. 

We should never ignore our other duties for our asana practice. Yes, we can make our asana practice a priority but we shouldn't exclude others from our lives or not socialise to fit it in. When we can't find the time to practice or something happens to disrupt our practice (screaming children, cat throwing up - anything!) it doesn't matter. It doesn't make you a bad yogi. It just means you need to find your balance again (and not through your tree pose). Life is not perfectly planned and nor can your yoga practice be. It's good to have discipline and regularity in your practice but it's no good beating yourself up when things fall out of routine.

Our duties in life are much bigger than our asana practice. Our main duties are to show compassion, love and understanding to all beings. So if your child is screaming and you're in the middle of Savasana - the bigger thing to do is to help that person in need. Whatever we practice on the mat is ultimately for the good of others. There is no need to have a greedy self practice where you ignore the other important bits in your life. Expand your practice out into the world. 

The Vital Energies

Leading on from my last blog post, I wanted to give you a bit more detail about the pranamaya kosha and the vital energies within that sheath. 

The information is adapted from the book 'Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha' by Swami Satyananda Saraswati (pages 371-372). 

The pranamaya kosha is the energy sheath. It consists of five vital energies; prana, apana, samana, udana and vyana. These five vital energies help the body function as each looks after a certain area of the body and its organs.

Prana 

In this context it refers to energy within the body rather than the overarching cosmic prana of the universe (the vital life force). It is concentrating on the flow of energy in the thoracic area between the larynx and the top of the diaphragm. It governs the heart and respiratory organs along with the muscles and nerves that activate them. It can be thought of as the force in which the breath is drawn inside.

Apana

The apana energy flow looks after the abdomen, below the belly button. It provides energy for the large intestine, kidneys, anus and genitals. It controls the expulsion of waste from the body. It's the force that forces out the breath.

Samana

Samana focuses on the space between the heart and the navel, the main part of the torso. It looks after the digestive system and the function of the liver, intestines, pancreas and stomach. Samana controls the assimilation and distribution of nutrients throughout the body.

Udana

We moved to the top part of the body with the udana energy flow. Udana is in charge of the head and neck, leading it to control the sensory receptors like the eyes, nose and ears. Because the udana energy flow governs the sensory receptors it makes sense that it is responsible for the erect posture of the body and consequently our ability to respond to the outer world.

Vyana

Vyana is the concluding energy. It pervades the whole body, regulating all movement. Vyana coordinates the other pranas and is the reserve force for the other pranas.

You can remember these in a more logical order working from the bottom of the body, up; apana, samana, prana, udana and vyana. Or from the top to the bottom; udana, prana, samana, apana and vyana.

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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.

The Yamas and Niyamas of Yoga

Our perception of yoga

Most of us come to yoga for physical reasons (feeling unfit, sore back, bad knees etc), we don't realise how broad a thing yoga is until we've been practising for a while.

My understanding of yoga before my first class was that it was people being bendy. I had the misconception that you had to be flexible to do yoga. I'd heard of 'Aum' and knew people sat crossed legged with their thumb and index finger touching (which I now know as Chin Mudra). I had no idea what the benefits were or that there was a level of philosophy to it. I literally stood on my mat, staring oddly at my teacher who was explaining various things I had never heard of.

Years down the line and I am still learning. One of the reasons I love yoga is because you can always learn something whether this be a new posture, a school of philosophy or something about your Self (with a capital S to signify our higher and divine nature).

Yoga is like an onion

Yoga has many different layers to it. There are four main forms of yoga: Raja Yoga (Royal Yoga - control of the mind); Karma Yoga (selfless service); Bhakti Yoga (yoga of love and devotion); Jnana Yoga (yoga of self study and knowledge). 

Raja Yoga is where the eight-limbs of yoga sit. These eight limbs are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyhara, Dharana, Dyhana and Samadhi. These are the eight guidelines yogis follow. As you may know, asana is the physical practice you do on the mat and pranayama is the breathing you do. At an average yoga class, you will only be taught about two of the eight limbs. 

To the point of this blog...

This blog will focus on two more of those limbs; yamas and niyamas. These can be compared to the ten commandments (but please don't panic, we aren't talking about yoga being religious here - we're talking about the principles of being a good person).

Yamas are the abstinences we practices and niyamas are the observances. There are five of each.

The Yamas

The Yamas are: ahimsa, satya, asteya, bramacharya, aparigraha.

Ahimsa means non-violence. This means practising non-violence against others and ourselves. We are our worst critics. I believe it's easier to put this into practice when it comes to others. It's easy for us to show compassion to others, to not want to hurt anyone. However, we quite often don't apply this to ourselves. We are violent towards ourselves in the way we view ourselves, the way we think about our actions and how we treat our body. When we feel down, instead of excepting that's how we feel, we tell ourselves to 'get over it', 'you're useless', 'you can't do anything right'. We can learn to be more gentle with ourselves in order to practice ahimsa.

Satya means truthfulness. In order to encompass truthfulness into our yoga practice, we can learn to be honest with others and ourselves. Try not to tell lies and try to listen to your body and mind to stay true to what you need. No-one else's opinion matters. It's important to live with integrity.

Asteya means non-stealing. As a yogi we should never take what is not ours. It links with satya and the last yama, aparigraha.

Bramacharya means celibacy. At the time when these yogic texts and scriptures were written, life was very different. Yogis would go off and live in caves alone, leaving their family behind if they had one. In today's society, and especially in a Western society, this is not practical. Therefore, one of my teachers told us to think of bramacharya as being with one person whom you love. It's a practice of being faithful and loyal in a loving relationship.

Aparigraha means non-greed or non-covetousness. This yama tells us to ensure we don't want for other people's possessions. It teaches us to not hoard or have too many material possessions. It also teaches us to not be jealous of what others have and to practice gratitude. 

The Niyamas

The Niyamas are: sauca, santosha, tapas, svadhyaya and ishwara pranidhana.

Sauca means purity. This niyama helps us to ensure we are living purely. This can mean many things and can be practiced in many ways. We can practice sauca by making sure we remain clean and hygienic, that our practice area stays tidy and we eat good food. You can also expand this to mean living with purity in the world by being environmentally friendly whenever possible.

Santosha is contentment. This links with aparigraha for me as we learn to live without greed and at the same time, this teaches us to accept what we have and be grateful. The more contentment we can practice for the things we've been blessed with, the easier life feels. We aren't constantly chasing a desire so our mind can become more peaceful.

Tapas means austerity. Shiva is the God, in Hinduism and yogic philosophy, who likes austerities. These are purifying to the body and soul. We aren't talking about not eating for a week or living with one arm up in the air (like some extreme devotees of Shiva do!) We are talking about not having those biscuits at work, giving up caffeine for a week or fasting one evening. Your austerities never have to be huge - anything small and do-able (and that's the main thing) is perfect. 

Svadhyaya means self-study. We are able to practice self study while doing asana. This allows us to look deeper inside to find all our hidden depths. We can also practice svadhyaya by reading spiritually enlightening books or spending time with advanced yogis and teachers.

Ishwara pranidhana is related to surrender and worship. Some use this as a way to connect with the divinity inside and outside of us. If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of worship (I understand, it's usually understood in a religious context), you can always practice surrender in a personal manner. The next time you're feeling sad, surrender to that emotion, embody it totally without your harsh self critic. Learn to let go and lose that sense of control we often feel we need. 

I hope by having a deeper understanding of some of the eight limbs of yoga, your home practice can flourish. I know that it helped me to learn about the philosophy so I could better understand the aim of my yoga practice.

NB: I used The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali - translation by Swami Satchidananda to write this blog. I recommend it to learn more about Raja Yoga. 

"The paths are many but the peak is one"

According to the Advaita teachings of Hinduism, we all have one goal in life but there are many ways to achieve it. Everyone's goal in life is to be happy. It doesn't really matter how we came to be on Earth and living the life we do, the main aim is to be happy and find peace within ourselves.

Yoga helps to keep us grounded and strong so we can find that inner stillness which is where our true happiness resides. This is a happiness that is separate from desires and material things. It's a quiet place of confidence that we can always go back to.

Personal Practice

Over my years of personal practice and my few years of teaching, I've managed to find a particular style that works for me; this being Sivananda. It's the form of yoga I always come back to and get the same buzz from. I have tried many other styles which have benefited me but not the same way Sivananda has. I love the teachings of Sivananda and they resonate deep within me. 

However, over the last few months, life has got exceptionally busy and finding time to practice the Sivananda sequence has become next to non-existent. I've even had to miss my teacher's lessons which I've found really hard. I've had to adapt my practice to fit in around lots of other daily tasks. A huge part of me wants to escape and only do my practice in an Ashram or anywhere secluded. But I know that this is not the aim of yoga. It's not to shut yourself away and be separate from the world we live in. It's about unity. I have to stay where I am and adapt.

Using online videos

I've signed up for Ekhart Yoga so I can get a 20-30 minute practice in whenever I can. It's great because I don't have to intellectually think about what I want to do next in my sequence. I am being taught. I can let go and be in the moment. 

Now this isn't a Sivananda online yoga place. This is an online yoga community for many yogis. There are thousands of videos to choose from from so many teachers. I can literally try any style I want for such a small fee per month.

Try new things

Some teachings teach that the mind needs repetition to create new grooves and new habits, these are known as samskaras. We have both negative and positive samskaras that make up who we are - they are the reason why we react the same in certain situations, why we struggle to change our bad habits and why we hold certain opinions. They are based on our past experiences, in this life and before. These samskaras create grooves like on a vinyl record that we automatically slip into. Our needle (mind) follows the same pattern as before. Having one form of yoga that you practice emphasises a new, positive samskara. Your mind doesn't need choice as this is a distraction. I agree wholeheartedly with this idea. And if you asked me after my teacher training, I would have rejected anything that wasn't Sivananda.

 A few years later and my opinion has altered significantly. Creating that new samskara with only one form of yoga practice can create a whole other challenge. We can become complacent, bored or practice on auto-pilot. How are we then in the moment with our breath? I have found that, in the absence of not being able to connect with my teacher each week, Ekhart Yoga has been my rock. It offers me variety which keeps my practice fresh. It offers inspiration for my own teaching. It offers me the chance to explore my practice to another level. 

I would encourage anyone who has a yoga practice to always try and keep it fresh. Finding the motivation some days can be hard. You have to try different things to keep you on this path in life. There is no harm in experimenting with varying practices. You might find something that really works for you. And isn't that what yoga is about? Accepting and building connection. The more you shun other ways of achieving the same goal of happiness, the more you are not actually practising yoga.

Ultimately, whenever I haven't practiced Sivananda in a while, I crave it. I can practice lots of styles through Ekhart Yoga but eventually I miss Sivananda and know I must return. This diversity of styles highlights to me how much Sivananda has impacted my life and that bond will never be broken. 

Savasana - an active posture?

You love going to your weekly yoga class. You love the thrill it gives you. You love how peaceful yet awake you feel after. But what you might not like is that period of time where you aren't moving and your intellectual mind starts to kick back in...

The dreaded relaxation at the end where you lie in Savasana completely still with only your breath producing movement in your abdomen. This is most people's idea of hell after some form of exercise. This became especially apparent to me when I taught in gyms. People would become very fidgety all of a sudden, even if they had held the most graceful warrior, as still as a statue.

What is it about lying down completely still that we just don't like? 

In my own experience, if I have had a particularly stressful or worrisome day, my yoga practice has been my saviour. The physical movement energising me, the focus on my breath drawing my mind away from my troubles and the feeling of accomplishment I get when I manage that difficult posture, all helping to bring me back to the present moment. But I have also found Savasana to be the most difficult on those days. My mind may behave while doing the asanas but as soon as I lay down to relax, my mind starts again. Those same repetitive thoughts, going over and over in my head. And no matter what I do, I can't seem to switch them off. 

So how do you achieve the calm Savasana where your mind stays as quiet as it has during the physical side of your practice? 

One way to overcome the mind-body battle in Savasana is to see it as an inclusive part of your practice. This is not something separate from your practice - it is complimentary to it. By viewing Savasana as another posture, it can help to keep the mind peaceful. It's not like slouching on your sofa. It is an active asana. Just as you would guide your body with your breath in any other asana, you can do the same in Savasana. I find it helps to settle myself into it by taking 5-10 deep breaths before scanning the body. These 5-10 breaths are my equivalent of when I hold a standing, balancing or seated posture. It's the same principle. My body is in a certain, still position and my focus is on my breath.  

Another way to keep your mind from becoming overloaded in Savasana is to give it something to focus on. As soon as you lie still and have nothing to pull the mind back to, it will drift off to your everyday worries and concerns. Try counting your breaths, focusing on the individual parts of your body or even tensing and releasing your body parts to draw the awareness further into yourself.

Not only do we seem to struggle with staying still (probably because we live in a society where being constantly busy and on the go is seen as a path to success), we seem to lack the understanding about what this posture does to the body after your practice.

With any form of exercise, if you don't warm up before or cool down after you will likely end up with an injury - think of runners. Your Savasana is your final cool down. It's the time you give yourself to allow the body and it's energies to come back to a normal state, to re-balance. Your yoga practice wakes up all sorts of things in your body; it stimulates hormones, lowers blood pressure, increases circulation (to name a few). By finishing in a relaxation posture, your body can return to its normal temperature (particularly important if you've done a heated yoga class or vinyasa for example).  Without ending in Savasana you aren't allowing your body to readjust and find it's new balance. 

Savasana isn't just there as a physical check in at the end of your practice; it's there as a mental one too. Although most people seem to find Savasana hard to accomplish, it's important to allow yourself that quiet time to notice where your mind is now at. We might enter our practice with lots of energy and consequently, a slightly overworked, agitated mind. Savasana gives you 5-10 minutes to capture that difference. It allows you to realise exactly what effect your practice has on your body and mind. 

My advice is to not skip your Savasana. Use it as your final posture. Your restoration. Your closure. Have 2 minutes or 10 but whatever happens, delight in it. If the mind is still busy, let it be busy. If it's quiet, capture that moment and know that that quiet, calm place is always inside you. It's always there. Use your Savasana to capture the pure essence within.

My struggles with my ego

I've recently started going to another yoga class during the week. I attend my teacher's class every Tuesday in Bristol. It's an intermediate class so does challenge me (rather intensely some weeks) but I felt I wanted to try something new.

After the Christmas break, I felt like I'd lost a lot of strength. I'd set myself the challenge of being able to hold Pincha Mayurasana - forearm balance by the end of 2017 (without a wall may I add) so I knew I needed to get back into my practice, and stronger than before.

I started digging around to try and find some local classes to me. I came across yogapod and decided to try their class on a Wednesday night in Frome. These are Ashtanga based classes and I know Ashtanga is great for building strength and muscle. I thought the combination of stamina for holding poses that I get from a Sivananda class would complement the strength I could build doing Ashtanga.

I have to admit that I haven't been to another class in a long time. I tend to stick with my teacher as I haven't found a teacher like her anywhere else. Once you click with a teacher, you tend not to go elsewhere (or at least not very often). I have been taught by various other people on retreats and when my teacher has had cover but I haven't attended a regular class with anyone but her for the last two years or more. 

I thought 2017 would be the year to change that; to gain more experience of how different teachers teach to aid my own teaching, to gain a deeper understanding of where I am in my practice and to gain more strength than I have ever had before.

So off I went to my first Ashtanga class in Frome. The teacher greeted me with a smile and chatted to me for a bit about my previous experience and style that I teach. I felt quite nervous. It was new environment and I didn't know anyone. I had that same fear beginners get, "What if I'm not very good? What if everyone is better than me?" It was odd to be back in that position. I hadn't felt that for years.

The class started with Kriyas (cleansing practices). We were practising things I hadn't done since my yoga teacher training in 2014. I began to feel I'd already made the right decision. It felt good to experience these other aspects of yoga that I don't always have time to do.

The class then took a turn I didn't expect. We started with super gentle exercises but these lasted 45 minutes - this is not how I thought an Ashtanga class would go. I'd geared myself up for a difficult, maybe even impossible, 90 minutes. I was sat there thinking, "Oh no. This isn't going to help my practice or get me in to Pincha Mayurasana. I've made a mistake."

After the gentle stretches, we started doing the Ashtanga Sun Salutations and the pace picked up suddenly. At that point, it clicked in my head that my ego had been interrupting the first half of the class. I was so caught up with my expectations I had been taken away from the practice itself. 

I was so used to how a class should feel or how a teacher should teach based on my expectations from my own teacher that I had sat through most of the class with a stubborn attitude. I could feel myself wanting to show off and pick up my own pace but I fought this. I listened carefully to instructions. It was like there were two parts to me; the part that wanted to show off and push myself too hard and the part that wanted to just be. I listened to the latter one. 

At the end of the class, after the last 45 exhausting minutes, I rested in my relaxation. I completely zonked out. I felt a sense a relaxation I hadn't for a long time. As my teacher said on my yoga teacher training, "If you give a good relaxation, it doesn't matter how hard you push them during the class". It truly is the relaxation that will keep me coming back to a class. After all, isn't that what yoga is all about - finding that sense of peace and stillness that comes from a place deep within. When the body is rested, the mind will follow.