Yoga consists of multiple disciplines. Much like a university made up of many majors, everything in these disciplines is united under the umbrella of Yoga. All Yoga consists of:
- Proper exercise – asanas,
- proper breathing – pranayama,
- proper relaxation – savasana,
- proper diet – pure, simple, natural foods,
- positive thinking and meditation
Conditioning yourself as a yogi means developing and practicing all of the above to achieve one goal – a balanced whole.
Before going for my yoga teacher training certification, I taught myself yoga through Youtube videos. I couldn’t tell you how I was getting into an asana or how to get out of it. I couldn’t tell you any of the names of the asanas. I couldn’t tell you the purpose of holding those asanas. But practicing daily did make a difference in my flexibility and strength. This was definitely a benefit.
I was able to improve my physical and mental abilities 10 times faster than on my own by getting back to the basics. My guru in India started and ended our yoga sessions with simple, beginner poses. And while that might sound boring, it was exactly what I needed. Before going for the 200 hour yoga teacher training I was not able to balance a headstand longer than 15 seconds, I didn’t have the strength to hold a forearm stand for the life of me, I didn’t have the flexibility to stay in hanumanasa/split pose, I couldn’t sit still with myself to actually meditate, and I hadn’t yet heard of breathing exercises. Needless to say I was oblivious.
What I learned from just one month of intense training is that what might look like lack of strength or lack of flexibility might actually just be poor alignment, imbalance, or improper movement. Muscles are strengthened based on how you use them. With the help of my guru I had discovered a better, much simpler coordination for my body and mind. I was able to improve my physical abilities by taking it back to basics, by starting over and deepening those beginner poses. Following my guru’s simple guide was what made all the difference in my practice.
With that in mind, I decided it might be useful to write about some of his teachings and the pointers that really stuck while I was re-conditioning my body and mind from the ground. (After all, a guru is a guru for a reason, right?!)
Make Remarkable Progress in Your Practice – these 3 tips will get you there:
Fall in love with the process. Fall in love with the practice itself–not the poses. The poses are going to come and go, sometimes daily. With the help of my guru I’ve learned to listen to how my body feels instead of forcing my body to get into a certain pose. I find that a lot of us are guilty of this very thing. We want to tackle a goal right away. We want to do things as quickly as possible. We want everything instantly. I know because that was my mentality when I first started practicing yoga. I just wanted to be able to get into a split or hold a handstand. I get it, our ambitions get the better of us. But the best thing you can do for your practice is learn to go with the flow and the rhythm of the way your body feels…today. Real talk: Some days I feel like a meat-bag and can’t seem to get my balance squared up. Some days I’m P.M.S.ing and can’t do inversions or twisting poses because it hurts too much. Some days my muscles are too tight to get into a full split pose or Lord of the Dance. And as pretty as the finished product always seems, getting into that pose is NOT the purpose of yoga. The purpose of yoga is to connect and discipline the body, mind, and spirit as a unity. Yoga allows the mind and the vital breath to connect with the body’s movements. When you think about yoga from this perspective, something more than just getting into a pose, it makes ALL the difference.
Inform yourself about correct alignment. Proper alignment is what makes or breaks a yoga practice. It’s also what tends to get neglected the most when trying to teach yourself yoga. Improper alignment may cause tension, pain, muscle strain, and takes away some of the essential benefits of holding a pose. For example, in cobra pose the head should be arched back and should not be dropped forward. Following this little tip stretches the thoracic region, expands the rib cage and increases lung capacity. Another cobra tip is to keep the lower abdomen on the mat or ground as this increases internal abdominal pressure which helps combat constipation. These are just two little alignment details that often get overlooked. If you are practicing yoga for good health- wouldn’t you want ALL the benefits of holding each pose? Check out a couple websites, read about your favorite beginner pose and do your best to follow it exactly. With practice, proper alignment will start to happen organically. I used yoga.com as a frequent reference guide and eventually bought myself a book on the anatomy of yoga. That helped a ton! Alignment and flexibility skills go hand in hand and informing yourself about correct alignment allows for more flexibility and balance potential.
Find ways to improve. Gradually deepen your practice as you progress. Get used to familiar movements and poses; repetition is key. Increase flexibility in a balanced fashion. If you are stretching, make sure you are supporting balanced muscle action. One legged pigeon or king pigeon is one of those poses I had to practice cautiously and slowly. I started by using a pillow and a block to help with support. I would dedicate just 15 seconds to breathing into that pose. Then increasing the time to 30 seconds, then 1 minute, then 2-4 minutes. Progressively removing the blocks and the pillow and balancing on my own strength. What I learned throughout that humbling process is that there’s no such thing as a final product in yoga. Once a level of comfort pierces in, your body and mind are going to want to deepen, sharpen, improve, little by little, inch by inch. Yoga is a never ending progress report. I believe it is our duty to discover as much as we can about our own body, strength, resistance, or perception.
With self-mastery comes favorable outcomes.