Can I do Yoga? (Part 2)

When I asked my friends on Facebook what question they would want answered for Q & A April, one friend supplied this:

I’m a hefty girl with dodgy joints. I’ve seen many videos on
Facebook and You Tube and the positions people get into.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do that.
Does it matter? Is it essential I learn to balance on my head?

In Part 1, I wrote about a couple of different yoga bodies because not all yoga bodies are equally represented on Facebook and You Tube. If I were left to write posts on the diversity of practicing yogis, we could be here a while, but because I love yoga diversity and making yoga accessible to as many people as I can, there will be a Part 3 to this blog post series that focuses specifically on that.

For Part 2, I wanted to cover what is essential for a beginner starting their yoga practice. Is it essential to be learning to balance on your head as a beginner? Let’s have a look at this part of the question.

What are the yoga essentials?

I think that this question is like throwing pebbles into a lake and watching multiple ripples flow across the surface. Each pebble is someone’s interpretation of how yoga should be taught and what is vital for a yogi’s progression in their practice. You will come across a number of contributions to the lake and what pebbles you draw back out of the water makes your yoga practice.

I can provide you my insight on the essentials of general yoga practice, only for an example.

Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga is a form of yoga that I’m going to refer to as an example for this blog post. There are many forms of yoga out there, but this one I have been studying and continue to study.

Ashtanga Yoga has eight limbs. For this post we’ll say that a limb equals a step in the practice. Western yoga practices usually pick up at the third step which is Asana – the physical practice of yoga – and fourth step of Pranayama, the breathwork. These are the two main factors that most people focus on as they are combined in a physical practice.

The physical practice is usually completed with meditation in a resting pose or comfortable seated position. Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana are the steps that take us into meditation. They involve bringing the attention into the body, focusing the mind and then eventually releasing the focus, being aware and dwelling in the stillness of the mind.

So, when we have done some physical practice with breathing techniques, we’re ready to sit in meditation.

Do we need to do Asana, Pranayama and Meditation?

Is it essential you do the Asana (physical practice)?
Well, if you’re doing some yoga poses, that’s great! You’re getting mobile, building strength through the resistance of your own body weight and stretching muscles in the body that may have become tight from sitting in one position for prolonged periods. Alternatively, you could be stretching tension out of muscles that have been overused through repetitive movement.

Do we need to balance on our heads in physical practice? There are benefits to doing inversions. Some are circulating the blood around our bodies, back from the extremities and encouraging our lymphatic systems to shift toxins, etc. If you cannot do inversions today, you may be able to do them eventually, given the right circumstances. If your body has a medical condition preventing you from doing inversions, such as un-medicated high blood pressure, there are other things you can do to experience benefits from yoga.

Is it essential that you do the Pranayama (breathing)?
Breathing is definitely essential. Even if it’s not one of the breathwork practices, you can still do your normal breathing and practice progressing in and out of the breathwork until you can maintain some of it or all of it. We’re not going to glare at you until you can do 10 rounds of Oceanic Breath with your mouth closed. Breathe how you need to.

Is it essential that you do Meditation?
I have been in classes where people make an escape route for the door when the last floor pose is done and the teacher has said, “Savasana.” Not everyone likes meditation. That’s okay. I think my first thought on this part is: It is essential to exit quietly before people get comfortable in Savasana.

Have you ever found yourself drifting off at night and there’s a bump of a car door outside that shocks you back from the edge of sleep? It’s similar when we drift into a fully relaxed Savasana. We are aware in our relaxed state, but someone jangling their car keys and walking to the door midway through relaxation breaks our meditation.

Meditation has been known to produce benefits in mental wellbeing and there are more studies coming to light on improved mood, mental resilience and so on. Some people are initially put off meditation from what is known as monkey mind, where thoughts flit in and out of your attention, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. Practice, usually starting with guided meditations, can help to reduce and calm the cacophony of thoughts.

Is it essential to do the spiritual stuff when it comes to yoga? Can I just do the stretching?

Yoga has progressed greatly from the practices where you could not progress to the next level until you had completely mastered the first. At present, there are still forms of yoga that require a certain structure for it to adhere to its heritage and the knowledge handed down through generations. It’s sometimes referred to as lineage.

If you feel that chanting, mantras or kirtan (singing) are not your thing after listening to it or giving it a go, then discuss it with your teacher. I have had some people attending classes where I will do a brief chant to close the practice. I usually sing in Sanskrit and then speak the translation afterward, so people are aware of what was sung instead of it being completely unknown and irrelevant to them. Some will give it a try, some will stay silent and listen to the sounds. It is their choice and their yoga practice.

Ease into your beginner essentials

Take your time starting out in yoga. Try a few different types of classes. They could be Vinyasa Flow, Power Yoga, Yin Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Purna Yoga, there’s many options to find the class you like.

Remember the essential basics of movement, breathwork and meditation to start with. There’s many different ways to meditate too, so give a few a try, and if you try a mantra or chant and it’s not your thing, okay. You may find that any of these things may not be right for you now and you may revisit them later. That headstand can be visited later too.

Get out there and try some yoga first and learn what you can do in your body. You may find it’s a body that likes working towards handstands more than a headstand. It might like forward folds more or leg-balancing poses. This is all going back to the diversity in the people that practice yoga and what we can do in our body from one day to the next.

 

Part three of this Q & A April post will follow soon, as a special post titled This is a Yoga Body. It will present a few photos supplied from the yoga community and how we each practice in our own ways.

Thank you for reading!

 

Photo via Visual hunt
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Can I do Yoga? (Part 1)

When I asked my friends on Facebook what question they would want answered for Q & A April, one friend supplied this:

I’m a hefty girl with dodgy joints. I’ve seen many videos on
Facebook and You Tube and the positions people get into.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do that.
Does it matter? Is it essential I learn to balance on my head?

This is a good question to ask.

Many people these days see images and videos of yogis who have a slender, powerful, flexible body and are deterred from giving yoga a go. I can only speculate why there is such a high amount of posts online that build a stereotype of what a yoga body looks like and what a yoga body can do. There are people out there of all shapes and sizes, various ages, genders, nationalities and abilities doing yoga.

The definition of who can do yoga is a lot broader than you may initially think.

Dodgy joints, arthritis, scoliosis. . . Can I really do yoga?

The first thing I have to say is: Ask your doctor or allied healthcare professional.
They have done the medical hard yards to understand bodies and the scope of their ability, and yoga teachers value their input. When I first started practicing yoga over five years ago, I asked my Osteopath and Physiotherapist what I should be careful of and what I could do with my arthritis. I then took that information along to my class and the teacher advised what pose modifications I could make, or which poses I should substitute.

The same goes for “dodgy joints”. In this case, I’ll use the example of joint hypermobility. One common thing that can happen for people with hypermobility in the knees is they can lock back, causing a bowing of the legs, knee discomfort and a risk of damage. With guidance from your health professional, a yoga teacher will be able to assist you with directions to protect your knees or other joints.

While I am on the topic of knees, I am reminded of Arthur Boorman’s story and transformation from being a disabled veteran in leg braces, to reclaiming mobility through the practice of yoga. You can access a short video here on Arthur’s yoga journey.

Yoga as therapy

Yoga is more than a flexible person sitting in an asana (pose) with their feet wrapped behind their head. It is more than being strong and able to balance on your head.

Yoga is a many-faceted practice that enables people to access it from different angles. Anna Pesce was in the headlines in late 2016 when her regular Yoga Therapy sessions made a notable difference for her scoliosis. You can see Anna’s video story here. Yoga Therapy is another limb, or approach, to yoga. Yoga can be a physical therapy as well as an option for psychological therapy and research is continually emerging about the benefits yoga may contribute to these fields.

We all have our individual experience with yoga

While I have supplied some uplifting transformational stories in this post, I need to remind you that we will all have a different experience with our yoga practice. Results you get out of practicing may be different to the friend that practices with you. In yoga, our journey does not belong to the person on the mat next to us. It is our own.

 

Part two of this Q & A April post will follow shortly, covering some essential starting points for practice and discussing whether headstands and other advanced poses matter.

 

Photo credit: ejmc via Visualhunt /  CC BY-SA