On creating a home Yoga practice
It hardly needs stating, but no, that's not me in the photo. This blog is a reflection on what I've learnt from NOT being able to do the Wheel. I’m currently about three quarters of the way through a British Wheel of Yoga Foundation Course. It’s given me a deeper understanding of the history and philosophy of yoga and helped a lot in terms of structuring my own practice at home. Although I love going to yoga classes, especially at Epping Golf Club, Fringe, Stretch and TriYoga, some weeks it’s harder than others to get to a class, and sometimes when I do make it to one, no matter how great the class is, it might not necessarily be what my body needs at that time.
As I gradually become more in tune with my body, not just physically, but emotionally and energetically, I’m starting to learn what asanas are going to help me at any given time, and am making the effort to practice at home so that I can do what I need to. This also fits neatly with the practice of gratitude for what I already have – it can be done at home with just a yoga mat, and doesn’t require a babysitter. Win win.
It’s been fascinating to delve deeper into the effects of different asanas on the body, mind and emotions and experiment with them myself. Over a period of years my response to different poses has really changed. I used to find Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) a bit of a strain; it sent the blood to my head, and felt physically awkward, as though I’d bent forward to pick something up and just neglected to come back up again. Regular practice has transformed it for me into a soothing and calming pose. Balasana (Child pose), so often used as a rest pose by teachers in between stronger asanas, I’ve found progressively more difficult as time as gone on. My feet are uncomfortable when pronated and I struggle mentally with the enforced stillness and reflection. And thus the mat is a mirror that reflects what we find difficult on and off it. Or to put it another way, observing the effect of various poses is in itself a yoga practice: Svadhyaya, or yogic self-study.
Recently we worked on Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel pose) on the Foundation course and it tested me like no other. It’s a pose that most children can do instinctively but that many adults who have a sedentary lifestyle slowly lose the ability to get into. I was aware of the pose and although it was new to me, when our teacher demonstrated it I expected I’d be able to get there. I’d heard that, as a guide, the upper-body strength needed to get into the Wheel is equivalent to that needed to hold a plank for five decent breaths. I could do that, and I instinctively felt that my spine was flexible enough. Plus I could remember doing it, aged about eight. Surely this was no biggie.
What I hadn’t even considered is that many asanas need so much more than strength and flexibility. Back bends require the chest to open, and therein was my problem. The tightness of my shoulders and upper back (and the associated emotional echo of being protective and closed), not to mention the six-month period I'd recently spent regularly smoking, which physically restricts the lungs, meant that I couldn’t open my upper body sufficiently to get up there. I was surprised and disappointed, but also more angry than this seemed to warrant. For days afterwards, I practised, failed and questioned what I could do to ‘achieve’ this asana. I was also confused. There are plenty of poses I physically can’t get into (or can’t get into YET) and I wasn’t beating myself up about not being able to do Eight-Angle pose, for example. I had to really try to unpick why this one was so important to me.
The knowledge that I needed a greater ability to be open was uncomfortable because it hit home. I was aware – even if I didn’t want to acknowledge it – that my shyness, introversion and fear of emotional intimacy had prevented me from achieving a lot more than just a yoga pose. Was I ready to tackle that? Was the anger at myself for the chances, opportunities and relationships I might have had if I hadn’t got in my own way?
One of the most fascinating things about yoga for me – and also the least expected – is the Svadhyaya process. I used to Google things like ‘Why does this asana make me feel this way?’ Now I know that no pose ‘makes’ you feel anything – it’s more likely to reveal an emotion that was already there, that you weren’t in touch with, until you moved.