I don’t really like the telly (except the late Bake Off and anything involving living in Alaksa)… but I do like David Attenborough. So last Sunday night I was happy to hear him accompanying a screen full of bleary-eyed, itchy bears crawling out from their Rocky mountain hibernation to go and find a good tree to scratch on. There was a groovy little beat playing and everyone was having a fine time. Even the little ones were trying a bit of a face-first tree shimmy.
This got me to thinking.
We are not like bears. (Deep, I know, but stick with me). As well as – hopefully – being less hairy and smelly, we don’t ever slow down. Ever.
Winter comes. The natural world settles back into itself for a little while. We carry on pushing and striving and enduring.
Even when the dark nights make us feel like we want to curl up earlier and get some rest, we look around at what friends and colleagues are doing and allow that to push us into going harder, longer. We get the serious FOMOs (fear of missing out) or worry about falling behind. Professionally, socially… we’re all so prone to putting up goalposts in our head. When I was younger I was convinced that by 30 I’d be happily married with two kids, lots of letters after my name, a mortgage, pension and close to partnership in a vet practice. In reality, I spent so much time achieve, then freaking out that I was still years behind schedule that I didn’t see or acknowledge that what I wanted had completely changed. Instead I ran around like a perennially dissatisfied headless chicken.
I don’t think I’m alone in having spent a lot of time and energy trying really hard to go in the wrong or no direction. We need to stop constantly chasing things, qualifications and lifestyles we’re not sure why we want.
When we look outside ourselves for validation, we get pushed completely out of sync with the ebb and flow of the Earth’s seasons. We go all out, all the time.
Wouldn’t it be better if we could accept the natural lull of winter as an opportunity to meet our need for rest and recuperation? If we could deeply honour the rhythm of our bodies and souls? We could regroup and recharge, ready to pour ourselves into projects we’re genuinely passionate about.
By slowing down and becoming still, we create space to listen to our intuition. Our inner wisdom always available to us, but we’re often so fast and loud we drown it out. A little introspective down time allows us to gauge what we can cut away, what’s weighing us down and holding us back. It gives us clarity. When we have time to really look, we can see the patterns in our actions – the concept of samskaras in yoga – that we don’t have to keep blindly re-living again and again. We set up a fresh start, and continue to grow in a way that’s true to ourselves.
Everything in nature, like every one of us, has its own time to bloom. We can learn a lot from the bears, or even the flowers in our garden when it comes to respecting our own inner rhythms and seasons. Because, despite what we tell ourselves, we don’t have to be producing constantly. And our best work often happens when we’ve had a decent sleep.
Yoga at home is probably one of the most wonderful gifts you can give yourself every day. Even if only for a few minutes, it gives us a chance to check in with our bodies, minds and intuition for as long (or as briefly!) as we want and it really deepens and sustains our practice between classes.
Better still, we can do it on our own schedule, we don’t have to drive anywhere and… especially if you don’t live in the city and/or have a job or family to take care of… many days it feels like our only option besides going without.
Getting started is much easier than you’d think – you don’t have to feel like you’re already an expert. My personal practice started as a nervous exploration of things I’d picked up in class and eventually led me off to teacher training. Once you start breathing and stretching in your own time, I promise you’ll be amazed at how good you feel and what you discover about yourself.
Creating your own practice is a personal process of trial and error, but below are some lessons I’ve learned that will hopefully make things a little easier so getting on the mat at home becomes a regular occurrence and not just a nice idea!
Okay so nesting has been on my hormone-addled mind a lot recently but progesterone aside, it’s really nice to have a designated space to practice in. Even if it involves a little furniture rearranging, you only need to find enough floor to be able to lie down and – ideally – spread your arms wide. You don’t even really need a mat if you don’t have one. You’re already enough and have enough to start.
If you do have a mat, roll it out. If you have space, consider leaving it out. Even neatly rolled up, if it’s out it’ll act as a reminder of what you’re missing. This doesn’t tend to happen so much if it’s stashed in the boot room, coat cupboard or back of your car.
Don’t be afraid to make your space a bit special. Although some days we’re good to just unroll our mats and crack on, it’s often nice (and not too taxing) to turn our practice into an occasion by lighting a few candles or some incense, hitting play on some mood-boosting music or rubbing some of aramoatherapy oil into our pulse points.
I don’t like scheduling things beyond strict necessity. It’s a bit grown-up and restrictive for my tastes. But it is annoyingly effective! Just like work deadlines, family commitments and ‘normal’ yoga class – if it isn’t in our diary, our home practice often isn’t happening.
Self-care and yoga are usually the last thing we dedicate our time to and the first things to get brushed aside when we get busiest… unhelpfully, when we need them most. This, quite literally, is not good for us.
Whether it’s earmarking a full hour of peace to do a deep flow or putting on yoga clothes when you wake up so you find time for a few sun salutations before you leave the house… some kind of plan tends to (read: always) work better than ‘I’ll probably do some yoga later.’
Devices have it for a reason – and I don’t think anybody flies enough for it to actually involve airline travel. It’s refreshing to hang up your virtual ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign for a little while.
Use a real-life clock if you have to keep your eye on the time, or set an alarm if you know you have to be somewhere – ideally one that allows for a few minutes of relaxing in Savasana before you up sticks. Once you start time-checking your non-aeroplaned mobile, it’s a quick and slipperly slope into checking your texts or e-mails. This does not make for a peaceful practice you’ll want to return to.
No pressure, no limits
Before my pregnancy, I had a fairly strict idea of what my home practice looked like – as much of the Ashtanga primary and/or second series as I had time for or a deep 45-minute yin session. Probably with a side of hand-standing. Although this discipline was great for my physical practice, the idea of actually doing it didn’t always make my heart (or achey muscules) sing and I’d sometimes find an excuse not to bother. If you run, you’ll be familiar with this feeling. It’s usually easier to lace up for a 3-mile jog than an 11-mile race-pacer.
Now I’m a lot more flexible with my practice (figuratively, if not literally) and pick my style each day. Sometimes I switch halfway. I know whatever I choose, it’ll make me feel better.
It’s much easier to go to our mat with the intention of doing even 7 minutes of sun salutations than a full hour of edge-of-our-limit contortion. Practicing this way, we often exceed our expectations. Chase feelings of ease and openness, not poses, time frames or you the intensity you think you think you need to burn off that night’s dinner.
Some days we don’t want to move. Or we know moving would be good for us but are under no illusions about actually extricating ourselves from the sofa. That’s okay. Because meditation is yoga, but sat still. Or even lying down. Ideally not on the sofa or in bed, but when needs must… it’s all good. Just try not to fall asleep.
Meditation practices actually make up 3 of the 8 traditional limbs of yoga. Our physical practice is just 1. This was perhaps a hint from the ancients at their relative importance and potential to change our life! Like solo-yoga, getting started with meditation is easier than we want to believe. Just pick a meditation you’ve enjoyed from class, light a candle and flame-gaze or try THIS easy technique… find a few quiet minutes and off you go.
It’s completely normal to feel a little confused or bemused as to exactly what you should be (or are) doing on your mat sometimes. There’s lots of books and internet to browse for ideas, and don’t forget to make the most of free trials to online class subscription sites such as YogaGlo and Gaiam.tv
I’m always happy to help with ideas for home practice and what you’re already working on in your own time – just send me an e-mail, comment below or catch me after class. Please reach out! Many people also find occasional private sessions can really give them some clarity and confidence, and they don’t have to be a weekly commitment. I have so much love for this traditional way of teaching and learning yoga, especially as we can choose asana and exercises best suited for you as an individual and sketch up a home practice sequence that will really stick.
P.S. If you want to learn more about meditation, but aren’t ready to go it alone – make sure you’re on the e-mail list for details coming very soon about new meditation classes starting in May and a 21-day online program (which you really can do in your own time, wherever you are) that’s very excitingly in the pipeline!
March 20th was the spring vernal equinox. For a tiny slice of time the earth span completely upright on its axis, day and night were equal in length across the planet, light and dark are matched and yoga teachers across the globe heed the call to talk about finding balance in our lives as well as our Uttitha hasta padanghustasana.
Balance is something of a buzzword in yoga. Studios are named after it, teachers use nifty balance sound-bites and in every yoga class we go to, if we don’t find ourselves standing on one leg and doing strange things with the other one then we’re holding a pose and trying to find the perfect equilibrium between stretching ourselves (both literally and figuratively) without pushing to a point of lasting discomfort.
But what if constant pursuit of the conventional ideal of ‘balance’ in our lives – particularly the one upheld by the yoga community – is a bit like chasing a unicorn?
Maybe balance as we typically imagine it is a little over-rated.
A few years ago, I was really driving my veterinary career. I did a surgical and medical internship in one of the best horse hospitals in the country and suddenly found myself working more hours than I was aware existed in a week, earning way less than when I was 17 and at ‘Pizza Hut’ and coming nowhere near the daily recommended allowances for sleep, vegetables and exercise. Unless you counted cat-napping in pathology meetings, ketchup and chasing errant patients and/or vet students. One particularly memorable bank holiday I scored a 64- hour shift without a shower, sleep or proper meal. My life was not balanced. But, in the moment, I was pretty happy. I had purpose and was working towards something that was important to me.
We all go through phases like this. Take the first flashes of a new relationship. We choose our beloved over (healthy) food, sleep, self-care and phoning our friends and grandmas. Life is messy and spontaneous – it doesn’t drop neatly into equally proportioned boxes.
Even when I decided to devote more energy to yoga because 100+ hour weeks knee-deep in poo weren’t doing it for me anymore (and I love it), I still didn’t move in the ‘balanced’ way people expected. I quit my job, moved to a damp and crumbling farmhouse in a new area, simultaneously started two completely different businesses and acquired a puppy, a parrot and a proverbial bun in the oven. A hair-brained plan. Well, it wasn’t a plan. It was some more intense, free-wheeling shooting from the hip. But I’m happier than I ever thought I had a right to be.
I’m just not convinced we make the biggest impact in our lives when we prioritise equally dividing our attention between our career, family, significant other, friends, self-care, diet, dogs and gym routine.
Just like in asana, our ‘ideal balance’ in life is immensely personal. What looks great on one person would result in bone breakage for others. What might look slow and easy from the outside can be a ridiculously rich and fierce experience inside.
If our physical balance in class is a reflection of our inner balance… and I immediately pulled myself up the one time those oft-quoted words left my mouth in class, then it’s not the cookie cutter balance we’re often led to believe we’re searching for. It’s unearthing peace and equanimity with exactly where we are and immersing ourselves in the present moment. If we’re wobbling (and wobbling is cool) it’s likely because we’re momentarily stuck in the past or racing ahead to what comes next, rather than being fundamentally out of whack.
When we’re genuinely consumed by what’s happening right now, when our reality makes us feel electric and alive, our posture blossoms and steadies. Off the mat, our life feels productive and worthwhile.
Instead of defining balance as equal division of attention between our various earthly commitments, that division should feel appropriate to ourselves and the moment. Who cares if our pose or our ‘work-life’ choices look wonky as sh*t from the outside?? If it genuinely feels delicious and lights you up then go for it. And more power to you.