I’ve been practicing yoga for 10 years now and the more I learn, the more I realise there is to learn. In 2016 I embarked upon a year-long teacher training course and, looking back, that course changed the course of my life. Yoga isn’t just a collection of poses; it’s the quality of attention you bring to them. It’s a way of turning towards your experience with kindness and interest. As it turned out, my experience was rather messy and dissatisfied and, on the mat, I could no longer deny this irreputable fact. For me, finding yoga was like that moment when they turn the lights on at the end of a club night and you realise what a state everyone’s in, including you.
Luckily, yoga was also that friend who took my hand, gave me a bottle of water, and helped me find a taxi home. Or as one of my teachers James Boag more poetically articulates, “everything is coming home to the fullness that it really is”. I believe the body has a natural, intuitive capacity for healing and yoga that is about removing whatever is getting in the way and letting that process unfold in its own (often bizarre and slightly mysterious) way. Accordingly, over the past two years I have been outwardly ‘doing less’ with my practice and turning my attention inward.
I am constantly turning over a phrase my teacher uses in class: to become advanced in the practice is to listen and respond to what your body needs. I like to think I did this before lockdown, but the reality is, I am a social creature. When I go into class feeling tired, run-down and wanting to take it easy, this intention has to compete with my evolutionarily wired tendency to fit in: to do what the teacher is asking, to do what everyone else is doing, and to look good whilst doing it. Despite the ideas I might have had about myself, lockdown has shown me that I am just as susceptible to peer pressure and social comparison as everyone else.
During lockdown I relied mostly on self-practice, without the input of a teacher or the presence of other students, and so all of that has been taken away. Lockdown gave me the chance to ask the question: what would feel most nourishing to your mind, body, and soul right now? And to really listen to the answer. Tellingly, it wasn’t 101 sun salutations or putting my legs behind my head.
Before lockdown I had fallen a little out of love with yoga. It had become a chore. Getting on the mat to do a 90-minute practice was overwhelming. What got me out of bed at 6.30am was not the practice itself but the wonderful community of people I would have coffee with after. By contrast, during lockdown I practiced yoga most days. Not because it was scheduled, or because I “should” or because that’s what Pattabhi Jois suggests I do, but because I wanted to. Because it felt good. Because this simple question of asking what would feel most nourishing for my body, mind and soul is a radical and transformational act. Lockdown was tough for everyone, and for me especially, losing my friend, Mum and partner within the space of a few months. Most days my practice was nothing more than an extended child’s pose, a few reclined twists and curling up under a security blanket. It was one of the best gifts I was able to give myself during that time, especially in the absence of friends and family.
As such, I’ve taken a departure from my initial training in the Ashtanga method (you can read more about my take on the different styles of yoga here). Ashtanga taught me the value of repetition, of syncing body and breath, of how a single well-placed fingertip can teach you more than verbal or visual cues ever will. But it also comes with a pace and rigidity that makes listening to my body untenable. In 2019 I trained in the stiller, slower practice of yin yoga and the deep relaxation methods of yoga nidra (read more about my experiences training here). In this method, your job is to move gently into the poses and then simple to watch. For two, five, even ten minutes. As the tangles of connective tissues unwind, they gently tug the mind along for the ride.
In truth, I need both of these systems of practice. I need a practice that invigorates and strengthens as much as I need one that grounds and soothes. The real challenge is being self-aware and compassionate enough to know what I need at any given time to bring myself back into balance. And so, these are my new guiding principles for my practice: What is going to nourish me? How can I practice with integrity? When I urge myself out of my comfort zone, I do so gently and with awareness. I do so only once I have an established basis of safety which I can come back to at any time. This new approach allows me to challenge myself in a way that avoids injury, fosters resilience and nourishes my whole being in a sustained way.
My teacher Judi summarised our year-long training like this: “practice what you know, teach what you practice”. Now I have found a practice that deeply resonates with my body, I invite you to share this practice with me as I offer it from a grounded and authentic place. In my classes, I hope to integrate my knowledge of ancient, traditional Indian practices with modern physiology and neuroscience to find balance. In yogic terms, to find sthira sukham asanam, translated from the Sanskrit to mean steadiness and ease. In scientific terms, to return the nervous system to a regulated state of safety and connection (more about this in an upcoming blog!). Above all else, I aim to cultivate the body-awareness and knowledge required to know which system of practice you need in any given moment so that you feel empowered in your body rather than hijacked by it.
I’ll finish with these words from neuroscientists and yoga teacher Dr. Mithu Storoni, which perfectly sums up the approach I want to take with my students:
When most of us suddenly go through a stressful experience, we have no control over what’s going on in our own bodies… So, one of the most effective things to do is to learn which buttons to push in yourself, by yourself in any situation so that whatever chaos is taking place around you, you have control over yourself. Yoga lets you discover these buttons that are lurking inside you that most of us have never learnt are there and don’t know how to push. – Dr Mithu Storoni
Join me to find out how.