Jade Lizzie

Sharing the yoga love

Month: February 2015

3 ways Ashtanga yoga proved me wrong

ShouderstandsUp until last year, I’d had very limited experience of Ashtanga yoga – I’d been to one class and had watched a few Youtube clips. I was not a fan. However, over the last few months, Ashtanga yoga has somehow seeped into my life, and I’ve worked my way up to a six-day per week Primary Series practice. One of the best things has been in the number of ways this daily practice has proved me wrong! These are 3 of my misconceptions…

  1. In Ashtanga, you need to perform advanced asanas perfectly

My first Ashtanga class felt competitive and almost aggressive.  I really wanted to like it, and to like it I thought I had to be “good” at it. I was so attached to the idea of achieving the perfect asana that when I couldn’t, I got frustrated. I looked around the class and saw others flowing through their vinyasas and seemingly effortlessly moving into postures I found painful just to watch. I wondered how the hell I was doing so badly, and strangely enough, I found an excuse not to go back the next week!

I now realise that the competitiveness and desire for perfection came from me. No one in that class told me that I had to perform each pose fully, perfectly, or even attempt it at all if it was beyond my capabilities. The aggressive attitude was fuelled not by the teacher or the style of yoga, but my own ego. I wasn’t willing to allow myself to be a beginner. Once I let go of the desire to do it “well” and just focused on the process of moving towards each asana, I found it to be a very different experience.

  1. Ashtanga hurts

Two years ago, doing a workout programme called Insanity (not an ironic name, as it turned out!), I injured my lower back, which caused chronic pain. Lots of nerve irritation and muscles in spasm did not go well with trying to force myself into the forward bends of the Primary Series during that first Ashtanga class, and I spent most of the class and the week after it in agony.

I realise now that the increased pain was not caused by Ashtanga but by my approach to it. I was trying to push through and ignore painful sensations. So when I tried it again, I went back to basics. I carefully, taught myself the asanas one at a time and valued the correct alignment more than going deeply into postures. In the process I learnt about my body – what worsened the back pain and what helped. I tried to lengthen, rather than bend into forward folds. I learnt the importance of strengthening and engaging my core, and found that hip openers greatly relieved the tightness in my lower back. I am still learning, but my pain is significantly reduced, despite the fact I am doing more physical activity than ever.

  1. Ashtanga is boring

When I first realised that Ashtangis do the same sequence of postures every time they practise, I couldn’t think of anything worse. I crave variety and change, and the thought of doing the same thing every single day seemed mind-numbingly dull. Even once I decided to give Ashtanga another try, I wasn’t keen on repeating it every day. I wanted to avoid those asanas that didn’t feel good and spend more time playing with the ones I could do.

But what I experimented with was just noticing those thoughts, and then continuing with my practice anyway. I found physical and mental strength in the discipline of not following my thought patterns into altered behaviour. And I began to tune into the subtle differences in my experience and the sensations of the asanas each day. When I did this, my practice became anything but monotonous. Every session is unique, and following the same series of asanas allows me to be more sensitive to the differences I feel in my body.

I’m just at the beginning of my journey with Ashtanga, and it’s already proved me wrong on many counts. I think this is a good thing, because it means I must be learning!  It’s not the only style of yoga I enjoy, but it has become the “bread and butter” of my self-practice.

Has anyone else had a change of heart about Ashtanga? Do you love it or hate it? Please comment and let me know – I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The image shows the pod of hotpod yoga, a purple inflatable room filled with yoga mats and lit at the sides.

Sweating it out at Hotpod Yoga in Nottingham

2021 Edit:

Since writing this post in 2015, I’ve changed my mind about hot yoga. I had one particularly bad experience of it in California, and on more than one occasion I finished hot yoga feeling physically ill and having aggravated injuries through overstretching. Instead, I now prefer to use the internal heat I can build through my own effort and breath in a strong yoga class.

However, I’m leaving the original post below for the sake of integrity. I know lots of people love hot yoga and I think it’s important you have chance to make up your own mind about these things (and you too have the right to change your mind!). I stand by my comment about taking a big towel though…

Why hot yoga could be ideal for reluctant yogis

It was with some trepidation that I arrived for my first ever hot yoga class on Tuesday evening at Hotpod Yoga in West Bridgford, Nottingham. The thing is, I’m the sort of person who gets nervous in a sauna. After 2 minutes, I feel panicky and have to check that a) I know where the door is, and b) I can open it. I’ve learnt the hard way that this can be off-putting for other sauna users, hence I tend not to inflict myself on them too often.

The image shows the pod of hotpod yoga, a purple inflatable room filled with yoga mats and lit at the sides.
Photographer credit: Ed Reeves

So it was with some relief that after a lovely welcome from Sarah, the teacher, I let myself into the heated pod, and found that it felt pleasantly warm, not unbearably hot. I could actually breathe quite easily. The pod itself I can best describe as an inflatable, deep purple tardis. It’s a sort of grown-up, enclosed bouncy castle, lit by candle lamps and heated with portable heaters. Now, I’m no snob about where I do yoga. In fact, some of the best classes I’ve attended have been in run-down community centres with biscuit crumbs from the morning’s toddlers’ group stamped into the carpet. However Hotpod Yoga Nottingham had transformed this unremarkable church hall into a space which felt almost magical. It was as if we were cocooned in our own special little yoga bubble.

However, my slightly smug “It’s not even that hot in here,” thoughts did not last long. After 10 minutes of gently-flowing vinyasa yoga, I was drenched in sweat. My nana used to tell me that ladies don’t sweat, they glow. If this is true, my experience at hot yoga proved beyond any shadow of a doubt (as if this were needed) that I am no lady. Before the class I had deliberated over my choice of towel – I could only lay my hands on either a little gym towel or a giant bath sheet. I opted for the little one, a decision I quickly came to regret. I could have done with two bath sheets. Performing parivrtta trikonasana becomes a whole lot more challenging when you are trying to stop yourself from sliding right off your mat and into your neighbour.

That said, the heat really helped my muscles to let go. Under Sarah’s encouraging guidance, I felt my body move easily into deeper lunges, twists and back bends. My upper back and shoulders, where I hold a lot of tension because I work on my laptop for most of the day, clicked and crunched satisfyingly through the whole practice. By the end they were so released I felt like my head was lighter. It was better (and cheaper!) than a deep-tissue massage.  I had also tried my first Kayla Itsines workout the day before and so I was experiencing major DOMS in my quads. This class was great to ease some of that out.

I’d say in fact that this class is perfect as a counter to both sedentary office-style working and any physical training which leaves you feeling tight and sore.

Although as I’ve practised yoga, I’ve become more comfortable with exploring some of its more spiritual aspects, I know a lot of people who would benefit from yoga are resistant to trying it. They find its new-age, hippy-ish reputation too esoteric and off-putting. HotPod Yoga as its website states, pares down “thousands of years of yoga tradition…to some critical, logical and powerful elements.”  This makes it ideal for anyone who wants to feel the physical benefits, as well as the relaxation of yoga, without “chanting, a cult mentality… or haughty gurus.” I think the “Namaste” from Sarah at the end of the class was about as overtly spiritual as the class got, and yet I still left it feeling physically and emotionally uplifted.

To sum up, despite all my initial reservations, I whole-heartedly recommend you give hot yoga a try. Just remember to take a decent-sized towel!

Yoga Teacher Training in Valencia: The Highlights

Why I’d choose Yoga Teacher Training over a holiday any day of the year…

Valencia pool picI spent 10 beautiful days in Valencia in October last year beginning my Yoga Teacher Training with Bahia Yoga. It was amazing. I got a few quizzical looks when I told people I was spending 10 days of my precious annual leave on a course. “But don’t you want a holiday?” was a question I was asked a lot. I did (and still do, to be honest!) but this was better.

Before I start to rave about the weather and the stunning surroundings (which I am going to, you have been warned!), it is worth pointing out that this was a serious study course, not a yoga retreat. Every day I learnt so much physically, academically and emotionally that my brain hurt and my body ached.  Despite the fact I am usually a chronic insomniac, I fell asleep almost instantly each night, which was a good job given that our alarm for morning meditation went off at 5.45am. I enjoyed the whole process though, massive geek that I am. Having spent five years as a teacher, there is something lovely about allowing yourself to be a student again, and completely focusing on learning from others.

Once I’d chosen to train with Bahia Yoga, I had a choice as to whether to study one weekend per month in Nottingham, or to do the course over two 10-day stints in Valencia. Now, I am a big fan of Nottingham – it’s my home city and I think it’s massively underrated, but I have to say, it was a no-brainer for me. The opportunity to study in beautiful Valencia, where we could practise outside, and relax by the pool during study breaks was one I could not turn down. Even the weather was on our side – it was October, but still beautifully warm and sunny.

Being so far away from everything, we were in a secluded little bubble. It was still pitch black when we got up each morning, but this meant I experienced for the first time the magic of practising yoga as the sun came up. Meals were eaten in silence (or at least we tried!) and the daily meditation practice meant I felt more relaxed and at peace than ever before.

That’s not to say that it was a humourless affair. It’s possible I’m slightly biased, but I am of the firm belief that people who do yoga are especially interesting, lovely and funny. And the wonderful people I trained with in Valencia proved my theory. It was like spending 10 days with old friends, except old friends whose stories and jokes you haven’t heard before, so you still have all the enjoyment of getting to know each other.

Admittedly this desire to learn more about each other did lead to some bending of the silence rules. Particularly around bedtimes, mild hysteria tended to kick in, as we dissected the day, whispering while we completed our homework. Decidedly un-yogic mosquito massacres also became part of our shared routine.  My new yoga buddies provided light relief when the physical practice became too intense – my favourite quote of the course came from one fellow trainee (who shall remain nameless!) who gasped after lifting up into Bow Pose. When the teacher asked her what was wrong she announced to the room, “It hurts my fanny!”

The whole experience was brilliant – I returned feeling rested, re-energised and motivated to make the changes in my life that I had been avoiding for a long time. I could not be more pleased that in April I will be returning to Valencia to (hopefully!) complete my Yoga Teacher Training. It turns out there are some things that are even better than holidays.

Yoga and cake with the cool kids in East London

Photo reproduced with kind permission of Mandy at Emm in London

After a stressful week, spending a day in London with a friend yesterday was exactly what I needed. She’s recently moved to Bethnal Green, and we went to a Dynamic Yoga class with Adam at Stretch London on Ada Street, which came highly recommended by another friend. It was brilliant.

Since I started my yoga teacher training, I’m constantly on the lookout for things I can learn from other teachers – it’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about my travel plans for the next six months. As a teacher, and I’m not just talking about yoga here, I think you learn the most from watching other teachers – everyone has their own unique teaching style and that’s great, but I have never seen a single lesson or been to a single class that I couldn’t take something away from. That said, I’ve been focusing recently on my self-practice of yoga, so I was very ready to experience some actual teaching again.

The teacher and class yesterday were so good that had I not been completely zenned out by the end I would have been grabbing my notebook and frantically making notes so I didn’t forget anything. So while it’s still reasonably fresh in my mind, what did I like best?

The creativity and openness of the practice

I’ve been basing my daily practice for the last 12 weeks on the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series. I’ll  blog about this soon, because I do love it, but because this is so structured and disciplined, it was great to mix it up a bit. I wasn’t sure what to expect from “Dynamic Yoga”, but it was a beautiful flowing class with quite an unexpected sequence of postures. Adam combined longer holds of postures with flowing sequences and vinyasas in an order which kept me on my toes, and yet felt very natural.  He invited his students to make the practice their own – to adapt if postures didn’t feel good.

The adjustments

This openness of approach did not lead to a lapse in focus on form, which can be the danger with very flowing classes. It’s so easy to inadvertently injure yourself by rushing through postures with poor form, but Adam’s instructions and adjustments were precise and clear. Yes, you could adapt the flow to suit your body, but no, you could not lose all sense of form and alignment. I love adjustments, because I find it difficult to sense where exactly my body is in space. I tell myself I’m not clumsy, just proprioceptively-challenged! Unsurprisingly, it turns out my hips in trikonasana and downward facing dog are nowhere near where I thought they were. I got two helpful adjustments during this class, which I thought was good going, considering there were 24 students in the class.

The supportive, yet challenging atmosphere

I’ll admit, I was a little apprehensive that the class would feel a bit cliquey – it’s right next to Shoreditch, so it definitely attracts the cool kids of yoga. But actually, the atmosphere was inviting and supportive. I felt completely welcome as a newbie and outsider, which does not go without saying at all yoga studios in my experience. Although Adam left it to us to determine the level that we pushed ourselves to, there were plenty of opportunities to take more advanced options. It challenged me in a different way to my ashtanga practice (and I can absolutely feel it today in my obliques! Yoga abs here I come…)

As an added bonus, we were able to float out of the yoga class and straight into Broadway Market. I personally recommend the organic carrot cake – it’s the best I’ve ever tasted (and I’ve tried a lot!).  It’s all about balance, right?!

Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Mandy at Emm in London

How I learnt not to take yoga too seriously

Prayer flags Nepal

In 2007 I volunteered in Nepal with the charity TravelAid. Bhola Yogi, the principal of the children’s home where we worked offered to teach us yoga in return for our volunteering.  He didn’t have to ask twice. There was no way we were going to miss out on the opportunity to tell people we’d been taught yoga at 6am every morning on a rooftop in Nepal, by a man whose actual surname was “Yogi”.

6am yoga classes sound pretty hardcore, and in retelling the stories since, I’ve made them sound that way. But actually  in true Nepali style, Bhola-ji’s approach was laid back.  We would practise one posture, maybe two, and then Bhola would instruct us to, “Take rest.” Every minute of effort was followed by one of rest.  We loved it.  Yoga became an excuse to lie on our mats and gaze up at the sky as the sun rose each morning.

He had a similarly undemanding approach to postures that we found challenging. “If you can’t do the yoga, just think about doing the yoga. Same thing,” he would say with a dismissive wave of his hand. I’ve often wondered since whether this principle applies to other activities. When I can’t get out of bed on a bitterly cold January morning for my 6.45am spinning class, will just thinking about it have the same effect? I really hope so.

Bhola-ji did not shy away from directing us about the more personal details of our yoga practice. “Long toilet before yoga, so the stomach is free.  Short toilet after,” was his euphemistic instruction.  And he practised what he preached.  Many a morning we sat shivering on the rooftop at 6am waiting for Bhola to finish his “long toilet” before he would come to teach us.

Our yoga practices like most aspects of our lives in Nepal were seemed hilarious. Perhaps we were giddy from the shortage of oxygen at altitude, or maybe from the sugar in all the mangoes we were eating, but most postures had us collapsed in fits of giggles. Bhola positively encouraged this – one of his all-time favourite postures was Happy Baby, which he urged us to laugh our way through.  This wasn’t something I found difficult given that I was holding a position that made me feel ready for a gynaecological exam. It wasn’t elegant. When you add to that the fact that Bhola’s favourite instruction was to tell us all to “Relaaaaax,” you have a recipe for hysteria.

He had the last laugh. We’d been diligently practising our sun salutations for 4 weeks when Bhola admitted that the “Lion’s Roar” – an open-mouthed, claw-fisted posture that he’d encourage us to hold then loudly roar to release – was just something he included as a joke when he taught children. He never expected us to fall for it.

Being surrounded by such happy people with such an amazingly positive approach to life taught me not to

Returning to yin: my first yoga love

Yin YangI’m beginning my yoga blogging a little closer to home, with the class that started my yoga obsession. Perhaps surprisingly for someone who enjoys exercising to the point of sweaty, scarlet-faced, endorphin-fuelled exhaustion, my first consistent yoga practice was yin yoga. Shortly after I moved back to Nottingham in 2008, I went along to one of Mike Morris’ yin yoga classes, and from that point onwards I was hooked.  I went every week, and (sometimes!) even remembered to practise in between.

Yin yoga is a slow and mindful practice, where you hold postures for much longer periods of time than in most forms of hatha yoga, typically 3-5 minutes. Rather than muscular effort, you use gravity and your own body weight to go deeper into the postures. This allows access to the fascia and connective tissue, which in the Taoist tradition are thought of as the “yin” tissues of the body.

I loved it. The stillness, the calm, the letting go, and even the discomfort.  Because for all its deceptive gentleness, yin yoga can be really damned uncomfortable.  While you may not be holding the postures through muscular exertion, you still feel it. Trust me on this one. Five minutes of “allowing gravity to do the work” while you lie in sleeping swan with your leg tucked beneath you and your thigh externally rotating from the hip, and you really know about it. Gravity might be doing the work, but it’s certainly not going to take the discomfort for you too.

Yin yoga became my touchstone though.  That class every week was the closest I could get at the time to practising meditation.  I learnt to sit with my body, sit with the postures, sit with the sensations and not fight them. The idea of accepting and even exploring discomfort taught me more than months of therapy could have done.

I’ve since moved to Birmingham, where I haven’t found a yin yoga class yet, so it was with genuine excitement that on a trip back to Nottingham this month I was able to go back to Mike’s class.  Returning to the practice felt like coming home.  The discomfort, which my memory had dulled, was horribly and beautifully intense.  Moving into each posture was fascinating. I felt the difference in my joints that the last three months of daily yoga practice have made – more openness in some places, and new aches, tender points and restrictions elsewhere. It was like checking in with myself again.

If you are interested in learning more about yin yoga, check out the videos here and Mike’s website here. Let me know how you get on!

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