If you're wondering how or where to start with yoga, pause here and consider this: every breath you take, every stretch, (and on another level, every thought) has the potential to enhance your well-being.
The key to unlocking that potential is paying attention. To your body, your breathing, and your mind.
In meditation (and yoga), paying attention is commonly known as mindfulness, or mindful awareness.
Mindfulness plays a big part in expanding the experience of yoga. On your mat, you'll find yourself working deeper into postures with a more relaxed attitude. You will feel more alert, more aware of your body, more in touch with your self.
And the real magic of yoga is that it's not confined to the time you spend on your mat. You can apply the same mindful attention to any part of your daily life, and improve any part of your self you choose to.
Why more people don't is a mystery. I've asked the question of my students many times, and the answer usually has to do with not having enough time.
THE TIME FACTOR
There are teachers who claim that no progress is possible without at least an hour’s practice a day. That is nonsense. Besides, for many people, often those who need it most, it’s a practical impossibility. Several of my students work 12 hours and more a day on top of a 2-hour commute to the city. The little time they have left is for family, and anything else has to wait.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t fit a little yoga into their day, however busy. True, it won’t take the form of a structured class, but why should it? Even in the restricted confines of a train seat you can practice yogic breathing and a few basic stretches to relieve neck and shoulder tension.
At a desk there’s even more room to stretch, and if you’re lucky enough to have an office you could even roll out a mat. A few minutes here and there is all that’s required.
So, whether you’re a suit, a wage slave, or even a mum juggling domestic commitments, the little bits of time you devote to yoga will add up to big benefits. If you can make the time to join a regular class as well, the benefits will simply multiply.
DO AS MUCH AS YOU NEED TO
What you do with that time depends on your needs.
As ever with yoga, proceed with patience. In time you will learn (from classes, retreats, and other resources like books and videos) which aspects of yoga work best for you and where to concentrate your efforts.
It is possible to use yoga to meet specific needs, even short-term. In marathon training, for example, I used to do more stretches and lunges than usual, and used a mantra to counter the boredom that crept up on me on the road. Yoga is the perfect tonic after hours of pounding the tarmac, and the overall effect goes way beyond easing tired muscles.
One of my students uses yoga to balance the physical effects of competitive fencing and another practices meditation to counter the stress of life undercover. Some students focus on building upper body strength, others on relaxation. But they all practice yoga for the same reason: all-round physical and mental well-being.
A WAY OF LIFE
If you really want to make the most of your practice, try doing whatever you do like a yogi.
I use yoga to correct my posture when I’m at my desk writing, preparing a meal in the kitchen, or even driving my car. It took me a while to realise that sitting in hero pose to work in my vegetable garden was just as good as doing it on my mat. The first thing I do when I roll out of bed in the morning is the downward-facing dog—because it’s a fabulous wake-up stretch (and my own dog loves to join in)
And it’s not just a postural thing. When you’re in yoga mode, you are well balanced mentally as well as physically. You are in the zone. Athletes break records in this state. It is also an extraordinary source of energy and creativity. And with just a smidgin of effort, you can benefit from it too.
I could write several pages on creative ways of integrating yoga into your daily life, but my guess is you’ll get more out of doing it your own way. After all, it is meant to be a journey of self-discovery.
You may find that it sometimes helps to take your thinking off the mat.
Many yogis start stretching in bed. And why not do it in the bath? Same goes for the shower, if you’re careful about it. In fact anywhere that your body is warm is ideal, because in the simplest terms a warm body is a flexible body. Unless it’s too hot, warmth usually equals higher energy too.
There’s also no need to confine yourself to life at home, because yoga is portable.
How often have you found yourself in a place where you cannot run or swim or swing a club or racquet; places with no gym in sight, no health club? Even here you can do yoga. You can do it at your desk, in hotel rooms, even airports. (Many international terminals have multi-faith meditation rooms just right for breathing and stretching).
And if you’re ever lucky enough find yourself on a tropical beach on a warm day, do not hesitate to try the twisting triangle. Or any other posture, for that matter. In time there will come a day when you realise that unconciously you are, have been, doing yoga. Perhaps you’ll be doing pranayama (breathing exercises) to calm the nerves before a board presentation, or you may find yourself balancing on one leg in a supermarket checkout queue. And like many revelations, it will feel good, even make you smile.
The concept of integrating yoga into one’s life is nothing new, and through the ages influential Yogis have developed their own ideas and formulas. Guru Swami Sivananda, for example, proposed that in addition to postures and breathing, one should practice relaxation and meditation, and be vegetarian.
That sounds like a pretty good recipe for a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
But even if you enjoy a fine wine with your lamb roast or a beer on a hot day you can still add yoga to your list of things worth doing. Yoga does not demand that you do this or don’t do that in order to benefit from a little practice. A little practice may or may not lead to more practice. You win either way.