Start your yoga practice this February
While many of us set ourselves new resolutions in January - such as to take up yoga - there are a number of reasons why we struggle to commit, and why we may be better off waiting until the first stirrings of Spring.
The January blues tend to be a reality for many, due to the Christmas anti-climax, a squeeze on finances, the usual winter bugs and not forgetting the dark, cold days which can be detrimental to mood and motivation levels. January is perhaps better suited for resting, reflecting and brainstorming ideas - with February presenting an ideal opportunity to set goals and establish new habits.
What is yoga and what are the benefits?
Yoga is an art, philosophy and science dedicated to creating union between body, mind and spirit. Its objective is to assist the practitioner in using the breath and body to foster an awareness of ourselves as intimately connected to the greater whole, and to create balance and equanimity so that we can live in peace, good health and harmony. This art of right living was perfected and practiced in India thousands of years ago and the foundations of yoga philosophy were written down in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, in approximately 200 AD.
One of the most common styles of yoga in the West is known as Hatha, which involves the practice of physical yoga postures (known as asana) and breath control (pranayama) - and which is at its core a physical practice of mindfulness. Hatha yoga brings awareness to the present moment through focus on physical cues and sensations. A common misconception is that yoga is about perfecting specific poses, when instead it involves noticing how a pose feels in your body in a particular moment, and being aware of the thoughts that are triggered for you. Physically, asana improve muscle strength and flexibility, endurance, proprioception (awareness of the position of one's body) and balance.
Mentally / emotionally, the performance of asana provide a focus for our concentration, calming the mind and relieving stress.
Integrating a yoga practice into your life offers benefits for health and wellbeing, and the management of many aspects of personal and professional life. For example, a regular yoga practice can affect your body’s resilience to stress and ability to recover from stress - which could help you when dealing with challenging work or family situations. A study reported by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2016 demonstrated that people who practice yoga have significantly increased Heart Rate Variability (the ability of your heart rate to react and recover under emotional or physical stress) compared to their counterparts. HRV is directly associated with self-regulation and wellbeing.
A study undertaken by the University of Illinois in 2012 also showed that just 20 minutes of yoga was shown to stimulate 'significantly superior' cognitive function in participants, including improved focus and information retention, and a decrease in mental fog.
Tips when starting yoga
- Find out about any trial offers available at local gyms or yoga studios. Try a few different styles of yoga, and teachers, and see which option feels right for you before committing.
- Consider starting a yoga group at your workplace that fits around your team's schedules. If you're based in London or Bristol, Soul Stretch can arrange for a teacher to deliver a bespoke class at your office. Get in touch to find out how we can help.
- Start your day at home with a simple yoga routine such as a short 'sun salutation' sequence to energise and inspire you. A 2015 study featured in the International Journal of Yoga involved 124 college students with high levels of stress being split into two groups - one practising daily sun salutations and the other a control group that did not participate in yoga or any other stress-reducing activity or exercise. After 14 days, the sun saluters scored higher on multiple aspects on the surveys with increased points compared to the control group for: physical relaxation, mental calmness, feeling at ease and peace, being more well-rested and refreshed, improved strength, awareness and joy. In addition, the yoga group scored lower on fatigue, somatic stress, worry, and negative emotional feelings compared to the control group.
- Try to practice the yoga you've learnt in class at home - but don't feel demotivated if you find it hard to achieve this outside of an organised class. Also if you're not sure how to do a particular pose, wait until you next see your yoga teacher instead of forcing a position, as you could injure yourself.
- Try not to compare yourself to others in your class - your body's ability to move and express itself is unique to you.
- Be aware that mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation can trigger feelings of anxiety and hyper-arousal in some people. If these feelings persist, this could be as a result of previous traumatic experiences affecting your nervous system. In this situation, it may be appropriate to cease mindfulness practices and look into approaches like Somatic Experiencing that help to regulate a person's nervous system when it's stuck in fight, flight or freeze mode. For more information read this article from Goodtherapy.org