Yoga is a word derived from ancient Sanskrit and if we translate it directly, it means ‘Union’.
Historically yoga had more of a spiritual focus, but nowadays we practice yoga to unify the mind, body and spirit. It is through awareness and connection with our holistic selves that we learn to develop a deeper understanding, compassion and connectedness with others and the world.
This can sound very complex and for someone who simply wants to tone their body, develop flexibility or release stress, it could be a bit frightening. The good news is that yoga is mouldable with different styles, objectives, philosophies and types of practice you’ll be bound to find the class or teacher to suit the objectives you have around improving your mind, body or soul.
There are however a few secrets that will ensure your practice is something that keeps you engaged while you continue to grow. This article will give you the tips that will prevent you from just ‘going through the motions’. Let’s look at how you can maximise your yoga to ensure it becomes a source of creativity, inspiration, growth and positive influence.
The Importance of Muscle & Joint Maintenance
Except for an increase in the likeliness of diseases like strokes, high blood pressure and osteoporosis, a lack of exercise has been proven to influence our mindset and overall lifestyle in a negative way. Regular exercise will ensure your blood circulation continues to nurture all parts of your body and the normal functioning of muscles and joints will limit the amount of degradation that normally comes with ageing or bad lifestyle patterns.
Regular yoga is an all-in-one solution as it targets the entire body and works the various muscles, joints and organs in different ways. The normal sun salutation in vinyasa yoga will work on cardiovascular health while toning, elongating and strengthening muscles.
Poses like the pigeon pose, supine twist and seated butterfly all work on different ways in and around the joints, glutes, hamstrings and spine. It is thus clear that the physical benefit of doing yoga comes as an all-inclusive package and a good regular practice will also improve your overall posture as it aligns, balances and creates space in the joints and muscles.
You certainly don't have to be flexible to get started. We all do yoga to become better, not be perfect.
Yoga Positively Changes How You Experience the World
One of the greatest and sometimes unexpected ways in which yoga benefits beginner yogis is the way in which it changes their views on certain aspects around life. Many teachers will say you take your ‘learning off the mat and into the world’ and some of these learnings include things like:
- Become fully present in whatever you do and not worrying about the future or judging and holding onto the past
- Practise compassion, love and acceptance to yourself and others
- Actively become involved in your physical and mental well-being as you become more connected, grounded and centred
The ancient yogic beliefs around how yoga impacts the mind has also been proven by modern science. Bringing a positive angle and a conscious awareness to your practice, like yoga tries to advocate, will also physically work on your brain’s neuroplasticity. That’s reshaping and rewiring the physical pathways of your thoughts to more inclined towards positive thinking. The more you practice the easier positive thinking becomes, so you can literally practise yourself into being happier.
Yoga has also been proven to reduce cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) while it increases the production of GABA, the hormone that helps with relaxation and sleep, and serotonin that regulates mood. It is therefore the perfect antidote for today’s stressed world and people who struggle with anxiety and depression.
Understanding how yoga can impact you will help you identify those changes when you experience it. To develop the perfect, positive mindset around your body and mind will also takes a bit of practice. We will continue learning while we’re on earth, and the discovery of the beauty in our bodies, minds, souls and the universe is an ongoing journey that can be enhanced by yoga if we approach it with a beginner’s mindset.
Approaching Yoga With a Beginner’s Mindset
Imagine you can experience everything for the first time again?
Zen Buddhism has a concept called Shoshin, where you approach everything you do as a beginner, even if you have done this or are experienced in it. Yoga has the same philosophy where we approach our practice, and life, with an attitude of openness and curiosity while we learn to disregard preconceptions and judgement. It could take an entire lifetime to master this and for that reason yoga is also called a practice as we learn to connect the various aspects ourselves, while quietening our minds to become more awake while we learn ‘what is’ and grow closer to the infinite wisdom in life.
Here are a few other mindful practices that will ensure you improve your views of the world while you also work on your body:
- Become curious about your own body. Use the power of visualisation to ‘look into’ the hip, knee, muscles you are working during a stretch and see how they work and release tension in the actual tissues on a cellular level.
- Just get onto your mat and try to have no expectations. Take each split second of your practice as it comes, experiencing each move for the first time and not anticipating or holding onto what has just happened.
- Let go of perfection, don’t judge yourself and don't get into your head. Just try and clear your mind and move into a space of feeling at times. Focussing on the sensations and feelings you are creating in your body with each yoga poses or movement. Shift between feeling and objectively observing your body and movement.
- Allow time to focus on only the activity in your mind, observing the mind objectively in the same way as your body. Just notice, become aware and release it.
- Make sure you breathe deep and slow. Each inhale and exhale should be controlled through your nose. The inhale is usually great for creating space in muscle groups or joints while an exhale is good for surrendering and going deeper into the pose.
- Grow comfortable with the stillness, the moments in-between movements, when you hold poses for a longer duration and especially during the shavasana at the end. We live in a crazy busy and over-stimulated world and yoga wants to also teach us to become quiet and clear our minds.
Creating the Perfect Space and Using The Power of Routine
“Move your joints every day. You have to find your own tricks. Bury your mind deep in your heart, and watch the body move by itself.” — Sri Dharma Mittra
We all get those days when we just don’t feel like exercising, but luckily if we use the power of routine, and some small little tricks around creating the perfect space for our yoga routine it makes it a bit easier. The yogis believe that frequency is key in making long term changes, not the duration or intensity of your practice, so it is ok to sometimes simply have a more laid back session.
Create a sacred, fun space and routine that will make your yoga more enjoyable in the following ways:
- Dedicate time for your practice daily. 20 Minutes every day will benefit you more than 1 hour every 3rd day as it will establish the routine.
- Try out evening or morning practices and find what works for you. Mornings are generally good for getting your energy and focus right, better for tougher workouts while evening workouts is to calm your body down and improve your rest.
- Find a quiet space where no one will disturb you. It would be even better if this space is the same space every time.
- Imagine your mat is a safe bubble where you can practice and take your focus just on yourself and your internal world. Every time you get onto your mat you leave the outside world and put all your energy and focus on giving your body, mind and soul what it needs.
- Get a nice yoga mat, some incense or candles and music to make it your yoga spot a place of rejuvenation and relaxation.
Focussed Poses - Targeting Core Areas
Finding the best stretching exercises for flexibility is tricky when you are a beginner. Doing basic movement is always better than sitting and doing nothing, especially if you feel self-conscious about going to a class or don’t have the means to pay for yoga classes. We’ve included a small list of some of the best, most basic yoga poses to help you with your flexibility in core areas of stiffness.
Runners or people who sit a lot develop stiff legs which also causes stiff hips due to shortened muscles. If you struggle to touch your toes you definitely want to do yoga poses that stretches the hamstrings and opens your hips. The most common and easy ones, which also works into your back are the standing forward fold or the seated forward fold.
To do a seated forward fold you can sit on your mat, legs straight and imagine you hinge at the hips as you fold forward. Allow your head to hang and relax your neck to let the chin move to the chest, resting your hands on your legs, feet or floor. You can also straddle your legs to stretch into the groin area, but generally people will feel this in the hamstrings, hips and back area.
Other great poses to work on your legs are downward-facing dog, triangle pose, warrior 2 and bridge pose.
The pigeon pose is a great hip opener, but can be a bit tricky to get into without visual guidance and the right instruction. One that is easier, places less pressure on the knees and more suited for beginners is the reclined pigeon or the figure four stretch. Start by lying flat on your back with legs bent and feet hip distance apart. Lift the right leg and gently place the right ankle just above the left knee. Right arm threads in between your legs and left hand outside the left leg to grab your left leg at the shin or thigh and try draw the left leg closer to your body. Remember to also do the other side.
Yoga teachers love to work into the hips as most people struggle with tight hips and some popular poses are crescent and low lunge, reclined bound angle pose and happy baby pose.
Back and Spine
Most of the spinal and back yoga poses will target and help with back pain. These poses include cat pose and cow pose, down-ward facing dog , cobra and sphinx pose. One of the easiest is the supine twist where you start flat on your back, bend your right knee and hug it into your chest. Extend the right arm to the side to ground the right shoulder and gently guide your knee over your body to the left. You’ll feel an opening in the hips and twist in the spine. Come out of the pose the same way you went in and remember to do the left side as well.
Always move slowly and be careful when you work around the spine and back. Clear it with your doctor if you are unsure, especially if you’ve had previous operations or injuries.
Arms and Shoulders
Poses like the plank position or a downward-facing dog are some of the best stretches and strengthen your shoulders and arms. They are both quite easy and a plank is a push-up position where your shoulders are directly stacked over your hands. If you struggle to plank you can gradually build your strength with your knees on the floor first. From a plank position you can press into your down-dog by lifting your hips to the sky, making a triangle shape between your hips, hands and feet. Relax your neck and look towards your legs in this upside down position and rather bend your legs to get a straight back than force your legs to be straight.
Check out these 11 yoga poses for flexibility.
Resources for Creating a Flexibility Yoga Routine
It is completely possible to learn yoga on your own, it might just take a little longer, might be riskier and might be a bit more frustrating than consulting the help of an experienced yogi. You can attend classes or go to the nearest gym for yoga classes as well.
The best solution for yoga instruction is to find a good quality online platform like Alomoves.com, but these high-quality classes can be pricey when you convert the costs to Rands. These classes are carefully curated, and a good yoga teacher will take you through a routine with full body stretch yoga, but be sure you do the type of yoga that is suited to your goals and don't make these common mistakes when stretching in yoga.
Getting your own private yoga tutor in South Africa is more affordable than you think, and they can give you the personal attention you need while they focus on your weaknesses and ensure you practice safely. We list some great yoga teachers in your area, right here on Superprof.
We hope these tips will make your yoga journey a long, happy, healthy and joyful one. Enjoy the discovery and exploration of your body and mind.
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