Letting Go: A Control Freak's Approach To Yoga

Have you ever been called a control freak? I have. It’s not my favourite term in the world, but I can hardly argue with it when it’s used as a descriptor for my approach to life. Since I’m the first to admit that I struggle to let go and relinquish control in daily life, I thought I’d unpack this myth a little, and share some of my ‘control freak’ insights in the process.

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Ashtanga Guilt: How To Silence Your 'Yogi Conscience'

Note: This article first appeared on Do You Yoga on 27 May, 2017. 

I tend to do things back to front – in the reverse order to most people. My introduction to yoga came via three years of passionate Bikram Yoga attendance. I loved the heat and considered myself something of a masochist, so Bikram was perfect for me at the time. After a few years I moved to a new area, and couldn’t get my Bikram fix any more – so I fell into Vinyasa classes and practiced in that style for the next 4-5 years. When I began to feel a pull towards yoga teacher training, like many others I didn’t really know where to begin. I did my research as best as I could, and for a variety of reasons I selected an Ashtanga Vinyasa training in Bali. I was in for a shock: I had never practiced Ashtanga yoga before. Therefore, in the space of a month I went from somebody with absolutely no experience of the primary series, to somebody who was basically ready to have ‘I heart Ashtanga’ metaphorically tattooed onto her thigh. Despite the ever-present aches in my hips and hamstrings, I fell in love with this rigorous series of postures, and the way they demanded focus, discipline and mindful breathing from me. However, when I returned home to Melbourne I realised that spending 2 hours a day, 6 days a week on my asana practice was not entirely feasible – and that’s where my Ashtanga Guilt set in!

Like many lovers of Ashtanga yoga, it could be said that I have an inkling of the ol’ Type A personality. When I find something that I’m interested in, I feel drawn to learn everything about it, and I want to do it wholeheartedly and perfectly. This translates to my attitude towards yoga, too – I’m eager to use it exactly as prescribed, doing every repetition of every vinyasa, being able to enter each pose to the same depth as I did yesterday, regardless of mood, illness, injury, hell, even death! And if I have to shorten my practice, or skip it completely, I feel like a Bad Yogi. I let thoughts creep into my mind like, ‘You’re not committed enough’, or ‘How can you teach this stuff if you don’t practice it every day?’ It’s guilt. And it’s pointless. Sometimes I even find myself projecting this guilt onto my teachers, imagining that they are sternly disappointed in me when I skip a 6.00am Mysore class. In reality, the only person who is affected by this guilt is me. 

I attended a workshop with Kino MacGregor recently, and I was amazed at how many people expressed similar feelings of guilt or shame when it came to their level of engagement with their asana practice. Kino’s advice was simple and sensible: don’t flog yourself.  Yes, there will be points in your practice at which you will need to sit with discomfort. But don’t endure self-loathing or physical pain. Keep in mind that one of the ethical rules is ahimsa – non-violence, also translating to compassion. And who do you think we’re least likely to be compassionate towards? You guessed it – ourselves. Sometimes it’s just not possible to practice the entire primary series 6 days a week. Maybe even 2-3 times per week is a stretch, and that’s completely okay. The frequency and duration of your asana practice is dependent on so many different factors, and Ashtanga shouldn’t feel like a club where we are judging each other, and ourselves, for how often we rock up, and how hard-core we are when we do. I work long and variable hours in my day job as an event manager and musician, so there are weeks when daily asana practice just isn’t a thing. At the moment, I’m working on absolving my Ashtanga guilt by allowing myself the freedom to explore the enormous universe of yoga that we find beyond the physical asanas. If I am breathing mindfully whilst sitting in traffic, am I improving my jump throughs? No. Am I making the best effort that I can to experience conscious living, and practice compassion towards others and towards myself? Yes. Yoga is a tool that allows us to experience a more connected and heartful life. By taking an outcomes-based attitude towards it and beating ourselves up with a concept of what we think our practice should look like, we’re robbing ourselves of its benefits.  So, if you’re like me and you’re prone to the occasional yogi guilt trip, I encourage you to take some deep breaths, smile, and tell that guilt exactly where to go.

Namaste yogis, enjoy your practice!

The Real Deal: How To Develop a Home Yoga Practice

Note: This article first appeared on Do You Yoga on April 20, 2017. 

For many of us, our involvement in yoga begins when we first walk into a group class at a yoga studio or gym. It’s pretty easy to understand why yoga classes are so popular – a yoga class is a conveniently timed slice of serenity, in which you can slip into a peaceful environment free from distraction for some ‘you time’. Your yoga teacher has it all under control, from the relaxing music to the mood lighting, and you’re guided through a sequence of postures and offered modifications to suit your body. Sometimes, though, it can be tricky to find the time to get to a yoga class as often as you may like – traffic, late nights and early mornings seem to conspire against us. Imagine, then, if you could practice yoga at home, on your own time, and get the same blissful benefits as attending a group class. Sound too good to be true? A home practice is a great way to bring yoga into your daily life, and experience it in a different way. However, sometimes it can feel a little bewildering to try to manifest all that yogi goodness on your own in your messy bedroom – so read on for some tips on developing a home practice. 

1. Create a space.

Last year, I undertook a yoga teacher training in Bali with All Yoga Training. We practiced every day in an idyllic shala in the rainforest, listening to the gentle movement of the trees in the wind and the sounds of birdsong…Simply put, it was pretty much the dream environment for connecting with oneself. On the last day, one of our teachers led us through a guided meditation in which she encouraged us to take the peaceful surroundings into our hearts, and to reflect on how this environment, and this moment, made us feel. Then she said, “You can come back here anytime you want”. This really struck a chord with me. We have the ability to go anywhere in the world that we want, thanks to the power of the mind. However, this can be difficult to remember one we’re back on our home turf!

One of the major obstacles I’ve encountered in my home practice is the issue of where to actually roll out my yoga mat and get down to business. Sharing a two bedroom townhouse with my significant other, I don’t have a dedicated yoga/meditation room with a door that can be closed and allow me to practice in private. I have used this lack of ‘yoga space’ as an excuse to avoid my practice more times than I can count!  However, at the end of the day it’s not your physical space that matters – it’s the space you’re creating with your breath and awareness, and this can happen virtually anywhere. As long as you’re not going to bump into any table legs or door frames, your space for practice need only be the size and shape of your yoga mat. That being said, a few small adjustments can help to create more presence in your home yoga space. Perhaps you would like to experiment with placing a few candles, some incense, an image that inspires you and helps you to focus, or some mala beads together to create a small altar. You might like to set up a speaker dock so you can play music that helps you tune in to your space. Like everything else in your practice, creating a comfortable space for your yoga at home takes trial and error, and above all a willingness to keep showing up.

 

2. Set a time frame.

When you self-regulate your practice, there’s nobody there to keep track of how much time has passed the way a teacher normally would. I find it helpful to set myself a timer for my practice, so that I know I can relax into it without having to constantly check the clock. I’ll normally set two timers: one to cue me when it’s time to move into savasana, and another to bring myself out of savanasa. One of the many handy features of your smart phone is the large range of alarm tones available, so you can set a gentle harp sound rather than a blaring foghorn – the latter might not be quite as congruous with your practice!

 

3. Move your body.

Once you’ve established a nice space for yourself, and set a time frame for your practice, you may find yourself sitting on your mat scratching your head and wondering what to actually do. Simplicity is key when it comes to sequencing your own yoga practice. Just start with what you know, and go from there – warm up with some sun salutations, play around with some balancing poses, maybe throw in a few backbends and some slow hip openers to finish. If you’re short on time, you can perform just a few sun salutations, or you could take a yin approach, focusing on just one or two poses with longer holds. The key here is to listen to your body and mind. Set aside the ego, avoid practicing only poses that you feel you’re already ‘good at’, and give yourself a balanced practice, just the same as you would in a class.

 

4. Check yourself.

You can do a hundred handstands while the television blares away in the background, but the truth is, if you’re not applying a single-minded focus to what you’re doing, you’re not actually practicing yoga. The difference between stretching and yoga is what’s going on upstairs – and if the lights aren’t on, nobody’s home!  Our goal during asana practice is to be mentally present on our mats and focus on our breathing while we move from one posture to another. This can be trickier than it sounds, particularly in a home environment. It’s easy to let our gaze wander whilst in Warrior II past the tips of our fingers, and to the pile of unfolded laundry on the couch. This is where you, the yoga practitioner, have a choice: follow the path of distraction to its logical end by ceasing your practice and folding the laundry (or at least moving it out of sight), or accept the challenge to shift your focus back to your breath, body and sankalpa (intention). It’s completely normal (and virtually guaranteed) to initially experience more distraction whilst practicing at home than in a group class at a studio. However, this is also the beauty of home practice – if you can apply the principles of mindfulness, presence in the moment, and self-acceptance in this environment, you can apply them anywhere!

In our busy lives, flexibility is the key to success with any daily pursuit. The beauty of yoga is that you really can take it anywhere with you – all you need is your yoga mat and a willingness to tune in to yourself. By cultivating a home practice, you can bring the mental and physical benefits of a yoga class into your daily life, and experience your yoga in a new and beautiful way.

Namaste yogis, enjoy your practice!

Falling Forwards: My Teacher Training Experience

As a new year starts to grind into motion, many of us become inspired to make changes to our lifestyles by beginning the year with some serious goal-setting. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn a new language, take a solo trip, or just start some healthier and mindful habits – and stick to them. This time last year, I set myself a goal to complete my yoga teacher training before the year was out. 

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