There are many things that annoy you when you’re a yoga teacher.
Demo-ing your first downward facing dog of the class, realising you’ve left all your hairbands at home, so battle inhaling your own hair for the next 90 minutes every time you talk.
Watching as half the class copy the person in the front row who is blatantly there to show off their bendiness and paying no attention to your invitation to work on the basic version of the pose first.
The moment when one ad-hoc, off the cuff response to a students question has more of an impact on the class than the whole thing you’d spent quite a long time planning.
And so it was with one of my classes last week. As I was arriving into the room, setting out my mat, trying to terminate ‘frustrated commuter mode’ and activate ‘zen-like goddess mode’, one of my lovely students happened to ask – “So how do you do a handstand, then?”
Of course, honesty is the best policy. So I had to say “I don’t know”. Even though that’s not strictly true. I know exactly how to do it. Unfortunately my body hasn’t quite caught up with my brain. In my mind I’m floating up and down like Kino Macgregor on a bungee chord, but when I try to replicate in practice what my mind can rehearse perfectly, I’m less Kino and more sumo.
Anyway, after disappointing my student with my not so zen-like goddess answer, I followed it up by saying “but I know how you start making one.” And so we embarked on a long discussion about how all these ‘peak poses’ can be broken down into a whole juicy bunch of delights which you need to practice in order to get yourself a handstand. (Or at least a bit closer to one.)
It hadn’t occurred to her that it wasn’t just about flinging yourself into the perfect upside down version of yourself, hanging out there for a while, and effortlessly getting yourself the right way up again. It was a bit of a surprise to her that, like baking a cake, not only do you need all the right ingredients to make something tasty, you don’t bother putting the icing on until the rest of the cake is baked just right. Even if you sprinkle sparkly stuff on it, you’ve not got a cake – you’ve got potential food poisoning which looks pretty.
This isn’t just about handstand, though, or any of the ‘whoop look at me I can do this so it must mean I’m super good at yoga’ poses. To really get to be good at anything, we need to break it down into small steps. Hell, some days you might not even feel like you’re stepping – it may be more of a crawl – but forward momentum, however small, is still forward.
Ahimsa begins at home.
Yes we’d all like to change the world and make it a better place. But the reality is we can’t. We’re just one person. So start by changing your own little corner of the world. Smile at a stranger. Let someone else have the last seat on the bus. Put a positive note in the pocket of some jeans on sale at the clothes shop. Buy the person in the queue behind you at the café a chocolate treat. Start cultivating the yogic notion of ‘ahimsa’ (translated by some as ‘non-violence’), by putting a little bit of compassion out there into the world. Maybe you’ll get it back, maybe you won’t. That’s not the point. Just do it.
Every breath you take.
Pranayama is an incredibly powerful set of breathing practices which we, as yoga practitioners, should all incorporate into our daily routines. Yeah – I know. Chance would be a fine thing. Apart from the fact that they should be explained by an experienced pranayama practitioner (and they don’t come along that often) it’s yet another thing we need to squeeze into our already packed days. So start small. When you’re on your mat, see it as a breathing practice and make your breath the focal point. See if you can begin to find how it feels to let the breath be the one thing that the mind is focused on. Ok, it’s not pranayama, but it’s a skill you’re going to need when you get there.
Build your bridges. Slowly.
Like it or not we’ve all got that one pose which we hold in our minds as the one we really need/want/yearn to nail. For me, it’s bridge pose. I know that I’ve got a whole heap of mental and physical ‘stuff’ going on around anything that asks me to open my heart, so pushing myself into a beautiful bow is just never going to happen without a whole heap of careful negotiating with my body and breath, over a long period of time. Whatever your equivalent pose is, get curious about it. Read about how it works anatomically, see which poses can help prepare the body for it, and take your time to have a little play with it.
Become a master of multi-tasking.
To get a better understanding of all the wonderful ways that a yoga practice can benefit your life, you really need to start delving a bit deeper into the words rather than just the shapes. Of course, reading wonderful things like this magazine are a great place to start, but finding the time to immerse yourself into anything weightier can seem impossible. So get a podcast to listen to on your way into work (I highly recommend the Yogaland Podcast by Andrea Ferretti, available on iTunes). Or find a good yoga audiobook you can soak up whilst walking back from taking the kids to school. Work out how you can break down the challenge of getting some yoga theory into your life to compliment your practice.
Do a little. Do it often.
I know – one day you’ll have the kind of smooth, flowing, inspirational 90 minute yoga practice that will send most of the Lycra-clad contortionists on Instagram reaching for the cookie dough ice cream in despair. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if you’re not doing a little something every day you’re never going to get there. So whilst I heartily encourage you keep that dream as your destination, start the journey sooner rather than later. And start it small. Get on your mat as often as you can, even if it’s just for 10 minutes. Better to do 10 minutes of super soothing sun salutations, than snarling at supple, slinky people on Youtube.