We have come to the third and final article in our wellness series! We’ll be tying up the threads of the previous articles on mindfulness and meditation by discussing how yoga can be a great physical manifestation of the key concepts already discussed. That is to say, the ideas of calmness, awareness, unity, and focus can be brought to another level when your practice becomes physical!
On top of giving yourself the mental space to ground, focus, and clarify your state of mind, yoga also involves your body in the process. It’s a wonderfully malleable and accessible practice that you can do at home, at the park, at minimal cost, whether you do other kinds of fitness or not. This article will outline what yoga is, why it’s great, how to get started and give plenty of tips and recommendations on routines.
The history of yoga and its place as a cultural phenomenon could very well warrant its own article. To cover it briefly: yoga has very ancient origins, obscure and contradicting that they may be. Pre-Classical yoga was developed at least 5000 years ago, if not earlier, by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India. The basis of the yoga we know today was first codified and clarified by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which outlined an “eight-limbed path” to enlightenment. Over time, yoga as a discipline grew in numbers and diversity, branching off into different styles of yoga.
The most famous and widely practiced around the world, Hatha Yoga, was strongly promoted in the 1920s and 30s and eventually became one of India’s most successful cultural exports. It’s widely regarded as a beneficial practice, and this great documentary explains some reasons why.
That said, the concept of yoga is very malleable, and has nevertheless been highly commodified and often stripped of its original aims and values. Some people do consider that novelty forms of yoga have a place in modern practice. I personally do not, though, so please don’t expect guidance on beer or hip-hop yoga below! Instead, I’ll be giving you a rundown on the best place to start with the basics of hatha yoga, and how to integrate meditation and mindfulness into a yoga practice.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that we students are, more often than not, strapped for time and money. It takes time to go to the gym, to make that space for your physical as well as mental health, and to pay for memberships and courses. I love yoga because it allows one to address all of these issues in one practice and one holistic session. It’s a kind of fitness you can practice at home, using only your body and requiring minimal space. On top of that, it’s a wonderful way to be mindful about your surroundings and your body, to clear your head and be in the present moment. It’s also an excellent way to prepare for other kinds of meditation because of the calm, clear headspace it puts you in, which I’ll discuss further below.
Yoga can be as physically demanding as you’d like it to be, and its purpose always serves your goals. It can be slow-paced and focused on form and breathing. It can be fast-paced and energetic, focused on speed and precision, and cardio fitness. It can target certain areas of the body, such as your core, or your upper body, and can be tailored to skill levels.
Plus, it requires minimal investment! You can get decent mats for about six euros at Decathlon; if you spend a bit more, you can get some really wonderful, long-lasting mats. YouTube is a treasure trove of free content to help your practice, and you can check your form with a mirror or a camera or through feeling your body’s own response to the pose.
A good starting routine, often called “flow”, that I can recommend for an absolute beginner entails starting with doing facial yoga, three to four sun salutations, and ending with a meditation. This would be a short session – about 20-25 minutes – and is a great way to get into the basic concepts.
Begin sitting at the head of your mat, legs crossed, hands resting on your knees. Facial yoga is a great way to wake up the muscles in your face, engage with your breathing, and generally begin to get your blood pumping. I recommend this video by Ranjana Khan that you can follow along to. The poses do look funny, but they’re simple and beneficial, and you’ll learn them really quickly if you do this regularly.
Then, it’s time for sun salutations! As you begin to do more yoga, these will act as a kind of warm-up. However, for a beginner, slowly working through these poses will be a great routine in and of itself.
Another important pointer before going further – don’t overstretch yourself or force yourself into poses. When following guidance articles or videos, you’re looking at people whose form and flexibility have been honed by years and months of practice. Always, always listen to your body, and pay attention to the skill level poses are recommended for! Don’t overextend yourself, or you risk injury. Bend your knees or arms if you have to, come out of the pose earlier if you have to. Take things slowly and deliberately, and it will come in time. If you have no background in yoga and want to be really careful, it’s indeed worthwhile to invest in a short course or a beginner’s course in yoga. Then once you have a basis, and assuming you don’t have a powerful desire to really extend your yoga practice beyond basic fitness and mindfulness, you can keep on learning by yourself.
Now, for the routine itself! Begin by standing at the front of your mat with feet shoulder-width apart and palms together, held in front of your solar plexus (the base of your sternum). Take three deep breaths, down to your diaphragm, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. It can also be beneficial to visualize the expulsion of negative thoughts, exhaustion, worries, and frustrations as you exhale. Once you’re steadied in this space, you’ll start to bring your mind into the heightened awareness of the presence that is part of being mindful.
From here, you go into the poses. I recommend this video for new learners, though I will again emphasize the benefits of attending a couple of beginner classes before transitioning to videos done from home. This video is a good refresher and has some variations on this basic flow. You can choose to hold each pose for about three breaths, or shift poses on every inhale if you’d like something more cardio-heavy. I personally prefer the former, as it gives me time to settle into the pose, really feel what muscles I’m using and where, and it allows me to remain in a focused and clear headspace.
As you move through the poses of the sun salutation, turn your mind towards your breathing and your body, being fully present in the moment and deliberate in your actions. Treat this as a kind of mindfulness meditation. And, always remember to breathe! Being conscious of your breath is an important part of unifying the physical and mental benefits of yoga. It can help you work through the poses, especially the trickier or more demanding ones. Another useful tip – if the poses are difficult, smile! It may sound odd at first, but a difficult pose becomes easier to bear when you smile while doing it.
After doing three or four rounds of sun salutations, you can then sit at the head of your mat or lie down on your back and meditate, whether it’s through a body scan, a visualisation, or just breathing (see the meditation and mindfulness articles linked at the start of this piece for more ideas on how to do this!). This brings full circle the mental clarity and the physical exertion, and you’ll come out of your meditation feeling relaxed, renewed, and reinvigorated. I recommend doing this routine six out of seven days a week (because it’s always nice to chill on a Sunday!), but that’s not prescriptive. Do what feels right to you, as long as it’s regular!
Once you’ve got that flow down pat, you can begin to add in more poses according to your needs, interests, and skill level. For example, after doing the sun salutations, I often enjoy doing a sequence of warrior poses like the ones in the link. They’re especially useful for building muscles in your legs and core and improving your balance and stability. Mentally, they help me feel very strong and grounded in times when my thoughts are all over the place and I’m feeling emotionally unmoored. That’s the beautiful thing about yoga – it is a tailor-made physical and mental practice that you design and enhance yourself according to your needs and desires.
Now, for some recommendations, because starting out on one’s yoga journey is very exciting but can also be daunting! One of my favourite yoga flows is this one from Swami Satchidananda, a yogi who became very famous in the West and whose Hatha Yoga practice is based heavily on the aforementioned Yoga Sutras. The video is admittedly pretty vintage, but it’s well explained and calming to follow. For beginners that need a more structured approach to their practice, I recommend following along to this one, in bits and pieces if the whole video is too much at first. This playlist from Alo Yoga is also full of a great variety of flows for beginners, and I love this video by Fightmaster Yoga for feeling lighter and more energetic. For those who are open to a more spiritual approach to yoga, I can recommend this flow for attuning to one’s chakras, that may be complemented by chakra meditations. Brett Larkin’s channel is also full of great resources.
Going further than that, some of you may be interested in more of the concepts behind living a yogic lifestyle – one in harmony with your mind, body, space, and interpersonal relationships. Here’s a nice simple guide on the key concepts and how to get started. Everything is flexible, and you don’t need to go on any special retreats to begin to live yoga in your daily life.
And that concludes your rough guide for an integrated practice of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness! I dearly hope you enjoyed this series and wish you all the best on your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual journeys.
[…] Originally published at The Stork on 6 May 2020 […]